Donn's Articles » Michael Halford

Michael Halford

Michael Halford has been here before: eve of Royal Ascot, eyes on the Royal Hunt Cup.

It was in 2016 that Halford sent Portage to Berkshire to contest the Royal Hunt Cup.  The trainer had never before had a winner at Royal Ascot.  Snaefell had finished fourth in the Windsor Castle Stakes in 2006 and Toscanini had finished second in the Chesham Stakes in 2014, but that was as close as Halford had come.  He had never before straightened up his top hat and strode into Royal Ascot’s winner’s enclosure.

Even so, he knew that Portage had a chance.  The Godolphin-owned colt had won a listed race at The Curragh on his previous run, and his trainer felt that the run had brought him forward nicely.  Sure enough, under a nice confident ride from James Doyle, Portage stayed on strongly on the far side and won going away.

“That was a special day,” recalls Halford.  “It was a huge win.  To have a winner at Royal Ascot, just to be a part of it all.  And for Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin too.  Sheikh Mohammed loves Royal Ascot, he loves having winners there.  It was brilliant for us.  It’s where you want to be.”

Michael Halford’s association with Sheikh Mohammed goes way back.  Casamento raced in the owner’s old maroon and white colours when the trainer produced him to win the Group 2 Beresford Stakes at The Curragh in September 2010, and to follow up a month later in the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster. 

Casamento raced four times for Michael Halford.  He won three times, a maiden, a Group 2 and a Group 1, losing just once for Halford, when Pathfork beat him by a head in the Group 1 National Stakes. 

“Sheikh Mohammed has been great to us.  And the whole Godolphin team.  We’re very lucky.  It is a pleasure to train for them.  They understand the game, they appreciate all the effort and time that goes into trying to get a horse to fulfill its potential, and that makes our job easier.  They have great patience.  If a horse needs time, they are happy to give him time.” 

Case in point: Saltonstall, this year’s Royal Hunt Cup project.  Always highly regarded, the son of Pivotal did not make his racecourse debut until September of his two-year-old season, and he was impressive in winning his maiden at Limerick on his second attempt.  

But he was disappointing on his debut as a three-year-old last season.  He finished last of nine behind Rekindling in what turned out to be a red-hot Ballysax Stakes.  But Halford knew that it wasn’t his true running.  He got him home and determined that he would get him back.

“He just had niggly little problems all season.  His metabolism wasn’t right, he just wasn’t himself.  We nearly had him back a couple of times, but he just didn’t get there.  As the year was going on, we were running out of options, so we decided we’d leave him off and bring him back as a four-year-old.” 

There’s that Godolphin patience for you.  With a less patient owner, Saltonstall could have been hurried back to the racecourse last year, despite the fact that it wasn’t the right thing to do.  We might never have seen him start to fulfill his true potential.

Gelded during the winter, Saltonstall ran a big race on his seasonal return to finish second in the Irish Lincoln at Naas in March.  Then, after a wholly forgivable run on bottomless ground at Cork in April, he went to The Curragh on Irish Guineas weekend last month and was impressive in winning a competitive handicap.

“It was the first time that he raced on ground that was that fast, and he handled it well.  It was a solidly-run race and he won well.  William (Buick) was very happy with him.  He was over for the meeting, so it was good that he got to ride him in a race before going to Ascot.” 

Saltonstall picked up a 5lb penalty for the Royal Hunt Cup for winning at The Curragh, but Halford remains unperturbed.

“I wanted him to put his Cork run behind him.  I wanted to be going to Ascot on the back of a good run.  For him and for me.  And if that meant that he won and got a penalty, that was fine.  His rating of 98 might have left him borderline in terms of getting into the race anyway.  Now we know that we are in and we can plan with certainty.”

The plan is going well.  Saltonstall has a good profile for the Royal Hunt Cup: classy, lightly-raced, fresh, progressive.  He worked on the Curragh on Wednesday, and he worked well.

“I don’t think that the occasion will get to him either.  He has a lovely temperament.  And he is a long-striding horses who is well suited to The Curragh, so he should be well-suited to Ascot.”

The horse will travel over on Monday.  Halford will go to the Goffs London sale in Kensington Palace on Monday evening, and follow him up to Ascot.  It’s not an arduous journey for either.

“The year that Toscanini finished second in the Chesham, I came home with the horse.  Just to experience it, see how easy or difficult the journey was.  I was home in four hours and had the kettle on.  I wouldn’t be home as quickly from Killarney!”

Terzetto could also represent Halford at Royal Ascot this week.  Owned, like Saltonstall, by Godolphin, the Iffraaj filly holds an entry in the Sandringham handicap on Friday, and she looks set to take her chance.

“She is not overly big, but she has a big heart.  She won well at Dundalk on her second run, and she ran a very good race last time at The Curragh.  She also worked on Wednesday and she worked well.  She is a lovely filly.”

The eve of Royal Ascot, and horses with chances.  It’s where you want to be.

© The Sunday Times, 17th June 2018