There is a famous old adage, never meet your heroes. At Ditcheat on a Thursday morning at the end of March, we had the pleasure of spending time at the yard of Paul Nicholls and of meeting one of the heroes of recent jumping seasons, Silviniaco Conti. By the time second lot came around, it was raining, that fine drizzle, that somehow soaks to the skin quicker than a torrential downpour. Led back into the yard, came the unmistakable chestnut, the white diamond on his head signifying it was Conti himself. Wet, cold, with his head down and ears pinned back, he was in a grump, a mood as leaden as the sky above. He begrudgingly posed for photos, his groom gently chiding him to be hospitable but one couldn’t help but smile that we were in the presence of a 7 time Grade 1 winner, including 2 King George’s, and 2 Betfair Chases.
He ran his final career race this week at Aintree, a track where twice before he had been victorious in the Bowl. Nibbled at in the market beforehand, he raced with his usual zeal at the head of affairs but as they jumped the cross fence and began the swing for home, the game was well and truly up. Eased by Noel Fehily to come home in his own time, the most important consideration for all involved that he has been retired in one piece and at a track where he was beloved by the locals.
In fact, it is hard to find any track where Conti has raced where he isn’t loved. From the first time he set foot on a British racecourse in the Autumn of 2010 at Bangor to the final time, he has proved one of the most popular horses of his generation. He arrived from France with a tall reputation, unbeaten in a pair of starts for Guillaume Macaire, he won effortlessly by 29 lengths in that Bangor two mile hurdle. Pitched straight into a Grade 2 on his next assignment at Chepstow, he would again treat his rivals with derision, impressively drawing clear by 10 lengths having been well supported in the market beforehand.
Hurdling though was only a taster, put away in the February of his first UK campaign, it was always going to be fences that would bring out the very best in the son of Dom Alco. A 3rd at Chepstow on his return was no disgrace with Nicholls under no illusions that he would come on massively for the run, he would prove his trainer spot on when slamming Mad Moose 25 lengths on his next start at Wincanton in the aptly named Rising Stars Novices Chase.
A rising star indeed but it was not to all go smoothly for the embryonic chaser with defeats at Kempton and Ascot in the Feltham and Reynoldstown respectively. It was not until the Spring at Aintree, that Conti would get his head back in front. Punters were happy to excuse his defeats behind the smart Grands Crus and when the stable were out of form, supporting Conti into favouritism for the Mildmay Novices’, An easy victory there, signing off for the summer, he returned to win the Charlie Hall, the Betfair Chase and the Denman Chase on his way to a date with the Gold Cup.
The main criticism of Silviniaco Conti through his career is that he is a ‘flat track bully’ something that has never been disputed by connections but in the Gold Cup of 2013 as Conti came to three out still swinging on the bridle, he had the chance to put an end to those critics. That third last has been a tricky fence down the years, catching Cue Card out the last twice and indeed on that occasion, Conti was the victim, landing steeply and crumpling on landing.
All roads from there led to Kempton at Christmas and despite Cue Card travelling considerably better than him late on, he would prove the stronger after two out to claim the end of year feature for the first time at the age of 7. Another attempt at the Gold Cup would see him getting round but beaten by stronger stayers in one of the most dramatic finishes seen in the race as Lord Windermere and On His Own would barge their way up the run-in. A further Aintree victory came at the expense of Dynaste in the Bowl to close out another successful season.
Conti was well beaten first time out the following year in the Charlie Hall before a Betfair Chase win and a second King George triumph, once again getting the better of Dynaste. Conti’s campaign fell into a predictable rhythm, a win in the King George was followed by his worst run in a Gold Cup yet before redemption once again at Aintree, landing a Bowl double. Cheek pieces that had given him a new spark of life began to fade soon after and he greeted the judge just once more when sporting first time blinkers at Ascot. It was his old sparring partner Dynaste who would once again chase him home.
A third back at Kempton in the 2016 King George behind Thistlecrack was his last run of note, runs at Cheltenham and again this week both well below the Silviniaco Conti who we all loved in his pomp. “For quite a small horse, an insignificant looking horse, he’s done really well” said Nicholls in the aftermath, “He’s right up there with the best I’ve trained.” For a man who has had Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded et al through the years, it’s quite a compliment to the chestnut. A stalwart for many years now, he deserves his retirement, a long and happy one we hope. He may have not been as ebullient that morning in Ditcheat as one would have hoped but such is his status, the sheer delight to be in his presence that it doesn’t matter, never meet your heroes they say, we wholeheartedly disagree!