Monday Musings: Willie’s Big Nose(s)

I was going to try to demean a little Willie Mullins’ amazing Saturday at Ayr, his four-timer surely guaranteeing him a first and unique UK NH trainers title for an overseas stable, writes Tony Stafford.

My line was: where were the Gordon Elliott hordes, seven in the previous week’s Grand National and, who can forget, 14 in the Troytown Chase at Navan in November?

I thought maybe the two dominant forces (one rather more than the other it’s true) might have had a chat, but on further research, I see Gordon didn’t run anything in the Ayr race last year either!

So it was left to Willie to run six, mostly horses that had been slogging through heavy ground all winter and now faced with a much faster surface. The shortest-priced, Mr Incredible, refused to jump the first fence from miles behind, and another unseated there, but that was it.

The remaining quartet finished first, for £110k, then fourth, fifth and sixth in the 26-runner race – if they can run 26 around Ayr, why not 40 at Aintree? Only one horse fell.

Here, it’s about time we started to marvel at the skills of Paul Townend, for so long dismissed in some circles as merely an inferior replacement for Ruby Walsh. Like the big-race win on Macdermott, ridden by Danny Mullins, the following three-mile handicap hurdle success on Chosen Witness was also by a nose, clinched in the last stride.

Earlier, multiple Grade 1 hurdle winner Sharjah was coaxed to stay a previously never attempted three miles under 12st in a novice handicap chase in the patient hands of Townend. Might we see the winner in next year’s Grand National as a 12-year-old?

There was a marmite-like divided reaction to the no-fall Grand National debate last weekend. The BHA and no doubt the top Irish trainers, for; others, like Chris Cook of the Racing Post and Geoff Greetham, former boss of Timeform, sharing my view that it’s not really a Grand National anymore. Probably, if anything, the once-feared fences will remain at best as they were last weekend, or even become easier to placate the ever-closer attention of the Animal Welfare adherents.

Gordon Elliott does have entries for Sandown’s end-of-season party on Saturday but unlike in the earlier days of the Pipe/Henderson and Pipe/Nicholls last-day cliff-hangers, his will only add to the potential Irish domination on the day.

The four Mullins horses that took chunks of the money on offer in Saturday’s big race would generally have been hard to assess, mostly stepping up in class. The trainer has an abundance of horses already at the top but many more coming through the grades. How can you (or maybe even he) put a figure on such potential for improvement?

After Sandown, there’s Punchestown of course. I wondered how many of our top trainers will be involved in a competitive way? Nicky Henderson has ten entered at the opening stage, including Aintree winners Jonbon and Sir Gino, slipped in surreptitiously almost into a Mullins-dominated meeting often with up to ten potential contenders in each race.

Mostly, none of the stars was needed to collect the two biggest prizes at Aintree and Ayr.

Dan Skelton seems to be giving it a miss while Paul Nicholls’ trio includes the so far unraced for him but eagerly anticipated €740k buy Coldwell Potter. Jonjo has a quartet in one bumper and we might see Aintree bumper runner-up Tripoli Flyer for Fergal O’Brien. Less likely, there’s an entry for Corach Rambler.

As I said last week, Willie Mullins takes his success with great dignity, but it does tend to get on one’s nerves after the continuing monopoly!

*

The 2024 flat-race season finally got going with Newmarket and Newbury last week and now it’s less than a fortnight to the first two Classic races. If anyone was expecting the Craven Stakes to indicate a potential threat to City Of Troy, they would probably be thinking again.

Richard Hannon had his Haatem ready to make a winning return and last year’s Group 2 Richmond Stakes scorer added another good prize to his tally with an authoritative three-and-a-half length verdict over the Gosdens’ Eben Shaddad. Sighters from the Charlie Appleby and Aidan O’Brien teams were well behind.

When Haatem won the Richmond, it followed an earlier six-and-a-half length demolition by the O’Brien colt in the Superlative Sakes on Newmarket’s July Course. Haatem’s final run coincided with City Of Troy on his next appearance, an all-the-way victory in the Dewhurst Stakes by almost four lengths from Alyanaabi – Haatem was eight-and-a- half lengths back in fifth.

You can still get 4/6 about the brilliant Coolmore horse, his price only buttressed by second favourite Rosallion, trained by Haatem’s handler Richard Hannon. His horses have made a great start to the season, not least winning nice races for long-standing stable owner Julie Wood.

I love her strategy. Rather than keep her good horses, she enjoys racing them and then, even the fillies, sells them on. Last week she had two first time out winners on the same Newbury card, Voyage in the ten-furlong maiden, and Star Style, a Zoustar filly in the seven-furlong newcomers’ race.

Stretching more than five lengths clear of some well-related if less talented fillies, Star Style filled the usual Julie Wood sourcing pattern.

Preferring to buy on her own judgment as foals rather than wait for agents to tell her what’s nice a year later, she happened to take a liking to this filly, who is out of a mare she raced, Sweet Cicely. Star Style will, I’m sure, more than live up to her name.

One agent who is becoming ever more prominent is Sam Sangster, with his horses with Brian Meehan. Last year they had Isaac Shelby as an example of his skills at the sales and, at Newmarket last week, Jayarebe romped home in the Feilden Stakes in the manner of a guaranteed high-class performer.

Up with the pace throughout, he strode clear of some smart types to win by almost four lengths in the fastest time of the day on the drying ground.

Half an hour later Godolphin’s five-year-old Ottoman Fleet gained a repeat victory in the Group 3 Earl of Sefton Stakes, fully extended to hold fast-finishing Astro King, winner of last year’s Cambridgeshire under a record weight, and Hi Royal, last year’s 2000 Guineas runner-up. The two winners carried the same weight of 9st2lb which makes the three-year-old’s performance 10lb superior, allowing for weight-for-age.

He carries the lucky (for Meehan) colours of Iraj Parvizi, whose Dangerous Midge won the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Turf for Meehan at Churchill Downs. Jayarebe has no Classic entries, but the likelihood is that he could be supplemented for the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) at Chantilly.

Later on the card, there was a suggestion of yet another great buy by Sam Sangster when the three-year-old filly Kathmandu outran her 40/1 odds to finish third in the Group 3 Nell Gwyn Stakes behind Pretty Crystal, trained by Richard Fahey, and 1000 Guineas hopeful Dance Sequence, trained by Charlie Appleby.

It was a messy race and many thought Dance Sequence ought to have won. She’s still only 7/1 for the Classic on May 5.

Before the race, Kathmandu’s connections – they go by Sangster and (Ed) Babington and she runs in Robert Sangster’s colours - were already on a winner with their 50 grand purchase. The previous evening, Kathmandu’s two-year-old half-sister by New Bay was bought for 525,000gns to join Godolphin on the first stage of the Craven Breeze-Up sale. That and black type, too.

“We’ve always thought she was good, so we entered her three weeks ago for the French 1000 Guineas. The decision on whether she runs, as ever, will be left to Brian.” Quite right too!

- TS

Monday Musings: Fences

We wait all year for the Grand National, anticipating the sternest examination in jump racing anywhere in the world, writes Tony Stafford. Such is the conditioned attitude that the great race has engendered over so many years, owners who have been around for a while, when lucky enough to own a top steeplechaser, are more often than not terrified of taking up the challenge.

We, or rather they, consider the fearsome fences, like the Chair, Becher’s Brook and the rest, and shrink away. Are they wise? Well let me give you a definitive if an admittedly after-timing answer. No, they are not!

The three races over said fences, Thursday’s Fox Hunters, Friday’s Topham and Saturday’s Randox-sponsored £1 million feature, carried big fields by day to day standards, even if the latest modification (or rather mutilation) of the big race has reduced the maximum field to  34 – denuded further with two on-the-day defections on Saturday - more about that later.

The Chair did prove too much of a jumping test for two of the 24 runners among Thursday’s hunter chasers – we were used to seeing 30 - two of them falling at that point. Then again, one was a 50/1 shot, the other was 66’s.

So the biggest of the 16 obstacles and which, along with the water in front of the stands, is one of only two to be jumped once, would surely take more fallers over the next two days. It didn’t, and nor did any of the other 15 obstacles over all three.

Thus, I’m sure we had the first ever Grand National where there had not been a single faller. True, four horses unseated their riders, ironically one of them was last year’s winner Corach Rambler, who continued only briefly having left Derek Fox on the deck at the opening obstacle days after the jockey had recovered from injury just in time to aim for the repeat. Corach Rambler actually did fall, unencumbered by a jockey, at the very next fence and then was seen veering to the right having refused at the third. Three-in-one, unseated, fell and refused at the first three obstacles!

Seven were pulled up, so that left 21 of the 32 starters to complete the course. In the Fox Hunters, in addition to those two fallers at the Chair (fence three), three unseated and seven pulled up, leaving ten finishers. The Topham also had 24 starters, one of which unseated and six more pulled up leaving an almost unfathomable 17 (71%) to get round. These are unprecedented figures, especially on soft or heavy going.

In my usual way of securing a comprehensive analysis, I thought a quick look back two decades to one of my most memorable races, 2004, the year that Graham Lee rode that wonderful race on Ginger McCain’s Amberleigh House, would provide a useful yardstick.

Graham’s ride that day was the Grand National performance I always considered the best I’d seen. He coolly took a pull when most jockeys would have gone hell for leather at the third-last, saving enough in the testing ground to come out on top. Graham rode quite a few winners for me in his Wilf Storey days and it’s a poignant thought that he suffered his horrific injuries after switching to the flat.

The ground was testing that week twenty years ago, but times for the three respective races, the Fox Hunters, Topham and Grand National were all significantly faster than the 2024 versions. This year’s Fox Hunters took around 18 seconds longer to complete; the Topham 12 seconds more and the Grand National seven seconds more even though the course had dried significantly over the previous 24 hours.

The 2004 Fox Hunters had six fallers, two brought down and two pulled up. The Topham that year had eight fallers, two brought down and one refusal while four horses pulled up. In Amberleigh House’s Grand National, nine fell, two were brought down, two refused, seven unseated rider and eight pulled up.

All the modifications have done is to make it little more than a park race. High-class chasers, especially those so redolent of the Irish steeplechasing scene, can continue year to year, mopping up the many Graded and Listed races around their country and maintaining a status that guarantees a place in next year’s field.

Here, the good horses have to run in the few well-endowed but ultra-competitive high-class handicap chases in the calendar like the Coral Gold Cup at Newbury in early December or the Welsh Grand National, also sponsored by Coral at Chepstow on the day after Boxing Day.

Nassalam has been the unwitting vehicle for the grossest example of a handicapping error from his win in the Welsh National, and for once I’m not blaming the official it concerns, but our system. Nassalam had already won a handicap chase at Chepstow a month earlier when he went back to the track for the 3m5f feature. Gary Moore’s gelding was always in contention but in heavy ground, as they moved out of the back straight, his mastery was already evident.

In an eerie foreshadowing of Saturday’s big race, there were no fallers that day at Chepstow, largely because by the time most of them had got to the end of the back straight, they had already given up. Of the 19 horses that set off, five completed, with Iron Bridge off levels with the winner, nearest but beaten 34 lengths.

Iron Bridge, trained by Jonjo O’Neill in the Hemmings Racing colours, and at eight two years senior to Nassalam, hadn’t won a race for some time and his best chase form, far from in top races, had been in novice handicap chases. If the handicapper had been able to wait until the four other horses that completed ran again, he might have acted a little less extravagantly. None of the quartet has done a thing since. All of them were probably bottomed by their run behind Nassalam, so to rate that as a 16lb improvement was simply horrific.

I think Gary Moore, brave enough to let him take his chance in the Grand National even after pulling up in between at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup, has a very strong case to appeal. By going to 161 he was giving weight to a former Gold Cup winner in Minella Indo on Saturday. That one finished third, behind and just ahead of the Gordon Elliott pair Delta Work and Galvin, both habitual competitors at the top level, as well as winner I Am Maximus. Last time out, he had given Vanillier, the 2023 runner-up 12lb and a 14-length beating in a four-runner Grade 3 chase at Fairyhouse.

I Am Maximus received 2lb from Nassalam on Saturday, but had the Grand National weight assessor had available evidence of Fairyhouse to hand, he would have been conceding 3lb to Nassalam. I think having seen him start at 50/1 and after making a couple of mistakes, yet still valiantly completed, the UK handicappers might start adjusting their reaction to what have been hitherto perceived as key races.

If in a 19-runner handicap like the Welsh National it is obvious that only a few horses handled conditions, a more measured approach might be in order. Horses like I Am Maximus, Delta Work (close to dual Grand National winner Tiger Roll more than once), Minella Indo and Galvin should not be receiving weight from a horse with a single performance that sticks out like a sore thumb.

Elsewhere, great credit must go to David Maxwell. Most 45-year-old estate agents would have been in the hospitality area if inclined to visit the Grand National. Instead, he bought Ain’t That A Shame, 105 lengths behind Corach Rambler in last year’s National under Rachael Blackmore and pulled up more recently in the Munster National and guided him into sixth place – and a £30k instalment on the purchase price - only 15.75 lengths adrift of I Am Maximus. Rachael, on the third Minella Indo, still had the edge in the Henry de Bromhead team, so a good piece of business all round.

Most interesting for me, having put forward one of J P McManus’s other runners, Limerick Lace, as my selection last week, it was a shock to see her price contract to 7/1 joint-favourite with the winner.

She finished tenth after making some mistakes, beginning when interfered with, as far as I could see on a single viewing, at the Canal Turn first time round. She was going on very well at the finish, and if she does come back next year, whatever happens in the meantime (almost) I’ll be with her.

Changing tack, something though has to be done about a situation where two trainers can know from months out they can share half the Grand National field between them without fear of serious challenge. This also prevents other potential candidates lower down the handicap scale – usually the best chance for one of ours – to get in. I do think a cap on the maximum number of runners for a trainer or owner, or both, might well need to be an interim measure before trainers here totally pull up the white flag.

Dan Skelton, Ben Pauling and a few others have stepped forward to bolster the long-established leaders Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls. Irishman Fergal O’Brien is well entrenched in Gloucestershire and all five of those talented men had winners over the three days last week.

In a way the £500,000 first prize, along with £200,000, £100,000 and £65,000 for the next three places does nothing for the race, except in enabling people to say it’s the biggest prize in UK jump racing. So what?! It’s our race and we need our top and highly skilled trainers and their owners to have a shot of winning it.

A first step would be to let owners know that the old antipathy against running in the race for fear of an early end to a jumper’s career is no longer valid. If it always gives an imbalance to the trainers' championship too, that’s a side effect. When Aidan O’Brien habitually contests the flat trainers' title with the Gosdens and others, he needs to win Classics and numerous Group 1 races to make up for the numerical advantage of his British counterparts. There’s no such balancing act in jumping – it’s Willie first, the rest nowhere!

On the point of non-runners, Gordon Elliott reduced his big team by one via a vet’s certificate, but Chambard, trained by Venetia William, was withdrawn on a self-certificate. For a normal race I would say the self-cert rule is fine, but for a race like the Grand National, surely not. For contests of a certain value and status, specific reasons should be required. Two horses were denied the chance to run for the big pot and I bet their connections are fuming!

- TS

Monday Musings: My Idea of the National Winner is…

It’s a horrible thought, but if all the horses eligible to run before today’s five-day stage for the Randox Grand National stood their ground and then took up the engagement on Thursday morning, only six of the drastically reduced field this year, from 40 to 34, will be trained in the UK, writes Tony Stafford.

Even more salutary, between them, Gordon Elliott (ten) and Willie Mullins (eight) will have more than a 50% chance of knocking off the £500,000 first prize and the better than acceptable place money from second, £200k, down to five grand for tenth.

The inertia once horses get to a certain level – and this time there’s no fault being found about handicapping on either side of the Irish Sea - means it takes a lot for, say, a 150-rated animal to drop out of his guaranteed place in the line-up from year to year. That’s why they race so infrequently – where else can you have a shot at half a million?

The lucky six this time would be supplemented if the big two fine down their options. Six of the next ten are trained over here so it could at least bring, if not a level playing field, one that offers a hint of promise. Of the guaranteed sextet, connections of the 11-year-old Latenightpass will be on a winner even before the gelding lines up.

Fourth under multiple champion and overall point-to-point lady record holder Gina Andrews in last year’s Foxhunters at the National meeting over the same fences, the gelding will be her first ride in a Grand National. He’s safely in on 24, and Gina, the multiple point-to-point champion and by far the winning-most lady rider in that sphere, rides the family gelding for husband Tom Ellis, king of the point-to-point trainers.

In racecard order as they stood this morning, the top two from the UK are number 3 Nassalam and number 8 Corach Rambler. After his excellent third behind Galopin Des Champs in last month’s Gold Cup, Corach Rambler is only a 4/1 shot to repeat last year’s victory for Lucinda Russell. Nassalam concedes him 2lb because of two spectacular performances around Chepstow in December but was then pulled up in the Gold Cup, so the market’s preference is understandable.

But such was Nassalam’s astonishing demolition job on the Welsh Grand National field in his last race before Cheltenham – unfortunately causing Gary Moore’s gelding that abrupt jump in his rating – he must be a contender especially as we’ll be having heavy ground bar a miracle with the weather by Saturday.

Nassalam also looked good around the big Aintree fences in the autumn, staying on well from a long way back in the Grand Sefton over a woefully inadequate 2m5f, gathering momentum as the race neared its climax. He’s one of the best equipped to handle both ground and distance in the field and although he did carry a big weight in the 3m6f Welsh National, his mark soared another 16lb after that.

I reckon every 1lb will be worth two under these conditions, so with regret I’ve been looking down the list. Sadly, apart from the obvious claims of Corach Rambler – and repeat winners aren’t exactly unheard of - even if the ground might not be totally to his liking, I’ve landed on an Irish contender.

The same age as Nassalam, that’s seven, and significantly the 2022 winner Noble Yeats was also that age at the time, I find it hard to get away from the Gavin Cromwell-trained and, need I say it, J P McManus-owned mare Limerick Lace.

Limerick Lace would be the first of her sex to win the race since 1951 and indeed only three mares, Shannon Lass (James Hackett) in 1902, 1948 Sheila’s Cottage (40/1) trained by Nevile Crump, and Nickel Coin (50/1) for Jack O’Donoghue, won the race in the entire 20th Century. It will take something special to quell that statistic but maybe Limerick Lace is that entity.

She had the effrontery to intrude on Elliott’s second most heinous action as a trainer when he supplied 14 of the 20 runners in Navan’s Troytown Chase in November. Limerick Lace didn’t win the three-miler on heavy ground but got within a couple of lengths of Coko Beach, who did, a fair old run for a 6yo.

She will meet Coko Beach on 2lb better terms, fair enough, and equally being put up 6lb for that was entirely understandable. But she’s run twice and won twice since then, both in the UK. Firstly, she came over to Doncaster for a mares’ chase and bolted up by six lengths with her mark already on the 147 allotted after Navan, and that remained unchanged.

Then she took in the Grade 2 2m5f Mares’ Chase at Cheltenham last month and won it nicely from Willie Mullins’ Dinoblue, who was rated 13lb her superior. Cromwell’s mare did a touch of tail-flashing but showed plenty of resolution and her official mark is now 153, but a bargain 147 for this early closing race only.

In all she has five wins from ten starts over fences with three seconds and a third as back-up. I’m going for a rarity, but one that did happen twice in the first five years of my life – I wasn’t out quite in time for Shannon Lass! Limerick Lace to beat Nassalam and Corach Rambler.

**

My copy of Horses in Training finally came on Friday and I’ve enjoyed trying to work out which stable has the most horses, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Inevitably, we have to guess a bit as two of the biggest strings each year decline sending full lists. The Gosdens have 149 three-year-olds and up but are keeping their two-year-olds a secret while Richard Fahey won’t tell us a thing.

Generally, the boys with more than 200 in their care are the ones that will be challenging for top honours most of the time. But while not yet at that rarified atmosphere numerically, one intriguing name which has a lasting place in Grand National history, is undergoing a re-vamp.

I noticed his list on first skim through but then when wanting to look again, couldn’t find it. The book is in alphabetical order, but Dr Richard Newland and joint licensee Jamie Insole are sandwiched between Tina Jackson and Iain Jardine.

Ten years ago, I backed the doctor’s Grand National winner, Pineau De Re. Now he and Jamie have 100 horses in their care and are obviously going much more seriously at the flat. Last year’s 73 were all older horses. This time, of their 100, 20 are juveniles and all bar one was acquired at the sales, at prices between 16 grand and 110k.

They joined forces late last season, by the end of which they had four wins from their first six runners on the flat. A further four have come at the more sustainable rate of ten per cent this year. The jumpers have provided the partnership with five wins from 77 runs. Until the switch-around, Dr Newland alone had 18 jumps wins from 158 runners.

Insole, 26, is from an Irish family with plenty of NH riding history behind it. He grew up, some might say, curiously in Billericay in deepest Essex but has been involved in the sport for most of his life from adolescence. After jobs with such as Alan King, he went the whole hog into flat racing as a pupil assistant to Charlie Hills.

Of all the stables that have caught my attention, in Grand National week I can’t stop thinking that if someone like the doctor (and his owners) have invested the best part of £1million at the sales to get this embryo partnership under way, they must have the utmost faith in their new recruit. I can’t wait for their first juvenile runner. Royal Ascot maybe?

- TS

Monday Musings: Emollient

At any time over the past 20-odd years you would never have believed it possible, writes Tony Stafford. But when Tower Of London came with a breathtaking run from the back under Ryan Moore to win the Dubai Gold Cup, there was a beaming Michael Tabor on hand to welcome the Aidan O’Brien-trained colt into the winner’s enclosure.

Back home in the UK, I needed a second take as Nick Luck came across to interview him. “Congratulations”, said Luck. “Thank you, it’s my first time here”, replied Tabor.

“Your first time at Meydan?”, continued the interviewer. “Not just at Meydan, my first time ever in Dubai. It’s fantastic, not just the racecourse, the whole of Dubai!”

Whether Michael would have been quite as amiable following a third career bomb from Auguste Rodin in the £2.7milion to the winner Sheema Classic just over three hours later is immaterial. He said it and if the £400-odd grand victory for Tower Of London was chicken-feed in relation to the riches on offer later on, it still made the journey a success for Tabor and a number of elated fellow travellers celebrating the victory in the unsaddling enclosure afterwards.

For those two decades at the start of the millennium, Coolmore, especially Michael Tabor, had been sworn racecourse adversaries of the men from Dubai, largely in the person of Sheikh Mohammed Al Rashid bin Maktoum, Ruler of that Emirate.

Their mild-mannered if ultra-competitive trainer Aidan O’Brien would never have viewed the rivalry with anything like the fierceness of his owner, but I think we should applaud one man for the emollient qualities that made Saturday’s moment possible.

Step forward Charlie Appleby, the always-amiable Devonian who took over the training of half of Godolphin’s UK team. This occurred as a result of the misdeeds of Mahmood al Zarooni and his proven use of illicit means to propel his already formidable horses even further forward. Saeed bin Suroor was, and remains, supervising the other gradually shrinking portion.

One of the horses found to have been doped – but not at the time of his biggest success – was the 2012 St Leger winner Encke. It was in the spring of the following year that the eight-year punishment was handed down to the Dubai national. Ban served, he started to train again domestically with a much smaller team.

Appleby was al Zarooni’s assistant at the time of Encke’s St Leger and the biggest effect of that victory was that it denied Camelot, winner of that year’s 2000 Guineas and Derby, of what would have been the first Triple Crown in the UK since Vincent O’Brien and Nijinsky in 1970.

Al Zarooni’s ban came following a BHA inspection the following year after the St Leger found 11 horses testing positive to the presence of anabolic steroids in their systems. The steroids, he said, were brought back in his suitcase from the UAE, adding he “didn’t know they were prohibited”.

By the time of the ban, al Zarooni had won three races, two at the 2013 Craven meeting and another in the same week at Wolverhampton. Appleby took over soon after and sent out 80 winners that season. After almost two years off the track after his Classic success, Encke, still an entire, had three placed runs under the Appleby banner before disappearing without a trace.

The Appleby-Coolmore thawing of relations began with the mutual respect that Charlie and Aidan O’Brien invariably showed each other for their respective successes in major races. Also, Appleby’s and Ryan Moore’s children know each other very well. Charlie had no qualms about regularly congratulating Aidan and the owners, most often Michael Tabor, for their successes and Aidan responded in kind. Images of their mutual celebrations at Santa Anita and the like are still fresh in the memory.

Last year, there was the usual triumphal season for Coolmore and Aidan with yet another Derby, and other achievements, for Auguste Rodin. Contrastingly, it was the first time for a while that Appleby’s Classic generation had been below par. Last year’s two-year-olds will need to step up in the major races in 2024.

It didn’t take long though for Appleby to enjoy himself on his own terms. Despite struggling with periodic absences through his career, the Dubawi gelding Rebel’s Romance had proved himself a high-class performer, making the Breeders’ Cup Turf race in October 2022, his ninth win in only 12 starts.

After three disappointing performances last year he got back on track in a Listed race at Kempton in December and even though he followed up with a £1 million-plus pot in Doha last month he was allowed to start at 25/1. So now it’s 12 wins in 18, and £6.173m in prizemoney. Not bad!

While Auguste Rodin languished at the rear, reminiscent of his Guineas and King George meltdowns from last year, William Buick always had Rebel’s Romance in touch behind the front-running duo of Point Lonsdale, Auguste’s pacemaker, and the Japanese Stars On Earth. That Point Lonsdale, a 100/1 shot, could finish 6th, picking up almost £100k, shows just how far below expectations the favourite ran.

Hopefully, as last year, that first comeback run will be forgotten when he gets fully into stride. Nowadays it’s more a case of what a potential stallion has won rather the times he has lost that govern his marketability and, as a son of Deep Impact, there’ll always be room for him in Japan. They can afford him too!

Back in the Sheema Classic, Buick merely had to go past the front pair and wait for the expected late runners, but none came. Then a half-hour later, Charlie was just as delighted when the former Bob Baffert-trained Laurel River, now handled in Dubai by Bhupat Seemar made a mockery of the £10 million Dubai World Cup, never looking like relinquishing the long lead jockey Tadhg O’Shea initiated early in the ten-furlong dirt race.

The first prize of £5m should equate to about half a million quid for the rider who a decade or so ago regularly came to ride work for Brian Meehan at Manton, ostensibly in his job as he recalls it as number two (or more accurately surely three behind the late Hamdan Al Maktoum’s first jockey Paul Hanagan and recently retired Dane O’Neill). I always found Tadhg a friendly young man. It was a surprise at the time when he decided to go – like so many other fringe jockeys – to Dubai. He’s Beyond the Fringe now.

Laurel River was allowed to start at 17/2 amid a deluge of money for the Kazakhstan entry – sounds more like one of the heats of the Eurovision Song Contest – Kabirkhan, winner of 11 of his previous 12 starts.

A son of California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and 2016 Dubai World Cup victor, Kabirkhan was a $12k buy from bargain basement Book 5 at Keeneland yearling sales in 2021. Sent to Kazakhstan where he went unbeaten at two, he was similarly never finding anything remotely to test him in his three-year-old season in Russia.

Now in the care of legendary locally based American handler Doug Watson and ridden by another of the long-term second-string jockeys Pat Dobbs, he was perfectly poised on the rail as Laurel River took off.

While Laurel River just went further and further away, the favourite faded and it was left to last year’s winner, the Japanese Ushba Tesoro, who came from miles behind to take second. Not quite the riches from 2023, but still worth nigh on £2 million for connections of the seven-year-old entire.

Frankie Dettori was back in ninth on Bob Baffert’s Newgate but, earlier, restored to the Godolphin blue, because amazingly he, unlike Buick, can ride at 8st5lb – given a few weeks’ notice, of course – he rode Appleby’s filly Star Of Mystery into second place behind six-year-old California Spangle, trained in Hong Kong by Tony Cruz, in the Al Quoz Sprint.

It wasn’t all gloom for Baffert. His colt Muth, by Good Magic (2nd Kentucky Derby) won the Arkansas Derby comfortably at Oaklawn Park. That race was worth £620k and Baffert used it successfully as the prep back in 2015 when his American Pharoah became the first US Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Justify in 2018 is the most recent of 13 horses to achieve that feat. He, like American Pharoah, is based at Ashford stud in Kentucky, Coolmore’s US base. Justify’s sons and daughters are already showing extraordinary ability, led of course by City Of Troy.

The winter 2000 Guineas favourite had his first look at a racecourse in 2024 at Leopardstown (re-scheduled from waterlogged Naas) a week ago. From the time he did what he did to his useful opponents in the Superlative Stakes at Newmarket last July, I’ve been convinced he’s the best two-year-old I’ve seen.

The Dewhurst win was just as emphatic, his all-the-way near four-length margin earning a 125 rating. Roll on May!

Talking of the Derby, there was a hark back to another time when an old-style “chalk jockey” won the race. Back in the height of Covid, the 2020 running was won by Serpentine, 25/1, ridden by the unknown, possibly even to his parents, Emmet McNamara, to the quietest ever reception for a Derby winner. I’m sure Bernard Kantor would have been quite bemused, consulting his race card as he supervised formalities after the race.

Serpentine, now a seven-year-old, won a 10-furlong Group 3 race at Rosehill, Australia, over the weekend. By Galileo, he was having his 18th race and first success since his Derby triumph, the last twelve following a gelding operation in March two years ago. He is now trained by close Coolmore friend Gai Waterhouse and joint licence-holder Adrian Bott.

  • TS

Monday Musings: Waiting…

W H Smith said the 2024 version of Horses In Training would be available for dispatching from March 20th, writes Tony Stafford. Normally, I would buy my copy a few days earlier than that, at Cheltenham, but this time I wasn’t there, and rather inconveniently forgot to ask the Editor, who was, to collect one for me.

Age doesn’t help. A few years ago, I bought a copy from the Racing Post shop there and duly left it in the box that was obligingly made available – necessary as I’d not bothered to book a press badge for the week.

WHS said – or rather its web site did, it seems they don’t have any actual people working for them nowadays – that it would take two or three days to arrive. It hasn’t. I’m a bit worried because on the same ordering page, they still have Horses In Training 2023 available at the same price. Few authors can share editor Graham Dench’s smugness that an out-of-date issue is as valuable as the new one.

You might ask why I should be worried that a company with the worldwide reputation of W H Smith to protect could be thought to be that slipshod. Last year, when the wonderful Sir Rupert Mackeson arranged through his sources to get me HIT 2023, it duly arrived from the year before so I’m holding (or not) my breath. They did send the correct one out eventually.

Why am I so het up about it? Well, it’s the start of the flat and I always like to look at which yards have accumulated more horses than before and note the trainers who prefer not to reveal their equine strengths.

In general, the big get bigger, the small struggle and it needs something a little different for a trainer to make an early impact. As George Boughey has shown over the past few years, being youthful as well as able comes into it, and he was up to 165 officially last year. I wonder how many in 2024 – no don’t tell me – I’ll wait until tomorrow or whenever the priceless volume arrives.

When I was introduced by our mutual friend Michelle Fernandes to Dylan Cunha at the April sale in Newmarket last year, I confess I hadn’t heard of him, or if I had, it would have skimmed over my consciousness like so many things do nowadays. But looking at HIT after our chat, I saw he had 17 horses in his yard in Windsor Road, Newmarket.

Dylan is from South Africa and left the land of his birth a couple of years ago to see if he could make it over here. A winning Group 1 trainer back home, he had chanced him arm but with the help of the highly-talented Silver Sword in the yard – an impressive winner of the last race at York’s Ebor meeting last year – he made quite a stir.

Needing a larger premises as the numbers crept up, he did a deal to take over the famed Phantom House Stables of William Jarvis when the last trainer of that revered surname decided to call time – understandably keeping the family home on the premises.

A great friend and contemporary from Harrow school of William Haggas, it must have become in part a frustration to see his pal’s career travelling in the opposite direction, perhaps one day even to the extent that Haggas might make it to champion trainer, but it will need a slowing-down from the Gosdens and Aidan O’Brien, maybe even Roger Varian, to permit that.

The move sorted, Dylan was always active at the sales and by this point he has 50 horses under his care – I’m not sure whether HIT will have caught up with it. Last week I read an article in the admirable South African Monday to Friday racing publication Turf Talk that published an interview with the family man who is doing his home country proud.

It revealed that he was running a two-year-old in the Brocklesby on the opening day of the flat. Traditionally the first juvenile race of the season from its time until 1964 at Lincoln racecourse, it often brings out a nice debutant.

Zminiature, named for his size but clearly not his ability, dealt with his 14 opponents in authoritative style, expertly guided home by Rhys Clutterbuck, nicely settled into his new role as Dylan’s stable jockey. They also had a winner together with 9/1 shot Gogo Yubari the previous afternoon at Lingfield.

Zminiature was the first of his 25 juveniles to be seen out and the win gives him the enviable position of putting down a marker for the rest of them when getting close to running. I do fear for the South African bookmakers who must have been subjected to a bit of a hammering from this well-touted, over there at least, first-day winner.

Another new partnership on the opening day provided an even more significant, and unexpected, result for the talented David Egan, new first rider for Amo Racing. David had spent some of the weeks leading up to Saturday with a few choice rides and wins in the US for Amo’s boss, football agent Kia Joorabchian, and this first UK winner together since the announcement of their new partnership couldn’t have been better timed for the rider.

The five-year-old Mr Professor, a 33/1 shot, was one of seven Amo horses listed in Alice Haynes’ 2023 team, but they, like so many others, have moved on. Likewise, Alice, who has added the spacious Machell Place to her existing yard around the corner at Cadland stables at the foot of Warren Hill in Newmarket as her numbers increase.

Dominic Ffrench Davis has always been a popular man with his fellow trainers and one who has proved he can succeed over jumps and on the flat. This year will be his 31st with a licence and promises to be his best yet.

When the 2023 book came out, it listed just one Amo horse. In the event, 32 individual horses for the mercurial owner won 16 races, double Dominic’s previous best from 14 years ago. His prizemoney haul of £480k was almost five times his existing record.

Victory in the Lincoln already has Dominic above £80k for the year, a figure he has only three times previously exceeded, with a maximum of just over £100k in 2022. Egan meanwhile cannot wait to partner King Of Steel, still in training as a four-year-old with Roger Varian, for whom he has ridden so many winners.

Having finished second to Auguste Rodin in the Derby, King Of Steel won at Royal Ascot and again on Champions Day there, gaining a first Group 1. Where Kevin Stott did not gel with the owner for whatever reason, the ultra-sharp Egan, whose father John is still riding well into his 50’s when he has time between his bloodstock dealing, will be hoping his relationship with Kia lasts rather longer.

The new season also provided a big welcome back for Silvestre de Sousa, after his ban in the ultra-sensitive world of Hong Kong racing. The triple UK champion returned with a winner on his first ride at Newcastle less than a fortnight ago, and he is up to four after Varian’s Charyn, three times toiling last year in the wake of Paddington, took his chance to win the first turf flat race of the year – a Listed affair – under de Sousa.

Races like the Lockinge were immediately mentioned on his likely agenda and de Sousa, who has ridden off 8st3lb over the past year, is one of those rare creatures that can do light when a top trainer needs one. He will be hard to resist in such circumstances and might even make a play at challenging William Buick and Oisin Murphy for the title.

- TS

Monday Musings: Some Absurde Numbers

There was plenty of talk last week about what a numbers game racing has become, writes Tony Stafford. Cheltenham became hostage once more to Irish stables, Willie Mullins leading the way of course. I have come to enjoy his successes if only that it gives me another chance to show that in his constant interviews, he is the most polite, unassuming man you could get for all that success. Then again there was plenty of excitement going around after Ballyburn.

Dan and Harry Skelton were second only to Willie, and if Dan could usurp his long-time mentor Paul Nicholls and win a first trainers’ championship that would also be nice, joining brother Harry who was champion jockey a few years ago.

No, but it’s two other different numbers that have taken my fancy: 11 (and a little bit) and 3,000. One concerning race times – the other an auction price that shows even modest investments can sometimes buy into some exceedingly desirable bloodlines at a time when everyone is there to have a crack.

First the race times. I think last week provided some of the most testing ground ever to have been seen, certainly since before the days of racecourse drainage systems.

I can now reveal that one race last week was run in a slower time than any of the Grand Nationals since 1883. So, what could it be? The ground was certainly heavy for the running of the 4m2f Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter on Saturday, with Irish-style water on the course in places.

The winner went round in 9 minutes 43.10 seconds, slower than any of the Aintree showpieces since Red Marauder and Richard Guest led home three surviving rivals in a funereal 11 minutes, 0.1 seconds 23 years ago.

But it wasn’t that time that stands supreme. Hexham operated last week with a going stick figure of 3.2 - I cannot remember one of those. It was heavy at the corresponding meeting in 2023, when the four-mile handicap chase was completed in 9 minutes 57.57 seconds. Last week it took Breeze Of Wind a mind-numbing 11 minutes 0.20 seconds, equivalent to between three and four furlongs extra in distance.

If you think he must have been left all alone in that race – far from it. Five of the six runners were still in contention coming to the final fence as the rather unlikely distances over the line reveal: 1.25 lengths, short head, neck and then 3.75 lengths to the final finisher.

You might also expect any horse to have undertaken the gruelling examination of Hexham that day to need to stay at home for a few weeks of R and R. Not a bit of it. Philip Kirby’s Heritier De Sivola galloped clear of his rivals to win Thursday’s three-mile handicap chase eased down by 32 lengths. Two days later at Newcastle, carrying a 7lb penalty for the Hexham win, he bolted up by more than five lengths, again on heavy ground on one of the country’s most demanding tracks.

Reverting to the time question, it took Breeze Of Wind and chums one-tenth of a second more to complete the four miles of the BK Racing Hexham Marathon Handicap even than Red Marauder to win his Grand National in the days when the big race was a full 4m4f. His time had not been exceeded since 1883 when owner-rider Count Karel Kinsky won on Zoedone in 11 minutes 39 seconds flat.

With the ground everywhere – except the amazing track that is Kempton – susceptible to the slightest shower, so high is the water table, fears for the prospective going for the Lincoln this week and the Grand National next month are realistic.

Now for the other number. Imagine you are at a bloodstock sale and have your eye on a two-year-old filly – in this case from the remaining dispersal of the late Sir Robert Ogden’s horses - and are waiting for lot 618, a filly by Showcasing.

But you’ve also looked at lot 617, a daughter of Kingman – stud fee 125k – and accept she will be way out of your price range. There was a negative about her, though, as she had scarred knees and the white obviously scared everyone off risking the unraced two-year-old.

But Julia Feilden had done her research and found out that before he died in March 2022, Sir Robert sanctioned a £20,000 operation to help correct a serious physical problem with the filly’s forelegs, the impact of the splints leaving unsightly (to some) white hairs on her knees as a consequence.

While wanting to wait for her number one pick, Julia watched in amazement as the bidding stalled on the Kingman filly, and after she stepped in, stopped, to her amazement, at her bid of 3,000gns.

The following lot was knocked down to Sam Sangster for 50k – “miles beyond my limit”, recalls Julia, but that filly has won already, second time out in a novice for the Brian Meehan stable at Southwell and looks set for a decent career as a three-year-old.

Already named when she bought her, Julia formed a syndicate of which she is a ten-per-cent shareholder. On Saturday night at Southwell, having learnt her trade on turf in the summer/autumn, she brought her all-weather form figures to 3211, adding to a recent Chelmsford success.

Dylan Hogan – “either he or my daughter Shelley ride her every day – she’s very buzzy” came from a long way back to get up near the line, Notre Dame showing lots of speed. Rated only 60, Julia reckons she needs to win on the turf to maximise future financial potential. But whatever the truth of that, it does prove that for the professionals, there’s always one that defies logic and slips though the net.

**

The thorny question of how the Irish do so well at Cheltenham was broached upon by the BHA’s Julie Harrington in an earnest publication even as the one-sided (though not quite as much as in some years) battle continued. I think a good proportion of the blame falls to the issue of how our handicappers treat the Irish and then our own horses.

To illustrate my point, you get the feeling that the BHA team hate horses winning races. It seems their brief is to allow one win, maybe two and then to put the handbrake on.

Last week I felt so sorry for Sophie Leech and family and their owners for the treatment of their Madara after he won at the Dublin Racing Festival. Only one of three runners from the UK to go over there in early February he added to a nice win at Cheltenham by collecting a valuable 2m1f chase at Leopardstown.

Just a five-year-old, the ex-French gelding came with a flying run that day under James Reveley, beating Henry de Bromhead’s Path d’Oroux by 2.5 lengths. The BHA handicapper’s response was to raise his mark from 133 to 143. Meanwhile the runner-up went up by only 3lb!

In the end neither enjoyed the Grand Annual at the Festival, possibly because of the ground, Madara fading away and the de Bromhead horse always at the back.

Another ridiculous piece of handicapping was the mark allotted to Ebor winner and Melbourne Cup seventh Absurde, a 110 flat-racer. From spring last year, this six-year-old was given a programme that suggested just how highly he was regarded in the Willie Mullins stable targeting big prizes under both codes.

Phase one jumping – aimed at getting a handicap mark – as lenient as possible, so he wins his novice at Killarney in May first-time out very easily at 2/7. Phase one flat – Royal Ascot where he was second to stable-companion Vauban in the Copper Horse Handicap, but 7.5 lengths behind the winner.

Phase two jumping – Listed race at Galway, sixth of nine. Phase two flat, wins Ebor off 104 under Frankie Dettori.

Phase three flat, 7th in Melbourne Cup off new flat mark of 110.

Phases three and four jumping, pulled up behind Coldwell Potter, the 740k buy from the Elliott stable; then 4th at levels and 33/1 behind Ballyburn. Now he’s eligible for a mark.

Phase five, with 138 jumping compared to 110 flat – so with probably at least 12lb and likely a bit more to spare, he shows brilliant speed to stop yet another well-laid-out Skelton fancy going up the hill. Too easy – if you’re Willie Mullins and you have an Ebor winner to work with!

As if that wasn’t enough, ten of the only 13 finishers in the Boodles Handicap Hurdle for four-year-olds were Irish-trained. The Noel George team – with a McManus horse the handicappers dropped 10lb off one run of evidence, Milan Tino – and I’m not sure if he counts as training in France, was 6th; Jack Jones with an ex-Joseph O’Brien horse (he trained the winner) An Bradan Feasa was 8th; and Fergal O’Brien with the Jim Bolger capture Teorie was 10th.

In the old days trainers aiming at Cheltenham used to try to buy from the October HIT sale when there was just the Triumph Hurdle and its field of up to 30 runners to aim at. Now with this handicap to target, the Irish get going well before that. There needs to be a much better co-ordinated programme of worthwhile juvenile contests from August onwards as horses need at least three runs to get a handicap mark.

- TS

Monday Musings: Mr Vango and a Wincanton Fandango

So we’ve seen the first day declarations for Cheltenham, writes Tony Stafford. Ballyburn was duly taken out of the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle leaving Willie Mullins with only six of the 12 declared runners. At time of writing, he has 13 of the 24 in Ballyburn’s race, the 2m5f opener on Wednesday.

As four of those run tomorrow, he can only have a maximum of another eight to help with the owners’ badges – you get a lovely lunch there. More’s the pity, I won’t be partaking of it myself this year.

Willie has contented himself with just the one back-up to the now unbackable State Man in tomorrow’s Champion Hurdle. He also runs Zarak The Brave for the double greens, Messrs Mounir and Souede, one of his host of top juveniles from last season. He twice contested big races – though not the Triumph – against Lossiemouth and did well to run her close in a Grade 1 at Punchestown last May.

The home team of four is emotionally led by the wonderful Not So Sleepy, not just the best, but most versatile 12-year-old in training, still around 100-rated on the flat and twice a winner of the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth, last December switched to Sandown, for Hughie Morrison and Lady Blyth.

That he could run away from such as Love Envoi, 2nd to Honeysuckle in the Mares’ Hurdle last year, You Wear It Well, successful in the mares’ novice in 2023, and Goshen, back to life with a win at Exeter on Friday, tells his quality. As indeed does his official rating of 158, easily the highest of the home contingent and third only behind State Man (169) and Irish Point (159), winner of his last four with progressive ease for Gordon Elliott.

Last week I expressed my sympathy and embarrassment at not realising the extent of Mark Bradstock’s illness to which he succumbed a few days after his final recorded training success with Mr Vango at Exeter.

Knowing his lifelong determination and just how deeply the late Lord Oaksey felt about Cheltenham and National Hunt racing in general, it was always long odds-on that his daughter and Mark’s widow Sara would keep the show going and that he would take up his engagement in the 3m6f National Hunt Chase for amateur riders.

It will be her first runner since, but she had the training of Carruthers for three seasons in point-to-points after he retired from the NH scene as a previous Hennessy Gold Cup winner and will have been right there in the middle of the training of their Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Coneygree.

If that horse could be prepared by their small team to see off the might of Willie Mullins, Noel Meade, Jonjo O’Neill, Oliver Sherwood, Paul Nicholls, Alan King, Venetia Williams, Nicky Henderson, Henry De Bromhead et al nine years ago, then why not a repeat against one each from Willie and nephew Emmet Mullins, Gordon Elliott and a trio from home stables of Ben Pauling, Anthony Honeyball and Lucinda Russell?

None of the sextet ranged against him have won over the distance of his Exeter success – three miles, six furlongs - and no doubt the market is being unduly influenced by the cowardly 132 mark allotted for that win by the official handicapper.

I thought 20lb rather than 12lb would be the minimum. The field at Exeter contained a trio of last-time winners and as commentator Mike Cattermole said as they came to the 14th of the 21 fences: “It’s anyone’s race”. Mr Vango had made all to that point, and apart from a first-fence faller, the other six were still in touch. All three-mile winners, they simply were steamrollered in the last phase of the content as Mr Vango’s exceptional stamina kicked in and he stretched ever further clear.

Rarely do you see races where the leader is more than a fence clear of his still-competing rivals and that was the case as he jumped the last and over the winning line, with of an official 60 lengths margin over a recent previous course and distance winner. I bet Ben Jones wished he could turn amateur for one race tomorrow.

Instead, we have Gina Andrews, easily the best lady amateur riding and multiple (ten times!) point-to-point lady champion. She knows her way around Cheltenham at the Festival, too, having won on Domesday Book for Stuart Edmunds in the 24-runner Kim Muir Chase for amateur riders at 40/1 seven years ago.

Her tally is fast approaching 600 wins, with her points score on the way to 500 and under Rules on 91 with 84 over jumps and seven on the flat. As with Patrick Mullins in Ireland, who habitually has a succession of steering jobs (maybe not quite) in bumpers, Gina can keep the weekends going with regular wins for her husband Tom Ellis, trainer king of the point-to-point field. She is about as amateur in proficiency terms as Patrick and just as capable – while she gets most of her on-course practice, unlike him, jumping fences.

Straight after Exeter, Mr Vango was a 25/1 chance. The first entry stage came soon after and there were only ten entered and his price stayed unaltered. Now the overnight declarations feature three absentees, one each for Willie Mullins, Elliott and Pauling, leaving all three with a single runner. Yet you could still (or so they said, ha!) get 25/1 first three each way with bedfellows Coral and Ladbroke.

As a very infrequent punter these days and then in the minute category I can reprise one of the most frustrating days ever of my life at Wincanton on Thursday. I’d gone with my friend Kevin Howard to watch his mate Fred Mills’ horse run in a novice hurdle.

Kevin drove, a pleasure as well as a rarity for me, and he needed to use the brake pedal only once – for ten seconds, all the 152 miles from near Brentwood. Coming back was even easier – rush hour M25 no problem. Tunnel straight through.

In between it was a nice surprise to see the amazing Lynda Burton in the owners’ dining room. “It’s my last day as we’ve moved to Berkshire from down here. I’ve been here for nine years and will be at Cheltenham next week and don’t worry, I’ll still do Newmarket,” she said. Collective sigh of relief from owners and their friends all around the country at that news!

After all the pluses, it was what happened when I thought I’d have a tenner each way on my nap bet in the William Hill Radio Naps Table, in the 2.45 at Lingfield, that everything turned sour. While Kevin was in the paddock, I went off to watch Roger Teal’s hitherto out-of-form sprinter Whenthedealinsdone at Lingfield.

Peter Collier – he’ll be around the Mullins team all this week – said there’s a William Hill down the track, so I passed plenty of Tote terminals and ended up in the tiny shop. The outsider signage was bold enough but the two-man operation inside a small square area signalled to me just how much betting shops on racecourses in the UK have declined.

In the one in the main enclosure at Newmarket, once thronged with punters and with four or five people taking bets, now even on the big days it feels like an abandoned aircraft hangar and it’s almost a case of being asked by the staff, “Can I take a bet please?”

Anyway, Whenthedealinsdone is 20/1, so I write out my wager and as one punter was at the far till, peopled by a gentleman of some years, so you would have thought considerable experience, the other was the province of a much younger man.

I passed over my £20 note and slip, forbearing to state the price, which after an unnecessarily long interval for him to find it, he finally called back – “20/1”. So far, so good.

I waited and waited and after a while, with the field beginning to go in the stalls, he disappeared from the front vantage point. He emerged from under the counter brandishing what looked like a large toilet roll but of course it was a till roll. He proceeded to try to fix it in place - to no avail. With no customer to serve, one would have thought Mr Robertson might have suggested to his junior: “Give us the bet!” but no, Mr Experience said: “You’re doing it wrong. Let me show you.” That’s experience in all its majesty!

So “show you” he did. Meanwhile, my betting slip and crisp bill of monetary exchange languished somewhere in the ether on the other side of the counter. My hopes were dashed already as they exited the stalls, and when, after never looking like winning, Whenthedealinsdone ran on strongly for a close 3rd – designated the “eyecatcher” in the following morning’s Racing Post, dashed they proved to be.

Meanwhile till roll now in place to the satisfaction of both Mr Experience and Master Clueless, the latter, without any explanation passed back the same £20. At least he didn’t replace it with four grubby fivers. Little consolation. I’d done £30 in cold blood and it grated on me all day – indeed all week!

Of course, I pretty much lost my rag, asking for Mr R’s name and he pretty much gave it away before clamming up. “We mustn’t tell you”, he said, reasonably enough in these troubled times. It just occurred to me, do they still have the betting disputes people at the track? Presumably not. [They do – Ed.]

In the old days bookmakers were overwhelmed by many “slow bet” merchants who waited until their horse or dog was in contention before passing over the money undetected when they were inundated with punters screaming to get on. Now the boot’s on the other foot. Slow cashiers.

Why not, as everyone knows. Bookmakers offer a price but, on the phone, they’ll go away and want to lay you a fraction of it if anything at all – that’s my mates rather me talking.

There are a couple of aftermaths for this passage of play. The last show for Whenthedealinsdone was 20/1, as Master Clueless correctly called it back to me. Within seconds of the finish the SP came back and was 14/1. You may say, the game (bookies’ version) isn’t straight. It’s certainly one way traffic!

Also, while I’ve been writing (immediately after the final field was known) the 25/1 first three bookies’ offer on Mr Vanga is already down to 16/1. I’m sure it will be much less again by tomorrow. Good luck Sara and owners, the Cracker and Smudge partnership.

- TS

Monday Musings: Darkest Before the Dawn

As a recent Racing Post article by their feature writer Julian Muscat outlined, Charlie Appleby, Godolphin and, usually, William Buick have been utterly dominant throughout the first two months of the Dubai Carnival at Meydan, seemingly knocking off the Group races at will, writes Tony Stafford. It was becoming almost as boring, and routine, he said, as had Willie Mullins at the Dublin Racing Festival and no doubt will be next week at Cheltenham. (I wasn’t the only one, it seems!)

Thank goodness, then, for one of the much-diminished squad of UK trainers who was happy to take them on. Step forward William Knight. It was at last year’s Carnival that his then seven-year-old Sir Busker suffered a freak incident that at the time looked to have ended his career as the Knight stable standard-bearer.

“You wouldn’t mind so much if it had happened in a dirt race”,  he recalled during a barren summer, looking back at his shock when the fragment from the kicked-back piece of turf that landed square in Sir Busker’s eye and necessitated surgery and a long spell of rehab in Dubai after his race on last year’s World Cup night.

Happily, the gelding eventually returned to the UK, running a few times, adding a couple of places in autumn handicaps at Newcastle to career earnings of more than half a million for owners Kennet Valley Thoroughbreds and six wins, including at Royal Ascot.

Ironically, you might say, both Nick Robinson, whose founding of Kennet Valley Thoroughbreds was the impetus for syndicate ownership in the UK, and Neville Callaghan, long-term incumbent of Rathmoy Stables, now Knight’s beautiful base in Newmarket’s Hamilton Road, died in the last few months of 2023.

The year had started promisingly for him, with three wins by the first week of February. Amazingly, though, over the next seven months just two more successes came, for Paradise Row at Chelmsford during Royal Ascot week and Bunker Bay in a four-horse handicap at Yarmouth in July.

I remember him telling me: “We aren’t doing anything different, and the horses seem to be well, but they just aren’t winning.”

You can imagine his frustration and indeed fears for the future. The sales were coming up and all he could point to were five wins in the calendar year. Then somehow it changed. Some younger horses came along to live up to their promise, and crucially he managed to restock a fair amount at the yearling auctions. Last week came news of three new horses coming from an exciting high-value operation managed by his bloodstock agent brother, Richard.

Anyway, by the end of the year he had pushed the tally to 16, below what had become his norm but reassuring all the same after the travails of midsummer. One of the wins came from a two-year-old filly by the US sire Frosted out of a War Front mare that had been bred in the States by Rabbah Bloodstock, part of the sprawling worldwide Sheikh Mohammed enterprise. Godolphin Lite you might say.

Called Frost At Dawn she came to Rathmoy in the ownership of one of the regular Rabbah patrons, Abdulla Al Mansoori, who previously had the odd horse with Knight. William had suffered numbers-wise last year after Rabbah’s restructuring led to its biggest entity in the yard cutting back appreciably.

Frost At Dawn made her debut in late October, amid the Knight revival, taking the well-trod 490-mile round trip from Newmarket to Newcastle – laughingly described by the trainer as “my local track”, so often has he used it to educate and win with inexperienced horses from his yard.

She ran well, finishing a promising second, yet was allowed to start at 10/1 when easily winning three weeks later at nearby Chelmsford. The decision was then made to target some of the valuable fillies’ prizes for juveniles either side of the New Year.

Having started off with a second place at seven furlongs in late December, Knight understandably pushed her up a furlong for her next race early in January and she clearly didn’t stay. I think the Racing Post comment “pressed pace, upsides two furlongs out, folded tamely” was a little harsh, and it was back a furlong again next time when once more she led through the race but didn’t get home.

That brought the realisation that she was probably a sprinter. Her fourth race in Dubai was her career first over as short as six furlongs last month. Starting 40/1, again she took up the running, and this time was beaten on the line by the Godolphin favourite.

The common denominator in all of this was her speed, and now William took the plunge, entering her for the Group 3 Nad Al Sheba Turf Sprint sponsored by Emirates Skywards. Having been confined to racing against her own age and sex, this was a different matter altogether. It’s an all-aged race open to both sexes and it drew a 15-runner field, only three of which – William’s filly, the Godolphin hotpot Star Of Mystery, and a colt that started 100/1 and finished 14th, were the sole three-year-olds in the line-up.

I spoke to William before the race and he pointed out that while there was a massive disparity in their official ratings and prices, the form line through a Ralph Beckett filly called Starlust with the favourite suggested Frost At Dawn had only one length to find.

Star Of Mystery, of course, was an Appleby / Buick / Godolphin 4/9 shot against Frost At Dawn’s 33/1 – “unbelievable each-way value”, said William in his comments for the From The Stables service I edit every day. This opinion was markedly at variance with the official handicap figures as she had 21lb to find, and of course the market. She emphatically proved both wrong.

Down now to five furlongs for the first time, Frost At Dawn took up the running two furlongs out and then sprinted away under Mickael Barzalona to win by two and a half lengths in track record for the Meydan five furlongs. Admittedly, times were fast on Saturday, but when you consider the legions of smart Godolphin and other sprinters that must have graced that turf course in the 15 seasons since the track superseded Nad Al Sheba, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the time and performance.

 

 

Also impressive is the way William Knight soldiered on through the tough times and has come out smiling – well maybe just a hint of one. As to where the UK handicappers will rate Frost At Dawn after this brilliant performance is another question. He could well have to keep her to Group and other stakes races from now on.

Those older sprinters behind her included two well-tested horses from Ireland and the UK, apart from the favourite who has a 113 rating and won a couple of times for Charlie Appleby in a busy two-year-old season last year as well as her Dubaian exploits. Additionally, Johnny Murtagh’s five-year-old mare Ladies Church, a four-time winner, who was 8th, 9.75 lengths behind is rated 104, 4lb less than Charlie Hills’ Equality, who at six boasts five wins, and trailed in a near-eleven lengths 12th. Only the last horse home went into the race with a lower rating than the winner and most of those in between were well into the 100’s.

There are few more personable people in racing than William Knight. I’ve known him for a good while now and I couldn’t be more pleased with that astonishing result. Let’s hope a certain two-year-old son of Kodiac, sire of Star Of Mystery, lives up to early promise. Meanwhile he will be anticipating the prospect of the potential for horses being sent to him from the breeze-ups which will be on us all too soon.

*

Now I must come to the shock and indeed embarrassment I felt with the news on Saturday that Mark Bradstock, the subject of last week’s article, had died. The story revolved around the amazing performance at Exeter of his horse Mr Vango, a 60-length winner a week last Friday and my belief he would stand a chance in the 3m6f National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham next week.

Bradstock, 66, whose widow Sara is the daughter of my long-term former Daily Telegraph colleague John, Lord Oaksey, had shown he could win big races, notably the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Hennessy Gold Cup with half-brothers Coneygree and Carruthers respectively.

I had no idea that he had been so ill, apparently for two years. Mark was highly thought of by his training peers and the one consolation, if there can be any in such awful circumstances, is that he must have been delighted to see one last impressive win from his family-run stable. I send my condolences to Sara and their two children Alfie and Lily.

  • TS

Monday Musings: Bradstocks Aiming High Once More

There is one trainer who has held a licence for 36 seasons and who, in only one of them has he failed to train a winner, yet equally, has never reached double figures of wins in any of them, writes Tony Stafford. Any ideas?

In that time, he has won a Hennessy Gold Cup and a Cheltenham Gold Cup, both with horses bred from the same mare he bought unraced as a potential retirement interest for his father-in-law. Maybe you would be thinking he was a part-time wealthy “amateur” practitioner of the trade, but not a bit of it.

In just over two weeks’ time at Cheltenham, our hero will not be frightened to take on the might of Mullins, Henderson, Nicholls and the rest in the National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys’ Novice Chase over 3m6f.

Few horses get to the start of that race having won over the distance. Our man’s horse had run in only one chase, finishing third, before last week. Yet when he turned out for his second, over said distance, he was already rated 120, based on four runs over hurdles. I guarantee you when his new rating is revealed tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. on the BHA website, he will be quite a lot higher. In his case I would hate to be the handicapper!

Before Friday at Exeter – yes, we’re slowly revealing our evidence – the trainer had run six individual horses in a total of eight races this season (April to April) with no wins. To keep up the exemplary 36-year (minus one) record, the My Pension Expert Devon National Handicap Chase, only passed as fit for racing after a morning inspection, would hopefully change all that.

Step up Mark Bradstock and wife Sara, nee Lawrence, with the eight-year-old Mr Vango. Sara apparently told the Racing TV people beforehand – I didn’t see it – that he would win. He did, and how!

It wasn’t a massive field, but with two or three confirmed front-runners and all with far more experience than their gelding, it wasn’t guaranteed on first sight that he would get to the front. Get to the front he did, though, and listening again to Mike Cattermole’s commentary with accompanying pictures, you can tell his growing incredulity at what he, those at Exeter, and we around the country were witnessing.

Making all, and along with a couple of inevitable novicey errors, he strode through almost two full circuits of the galloping Haldon track in deep ground seemingly without much effort.

Halfway through the second time round the pack was still within reach but, coming to the end of the back straight and turning for home, the margin between Mr Vango and no doubt an equally disbelieving Ben Jones kept stretching. It was ten, then 20, then 30, and over last, according to Mike, he was 50 lengths clear.

The trio that was still going hadn’t even reached the penultimate fence when Mr Vango jumped the last. Neither had they arrived at the final obstacle as Ben was pulling him up. The finishing margin was 60 lengths. Foxboro, an old slowcoach who had toiled in rear all the way so hadn’t really been involved in the unequal task of trying to match strides with this galloping automaton, plodded on past two others to record a symbolic but still rewarding £6k runner-up spot, 14 lengths clear of the legless other pair.

I cannot resist a little dig at the Racing Post. After the win, Mark Bradstock’s prizemoney tally for the season is listed as £1,492 – the Exeter race alone was worth 13 grand to the winner. [Of course, geegeez has it correct at £16.5k in seasonal earnings – Ed.]

I think I should declare a slight personal interest. Sara Lawrence became Sara Oaksey when her father John inherited his late father’s titles as Lord Thevethin and Oaksey, the latter being the name he preferred to use. Since Mark, previously five years’ assistant to the great Fulke Walwyn and winner of 18 races as a jockey, took out his licence in 1989, she has been a constant vital cog in the small family outfit along with showjumping son Alfie and point-to-point rider/trainer Lily. As their web site shows, they still have limitless ambition along with unerring belief that they hold the key to developing jumping horses to their highest potential.

The mare Plaid Maid that Mark sourced won five races for John, one hurdle (probably to his annoyance) but then four in her main job over fences. It was after her racing career though that she made her mark on the sport, producing both Carruthers, their 2011 Hennessy winner, of which John was part-owner. He, sadly, died the following year.

Carruthers continued racing for Mark Bradstock for four more years then, aged 13, transferred to Sara to train in point-to-points. Over the next three years he ran 17 times for one win, with daughter Lily in the saddle each time, retiring as a 15-year-old.

I’m sure Sara and Mark have constantly wished they could have told him that Carruthers’ little brother   Coneygree had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. I remember there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when he beat Willie Mullins’ Djakadam and 14 others nine years ago next month.

Coneygree was still a novice – the first since Captain Christy in 1974 to win the Gold Cup – and did it having been unbeaten in his first three chases, at Newbury twice and Kempton. He made all the running, jumping boldly, at Cheltenham and I couldn’t help wondering last week if that might also be the recipe for success with Mr Vango if he takes his place in the field next month.

Coneygree’s path to the Gold Cup was troubled – he had almost two years off before that first chase late in 2014 because of injury. After the triumph he won one more race at Sandown in November of the following season, but that was it as far as wins go.

Plaid Maid had been bought to interest John after his retirement, as if being the leading light in the Injured Jockeys Fund for many years and an honorary member of the Jockey Club wouldn’t have been enough for most people, never mind the writing.

His father had been Chief Allied prosecutor of leading Nazi criminals at the Nuremburg War Trials and John, expected to be a lawyer – he studied law at Harvard after his initial studies at Oxford – watched the proceedings as a deeply impressionable young man.

He preferred though to become a journalist, but one that could combine writing with winning 200 races as a jumps amateur. My good luck was that, by joining the Daily Telegraph in 1972, I was able to watch at first hand the way in which he combined his art with his love of riding and horses. And I did so for the next three decades. He always greeted me with, “Hello boy!”

For many years we worked in tandem on reporting the Grand National for the Sunday Telegraph. In those days there was a limited number of telephones and we used to have the use of one room and a land line in a house called Chasandi sited dead opposite the Aintree main entrance. Brough Scott and others also had similar facilities in other rooms in the house. I think the newspapers paid for the couple’s extension!

I took my notes, attending the initial stage of the post-race press conference, then repaired to offer my version of events verbatim over the phone to readers of the Irish, Scottish, and northern editions of the paper. John’s considered, exhaustive, rounded-out and always unique version came an hour or so later and the rest of the country got his elegant turn of phrase. Mine disappeared into the ether!

One incident I’ll never forget was the time he asked me to join him while he was working for ITV at the Derby. In those days the beautiful grassy paddock (sorry Epsom, that one now isn’t a patch on it even if it lets the racegoers see the horses) was down where the racecourse stables still are now. John had a small raised cabin with a big picture window halfway down one side as he watched and spoke to the viewers.

I’m not sure I did much for him that day - it’s not as if he asked me to go get him a cup of tea and a biscuit or anything - but there’s a reason I’m fond of relating it. It was 1981, the year of Shergar, one of the greatest Derby winners but one that is remembered for what he wasn’t allowed to do rather than what he did on the racecourse or might have done at stud. Everyone before 2000 knew the name, even now you occasionally hear it in stand-up routines.

But back to Mr Vango and friends. Have a look when you get a moment at the lovely website of Mark and Sara Bradstock and you will wonder how, in these days of trainers with 300 horses to call upon, these amazing people get so few chances to show how good they are.

Coneygree gave Nico De Boinville’s career the jump start that was needed for Nicky Henderson to take notice. He was still a conditional when he won the Gold Cup. In Coneygree’s previous race he was unavailable, and Richard Johnson stepped in. Nico said: “I dreaded that he would keep the mount for the Gold Cup but when he won the Denman Chase at Newbury, Sara called to say he was my ride.”

Some family, some legacy and if Mr Vango runs and wins – he’s 25/1 with bookmakers with whom you might get on, it could encourage a few more people to support them.

Talking of support, it’s the House of Commons debate on affordability checks at Westminster Hall today. If racing is to have any chance of getting proper funding, it’s vital that the people that can wish to bet are not artificially denied the chance and the case is properly put to the proportion of MPs who are lukewarm about racing.

My sources say, even without those fatuous checks, bookmakers need shaking up, so often are even tiny bets refused. One friend tells of the Australian system or how it was when he lived there a while ago and I doubt it’s changed since.

When he was there, bookmakers were allowed on course, while off-course was their tote (called TAB) monopoly. Depending on which ring the bookie worked in at the track, he or she was compelled to lay to take out a minimum value in each respective ring.

We have the best racing in the world and the worst conversion from what’s bet on it into prize money. Getting rid of this affordability nonsense would be a first step, but much more needs to be done even when that stain on the sport is crushed, as I hope it will be. I wonder what John, or My Noble Lord, as the late John McCririck always called him, would have thought of it all!

- TS

Monday Musings: Pauling’s Triple Salvo

It’s tough to sneak into the leading trainers’ groupings pretty much anywhere in the world, writes Tony Stafford.  In the UK and Ireland, the same few names finish atop both the flat and jumps tables year on year, and on the flat, certainly, it takes an upstart, such as George Boughey, and a massive intake of horses and major owners to break into the top ten.

He had 163 horses listed for last year’s campaign which brought tenth place in the table, but ironically fell 33 wins short of the 136 of the previous year. That earlier explosion was the catalyst for the massive increase in George’s string.

In jumping, the top ten have a familiar look about them both in Ireland and the UK. We know it’s Mullins, Elliott and De Bromhead with few recent encroachers making the list in Ireland, although Emmet Mullins has the look of somebody who can be making his way higher up the standings. Helps when, like Gordon Elliott, you train a Grand National winner early on and Mullins (E) did just that with Noble Yeats two years ago.

In the UK, apart from Olly Murphy and Joe Tizzard, neither of whom started from scratch, there’s nobody else. Ollie had considerable family buying power from the start, and Joe took over lock stock of father Colin’s team. Gold Cup wins and the memory of them have kept Joe in the limelight and dad is still around when needed. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose, as the French say.

Higher up, indeed sandwiching now the hitherto private battle at the top between Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson, is Dan Skelton, who also needed the start provided financially by show jumping father Nick, and the schooling for several years as assistant to Nicholls.

When brother Harry gets off a winner, and no doubt probably also one that didn’t run up to expectations, he has no hesitation in declaring potential upcoming races for the horse, whether Dan is there or not. This is a family operation par excellence and nicely bedded in now.

The other perennial challengers for the title cannot be there for ever you would think. Nicholls at 61 has so much drive and ambition that one would hardly think he would be reducing his energies towards training jumpers; indeed he has been recruiting at the top end of the market for the partnership headed by the considerably older (even than me!) Sir Alex Ferguson.

Henderson, despite being 73 is similarly unlikely to be withdrawing from the daily grind as long as he has horses of the calibre of Constitution Hill, Shishkin and Jonbon in his care. However well or otherwise that high-profile trio fares at Cheltenham next month, he has the four-year-old Sir Gino as the horse likely to become his eighth winner of the Triumph Hurdle and, if he wins, all the future that status predicts.

Given the depth of competition, especially after a spell where a decent proportion of the better meetings have succumbed to the weather, it must have been rare indeed for a stable outside the top echelon to land a hat-trick of winners on a single Premier Raceday card.

At Ascot on Saturday, Ben Pauling had five horses entered, two in one race. Neither of those got the call, although first string Bad would have done if not on the wrong end of a heads-up, heads-down winning-line dance.

The other three individual representatives all scored, for a combined treble return of 730/1. If Bad, the naughty boy who had his head up at the wrong time, had instead been on better behaviour, the resulting four-timer would have stretched to 4,020/1. All four horses were ridden by Ben Jones, benefiting from the absence through suspension of first jockey Kielan Woods.

Big Ben, he’s well over 6ft, rather than the jockey, and his owners collectively won £78k for linking a novice hurdle, Pic Roc, 11/2, beating a Nicholls hotpot; the Grade 2 Reynoldstown Chase – fast-track often to Cheltenham glory – Henry’s Friend, completing his own hat-trick, 13/2; and a handicap hurdle with Honor Grey, 14/1, a horse coming back from almost two years off. Bad’s race was very tough, too.

In the middle of the time since departing Nicky Henderson’s yard, where he had been joint assistant along with Tom Symonds, Pauling had a couple of campaigns when his horses were afflicted by viral problems. Last season’s tally of 80 wins, almost double his 2021/22 score, suggested that the worrying period was behind him.

Pauling will need another 24 in the remaining nine weeks of the present term to match that, and a couple of hundred grand in prizes to pass the earnings figure. He would have been much nearer it had jump racing not lost so many fixtures to the weather.

Nevertheless, standing in the table on 11th place and with £728k doesn’t have anything near the impact that his all-televised Saturday Ascot trio (and a near-miss) undoubtedly had. Many more people watch ITV racing on a Saturday than the number that assiduously study the Racing Post stats I would imagine, let alone buy the ‘paper every day.

Pauling has invested shrewdly in his future, moving a few years ago to the Naunton Estate, 20 minutes by car from Cheltenham and close to Nigel Twiston-Davies. The Paulings bought a property which adjoined a golf course, and which is now part of the family business.

It necessitated redirecting a couple of the holes to accommodate one of the gallops, but now it’s as though – apart from the stable area looking so spic-and-span – the yard had been there for decades.

You would think, golf-loving owners with runners at the Festival (or not!) might be checking in next month for nine holes and breakfast before making the last leg to Prestbury Park. Saturday was a landmark day in his development The seven entries in the early-closing races might not have the look of potential winners but you can be sure that when the handicap entries come out, he will be one of the UK trainers aiming to make the sort of impact that Dan Skelton has done in recent seasons.

Another former Nicky Henderson assistant was making a mark last week at Sandown, and as he described it, “it was a wonderful day for me in my own little world”.

The self-effacing trainer responsible for those words was Jamie Snowden and, looking again at the list of trainers, he stands 14th coming up towards £600k.

Why his “own little world”? Jamie had just followed winning the Grand Military Gold Cup at Sandown three weeks earlier with Farceur Du Large, over the same course and with the same ex-Irish horse, in the Royal Artillery Gold Cup.

A former soldier, Jamie had tried in vain to win either race since his retirement as an amateur jockey, having claimed both races  from the saddle four times. He might say it was his own little world, but I used to love going to both days’ racing in the old days, always meeting up with my old pal, the late Broderick (The Cad) Munro-Wilson.

He used to ride his own horses in those races and the other two military events that now are offered to professionals, from the 1970’s, and his style of riding always amused the experts in the stands.

Munro-Wilson always loved Sandown and rode loads of winners there. I think he was a territorial rather than a career military member and made his money in the City. He had one unbreakable theory about Sandown: “You jump the Pond (three out) and however well your horse is going, take a pull! Seeing how he got horses to rally up the hill when seemingly having lost their race, with arms, legs, and anything else he could bring to the party moving at full pace, remains in my memory after all these years. As an aside, Sally Randell, who is Fergal O’Brien’s partner and assistant, was one of the very good riders around Sandown and she didn’t start riding in races until she joined the army.

Farceur Du Large was the object – I assume – of some very thoughtful planning. The upper limit for qualification for the two races – both weight-for-age events – is 130, a mark the nine-year-old had dropped to from a peak of 136. He had been owned by Gigginstown House Stud having run unsuccessfully in the Irish and Midlands Grand Nationals along with the Galway Plate. Off since that race, Jamie had him primed for the Grand Military.

Appreciating the drop in class, steady pace and the effective riding of Major Will Kellard, he romped home for RC Syndicate II before reappearing under a partnership of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery and RC Syndicate.

The Rules in my early days, when literally many hundreds of men resplendent in immaculate uniforms would stroll the lawns and enclosures, were strict. Gradually, to qualify as owners, leases became the way to go and it seemed that even anyone who had ever eaten their breakfast egg with soldiers just about qualified.

Whatever the future of Farceur Du Large, he has allowed Jamie Snowden to tick off a large item on his wish list. A winner with You Wear It Well at Cheltenham last year, he hoped for a pre-Festival warm-up win for her at Haydock on Saturday, but she made one bad jump that stopped her in her tracks. That left Coquelicot to pick up 2nd and 6k, making this column’s editor happy that he had made the dash back from a skiing holiday, arriving just in time.

 - TS

Monday Musings: The Sound of Music?

I realise that most people nowadays might not have more than a passing acquaintance with the 1960’s musical, The Sound of Music – although it’s part of the TV schedules every Christmas – but over this weekend I’ve had two of its best-known songs going constantly through my head, writes Tony Stafford.

Firstly, with the Festival now only four weeks away, there’s the title song which begins, well slightly amended: The hills are alive with the sound of Cheltenham.

And secondly and more appropriately for UK trainers: How do you solve a problem like Willie Mullins? (Maria, of course, speeding up problem!).

As ever, one name sticks out as the home antidote to the Willie Mullins epidemic of winners. That’s Nicky Henderson, now the wrong side of 70 but as he showed at Newbury on Saturday, he can see off the Irish maestro when he has the right horse.

Mullins didn’t bother to tackle Shishkin in the Denman Chase – it was left to a couple of Sir Alex Ferguson partnership horses, trained respectively by Paul Nicholls (Hitman) and Dan Skelton (Protektorat) to follow the Ascot-errant and still unforgiven for it Seven Barrows horse home.

From being an outstanding novice hurdler and then chaser, Shishkin has the Mullins-like career tally of 14 wins from 20 and would have made it 15 if he hadn’t lost his concentration and unseated Nico De Boinville at a messy penultimate-fence incident of which he was blameless, in the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Willie kept his big boys at home, preferring instead to run most at the Dublin Festival last weekend. Gold Cup titleholder and next month’s favourite Galopin Des Champs stands firm at the head of the market at around even-money after his Irish Gold Cup win over Fastorslow, but if not quite breathing down his neck, Shishkin as a 9/1 shot doesn’t seem bad value each-way.

Mullins’ challenge for the Betfair Hurdle was a triple one and, of them, a newcomer from his favourite talent pool, ex-French Ocastle Des Mottes made a bookie-terrifying first run for the stable after a lengthy absence, but the 7/2 shot gave no indication on his French form that he had such a chance, running like it to finish only eighth. The other pair, Onlyamatteroftime, one of the best-backed on the day at 8/1, finished 18th while Alvaniy was pulled up.

Resplendent at the front of the race were the J P McManus colours, often connected to Mullins horses, but equally well-accustomed as representing Henderson. They came to the fore approaching the final flight of the Betfair Hurdle in the shape of Iberico Lord, and caught and outpaced Dan Skelton’s L’Eau Du Sud, a 28/1 shot and another in the Ferguson syndicate. They shelled out €740k for bright prospect Caldwell Potter last week. Sir Alex seemed to think they’d got a bargain - I suppose it might seem so compared with the cost of footballers these days or indeed tickets to last night’s Superbowl! Paul Nicholls will be training him.

This was the fifth win in the race for Henderson and considering he doesn’t blatantly lay out horses to benefit their handicap marks in the way that many trainers are obliged to given the state of UK prize money, he still wins stacks of them. Like Iberico Lord, they continue to improve through experience. lberico Lord has now won four of eight races and is sure to be in the field, and may be favourite, for the County Hurdle at Cheltenham. The runner-up will be at the meeting too, Dan Skelton being a wizard at winning Cheltenham handicaps, often under the noses of legions of Irish horses who clearly have been laid out for them.

I was surprised to see, on my latest excursion into the pages of Horses In Training 2023 – I always pick up the new one at Cheltenham – that while J P has 12 horses listed under the Henderson team, that represents only 8% of the trainer’s total of 142.

The next two Sound of Music songs I think apply to the same Nicky Henderson horse, not seen when expected for a warm-up race as he attempts to defend his Champion Hurdle title. Obviously for owner Michael Buckley, Henderson and De Boinville, you could say Constitution Hill is one of Their (My) Favourite Things and has Climb(ed) Every Mountain. As to Edelweiss, I’ve no idea how it fits in, except it’s a white flower and Buckley’s colours feature a white jacket.

I think my quick look through the races already priced up had nine Mullins horses at the head of their respective markets, although Ballyburn and Fact To File both have a second option. If the seven won – never mind any of the later closing races – that would be enough to take him past the century of winners at the Festival from his mark of 94.

Henderson stands 2nd on 73 and can be very hopeful with Royal Gino in the Triumph Hurdle after his easy demolition of Burdett Road in their trial over course and distance last month. The six Mullins juveniles that ran at Leopardstown last weekend have yet to show anything like that form.

Chances are spread over the four days for him, too, with Constitution Hill the banker. I cannot remember any horse being 4/1 on with a month to go in any Cheltenham race. That said, I believe he’s the best we’ve seen, so why not and the bookies are betting non-runner no bet, with no potential injury safely-value to fall back on. All set for Champion Hurdle number ten for Nicky and eat your heart out, Willie and State Man!

After the big two, Nicholls has had 48 Festival winners, but even though his stable is very solid and his jockey Harry Cobden gets the best out of everything he rides, he’s not the force of the Kauto Star/Denman era. Who could be? The old-time trainers used to spread the winners around a lot more when Cheltenham was three days of six races. Best of those was Fulke Walwyn on 40.

Next from today’s vintage comes Gordon Elliott on 37 and he will still be boiling after losing Caldwell Potter and quite a few more of his stars at the private disposal sale of the 29 horses owned by Andy and Gemma Brown, all sold without reserve at Tattersalls Ireland a week ago.

The Browns, who have a young family, have had some success over recent times but also devastating losses through injury and are taking some time out. Elliott did his best to get back his most treasured prospect, bidding €720,000 for Gigginstown House Stud, but Anthony Bromley stayed the pace to set a record for a jumper in training.

Getting back to the roll of Festival honour, of present-day trainers Jonjo O’Neil has 26, Henry de Bromhead 21 and Philip Hobbs 20. From Martin Pipe down – 34 wins – apart from Jonjo O’Neill on 26, it’s a parade of the great old-timers, showing it was never easy to win at this meeting, even more so with the fewer opportunities in their day.

Fred Winter had 28, Fred Rimell 27, Tom Dreaper, Arkle’s handler, equals Jonjo on 26, Vincent O’Brien 23 along with Bob Turnell and, from an earlier era, Ivor Anthony had 22, which bar the War would have been considerably more.

What is interesting is that Mullins has had 65 in the last ten years, which means only Henderson’s career tally matches that. The wonder is that he hasn’t done the brave thing that his peerless predecessor and compatriot Vincent O’Brien did and switch to the flat, although that could be because Ballydoyle hasn’t been available!

Vincent basically targeted the big races over jumps in the UK between 1948 and 1959, before opting out. He won three successive Champion Hurdles (all with Hatton’s Grace, 1949-51); four Cheltenham Gold Cups, three in a row 1948-50, and again in 1953 with different horses and three in the Grand National,  a hat-trick from 1953-5. In the post-War years, the present-day Supreme Novices Hurdle was run in two divisions as the Gloucestershire Hurdle. Between 1952 and 1959 O’Brien won ten!

If he’d have continued until the 1990’s rather than becoming the best flat-race trainer in the world, he would probably have set a target even Willie Mullins would never have managed to match!

  • TS

Monday Musings: Leech Mad For It

We’ve just had the two days of the Dublin Racing Festival, and the excitement of the course commentator when he announced that Willie Mullins had just completed a clean sweep of the eight Grade 1 races over the two days, finally sent me to sleep, writes Tony Stafford. More of that later…

Instead, I will start on a very different tack, following up a piece here last summer in which I revealed I had been stunned by the enterprise and success of Sophie and Christian Leech’s small stable near Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire. They were at it again at Leopardstown on Saturday, with the only English-trained runner on the entire card. There were two yesterday, one finished eighth, the other pulled up.

In the piece I told the tale of an itinerant eight-year-old who had spent time in several of the best stables in the UK and Ireland, but how said gelding, Lucky One, only came to his peak when sent from the Leech yard to compete in very valuable hurdle races in France. He had just picked up €69k in one race and has since finished sixth (for the second time) to France’s best hurdler, Theleme.

I thought I’d start yesterday morning by looking at their team in Horses In Training 2023. Twenty were listed, and I reckon you’d go a long way in any serious horse racing country to find a similar-sized yard where the youngest occupant was a single five-year-old. Seven of the rest, starting at the top were 15, 14 twice, 13, 12 and 11 twice. The 15yo did not run last year but won his last race as a 14-year-old the previous summer. His name? Applesandpierres.

Another five of the newcomers in the total of 18 to run in the UK this jump season are aged 10 or older and Via Dolorosa, now a 13-year-old, won two races and 60k in France last October..

So what, you might ask, would they do when they get a proper horse to train? Sophie gives the credit for travel plans and overseas race planning to husband Christian and son Ed, and they also clearly keep an eye out for talent spotting when the possibility arises.

Not in the way of Mullins, who had secured five of his six runners in Saturday’s Grade 1 juvenile hurdle at Leopardstown, by reputedly paying massive sums privately for the most part for horses that usually have won a single maiden hurdle. The odd exception will have run on the flat in France.

The Leech collective eye settled on a 2m1.5 furlong claiming chase for four-year-olds at Auteuil in early October. The horse in question, Madara, a son of State Man’s sire Doctor Dino, had already won two steeplechases either side of his fourth birthday, when a 4/1 shot and a faller in a €60k to the winner Grade 3 race at Compiegne.

At the same time, his trainer David Cottin, previously a multiple French champion jumps jockey, son of a great trainer and now making an incredibly successful second career, had lost his licence. Four of his horses, including Madara, were involved in having had banned substances administered. Madara found his way to Yannick Fouin’s stable and, second time out, he was entered for the claimer.

He finished a neck second to a horse called Romarius and Sophie claimed him, paying €25,555, a hefty increase on the nominal 18k he was in to be claimed for. A bit like it used to be here 40 years ago.

Switched to Bourton, with chase wins already in his locker, the Leech’s didn’t waste time sending him over fences. His form was good enough for a 66 jumps rating, equating to 145 over here. The starting point for the first of three runs in late October (just 20 days after the claim), November and December was outlined.

Unseated and then sixth in the first pair, he then showed terrific speed to run away from his opponents in a 20k chase at Cheltenham’s December meeting. I can’t remember many four-year-olds winning handicap chases at Cheltenham. After that, the plan was laid to run in the €59k to the winner Ryanair Handicap Chase (Listed) over 2m1f.

French-based James Reveley was booked and, watching the race, this now five-year-old was cantering along easily in the front five on the inside rail all the way round. You could see James never had a problem and even though there were four in a line coming to the final fence, he showed the suggestion of a sprinter’s pace to surge around five lengths clear before James eased him markedly at the finish.

I know to all intents and purposes Madara can be regarded as a French horse even now, despite four runs for his new connections, and that French jumping-bred horses start practising over small obstacles even as early as yearlings. But this hard-working team is far from being the only trainers with that type of raw material.

I had a quick look down the races run over fences at the three UK cards on Saturday along with Leopardstown and then Musselburgh and the Dublin course once more yesterday.

In all 128 horses ran in chases at Wetherby, Sandown, Musselburgh and Leopardstown over the two days and only one other five-year-old, apart from Madara, ran. That was a horse trained in Ireland, running at Musselburgh on Saturday. He finished last of five to get round.

After Saturday’s race there was plenty of talk between connections about which Cheltenham Festival race they would be going for. Sophie and Chris (and of course their oh so happy owners, stable stalwart Brian Drew and friends) don’t look further than the Grand Annual. He’ll win it pulling a cart!

*

4/1 about an eight-timer – how exciting!

I’m sure bookmakers would have been inundated with multiple bets over the two days’ action, usually on singly-named horses in each leg. Not many of those will have got past the first race. Willie always helps the enemy with multiple runners doing their absolute best. The first three wins on day one all went to second or even third choices for the yard each ridden by Danny Mullins rather than Paul Townend who was on the stable first-choices.

I thought it would be salutary to try to work out the true combined odds for his runners in each race, or somewhere near, so here goes. On Saturday the first race comes out at 2/7, the even-money favourite beaten by the great man’s 16/1 no-hoper; race two, six juveniles lined up, five bought from France in the manner of Lossiemouth last year and all either having a first or second run for Willie, the 7/2 second-best beat the 9/4 favourite. The combined odds of the six comes out at 92%, so say 1/12; In the one race of the eight where Mullins didn’t have the favourite, Barry Connell’s unbeaten long odds-on shot ran a stinker, his trio including the 6/1 winner total 40%, so 6/4; and finally In the Irish Gold Cup, Galopin Des Champs (1/3) and one other made up to a 2/9 chance.

Yesterday opened with a Mullins match, the wrong one won; the wonderful Ballyburn, owned by David Manasseh and Ronnie Bartlett, enjoyed a seven-length Sunday stroll, despite four more Mullins beasts including Ebor winner Absurde. The winner was 10/11, the quintet combined at 1/3. Next, El Fabiolo (4/11) had three stablemates among four opponents. The odds amounted to 104%, so another no bet. Finally in the Champion Hurdle, State Man (2/5) plus two of the other three, came out at 95%, so 1/20.

Buoyed by the 6/4 because of the eclipse of Marine Nationale in the novice chase on Saturday, the other five only represent around 2/1. Even then, would you have bet against it? Great horses admittedly, and Mr Mullins will have added – hey let’s have a reckon up! I’ve had a quick scan and make it his 30 prize-earning runners made a combined €1,190,00. Wonder how much it cost just to buy the six juveniles that represented him on Saturday?

*

At a much more realistic end of the business I was delighted for Fionn McSharry, who trains in West Yorkshire, not far from Leeds, home of Keith Walton, her mentor. Keith is a form student, boxing coach, former pro fighter and conditioner of many northern jockeys, and was also thrilled when Fionn’s Berkshire Phantom won at Wolverhampton. The four-year-old, sourced from the HIT sales from the Andrew Balding yard for 28k last October, came good with an easy win and It won’t be his last victory. I’m equally sure that for the dedicated Fionn, it will be the first of many.

Monday Musings: Trials and a Tribulation

In many ways, Trials Day at Cheltenham 2024 did exactly what it said on the tin, writes Tony Stafford. But for one trainer, a successful, remunerative trial early in the afternoon had become a gut-wrenching tribulation half an hour later. Jamie Snowden had hardly finished celebrating Ga Law’s sparkling return to his Paddy Power Gold Cup winning form from December 2022, when his other stable star Datsalrightgino was stricken down with a fatal fall at the ninth fence of the immediately following Cotswold Chase.

I suppose plenty of our handlers can be described as target trainers, but the ex-Army man Snowden fits that description to a tee. Both his best horses had last raced on another major day, Newbury’s Coral Gold Cup meeting early in December, each going to post for the top race with uncertainty about whether they would stay the three miles, two furlongs at the headlong gallop the former Hennessy Gold Cup routinely becomes.

Both seven-year-olds (the ideal age for that race over more than half a century) at the time, Ga Law had been up with the pace until early in the straight second time round but faded and was thus brought back to 2m4f, the distance of his Paddy Power win.

This race carried less prizemoney, but £56k was decent enough. Like the slightly richer at £70k Cotswold Chase which followed, Paddy Power was again the sponsor, the handicap offering the nod to the firm’s Cheltenham Countdown Podcast.

In the Coral Gold Cup, Datsalrightgino definitively proved his stamina with a late-running effort under Gavin Sheehan. No doubt everyone was happy enough as the partnership sat at the rear of the small field on Saturday, anticipating a similar run through to Newbury’s. Sadly, though, in the manner of sound jumpers that had previously never fallen, his lapse proved fatal.

Over the years, a win or place in the Hennessy often signalled future stardom. Most glaringly, the 1992 runner-up Jodami, carried only 10st2lb yet won the Cheltenham Gold Cup the following March. The future had seemed to open with endless possibilities for Snowden and Datsalrightgino, who won the race under 5lb more and quite easily too.

That feast or famine setback was typical of racing in general and jump racing in particular. It came at a time when Snowden had been in a great run, winning a novice hurdle at Catterick with a potential Boodles Handicap Hurdle contender on Thursday and the Grand Military Gold Cup at Sandown on Friday with his stable newcomer Farceur Du Large.

A race he won as a rider four times, the Grand Military had eluded him until now but this ex-Irish 10-year-old who had achieved a great deal for Noel Meade until losing his form, admittedly in major handicaps over the past year, had slipped down to a rating of 130, the upper limit for the military race.

So, while not a handicap, but almost (apart from females) a level weights affair, it has become a nice target for horses like Farceur Du Large, that can meet vastly inferior opposition on much more favourable terms – not that his 11/1 starting price reflected his history or the fact that Jamie would have been ultra-keen to win it.

There were Festival hints throughout the weekend, including the hitherto invisible juvenile champion hurdler of 2022-3, Lossiemouth. Willie Mullins finally took the wraps off her in the Grade 2 Unibet Hurdle and the Triumph Hurdle winner from last March and then slightly less overwhelmingly superior at Punchestown in April, metaphorically laughed at Love Envoi to win by just over nine lengths.

Speculation naturally followed as to whether she would be offered up alongside older stable-companion State Man as opposition to Constitution Hill. The reigning champ missed Saturday’s race just as he had the re-scheduled Fighting Fifth at Sandown last month, this time for a slight training issue rather than the fear of too-testing ground.

In that race, Love Envoi had been a slightly lesser distance behind Not So Sleepy, as Lossiemouth on Saturday, but really it could have been a fair bit more. Hughie Morrison’s old Timer Not So Sleepy has put together an exceptional hurdles record over the years, often spectacularly so.

Lossiemouth was quoted as a 10/1 shot in Champion Hurdle betting, behind only last year’s one-two, State Man being at around 9/2 and Constitution Hill, naturally odds-on. If Mullins decides to go the mares’ route, Lossiemouth is similarly odds on to join six-time winner of the race Quevega.  It’s hard to call it a substitute for the biggest prize. Admittedly, Honeysuckle stepped across to it last March to avoid Nicky Henderson’s emerging star rather than attempt to complete her personal hat-trick. I think she earned that little bit of latitude and understanding for her emotional farewell to the track.

In 2022, Marie’s Rock was a surprise 18/1 winner of the mares’ race for Nicky Henderson. Amazingly, she started joint-favourite at 9/4 with Honeysuckle for last year’s race when equally surprisingly she could manage only 7th of 9. There’s no sign to suggest the nine-year-old has any less talent than before as she showed in the feature race at Doncaster yesterday, the Warfield Mares Hurdle, Grade 2.

There, our old friend Coquelicot shared the pace for much of the way but, in the straight, class told and she had to be content with fourth place and just short of 2.5k for geegez.co.uk and Anthony Honeyball. It looked for a few strides that Marie’s Rock was about to be swamped for pace by You Wear It Well, winner of last year’s Mares’ Novice Hurdle at the Festival and attempting to bring a little joy to the Jamie Snowden camp.

Her stamina was unproven before the race, but now having got close to the Henderson mare, she will have more opportunities going forward. Dropping back to 2m4f at the Festival is a given for her and equally the winner, who showed just that little too much power for her on the demanding Doncaster run-in

The Gold Cup picture didn’t really look any clearer after Saturday. With Datsalrightgino not concerned in the finish, there was a Willie Mullins winner in Capodanno, but he is officially rated 21lb inferior to reigning champ Galopin Des Champs. Capodanno will possibly aim at the shorter Ryanair Chase for the Mullins stable, but there will be several ahead of him in the pecking order even for that race.

The latest episode in the on-going tussle between staying hurdlers Paisley Park, Dashel Drasher and Champ came in the Cleeve Hurdle. All three were in with a chance on the run-in at the end of the three miles and they finished in that order in second, fourth and fifth behind Noble Yeats, the 2022 Grand National winner.

Still only a nine-year-old, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t make a winning return to Aintree after his bold show under a massive weight last year and maybe stop off on the way in the Stayers Hurdle or even the Gold Cup as he did last year.

The excitement building that second-season trainer James Owen may have a potential Festival winner in his care will have cooled after Burdett Road was well beaten by market rival Sir Gino in the JCB Triumph Trial. Ten lengths was the margin about a horse that was pinched by Nicky Henderson from under the noses of the Mullins buying team (and other Irish connections, too) after it won a juvenile race in April last year at Auteuil. It’s easy to forget just how good Nicky is with juveniles and in the Triumph Hurdle, his seven wins in the race being a record.

 - TS

Monday Musings: Yes, No, Wait…

Anyone who ever played cricket will have heard those four words, Yes, no, wait….sorry! as he trudged back to the pavilion, run out by half a pitch length thanks to his partner’s indecision and then wanton sense of self-preservation, writes Tony Stafford.

If you’ve got a voice in your head, yes indeed the yesnowaitsorries are a floating ownership group, mainly of National Hunt horses. It was brought together through a joint love of cricket and racing, with the late Alan Lee, former cricket and racing correspondent for the Times, a very active member.

Over the past three months, mostly with good friend Kevin Howard, owner of the Noak Hill Shellfish Cabin off the A127 in deepest Essex, I’ve heard the same phrase trotted out at least 20 times. The project was a now 3yo gelding by Dandy Man called Edgewater Drive. The price plus Wilf Storey’s training fees was calculated based on 10 per cent shares and initially described by would-be joinees as “a cup of tea”: “Yes”, they said, almost without exception.

Next, rather than the No, it was Wait, after all Christmas was coming, the heating bills were astronomical. Well actually, better say No. As 20 dwindled down to zero, “Sorry” was replicated from a score of lips as Kevin withdrew back to the cabin, readying a bowl of jellied eels he’d promised to take to Gary Wiltshire, resident bookmaker at the owners’ room in Chelmsford racecourse.

Neil Graham, boss of Chelmsford, had been very optimistic at the meeting before last when talking about yesterday’s fixture – the first floodlit card on a Sunday in the UK. The total prize money on offer was £144k, a figure that will be replicated at Kempton on February 18.

Sunday racing in the UK had become generally a two-meeting apology, but yesterday was always going to be an exception, weather permitting. Apart from the innovative Chelmsford card, it was to be the last of three scheduled days of the Lingfield Winter Million. Friday’s first stage over jumps was unsurprisingly frozen off, but Saturday went ahead on the all-weather track with almost £250k distributed.

Then yesterday, the hoped-for miracle happened. Temperatures, stubbornly well below freezing for a week, suddenly went comfortably into positive numbers and the £492k card survived. The promise from the BHA to bolster otherwise mundane winter Sundays has made a good start. When we spoke to Neil he was anxious that the punters should roll in at Chelmsford, but as ever I was more than hopeful.

I’ve thrown in the odd Sangster family element in a good few of these articles over the years. Edgewater Drive had his two-year-old season with Ollie Sangster and didn’t make the frame in three starts. Another three times unplaced runner for Ollie, the now 3yo Floating Voter, came home in front in his first handicap – off 55 – at Wolverhampton on Saturday and that had been the plan for Edgewater Drive too until a foot injury stopped him, instead going to the sales before the plan could be tested.

On Thursday, two days before Floating Voter’s win, I was watching the early-evening all-weather action, but miscalculated and instead saw a race about to start at Pornichet, a track along the Atlantic coast from my dream holiday location, La Baule. The fact I never made it there is immaterial, so much was I brainwashed by a veteran production man on the Daily Telegraph sports desk.

Ronnie Fowler was really a news man, but liked his sport so ended up with us. With his soft West Country burr, ready smile and always with a holiday in France either to have just returned from or was about to embark upon, as I said, we knew all about La Baule.

Pornichet racecourse is what you would probably describe as Grands Provences, certainly prominent enough to have a regular spot on Attheraces (Sky Sports Racing).

The commentator had a rundown of the betting of this 4yo and up maiden, declaring that the Nicolas Clement-trained Midsummer Dance was an 8/13 shot having been a good second on her French debut a few weeks earlier.

At the same time, he remarked that the filly was making the opposite directional move than is usually the case. When Sam Sangster was looking for a trainer in France I unhesitatingly recommended M. Clement. Later we discovered that not only had Nicolas trained for Robert Sangster when he started out – he won the Arc in his first season – but also Nicolas’ father Miguel had trained for him.

From his lovely yard in Chantilly, he had prepared French Fifteen to win the Group 1 Criterium International at Saint-Cloud and, after Ray Tooth had sold him three days later, trained him for new connections to be a close second to Camelot in the 2000 Guineas.

Sam has done very well with Nicolas in the interim and when they went off at Pornichet just before 6 p.m. I heard Midsummer Dance moving along easily at the head of the 1m7f maiden race. The leader was Gruschenka and they were still hammer and tongs at the head of the 13-runner field turning for home before the favourite drew away comfortably.

She won by two and a half lengths and the runner-up was five lengths to the good over second favourite Piper’s Hill, to whom we will return in a moment.

It was as they passed the winning line first time around that I twigged. The same blue, green sleeves, green cap with white spots in which Mr S E Sangster’s horses, as differing from Manton House Thoroughbreds, which have the proper Robert Sangster colours with white cap, green spots. It’s amazing how much difference that cap switch makes.

This was the second run in France for the Mendelssohn filly Midsummer Dance. She was originally bought for $300k by a partnership including John Gunther, racing owner of the Newsells Park stallion Without Parole. I’m sure the plan was to send her to him when she won a few races.

Newsells Park, with its owner of a few years Graham Smith-Bernau, aided by General Manager Julian Dollar and Racing Manager Gary Coffey, has become one of the major players both in the sale ring and on the racecourse since Smith-Bernau acquired it.

They would have been expecting to welcome Midsummer Dance, but she failed to impress in three runs for the Gosdens and while improving to be placed a few times when switched to Harry Eustace, the rating of 59 was never going to persuade the owners to keep her.

Instead, she went to last year’s Horses In Training sale where she was knocked down to Blandford Bloodstock, probably Sam’s mate Stuart Boman, for just 12k. The one winning sibling to her was the Ralph Beckett trained Fox Vardy, who was rated in the low 90’s at one time and raced at the later stages of his career over two miles.

While with Harry Eustace, Midsummer Dance usually raced at ten furlongs, but for her first run at Chantilly last month, Nicolas Clement stepped her up to two miles and she finished an excellent second.

Now back a furlong, she stayed on well. I mentioned her UK mark of 59. When beaten three lengths at Chantilly, her victor earned a rating of 36 (x 2.2  to get the pounds from kilograms figure) hence 79.

The third horse on Friday already had a mark of 36, so having beaten him by seven and a half lengths, you would have to say she’ll be rated at least 36, maybe a shade more. That’s a minimum of 20lb higher than the UK mark. We’ll find out in a day or two.

Sam Sangster and his long-time collaborator and principal UK trainer Brian Meehan are the partners in the Mendelssohn filly. They had a bit of fun with the ownership as although carrying Sam’s (S.E Sangster) colours, she races in the name of Shelby Ltd. Maybe it should be Shelby Unlimited after the partners in Isaac Shelby, Brian’s Group 2 winner of the Greenham Stakes last year, was sold for a seven-figure sum before the 2000 Guineas to free-spending Wathnan Racing.

I mentioned Edgewater Drive at the beginning of this piece. Wilf Storey pointed out that only three horses have previously moved from Manton, the Sangster family base for more than 30 years, to his Consett, Co Durham yard.

Looking for a potential hurdler in 1993, I bought the three-year-old Caerleon gelding Great Easeby unraced from Robert: “a total slowcoach”, he said when Peter Chapple-Hyam was the trainer.  Wilf won races on good tracks, flat and jumping, culminating with success in the 24-runner Pertemps Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. The following year, when “unbeatable” Unsinkable Boxer won the race for Martin Pipe, Great Easeby was an early faller, but started third-favourite!

Next was Jan Smuts, an expensive yearling buy for Raymond Tooth. He had a bad injury and then on third career start, pulled himself up in a flat race at Windsor.

It was thought he was unlikely to race again but had his final win in 2018 as a ten-year-old. He had been sent to Storey for free and raced a further 116 times, winning seven over flat and jumps and placed another 48 (!) times between second and fourth.

Finally, Card High. I watched out for his big white face as he toiled on Brian’s gallops every Thursday, too slow to finish last in his work! Sam’s older brothers Ben and Guy Sangster were happy to pass him on and he became another multiple winner (eight) and more than 50 per cent in the money in 50-odd runs.

Wilf, and granddaughter and assistant Siobhan Doolan, both have at least as much faith in this young, still growing three-year-old, as any of his predecessors. Wilf says: “He’ll stay.” Once they get up there on the Moor darting around avoiding the 300 sheep at Grange Farm, they usually do.

So, if you believe the sales pitch (unlike the Doubting Twenty!) and would be interested in maybe having a shot at a very cheap option to the rather pricier, but admittedly fantastically successful Geegeez.co.uk syndicates so skilfully managed by Matt Bisogno, the Editor, just give a call to Mr Storey or Ms Doolan. You’ll find them on the web.

When you get to “Yes”, never mind the No or Wait. I predict you won’t be Sorry!

- TS

Monday Musings: The NH Numbers Game

We’re just about into the final third of the 2023-24 jumps season in the UK and Ireland and the concluding bumper at Fairyhouse on Saturday provided an interesting statistic, writes Tony Stafford. Its winner, the debutant Romeo Coolio, ridden by Mr Harry Swan for the Gordon Elliott team, was the trainer’s 155th victory of the domestic campaign.

This, from the once reviled but now it seems fully rehabilitated and still ebullient handler, was Elliott’s 300th individual runner of the season. It brings his prizemoney tally to €3,274k.

Until the last few days, he had been ahead of his great (and hitherto too-great!) rival Willie Mullins in all categories apart from strike-rate. Willie has had to make do so far with 254 individual horses, but his 168 victories (two at Punchestown yesterday) have careered him past Elliott a shade sooner than usual. By the time we get to May, no doubt, Mullins will I’m sure be back in his usual place at the top of the pile with all those big prizes still to be won. He stands on an interim €3,387K.

Two more were added to the first-time Elliott count at Punchestown yesterday and with lots more buys from the pointing and French fields to come, it might even be feasible to expect an end-of-season accumulation of 400, but let’s play safe and suggests it will be 350, as if that wouldn’t be totally unbelievable.

If Gordon were, say, to be content with just a 20-hour waking day – he should manage four hours’ kip surely! - then he could afford to give each of the three hundred a respectable four minutes of his attention – in between driving to the tracks and speaking to the media, not to mention living of course.

No doubt though, as the season has gone on, there has been a regular in-and-out process so that the horses that favoured summer ground and opposition are sent elsewhere until their optimum part of this year comes around. Or even sold.

Even so, you must reckon on a minimum of 200 boxes either at the main yard, or sprinkled around nearby to accommodate the hordes as they prepare for their races.

Planning programmes, making entries, and generally finding alternative objectives when the weather intervenes as has been the case lately, taxes the ingenuity. In some ways it’s easy. “There are five nice races at Punchestown next week,” he might say, adding “Put those ten in that one, that lot in the next” and so on.

Meanwhile Mr Mullins is doing the same thing at his only marginally less horse-swollen base, and hence the pair go head-to-head in almost every novice, conditions race and Graded event in the calendar. I’ve never forgotten Luca Cumani’s words, however. It might have been at the time he lost the Aga Khan’s horses when, in a pique, HH decided to have nothing trained in the UK. Luca always reckoned it was easier to train a lot of horses than a lesser number. You could find the time of day about them, he argued, as Luca certainly could.

Such is the Mullins/Elliott joint domination that only two other trainers have run more than 100 horses. Third in every category is Henry de Bromhead, who despite his Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle successes has been limited to exactly half as many horses as Elliott – 151. His 62 wins have come from 51 horses, and he’s almost on €1.1million. Almost without exception, UK trainers will be saying, “I should be so limited!”

Gavin Cromwell comes next in the list with 124 horses, €700k coming from 35 individual winners of 47 races. Philip Rothwell (26 from 76) and 34 wins from 353 runners is 5th to show the extent to which the sport across the Irish Sea is dominated by a cartel that has no inclination of going away.

No wonder Elliott bristled at the prospect of any restriction in the number of horses he could run in one race. His 15 of 20 in the Troytown last November might have been only a sample of what is to come given his relentless expansion. The possible limit of four in UK handicaps, especially the Grand National, will be welcome, though not for Elliott – if any of our trainers is equipped to take advantage.

On the flat and over jumps It’s a self-fulfilling numbers game. The two Premier race day cards at Kempton and Warwick on Saturday – to which a decent Wetherby programme was grafted on, drew only the minimal attention of Irish stables.

Mullins with a third and Elliott, a fifth place, had one visitor each, but Joseph O’Brien brought Banbridge to Kempton for the Coral Silviniaco Conti Chase and he beat Pic D’Orhy to remind us that he is indeed still training jumpers. Mullins was 3rd in this with Janidil.

At one time it seemed O’Brien would make a more significant challenge to the big two, but as he has been winning races like the Melbourne Cup (twice) and Group/Grade 1 races in Ireland, the UK, the US and Dubai, the concentration has understandably been more on flat racing.

In the present jumps season, Joseph has run only 36 horses in a total of 80 races and the 14 winners have collected 16 victories. His domestic tally of €311k is respectable in the circumstances. He clearly has quality rather than quantity in mind for the winter game.

One trainer aware of the possibilities offered by the dual Premier fixtures at Kempton and Warwick was Dan Skelton, holidaying in Barbados but still ably backed up by brother Harry, who rode a Warwick double, the former champion jockey and his wife Bridget Andrews among others supervising matters on course.

The numbers game truism holds here, too. Dan Skelton, while not yet in the scale of Ireland’s big two, has still sent 191 different horses to the races this season, easily the most among UK stables. On Saturday 9% of them – viz 16 – were dispatched to the three jumps meetings and they came back to Warwickshire with six winners, one second, four third places, two fourths and a sixth.

Skelton won the Lanzarote at Kempton with 33/1 shot Jay Jay Reilly, making his first run back over hurdles since early 2022. The trainer’s other major victory came with Grey Dawning, the gelding thrillingly going clear of his field in the Grade 2 Hampton Novices Chase at Warwick. Cheltenham beckons for both and many more I would assume from this target stable. His team will be one of the main defences against the onslaught of well-treated Irish “improvers” in many of the handicaps in seven weeks’ time.

It must be a shade frustrating in comparison with what a similar haul would have brought in Ireland or France, that six wins (worth £145k and those other places, yielded 180 grand, given the trumpeting of the new concept). It was still enough to carry him past Nicky Henderson into second slot in the UK trainers’ list.

Skelton’s 70 wins from 457 runners have earned £1,370k so he stands rather more than £200k behind his former mentor and perennial champion, Paul Nicholls. The Ditcheat master, hopefully now back on terra firma after the previous week’s abandon ship call came out in his flooded stable yard, has 72 wins from 306 runs (58 from 151 individual horses) and is just a tick short of £1.6 million.

Henderson has sent out 132 horses – a visitor to Seven Barrows might ask, “Where does he find room for them all?” – and 65 wins from 266 runs and £1,235k in prizes.

An unexpected name in fourth place is Venetia Williams, not that her talent isn’t well chronicled. In a way she defies the numbers element, even if she is comfortably behind the top three at £935k. The million should come. Her achievement is notable as she has sent out only 64 horses, 25 of them winning 38 races. Nicholls, Henderson and Williams are all operating at 24% whereas Skelton is at a relatively modest 15%.

As a one-time associate used to say – and sorry Mr Hatter I’ve used it many times, including here –  “Everything is just different numbers.” It is.

The marvel of the Elliott/Mullins and to an extent Skelton achievement is to have control over such an obviously unwieldy model. How does a trainer do morning or evening stables as in the old days? I’ve been at Hughie Morrison’s yard a few years ago and the lad would present his horse as the trainer came along the line, asking how he was and checking limbs to satisfy himself. (Of course, unlike the old days when it was probably a maximum of two horses per lad, the 2020s model required a fair bit of nimbleness on the part of the grooms as they swopped to organise one of their other three or even four further on!)

You could picture Noel Murless or, from an earlier generational, Fred Darling, satisfying himself not only with the horses’ but also the lads’ appearance as he checked them off one by one. Evening stables at Elliott’s must be fun. By the time he gets round the lot, there wouldn’t be much time for a pint.

  • TS
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