It’s sometimes easier to believe in the champions of yesteryear.
Their reputations and racetrack performances seem to get better with the passing of time.
Which is why trainer Les Bridge’s recent declaration that Classique Legend was a better racehorse than his former champion Sir Dapper took everyone by surprise.
Bridge, 82, can never be accused of living in the past. He is very much in the moment with his striking grey sprinter Classique Legend, one of the favourites for the $15 million The TAB Everest (1200m) at Royal Randwick on Saturday.
“As a 1200m horse, I would have Classique Legend on top,’’ Bridge said.
“I don’t even know how far he would run, he might run a mile.
“But I do know he is a very good sprinter and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him as well as he is right now.’’
Classique Legend is now a mature, five-year-old gelding blessed with a powerful physique and brilliant speed. But he’s still only had 11 starts for five wins and four placings, and is yet to win at Group 1 level.
Compare his record so far to Sir Dapper, the dominant juvenile of his generation and a brilliant winner of the 1983 Golden Slipper.
As a three-year-old, Sir Dapper trained on to win the coveted triple crown culminating in the Spring Champion Stakes, then returned in the autumn of 1984 to win the Expressway, Hobartville and Canterbury Stakes and have some epic duels with another great of that era, Emancipation in the All Aged Stakes and George Ryder Stakes.
Understandably, Bridge has fond memories of Sir Dapper, winner of 13 of his 18 starts, missing a top two placing only once. The horse was so good, the trainer renamed his Randwick stables “Sir Dapper Lodge”.
“Sir Dapper could do anything and he won on wet or dry tracks,’’ Bridge said.
“I remember when he won the Gloaming Stakes on a heavy 10 — he wasn’t comfortable in the going and he only won by a half head but his class got him there,’’ Bridge said.
“He won the Golden Slipper and then the Spring Champion Stakes later that year. He was very versatile.
“But I still believe Classique Legend is the better sprinter. He’s pretty good, this grey horse.’’
Bridge doesn’t waste words. He’s very laid-back, almost nonchalant. He’s always been that way. So when the trainer makes a statement, everyone listens.
A revered figure among his peers, Bridge is acknowledged as a master horseman with a record to match.
He’s trained the winners of the Melbourne Cup, Golden Slipper, Doncaster Handicap and Caulfield Guineas among a host of major races and, apart from Classique Legend and Sir Dapper, he’s prepared topliners like Hot Danish, Drawn, Kensei, Row Of Waves, Avoid Lightning, Joie Denise and Utzon.
Bridge has achieved so much during his training career that spans almost 60 years. He’s seen so much change in racing over the decades that I expected, like most of us, he would be yearning for the “good, old days”.
But the master horseman again showed he is living in the moment with his interesting take on racing in 2020.
“I’ll tell you how much it has changed,’’ Bridge said.
“When I first started training back in the early ‘60s, if you interviewed me and I tipped my horses half my owners would have a float at my stables the very next day to take their horses away.
“People laugh at you when I tell them this would have happened but that’s how it was back in those days.’’
Bridge was on a roll now. As I said, he doesn’t live in the past but it’s still fun to reminisce.
“Racing has changed a lot but it has got to be better today,’’ Bridge said.
“You and I both know there is nowhere near the atmosphere there once was on track, it’s just not there.
“When we used to have the big bookies and all the spruikers, tipsters and urgers, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
“I would say it is more sterile on the track these days but society has changed a lot over the years and it’s more sterile now.
“The sport is better for the people in it, I believe. These days you can make a good living out of it so it’s better in that respect.
“Overall from a point of view of economics and the people in the industry, it has got better.’’
But Bridge can see some storm clouds on the horizon for the racing industry.
The sport does face some real challenges in the modern era, particularly the public perception of racing and its welfare issues with anti-racing protesters continuing to lobby for reform.
“There could be some problems in the years to come if they keep trying to cut down the number of horses that are bred each year,’’ Bridge said.
“Some of these people are fanatical, they tie themselves to trees and jump up on bulldozers and all if there are certain things they believe in. Racing has got to take these issues seriously.’’
The topic soon came back to Classique Legend and The Everest. Bridge recalled how the big grey powerhouse commanded he be taken seriously from the moment he entered the trainer’s Randwick stables.
There was something about the horse. He had a presence and he could gallop from day one. But there are plenty of horses that can run fast in morning gallops but don’t realise their potential on the racetrack. This is where trainers like Bridge get to ply their trade.
“What makes any horse any good? Probably the genes in them,’’ Bridge said.
“But it’s like everything else, you have to train them so they can produce their best. Classique Legend has continued to improve, we have taken our time with him, given him every chance.
“I think this horse is right at his top, I couldn’t be happier.’’
Classique Legend has drawn well in barrier six and Bridge believes the gelding will get his chance to win The Everest.
“The bottom line is the faster they go in The Everest, the better he will like it,’’ Bridge said. “If they stretch out, that’s what he wants.
“The track won’t worry him, if it rains I don’t have to worry because he handles all types of track conditions.
“The horse is good and if he gets any luck from the turn, he will be right in it. If he gets clear in the straight he is going to be hard to beat.
“The Everest has a different feel about it to say a Melbourne Cup but it’s a fantastic race, a great concept. It would be nice to win it.’’
EVEREST TO BE LEGEND’S PARTING SHOT
Trainer Les Bridge concedes Classique Legend could be leaving his stable after the $15 million The TAB Everest (1200m) at Royal Randwick.
Bridge realises Classique Legend’s racing future is in Hong Kong where owner Bon Ho is based and this could be the last time he saddles up the big grey on raceday.
“Yeah, it could be, I’m not sure,’’ Bridge said when asked if The Everest is Classique Legend’s final Australian start.
“What will be, will be. I’m just concentrating on this race.’’
Bridge is making the most of his “second chance” with Classique Legend who was due to be sent to Hong Kong earlier this year.
For various reasons, Classique Legend wasn’t put on the plane and instead his owner purchased the Australian Turf Club’s The Everest slot and sent the gelding back to Bridge’s Randwick stables for a second attempt at winning the world’s richest turf race.
Classique Legend was an immature, inexperienced four-year-old when he ran a luckless sixth to Yes Yes Yes in The Everest last year.
Although Classique Legend has only had had three starts this year — winning the Listed Bob Charley takes in June then resuming with his brilliant effort to claim the Group 2 The Shorts before a close second in the Group 2 Premiere Stakes — Bridge maintains the sprinter is better equipped for The Everest this year.
“I always thought he was a preparation away from being at his best last year,’’ Bridge said.
“Everything has gone ‘good’ this time although we had a bit a hiccup the other day when he got ‘beat’ but it was one of those things.
“I’m pleased with the horse and he has done terrific since then. He’s tough, especially now he has got stronger.’’
If Classique Legend wins The Everest, Bridge isn’t planning a big celebration. He’s got a footy game to watch.
Bridge is hoping for dual success on Saturday as his NRL team, South Sydney Rabbitohs take on minor premiers Penrith Panthers in the preliminary final.
“After the races, we will just have an easy night at home, have a family barbecue and watch Souths,’’ Bridge said.
“They are coming good and are a chance Saturday night.’’
MCEVOY CHASING LEGENDARY STATUS IN EVEREST
Champion jockey Kerrin McEvoy has vowed to “do it for Les” when attempts a third win in the $15 million The TAB Everest on Classique Legend.
McEvoy, who rode Redzel to win The Everest in 2017 and 2018, revealed how much he has enjoyed working with Les Bridge, trainer of Classique Legend, in the build-up to world’s richest turf race.
“It would be fantastic to win this race for Les,’’ McEvoy said.
“He’s a great character, he never gets flustered or panics when things don’t go his way and he has full belief in Classique Legend.
“Les has carefully planned Classique Legend’s Everest preparation and he has the horse going better than ever.’’
McEvoy put Classique Legend through his paces at Randwick trackwork earlier this week and maintains the five-year-old has improved since his second placing behind Libertini in the Group 2 Premiere Stakes two weeks ago.
“I’m really pleased with how Classique Legend has come through his last start defeat,’’ McEvoy said. “He’s bright and well, he’s ready to rumble.
“This horse has a great ‘engine” and it’s about me giving him the right ride through the race.
“You know if he gets his chance he will be coming home strongly.’’
In latest TAB Fixed Odds betting on The Everest, Classique Legend is at $4.40 second favouritism behind the sprinter McEvoy believes is the horse to beat, Nature Strip at $4.20.
McEvoy has a strong book of seven rides on Everest Day including the Brett Cavanough-trained Fender in the $1.3 million The Kosciuszko (1200m) who is over the odds at $16.
He reeled off four successive wins to start his race career then ran competitively when seventh in the Group 2 Theo Marks Stakes behind Wild Planet and Funstar a month ago.
Fender has the tactical speed to take full advantage of his favourable draw (barrier three) will be in the race for a long way.
McEvoy also rides the Richard and Michael Freedman-trained Paths Of Glory in the $500,000 Bentley St Leger Stakes (2600m).
A tough stayer, Paths Of Glory won the Wyong Cup earlier this spring and goes into the St Leger after a luckless fifth behind Mirage Dancer in the Group 1 The Metropolitan two weeks ago.
McEvoy’s other rides include Military Zone in the Group 3 $500,000 Sydney Stakes (1200m), She’s All Class ($125,000 Victory Vein Plate, 1000m) and Laure Me In ($125,000 All Star Mile).
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