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Jockey Wayner Treloar and trainer John Symons reflect on the career of Bel Esprit, 2002 Blue Diamond winner and sire of unbeaten champion Black Caviar.
Wayne ‘Smokey’ Treloar earned his nickname when the multiple Group 1-winning jockey was “just a kid”.
“I got caught smoking by my pop,” Treloar told Asian Racing Report.
“He said ‘hey Smokey, get over here’, and from there it just stuck.”
What also stuck – from the very first chance encounter – was Treloar’s belief in the ability of a then-unnamed Royal Academy colt he crossed paths with while riding work at John Symons’ Macedon Lodge training complex.
“I was working another horse for Johnny and just needed a mate to go with him, because he was a bit of a lazy worker,” said Treloar.
“A kid rode past me and I said ‘what’s that horse mate?’ and he said ‘Oh it’s a Royal Academy two-year-old. ‘That’ll do’, I told him.”
“This thing just absolutely kicked our brains in, it was going that easy and made mine look second rate. So I said to the kid ‘I’m riding that tomorrow’.”
‘That’ was of course Bel Esprit, a colt with crooked legs who would sweep all before him on his way to claiming the 2002 G1 Blue Diamond Stakes, with Treloar doing the steering.
In many ways Bel Esprit was the ‘it’ horse of that Melbourne autumn: a $9,000 buy who had belied his price tag to exhibit stunning speed, and with Australian Rules coach Kevin Sheedy, long-serving mentor of AFL club Essendon, among his ownership.
The ‘secret’ of Bel Esprit’s immense talent was first publicly revealed in the lead-up to his debut, which was slated for the Listed St Albans Stakes at Moonee Valley on Cox Plate day. Galloping at Breakfast with the Best, Bel Esprit put in a piece of work more befitting a Group 1 sprinter than an unraced two-year-old.
“He ran the fastest 400m of the morning – all the Cox Plate horses included – and just looked amazing, so I suppose that’s probably why he started at 4/1 instead of 20/1,” remembers Treloar.
Treloar’s confidence around that first race-day unveiling was echoed by Bel Esprit’s trainer.
“I’ve never taken one to the races any better than what he was going,” Symons told Asian Racing Report.
A four-length debut win was followed up with victory by the same margin in the Maribyrnong Plate a fortnight later, the same week that Symons’ now partner Sheila Laxon prepared Ethereal for a famous Melbourne Cup win.
Both Blue Diamond lead-ins, the Preview and the Prelude, were secured via the same front-running dominance, with Treloar barely introducing Bel Esprit to the whip in any of his first four starts.
Bel Esprit was all the rage come Blue Diamond day but it was his trademark temper that ultimately nearly cost him the coveted Group 1.
“He used up all his energy trying to get in the barriers, nowadays he would have been scratched,” recalled Treloar.
“He had a tussle with about ten blokes before he went in, and he felt it.”
Treloar was forced to produce the whip as the filly Brief Embrace came hard at Bel Esprit late, but the pair did enough to land the long-range plan.
Unbeaten from his first five starts and the standout two-year-old in the country, both Bel Esprit and his regular rider looked to have further riches at their mercy. But for all his immense talent, a run of unfortunate circumstances began to plague the Blue Diamond winner.
Few horses are capable of ‘peaking’ twice in a preparation, and so it was that a gutsy fifth in the Golden Slipper would represent both the horse’s first defeat, and the last time Treloar would ride Bel Esprit.
Suspended for giving a false name to stewards as part of new on-course sauna rules, Treloar missed Bel Esprit’s spring return in the Mitchell McKenzie Stakes, Nash Rawiller the beneficiary of the winning ride.
“I was disappointed that Wayne wasn’t able to stay with the horse,” said Symons.
“Smokey had won 20-odd Group 1 races, he came to ride work for us at Macedon Lodge and from there we had a great association, he won a lot of races for us.
“But it wasn’t quite as simple as the owners looking for a new jockey. When Bel Esprit stepped into those Group 1 races as a three-year-old against the older horses he didn’t have enough weight for Wayne to ride him anyway, he couldn’t have ridden him, so it was all part of a set of circumstances, Wayne’s sauna suspension included.”
As a spring three-year-old luck seemed to desert Bel Esprit entirely. Equally dominant second-up in the G3 McNeil Stakes, the colt proceeded to finish second in three-straight Group 1s, bested by Spinning Hill in the Manikato Stakes when $1.40 for Scott Seamer, before being run down late by Pernod in the 1400m Dubai Cup. Then, most harrowing of all, the Caulfield Guineas defeat at the hands of eventual VRC Derby-winner Helenus.
“He was just an absolute moral beaten in the Guineas,” said Symons.
“He nearly fell at the 600 metres, Titanic Jack came out under his neck and nearly dropped him, we went for an inside run and got blocked, came to the outside and got blocked again, came out again and then flew home to be just a tragedy beaten.”
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What was perhaps lost in the aftermath of the Guineas defeat was that Bel Esprit was demonstrating a trait many had previously thought absent from his repertoire: the ability to relax back in the field and rip home with a turn of foot. This was not just a precocious speed machine, but a high-class, adaptable racehorse.
Bel Esprit added another Group 1 second to his CV with another unlucky run in Belle Du Jour’s 2003 Newmarket, before finally snaring a deserved second Group 1 in the Doomben 10,000.
“I was nearly going to scratch him the morning of the 10,000 because it had rained all week and he didn’t handle it, but the curator assured me the track would dry out’,” said Symons.
“It was getting towards the end of his career, the stud (Eliza Park) had already bought into him and they definitely wanted to run him so we ran him and sure enough, he unleashed the third-fastest 10,000 that had been run up until that stage.”
Treloar, no longer riding Bel Esprit on raceday but still very much involved, remembers hearing word from Queensland that Bel Esprit’s headstrong attitude was kicking into gear away from the relative freedoms of Macedon Lodge.
“When he won the Doomben 10,000 he was being a bit of a prick up there because he was always a bit of a handful, his ‘Niagras’ were playing up, he was just being a bit of a boy,” said Treloar.
“He didn’t like the confines of the track up there, he enjoyed going around at Macedon where we had 300 acres to work him in, not just on the track every day but up and around the hill.”
That cantankerous attitude would very much come to the fore during the next phase of Bel Esprit’s career, where he would become a faithful servant for Eliza Park, Sun Stud and finally, Widden. He stood much of his stud career in Victoria but that spell was interrupted by a three-year stint in Queensland.
“He was and he still is a very tough cookie, nothing fazed him,” said Widden’s Phil Marshall, who began his lengthy and still-continuing association with Bel Esprit in 2008, a year after Bel Esprit covered a then record 266 mares.
“I hate to think how many stallions he saw come and go, but he was always king of the barn. A new stallion would arrive and most of the other stallions would start screaming and shouting, he’d kind of just look at them and say ‘I’m the boss’.
“He was just that tough, enigmatic sort of character that probably in his later years transformed into a grumpy old man. But he was one of the toughest horses I’ve ever had anything to do with, so much so that you would never know if he was sick or in pain, because he just wouldn’t show it, he’d try and battle through on his own without wanting any sympathy from anyone.”
Of all the traits Bel Esprit passed on to his progeny, that toughness prevailed above all. Even his flagship horse of a lifetime, the unbeaten champion Black Caviar, had the ability to compete through the pain barrier on those very few occasions that the chips were down.
“When Black Caviar won the Danehill Stakes and pulled her back muscles coming out of the gates, for 99 per cent of horses that’s race over, they’d pull up sore and run last or close to it, yet she just put her head down, pinned her ears back and was still too determined for the rest of them,” said Marshall.
“A lot was said about Bel Esprit’s conformation: nobody wanted him because of his front legs, but again that never bothered him. A lot of people joke that the straight-legged Bel Esprits are the slow ones.
“He had a bit of a cult following: everyone knew his conformational problems but once he proved himself, nobody was really bothered about it. He covered about 2400 mares in his career, and remarkably he still operates at over 70% winners to runners which is a phenomenal achievement.”
Retired before the commencement of the 2022 breeding season after serving a small book of mares in 2021, Bel Esprit is still holding court at Widden.
“He’s been a phenomenal horse for this property and for the businesses that have come through, and we felt that he deserved the retirement,” said Marshall.
“Old age was catching up with him physically, his fertility was starting to wane. He doesn’t owe us anything and we owe him a hell of a lot, and he’s living out the rest of his days happily in the paddock that he’s been in for the last god knows how long.”
Could he possibly have stretched the great Black Caviar’s neck should the father-daughter duo have met say, over the Caulfield 1400m? The temptation in Marshall’s voice is evident, but diplomacy wins the day.
“I dare say they would have finished a dead heat.”
So where does Bel Esprit rank for a jockey who won a Caulfield Cup on Tristarc and a Newmarket Handicap on Toy Show?
“He is as good as any of them and I honestly believe he should have won about another half-dozen Group 1s,” said Treloar.
“There’s a lot of fast horses around, but maintaining that speed the whole way is another thing altogether. His action may have looked ordinary but it felt amazing, he was just a super horse.”
Symons too remains in awe of the best thoroughbred he’s ‘put a bridle on’.
“He was a great horse, he’s probably sired one of the greatest horses of all time, and it was a privilege to train him,” he said.
“It was a glorious time of our life, Sheila going through the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups with Ethereal, it doesn’t get much better than that all in the same year.”
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