Castle Mane – a king of the hunters’ chase castle

  • Posted: Friday, 5th June 2020
  • Author: Carl Evans

For the quality of his wins and the opposition he defeated – while still a relatively young horse – Castle Mane deserves a place among hunter chase greats.

He might have become the greatest hunter chaser or a major winner under Rules but for suffering a fatal injury while turned out to grass at the age of eight. By that time he had won three of the sport's biggest races, namely Cheltenham's Foxhunter Chase and the Champion Hunters' Chases at Punchestown and Stratford.

With one exception the placed horses in each of those races were out of the top draw, yet Castle Mane beat them handsomely.

Foaled in Ireland in 1992, Castle Mane was a son of Carlingford Castle and the mare Mantilla Run (Deep Run), who was unraced and produced just one foal of any note, but whose granddam had proven a talented broodmare. Bought by Leicestershire-based Stuart Campbell as a store, Castle Mane was subsequently sold on to Charles Dixey, a hunting and racing enthusiast who lived in Northamptonshire having made a career in the City of London.

Dixey had enjoyed plenty of success with talented pointer and staying hunter chaser The Malakarma, who by that time had joined Caroline Bailey's stable in Northamptonshire, and Castle Mane was sent to the same yard to commence his racing career.

Recalling his first sighting of Castle Mane, Dixey says: "He had been broken in for six weeks and I watched him being loose schooled over a fence or two. Then I got on him and jumped round some little fences on Stuart's farm. Then Stuart said, 'Let's see what he's really made of', so we took him down to a stream and he looked at it with eyes out on stalks, but he flew it and I said, 'This horse has got a job to do' and I bought him that day."

A vintage period in Bailey's yard

It was a golden time for quality horses in Bailey's yard, for while the wonderful Teaplanter had been retired the year before Castle Mane trotted onto the public stage his stablemates included Teeton Mill – who would go on to win Kempton's King George VI Chase for trainer Venetia Williams – Aintree Foxhunters' Chase winner Gunner Welburn plus Secret Bay, who was twice second in that race, and Copper Thistle who in 1999 won ten races and became Britain's leading point-to-pointer.

"It was fate, luck, to have so many good horses at one time," says Bailey. "Apart from Copper Thistle, who had run a few times for Gurney Sheppard, most of the good horses that came to us were unproven four- or five-year-olds, and no one knew if they had any talent."

Castle Mane did not begin racing until he was six, but Bailey says: "Four-year-olds were not allowed to run in point-to-points and at that time few five-year-olds ran. They might be given one or two runs for education, but that was about it."

Making his debut at Garthorpe in March 1998, when, ridden by 23-year-old Ben Pollock who worked in Bailey's yard, Castle Mane beat 11 rivals in a maiden race. His winning time was six seconds faster than the second division of the contest, and following the race Dixey said to the rider, 'When did you think you were going to win?'. He was expecting the reply 'After the open ditch' or something similar, but Pollock said 'About six weeks ago'.

Bailey says: "Having been through Stuart Campbell's hands Castle Mane was very well educated and proved to be a natural jumper from day one. He wasn't flamboyant, and they say you should never buy a chestnut with four white socks, but he proved that wrong. Conformationally he was very correct and he had a good attitude to life, and being so forward-going made the trainer's life much easier."

He proved that first win was no fluke when returning to Garthorpe later that same month to beat ten rivals in a restricted race, and then took advantage of some very wet spring weather to score on heavy ground when landing an intermediate race at Kimble. At Clifton-on-Dunsmore in May he beat more experienced horses for the first time when landing a nine-runner confined race with the minimum of fuss.

By that time Bailey was beginning to realise she had another fine prospect on her hands, although she wasn't entertaining thoughts of Cheltenham. She says: "He wasn't flash, he wasn't a great work horse and he wasn't speedy, but he had a high-cruising speed and could maintain that all day. He was a relentless galloper and he could keep it up, but you didn't ride him at home and think 'Wow'."

Working upsides Teeton Mill

Dixey has an anecdote that puts a slightly different interpretation on homework, saying: "Teeton Mill was about to be given a decent piece of work ahead of a race, and Caroline, who was riding him, said 'Charles come with me, but when we get to the oak tree, don't attempt to keep up with me'. When we reached the oak tree I sat still and Castle Mane kept going, and by the end of the gallop Caroline was niggling and I was still sitting still. Maybe Teeton Mill wasn't a great work horse, I don't know, but I was giving Caroline 3st or more."

During the 1999 season seven-year-old Castle Mane proved he was in a league of his own, adding another five wins to his unbeaten sequence and excelling at the top level. His season's debut set the scene, for he dominated a 12-runner men's open race at Tweseldown and scored in a time that was much faster than other races on the card. The ladies' open race winner Arctic Chill was no slouch, and he was all out to beat the useful Welsh raider High Guardian, yet his winning time under Shirley Vickery was nine seconds slower than that recorded by Castle Mane, who carried a stone more and won hard held by more than the length of the run-in.

Reflecting on that victory Bailey says: "That was the day when we started to think 'what next?'. He was so impressive and people started asking questions about running him at Cheltenham."

If that was to happen he had to qualify by landing another open point-to-point, and so he was taken to Brocklesby Park the following month and scored again. That heightened interest in his prospects at Cheltenham, so Bailey and Dixey – invariably taking the unbeatable advice of her father, Grand National-winning rider Dick Saunders – opted to give Castle Mane a first hunters' chase run to decide the matter.

A nine-runner test at Warwick was chosen, and he passed it with the professionalism of an experienced chaser, winning over a distance of three and a quarter miles, the same trip as the Foxhunter Chase. Bailey says further debate followed that win, adding: "My father said, 'Why not catch him on a roll – you never know what might happen in future', which in hindsight proved to be so true."

High-quality opposition, headed by a Lord

Hindsight also tells us that 9/2 was a fabulous price about the unbeaten Castle Mane when he lined up at the 1999 Festival, but the opposition was high class, and included Elegant Lord, the 3/1 favourite representing trainer Enda Bolger and owner J P McManus. He had beaten future Gold Cup winner Cool Dawn in the 1996 running of Cheltenham's featured hunters' chase, won three Champion Hunters' Chases at Punchestown and was destined to win the forthcoming Aintree Foxhunters' Chase.

Other rivals included Last Option, who had won the previous season's John Corbet Cup under Fiona Needham – a current member of the Point-to-Point Authority Board – and who was a Cheltenham Foxhunter Chase winner in waiting, Ireland's Irish Stout who had won at Fairyhouse on his previous start, and the high-calibre pair of Coole Abbey and Celtic Abbey.

Castle Mane led over the first fence and was prominent from that point, delivering a largely metronomic round of efficient jumping despite the close attention of Elegant Lord, whose rider, Philip Fenton, was determined not to give the new kid an easy time.

The pair were upsides and in front going past the stands, but on the second circuit Pollock applied the screw and a brilliant leap at the open ditch on the far side of the course took him into the lead. Elegant Lord was back upsides jumping the downhill fence, but as the pressure was applied his challenge weakened. Castle Mane was brilliant over the final two fences – "magic" was the word used by Channel 4 Racing's Graham Goode – and he stayed on strongly to the line, putting distance between himself and his toiling rival who was beaten 13 lengths at the line. In third, beaten another one and three-quarters of a length, was Last Option.

Bailey says: "Ben was not the most stylish rider, but he was very effective and he and Castle Mane had total confidence in each other. It was a big day for Ben, who was having his first ride at the Festival, and he was pretty limited in experience, but he gave the horse a great ride."

You can watch the race here.

Having beaten the best of Ireland in Britain Castle Mane's next target was to beat the best of Ireland in Ireland, and he was shipped to Punchestown's Festival for the Champion Hunters' Chase. Elegant Lord had run in and won Aintree's Foxhunters' Chase and was not in the line-up, but Castle Mane faced another huge young talent in seven-year-old Sheltering, who was trained by Eddie O'Grady. Sheltering was unbeaten in four races that season – a point-to-point and three hunters' chases.

Castle Mane showed 'true grit'

Bailey says: "That race showed Castle Mane's true grit, because when we got to Ireland he wouldn't drink for two days and went off his food. I became very concerned and was in two minds whether to run, and was worried sick when he looked so tucked up in the paddock before the race."

Sheltering tracked Castle Mane for much of the race and led him over the fifth-last fence, but the relentless gallop of the British raider was a powerful counter, and he was back in front at the next and not headed from that point, eventually beating Sheltering (Philip Fenton) by five lengths – the third-placed Dunaree ran a fair race at 50/1, but was beaten a distance, while the runner-up remained among the top flight of Irish hunter chasers for several years. He landed Punchestown's race twice and finished third in an Irish Grand National, although he failed in several attempts on Britain's Foxhunter Chases at Cheltenham and Aintree.

Bailey says: "After Castle Mane won at Cheltenham the team at Punchestown were on the phone saying 'Please bring him over'. The hospitality they provided was fantastic, and we had a great time, but we couldn't stay to celebrate because I just wanted to get the horse home. We managed to get a ferry that night and he was back in his stable by 5 o'clock the following morning. He walked in, laid down and slept for about three days."

Dixey tells another story from that trip to Ireland concerning Castle Mane's farrier Trevor Hartgrove, who declared he would be going to the meeting to ensure there was no mishaps in fitting the racing plates. 'I'm taking the wife and we're going to make a holiday of it' he told Dixey, who on the morning of the race discovered security officials were refusing to allow the farrier access to the racecourse stables because they didn't believe he was there to shoe a horse. Little wonder there was a doubt, for Hartgrove turned up in a Rolls Royce which he had driven from England.

Castle Mane had confirmed his position as the best hunter chaser, so it was a shock of some proportion when he was beaten on his first two starts as an eight-year-old in 2000. Fourth in Haydock's Walrus Hunters' Chase won by It's Himself (Tony Martin) with Cavalero (Alex Charles-Jones) taking the runner-up spot, Castle Mane was then beaten into second by Di Grissell's very good pointer Real Value under future conditional jockey Ben Hitchcott at Newbury.

He had been beaten comprehensively on both occasions, albeit conceding weight each time – 15lb to Real Value – and it was decided he would have to miss a repeat attempt at winning Cheltenham's Foxhunter Chase.

Bailey says: "He seemed healthy and well at home, but after the second defeat we had a lot more tests done on him and found he had a muscle enzyme problem."

Champ Pritchard takes the reins

When he did reappear two months later at Cheltenham's evening hunters' chase meeting Pollock was in Ireland to ride Gunner Welburn at Punchestown – the horse fell at the last when beaten – and Britain's reigning men's champion point-to-point Julian Pritchard took over on Dixey's horse. Bailey believes that in a long career she gave Pritchard two rides, one on Castle Mane and the other on Gunner Welburn when he won Aintree's Foxhunters' Chase in 2001. Some double, and the super-confident and talented Pritchard was not going to waste such opportunities.

Adopting Pollock's method for riding the horse he made the running on Castle Mane and stayed there before defeating the smart Skip'N'Time (Michael Miller) by seven lengths.

That left just one more obvious target, Stratford's Champion Hunters' Chase, which that year took place in June. Just seven ran, but they included the previous year's one-two, namely Grimley Gale, who was a brilliant, multiple-winning mare, and Last Option.

Pollock was reunited with Castle Mane, but on this occasion saw no purpose in trying to make all the running on a track that was a good bit tighter than most his horse would have faced. Eventually with three fences to jump he took the initiative and by piling on the pressure he maintained his lead, running out the winner by four lengths from Grimley Gale – who had run another brilliant race on what was to be her final start – with Last Option just over two lengths further back.

Watch the race here.

Bailey says: "We decided not to fall into our own trap by trying to make the running [on a quick track] and then find Castle Mane fell in a heap. He didn't have to make the running, and he proved that at Stratford."

Castle Mane's third season had ended on a high, but his future was unclear, for he looked a natural to make a mark under Rules, and a race like the Hennessy Gold Cup (now Ladbrokes Trophy) at Newbury would have been an obvious target. Mackenzie & Selby's Hunter Chasers and Point-to-Pointers annual for 2001 stated that Kim Bailey (no relation of Caroline) was a candidate to train the horse, while the possibility of Caroline taking out a licence, which she did a few years later, was also a consideration.

Bailey says she had received phone calls from trainers and agents offering to buy Castle Mane, but was sure Dixey would not have sold the horse.

A sad ending that could never be fully explained

Sadly Castle Mane had run his final race. Bailey says: "He was turned out at home with a group of horses, and at 6.30am one morning he was seen grazing on a bank with the others. At 8.30am I went out to walk around to check them over and Castle Mane was lying down.

"It soon became apparent he couldn't get up, so I called a vet and he stayed with the horse pretty much all day. Charles came over and it was all very traumatic. I think we managed to get him to his feet at one point, but he went back down, and eventually we realised it was a hopeless case and he was put to sleep."

A post-mortem revealed two fractures in Castle Mane's neck, but that did not completely answer all the questions surrounding the mysterious injury. Had he fallen in the field while frolicking with his friends, or were the fractures the result of an earlier, underlying injury? There was no sign of any other physical marks which might have suggested he had fallen heavily.

"It was tragic," says Bailey. "He was in his prime. You've got to think he could have been a Gold Cup horse on his Foxhunter win. You don't get horses like that very often."

Bailey now trains with a licence at her family's farm, and her husband Gerald is responsible for a team of point-to-pointers, which includes The Triple Pillar, who is owned by Dixey.

Pollock went on to become a farrier, but an ongoing shoulder issue resulted in him retiring from race riding in 2001, the year after Castle Mane's death. Just over a year later he made a surprise return at Lockinge (taking a ride on a horse who had fallen on his three previous starts) and finished fifth, and he completed that season with five wins from ten rides.

He continued to ride in occasional point-to-points after gaining a trainer's licence, a brief career which yielded a victory in the 2006 Skybet Chase (Great Yorkshire Chase) with A Glass In Thyne.

In 2011 he and his wife Nikki and their two young sons started a new life in Adelaide, Australia, where they run Racing Management Services.

Dixey summarises the loss of Castle Mane by saying: "Wasn't I lucky to have owned him."

He went back to Campbell with the simple request: "Find me another." Campbell faced a tall order, but produced a gelding by Shardari who Dixey named Find Me Another. He proved highly durable and above average, racing for nine seasons, winning 13 point-to-points plus a hunters' chase at Huntingdon, but ultimately proving that there was only one Castle Mane.

Dixey's search for another continues.