By David Morgan
There is nothing fragile about Glass Slippers. Terry and Margaret Holdcroft’s horse of a lifetime is tall and strong, a filly blessed with an unabating, rapid mobility that has made her one of the fastest thoroughbreds in Europe. She’s tough, too, and she’ll need to be if she is to rattle North America’s sharpest speedsters on their own turf.
The two-time Group 1 winner does not need to prove her credentials, mind you: her record speaks for itself – she already has a Prix de l’Abbaye and a Flying Five in the bag – but when she steps into gate six on Saturday for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, the filly trained out of Kevin Ryan’s North Yorkshire yard will be attempting to pull off something that has so far been filed under ‘mission improbable’, if not altogether impossible.
“They fly around those bends in America,” Terry Holdcroft says, referring to the two turns Glass Slippers will need to navigate slickly at dashing pace if she is to cross the line first at the end of Keeneland’s five and a half furlongs.
“She hasn’t had to do that since she won at Chester as a two-year-old and she won there quite easily, so we’re hopeful she’ll handle the bend at Keeneland,” he adds.
But the fact is, no European horse has ever led them home in a Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, not at Keeneland or anywhere else in the race’s 12-year history. Only one European has even made the ‘podium’ and that was the Saeed bin Suroor-trained Diabolical, runner-up to Desert Code in the inaugural contest.
All told, 14 European horses have tried to out-speed the Americans on their second-favourite surface, but to no avail. Not one of the gallopers from Britain, France and Ireland to have attempted the feat was able to match the Americans’ pace from the gate and maintain their run – the Australian transfer Starspangledbanner led in 2012 and even he was cooked with a furlong to go – and most were already flattening in mid-pack when the pressure mounted and a race-winning effort was required.
Holdcroft, who bred Glass Slippers at his Bearstone Stud in Shropshire, is well aware of the challenge his star filly faces, and so too is his right-hand man and stud manager at the near 400-acre farm, Mark Pennell.
“They’re so quick out of the stalls over there,” Pennell says. “The American sprinters are just bred to jump and that will catch her out, I think. We’re just hoping that extra half-furlong will give her the chance to get into her stride and get going.”
Or, as Holdcroft puts it, “They’re very fast away – they’re not quite as fast in the last furlong.”
Therein lies the hope. Glass Slippers is strong at the end of five furlongs, the distance at which she has enjoyed her greatest victories, but what is more, she has two wins over six furlongs on her resumé too, albeit in lesser grade. If she can break within a beat of the trailblazers and race within striking range into that final half-furlong, there’s a chance that the Holdcrofts might have a first Breeders’ Cup winner and Bearstone Stud another top-flight success on the board.
“It’s what it’s all about and it lifts everyone at the stud,” Holdcroft says, with typically sporting sentiment. “That’s what we try to do. We get a lot of satisfaction with every winner we breed, whether we still own it or not.”
Glass Slippers is the latest, and the best, in a lengthening tradition of sprinters bred at Bearstone, a fundamentally commercial operation that has made a success of standing stallions capable of siring the type of horse that invariably hits the track early, with plenty of dash to boot – its current resident stallions are Washington DC and Fountain Of Youth.
Holdcroft made his money in the motor trade, starting out in the Potteries in 1966 before expansion throughout England’s wider northwest and midlands, and purchased the farm, on the banks of the River Tern, at the end of the 1970s. That initial 17-acre acquisition has expanded to incorporate three tracts, all within a four-mile radius, mid-way between Market Drayton and Stoke-on-Trent.
“Terry’s about the biggest private car dealer in the country – that’s his main business, the cars,” Pennell says. “This has always been his hobby but it’s quite a big business as well now, it’s certainly grown.”
Bearstone Stud began to really make a mark in the early 1990s, with the Group 1-winning exploits in Germany of the Bearstone-bred Kornado – a son of Superlative – tying in most timely with the freshman success of Puissance – an Irish Group 3 winner – purchased by Holdcroft in 1991 to stand as the stud’s first stallion.
Puissance was a shrewd buy. The son of Thatching went on to be Britain’s leading first season sire in 1994 and the star of the crop was Mind Games, winner of the Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot for trainer Jack Berry in colours registered to Robert Hughes.
“Some friends up the road bred Mind Games, Terry wanted to try and get Puissance off the mark and he thought Mind Games was the nicest one of Puissance’s sons he’d seen, so he bought half of him as a yearling. He ended up a good buy, really!” Pennell says.
Mind Games won the Group 3 Palace House Stakes and took the Group 2 Temple Stakes in back-to-back years before standing at Bearstone Stud until his death at age 20. His progeny includes Prix de l’Abbaye winner Tangerine Trees, as well as the homebred 2009 Group 3 Queen Mary Stakes winner Romantic Myth, one of three Royal Ascot winners out of the prolific broodmare My First Romance.
Tim Easterby trained Romantic Myth and the Yorkshireman was also given responsibility for a couple more Mind Games homebreds, On The Brink and Night Gypsy – full-sisters out of the Swettenham Stud-bred Ocean Grove – who carried the white and blue Bearstone Stud silks with mixed success.
“We have a lot of the family,” Holdcroft says. “On The Brink actually proved a better racehorse than Night Gypsy, but Tim Easterby always thought Night Gypsy was the better one.”
On The Brink won the Listed Hilary Needler Trophy at Beverley as a juvenile, whereas Night Gypsy had only a five-furlong Nottingham maiden win to show for her four career starts.
But the latter proved herself to be a producer of merit even before she foaled Glass Slippers on 25 March, 2016 – Good Friday, no less. The Bearstone veteran’s offspring at that point included six winners, notably the Group 3-placed and Listed Radley Stakes heroine Electric Feel, and the Listed-placed Aunt Nicola.
Night Gypsy was covered by some successful sires, including Bearstone stallions of the time, Firebreak and Indesatchel, but it is fair to say – with hindsight – that when she visited Dream Ahead in Ireland, the mare was stepping up a notch. The five-time Group 1 winner was rated the equal of the great Frankel as a juvenile and was a champion sprinter at three – he is now a proven sire of elite speed.
The team at Bearstone utilises gene testing when considering mating matches, and Dream Ahead, a son of Diktat out of the precocious Flying Childers Stakes winner Land Of Dreams, scored highly.
“We do find, when matching up, that if you’re getting A’s or A-pluses, you’re ending up with quite more often than not a good cross, and Night Gypsy came out an A triple-plus – I think it was – to Dream Ahead,” Pennell says. “We’ve sent a couple of the closely-related families to Dream Ahead, he’s since moved to France but we’ve used him again this year. He’s doing exceptionally well.”
Dream Ahead – now standing at Haras de Grandcamp – and Night Gypsy was evidently the right mix, but unfortunately there was to be no repeat mating.
“Night Gypsy was 18 when she had Glass Slippers and she didn’t look too well after she foaled,” Holdcroft recalls. “I thought this might be the last one out of her and that was the reason we kept the filly. The mare did pass on after that, she never did have another foal, sadly, but then, if she hadn’t passed on, this filly might have ended up going to the sales.”
Keeneland and beyond
Keeneland, during the first week of November, is invariably chilly and the humans at the 2020 Breeders’ Cup have been wrapping up in puffed layers beneath the bright but low-rising autumn sun.
Glass Slippers is no stranger to cold weather though, not when home is at the top of Sutton Bank, on the high, western lip of the North Yorkshire moors, where the winter wind gnaws away any soft edges.
Pennell remembers the day he travelled from Bearstone to drop off Glass Slippers at Ryan’s Hambleton Lodge Stables, a yard that has enjoyed Group 1 victories with the likes of The Grey Gatsby, Brando, Astaire, Palace Episode, Amadeus Wolf, and this year’s Diamond Jubilee Stakes hero Hello Youmzain.
“I told Kevin, ‘I think she could be something special for you’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s what everybody says when they drop them off!’ But he’s always remembered me saying that. She was a beautiful filly – and she stood out as a foal, not at first, but as she got to about the six-month stage, she looked like a colt almost. She looked a bit freaky, somehow – I always liked her as a foal.”
That high regard carried into Glass Slippers’ juvenile season when she won two of five starts – it should have been three. Holdcroft recalls an unlucky effort second-up.
“There was a maiden at Goodwood,” he says. “She tried to get through but there was no opening; she went from one side of the course to the other, she was most unlucky not to win, and Franny Norton got off and he said ‘At least you know you’ve got a good filly!’ She tried to get through that many places – we knew then she was quite decent.”
That was the one and only time Tom Eaves was not in the plate and the jockey heads into the Breeders’ Cup test with the partnership having registered six wins and four placings from 15 starts. Eaves enjoyed an untroubled ride for an imposing victory in the 2019 Prix de l’Abbaye at Longchamp, whereas the pair’s second top-flight success in Ireland’s Flying Five required arm-pumping vigour to aid the filly’s determined effort.
Last time out, the duo came up short. A hoped-for second win in the Abbaye was foiled, partly by the draw, which positioned Glass Slippers on the historically unfavourable centre-track strip on testing going, and partly by Wooded running the race of his life to edge the spoils along the rail.
“I hate making excuses but if she’d been drawn next to the winner, I think she’d have given him a race, but she had to come over and then there was another horse in-between her and him. That’s racing – that’s what it’s all about,” Holdcroft says.
Pennell agrees with the boss: “They say if you’re more than three off the rail at Longchamp you’re in trouble – the ground can be completely different. Another 10 or 15 yards and she might have got up. Tom had a job to stop her after the race, he said she was just flying. That’s why we’re hoping the five and a half might play into her hands this time.”
Drenching rainfall might help as well but the forecast is dry. Her Abbaye win came on very soft going, while her recent close second was achieved on heavy. But Holdcroft and Pennell both dismiss the notion that she needs ‘give’, as they do the idea that she is purely a horse for the season’s ‘back-end’.
“We’re not convinced that she needs it soft,” Pennell says, noting that the going was good to firm when she ran second to Battaash at Goodwood in the summer, with both horses breaking the track record. “The advantage of the soft ground,” he adds, “is that she goes on it and a lot don’t.”
Glass Slippers is relatively fresh off only four races this term, and is aiming at a race that was always on her agenda. A full five-year-old campaign is the intention, whether she wins or loses in Kentucky, with the King’s Stand Stakes at the top of the wish list. After that, she will join the Bearstone broodmare band
“She’s staying in training next year,” Pennell says. “It’s not been a great year with what’s going on and you spend all your life trying to breed a horse like this, so you might as well have a few good years of racing from it.”
Holdcroft is looking forward to attending his first Breeders’ Cup – although he has been to Keeneland before. His filly, of course, has not, but her naturally relaxed demeanour and her uncomplicated travels to Ireland and France give a degree of confidence that she will turn up on Saturday and perform against a hardened, top-class American defence that includes fancied home-track gallopers.
Leinster is the track record holder, no less, while Imprimis, Oleksandra and morning line favourite Got Stormy are fellow Keeneland Graded Stakes winners. There is no getting away from the fact that this is the Bearstone filly’s most difficult assignment.
“She does try hard though,” Holdcroft says. “She tries very hard: she doesn’t like being beaten, you know.”
Glass Slippers has never cracked in the face of a challenge, even in defeat, and the speed of her resolute Bearstone breeding is on her side. Time will tell if that is enough to break the European blank in the Turf Sprint, but either way, Holdcroft is happy to take the challenge.
“As long as she’s OK, we haven’t got a lot to lose, no matter what she does really,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it and let’s hope it’s a nice experience and hopefully we’ll enjoy it, regardless. We’ll see how we go and see how we go next season, but we’re delighted to have kept her.”
And, with thoughts perhaps of his Group 1 heroine, foal at heel, in the fertile, grassy Bearstone paddocks, Holdcroft adds, “She’ll be easy to mate, anyway, because there’s not a lot of Northern Dancer in her pedigree.”
Easier still if she could aid the European cause and be the one to add that elusive Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint to an already impressive record.