Racing TV presenter Jess Stafford relives a thrilling Betfair Hurdle triumph for Geos over Rooster Booster nearly 20 years ago and speaks to winning big-race jockey Marcus Foley. Can Thurloe Thoroughbreds strike in the prestigious handicap once again this year with top-weight Buzz?
It is February 2004. The Way You Move by OutKast is Top of the Pops, The Lord of The Rings is cleaning up at every glitzy awards ceremony and Arsenal are battling out with Chelsea at the top of the Premier League.
I was in my first year at secondary school and although those early school years are now hazy at best, February 14, 2004 is one that I and the rest of the Thurloe Thoroughbreds family will never forget.
Topping the bill on the Newbury card that day was 2003 Arkle hero Azertyuiop, who would justify cramped odds in the Game Spirit Chase en-route to Champion Chase glory the following month and Champion Hurdle winner Rooster Booster, who was tasked with winning the prestigious Tote Gold Trophy, now Betfair Hurdle, off top weight.
The nation’s favourite grey at the time, Rooster Booster had caught the imagination of even the most casual of racing fan with his heroics in the Champion Hurdle the previous year, when he won by 11 lengths. But this was something else. With a rating of 166, he had to concede between 13lb and 26lb to his 24 rivals.
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It was a bold move by his trainer, Philip Hobbs, ahead of his Cheltenham defence. The £72,500 prize was the stand-out reason for his decision. He told the late Alan Lee, of The Times, in the build-up: “The only serious alternative was the Agfa Hurdle, which he won last year. But the Newbury race is worth almost five times as much and it should guarantee him the strong pace he loves.”
This was a serious coup for Newbury, who salivated at the idea of the ante-post favourite for the Champion Hurdle taking part.
The Champion Hurdle/Tote Gold Trophy double had seldom been achieved with Make A Stand having been the last to achieve it in 1997. But he had won off a mark 30lb lower than Rooster Booster. The last horse to win with such a weight was the legendary champion Persian War, who shouldered 11st 13lb as a five-year-old in 1968.
The days of champions giving away lumps of weight in handicap had dwindled, so the 2004 renewal of the Tote Gold Trophy represented a harking back for purists of the sport.
Many believed Rooster Booster could defy the burden and the market reflected that confidence with the ten-year-old sent off the 9-2 favourite.
His fan club came in their droves but the party was to be spoiled by a horse looking to complete a double of his own by winning a second Tote Gold Trophy for Thurloe Thoroughbeds.
The early pace was frenetic and Rooster Booster was settled at the back, with regular jockey Richard Johnson quietly making his move on the turn to home. Over the final flight, plenty were still in the picture but Rooster Booster edged about a length ahead and looked to have the race sewn up.
However, the challengers were not completely shaken off and in the closing stages, Geos, himself a former Bula and Christmas Hurdle winner, came with a sustained run to get upsides Rooster Booster. The pair flashed past the line locked together.
Rooster Booster and Geos flash past the post together
The racecourse became hushed as the judge came over the tannoy to announce who had won. I vividly remember holding onto my Rosary ring, which I would take to every race meeting, praying that Geos had got up. “Here is the result for the photograph for first place... first number seven.”
He had done it. My prayers had been answered.
In receipt of 16lb, Geos, ridden by Marcus Foley, had snatched victory from Rooster Booster on the line. It was a perfectly-timed late surge, giving the horse a much deserved success following several placed efforts at the top level, including a fourth in both the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase.
It was also a second Tote Gold Trophy for Geos, his first having being four years earlier. That was a mammoth feat in itself.
Foley had shown nerves of steel and great skill, having to weave one way and then the other on the run-in.
Reminiscing on this 17 years later, Foley said this week: “I was shouting at the champion jockey, AP (McCoy), because he came across me [on Westender] and I was running out of room to come down the stand rail.
Relive more renewals of the Betfair Hurdle
"I sat up and pulled Geos back across to get a run down on the other side of AP, and Geos suddenly took hold of the bridle again. In hindsight, I think that was the winning move. Half-way up the run-in, I gave him a couple of touches behind the saddle and he just picked up and motored for me.”
The victory provided Foley with one of his biggest successes at that time. He was No 1 jockey for Nicky Henderson at the time as Mick Fitzgerald was on the sidelines with an injury.
Yet Geos had not been his preferred choice of the two Henderson runners, but the master of Seven Barrows had made his mind up for him.
“It just shows you the man that Nicky is, because I rode work on both of his Tote Gold Trophy entries - Geos and Saintsaire - before the race. I wanted to ride Saintsaire because he had worked seriously well and seemed really buzzing.
"I said to the guv’nor, would I ride Saintsaire? And he said: 'No, you’re riding Geos'. So I had to go with the man that knew, and thank God I did.”
Saintsaire finished seventh, albeit not being beaten far.
Geos ran in the Champion Hurdle thee following month under Fitzgerald but was pulled up before three out.
Rooster Booster also lost his title, being defeated by Hardy Eustace. Perhaps the Newbury race had taken a toll on the two old warriors. Geos struggled the following season as did Rooster Booster, who never really recovered his top-class form again.
Johnson remains at the top of his game but is still in search of his first Betfair Hurdle win.
As for Foley, five years after his win in the Tote Gold Trophy he announced his retirement at the age of 29.
“I had an injury which led to a lot of time on the sidelines. I was probably a bit spoilt but I didn’t want to be just a journeyman jockey – that didn’t really appeal to me," he said. "I had tasted the limelight in big races and I didn’t want to become a jockey that withered away in the background.
“I came to the decision that I wasn’t quite happy with it all, and you can’t go out onto the racecourse half-heartedly. It’s a very dangerous sport in that way and, if you’re not thinking in the right mindset, you’re not going to give your horse and the owners your best effort”.
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Foley made his retirement decision to give himself the best opportunity in starting his next venture at Lew House Stables in Oxford.
The pre-training yard, formerly home to Captain Charles Radclyffe, was associated with the Queen and the Queen Mother. The stables haver proved the starting ground for many high-class horses, including the 1983 Grand National winner Corbiere and Champion Hurdle victor Morley Street.
After the Captain’s death four years ago, Foley acquired the yard and has brought it back to life, renovating it to a high-class standard to give young horses all the facilities they need at the start of their career.
The connection with Henderson remains as Foley breaks in the young horses before they head to Seven Barrows.
Henderson, with five wins, is the leading training in the Betfair Hurdle and this year throws two darts at the board with the progressive Mister Coffey and Buzz. The latter will represent Thurloe Thoroughbreds.
In an ironic twist, Buzz, like Rooster Booster, is a grey who will carry top weight, although top conditional Kevin Brogan will ease his burden by 5lb.
Could that tilt things in Buzz’s favour? Weather permitting, the love story with the Betfair Hurdle will continue this Saturday.
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