Well-travelled Bell celebrates another highlight with Helena Baby

By Richard Edmunds

28 Jul 2022

Well-travelled Bell celebrates another highlight with Helena BabyDarren Danis and John Bell celebrate Helena Baby’s Opunake Cup win at New Plymouth last Saturday.

“There’s not a racetrack in those regions that I haven’t been to, and I’ve even played elephant polo in Mongolia and India.”
A second Listed Opunake Cup success with Group One performer Helena Baby was just the latest highlight in a long and remarkably varied career for well-travelled horseman John Bell.
Three years have passed since the Cambridge trainer guided Helena Baby to five wins and three placings from his first nine starts. That included a win in the Opunake Cup at New Plymouth in July of 2019, followed two months later by a gallant third to Melody Belle in the Gr. 1 Tarzino Trophy at Hastings.
A largely fruitless stint in Hong Kong followed, with just a pair of minor placings from 14 starts, but the Guillotine gelding has rediscovered his mojo since returning to home soil in early 2022. Bell’s patient approach reaped rich rewards on Saturday as Helena Baby powered to a dominant victory by two and a half lengths, providing a first black-type success for jockey Darren Danis.
“A fair bit of work came to fruition with that result on Saturday,” Bell told RaceForm. “Darren rode the horse exactly to instructions, and exactly the same way as Donovan Mansour did to win the same race several years prior. Darren actually had a long chat with Donovan before the race, and that homework paid off.
“I couldn’t believe that it was Darren’s first stakes win. I know he’s had a bit of time on the sidelines with injury during his career, so that’s a very memorable thing for him. I got him to go up and make a speech during the presentation. Myself and the owner, my good friend CY Lee, we don’t really need the silver plate and things – we’ve got those from other races. But it’s something for Darren to treasure.”
Bell has had a knack of rejuvenating racehorses repatriated from abroad, and the seven-year-old Helena Baby is the latest addition to that roll of honour.
“To be honest, we never really wanted this horse to go up to Hong Kong – the tracks there tend to range from hard to very hard,” Bell said. “But after he performed so well here, they decided to take him. He never settled, so back he came.
“He came back to the farm here earlier in the year, and my 11-year-old and nine-year-old grandsons were all over him. He was so calm and quiet. I eventually brought him back into the stables in Cambridge and took him along quietly, and it culminated in that result on Saturday.
“Now we’ll look at Tauranga on August 13, where there’s an open mile, and then we can think about having a crack at some of the Group Ones during the carnival at Hastings. Donovan still thinks we could have beaten Melody Belle in that Tarzino Trophy if he hadn’t taken off too early, so we’ll see what happens.”
Bell began training racehorses in the late 1980s, saddling a handful of runners each season until he relinquished his licence a decade later. But he has made his mark since returning to training ranks in the 2010-11 season, now boasting a total of 110 wins including 11 at stakes level.
Former stable star Julius delivered four of those black-type highlights, headed by the Gr. 1 Sistema Railway at Ellerslie on New Year’s Day 2020. Another of Bell’s memorable performers was Mosse, named in honour of his close friend and champion jockey Gerald Mosse. The super-talented O’Reilly gelding won five races up to Group Three level.
But these racing achievements are just scratching the surface of a remarkable life story.
“I played a lot of polo in my younger days,” Bell recalled. “While a lot of the guys in New Zealand have tended to go and play in England, I went the other way. Every winter for about 10 years, I went and played all over the United States, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Hawaii, Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai.
“Later on, I had about 16 years selling horse feeds right throughout Asia, going to places like Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai. There’s not a racetrack in those regions that I haven’t been to, and I’ve even played elephant polo in Mongolia and India.
“I made a lot of friends and contacts during those years, which has held me in good stead when it comes to racing.
“It’s amazing some of the people I met through polo – royalty, politicians and film stars. Princess Haya (of Jordan) came into the commentary box one day when I was doing commentary on polo for ESPN, and so did the Al Maktoums.
“I’ve also played polo with the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Lee Jones. Tommy Lee actually came out and spent a couple of Christmases with us. Polo certainly gave me a lot of very special memories and good friends over the years.”