In a quiet, tucked-away corner of Gloucestershire, an almost white horse, unassumingly wanders in a paddock, without a care in the world.
During a particularly muddy winter, it has been hard to maintain those sleek looks, but he later looks a picture, back in his box, flanked by two mares, one seven and the other thirty.
Retirement from the public eye suits him well, but a decade earlier, he was at the centre of the horse racing world, the young pretender to the crown of the extraordinary Big Buck’s.
The grey horse in question is Grands Crus, known simply as George – and as Course Specialist paid him a visit, he was a magnificent fifteen years-old, dull of life and just a little bit of devil.
Foaled in France on April 1st, 2005, Grands Crus is a son of that prodigious stallion Dom Alco.
Initially put into training with top French trainer Emmanuel Clayeaux, Grands Crus joined the yard of David Pipe in late 2008.
He was owned by Roger Stanley and Yvonne Reynolds, for whom late 2008 was a very successful time, as the incredibly handsome Madison Du Berlais, landed the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and later beat Denman at Kempton Park. After disappointing in the 2009 Gold Cup, Madison went on to land the Grade Two Bowl at Aintree’s Grand National Meeting and later that year, he finished second to Kauto Star in the King George VI Chase.
When Madison Du Berlais retired from racing, in late 2011, he was sent to the same corner of Gloucestershire, that George now enjoys, in the loving care of Julie Reynolds.
As Madison was establishing those famous silks, a much darker grey Grands Crus, had his first racecourse appearances and took a couple of bumper runs for the penny to drop, in late 2009.
The first sign of his ability came in January 2010, when he ran a promising second to the top class Wishfull Thinking, on his hurdles debut, at Taunton.
Having dotted up in a Plumpton contest, he returned to Taunton in February, to finish four lengths second to another smart horse in Sanctuaire. Less than a month later, Sanctuaire had underlined the strength of that form, by winning the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Pipe gave Grands Crus time to develop and the grey thrived for a summer off.
He was not seen until Cheltenham’s always-competitive November meeting, annexing a competitive seventeen-runner handicap hurdle by six lengths from the useful For Non Stop.
The Pond House team had often targeted this meeting for winners, but any suggestion that Grands Crus had done his job, were quickly dispelled, as he returned to action just six days later.
Haydock Park’s Betfair Chase day has developed into a valuable card over the years, with the Listed fixed brush handicap hurdle, one of the highlights.
Grands Crus looked well handicapped, off 10 stone and 10 pounds, if he had come out of his Cheltenham race OK. But he was also stepping up in trip, with two miles and seven furlongs being the longest distance he had thus far raced over.
We needn’t have worried, as Grands Crus – still only a five year-old, routed seventeen rivals by ten lengths.
After a two-month break, Pipe reported Grands Crus to have continued improving – and with challengers to Big Buck’s seeming invincibility, in short supply, there was a lot more media interest in the exciting, up and coming grey.
The acid test came in the Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle, always an important trial for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Grands Crus took on a field of thirteen rivals, with many good yardsticks in there to test his form and credentials.
Held up by Tom Scudamore, Grands Crus made smooth progress and went on from the second last, clearing away for an impressive ten-length defeat of Knockara Beau.
The big clash with reigning champion Big Buck’s, received plenty of build-up ahead of the 2011 Cheltenham Festival and the race lived up to its billing.
Once again, Scudamore bided his time, before challenging Big Buck’s in the home straight.
Grands Crus gave his all, but was meeting a champion in his pomp – and Big Buck’s found enough to hold off his young rival by 1 ¾ lengths.
The two met again at Aintree, where the margin of victory for Big Buck’s increased to five lengths.
That June, Grands Crus returned to his native land for a crack at the French Champion Hurdle, running a creditable sixth to another popular grey of the time, Thousand Stars.
After another summer at grass, Grands Crus returned to training for an exciting campaign over fences in the autumn of 2011.
Things started with an exhilarating display around Cheltenham and a ten-length defeat of the smart Champion Court, at the November meeting. Much of the talk afterwards centred around another superstar, Cue Card, who had unseated his rider.
Pipe was keen to further advance his star’s chase education and just a couple of weeks after Cheltenham, Grands Crus won the Grade Two Worcester Novices’ Chase by a couple of lengths from Sonofvic.
So far, Grand Crus had done everything asked of him – but he now faced the toughest of tests, in the Group One Feltham Novices’ Chase, one of the Kempton Park highlights on Boxing Day.
The 2011 edition was arguably the greatest in history, with future Cheltenham Festival winner Teaforthree, future Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth and future dual King George winner Silviniaco Conti in opposition.
With a third of the race to go, Scudamore went on aboard Grands Crus, building up a definite advantage.
The pair were five lengths clear at the first fence in the home straight, with two future giants of the jumps game floundering to make an impression.
A good jump at the last sealed a fantastic victory by 2 ¼ lengths over Silviniaco Conti, with Bobs Worth back in third.
Grands Crus was hot property. He was three from three over fences and the world appeared at his feet over fences.
There was much media talk of the grey heading to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but Pipe and connections resisted the temptation, instead running Grands Crus in the RSA Chase for novices.
However, Grands Crus, having been in contention, faded from two out and finished fourth behind old rival Bobs Worth, clearly not looking the same horse he had at Christmas.
He was given the rest of the season off and returned to action in the Paddy Power Gold Cup of 2012, with expectations high that he would be back to his best.
But just as he had in the RSA Chase, he failed to fire and weakened quickly, eventually being pulled up.
Grands Crus returned to Kempton Park on Boxing Day, for a crack at the biggest prize of all, the King George VI Chase.
He was never really competitive, but stayed on to finish a remote third to Long Run and Captain Chris.
After pulling up in the Argento Chase in January 2013, Grands Crus missed the Cheltenham Festival and reverted to hurdling at Aintree. Once again though, the fire was missing, as he ran a remote seventh to Solwhit, in the Grade One Liverpool Hurdle.
Grands Crus had one more run, the following November, over hurdles, at Kempton Park. He fleetingly led and looked like he might win, before fading to finish fifth to rising star God’s Own.
Connections then decided to call time on his career and Grands Crus retired from racing at the tender age of eight.
Very sadly, just as Grands Crus was retiring, in November 2013, Madison Du Berlais, just two years into his retirement, had to be put down following a failed operation for colic.
This handsome, almost black horse had preceded the two brothers and had contested virtually every big jumps race in the calendar.
Julie adored the horse and almost gave up looking after retired racehorses in the aftermath. But then George came along.
The legacy of Grands Crus was already continuing, with his full brother Gevrey Chambertin (known as Geoffrey), starting to make a name for himself.
In the autumn of 2012, Geoffrey won three consecutive races over hurdles, including a defeat of future Grand National winner Many Clouds – and a fixed hurdles novice hurdle at Haydock Park.
Three years after Grands Crus had won the then-Listed fixed brush handicap hurdle at the Lancashire course, Gevrey Chambertin followed suit, in 2013.
He later went chasing, but failed to show consistency in his races and eventually he was retired, in the spring of 2017. Very tragically, just months into his new life, Geoffrey suffered from a neurological condition and had to be put down.
Thankfully, Grands Crus kept Julie’s interest in looking after retired racehorses going after Madison’s loss and the cruel second blow with Geoffrey.
Julie recalls how she acquired her superstar grey:
“Roger Stanley and my late mother in law Yvonne Reynolds have jointly owned all of the racehorses I have had, Geoffrey being the last of their joint ownership. I was given George when the decision was made that he should not race again because of ongoing ulcers. I drove to David Pipe’s yard on 29th January 2014 and collected him, he was nine.
“Since he last raced, he had been exercised on the horse walker only since then.”
Having been based at Pond House, Grands Crus now found himself in totally different surroundings. Was this going to be a problem for him?
“Not really, racehorses are continually travelling the country and staying in temporary stables with horses they don’t know. He found nothing odd in being in a different stable, he was very interested in everything that was going on.
“He very soon learnt that being allowed out in a field, with a mare and a little section A gelding was what life was meant to be about, he had never been turned out with other horses, he was far too valuable. He was turned out at Pipe’s with Geoffrey once, that was a disaster, George was very aggressive. He also discovered mud……………ask anyone with a grey horse!”
Another change came with what George consumed, as Julie describes:
“His diet changed completely, although still stabled 24/7 because of weather and ground conditions, he was fed hay ad lib and two hard feeds, one am and one pm. He would previously have probably been on smaller quantities of haylage which has a higher protein content and more frequent smaller hard feeds. He would have trained and raced on an empty stomach as I understand it. He was now allowed to eat as much as he wanted, whenever he wanted.”
George of course retired from racing at an early age, with most of his life in front of him, the challenge was to find new disciplines for him to do.
Julie had plenty in mind and set to work on teaching her Grade One winner new tricks.
“Thoroughbreds are (generally) very intelligent and versatile. Once he understood what you were asking him he retained it. He was very slow to come off the leg to start with as this was something he had never been asked, he was also, amazingly enough, very lazy!
“The main challenge was, and still is, trying to keep some semblance of order and control when jumping! He loves it, but having spent his whole life going as fast as he could and taking the fences off a long stride at a gallop, collection into and after a fence was not in his CV.
“I remember asking my friend Nicky, who worked with racehorses all of her adult life, to take him round a set of show jumps, it was quite frightening, a course of about 14 show jumps taken at an uncontrollable gallop – he did clear them all though!”
In fact, George has developed into a popular and hugely successful horse in his new life, as Julie recalls:
“His biggest successes to date? Qualifying for Royal Windsor in the Retrained Racehorse Challenge; it went pear-shaped when we got there, far too much going on for him to cope with. Qualifying with me riding him, for the RoR Amateur-Ridden Showing Final at Aintree in 2017, then coming 10th in the whole of the UK. We also qualified for the In-hand showing last year.
“The most rewarding aspect has been the bond created between us, the snicker when I get to the yard and again when I leave.
“He came to me with a written health warning, a horse nobody could hold as he was so strong.
“He can be grumpy, generally when he is hungry! But I think my greatest achievement is that the horse they could not keep weight on because he stressed so much has gone from 465k to 565+k and maintained it, he is a friend more than a horse.”
The story of Grands Crus has not only been a journey for George, but for Julie too, there has been insight.
“I have learned to trust my instincts with a horse and never give up or be put off by their history, as soon as a horse comes out of racing they change, given the time and patience they become horses again.”
Whilst the winter of 2019/20 has been extremely wet, George’s activities have been more limited than usual, but he remains happy and full of character, flanked by Millie and Pip, who both keep an eye on the handsome gelding.
Julie has had many highs and lows since she first looked after ex-racehorses. It has been hard work and an emotional roller-coaster at times.
But the reward is something you can’t put a premium on.
She advises anyone thinking of taking one on:
“Think long and hard before you decide, they are not easy. They need a lot of care and attention, you can’t just throw them out in a field and forget about. They are tough but at the same time delicate, but once you learn to give them what they need the are absolutely amazing.”