The 1979 Flat racing season was a glorious one in terms of quality. Le Moss ruled the staying division after his Gold Cup victory over Buckskin, while Troy was an outstanding colt over middle distances.
But the year was also memorable for the arrival on these shores of the young American jockey sensation Steve Cauthen.
For over a decade Cauthen was a master at his art, but he made an instant impact in England, joining forces with Barry Hills to make a sensational start in the UK, with victory in the 1979 2,000 Guineas aboard Tap On Wood.
Course-specialist was privileged to catch up with Barry Hills recently, as he very kindly recalled the career of Tap On Wood, a colt who thrived on his work and lowered the colours of the mighty Kris in that Guineas, but one who had setbacks that perhaps prevented him from achieving much more.
When did Tap On Wood come to your yard and where had he come from please?
Tap On Wood was purchased at the Goffs September Yearling Sales on Monday 19th September, 1977.
Had you trained many horses by Sallust to that point?
He had a lot of races as a juvenile, did he thrive on a busy campaign?
Yes very much so, he took his racing very well.
Did he show many early indications as to how good he was as a juvenile?
What sort of a worker was he at home? Very keen or quite lazy?
What sort of character was he?
Very genuine, with no problems.
After his defeat by Warmington at Ayr, what tempted you to send him to Ireland for the National Stakes?
Because, I thought he would have a chance in the race.
Did you feel ground conditions were the main reason for his two defeats at the end of that year or had he just done enough with hindsight?
Maybe, he had done enough for the season.
How did he winter? Did he come to hand early in the spring of 1979?
Wintered very well, he needed lots of work.
He unusually for a Guineas winner had two starts prior to Newmarket, was the soft ground at Salisbury the reason for his defeat by Lake City?
He maybe needed the race.
That was Steve Cauthen’s first day racing as a jockey in the UK; did Steve ride him at Salisbury? Was Steve very good with feedback after races from that tender age?
Yes, it was Steve’s first day as a jockey and he did ride him at Salisbury. Steve was very good with feedback.
How much did Tap On Wood improve from Salisbury to Thirsk and what tempted you to get another run into him?
He was lazy at home, so felt another race was needed and it would do him good.
Was there a particular piece of work or a moment that spring when you felt he had improved and was a major Guineas contender?
Of course, most mornings were adequate, he used to pull himself up when he saw me but one very foggy morning he couldn’t see me and he worked brilliantly.
Did Steve ride him in work at home?
Occasionally, my wife Penny rode him most mornings as a three year old.
Going into the Guineas did you give Steve any specific instructions for riding Newmarket and tactically for the race?
I never had to give Steve any instructions in a race, I didn’t need to.
How confident were you that you could win?
You can’t be confident, but always hopeful, but knew he would run well.
How did you celebrate that evening?
Drove home from Newmarket. Had our supper and a glass of wine, that was it. A great day.
He then ran down the field at Epsom; with hindsight do you think the viral infection he subsequently suffered was affecting him that day? Would you have liked to try racing him over further again?
He didn’t stay the trip and no I would not have liked to race him further again.
Were you able to do anything with him whilst he was below par or was it simply a case of box rest?
He was on very easy exercise.
How challenging was it to get him ready for the Kiveton Steel Stakes at Doncaster?
He started to look better around late July and was his normal self after.
Do you believe the 1979 mile season would have been very different had Tap On Wood not succumbed to virus?
You don’t know, but his last piece of work before he should have run against Kris at Ascot in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, he coughed badly on the way home. Very sad day.
With all the wonderful horses you have trained in your career, do you occasionally reflect on Tap On Wood and did you get to train many of his progeny?
With fondness. He had a great owner, Tony Shead. We had some very happy days due to Tap On Wood and many other horses that he owned at the time. Tap On Wood was sold to go abroad after racing with us.
Did he help you to establish a blue print for your methods for training and campaigning future Classic contenders or was he something of a one-off?
Every horse is different.