Saturday, 29 July 2017


The Summer of 1976 was more memorable than most. The drought was the headliner in this part of the world, while the sporting audience watched in equal amounts of awe and suspicion as Lasse Viren returned to his best to repeat his Munich 1972 feat of taking the 5,000 and 10,000 metre events at the Montreal Olympics.

Led Zeppelin had released their seventh studio album 'Presence' earlier in the year. Not up to the scrutiny of the earlier releases but the final track, a sotto voce called Tea For One had a rhythm apt for a slow, balmy climate.

On the last weekend in July eleven runners lined up for the King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. There were ten different trainers and ten different owners. The only trainer doubly represented was the French based Argentinian Angel Penna and his owner Daniel Wildenstein.

Contrast this with today's race. Ten are due to run. John Gosden and Aiden O'Brien runners account for half of the field. Owner wise Godolphin and Magnier/Smith/Tabor also cover half the field. These patterns are the norm when we compare the 1970's with the present.

There was no Ballydoyle representative considered good enough for the line up in 1976.The jam was spread thinner and the yard had no control over their chief supplier of top class horses Northern Dancer. Stallion books were smaller and the peerless stallion's progeny were spread far and wide.You needed the wherewithal to rough it out in the bidding wars at the Keeneland Sales.

One year on Northern Dancer would bring success in the race for the yard through The Minstrel as he had done six years earlier with Nijinsky. There were far less Group One events in the calendar then and if you won a race like the King George it may be for the last and only time,even for the yards at the top.

The Epsom Derby winner Empery was absent from the 1976 running. We did not really need him anyway as he'd had his limitations exposed when third to fellow French trained colt Malacate at the Curragh. In any case trainer Maurice Zilber and owner Nelson Bunker Hunt had kept their best colt Youth for the French version which he duly won stamping a strong claim to being the best three year old middle distance colt in Europe.

Youth did make the trip over to Ascot and started favourite. Malacate lined up too along with the popular grey Bruni who had been one of the most impressive post war St Leger winners the previous year.The absence of an M V O'Brien representative enabled Ryan Price to snap up Piggott for Bruni. He was the best of the home contingent along with Peter Walwyn's Orange Bay who had been the most talented horse to come out of Italy in recent times. He ran in the Grundy colours.

Angel Penna fielded Pawneese  and Ashmore. Pawneese started second favourite. Like Enable she had galloped her rivals into submission in the Epsom Oaks. Penna had won the 1,000 Guineas earlier in the year with Flying Water and would in less than two months time win the St Leger with Crow. He had also won two Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe's in the previous four years, the 1974 running with one of the most famous race mares of all time Allez France.

Ridiculously, considering that no one dominated in this era and that Penna  had no more than his share of quality material to work with there was something of a Lasse Viren certainty about many of his runners in the big events.

The records show Pawneese with Yve St Martin aboard made all to beat Bruni and Orange Bay with Youth spoiling his chance by going wide at the final bend and adding fuel to the beliefs of  the clan who swore that Freddy Head was something of a clown. A myth born from his ride on Lyphard in the 1972 Epsom Derby.

The horse that finished a close fourth was the Guy Reed owned Dakota, trained by Sam Hall at Spigot Lodge. - as said, the jam was spread wider and thinner. That is undeniable and there is no counter argument to this.

Raceform Note Book's  reporter at Ascot, John Sharratt  wrote that the winner's effort 'was a superlative one that will be remembered with pleasure for a long time to come.'

Such words of recognition were used more sparingly then. The Raceform race readers earned respect in those days for their skills and insight. No close circuit replays to spoon feed them. Sharratt himself had been a WW2 pilot.

Returning to Penna.There is still something mysterious and fascinating hanging over his legacy. Less than two years after Pawneese's Ascot success he had upped sticks and was in North America. It is on record that when Peter Walwyn's staff went to pick up the Widenstein horses from the Argentinian they found them in a right mess with their mains and tails overgrown.

Many,many years later the Racing Post carried what was arguably the most interesting interview that it had ever published. It involved Maurice Zilber  reminiscing to Paul Haigh and speaking his mind on horses and racing personalities from his time. When asked about Penna his response was,'  Angel Penna was a very good trainer who discovered Bute and Lasix before the rest of us'.

Rumours did the rounds about many of the  French trainers then. And during the same year Francois Boutin's Trepan was disqualified for testing positive for a banned substance after passing the post first in both the Prince of Wales and the Eclipse. In the immediate years that followed the number of French trained runners in the UK fell notably.

These episodes and the accompanying gossip from the grapevine actually heighten interest in the sport. It's the Dick Francis angle in and there are no doubt many genuine racing fans who first took a liking to the sport from being intrigued by the tales and whispers. Racing needs all the publicity it can get and contrary to popular belief a bit of the right sort of scandal does not necessarily do the sport any harm!

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