Katarino – the little black horse who excelled at Aintree

  • Posted: Friday, 19th June 2020
  • Author: Carl Evans

When Robert Waley-Cohen visited Nicky Henderson’s yard in 1998 to see his mare Makounji he said to the trainer: “I like my horse and that little black horse. What is it?”

That was the start of an association with Katarino that was to last 19 years and take Waley-Cohen to triumphs at Jump racing’s greatest festivals and through the A – Z of equine veterinary practice. Black holes of patience were needed at times, and while his career spanned 11 seasons there were five seasons in which he ran just once.

Yet Katarino repaid that faith in the second half of his career with two victories in Aintree’s Foxhunters’ Chase plus a second placing in that contest. Had he won he would have joined Credit Call as the only treble winner of the famous ‘amateurs’ Grand National’.

Katarino (centre) and Sam Waley-Cohen, soaring over Becher's Brook in the Foxhunters' Chase

Katarino was hunter chasing’s equivalent of Tiger Roll, both horses having the speed and precocity to win the Gr.1 JCB Triumph Hurdle and yet possess the athleticism and jumping ability to excel over Aintree’s unique fences. As a four-year-old Katarino was superior to Tiger Roll, and his unbeaten run of five juvenile hurdle races included Punchestown’s Gr.1 Champion 4YO Hurdle in which, 16 years later, Tiger Roll was well beaten. At the start of the following season Gordon Elliott’s horse was rated 150, whereas Katarino had a mark of 164.

Both horses were and are relatively small for steeplechasers, and it was that minimalist stature which meant Katarino was for sale when Waley-Cohen visited Henderson’s yard. He says: “Nicky told me had bought the horse [through Highflyer Bloodstock] for a syndicate that wanted a steeplechaser, but they had rejected him for being too small. I went away and thought nothing more about it, but some time later I asked Nicky what had happened to the little black horse.”

Henderson replied that he still owned Katarino – who by that time had run, but not won, in France for the Wildenstein family while trained by Jean Bertran de Balanda – at which point his head lad, Corky Browne, said to Waley-Cohen: “You really ought to buy him. He’s working brilliantly and I’ve never seen a horse who schools so well.”

‘That’s my birthday – I’ll buy him’

Waley-Cohen turned to the trainer and said: “When is he going to run?” and received the reply, “November 10 at Newbury.”

“That’s my 50th birthday!” said Waley-Cohen. “It’s fate. If I can find a partner I’ll buy him.”

Barry Townsley, who had shared other horses with Waley-Cohen took a share in Katarino and the faith was rewarded when he cantered to victory at Newbury having been heavily eased by Mick Fitzgerald on the run in. Waley-Cohen says: “He won so easily, and since he was in a race at Cheltenham four days later on the Saturday we ran him again and he won there too.”

Katarino – a son of the top-class French Flat horse Pistolet Bleu out of a Cadoudal mare – then landed Kempton’s Gr.2 Adonis Hurdle before forging clear of 22 rivals to win the Triumph Hurdle by eight lengths. He subsequently stayed on strongly to land Ireland’s top test for four-year-old hurdlers at Punchestown.

Mick Fitzgerald celebrates as Katarino hacks up in the 1999 Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham

The following November he travelled back to France for a crack at the best of his age group across the Channel, and while second beaten two lengths by Homme Du Jour he had to concede a 4lb penalty. Waley-Cohen says: “They changed the rule after that so there would be no penalties in Grade One races. At least we knew we had the best young hurdler in Europe.”

Katarino’s career then became blighted by a wind (breathing) problem that proved incurable. Waley-Cohen says: “He went to Bristol [equine hospital], he went on tread mills, he had the best veterinary expertise, but there was no solution.” On one occasion Norman Williamson got off the horse and said, ‘He roars like a lion’. It says something about Katarino’s spirit for racing and his natural ability that meant he remained competitive despite being hampered by his breathing issue.

He ran twice more over hurdles, suffering defeats both times before tackling the Champion Hurdle in 2000 in which he was seventh to Istabraq, and he then fared no better at Aintree.

The following season as a six-year-old the first of a series of leg injuries flared up and he managed just one run when beaten over hurdles, although at the end of the year he made his debut over fences and won a Listed chase at Newbury. That was followed by a good third in the Gr.1 Feltham Novices’ Chase at Newbury and then another return to the sidelines where he sat out the entire 2001/02 season.

At eight he made another return, ran well enough in two handicap chases, then carried Waley-Cohen’s teenage son Sam into fifth place in the Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Chase before lining up in the Grand National. Sam was ineligible because he had not ridden the requisite number of winners and Fitzgerald was in the saddle, but the combination unseated at the Chair.

A switch to point-to-pointing from his owner’s home

After a summer at grass Katarino remained at his owner’s Warwickshire-based Upton Viva Stud and was prepared for a run in a point-to-point, but the experiment ended disappointingly once again, for Katarino was brought down, suffered another injury and was retired at the age of nine. Barry Townsley left the partnership amicably.

Waley-Cohen says: “My daughter Jessica was eventing so I said, ‘Take Katarino and see how he gets on’. She reported back, ‘He’s brilliant at dressage, very accurate showjumping, but he just wants to race on the cross country stage’. That was never going to work so we got him back with a view to leading the babies out.

“Some time later he was going so well I said to Katie [Mawle, his long-serving head groom who is now married to ex-jockey Willie Humphreys], why don’t we run him in a race, so in the March of his 10-year-old season he ran at the Beaufort meeting and because he hadn’t won for so long [three and a half years] he avoided penalties. I said to Sam, ‘He’s got very delicate legs, so when you get to the part of the course where they run down into the dip hold onto his head’.

“Sam and Julian Pritchard, the reigning champion, came to that part of the course in front and Sam said, ‘I’m taking a pull’. Julian looked across at him, must have thought he was mad, and kicked on, but when they met the rising ground Katarino cruised upsides and won easily [in the card’s fastest time]. It then occurred to me that if we could get another win into him we would qualify for the Aintree Foxhunters’ Chase, so three weeks after Didmarton we ran him at Paxford and he won there, too.”

Sam’s profile as a leading amateur had risen with a win on his father’s Liberthine at the Cheltenham Festival, and a success at Aintree would give it added gloss. Thirty horses lined up for the 2005 Aintree Foxhunters’ Chase, and while Katarino’s rider briefly lost an iron at the Canal Turn the partnership went to the front three out and were in control from that point.

Tom Weston riding his family’s Caught At Dawn (25/1) came out of the pack to close the winner down to one and a half lengths at the line while the Colman Sweeney-ridden Montifault from Paul Nicholls’ stable finished third.

Breathing issues, leg troubles, and then colic

The 2006 season saw Waley-Cohen reaching once again for his Black’s Veterinary Dictionary.

He says: “We planned giving the horse one prep run in a point and then going back to Aintree, but he got colic. The vet rang me and said, ‘We might have to operate, do I have your permission?’ and I said ‘Of course’. The following day I received another call, and this time the vet said ‘As we were sharpening our knives he seemed to get better so we decided not to operate, but he’ll have to stay with us for three weeks so we can monitor him’.

“We eventually got him home four weeks before Aintree, and Katie said, ‘We haven’t got enough time to get him fit – he’s been standing in a box at the vet’s for three weeks’, but I said we’ve got to give it a shot. It would be a shame if we got close, but narrowly failed.

“So we worked him each morning with the other horses and in addition Katie would ride him out each afternoon for an hour, just cantering up the banks and generally hacking about. We got him to Aintree, and while he hadn’t run for exactly 12 months he won even more easily than the year before.”

Katarino was backed into 11/2 from 7/1 just before the off, raced in a handy fourth at Becher’s Brook and led his rivals with four to jump. Christy Beamish (Will Hill) crossed the line seven lengths adrift in second while Ireland’s 100/1 shot Beachcomber Bay (James Keeling) took third.

You can see the closing stages here:

A third Aintree Foxhunters’ win appeared within 12-year-old Katarino’s grasp, and free of the colic problem that had blighted his campaign the previous season he was given a prep run at Brocklesby Park in March 2007. Waley-Cohen says: “I said to Sam, it’s a point-to-point so go on the outside and stay out of trouble. Unfortunately another rider opted to go even wider, jumped into him and although he won he came back with a horrible scrape down the side of his leg.” Katarino was understandably lame as he pulled up, yet his winning time was a second quicker than the smart Robbers Glen (Val Jackson) in the ladies’ open, and he carried a stone and a half more.

Another plan goes on the back burner

The Aintree plan was over, and when Katarino came up from grass the following season his trainer decided to take no chance with a prep run and simply go straight to Aintree. Katarino was 13, and it was almost certainly his final chance to land a third win in the Foxhunters’ Chase, but once again he made little concession to a lifetime of physical issues, nor his age, and held every chance over the final two fences.

He was still upsides at the Elbow, but from there Christy Beamish( Josh Guerriero) began to assert and Sam accepted the position, dropped his hands and allowed his gallant partner to canter in nine lengths adrift. A further ten lengths behind came third-placed Holy Joe (Jacqueline Coward). It was a deserved victory for the Paul Jones-trained Christy Beamish, who returned the following year and once again made the places with another second place, this time behind the Richard Barber-trained Trust Fund.

Waley-Cohen says: “We often wondered if we should have given Katarino a prep race, but we came second to a very good horse.

“We retired him after that and he lived out until at the age of 22 he developed a problem. I walked out to see him with the vet who said it’s as if he’s had a stroke. There was no dilemma over what to do next and he was put to sleep.”

Summing up Katarino he says: “He could not have been more exciting as a juvenile hurdler, and yet years later he gave me and my son three point-to-point wins, two victories over the Aintree fences and a second. He gave us an enormous amount of fun.”

Robert Waley-Cohen, who says 'Katarino gave us an enormous amount of fun'

Waley-Cohen has continued to breed, own and train horses and has been involved with Henderson’s stable since the champion trainer took out a licence in 1978. The best horse to carry the Waley-Cohen colours has been Long Run, who won the Gold Cup in 2011 – beating Denman and Kauto Star – and two King George VI Chases, all with Sam in the saddle.

Sam also finished second in the 2011 Grand National when wearing his father’s colours on Oscar Time, and while he has remained an amateur his record around Aintree makes him a go-to jockey for races at that course. In 2009 he founded Portman Dental Care which now operates a chain of 139 dental practices across the UK.

His father, who in 2008 became the first chairman of the Point-to-Point Authority, and in recent years was chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse, hoped to run four horses in point-to-points during the 2019/20 season which ended prematurely in March. He says he is looking forward to next season.