‘Without Cockney Rebel I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now’ – Phil Cunningham remembers his dual Classic winner

Horse Racing Cockney Rebel owned by Phil Cunningham
Cockney Rebel: “He changed my life tremendously”. Photo: Batsford Stud

Horse Racing Phil Cunningham owner of Cockney Rebel

Cockney Rebel, winner of both British and Irish 2,000 Guineas in 2007, died this week at Batsford Stud aged 17. Owner PHIL CUNNINGHAM, who went on to establish Rebel Racing, offers a highly personal account of what the twin Classic winner meant to him

I am a fully grown man, 51 years of age, and I can’t believe how it hit me when Cockney Rebel died. It was very, very emotional.

I received the call about 3pm and I thought the best thing to do was put it out on social media and let the world know. I received such tremendous messages back – it just shows you what a lovely place the horse racing world is.

It was an amazing journey and an amazing experience we had with Cockney Rebel. I am just very privileged that we got brought together because he changed my life tremendously. Not just in racing, but outside it as well.

Cockney Rebel was down at Batsford Stud, who have done a magnificent job looking after him, and he had just covered one of my mares, the rather aptly named Wonderful Life, but went back to his box and had a heart attack shortly after. He came into our lives with a bang and went out with a bang.

He has brought so many happy memories flooding back. His trainer Geoff Huffer and the team did a tremendous job; he was very patient with the horse and it’s amazing really, because he ran only six times.

Cockney Rebel made his debut on the July course at Newmarket where he was the outsider in a seven-horse maiden. He won.

Then he went to the St Leger Yearling Sales race, which was held at York that year. Unfortunately he was possibly drawn on the wrong side of the track and the trip was a little bit short for him but he went back there for the Champagne Stakes, which was also transferred from Doncaster. Entering the last furlong he traded at a very short price in running but his immaturity caught him out.

We decided to put him away for a Guineas trial the following year and he was all set up to go to the Craven, having been working magnificently, but he scoped dirty. We had no choice other than to go straight to the Guineas.

Then we took him for a piece of work on the all-weather at Lingfield and still to this day I have not seen a horse work like it. It was just amazing.

Although he was a 25-1 shot, we were all excited going into the Guineas – but in the first ten metres I thought it was all over. We had planned to come up the stands rail but a horse to the left of him moved across him and Olivier Peslier had to take a pull back and we were left a few lengths last. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.

Then he improved and I thought at least he’s not going to come last, then he looked like he could make the frame, then he looked like he was going to win the stands side. It wasn’t until he crossed the line, because I was in the head-on stand, that I realised he was in front of the far-side group led by Dutch Art.

Olivier gave him a super ride. What a horseman! He just let the horse find himself. It was amazing.

He went over to Ireland for the Irish 2,000 Guineas a couple of weeks later. Trying to do the two is so hard but fortunately it paid off, but at what cost I don’t know. He went wrong in the St James’s Palace Stakes.

He was a very short-priced favourite at Royal Ascot. I think he even hit the front and then careered away over to the stands side. He had a hairline fracture of the pelvis, which he recovered from, and did a tendon later on; we had the choice of a longer recuperation period or retiring him to stud and we chose the latter.

There is a lot of regret about what he could have achieved, but for somebody like myself to have had that experience is a fairytale.

Without him I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now with Rebel Racing. I always remember when Richard Spencer came for the interview he asked me what I wanted to win. I had always felt I’d missed out on a Royal Ascot winner; he then went and did that in his first season with Rajasinghe. 

You never know, I might have a runner in the 2,000 Guineas this year. Racing is full of such amazing stories and I’ve got a horse called Insomnia entered. He won very well at Lingfield last week. He will go for a trial and hopefully line up at Newmarket, not without a chance in what could be an open Guineas. If he manages to get there, what a story that would be.

When Cockney Rebel won the Guineas, we celebrated by bringing the 2,000 Guineas trophy up the High Street in Newmarket and tried to stop in every pub. It was a real party atmosphere. I hope we get to experience that again.

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