Nobody Knew Who He Was and The Judges Couldn't Believe It

Article by Nicholas Godfrey originally featured on racingpost.com on Sunday March 31, 2013

Dressage has been described as the equine equivalent of a figure skater doing the compulsories. In that case, retraining a racehorse for this unique discipline would seem akin to asking a downhill skier to don the sequins and ruffles and try their hand at the triple salchow.

Yet despite such apparent incongruities, this arcane world of prancing and dancing has become voguish for ex-steeplechasers, with Kauto Star’s controversial move into a second career by no means the only high-profile instance.

Take last year’s John Smith’s Grand National winner Neptune Collonges, for example, who has already won a rudimentary dressage test for Lisa Hales, showjumping daughter of owner John Hales. Okay, it was only a beginners’ walking and trotting test, but the near-white gelding showed distinct aptitude for his new vocation with an impressive score of 79 per cent.

“If he hadn’t gone racing I’m sure he would have gone to the top as an event horse,” says Lisa, speaking as Neptune Collonges is saddled up in his stall ready for a practice session at her Shaw Farm Stud at Shifnal near Telford.

“He is very trainable, even now. It was only a little test that he won but he behaved himself and they have to start somewhere. He was at the top of his sport as a racehorse when he retired and now he has to start at the bottom again and work his way up.”

Neptune Collonges performed incognito in his debut dressage outing, being entered under his stable name of ‘Nipper’ for the test at the Kingswood Equestrian Centre in Albrighton. “Nobody knew who he was and the judges couldn’t believe it,” laughs Lisa. “One of them said: ‘Why would he want to be a racehorse when he can do dressage like that?’ But we aren’t getting carried away because it was only a basic test and we aren’t going to be troubling Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin.

“We want to keep him low-key. I feel sorry for Laura Collett with Kauto Star because he has been in the news so much that she’ll never be able to go out quietly and it will put a lot of pressure on them which shouldn’t be there. Racing was their number one sport and this is really something they are doing in their retirement as a bit of fun.”

While the Hales yellow-and-red silks are well known on the jumps circuit, he and his daughter are also big cheeses in the showjumping world. Their stallions include the storied Arko III, who represented Britain in the Athens Olympics in 2004 and was described as the “horse of a lifetime” by Nick Skelton.

He (Arko, not Skelton) is away on covering duty in Belgium, while John Hales is in Spain attending a competition where Robert Whitaker is riding the family’s horses. “Every night after a few drinks he’ll be getting his iPad out trying to show them all the Grand National,” says Lisa. “He watches it nearly every day.”

Lisa, though, wasn’t at Aintree, the memory still painful of the sickening demise of One Man 15 years ago at the same venue on the Mildmay course. “I’ve been back since but I didn’t go to the National because if he hadn’t come back I couldn’t have coped,” she says.

Neptune Collonges will be back at Aintree next weekend for the parade; the horse also has an important visit to the Alder Hey children’s hospital to look forward to this week. “He’s pretty wild when he’s parading,” says Lisa. “He gets quite lit up, like a three-year-old who’s never raced before.”

Otherwise, the 12-year-old spends his life hacking and enjoying himself out in the field at his new home, where his retraining began in September after he left Paul Nicholls’ yard following his Aintree victory. Now, instead of getting a kick and a slap and being asked to gallop and jump, Neptune Collonges is beginning to learn a series of complex technical manoeuvres guided by slight movements of the rider’s hands, legs and weight.

“Dressage does require a whole different way of going and even at a basic level you have to be supple and to have a nice walk and a rhythmical trot,” says Lisa.

“He had had eight years on the racetrack and the transitions were difficult to start with after you spend a long time galloping. We had to get him to sit a bit back on his hindquarters, had to shorten him up a bit more, but he was always very genuine and eager to please."

“Any horses at the top of their sport, they’re going to be intelligent and athletic which is a good place to start,” Lisa adds. “But racehorses go in straight lines and now he’s doing a lot of circles – you have to get them more supple in their necks and get them used to using different muscles.

“He’s naturally well-balanced, and we find lungeing is a great tool because it helps balance and their way of going and you don’t have to have a battle with them on top. Horse’s mouths are quite important as well and a lot of racehorses haven’t got great mouths but he has. A great mouth and a great mind combination makes him good to train.”

After those initial sessions, the former racehorse learns by repetition. “Lots of transitions,” says Lisa. “Walk to trot, back to walk, back to trot, back to walk, stand; we get them to transfer their weight off front end to their back end, get their front up a little bit, develop the different muscles they’ll be using. In dressage, everything comes from the back end, all the power and movement.

“He moves really well, he’s got really good paces, he’s got a really good brain. To be honest we set out to jump him really but when they’ve galloped over fences for so long it’s hard to try to adjust them. So we just worked on his flat work and that came so good that we said we might as well take him and do a little bit of dressage with him and he is happy to do whatever you want, although some things are more difficult than others.”

Not every racehorse would be suitable for dressage, it seems. “It would be very hard to contain a more highly strung animal,” explains Lisa.

“But he’s laid-back for a thoroughbred as Paul would tell you. He loves to work and he’s just lovely to have around now.”

‘Nipper’ certainly seems a placidly tractable type, as docile as they come standing in his box; you would be happy to put a baby on his back. Today it is Lisa’s turn, however, after his attendant Becky leads him into the menage (“Welcome home King Neptune” banners festoon the doors) for his daily workout. Lisa climbs aboard, and the National winner dutifully begins a series of circles, changing-the-rein figure of eights and diagonals. Head dropped kindly and gracefully light on his feet, he already looks the part to the layman’s eye as he circumnavigates the ring, switching neatly between trot and canter.

Nevertheless, a minor scare ensues of the sort familiar to anybody who works with horses when the barn door crashes open, letting in arctic gusts of snowbound rural Shropshire full force in the gelding’s face. Neptune Collonges spooks, rears and plants on all fours. “Becky, you’ve not shut the door properly,” says Lisa, “you’ve frightened Nipper to death.” Truth to tell, it doesn’t do your correspondent too many favours either, as the horse is only a couple of feet away at the time.

No harm done, though, and the only other noticeable hiccup in a half-hour session is when Neptune Collonges attempts to break into a gallop at the wrong time. “You devil!” says Lisa, more like a sweet nothing than a minor admonishment.

Neptune Collonges evidently finds it easier slipping into a higher gear than the reverse movement. “Downward transition was more difficult,” admits Lisa. “It isn’t natural for them because they are slowing down on their hindquarters.

“If you think about it, Ruby would get on him and go trot, trot, trot and then he would naturally go into a canter.”

Proof positive that they don’t always come good is standing just a few boxes down in the hairy shape of former top two-miler Azertyuiop, who didn’t take to dressage and now lives an easy life.

Not that he is overly happy at the minute, mind you, feeling sorry for himself owing to a nasty abscess on his back foot. “He doesn’t do much now,” says Lisa. “We did a bit of flat work with him but he is made different from Neptune and he wasn’t quite so easy. ‘Azerty’ always went with his head up a little bit and his neck probably isn’t set on quite so well, so he found it all a lot more difficult.”

Lisa plainly adores Neptune Collonges. “He’s got such a massive heart and he would always put 110 per cent in,” she says. “He would have won a Gold Cup if it weren’t for Kauto and Denman – he just came up against two superstars.”

An attempt at jumping is still not ruled out, though he is perhaps overly enthusiastic on that score. “We have done a little bit, just poles on the floor to teach him,” reports Lisa. “He does get quite excited about his jumping – he comes round the corner and thinks ‘ooh, fence!’”

Whatever the future holds, Lisa is at pains to stress that she is not envisaging a high-level career for her newest recruit. “At his age you would expect him to already be at the top if he was ever going to be but that’s passed him by,” she explains. “This is only about him enjoying himself.

“At the moment he is doing everything very easily but if he doesn’t seem to like anything then we won’t do it, it’s as simple as that.

“We’d have loved to have retired One Man here and we lost Granit Jack coming down the hill at Cheltenham so we’re just happy he is able to enjoy his retirement. I just wish every racehorse could have a retirement as happy as this.” Amen to that.