by Tony Stafford
Another week, but what a Saturday! It’s always an early start on Hennessy Day at Newbury, but we made great time even though there was a bit of a blunder coming to the A4 turn off, as a lorry in the middle lane prevented my turning off the M4 just past Reading services.
Never mind, coming down to the main roundabout entering Newbury, I ignored the lemmings as they crowded onto the routine approach to the track via congestion paradise and found the route from Thatcham almost serene.
So there was plenty of time for orientation, and with Doncaster Bloodstock sales offering some nice NH stores, point-to-pointers and bumper types after racing, there was the chance of appetising soup, quiche and sarnies to satisfy the hunger pangs.
Going into the lift (the slowest in the world ever since the big stand was built) I met Felix Francis, son of Dick and now the writer of the continuing series of racy racing novels a la 1955. I asked Felix how the sales were going. “Great!” he said. I’m pleased about that. I’ve still got a couple with his dad’s dedication on my shelf in the office.
Dick happily had more than enough financial consolation for his still unfathomable Devon Loch Grand National misfortune. If you are too young to know, or have never seen the footage, then the sight of Dick less than 100 yards from the finish atop the Queen Mother’s horse, sprawled down on all fours with the race apparently won wants seeing. That was 1956 and Dick never left that era, even if his bank balance, probably thanks to that mishap, clearly did.
I used to see him at Gulfstream Park, Florida in the days when people were prepared to fund my excursions over there. I mention the Francis phenomenon because at the moment I am in the middle of a typical preoccupation with the works of another author.
That guy is or rather was Stieg Larrson, who suddenly died at 50 from a heart attack before the publication of the trilogy of books – in reality a single, sprawling volume cut into three for commercial reasons, I’m sure. Known as the Millennium trilogy, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Girl who Played with Fire and the Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest have sold considerably more than 20 million copies and are all safely on my best Christmas present of 2011.
That was my treasured Kindle, not the all-singing, dancing, and film and music playing monstrosity that everyone else is going to get this year. Not even the one with the reading light. No mine is the real basic one, which if you read it at night, you need a bedside lamp as an accompaniment.
I got through the first part a while ago, after seeing the film both in the English-speaking and original Swedish versions. There was a gap between that one and getting the final two, principally because I’m so rubbish at technology that it was not until last week that I got the Kindle charged up enough to suck up some more volumes from my Amazon gift account.
Just as well I did, as even after buying around 85 books – including a 69-strong volume of the complete works of Charles Dickens – I’ve about £25 to spend – it lapses after a year, before Christmas this year, not easy I assure you.
Anyway, I was at Newbury, the soup was good, the quiche a little insipid-looking and therefore untouched by me, but the arrival soon after of some nice Victoria sponge, surely the king of cakes, completed the repast.
The racing wasn’t bad either. Bob’s Worth was impressive in the Hennessy for Nicky Henderson, whose partner Sophie came over and said: “You know I don’t have much to do with the horses, but I go out first lot most days, and Punjabi’s been doing well.” You think you get stuff from the horse’s mouth. I get mine from Sophie! By the way Punjabi will almost certainly run, weather and going permitting, at Hereford on Wednesday, when I’m sure he’ll be the only former Champion Hurdle and Irish Champion Hurdle winner on view.
My boss Raymond Tooth also had Cousin Khee in the same novice chase, which is a bit rich given he’s only four jumpers – one still unraced – in his team, but luckily Kempton put on a jumpers bumpers card on Sunday and he won the 3.05 p.m. race. He goes well when he works with some of Hughie Morrison’s Flat horses – and he was ready after a fine return effort over hurdles at Aintree.
[If you read this after he’s won, I apologise for not letting you know beforehand. If he happens to have lost, sorry to those of you who did see this in time and congratulations if you didn’t. See you at Kempton if you’re going, or indeed if you went.]
I liked the style of Countrywide Flame at Newcastle, sprinting clear of Cinders and Ashes in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, a race Punjabi won (at a re-staged Wetherby) in his Championship winning season. In those days there was a £1 million bonus from the exchange betting firm wbx, then sponsors of the race, for winning their contest, the Christmas Hurdle and the Champion.
Punjabi went to Kempton for the Christmas Hurdle and was a challenging close second two out when he fell for the only time in 19 starts over the smaller jumps. It was not until a few minutes after he crossed the Cheltenham winning line in front of Celestial Halo and Nicky’s own fancy for the race Binocular that the trainer realised he would have been picking up a lump of cash had the Kempton incident not occurred.
I think Countrywide Flame will win the Champion Hurdle. Successful in the Triumph last year, he is more like a Punjabi, having come with Flat wins from the 50’s upwards, although he has a much better stamina profile.
Punjabi waited until six to win his Championship, but Countrywide Flame, runner-up to Aaim to Prosper in the Cesarewitch six weeks ago, is quite a way further along the jumping hierarchy at this stage of their respective development.
Talking of the Cesarewitch, in which Aaim to Prosper conceded 19lb in beating Countywide Flame by half a length, it shows once again that the two disciplines do not always correlate. Aaim to Prosper made his jumping debut at Newbury on Thursday, now with Paul Nicholls and despite jumping very well, could not cope with Meganisi, who gave him 5lb. Wonder what would happen if Meganisi met Countywide Flame over jumps.
I’ll gloss over the football for obvious reasons save saying that Spurs and Chelsea show that maybe AVB should have still been at Chelsea while Rafa Benitez may need to be told that Harrods always recruit suitable candidates for the Christmas rush, not that his beard is the correct colour for Santa – it’ll have to be on the Action Man strength. Or maybe Inaction Man. I will not mention Arsenal.
The best of the weekend must be reserved for Sunday morning’s first 25 minutes after tea when Australia conceded 70 runs to the rampant South Africans. Still they only need a few more than 600 to win and have two full days to get them, and with ten overs left tonight nutty Dave Warner has already hit four fours in 16! Good luck!