First Valentine’s last laugh

God has supposedly always been on the side of the big battalions, but even by racing’s usual standards the 21st century has seen a remarkable level of dominance by an elite few at the top end of the game. Happily, though, every so often an unlikely hero emerges to remind us all that fairytales can, do and always will occasionally come true, thus keeping the romance of the turf alive. The heroes of one such fairytale is the high-class British stayer , who initially emerged seemingly out of nowhere as a good hurdler and who has continued to progress now that he races solely on the Flat, in which sphere he won two black-type races in May. Of the several unlikely aspects of Clever Cookie’s emergence among the ranks of Europe’s top stayers, one of the most obvious is the fact that he is a son of the 1999 Middle Park Stakes winner , writes John Berry.

It would not be unkind to say that Primo Valentino’s stud career has proved, Clever Cookie’s emergence notwithstanding, stunningly unsuccessful. That is particularly disappointing as he was a very good racehorse, and a well-bred one too.

As a top-class and very tough two-year-old, Primo Valentino was very much his father’s son, having enjoyed an excellent first season of racing in 1999 very similar to the campaign which his father had waged in 1984. Primo Dominie nowadays seems to have belonged to a different era, but even so he was a very successful stallion in his time. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for his son Primo Valentino.

Primo Dominie was one of two leading two-year-olds in 1984 trained in Epsom by the late Brian Swift. The son of a bookmaker, Swift had enjoyed a short but very successful stint in the saddle when apprenticed to the late Staff Ingham, his most notable triumph as a jockey coming when he partnered the Paddy Prendergast-trained Skindles Hotel to victory in New (now Norfolk) Stakes at Royal Ascot in 1956. Increasing weight meant that his days in the saddle were numbered, but he thrived in his second career, becoming one of the stalwarts in the Epsom training ranks.

It transpired that Swift saved the best until last, although he didn’t know it at the time. His two-year-olds of 1984 included the Group Two winners Primo Dominie and , as well as Perion, a good winner at Newmarket in the autumn. Primo Dominie won his first five starts, taking the Garter Stakes at Ascot, National Stakes at Sandown, Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot, July Stakes at Newmarket and Richmond Stakes at Goodwood, before losing his unbeaten record on his final start, when he finished third to and in the Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket. Prince Sabo ‘only’ won three of his seven races (all at five furlongs) at two, but these victories were excellent: an eight-length triumph in a maiden race at his home track at Epsom preceded wins in the Chesterfield Stakes at Newmarket and the Flying Childers Stakes at Doncaster (in which he beat Doulab by a short head). He also ran creditably at weight-for-age in the Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp, when he finished seventh behind the top-class four-year-old Committed.

Tragically, Swift died of a heart attack early the following year, and his two stars subsequently finished off their racing careers from the Newmarket stable of Michael Stoute. Another of Swift’s charges who headed elsewhere following the trainer’s death was the unraced two-year-old Highland Chieftain, who joined John Dunlop’s string at Arundel, from which he won at Group One level in Italy, Group Two level in Germany and Group Three level in England, as well as becoming one of the first British-trained horses to race in Australia when (along with the Clive Brittain-trained Mountain Kingdom) running behind Sydeston, Lord Hybrow and Horlicks in the STC BMW International at Rosehill during the Sydney Autumn Carnival in 1990.

Primo Dominie and Prince Sabo both went on to enjoy good stud careers at Cheveley Park Stud, two miles south-east of Newmarket. They both excelled at siring sprinters, although Primo Dominie did also come up with , a Group One winner over 2000m. Neither, though, has left a particularly notable long-term legacy, and the ‘days-gone-by’ aura which their names now conjure up is further enhanced by the fact that they hailed from formerly-dominant sire-lines which have become marginalised in the past three decades: Prince Sabo descended along the top line of his pedigree from the 1933 Derby winner , while Primo Dominie came down from , winner of the Blue Riband in 1945.

For several decades, Dante, a son of Nearco, exerted a notable male-line influence, but that has mostly gone now. The bulk of his influence came via the Harry Wragg-trained , winner of the 2,000 Guineas and St. James’s Palace Stakes in 1954 and the following year’s Eclipse Stakes. Arguably the best racehorses sired by Darius were the fillies Pola Bella and Pia, but his son was an excellent racehorse and an even better stallion. Among the top-liners sired by Derring-Do were the 1972 2,000 Guineas winner , 1970 July Cup winner Huntercombe and 1975 2,000 Guineas place-getter . All three did very well at stud.

Dominion’s best son was the top-class miler First Island, but unfortunately that mighty chestnut (who, like his great-grandfather, was trained in Abington Place in Newmarket’s Bury Road, albeit by Harry Wragg’s son Geoff) died shortly after his easy victory in the Lockinge Stakes in 1997, and thus never had the chance to stand at stud. Primo Dominie, though, the best two-year-old colt ever sired by Dominion, proved to be an excellent stallion, responsible for two Middle Park Stakes winners: (another Abington Place inmate) who took the race in 1993, and our subject Primo Valentino, who took the race six years later.

First Trump, like First Island, carried the silks of a pair of great owner/breeders, being raced by the Moller brothers (albeit under the name of Mollers Racing, the brothers having died). Primo Valentino, too, was a representative of one of the great sporting operations, being bred and trained by Peter Harris.

Initially an owner under National Hunt rules (in which sphere he raced Bachelor’s Hall, a top-class steeplechaser in the late ‘70s) Peter Harris developed a high-class broodmare band through the ‘80s, eventually becoming a very successful player in the racing game in the triple role of breeder, owner and trainer. Two of the most important additions to Harris’ stud were a pair of former Henry Cecil-trained fillies, and Sing Softly, the former winner of the Yorkshire Oaks in 1979 and the latter successful in the Lancashire Oaks in 1982. Sing Softly bred him several good horses including Supreme Sound (a Listed winner in England and Grade Three winner in the USA) and Top Cees, a high-class winner both on the Flat and over jumps after being sold. Connaught Bridge, who came from the family of 1959 St Leger victrix Cantelo, did not breed anything of that class, but her winning Dancing Brave filly became an excellent member of his broodmare band. As a Group One-winning juvenile, Primo Valentino was the best of the winners whom Dorothea Brooke bred for him, but she also produced the Group One-placed juvenile filly . The latter now ranks as dam of a Group winner, her Harris-bred son having done well in Sydney subsequent to his sale to Australia.

Many of the string of horses whom Peter Harris trained at Pendley Farm near Tring in Hertfordshire carried the colours of the trainer and his wife. The bulk of the remainder were raced by various syndicates which the trainer put together. The members of one of these, the Prima Donnas, were lucky enough to race Primo Valentino, whom Harris had bred.

The Prima Donnas had their first outing with Primo Valentino before the 1999 season was two months old, the colt making his debut over five furlongs at Windsor in the middle of May. The trainer’s high opinion of the horse was clear: he contested a conditions race rather than a maiden, and he went off the 5/4 favourite. Ridden by Pat Eddery, Primo Valentino could not justify favouritism, but he still ran very well, finishing second to the Frankie Dettori-ridden Barringer, who had already won two races. The trainer again eschewed maiden company next time, when Primo Valentino finished fourth in the National Stakes at Sandown. This was followed by an odds-on six-length victory under Eddery in a maiden race over six furlongs at Leicester.

Having broken his duck third time out, Primo Valentino proceeded to go from strength to strength. His wins kept coming. One after the other, he landed a novices’ race under Jimmy Fortune at Goodwood; the Sirenia Stakes at Kempton and the Group Two Mill Reef Stakes at Newbury under Michael Roberts; and finally the Group One Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket under Pat Eddery.

Compared to his two-year-old season, Primo Valentino’s subsequent two campaigns were both light and disappointing. He only won once more (taking the Abernant Stakes over six furlongs at Newmarket’s Craven Meeting of 2001 on his four-year-old debut) but he generally ran well in defeat. He was clearly a sprinter, but he still posted a good performance when Harris understandably gave him a try at a mile in the 2,000 Guineas first-up at three, finishing seventh of 27 behind behind and in the 2000 2,000 Guineas. He also ran well in that year’s July Cup, finishing fourth to the Japanese raider , but his career came to an end on a low note in the same race the following season, when he could only beat one of his 17 rivals, 19 lengths behind the impressive winner .

Primo Valentino retired to Bearstone Stud in Shropshire as a five-year-old in 2002, the winner of six of his 14 starts, at a fee of £3,500. At first he was reasonably well patronised numerically, but even then he found it hard to attract better-class mares, which is easy to understand: we know that many breeders have short memories, and his best season on the racecourse had been three years previously. Furthermore, times were changing fast, and his sire-line was coming to be seen as ever more marginalised with each year that passed.

The 2005 season, during which he would have his first two-year-old runners, was clearly going to be crucial for Primo Valentino. It did indeed prove decisive as regards his future – but, sadly, not in a good way. He was represented by only four individual winners, who between them scored five times. Furthermore, four of these five victories came in selling or claiming company. His 22 yearlings who were sold that autumn changed hands at an average only just over 5,000 guineas, and none of them fetched a notably high price. His fate was sealed – with the only possibility of a reversal of his decline from favour being if he could come up with a star in the near future. That did not happen.

All told, Primo Valentino spent nine years at stud in England. His fee was reduced to £2,500 for the 2006 season following the lack of success of his first runners. That reduction, though, was not enough to attract significant numbers of mares to his court, and the 2006 season proved to be his last on the Bearstone roster. He then spent four seasons at Yorton Farm Stud, but his slide out of vogue continued, to the extent that subsequent to the 2010 season (during which he received scant patronage at a fee of £1,500) he was sold to a stud in Iran.

The irony is that Primo Valentino has now come up with a genuinely high-class son: Clever Cookie, who comes from a dam-line stuffed with high-class stamina and who was conceived during his father’s first season at Yorton. This grey gelding is as genuine and versatile as he is talented, having registered black-type triumphs both on the Flat and over hurdles, and this year having beaten Tac De Boistron on a heavy track in the Ormonde Stakes at Chester before winning in Listed company on a fast surface at York. These wins have, of course, come too late to do Primo Valentino any good as regards his future as a stallion in Europe. But they have reminded us that he was an excellent racehorse and that, given the chance to cover a nice mare such as Clever Cookie’s dam , he was perfectly capable of coming up with a good horse.

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Stakes performances by surface

100% Turf
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Stakes Performers of PRIMO VALENTINO

Sire of 2 stakes performers since 2003

Horses by individual place achieved

Gr1 Gr2 Gr3 L/R
2018 0 0 0 1
2017 0 0 0 1
2016 0 1 1 1
2015 0 1 1 1
2014 0 1 0 1
2007 0 0 0 1

Gr1 Gr2 Gr3 L/R