Monday Musings: Criquette Declares at Seventy

Usually, when news comes through of a retirement or more distressingly and increasingly at this stage of my life, a death of someone you’ve known for a long time, one always takes stock, writes Tony Stafford.

When the retiree, as in last weekend’s case, is Christiane Head-Maarek, or Criquette Head as she has been universally known, the information is greeted almost with disbelief.

After all, her father Alec Head, is alive and still occasionally interviewed at race meetings in France, at the age of 94. Criquette, like Prince Charles, was born in 1948, so has arrived at the age of 70 after 41 years as a trainer.

Just as Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister (1979-90) almost exactly mirrored my own spell as Racing Editor at the Daily Telegraph – the remaining 20 years there were less worthily spent! – so Criquette’s honourable span as only the second female trainer in France after Miriam Bollack has been an ever-constant for me.

When you travel to some of Europe’s best races it is inevitable that the top people cross your horizon and Criquette was always happy to pass a word or two. I remember especially one day at Maisons-Laffitte when I was over to see a Raymond Tooth runner in a minor race. I bumped into her as she was having a quiet coffee in the owners’ room and we talked for at least ten minutes before the race.

Whether at the track or the major sales, there would always be a smile and a few words from this unique woman. Treve was still to come at that stage but almost two generations earlier, Three Troikas had already been bought by her at Tattersalls sales in 1977 in her bloodstock agent period which immediately preceded her taking out a licence. During her first full season as a trainer, Three Troikas was to give Criquette her first Arc success.

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Ma Biche and Ravinella were two of the many other brilliant fillies that distinguished her career and I can never forget the amazing speed Ravinella showed both when winning the Cheveley Park as a juvenile and then the 1,000 Guineas the following year.

The Heads were one of the English-born training families that made such a major impression in French racing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Alec Head’s father William returned to France after serving in the British Army during the Second World War, winning the first of his two Arcs with Le Paillon in 1947. Alec had partnered the horse earlier in the year into second place in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Younger brother Freddy was in the saddle in 1966 when William’s second Arc came along with Bon Mot and now, 20 years into his own training career – distinguished with three consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile wins with Goldikova (2008-10) – he is being assisted by the fourth generation, son Christopher in his stables in Chantilly.

Criquette’s only daughter, Patricia, also has her own Arc link, as she is married to trainer Carlos Laffon-Parias, who won the 2012 Arc with Solemia. Now Criquette, who will have her final runner on February 1, will concentrate on helping to run the family’s famed Haras de Quesnay, taken over by Alec from William more than 60 years ago, and still a flourishing nursery of top thoroughbreds.

Another trainer who has held a licence for almost 40 years and like Criquette Head has tasted the highs both on the Flat and more spectacularly in National Hunt, is approaching his 65th birthday this year on an upward curve.

If I were to set a question as to which trainer (using my admittedly incomplete records) had 55 jump wins in 1992-3, then successively 86, 72, 66, 77, 48, 40, 32, then only 9 in 2000-0, would you get it? After three campaigns with 36, 22 and 24, he then had only 6, 6, 9 and a lowest-ever 3 in 2007-8.

Happily the last decade has seen a steady revival with 19, 19, 38, 32, 27, 35, 61, 43, 43, and after two excellent wins on Saturday, 34 and counting this term. That trainer is Kim Bailey, who sat at the table behind my Ascot lunch group on Saturday and I was delighted to congratulate him on First Flow’s impressive 10-length win in the Rossington Main Hurdle at Haydock, his third victory in four starts this term.

First Flow had all the hallmarks of a Bailey win, bold jumping and stamina, accompanied by the compulsory sheepskin noseband. I wondered why he was at Ascot rather than Haydock, but that answer came quickly enough when Vinndication vindicated the locational decision by maintaining a 100% record with a dour display in Ascot’s finale.

It is easy to forget merit in trainers amidst the hunger for new talent. It’s more about fashion these days, but when you think back to Mr Frisk, winning the Grand National and then making all in the Whitbread under Marcus Armytage; and Alderbrook and Master Oats in Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup winning mode, you have to wonder how those single-figure seasons ever happened.

I loved Alderbrook, but probably not as much as Paul Eddery, who had the luck to partner him in his first five Flat starts when he was moved from Sally Hall’s stable to Bailey. There he won twice in seven Flat races, but ended with a modest run in a novice hurdle.  Starting off on 69 for Kim, he won nine more of 17 Flat races, but two of his defeats, both Group-race second places came when he was moved for a brief spell with Julie Cecil.

Either side of that he had five runs over hurdles for Bailey, winning the Kingwell first time out and then the Champion by five lengths from the high-class Large Action. After that spring campaign on the Flat,  he returned to Bailey for the following season, winning at Kempton and finishing second to Collier Bay in the Champion before routing his Scottish Champion Hurdle field, giving lumps of weight all round.

Alderbrook retired to stud, and among many decent staying jumpers, bred the high-class and tough Olly Magern before dying in 2007. His passing coincided with his trainer’s lowest ebb, but with such as First Flow and Vinndication to represent him now, the future looks bright indeed for this talented man.

First Flow runs in the colours of Nearly Caught’s owner, Tony Solomons, former boss of Singer & Friedlander, while other major owners in the Bailey yard include the Rooneys, Paul and Clare. If you approach Cheltenham on the A40 from Oxford, you will see Kim’s sprucely-manicured fences off to the left around six miles from the track. Given the upward mobility and the 70-odd horses he has to represent him nowadays, the optimistic sign which points to them is highly appropriate.

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