The suggestion from above, for the first of two out-of-kilter holiday offerings, was to offer a retrospective this morning and then a New Year’s Eve forward projection, writes Tony Stafford. Watching the televised racing yesterday from four UK venues on the sofa rather than at the track, two major results crystallised my opinion about two fast-emerging trainers who have confounded the assumption that it is harder now than ever to break into the big league.
I’ve picked these two young men, both still in their twenties, as standard bearers, one each over jumps and on the Flat. In jumping, Olly Murphy was always the one most likely, with well-established parents – leading bloodstock agent father and trainer mother – and a solid history as assistant to Ireland’s fastest upwardly-mobile handler Gordon Elliott.
I’m less confident that I knew much about Archie Watson, my Flat-racing selection, before the cursory look at a few odd articles, one especially that appeared on the day before his triple assault on his new career with three runners all at Ripon on August 29, 2016. That revealed he’d already been with British-born trainer Graham Motion in the US; run a 30-horse satellite yard for leading South African trainer Alec Laird and then spent four character-building years assisting William Haggas in Newmarket.
Both won an important race yesterday, Murphy’s the more immediately eye-catching seeing as it came in Ascot’s £85,000-to-the-winner nightcap, the Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle, a race which Dan Skelton took two years earlier on his fast-track way up the jumps ladder. Hunters Call, formerly with a small stable in Ireland, made a characteristic winning start for Murphy more than four months after his previous outing.
Olly has not been slow to utilise contacts from his Elliott days since starting out in Warwickshire and, with no racing scheduled for Ireland yesterday, booked teenager Jack Kennedy who has become Elliott’s most trusted rider over the past year or so. Hunters Call needed to improve on some rather spotty Irish form – one win in nine, and runs up to three miles – to win this hotly-contested two-miler, which he did with authority.
The 9-1 starting price showed that more than merely a few insiders anticipated the victory and Hunters Call got a few favourable mentions in the media beforehand. Murphy has arrived at the mid-point of his first season with 27 wins from 130 jumps runners and a handsome £217,624 in prizemoney, achieved from 43 horses of which 17 have won races.
Impressive as Murphy’s start has been, I believe Watson’s first 15 months’ activity has been even more meritorious, not least because once racing observers notice somebody doing well, the astonishing quickly becomes commonplace.
Based in Lambourn rather than Newmarket – a choice made on practical financial grounds – in the Saxon Gate stables most recently occupied by Paul Fitzsimons, Watson had four wins in his truncated first campaign.
The 2017 issue of Horses in Training listed him as having 24 inmates, but constant steady accumulation through the year has resulted in his running 48 individual horses. One of the best is Petite Jack who recorded a sixth course success at Lingfield yesterday when coming home strongly to win the Betway Quebec Stakes, a Listed race over 10 furlongs.
That was the trainer’s 56th win of an almost surreal season, achieved from 271 runners. His strike rate is 21%, coincidentally the same as Murphy’s. His horses have UK prizemoney of £458, 000 to which he can add more than £60,000 for five second-half of the year overseas runs alone by his older mare Absolute Blast, acquired from the Iain Jardine stable early in the year.
She appeared initially here in four stakes races, three at Lingfield, winning once at Listed level there before travelling on to Germany, Turkey, Ireland and Italy to augment the Watson coffers. The fast Corinthia Knight was another notable traveller, collecting fourth behind an Aidan O’Brien juvenile in one of the undercard races at the Breeders’ Cup meeting in Del Mar.
Watson’s stats for the year are impressive, but his instinctive understanding of where and when it is easiest to win races and therefore money reveals a maturity beyond his years. More than half his runners and 62.5% of the winners have come on the all-weather tracks. Eight of his 15 juvenile victories have been on artificial surfaces; 15 of 21 three-year-old and 12 of 20 older wins have been on all-weather.
Watson has won with all types, perhaps the most unlikely being the rapidity with which front-running stayer Brandon Castle progressed through the handicap ratings from 62 to 99 via five wins after joining from Simon West’s team in mid-season. When he identifies a horse with a particular preference, he stays with it, hence Mach One, arrived from Clive Cox, has won twice from seven starts since mid-August and has latterly and correctly been earmarked as a Southwell specialist.
He doesn’t mind running them either. Attain, one of Watson’s earlier inmates has a couple of wins on his 2017 card, and has gone to the track 20 more times, not that owners Boadicea Racing will mind. Since the start of the year, they have added five extra horses to their yard portfolio, and two of them, Snowy Winter and General Hazard have provided five and four wins respectively.
These path-finding handlers have confirmed the truism that horses do not win money for their owners by standing in their boxes. Each has set himself a high standard by which he will be judged and the envious, of which there are many around this business, will be waiting for one or both of them to fall.
The perennial problem is that unless the raw material (therefore owners and new horses) continues to arrive, the momentum will be difficult to maintain, but for the present there will be a queue to join both of them and deservedly so. There will be many hoping that Murphy’s Oxford Blu, carrying the dark blue, red and white livery of this illustrious website, will add to the promise of his Fakenham debut win by following up at Fontwell on Boxing Day.
Like anyone in any way connected with the Hughie Morrison stable, I was relieved when the disciplinary hearing into the Our Little Sister steroids case imposed a £1,000 fine and no ban on the trainer. It seemed on listening to the reporting on the case that the BHA would not have minded if the committee had imposed a ban, with the horrific prospect of even ten years at the upper level mentioned as a possibility.
After the verdict, Jamie Stier, soon-to-be outgoing Head of Regulation at the BHA seemed frustrated at the outcome, citing the BHA’s zero-tolerance stance on anabolic steroid abuse. When Mahmood Al Zarooni admitted administering steroids to 15 individual Godolphin horses in 2013, he was given an eight-year ban.
Therefore, strict zero tolerance could have resulted in Morrison’s getting an even longer ban in this case than Al Zarooni’s. Where the disgraced Mahmood was concerned, who’s to say that the 15 he owned up to in the hundred or more horse stable at Moulton Paddocks was the full extent of his transgressions? Theoretically, he can reapply for a licence in 2021!