When people have been around the racing game for a while, especially when they haven’t had the good fortune to crack it in the way of a Henderson or an Aidan O’Brien, a good way of teasing out their identity is to offer snippets from their lifetime, writes Tony Stafford.
We all know about Mr Frisk, the Kim Bailey-trained Grand National winner ridden by the amateur Marcus Armytage, son of trainer Roddy and brother to the first female Hennessy Gold Cup winning rider Gee, later Tony McCoy’s secretary.
Marcus was subsequently a colleague of mine at the Daily Telegraph – indeed he is still there. But our mystery man beat the youthful Old Etonian to it, winning five chases in a row, and unbeaten in six on the gelding in an invincible season as a novice, at one point telling an interviewing journalist that he and Mr Frisk would win the Grand National. Events would subsequently conspire for the combination of horse and jockey to be broken through no fault of our rider.
Next clue, born and bred in West Ham, East London, he went to the same school as did - a good few years earlier of course - Michael Tabor and the late and much-loved David Johnson, owner of all those wonderful jumpers with Martin Pipe. Our hero’s father Norman, youngest of a family of 13 after serving with distinction in the army, joined the Daily Telegraph as a printer.
In the days of hot metal linotype he and his many skilled colleagues would stand one side of the “stone”, the flat piece of the print room’s furniture along which the individual pages would be laid out and constructed. He would help the sub-editor – very often me on the racing pages – standing on the other side to fit it all in from my upside-down, back-to-front perspective. My job was assisted by having paper printers’ single long “takes” of the individual stories and racing cards which had to be cut to length – rather different nowadays with instant editing for all, not least without all the sensitivities of not crossing other unions’ demarcation lines.
Knowing what and how much to cut was the key but a good stone man on the other side made it easy and Norman knew his stuff all right. I loved those days and can still read newspapers upside down – maybe not the most helpful attribute these days, rather like knowing Latin declensions and conjugations!
A bit sketchy so far, well how about this? At 6ft 2 1/2inches he was the tallest jump jockey of his time. One season he broke his right collarbone nine times; it was only when ironically riding Bailey’s Just For The Crack at Newbury that both went in the same fall.
After retiring from race riding in the mid-1990’s he would not begin training in his own right for a few years, instead working as Norman Mason’s assistant – the assistant to the amusement machine magnate from the North-East was in effect the trainer.
Mason also had a Grand National winner, but Red Marauder’s success in 2001 when one of only four finishers happened after the mystery man’s departure having overseen his novice win. He was already setting up his own stable by then. What has defined him in the intervening two decades has been his extreme patience waiting, it seems, forever to land a touch for his owner, then carrying it off with certainty.
If you haven’t got it yet you never will so here we go - say hello to Alan Jones. From West Ham to the West Country via Northumberland has been a stretch. He still stands just as tall and with a season-best of ten a while ago and more likely four or five every term from his ten-strong string of individually and minutely prepared jumpers, he keeps the show going for his owners.
One of them enjoyed such a winning punt on his veteran horse Tiquer in the winter of 2017-18 that he decided to invest at a higher level. “He won 140 grand”, recalls Alan, “so decided to go to Goff’s in Ireland that October to look for a smart yearling. He had been using an agent but he thought his fees excessive, so he asked me to go along and find a nice filly for around 100-110k”, recalls Alan.
“We started with a dozen but boiled it down and eventually settled on a Camelot filly. To my surprise we got her for €100,000. The wind came out of my sails a bit when the owner sent her to Richard Hannon, but she was from a major Coolmore source, consigned by Timmy Hyde’s Camas Park stud, so you would have expected her to go to a big Flat yard. In any case, he is my biggest owner so you’d want to keep him happy.
“Of course, I kept my ear to the ground, listening for news on how she was doing at Hannon’s. It seemed she didn’t make the expected progress and it was as much an economy measure as anything else when I was asked to take her for the winter as a two-year-old”, said Jones. The next season as a three-year-old soundness was again an issue with her so it was back again to Mr Jones for some more rest and recuperation.
Ironically, recalls Jones, it was just when he detected the filly was starting to shape up that the owner nearly brought the project to an untimely end. “She was improving every day and then suddenly there was a potential buyer wanting to send her to stud unraced. I told the owner I thought we could still do something with her and luckily he finally agreed.”
Thus on Sunday, prepared on the same type of hill up which Martin Pipe, who in Jones’s estimation, completely changed the science of training racehorses, Lady Excalibur was finally ready to go.
The chosen target, a bumper at Stratford last Sunday, came along 1,021 days after Alan Jones signed the docket to re-invest that big chunk of his owner’s massive touch. After the event he reckoned “she’s not quick” but if you watch the video of where she is turning for home and where she is at the finish with Tom O’Brien sitting pretty you might have another opinion. The world is her oyster and whatever she does on the track she will always have a value as a potential broodmare.
As Tom told him afterwards, “You are just like my Uncle Aidan, you can perform miracles. This one certainly is”. Praise indeed, but when your stable is limited to a handful of animals, candidates for such miracles come along only rarely. In 60-year-old Alan Jones’ case 1,021 days from purchase to payoff is a bit of a sprint!