We kick off King George week with a long-read interview feature with David Menuisier, who talks Ben Linfoot through the career of Wonderful Tonight.
Before Wonderful Tonight stormed to victory in the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot on her seasonal reappearance last month, trainer David Menuisier stated she was about 85 per cent fit. She won by a length and a half, comfortably, and the form could hardly be working out any better; the second, third, sixth and seventh have all boosted the victory by winning subsequently.
Wondering out loud if he had over egged the soufflé just a little, I asked Menuisier if he revised that percentage having seen what she did in the Hardwicke. “Absolutely not,” he insists. “Just watch the race, she got tired in the last furlong. I’m sorry to say but with a run under her belt she would’ve won by further, going away.”
That Group Two success came on the back of two Group One victories that were a glorious end to a highly-successful three-year-old campaign. All roads are currently leading back from the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, European racing’s most prestigious all-aged contest at Longchamp in October, for which she is a top-price 9/1 chance as things stand. But with that race dominating his mind – there is no bigger race for a Frenchman to win – Menuisier analyses that red-hot form with a sharp eye.
He says: “Is Broome an Arc horse? No. Is Hukum an Arc horse? I don’t think so. Is Sir Ron Priestley an Arc hero? I don’t think so either. So while it’s good to see the form working out, you can’t be led by the simple fact the beaten horses have come out and won races.
“Those horses would not be strong opponents in an Arc. You’ll have very different opposition in the Arc de Triomphe. It’s great, but you have to remain humble and bear in mind it’s only a little step forward, not a big one.”
Rewind three years to August 20 in 2018 for a big step, one of the biggest in Menuisier’s training career to date. That was the day Wonderful Tonight came into his life, thanks to a chance encounter at the Arqana yearling sales at Deauville.
Having just bought Winter Reprise for €290,000, Menuisier bumped into music mogul Chris Wright, founder of Chrysalis Records, a long-time owner and breeder who had had horses, without success, with the Pulborough-based handler before. Menuisier congratulated Wright on selling the sales-topper that very day and made a passing comment that ‘not all the good horses had made money’ that afternoon.
Intrigued, Wright asked him for an example and Menuisier pointed to an unsold filly by Le Havre. He had just seen the owner-breeders and knew they only wanted €40,000 for her, because of her unfashionable pedigree.
“We went to see her and he said ‘if you like her get her vetted and we’ll buy her’,” says Menuisier. “That’s what we did and the rest is history.”
Le Havre has become an important stallion in Menuisier’s life, thanks to the exploits of Wonderful Tonight. He was learning his trade as assistant to Criquette Head-Maarek in Chantilly when the Prix du Jockey Club winner was carving out his racing career in 2008, while a Le Havre colt that caught his eye at the Deauville sales when he was a fledgling trainer several years later was to have a lasting impact.
“He was unfurnished and lanky and only went for €15,000 - eight months later he was resold as a Guineas breeze-up for €300,000. After that I said to Kim [Johnstone, partner] this is probably a sale we need to keep on the right side of and go back and look outside the box. Look at the horses nobody else wants.
“My first stakes winner Havre De Paix, a Listed winner, was by Le Havre and that was another fairytale in the way she was bought.
“I find them to be quite tenacious. They don’t give up that easily, they’re quite tough. The horse, in fairness, didn’t really have a stallion’s pedigree so he has always exceeded expectations. I quite like that.
“From a practical point of view they are affordable - he is no Galileo or Dubawi. We started from nothing with very limited means, so you have to look for value for money. Le Havre has always brought us that.
“He wasn’t particularly bred to be a champion and he was. He wasn’t particularly bred to be a great stallion and he is. So I take my hat off to horses like this and, more generally, stories like this.”
In the autumn of 2018 the story of Wonderful Tonight was just beginning. Named after the Eric Clapton song by her music impresario owner, she made her way to the Coombelands barns in West Sussex that Menuisier rents from Guy Harwood, who prepared Dancing Brave for Arc glory in 1986 from the same stables, from her initial home in north-west France.
Menuisier made a different journey from a similar starting point. Born and raised in Lorraine, in the French north east, he was head-hunted by Richard Mandella in California while working in Chantilly, and spent 18 valuable months in America as his assistant. Then he took the same job with John Dunlop in Arundel, just a short drive down the A29 from his current base, where he fell in love with the area in his six-year spell.
With those limited means in mind, it was a brave call from Menuisier to adopt a patient approach when he branched out on his own, but the gamble paid off in 2016 when, having trained just six winners in his first two years, he landed 16 UK victories and nurtured the three-year-old career of Thundering Blue. The dashing grey was winless at three and didn’t come into his own until gelded at four, but he was a first stable star for Menuisier and a poster boy for project patience.
Thundering Blue ended up being a Group One participant but Menuisier’s first top-level winner was Danceteria in Germany in the July of 2019.
At that point Wonderful Tonight was well into her two-year-old career, but had been nowhere near a racetrack. Even then, though, Menuisier felt he had something special on his hands.
“She was always quite backward looking and lanky and unfurnished, so she was always going to take time. She started to show the right signs probably in the August and September of her two-year-old season, just after we had won the Group One with Danceteria.
“In a funny way it’s very hard to explain. She always looked like a horse that wasn’t made out of the same stuff as the others. When she first started working she had a leg in every county, she had no clue what she was doing but she was still pulverising everything on the gallops with ease, without sweating, it was all very easy for her.
“We felt at the time she was above average, but even in those days you could not imagine she would become a dual Group One winner.”
Menuisier laughs with affection when he recalls her early outings.
On her Doncaster debut in the October he remembers: “She was beaten by greenness more than anything else. The ground was really heavy and she couldn’t do anything right. But then when most of the others were starting to fade she picked up the bridle very strongly.”
On her second start she recorded her first victory, in bottomless ground at Saint-Cloud.
“Olivier Peslier rode her and he was just trying to teach her to relax, she was hard on the bit but in a way she was doing far too much all the way around.
“He said ‘look I was just trying to educate her – if I had let her go turning in she would’ve won by a furlong’. Saying that she only won by a short head and the second filly, Karlarina, also by Le Havre, turned out to be a black type filly as well and they left the third way behind.”
When Menuisier talks about Wonderful Tonight some familiar themes crop up. He used ‘tough as nails’ to describe her more than once and when asked about her personality at home there was no hesitation for the right word, which was ‘feisty’.
But, despite her zest for life, from two to three he was delighted with her development.
“She had a good break at [Andrew Black’s] Chasemore Farm over the winter as she was hard to manage here. When she’s fresh she’s not fun, she was jumping around everywhere and what not, so we felt she would be better in the paddock.
“And she did really well physically for that break. She came back refreshed and it’s a shame as the early target for her was the French Oaks, then COVID arrived and we had to change all the plans.”
While the plans changed, the expectations didn’t and Wonderful Tonight was thrown head first into Listed company at Newbury on her first start out of maiden company at three.
Fourth there, she was second at Longchamp at the same level next time out, before her first victory of the season in the Group Three Prix Minerve at Deauville’s Barriére meeting. From then on in it was Group Ones all the way.
Menuisier says: “From the first run at Newbury to the second run at Longchamp to the races later on, she improved, and that’s what I expect her to do in her races this year as well.
“Don’t forgot she was a very green two-year-old, so she had an awful lot to learn last year to come to her best at the time, and even in those Group One races she still showed a lot of greenness.”
The Group One double, achieved in the space of just two weeks, was instigated in the Prix de Royallieu. Menuisier and Wright discussed the possibility of supplementing for the Arc, but decided against it - even though the trainer admits things might have been different if they had known Aidan O’Brien’s team wouldn’t be running due to a contaminated feed.
“Obviously everything is beautiful in hindsight,” he says. “But imagine if the filly wins the Group Three, then runs fifth in the Arc and takes a hard race, you can’t run again, she wouldn’t be a Group One winner by now. That’s the way I look at it and that’s the way I looked at it at the time.
“I think that G1 under her name was more important than running in the Arc last year.
“My only personal downside about the Royallieu win is the fact I couldn’t attend. I was planning to go to Tattersalls two days later and because of the restrictions I couldn’t do both. But nonetheless, the joy was all the same. It’s a real sense of pride when you can win a Group One in your home country, it was absolutely marvellous.”
The Group One double was completed in the Fillies & Mares Stakes on Champions Day at Ascot, two weeks to the day after Paris.
“I wasn’t that keen on contemplating running at Ascot,” Menuisier recalls. “She was a Group One winner and a lot of horses would bounce running so quickly.
“The ground was the heaviest it had been at Longchamp for a very long time and I felt that over 1m6f she gave it her all.
“But after three days she was leaping all over the place, like she hadn’t run, so that’s when I said we can’t write it off now, she’s just not a normal horse. She’s made of something else.”
Back to the present. Menuisier is happy that he missed the Coral-Eclipse, citing that it wasn’t in the original plan. The original plan was the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on July 24. Next Saturday.
Wonderful Tonight will be among the six-day entries on Monday, but there’s a problem. The weather looks glorious all week and with the ground already ‘Good to Firm’ Menuisier has a dilemma and a big decision to make.
“It’s the obvious target for an Arc horse in July,” he says, though you sense there’s a ‘but’ coming. [Spoiler alert: there is].
“That’s what we are working towards. But [there you go] obviously it depends on the weather and in a way it looks less likely to happen. The good weather in England can come with thunderstorms, though, so that’s what we hope for.
“She will be confirmed for the race and she might even be declared for the race – unless there is no chance in hell of a drop of rain – and then we’ll assess closer to the race, but it’s pretty much the plan.
“If we can manage to go for the King George we will.”
Menuisier all but ruled out running on ‘Good to Firm’, but would he let her take her chance on ‘Good’ ground?
“That’s a good question. I don’t know. It’s the sort of thing we’d have to gauge closer to the time. We have to consider what’s coming after Ascot in terms of weather. Obviously Goodwood is the following week and she’s entered in both the Nassau and the Lillie Langtry over 1m2f and 1m6f.
“If Ascot looks quick and there’s no rain forecast the following week, that’s when it becomes a difficult decision.
“If there’s thunderstorms forecast for Goodwood, we could wait for Goodwood. We can’t answer those questions now, we are too far away from having a clear idea about the weather.
“But I want to run her. She gets fresh really quickly, so if the ground is quick at both venues I don’t know what I’ll be doing, frankly. I’m hoping I’ll be able to make a decision by the middle of the week but it will be a tough one.
“We’ve pencilled in the Yorkshire Oaks at York in August for her, as well. There’s also a couple of races in France she can be entered in, like the Prix de Pomone, in fact there are a few options at Deauville so we’ll go where the ground is softer.”
Bar the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe it’s hard to know where Wonderful Tonight will end up. Ascot, Goodwood, Deauville, York – it depends where it rains.
With just a Hardwicke win under her belt in 2021, she’s not the story of the season just yet. But the manner of that victory – and the way the form is working out, for all the cold water Menuisier pours on that theory – marks her out as a potential horse of the year.
“It’s not a matter of us telling her what to do,” Menuisier chuckles, as if he wouldn't dare. “It’s a matter of channelling what we would like her to do if it pleases her.
“For the first time [in the Hardwicke] I saw a professional filly running and that was a massive change. This year has done her the world of good in terms of maturity and flexibility in the running.
“I think she’s a stronger filly. Physically speaking she’s a stronger horse, mentally speaking she’s a stronger horse, too. She’s really much more mature, even in training she’s more composed - as she is a fiery type.
“Last year she was much more fierce than she is this year. She’s much more composed although she still marches on, she doesn’t walk, she’s always active - but in a more placid way. She’s fantastic. Fingers crossed for the future.”
Fingers crossed for some thunderstorms. Wonderful Tonight is the underdog who has come good, trained by a team with the same spirit. Her presence will light up any field between now and her date with destiny in Paris on the first Sunday in October.
“It was on the radar but she wasn’t entered. So when supplementation time came around we did have a serious chat with the owner Chris Wright on whether we should do it or not.
“We went for the reasonable option, which was to sit on our hands and go for the Royallieu instead of the Arc. At the time she wasn’t a Group One winner and at the time we couldn’t guess that the O’Brien team wouldn’t line up.
“If we had heard that the O’Brien team wouldn’t be able to compete there’s a chance we might’ve been tempted by doing it. I think she would’ve run in the first five last year, I don’t say she would’ve won, because it’s impossible to tell, but I think she would’ve been in the first five.”
“All my horses make their own decisions in a way. I don’t force them into a programme whether it’s racing or training. I let them tell us what they want to do and her especially.
“With a target like we have in October, we have a few ideas in mind but really it’s a matter of respecting the filly and making sure she’s not coming to hand too soon in the season.”
“It was always going to happen. Chris said even before she was a Group One winner he said she would definitely stay in training at four. It was always going to be the case.”
“When we decided not to supplement for the Arc last year. We were thinking let’s try and win a Group One with her this year, then give her the Arc as a target next year.”
“I never weigh her, not very often anyway, but I swear she must be 50kg [over seven stone] heavier than she was last year. She has much more substance.”
“It’s too early to talk about it. We don’t know how things will be in three months time. I do have some names at the top of my head obviously, but I’d rather not talk about this. We’ll take that day by day.”
“Kevin Bouillie. And he rides her every day as well.”
“I wasn’t before, but I am now!”