It's In The Blood

Esti Feny

The only galloper in the history of proper horseracing to win more in a row than Winx (Street Cry) was Kincsem (Cambuscan).

She was pretty extraordinary. She raced in the 1870s, won 54 from 54, and wouldn’t go anywhere without her best friend, a cat named Csalogany.

We say “proper” horseracing because between Winx’s 33 and Kincsem’s mark there are four others, but they raced in the somewhat less than tough school of Puerto Rico. Camarero (Thirteen), strictly speaking, holds the world streak record, having won the first 56 of his 77 starts in the 1950s. Then comes Cofresi (Knobbie) with 49 straight, Condado (Gadstick) with 44, and Galgo Jr (Galgo) with 39.

No cultural superiority here, but there might just be some question about the quality on the tiny island: Cofresi won 119 races all told, Condado 151, and Galgo Jnr pulled the pin on 136. This column has seen (and maybe even bet on) plastic ponies in casinos who’ve won less.

Kincsem also holds the distinction of being far and away the greatest horse to come from her home country. She the Phar Lap of Hungary, and indeed like the Red Terror does in New Zealand, she has a racetrack named after her, which is the main course in the Eastern European nation. Also like Phar Lap, they made a movie about her there a couple of years ago, and her skeleton is on display in a museum.

With a name that translates as “My Precious”, for fans of Lord of the Rings’ Gollum out there, Kincsem won most of her races at home. That could sound questionable too, but this was at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so racing types there probably weren’t short of a shilling.

Kincsem, mind you, did enjoy six walkovers, and eight wins against just one opponent. Like Winx and Black Caviar (Bel Esprit), she could only beat what showed up, but if you wanted to delete those runs she’d be a lot less ahead of Winx, with 40 to 33.

Still, the chestnut mare did win in six countries, including stakes races in Germany, Austria and France, and the 1878 Goodwood Gold Cup (2m), even if – like Winx’s 2016 Caulfield Stakes (Gr 1, 2000m) – it was against just two other rivals.

She did well at stud, too. Her five live foals included the Classic-winner Budagyongye (Buccaneer), who was born – hopefully earlier than expected – at Budapest train station, with the mare on her way to another mating.

And so Kincsem, justifiably, holds the status of a rather special thoroughbred, cat lover, and probably a freak of nature – and most certainly the greatest horse bred and born in Hungary.

To be fair, thoroughbred breeding there is not what it was 150 years ago. But on Saturday, 15,000km away, Esti Feny (Pigeon Catcher) became the first Hungarian-bred horse to win a stakes race outside that nation in more than 40 years, taking the Gosford Gold Cup (Listed, 2100m).

The win was a very long-awaited breakthrough for his Warwick Farm trainer Matthew Smith and a patient group of owners, including Frank Cook, who’ve stuck with the now eight-year-old since his arrival here in 2019.

Smith became a trail-blazer in importing Esti Feny – which translates as Evening Light – in 2019. The studbook confirms the gelding is the only horse ever imported to Australian with (HUN) beside his name.

He was bred at what is Hungary’s main farm, the Babolna National Stud, some 80km north-west of Budapest, which was established in the late 18th century by the Holy Roman Emperor (the man, not the horse). Joseph II set up four such studs to progress the thoroughbred in the country. But over time, a couple of wars, and the falling of an Iron Curtain, the pursuit largely fizzled out.

These days, the Hungarian Stud Book shows a little more than 100 thoroughbreds are born in the country each year. In 2015, Esti Feny was one of them, and while not approaching Kincsem’s status, he became a Hungarian Horse of the Year, and is afforded mention as something of a poster boy on Babolna stud’s website.

The farm stands nine stallions – six Arabians and three thoroughbreds, including Esti Feny’s sire, an Irish horse named Pigeon Catcher.

A descendant of the Mr Prospector-Machiavellian sireline that hatched Winx’s sire Street Cry (Machiavellian), Pigeon Catcher is by Dutch Art, a son of Medicean (Machiavellian) who won two Group 1s in France and Britain.

Pigeon Catcher raced in France, winning twice from 16 starts, at 1600 metres and 1900 metres and at no great level, before finding his way to stud in Hungary in 2014. There, he’s sired what the records show to be all of 28 runners so far. He’s still listed on Babolna’s website as standing for around AU$1,600. There’s also a link to a mating nomination form, but that’s for 2022, so it’s a little unclear if he’s still going.

In any event he at least hatched a stayer who’s his only stakes-winner, and who, if there were such things in Hungary, would feature prominently on a TV ad for the stud.

Esti Feny won his second and fourth starts at Kincsem Park, over 1400 metres, then in his eighth outing won the 2018 Hungarian Derby (2400m), which has Listed status in Hungary only, at the same venue. Babolna’s website says it was their 20th success, but their first in 24 years in the Derby, which that year was worth around AU$70,000. They also say “the Derby is the most prestigious race in the world”, and we really hope they mean derbies as a category and not this particular one.

After a year off, Esti Feny won three on the bounce capped by two more Hungarian Listeds in the Kincsem Prize (2400m) and Hungarian St Leger (2800m), sealing Horse of the Year honours and a trip to Germany. In May, 2019, he ran second at Cologne in a Listed event over 2200 metres, beaten half a length by a dual Group winner named Colomano (Cacique).

“We do a lot of European form, and I was trying to buy Colomano, but we couldn’t settle on a price,” Smith told It’s In The Blood. “After the deal fell over, all of a sudden this horse Esti Feny nearly beat Colomano. And I said, ‘Well, if we can’t get Colomano we’ll get this other one’.”

Bringing him off the beaten track to Australia was a complex process.

“Buying him was pretty easy,” Smith said. “Getting him vetted wasn’t so much. We had to get a vet to go from Germany to Hungary to vet him. Then the quarantine was a saga. He had to do two quarantines, because the authorities weren’t that sure about Hungary. He did one in Germany, then another in England, then of course a third when he got to Australia, so we lost three or four months with that.”

More trouble arose as Esti Feny suffered a fate common to many European imports when introduced to harder Australian tracks. Injuries kept him to just one race in his first two-and-a-half years in the country. He was finally able to undertake two lengthy campaigns last year, with 10 starts highlighted by a Brisbane campaign which included a fourth in the Q22 (Gr 2, 2200m) and a third in the Tattersall’s Cup (Gr 3, 2400m).

While the spring was more disappointing, Smith hopes his third-up run in winning the Gosford Cup, where he sat off the pace before at last showing a burst of acceleration, suggest the gelding might finally be ready to justify the early faith.

“He had stacks of injuries. A lot of these imports get them. You see four- and five-year-olds going shin sore, because they’re not used to the firm ground,” Smith said. “It can take them a long time to acclimatise. Some never do. He’s just taken a long time to get where he is now.

“He had been a bit one paced out here. But this preparation we’ve changed a few things, and maybe having two lighter runs over the mile kept him on the fresh side, and that’s let him show that turn of foot over 2100 metres on Saturday.”

Smith said Rosehill’s Lord Mayor’s Cup (Listed, 2000m) on May 20 and the Brisbane Cup (Gr 2, 3200) were now on Esti Feny’s radar, followed possibly by spring targets including The Metropolitan (Gr 1, 2400m) at Randwick.

With only one other (Hungarian) city winner to his name from his 28 runners, Pigeon Catcher hasn’t exactly been a coup for his owners. So what seems to have worked with Esti Feny?

He’s out of an unraced Shadwell-bred mare in Ejtihaad who, being by the outstanding Mr Prospector-line stallion Nayef (Gulch), completes four appearances of Mr Prospector (Raise A Native) in Esti Feny’s pedigree, at 5m, 5m 6f x 4m.

Potent broodmare Almahmoud (Mahmoud) is there six times through three daughters, with four of those spots filled by the Blue Hen Natalma. Further back, the great British mare Plucky Liege (Spearmint) is well represented by her four most famous sons, Bull Dog (four times), Sir Gallahad (five times), Admiral Drake (twice) and Bois Roussel (once).

Smith is now hoping the product that met his eye may have turned a corner.

“I always knew he was a nice horse, just the way he went about things in trackwork, but it’s taken him a while,” Smith said. “I’m lucky I’ve got a patient bunch of owners. I’ve been convincing them to keep going and not sell him online. Hopefully, now he’s going well, he might go to the next level.”