By Tom Peacock
For 19 years Double Trigger has stood alone as a three-time winner of one of the season’s premier staying prizes. Now upgraded to a Group One and moved to the opening slot of the meeting, it will provide a showcase for the horse that must be seen as Double Trigger’s heir in Big Orange.
Johnston’s description of how his white-faced chestnut became such a crowd favourite could easily be repeated by Bell about his own star, who brought Royal Ascot to a standstill in the Gold Cup.
“He was a Group One winner, clearly not the best horse I’ve had but probably the horse I’m most remembered for,” he said.
“It was probably his (front) running style that made him popular, his colour had a big thing about it, and we campaigned him relatively often and he kept going until he was seven.
“I don’t know whether Big Orange is the same, but I can well imagine that it is the nearest thing. He needs to go on a wee bit more I suppose. It’ll be a very difficult one. I don’t know whether I’ll be willing him to do it or not! I think I will be willing him to do it, to be fair, because it’s good for the public and good for racing.”
Big Orange with Michael Bell, left, and the trainer's brother, Rupert
Johnston added: “I’m not involved with Big Orange and I haven’t had a lot running against him but I certainly thought the Gold Cup this year was the race of the meeting at Royal Ascot, I loved seeing the way the public responded to it.
“I can obviously see some similarities. It’s strange in a way that Yeats didn’t capture the same imagination because he was an absolutely magnificent horse, probably because he was Irish and we only saw him every so often, I can only assume that’s the reason that you wouldn’t.
“I’d love to think we played a part in the resurgence of these staying races because not long before Double Trigger there was all the talk of cutting the distances including the Gold Cup, so it’s fantastic they’ve retained their popularity.
“I would still say today that although I’ve won the Gold Cup three times, there’s no race I’d rather win at Royal Ascot than that. There’s probably no race at Goodwood I’d rather win than the Goodwood Cup.”
Big Orange’s first Goodwood Cup in 2015 was achieved in the same lionhearted fashion as his first at Ascot in June, both of which were straight out of the Double Trigger handbook.
Johnston would be entitled not to get attached to horses given the number that he has been involved but comes alive at the recollection of Ron Huggins’ battler.
“I still love the staying races and if I have to think of the most exciting races I was ever involved in, I never had a reception for a horse like Double Trigger’s third Goodwood Cup,” he said. “I’ve never been involved with another horse where the public were running from the stands to the winner’s enclosure to see him come in.
“I think if I had to say the best commentary I ever heard involving one of my horses, it was when Double Trigger beat his full brother Double Eclipse in his first Goodwood Cup. I’ve got lots of memories that I wouldn’t have for other horses of the same level.”
Double Trigger is still around, having concluded his stallion duties at Clarendon Farm near Salisbury a few years ago.
“He still gets a bit of fan mail, birthday cards every year, and someone sent him a big bag of carrots recently,” reports John Haydon, who runs the stud with wife Sarah.
“A lot of people still remember him very fondly. He’s 26 now and there’s never a dull moment with him. He’s very fit and well and enjoying his retirement. He’s a character but a very kind horse; he wouldn’t do anything to hurt anybody but still might give you a nip now and again.”
The horse has had moderate success as a dual-purpose sire and was largely the victim of fashion.
“It’s very difficult to stand a staying stallion with the desire for speed nowadays,” Haydon explained. “In terms of ownership, I think people get more enjoyment and value out of them as they come back year on year, but speed brings you the money and more and more you see the stayers going down the National Hunt route.
“The last Double Trigger ever foaled is a filly owned by Ron Huggins, I think she’s off to be broken in, and I believe Ron would like to breed from her some day.”
The other great stayer of recent times to bear comparison is the equally well-travelled Persian Punch, whose 20 career victories included the Goodwood Cups of 2001 and 2003.
His owner, Jeff Smith, is also an admirer of Big Orange.
“He reminds me so much of Punch,” he said. “It’s a terrific story, he's got the same guts, determination and will to win. Punch was not exactly short of ability, either, and I suppose it was that tremendous stride when you think he’s taking one for everyone else’s two, which of course is nonsense, but he certainly devoured the ground.
“The other exciting thing, and similar with Big Orange, was that he was a front runner. The public and I have to say racing enthusiasts take to front runners. We just love it. And he’s obviously very good.”
Big Orange loves to bowl along at the head of affairs
Smith has obvious similarities with Big Orange’s owner Bill Gredley.
Both had successful business careers as well as being owner-breeders of exceptional animals such as Lochsong and User Friendly. They both seem to have enjoyed the pleasure their horses give to others.
“I can see why stayers are so popular with the public, simply because of longevity and the races in many ways are arguably more interesting to watch, particularly with a view to a front runner.” he said.
“I don’t necessarily prefer stayers to middle-distance horses or sprinters, I was just very lucky to have a very good stayer.
“When Punch died at Ascot I got a flood of notes saying how sorry people were. I was fully aware how popular he was, they become a public horse and you share him with everybody, which is wonderful.
“It’s really great to have a fan club and it was the same in Australia, where he was well known there with two gallant thirds in the Melbourne Cup, especially as the Aussies couldn’t quite grasp that horses can race beyond the age of five, so he was a bit of a freak.”
Bell believes Big Orange is at his peak and has outlined his stable flagbearer’s simple routine.
"He is six now but for a stayer that means he is just coming into his prime,” the trainer said. “He is a young horse and has only run 24 times - he is not exactly over-raced.
"We keep his training simple - he goes up Warren Hill once a week on his own to work - on Saturdays usually and over seven furlongs on the peat-moss gallop when it is open. He trains on his own which is unusual for a stayer.
Big Orange holds on from Order Of St George in a tremendous Gold Cup
"He is an easy horse to keep fit as he does not need a lot of work - he is very clean winded and has a great lung capacity.”
Does he bring added pressure?
“Personally, I think pressure is having an empty stable, not looking at a good horse,” Bell said. "Every time I have had a good horse, I have really tried to enjoy them. Pressure is the wrong word, they increase expectation and maybe levels of concentration.
"He is the first horse we have had that has been really popular - packets of polos in the post for him, texts, emails - it is great. He is such a charming horse, with enormous ears and eyes; everything about him is engaging. He is a gentle giant.”
Should Big Orange win a third Goodwood Cup, Bell can expect more packets of polos heading his way in the post.