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By Tony Elves
MICHAEL OWEN certainly hit the heights during his footballing career with his achievements legend to his army of followers, but it was a filly named TREBLE HEIGHTS that gave him the bug that lives on with him now as he once again prepares for three exhilarating days at Chester’s Boodles May Festival.
Trophies too many to mention were held aloft throughout a glittering career with Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle United, Manchester United and Stoke City as well as 40 International goals for England and a host of other footballing awards.
Owen, born in Chester, took an interest in his local track from an early age and what better way of celebrating the remarkable Cup treble of the UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup with Liverpool in 2001 than acquiring a filly by Unfuwain out of Height of Passion that was given the name Treble Heights.
Too backward to race as a two-year-old for trainer John Gosden – the master planner from Newmarket’s Clarehaven Stables but then based at Manton – prepared Treble Heights to make her debut in the David McLean Developments Maiden Fillies’ Stakes at Chester in August 2002 and what a debut it was.
Sent off at the very backable odds of 4-1, Treble Heights was travelling all over Alashaan and, when let loose by John Carroll approaching the final furlong, sauntered seven lengths clear to have Owen celebrating like he had just hit the back of the net.
Michael reflects: “It was an amazing day and I can never forget my heart pounding when she came around the final bend and John Carroll was riding her and he still hadn’t moved a muscle and there was still a couple of furlongs to go.
"I was obviously reasonably new to the game and having a runner at Chester was almost as if I had conquered the world. When she won it was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.”
“I first went to Chester when I was a young boy – my dad used to take me on the course occasionally. Really my love affair with Chester started properly when I was about 18. I started going seriously then as I had bought a couple of horses but, unfortunately, neither of those ran at Chester and it was Treble Heights who really lit the touch paper.”
Treble Heights went onto finish runner-up in the Group 3 Park Hill Stakes at Doncaster’s St Leger meeting the following month and acquired that all-important winning black type for her career at the paddocks when landing the Listed Aphrodite Stakes at Newmarket in July 2003.
That was the commencement of the fairy-tale as Treble Heights went onto produce the remarkable BROWN PANTHER who gave Owen a coveted victory at the May Festival when beating the short-priced favourite Fadhaa a neck in a mile and a half handicap for three-year-olds in 2011, but he went onto far outstrip that performance.
Making stealthy progress throughout his career, Brown Panther was back to win the 2014 Ormonde Stakes by two and a quarter lengths from Hillstar and his halcyon season culminated in a six and a half length defeat of Leading Light in the Group 1 Irish St Leger at the Curragh in September of that year.
In all, Brown Panther won 11 of his 28 starts and collected £1,114,425 in prize money and is the horse that Owen will never forget.
He said: “Brown Panther was an amazing horse and for him to win the Ormonde Stakes was so special. He ran so many courageous races for us during his career and took us to venues that we could only have dreamed of. He was a very special horse and once in a lifetime really.”
Owen has experienced the whole gamut of the racing game and has gone from local enthusiast to now owner/breeder and part owner of Tom Dascombe’s Manor House Stables; he is quite obviously knee-deep in love with his lot.
He said: "When I was a kid it wasn’t enough to see a striker score a goal – I wanted to know what car he drove, what he eats for dinner and what time he goes to bed and what he drinks and so on. I was a huge fan and I wanted to know every detail. It has been the same roller coaster ride with horses really.
“I have been in the game a number of years now and that first buzz I had when I was 18 has lived on with me and grown and grown. It has gone full circle now – I used to like having a bet and then I loved the actual training of the horse and understanding the veterinary side and why you do two canters and why you gallop and all that."
"I went onto the social side and I love meeting owners and helping and the breeding side of the operation.”
Bearing in mind that a Group 3 Ormonde Stakes has come his way it may be a surprise to many what could be the highlight of the three-day Festival.
He said: “My favourite race - oddly enough, I would say that Lily Agnes on the first day of the Festival – as much as it only a two-year-old conditions race – it really is something that we want to win every year.
“It is a very special two-year-old race with a lot of history, and as much as I would love to win a Chester Cup and I have been lucky enough to win the Ormonde, you really need specific horses for those types of races and we are not presented each year with horses that are suitable for those contests whereas the Lily Agnes is an achievable target.
“We have won it a couple of times and finished second a couple of times and with our client base we have owners that want two-year-olds to go and zip around Chester. We pride ourselves in having runners in the two-year-old races.”
Owen has been readying himself and his family for the commencement of action next Wednesday where he can meet up once more with friends old and new and maybe collect a few winning betting slips for his father, wife and rest of his family.
Michael went on: “My dad still loves going to Chester as do all the family and it is something in the area that is pretty special. It’s not like one of those tracks that race and awful lot and they race throughout the year. They are all special occasions at Chester – we only race for 15 days in the year there and as soon as the last day has taken place in September the locals are all talking about counting the days down to the Boodles May Festival.
“Of course it is the same at Manor House Stables - we have so many owners that feel the same - when we go to the sales in the autumn the first question when we bring 30-40 horses back is which one is going to win the Lily Agnes.
“It is a different way of thinking and I would like to think we are synonymous with the race meeting. A lot of people who want runners at Chester would know that Tom and the stable can do the business there. We have trained lots of winners there.”
That begs the question then what’s on the Manor House menu for the Lily Agnes this time around?
Michael said: “Tom is fine-tuning the team as we speak but at the minute I think we will have two in the Lily Agnes, IVA REFLECTION that won at Doncaster and we will probably have a filly DR SIMPSON that finished second at Windsor first time out.
“We will have a few in the maiden depending on what Tom decides and unfortunately nothing in the Chester Cup. I don’t tend to buy many of that type, but we can’t wait for the meeting and we look forward to having some fun.”