Monday Musings: In Threes They Come…

They say disasters come in threes, writes Tony Stafford. The same is true where things we thought would never happen do actually occur. In four short days early in April, Prince Philip was no longer with us; a woman rode the winner of the Grand National, and a Japanese golfer became the first to win a major championship.

Having spent 73 years married to the Queen, Prince Philip was so much a fabric of our lives that it was a real shock when he did not make the century, unlike his mother-in-law Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who died in her 102nd year on March 30 2002.

On Friday morning I was stuck in a traffic jam having undertaken a routine 30-minute round trip to buy some hard-to-find organic dog food for our delicate and elderly Yorkshire terrier. As I emerged on the south side of Blackwall TunneI, I noticed a police car blocking the northern approach.

Three hours later, having missed the first three races on the second day of the Aintree meeting, I had undertaken a near 50-mile diversion to avoid the resultant gridlock. For all that time, after switching on the car radio and hearing of Prince Philip’s passing, I learnt lots I hadn’t known about him in Radio 4’s blanket coverage. How fortunate that the future Queen as a very young girl could discern the qualities which clearly entranced her on their initial meeting at Dartmouth Naval College more than 80 years ago.

Both descendants of Queen Victoria, who also made it to her 80’s despite being a carrier of the recessive gene haemophilia – none of the existing generations is afflicted happily - their marriage has been the one constant in a world increasingly subject to the potential horrors of social media and the like. Things may never seem to be the same again.

That’s true too of life after Covid. Today, on my late father’s 101st birthday, shops can again open in the UK in the midst of a week’s mourning for the Royal family. Hopefully we can start to go racing – I resolved not to until the ravages of the disease had been beaten. It seems it almost has been and on Thursday my second helping of the Astra Zeneca will either kill (if you believe the Euro politicians) or fully protect me.

Missing Aintree didn’t prevent us celebrating the continued rise of the remarkable Rachael Blackmore. It’s not a surname you hear very often although John Blackmore was in my first primary school class. He was well enough behaved and from memory quite a jovial chap. That was unlike Johnny Robinson who was only in the reception class of Amherst Primary School for one day. He was so disruptive that halfway through the afternoon he was tied to a chair. We never saw him again, nor was anyone else in need ever of similar constraint.

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Amherst was the third Christian name of Sir Henry Cecil whose father was the younger brother of the third Baron Amherst of Hackney. It was my pleasure to know him well enough to ask him to write a foreword for one of my few “proper” books, all three of which my elder daughter presented me with (two to return) when I made a first visit to her house for more than a year recently. I was especially pleased to be reminded of Frankie Dettori’s Year In The Life, ghosted before and amended after that seven-out-of-seven at Ascot.

The Cecil-embellished volume was a second go at the earlier Little Black Racing Book, foreword by Lester Piggott. The idea for that was spawned by Collins Willow’s commissioning editor, Michael Doggart, as a racing stable-companion to the Little Red Book, a best-selling and much-admired volume by Harvey Penick, the great American golf coach.

His most celebrated student at university in Austin, Texas, was Ben Crenshaw. When Penick died in 1995 after a long illness, Crenshaw was one of the pall-bearers.

The following day he started his Masters quest, and as Ben later confessed, he was guided to success in that Major championship by Penick’s memory. His triumph will no doubt have made only a ripple in the sporting lexicon of the 1990’s in comparison with what will happen back home in Japan after Hideki Matsuyama held on by a stroke on Sunday night in Augusta.

That event came just 30 hours after what for most of our lives we’ve believed would never happen.  In 1977 Charlotte Brew, riding Barony Fort, got as far as the 27th fence before her horse was pulled up. In those days Aintree was much more fearsome and the fact she could negotiate 26 of the fences should have prepared us for a future female winner. Forty-four years on we have one.

The first of a series of Flat races in which women could ride came five years earlier than Barony Fort, at Kempton Park, when Scorched Earth ridden by Miss Meriel Tufnell won, the first of three victories in a 12-race sponsored-by-Goya series which brought her the title. Sadly she died from cancer aged 53. Charlotte Brew, who watched Rachael’s victory at home in the West Country with her three daughters, is now 65 years old and confessed to a tear or two as she watched Minella Times’ triumph.

As with momentous events happening in triplicate, Rachael Blackmore’s achievement at Aintree, coming hard on her domination and champion jockey award at the recent Cheltenham Festival, was the first of three memorable female rides within an hour on Saturday.

The third of them came in the concluding bumper at Aintree where Megan Nicholls, riding her father’s Knappers Hill, was involved in a drawn-out battle in the last furlong with jumps championship contender Harry Skelton and lost nothing in comparison with him or with Paddy Brennan on the fast-finishing second.

Indeed her strength in the finish was notable as she gained a sixth bumper win of the year for her father from only 15 rides. Considering she has ridden on the Flat in the last year at 8st 1lb, to lug the saddle with around three stone of lead back to scale with her horse carrying 11st 4lb was a feat of strength in itself!

Before turning to riding on the Flat, which at the time when she was only 16, her father described as “getting it out of her system”, she had ridden one earlier bumper winner but none more until this term. Instead she has won 96 races on the Flat, based in the north, so, far from merely getting it out of her system, she has become very accomplished. Also at the age of 23 she has shown herself to be a talented broadcaster when given the chance, usually as the expert analyst at jumps meetings close to the Nicholls stable.

The middle winner of the three had already long weighed in by the time Megan went to post. Every day I do a line for FromTheStables.com, and pass on the thoughts of a dozen or so trainers, including Micky Hammond, to the members.

Micky had four runners at Newcastle on Saturday but clearly best liked the chance of Ballycrystal in the finale. Becky Smith, one of the leading female amateurs under both Flat and NH Rules, had been starved of action during the ban on amateurs and point-to-point racing. Now the younger sister of Gemma Hogg, Hammond’s assistant trainer, is raring to go and is quickly at full flow.

After talking to Micky, I looked up Ballycrystal’s form. When trained by Brian Ellison, on Nov 23 2018 he had carried the same weight (rated 125) as the favourite and eventual winner in a 3m1f chase at Catterick. He was well beaten in fifth place but now, fancied after a decent run in a jumpers’ bumper at the track in February, was running in a handicap hurdle off a mark of 93, 32lb lower.

Fifteen minutes before the scheduled start of the Newcastle race, Cloth Cap, the horse that beat him at Catterick, was lining up as the favourite for the Grand National, 14lb well-in after winning at Kelso. If the two old rivals were to meet next weekend, Ballycrystal would be 69lb (so almost five stone) better off!

Becky expertly guided Ballycrystal (18-1 to 8’s) to a facile win in his handicap hurdle race, while Cloth Cap was pulled up after being in the first two for much of the marathon journey. I texted Micky later: “On the way they ran today, it might have been close between them at levels!” He’s looking up to see if he can find a race where he can take him on again!

Monday Musings: My Three Aintree Contenders

So we will be seeing Tiger Roll at Aintree after all, writes Tony Stafford. Not of course in Saturday’s Randox Health Grand National but in the Betfair Bowl on the first of the three days of the meeting. Judged on the way he won the Cross-Country race to give him a fifth Cheltenham Festival success, the dual Grand National winner could easily beat Clan Des Obeaux and Native River.

Clan Des Obeaux missed Cheltenham to wait for this premier level-weights chase at the Aintree fixture. Not so Native River, who put in a valiant attempt to add a second Gold Cup when finishing fourth to Minella Indo. Sadly, his regular jockey Richard Johnson will not be riding this week, the 43-year-old having announced his retirement after fulfilling his duties for the last time at Newton Abbot on Saturday.

I will leave the Johnson eulogy to others save to say that his 3,726 winners in the UK over 28 seasons, was second only to A P McCoy’s 4,204. He achieved four titles in succession and 24 consecutive centuries. The first failure to be champion since the retirement of A P McCoy came last season when Brian Hughes took advantage of his rival’s prolonged injury absence. His final season brought 73 wins from 521 mounts and Native River was given full assistance by his never-give-up partner all the way to the line.

So we come to the Grand National and it will be interesting to see how many media people, owners, administrators and in-crowd will be able to make their way to Aintree this week to join the more vital trainers and stable staff. I’m guessing somewhere north of 1,500, or is that just sour grapes?

With the Covid19 numbers of deaths for the past two days at ten for both Saturday and Sunday, the situation in the UK now looks more promising, never mind the ever-vocal critics of the government’s handling of the year-long crisis. I’m due my second jab next week and hopefully then I can go racing again.

Quite the most intriguing prospect is to try to calculate the possible number of finishers in the great race. I suspect there could again be around half the 40-strong line-up getting round this year. Whether the authorities deny it or not, in recent seasons, Aintree has become rather more toothless compared to its predecessor. Of course, horse welfare is paramount in these sensitive times and a few more years without fatalities is something to be very much wished for.

Tiger Roll’s two winning years have brought a total of nine casualties that were officially declared as fallers, six in 2018 and only three the following year. Another five unseated in 2018 and two the next time round. Thirteen and 14 respectively were the pulled-up totals, so 12 finishers in 2018 and 19 the last time the race was staged.

The latest barometer of the course’s teeth was the early December fixture which features two races over the Grand National fences. First up is the 3m2f Becher Chase and that 14-runner race had eight finishers with three fallers (including unusually Yala Enki) and three unseated riders, so was tolerably attritional.

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Then the Grand Sefton over half a mile shorter had a field of 18, and 13 finishers.  Only two fell and three pulled up in this.

The Becher Chase was won by the big outsider Vieux Lion Rouge for the David Pipe stable. That was his second win, along with one second place, in five straight tries at that race and he would have matched it with consecutive appearances in the big race itself last April had it not been called off.

He’ll be back on Saturday as a 12-year-old for his tenth go-round having successfully negotiated 223 of the unique Aintree obstacles (one fence in the Nationals of 2018 and 2019 had to be omitted on safety grounds). He has been seventh, sixth, ninth and 15th without ever looking either like winning or that he would fail to complete.

Tom Scudamore was usually his partner in the past but he has bigger fish to fry on Saturday, continuing his spectacular association with the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Cloth Cap. An all-the-way winner of the Ladbroke (ex-Hennessy) Handicap Chase at Newbury in late November, O’Neill resisted temptation until Kelso last month when his gelding was again dominant, making all to beat Aso, Two For Gold and Definitly Red without ever letting them close in a level-weights race.

If the handicapper had the option of re-assessing Cloth Cap he would have added 14lb and it is rare for such a situation to occur in a Grand National. Added to that ingredient, he is the most fluent and accurate of jumpers and one that enjoys making the running. It is easy to imagine his delivering an exciting all-the-way success with nothing ever getting near him.

It almost suggests a similar race to the first of the Red Rum trio of wins almost half a century ago. For all but the last 25 yards, top-weight and two-mile champion Crisp made the running at a fast pace under 12st top-weight, nothing ever looking like challenging. Then, coming back on the course with an apparently unassailable lead, his stamina ran out while Rummy barreled relentlessly on.

At the end of that decade, Alverton, winner two weeks previously of the Cheltenham Gold Cup under Jonjo O’Neill, was 6-1 favourite. He fell and was killed at Becher’s second time round. That fence is probably one of the few “traps” of nowadays and not until the field has rounded the bend soon after it has been negotiated will trainers and owners start to relax, replacing trepidation with optimism.

Jonjo had to wait 31 years to enjoy full consolation for that awful Alverton moment, when Don’t Push It under A P McCoy won the 2010 race for J P McManus. Victory for Cloth Cap and his owner, Grand National specialist Trevor Hemmings who has won the race three times, would rank even higher I would imagine.

Despite the recent paucity of authentic fallers there is always the propensity at Aintree for horses being taken out of the race through no fault of their own. The first fence is an obvious focal point with the possibility of a too-fast start, although the shorter run-up to the initial obstacle has taken some of the steam out of that.

The first big ditch at three and Becher’s first time (six) are then crucial, but after the next hairpin at Valentine’s (eighth) apart from another ditch halfway down the back, the horses can get into a rhythm and their jockeys start to plan a race.

It’s possible to come from a long way back at that point as long as the horse takes to the fences. We always think of the once-jumped Chair, the biggest fence in the field at number 15 and just in front of the usually packed enclosures, as terrifying. Quite often it seems the field can safely jump it, possibly because by then the horses have their eye in and fatigue is not yet an issue. Luckily, that fence is jumped only once, along with the water that follows virtually level with the winning line.

Anyway, by now we should be starting to hope that our fancy – or more realistically around the country the short-list most once-a-year punters like to start with – may still be in contention. All that remains is another two miles and the first 14 fences all over again, but at least the field will have thinned out somewhat by the time of second Becher’s.

I’ve not yet mentioned any other than Cloth Cap, who could win, and Vieux Lion Rouge who almost certainly cannot, but I think I may have come up with two slightly funny ones and a third for good measure away from the main contenders.

Firstly, I have a feeling that Anibale Fly could have been a long-term plot for this race by arch-planner Tony Martin. The 2019 Gold Cup runner-up to Al Boum Photo, he was strongly supported for that National and did very well, finishing fifth, around 16 lengths behind Tiger Roll in his second win, conceding 5lb and carrying top-weight.

He didn’t beat another horse in three chases when returning to action last season, only getting in the frame on his last appearance when third in a hurdle race. The Martin/ McManus 11-year-old was off the track for a year until his reappearance in a Grade 3 at Fairyhouse in late February where he trailed around in a five-runner field. You can bet if he turns up on Saturday he’ll be fully primed and he’s come down a fair bit in the weights.

Much lower down, I think I might have landed on what in retrospect might prove the cleverest plot of all. When Blaklion was bought for £300,000 in 2019 as a potential future Grand National winner for owner Darren Yates, he was sent originally to Philip Kirby.

Blaklion, who was bred by Mary, wife of Hughie Morrison, had tried twice already at the big race for his original trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies. In 2017 he went clear three fences out but tired into fourth up the run-in. The following year, conceding 11lb to Tiger Roll, he was again one of the main fancies but was brought down at the first fence. In between, the gelding had won the Becher Chase of 2017 from a big field in a hack canter.

Now he is with Dan Skelton who gave the 12-year-old plenty of time to recover from an autumn setback, bringing him back for two conditioning runs over recent weeks. His chance this year is probably most accurately reflected by his 50-1 odds, but in a year which could end up as a title-winning one for Harry Skelton, why should not Blaklion replicate his contemporary Vieux Lion Rouge’s love of Aintree?

Blaklion has the feather-weight of 10st 2lb to carry on Saturday. A chip on him, another on Anibale Fly, and a last one to make it a veterans’ trio with Nicky Richards’ Takingrisks. His last win at Doncaster was something of a shock (40-1!) but featured the same runner up (Aye Right) as Cloth Cap at Kelso.

I think I’ll mix the three of them with the favourite in multiples and back all three each-way singly. Good luck and I bet, like me, you wish you could be there! Still, fingers crossed it won’t be long before we all can. See you at Royal Ascot, maybe?

Monday Musings: Hope for the future, and Cope from the past

Five a.m. on the second day of BST and I was still uncertain what to write about. It was tempting to go along with the thought that John Gosden, 70, on his own was never as potent a trainer as he has become with the addition of son Thady, 25, as joint-licence-holder, writes Tony Stafford.

Five Saturday wins on the second day of their newly-shared role at Clarehaven Stables followed a first-day victory with Coronet’s sister Regent at Lingfield on Friday. But not just any old wins. Two in the first two races at Kempton for Rab Havlin; Haqeeqy at Doncaster in the Unibet Lincoln on the opening day of the 2021 turf Flat season; oh, and £4 million quid’s worth with two easy wins on World Cup day at Meydan.

Races like the Cambridgeshire over the past few years have become almost cannon-fodder for Gosden and the way he is able to go into major handicaps with horses still in the embryonic stage sets him apart.

Lord North, one of the father-and-son team’s two Meydan winners, had been rated 98 when winning the 2019 Cambridgeshire but he has long since graduated to Group races and before Saturday was 25lb higher. Even that figure looks likely to get another hike tomorrow after a cantering win coming from last to first under Frankie Dettori on Saturday in the Dubai Turf over nine furlongs.

The Italian had to share Dubai’s riding riches with David Egan, who won on Mishriff in the Dubai Sheema Classic. The horse, winner of the lavishly-endowed Saudi Cup last month, brought his career earnings beyond £10million when holding on from two Japanese five-year-old mares.

Egan is clearly a young rider with a big future, though 7lb claimer Benoit de la Sayette could have the ultimate career, not that it’s ever easy to predict on such scant evidence. But for a rider having his first ever ride on turf to come through and win the Lincoln so easily and cheekily on Haqeeqy, with a late swoop after Brunch appeared to have pinched it, was unusual to say the least.

“Benny And The Jets”, as I have to call him – it’s the only way to remember the name – has already won nine races from 30-odd rides adding to one from one last year. I can’t remember another claiming apprentice of such promise being attached to the Gosden yard. [Gosden has not had an apprentice for 30 years, so no failing memory. Ed.]

Haqeeqy’s win was poignant for John Gosden as he is owned by Sheikha Hissa, daughter of Hamdan Al Maktoum, the colossus of the turf, as owner and especially breeder, who died last week aged 75. His death must have left a pall over Dubai World Cup night when sadly his colours, now racing as the Shadwell Estate Co, did not enjoy much luck.

Godolphin did win two, including the World Cup in which the Michael Stidham-trained Mystic Guide justified favouritism with another easy win for American stables in this valuable dirt race. Earlier, the same colours had a last-to-first win with the gelding Rebel’s Romance, who gave Charlie Appleby a first UAE Derby success. He is set to challenge for the Kentucky Derby, a race Sheikh Mohammed has long coveted.

Xxxx

Anyway, here I am, having not wanted to major writing about Saturday because I’ve been waiting for a couple of weeks for a suitable time to talk about a most remarkable – for me anyway – little publication that George Hill sent me as an antidote to lockdown.

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It’s the 1950 version of Cope’s Racegoer’s Encyclopædia – with the “a” and “e” on the cover properly diphthonged – and it’s a remarkable insight into how racing was conducted in those days. The book was published from the immediate post-war years to the early 1960’s.

Alfred Cope, one of the major bookmakers at the time, pens two of many interesting articles. The first is why he goes racing, the second how his off-course mainly postal and telephone business was conducted. That was more than half a century before the Internet came to enrich or diminish our lives, depending on your viewpoint.

Cope talks about regular racegoers coming to the end of each season with energies spent, yet by the time that Lincoln’s Carholme racecourse – long lost to the sport, but written about on these pages back yon - rolled around for the start of the Flat season, “people were looking up train times and booking hotels with renewed energy”.

Of course that was a quarter-century before the advent of all-weather racing, so Flat horses that didn’t get on the track by November, had an almost five-month wait.  It wasn’t easy for the tracks either, for example Chester and Goodwood, now both racing throughout the Flat-racing year were each restricted to a single four-day fixture, Chester in May and Goodwood in July.

During 1949 racecourses had to survive under the iniquity of Entertainment Tax. Epsom’s Managing Director at the time, Mr C J L Langlands, wrote in a letter to a newspaper that of every £1,000 taken at the gate, £458 (at 45.8%) was paid in Entertainment Tax, £403 in rates and after lesser amounts for Profits and Income Tax, £69 was retained by the Epsom Grand Stand Association Ltd.

Admission costs have always been high in the UK compared with say France or the US but even £50 or even more for some of the bigger meetings today represents a bargain compared with the post-war years.

In 1950, the average weekly wage was around £2. Cope writes about the normal cost to go in Tattersalls enclosures was 30 bob - £1.50! When I was a kid in the 50’s we always went in the Silver Ring.

Two articles that most attracted my attention were one discussing the likely apprentices to watch out for as the 1950 season approached, along with another assessing the potential Classic horses of that year. Palestine, beaten in the 1949 Middle Park Stakes, had been the overwhelming favourite until then. The following spring, as a 4-1 shot, he did indeed win for the Aga Khan, grandfather of the present Aga, narrowly from Prince Simon, who then was beaten in another close finish to the Derby.

Also there was an intriguing re-printing of the memoirs of the great trainer from the previous Century, John Porter. He minutely chronicles the life of the great Ormonde, easily the best horse of his – and most other – times and unbeaten winner of 15 races including the Triple Crown in 1886.

Porter retells not just his races, but the gallops on the way including his work opponents and the weights carried as he approached his first race in the late summer of 1885. He relates that, as a young horse, Ormonde developed splints under both fore-knees which prevented him flexing them properly. “The growths were however dispersed by applications of Ossidine, a preparation I have always found to be the best remedy for bony excrescences.” So now you know.

Everything about his three years on the track and the gallops was related in atomic detail, including the awful day leading up to the St Leger when he first gave signs on the Kingsclere gallops of the wind infirmity which was eventually to curtail his racing career and blight his disappointing time at stud.

By the end of his three-race four-year-old season Porter was dealing with a “roarer”, who was so badly afflicted that “On foggy mornings you could hear him half a mile away before you could ever see him”. He did sire a Derby winner in Orme from a small initial crop but was bought soon after to stand in Argentina. For several years, with fertility declining almost to nothing, he moved back and forth to England and had a number of ownership changes.

At last in May 1904, Ormonde’s last owner, the American William Macdonough, thought it humane to have him put to sleep and this happened with the help of chloroform. He was buried at Menlo Park but as any schoolboy or schoolgirl that has visited the National History Museum in London would tell you, his carcass was exhumed and his skeleton re-constructed to stand proudly in Kensington.

The article about apprentices was most interesting. Written by Ainslie Hanson of the Sporting Life, and entitled “Looking for another Gordon <Richards, winner of 26 Flat-race titles> among Apprentices”, it says “Raymond Reader and Billy Snaith show exceptional ability.”

Snaith, who died two years ago, aged 91, did indeed do well, riding many winners for the Queen. He will always be remembered by Willie Snaith Road in his adopted home town (he was Gateshead-born) which is one of the main arteries in Newmarket.

The next talented young man mentioned was Emmanuel Mercer, elder brother to Joe, and already coming to the end of his apprenticeship which in those days was a strictly-tied seven-year process. Manny Mercer, father of Caroline (wife of Pat) Eddery, was to die in a fall before a race at Ascot a few years later having been kicked in the head at the start when one of the leading jockeys of his time.

Nine apprentices are mentioned as having the potential of possibly becoming a champion jockey, but Reader is the one the writer has no hesitation in naming his apprentice of the year.

Then later he describes among the nine, one schoolboy who “still weighs less than five stone, but who rode a couple of outstanding races towards the end of that season”. In one, riding an outsider he beat Doug Smith, the regular runner-up to Richards in the title race, in a thrilling finish.

It was only in the August of the previous year that this son of Keith, a successful Flat and jumps jockey turned trainer, and grandson of Ernie, a dual Grand National-winning jockey, had his first winner, The Chase at Haydock Park.  He is of course Lester Piggott and at the time of that first win he was just 12 years old.

The two wins referred to in this article also came before his 14th birthday and by the time he was 18, he had already ridden Never Say Die to win the first of his nine Derbys. I can still hardly believe that he asked me to travel with him on both his first two days riding after his release from prison.

Beaten a short head at Leicester in the first race on Monday October 15, 1990, he also rode future Cheltenham Festival winner Balasani for my friend Mark Smith. They were unplaced and Balasani was to move to Martin Pipe soon after from John Jenkins.

I was tasked to bring the car round for a quick getaway after his last ride but, naturally struggling to move back the seat after 7st wet-through Bryn Crossley had driven up, and then failing to hear the Mercedes’ very quiet engine, I missed the appointment by enough time for Lester to be besieged by the media!

Then on the Tuesday, flying down to Badminton and from there by taxi to Chepstow, the great comeback was put in motion when Nicholas, trained by wife Susan for Danzig’s owner Henryk De Kwiatkowski, won a small race. This first win came aged 54, and was an event we celebrated that night in a first-person piece in the Daily Telegraph.

The following month Lester rode Vincent O’Brien’s Royal Academy to an amazing late-finishing triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, a week short of his 55th birthday and exhibiting all the strength shown over more than 40 years. Lester happily is still around, and that little brown-covered and rather shabby book has many more secrets for me to unfold as we hopefully get back to normal after this awful twelve months.

If you fancy getting hold of a copy, I noticed one for that year, and most others, available on eBay, George’s full-time job these days.

Monday Musings: So Many Questions

As one trainer told me on Saturday morning: “It’s just a question of money”, as he explained his view of the Irish domination of the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, writes Tony Stafford. They’ve dominated a few but never like this.

Just a quick look at the last two years reveals that the home team had ten wins and 36 places (up to fourth) last year and a paltry five wins and 41 places last week. So there was a similar number in the principal placings year on year, still making for an inglorious 41% especially as we comprised 60% of the runners, 238 to Ireland’s 163 over the four days.

The win figures are obviously much more worrying with 82% of the first prizes going back across the Irish Sea. Of course the proceeds of a fair number of these, such as the trio of Cheveley Park Stud winners, will be crossing back into their UK coffers.

But my concerned informant on Saturday was not only regarding the money owners are prepared to pay to buy the best stores. As he said, “usually everyone knows well beforehand which the most promising horses are. They are lined up to win a point impressively and then go to the sales immediately afterwards generally going for hundreds of thousands of Euro”.

He was even more irritated that owners who have stayed with their UK trainers get such a poor reward for winning races. He said: “If an owner wins three 0-100 races in a season with a horse, he cannot get back much more than half a year’s training fees. That mustn’t be allowed to continue,” he said.

“A comparable level of race in Ireland is usually worth roughly double and even more so in France. It’s getting to the stage that more and more of what we thought of as good middle-of-the-road and very loyal owners are either packing up altogether or jumping ship and sending their horses to Ireland.”

When Cheveley Park, who for so long have been the biggest domestic owner-breeders in the UK for Flat racing, decided to target jumping, that aspect was stark enough. Their blueprint was to pay to access the most admired stock and send those horses to the best Irish trainers, targeting the lucrative top end of the market where, even in the UK, Grade 1 jump races are worth winning.

Gordon Elliott had been their principal trainer, but Henry De Bromhead and Willie Mullins were also on their team so when that picture was released onto the internet, it was easy to understand Mrs Thompson’s actions. She after all owned a Grand National winner [Party Politics] and is a noted horse-lover.

Whereas Envoi Allen fell last week, thereby losing his career 100% record, Quilixios (De Bromhead) and the bumper horse Sir Gerhard (Mullins) duly won for their new trainers. They each showcased the talents of Rachael Blackmore, no longer merely the best woman rider the sport has seen but champion rider at Cheltenham 2021 with the additional accolade of being the first female jockey to ride a Champion Hurdle winner.

And what a winner! Honeysuckle’s demolition of her field, including the dethroning of Epatante was one of several exceptional performances, usually for Irish horses. Then again if you win 23 of 28 it’s a fair bet that the most impressive winners will have been in your team.

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Quilixios, so dominant in the Triumph Hurdle, beat his former stablemate and the race favourite Zanahiyr into a disappointing fourth. Denise Foster did get her name on three Cheltenham winners including the peerless Tiger Roll, who was collecting his fifth Cheltenham Festival race when turning over last year’s winner Easysland in the Cross-Country.

Given the way he won, owner Michael O’Leary would be excused for wishing he hadn’t withdrawn his dual Grand National winner from this year’s race. It seems to me his irrational complaint at the handicapper’s idea of his horse’s ability was shown to be misguided by a superb performance.

Grand National handicapper Martin Greenwood had given Tiger Roll a rating of 170 (including a small premium for his Aintree excellence) in this year’s race.  After his 18-length demolition of the French favourite, who has a UK mark of 167, Greenwood could have argued Tiger Roll to be thrown in on 170.

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The Sneezy Foster issue is causing the Irish racecourse experts on Racing TV some delicate problems. I’m sure I heard the other day that the “Denise Foster stable has won this race <can’t remember the number> many times.” She amassed 13 winners in a fortnight home and away also including the ridiculously easy handicap scorer Mount Ida who was tailed off to halfway, hardly jumped a fence properly yet won the Kim Muir by six lengths in a canter.

The same was true of The Shunter who never really looked to be galloping or jumping properly yet just as comfortably collected a £100,000 bonus for Emmet Mullins after adding the Paddy Power Plate to his Kelso Graded hurdle win 12 days earlier.

That was a shrewd piece of work by Mullins as had The Shunter won a chase in the lead up to the Festival, of course he would have incurred a penalty [not that that would have necessarily stopped him, Ed.].

Nine of the 28 races at the meeting are handicaps. On the first day only two Irish runners lined up for the Ultima Chase and neither got in the placings in a 16-runner affair left to the home team and won by Sue Smith’s veteran Vintage Clouds at 28-1.

Half the 22-runner Boodles Handicap Hurdle were Irish, including the 80-1 Noel Meade-trained winner Jeff Kidder. Another big-priced success was the all-the-way five-length Coral Cup victory of 33-1 chance Heaven Help Us, the understandable sentiment for trainers of the 19 UK runners in a 26-horse field who toiled in vain from the off.

The Johnny Henderson Chase brought a brief respite from the handicap onslaught when Entoucas, one of seven invaders in a field of 19, could manage only second to Jonjo O’Neill’s Sky Pirate after horlicksing the second last. Maybe Joseph O’Brien should ask for some respite if his horse travels over for Aintree!

There were five Irish among 21 contesting the three-mile Pertemps Handicap Hurdle on Thursday. Three of them made the first four with Mrs Milner another to brush away the opposition ahead of Mrs Foster’s The Bosses Oscar. That was just the aperitif to the dominant displays later that day of Mount Ida and The Shunter, both of whom were backed as if defeat was unimaginable. So it proved each time.

Day four we had two of the most difficult races, the County Hurdle where 16 of the 25 were Irish-trained. The Belfast Bullet (33-1) led home yet another one-two ahead of Petit Mouchoir, Peter Fahy getting the better of the ex-Gordon Elliott runner.

Finally we had the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. Willie Mullins, second-best to De Bromhead all week when his rival added a Gold Cup 1-2 with Minella Indo and A Plus Tard to his Champion Hurdle success, needed to win to wrest the leading trainer at the meeting title from him.

All week I’d been waiting for Gentleman De Mee for this race.  A French import with scant and questionable form, Mullins had only allowed him one winning run and the guess was there would be plenty more to come. A glance at this horse’s ownership – a certain J P McManus – was the deal clincher and as he set off at the head of his field the 4-1 favourite had to be the one.

But was it? Most of the way round as the leader looked less than comfortable, a certain Galopin Des Champs, trained by, oh dear, Willie Mullins!, was tracking him going so smoothly. That morning I’d had a call from my friend Steve Gilbey saying he met an Irishman the day before. “He gets some good stuff and he says that Mullins will win the last, but not with the favourite”, which I’d already told him I thought would win.

He said: “it ran behind Appreciate It last time and would have been much nearer than he finished but for making a mistake two hurdles out.” Appreciate It, blimey, I wish I had.

As Gentleman De Mee dropped away, there on the inside was Galopin Des Champs, who cantered into the lead up the hill. As well as denying Henry De B, he also foiled the week’s second attempted bonus by Dan Skelton’s Langer Dan, the brave runner-up.

Steve was straight on the phone afterwards: “Hope you backed it!”  In the immortal words of punters who don’t listen to pearls of wisdom from random Irishmen at Cheltenham-time: “Only small”.

Seriously though, seven winners from nine handicaps suggests that something is going wrong somewhere. They don’t just win, they win pulling carts. Great if like Steve you hear about the right one. I’m sure the top trainers over here will be asking some questions about what seems almost like a series of very valuable open goals.

When their horses win ordinary handicaps, say in heavy ground, here they can often be raised by 10lb or even more. It seems the idea of handicapping in the UK is to be punitive in the hope of preventing multiple wins. That reality, coupled with that very obvious lack of prizemoney makes it all so soul-destroying.

Then you get the Irish coming to Cheltenham and many of their handicappers are getting in with what are obviously much more competitive marks.

Something clearly needs to be done.

 

Monday Musings: And the Seven Dwarfs

In previous years – the last 50 of them anyway – I would have been spending the last couple of weeks building up for Cheltenham, not always to attend every day as for the first half of that time anyway I was required in the Telegraph office in Fleet Street, writes Tony Stafford.

This time round, after 365 days without visiting any track, I’ve been engrossed in solving a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle and last night I counted exactly 100 almost identical remaining pieces to be placed. Instead of heralding the imminent Spring Equinox and the pushing forward of the clocks I’ve remained in my pre-second Covid-19 jab no man’s land. The target of Newmarket’s Craven meeting is the possible time for my return to the real world.

I wonder if it’s any different for pensioners in Ireland, as in the case of 67-year-old Mrs Denise Foster as she’s officially referred to, the new holder of the trainer’s licence at Cullentra House Stables.

During last week, the BHA was reportedly requesting further clarification about how that stable’s operations would be conducted subsequent to Gordon Elliott’s six-month suspension. No doubt those questions have been answered satisfactorily by the Irish authorities as her six declared runners were duly accepted at Sunday’s 48-hour stage.

There seems to have been little discernible change in the domestic operation. Elliott had seven wins (including a last-day four-timer) from 31 runners in his final week and Foster won five of 25 in her first. Each licence holder’s wins came predominately with favourites (of which there are always plenty) with the odd double-figure winner for good measure.

Denise won’t be anywhere near Cheltenham this week with the short time available to make the necessary Covid-related arrangements being cited as the reason. Elliott will not be there either, nor (voluntarily) will he attend race meetings or points in his home country for the period of the ban.

He’s not the only banned trainer with a new man holding the licence. Charles Byrnes, whose own six-month sabbatical has started after one of his horses was found to have had a non-permitted drug in his post-race sample in Ireland  - also twice in the UK, has found a new man in William O’Doherty to take over.

They instantly clicked when Thosedaysaregone won a qualified riders’ Flat handicap at Dundalk on March 5. The winning rider was a certain Mr P Byrnes, no doubt a relative of the “resting” trainer and a sibling of Cathal, the assistant trainer implicated in the team’s dereliction of duty – viz leaving the horse unattended while having lunch with his dad before the race in question at Tramore.

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Interestingly, that was O’Donoghue’s only Flat-race runner in Ireland for at least five years and he has hardly been keeping the Irish racing secretariat too busy with his jumpers either. This season he has been unsuccessful with any of his four runners and it was a similar case with his 13 contenders the previous season.

He took the previous year off, runners-wise, possibly too busy celebrating after the heady heights of a winner from only two starters in 2017-18, but that was his sole success from a total 68 jumps runs in the last ten years.

His time with the Byrnes licence is already ending and a new man is on the block in the shape of Robbie (R P) Burns, whom Charles Byrnes relates had ridden for him in the past.

Auld acquaintance clearly has not been forgotten then in the case of the latter-day Rabbie who has been just as sparing with runners as O’Doherty. Over jumps his latest came in the 2018-19 season with six non-winners, repeating the results from seven and two starters the previous two seasons.

In all, three winners have come from 53 jumps runs in the past decade. On the Flat in Ireland between 2007 and 2018 he has had a total of 95 runs – none for the past three years to date - with no wins.

Three runners in the UK, once each in 2009, 2016 and the following year brought a winner at Wolverhampton on the middle occasion. Burns sent over the modest handicapper Abrahams Blessing, an eight-year-old owned by Mrs Dianne Burns and ridden by Silvestre De Sousa for a two-mile handicap but it proved a bitter-sweet occasion as he collapsed and died after the race.

Wolverhampton’s management might have felt, in the words of one of the Scottish Bard’s contemporaries and fellow poet and songwriter “Will Ye No Come back again”. I thought that was another Burns song but it was penned by Caroline Oliphant, Lady Nairne, whose family were noted supporters of Bonny Prince Charlie.

This R P Burns takes over the operation of his near-namesake, and son Cathal Byrnes has been confirmed in his existing role as the assistant. Meanwhile Charles Byrnes is allowed to go to the races and even lead up his horses. You might think, given the limited experience and scant success of the initial and present incumbent that Charles Byrnes is probably still very much the governor as must be Gordon Elliott.

The old “saddled the winner” cliché has long been a factual rarity with trainers only going racing nowadays when it suits with television coverage as it is. In the case of Denise Foster at Cheltenham anyway such a phrase will not be valid but don’t be surprised should it still be trundled out in customary lazy hack fashion.

Training by zoom has to be the next step on from these post-suspension fudges and in homage, not to the far from lovable The Three Stooges of pre-war film fame, but the Seven Dwarfs, I will attempt to try to find out how Gordon Elliott came to settle on Mrs Sneezy Foster.

Clearly previous training experience might be seen as an advantage but who’s to say that when it came to “Bashful”, had Matt Chapman made the cut, I’m sure he could have persuasively argued the toss even with the crusty old gentlemen that run Irish racing.

“Doc”, in the Disney film the boss of the vertically-challenged septet and the man who kept all the others up to the mark, could only be Dr Richard Newland. On further consideration, though, in the midst of the pandemic, the former GP and, like Elliott, a Grand National-winning trainer, was probably needed elsewhere and over-qualified anyway.

Two candidates for “Dopey” but unfortunately nobody seems to know the whereabouts of first choice Mahmood Al Zarooni. A more up-to-date candidate, French-based Andrea Marcialis, is unavailable as he is in the midst of an ever-lengthening ban as the 30-odd instances of doping his horses continue to be worked through by the French turf authorities.

“Grumpy” has to be Sir Michael Stoute. He certainly was that day when I tried to interview him after a winner, saying on our first encounter that I was Tony Stafford of the Daily Telegraph.  “Tony Stafford of The Racehorse you mean. And Greville Starkey was NOT playing statues on that horse <from memory I think Greenhill God> - you have to ride him like that!” I think he still regards me with a funny look more than 45 years later and almost as long since that publication went to the wall. Not my fault – the latter anyway!

“Happy” is  the ever-smiling except when thinking John Berry as long as he can wear shorts in midwinter and wellington boots. The latter appendage would fit well in Ireland in winter but the shorts might be less welcome in an 80-strong yard. Maybe some of the staff might not be able to concentrate seeing those knees at that time of the morning. Head shots only if he’s training remotely!

There were many more candidates for “Sleepy” on either side of the Irish Sea – viz any jockey fortunate enough to afford a driver on their many miles (especially over here) up and down the country. But then most of them know too much so watch out!

So it came to number seven and that was “Sneezy”. For Gordon and presumably the authority, it was the perfect match as she was already a trainer and was called Sneezy – perfect, so job done! I hope she enjoys remotely “saddling” her runners and it would be surprising if she didn’t end the week with at least one Cheltenham winner on her CV. It’s not very likely that she will have one next year, but if she wants something to fill any spare time she has when she stops training 300 horses I can send her my jigsaw as long as I complete it before the Craven meeting.

As I agonised all Sunday night – a short one admittedly – I had planned to go into old-school Telegraph mode and trot out my idea of the winners of the 28 races. I did that on a zoom call for a friend and one of his pals the other night but I’ve thrown away the notes.

I am pleased that Royale Pagaille goes for Gold Cup on Friday and stay with him and Venetia Williams. I’ve fancied each of the three main contenders in turn for the Champion Hurdle but as Honeysuckle was limited to the sole entry at a relatively early stage I take her to dominate the race and be a landmark victory for Rachael Blackmore.

But my bet of the week – one I’m irritated to see has been backed down to 12-1 – is the Olly Greenall-trained Homme Public in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle tomorrow. Young Greenall has had a great season, while Olly’s father Peter, Lord Daresbury, was a brilliant amateur rider in his day and he part-owns the French import.

He was a neck behind the favourite on his second and final run in France for Francois Nicolle and having bolted up at Market Rasen last time, would be an important winner for his up-and-coming trainer.

Monday Musings: Crime and Punishment

Sometime between Monday and Friday last week they got together and decided “Gordon’s not really a bad fella, so let’s not be too hard on him”, writes Tony Stafford. You could discern it in the columns of the Racing Post by his day-to-day journalist pals on the racecourse in Ireland as the original abhorrence to first seeing ‘that photo’ was gradually tempered into the “he isn’t really like that” version of the man.

So, by Friday, when the case was finally heard by the IHRB, everyone was patting himself on the back and saying a year ban, suspended for six months was “fair” and had “compassionate undertones”. By the weekend we heard Denise ‘Sneezy’ Foster, 67, who lives down the road and “has known Elliott for many years” was taking over the licence.

Apparently “she’s a legend” and has had ten winners – six Flat and four jumps – over the last five years from her small stable close to Elliott’s Cullentra House yard. If that qualifies her to run a stable which still had the mechanism to continue operations last week, sending out seven winners from 26 runners, including an up-yours four-timer last Monday at Punchestown, is another question.

The enormity of the operation in Co Meath, in the centre of the country, is mind-boggling especially in the context that its boss could often make do with Mrs Thatcher-like amounts of sleep after long sessions of partying and still be ready for the fray at dawn every morning.

It’s time to consider a few numbers. In the latest season, which of course was delayed by the onset of Covid19, Elliott has run 321 individual horses in Ireland. Today at Leopardstown he will send out (remotely I trust) the last six before handing over responsibility to Sneezy, taking his number of runners for the season beyond the 1,000 mark.

They have yielded 155 wins and earned €2.855 million. Over the past five years, 891 Irish wins have brought more than €20 million, only slightly less than the €24 million of his great rival Willie Mullins who this season, from fewer than half the runs, has 139 wins from 183 individual horses. Then there are the training fees on top. Who’ll be getting them?

I was intrigued by the six months suspended part of the IHRB ruling. What would cause its implementation? Would it require a similar offence to be committed in the interim six months? And if there is another similar historical photo in the ether showing him on a different stricken horse would that be the only situation in which the extra six months would take effect?

So let’s be honest. It’s six months from tomorrow taking him to September 8 and, while he does miss Cheltenham, Aintree and the big spring Irish Festival at Punchestown, from that point on, Galway apart, it’s something of a quiet off-season time for the top jumps stables in Ireland.

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When Nicky Henderson got his three-month ban in 2011 that ran from July to October and barely ruffled his feathers in practical terms. While unable to go into the stables during that period, he continued to live in the main house and the horses were paraded on the lawn in front of his lounge picture window each morning. Off from July to October when he never has much going on, he was back in time for the first meetings at Kempton. Do the words ‘carve’ and ‘up’ come to mind either side of the Irish Sea?

Elliott will be in situ during his suspension and, while he voluntarily stated he would neither go to any race meeting or point-to-point fixture during the course of the suspension, no doubt he could still offer advice to the new boss.

We like to think that the concept of a punishment suitable to fit the crime is still valid. But when you consider how easy in modern society it is for an unwise word to be regarded as of an offensive nature and enough to earn a prison sentence, the Elliott picture becomes clouded. For a couple of days, outrage was universal around the world and racing’s always delicate position with its vociferous opponents was perilous.

Penalties in horse racing can be draconian. Look, for example, at the case of Charles Byrnes, an acknowledged touch-merchant whose six-month ban for “inexcusable behaviour” and negligence surrounding the running of Viking Hoard at Tramore In October 2018 was confirmed at an appeal last month.

The horse, a drifter from 4-1 to 8-1 before the race, stopped suddenly with seven furlongs to run. He had been laid heavily on Betfair that day and on two further occasions when Byrnes sent him over to race in the UK.

Each time substantial five-figure bets were placed by a third party on Betfair and no connection to Byrnes has been established. The negligence case on the Tramore run was based on the decision of Byrnes and his son to leave the horse unattended for 20 to 25 minutes when they went for their lunch. It was obviously the “suspicious drift” and the big lay bets that alerted Betfair who routinely share such information with the authorities.

Returning to Mr Elliott, such was the disgust at the photo that on the 6pm BBC news last Monday evening, in the headlines, after the news of Covid and the rest, they turned to sport. The first and only headline item was that picture. I think Elliott was very fortunate that he didn’t get the full year the committee suggested it meted out.

Nicky Henderson’s three-month summer sojourn didn’t harm his career – if anything it had more negatives for his then two assistants Tom Symonds and Ben Pauling when they left to start their own training businesses.

So suggestions that Elliott will be in any way harmed by his own gentle sabbatical are probably over-stating the potential impact. Gigginstown, his biggest supporter, quickly stood firmly behind him and they are no longer recruiting from the point-to-point field, so he’s not missing as much there either.

*

Meanwhile, an inexperienced amateur rider felt the wrath of an Irish stewards’ panel at Leopardstown yesterday. Young Aaron Fahey, riding the newcomer Lake Winnipesaukee in the concluding bumper, was carried to the front of the field by his hard-pulling mount after four furlongs when the saddle slipped.

The horse continued going easily miles clear of the field until turning for home when he took the wrong course, going to the outside of a rail. Fahey, who has ridden three winners from 11 rides this season, told the stewards he was very tired and unable fully to control the horse which his father trains. They ruled him “negligent” and banned him for 14 days.

Clearly, it’s not what you do: it’s who you are.

*

Denise Foster won’t be going to Cheltenham with the Cullentra House horses, but never mind Sneezy, nor am I. Neither will French Aseel, who has had a setback – good job I switched Triumph horses to Tritonic (cough) - but then Sneezy still has some left in that race even after the Cheveley Park contingent jumped ship.

At last count her new stable has 111 total entries at the Festival many with multiple targets. I’m sure while she won’t be there she’ll be checking that Weatherbys have the correct bank details to send her the trainer’s percentages, which must come to a nice few quid.

One race she will have to watch closely is the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle on the final day. Of the stable’s 34 last-day entries, a dozen are in the race Elliott loves to win in homage to the time he spent at Pond House in his formative years before becoming a trainer.

Another Cheltenham absentee will be Alan Spence who will have no runners at the meeting with On The Blind Side waiting for Aintree. One race he will have in his sights before then, though, is the Dubai World Cup.

Spence part-owned and bred Salute The Soldier, who won four of 14 races when trained by Clive Cox, only once finishing out of the frame. The partners were elated when he was sold at the end of his four-year-old career for 380,000gns after reaching a BHA handicap mark of 104.

Bahraini owner-trainer Fawzi Nass was the buyer and, transferred to his Dubai Carnival stable, the gelding won twice at up to Grade 3 level in his first season there. This time round it has been two wins from three runs for the six-year-old, first a Group 2 and then on Super Saturday last weekend he made all to win Round 3 of the Al Maktoum Challenge, his first at Group 1 level.

I tried in vain looking on the Emirates Racing Authority site to see whether there’s a breeder’s prize for the winner. With $12 million to go round there ought to be and I’m sure Alan would have been checking even as his great favourite went over the line on Saturday. If not, he and former co-owning partner Mr Hargreaves might ask Fawzi for a hand-out should the Soldier beat off the American dirt stars on March 27 at Meydan.

Monday Musings: Tritonic to be the Spring King?

I was speaking to Micky Hammond a couple of weeks ago and he declared: “Winter has finished!”. I thought maybe he was rather precipitous as there were still great drifts of snow around much of the North of England and points further on, but he must have had divine inspiration from somewhere, writes Tony Stafford.

Often the Kempton Saturday meeting in late February has offered better ground than anywhere else for ages and as such provided a nice lead-in for Cheltenham Festival runners. February 27 2021 proved no exception.

Through this most depressing of winters, denied visits to the racecourse and resigned to watching horses slogging through the mud day after day on television, Kempton’s jumps track always provides the kindest of surfaces. No wonder Nicky Henderson opposed plans for its closure so vigorously.

On Saturday the three-mile handicap chase, which has had many identities, but was staged under the Close Brothers banner this year, was run in five minutes 51 seconds, one second FASTER than standard time.

Clondaw Castle was the meritorious winner. Trained by Tom George and ridden by Jonathan Burke, he led home a field of 17. Runner-up Erick Le Rouge, a 33-1 shot, had been successful on similarly fast ground at the corresponding meeting two years ago in a handicap hurdle while on that same card, Southfield Spirit, a faller when favourite for the Close Brothers, won the Grade 2 Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle for Paul Nicholls.

Micky must have been slightly irritated at the accuracy of his prediction as he chose the same weekend for the return to hurdling of stable star Cornerstone Lad in the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell yesterday. The ground had dried out appreciably there too and Cornerstone Lad, a proper mud-lark, was pulled up.

I always loved the late February meeting at Kempton which used to be a two-day affair on the Friday and Saturday. I know my memory plays tricks these days but I definitely remember one year (not sure which one) when at least half a dozen of the Kempton winners (and possibly a couple more) went on to success at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Adonis Hurdle will always be a favourite and its annual arrival unfailingly reminds me of the 2007 renewal which led to a 14-year connection with Raymond Tooth. Sadly Raymond’s association with racing has for now been curtailed but I will always be grateful to Punjabi and to Derek Hatter and Brod Munro-Wilson whose input that day hastened the union.

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Few winners of the race, which in 2007 and 2008 provided Nicky Henderson with the 2009 and 2010 (Binocular) Champion Hurdle winners, were more impressive than Saturday’s ten-length Adonis victor Tritonic, a fifth Adonis score for Alan King, equalling Henderson’s tally.

Tritonic, a 99-rated Flat racer, had been more workmanlike than spectacular in the Ascot mud five weeks earlier when a strong-finishing one-length victor from the Gary Moore-trained Casa Loupi. That horse, a far inferior performer on the level but still a tough campaigner, was again the main rival on Saturday.

Coming to the last flight it appeared that there would probably be only a slightly wider margin between them but once over the obstacle, Tritonic took off and sprinted away up the run-in in the manner of a Goshen in an easing-down ten-length exhibition.

Cheltenham has a habit of fooling us with its ground and many times I’ve been in a less than successful going prediction business, certainly not in the Hammond league anyway. At various Cheltenham preview nights I’ve suggested it will be impossible for it to be anything but soft and it often wasn’t. I don’t think it matters for Tritonic, who is down to 7-2 for the juvenile championship.

I feel I have to change my Triumph allegiance, with French Aseel showing no sign of a second run having transferred into the Willie Mullins team. Gordon Elliott still has a strong grip on the race with 2-1 shot Zanahiyr and third-best Quilixios (6-1) but he is making all the wrong headlines after the picture of him talking on the phone while sitting on a dead horse on his gallop started doing the rounds. Both the Irish authorities and the BHA are understandably on the Elliott case.

In these more sensitive times in terms of animal welfare it is little wonder that social media has been so much on this matter. I’ve been told that the belated release of the grotesque image many months after it was captured last summer is because of the ire of a scorned former paramour of the trainer! Whatever the truth of that, it’s a great story. As Mr Bolger instructed when I first contacted him back in the 1980’s: “No names!”

In those days in Ireland you never knew who was listening in. Nowadays there’s always someone taking a picture and it has an ever-ready target audience. No doubt in no time at all there will be a million “likes” of which 999,000 of them will be utter “dislikes”.

Anyway, I digress. Tritonic is a reminder of Alan King’s talent as a jumps trainer which to some extent has been slightly eroded in the public understanding because of his equal facility on the Flat. Considering he doesn’t have easy access to the top pedigrees but instead needs to develop his own talent, that success is even more meritorious.

Tritonic was a case in point. Bred by Kirsten Rausing, he was originally sold as a foal at Tatts December sale for 14,000gns to Tony O’Callaghan’s Tally Ho Stud. Eighteen months later at the lesser of the two Tatts Breeze-ups, with the benefit of the Tally Ho expertise, he realised almost a 300% increase at 55k.

He might not have seemed the obvious “breezer” in pedigree terms. He was by the German Derby winner – by 11 lengths! – Sea The Moon who won four of five career starts with his only defeat coming as a 2-1 on shot in his last run in the Grosser Preis von Baden. The four-year-old winner there, Ivanhowe, was later a multiple Group 1 winner in Australia.

King didn’t waste any time with his May purchase. Tritonic had his first start in July as an unconsidered 50-1 outsider for a Haydock 7f novice race and, bar taking a false step in the closing stages, could have been even nearer than fourth place, less than a length behind the winner.

He built on that with wins at Ffos Las in August and Newbury in September and was only a 6-1 chance when fifth to Max Vega in the Group 3 Zetland Stakes over 10 furlongs at Newmarket in October. Placed in four of his five attempts – including first time out at Royal Ascot – in good-class handicaps as a three-year-old, he had the benefit of experience without being over-raced. So when the trainer turned Tritonic to hurdling he already looked the finished article.

With two Triumph Hurdle winners, Penzance and Katchit - who as a five-year-old followed up in the Champion Hurdle - to his credit, King certainly knows what’s needed and, after welcoming his winner on Saturday, there was only one race on his mind.

Another of the Kempton winners that interests me is Cape Gentleman who travelled over from Ireland to win the Dovecote Hurdle in determined style after a tussle with the Dan Skelton-trained Calico, a decent horse in Germany before making an easy winning UK debut at Ludlow.

Cape Gentleman started out in the Nicolas Clement stable after being sourced as a yearling at Arqana’s Deauville sale by the trainer and his sales associate Tina Rau for €20k. After three runs and one win he was back at the company’s Saint-Cloud venue where Emmet Mullins bought him for €80k on behalf of owner Margaret O’Rourke.

It’s uncanny that Tritonic and Cape Gentleman had such similar increases in value between sales and are rated 1lb apart on the Flat: second time out for Mullins in the Irish Cesarewitch at The Curragh last September Cape Gentleman showed tremendous stamina and determination to win by a couple of lengths in a field of 20 after which his mark was increased from 85 to 100.

First time over hurdles he won well at Punchestown but then, in Grade 1 company over two and three-quarter miles at Leopardstown’s Dublin Festival three weeks ago, he was pulled up. That he could recover from those exertions and put in such a good performance within such a short time and back at two miles is testimony both to the horse’s constitution and his trainer’s skill.

Cape Gentleman has two Cheltenham engagements and is a 25-1 chance for both. With the run guarantee in many places, I reckon there will be worse each-way shots at considerably shorter odds on the day. Just two weeks to go.

I’d actually been asked to go to a friend’s house to do an on-the-day hosting of one of the days at the Festival for some of his pals who play for a Premier League team and love their racing. That was great at any rate until spoil-sport Mrs S pointed out that it was still illegal – and no doubt one of the lads would live stream the event, ensuring big fines all round. I had regretfully to decline.

- TS

Monday Musings: Saudi Success for Mishriff

In the latter half of last week’s missive I took you back to June 1989, writes Tony Stafford. Today I’m going another year, all but two days, and the eve of day one of Royal Ascot. The feature and only Group 1 event of the day, and in those days carrying more than double the prizemoney of the Group 2 Queen Anne and Prince of Wales’s Stakes on that afternoon, was the St James’s Palace Stakes.

I’d gone on the Monday evening down to Holland Park Road in leafy West London with trainer Geoff Huffer and I remember there was much discussion about whether Persian Heights, whom Geoff trained for Prince Yazid Saud (son of King Saud, the Ruler of Saudi Arabia in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s) should take his place in the field.

Until checking back I’d forgotten the reason for what was in effect a summit meeting as it entailed something of a gamble. Persian Heights had made his seasonal reappearance as recently as the previous Wednesday at Newbury, when he won a conditions race by an easy four lengths.

Obviously it was going to be a risk and I’m not quite sure why I was there, but there I was. Also in the house that evening was Tony Nerses, nowadays the brains behind Kuwaiti Imad Al Sagar’s bloodstock interests, but in those days the secretary for Prince Yazid.

Mr Sagar, with his then partner Saleh Al Homaizi, also a Kuwaiti, won the 2007 Derby with Authorized, trained by Peter Chapple-Hyam; and that victory has provided Tony with a great advertising vehicle. Whenever his boss has a non-home-bred winner, it’s always accompanied with “purchase Authorized by Tony Nerses”.

At some time later that evening, mid-discussion, Geoff and I crossed the road to another of the grand houses in that select enclave – God knows what they would be worth now!  I did look, you wouldn’t want to know!

There we met one of Prince Yazid’s fellow Saudi Arabian Royal family members, Prince Abdul Rahman Abdullah Faisal, and blow me down when on Saturday night his horse Mishriff, trained by John Gosden and ridden by 21-year-old David Egan, exceeded all previous expectations by winning the world’s most valuable race, the Saudi Cup, from the American-trained second favourite Charlatan, in turn ridden by one of the world’s most celebrated and successful jockeys, Mike Smith.

I’m delighted for the Prince who goes sometimes as Prince A A Faisal but more often as plain – well not so plain, just look at the Garrards of London-made all-gold trophy that’s almost as tall as its recipient – Prince Faisal. At home he needs the initials, there’s a bit of competition for that first name among the family.

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They were all friends and indeed relatives with the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman (late son of the present King Salman) of Thoroughbred Corporation fame. He won the 1999 Derby with Oath, four Triple Crown races in two successive years without managing to get all three together as well as umpteen other major races around the world.

Even before 1988, when they were very young men, Yazid and Ahmed were partners together in several good horses, often high-class sprinters trained by Bill O’Gorman running precisely in those two first names.

Well to cut a circuitous route slightly shorter, the decision was made. Persian Heights ran and won comfortably and, while never really graduating any further in his own career, he did leave an indelible mark on the thoroughbred breeding world by being the sire of the great stayer Persian Punch.

Winner of 20 of his 63 career starts for trainer David Elsworth and owner Jeff Smith, only four times did he step below stakes class and he won on all those four occasions. Sixteen stakes wins is right up there and I know from experience that Mr Elsworth never likes to worry about winning a small race when a tilt at a much bigger target is in his sights.

I bought Prince Yazid a few horses after my own first trip to Saudi Arabia in the late 1990’s to race in France where he was based at that time and I later lost touch. I know on returning home, he was in charge of arrangements for the Hajj where Muslim  pilgrims travel to the Holy City of Mecca, a journey they are required to make at least once in their lives.

Prince Faisal meanwhile was breeding some top-class horses to run in his purple, grey epaulettes colours from his prolific broodmare Rafha, winner of the 1990 Prix de Diane for Henry Cecil. The best was easily Invincible Spirit, a sprint-bred son of Green Desert who won seven of 17 starts for John Dunlop but turned into a phenomenal stallion for the Irish National Stud.

Initially standing at a cost of €10k, as his accomplishments increased so did his fee and, at its height from 2016-9, he commanded an investment of €120,000. Down to €100k last year it has taken another little trim to €80k, but his shareholders who took the initial risk won’t be complaining. After all that’s not bad for a 24-year-old!

Kodiac, his half-brother by top Classic sire Danehill, didn’t measure up as a racehorse. I met the Prince at Newmarket on a July Saturday in 2003 and we had a cup of tea together before his colt’s juvenile debut. He was optimistic before the race and was happy afterwards about his third place finish.

Four wins came from his 24 career starts, none in stakes, but Tony O’Callaghan, the shrewd boss of Tally Ho Stud, bought him and quickly turned him into the world’s most consistent and prolific sire of two-year-olds. His fee, originally €5,000, has been at a high of €65,000 for the last three breeding seasons and the now 20-year-old shows no sign of slowing down as neither does Tony.

It was remarkable that the Prince was so astute to secure the services of the then 20-year-old David Egan as early as he did in his career. Egan travelled to Riyadh for the meeting last year when Mishriff, on his three-year-old debut, finished second in the inaugural Saudi Derby.

Mishriff then returned to Europe and won a Listed race at Newmarket under Egan, but wins in the French Derby and a Group 2 at Deauville were unavailable to the jockey with the Covid travel ban in place. Ioritz Mendizabal and then Frankie Dettori were the happy recipients of Egan’s misfortune. He ran his only disappointing race, again with Dettori in the saddle, when unplaced behind Addeybb at the Champions meeting at Ascot in October on what Gosden has described as the worst ground at any UK meeting he can recall.

Saturday’s victory, on his first run since – this time Dettori was on an unplaced stable-companion – carried the astronomic winner’s prize of £7.29 million, so a nice windfall in percentage terms for Mr Gosden – whose handling of this home-bred colt has been masterful – and Egan. His opportunistic and unflustered riding has to be taken in the context of the opposition and importance of the day. How proud his father John, in the crowd and still a potent jockey in his 50’s, must have been.

Mr Sagar was in Riyadh for the weekend as was Hollie Doyle principally to ride his gelding Extra Elusive – who seemed not to enjoy the dirt surface – in the big race. To show in just how high regard she is held, she got the ride on the Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old mare True Self in a ten and a half furlong turf race and they won comfortably. Hollie’s share of the £439k first prize will keep partner Tom Marquand happy down in Sydney while he waits out his quarantine.

While the top two were from the upper end of racing’s hierarchy – the runner-up was a $700,000 dollar buy and ran for Bob Baffert - the third horse home has a much more proletarian heritage.

The five-year-old Great Scot was originally prepared for sale by Rachael and Richard Kempster of Kinsale Farm near Oswestry, Shropshire, and was led out unsold as a yearling for 2,500gns at the mixed Ascot sale. The Kempsters also got a less than brilliant result at the same venue when offering some disappointing Raymond Tooth horses also raised on their farm.

Unlike them Great Scot went on to race for a syndicate of owners – the Empire States Partnership and was originally trained by Tom Dascombe. Seeing the names involved at the time of that yearling sale, I suspect some footballers possibly associated with Michael Owen, who owns Dascombe’s stables, might have been involved.

He won four of 11 races, getting up to a rating of 111, so I expect they got a nice windfall when passing him on. Next time he appeared it was in last year’s Saudi Cup where he finished only 12th of 14 at 100/1 running off the boat as it were.

The latter part of last year was much more fruitful  with wins by 12 lengths and then three lengths before a four-length success in a £78k Listed race last month.

Intriguingly – I hinted there was a Prince Faisal or two – Great Scot is owned by Prince Faisal Bin Khalid (so son of a previous King) and trained by Abdullah Mushrif. Confused? You will be. When the Empire State Partnership people realise that yesterday’s run, still at 66-1 despite the three spectacular wins, earned this Prince £1,459,000 they will no doubt take a moment from watching the football on telly. As for the Kempsters, who run a very nice efficient farm where Punjabi has spent his retirement, they can congratulate themselves for their part in the story.

On the domestic front, Saturday also featured the reincarnation of Goshen, incidentally a son of Authorized, in Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle. Beaten three times since his last-flight fall in the 2020 Triumph Hurdle and in those defeats, showing little sign that he was still a smart performer, he slaughtered his field by 22 lengths, surely ending Song For Someone’s Champion Hurdle hopes.

More interestingly, as the ground dries out will the connections of Honeysuckle, so impressive last weekend at Leopardstown, start to think that maybe the mares’ race over an extra half mile will provide less of a gamble. Faster ground and two miles suits Goshen and almost certainly Epatante. Decisions, decisions!

Monday Musings: Of Coups and Separation

The Hollie Doyle/ Tom Marquand bubble will be stretched by a few thousand miles for the next two months, writes Tony Stafford. While Hollie contemplates a trip to Saudi Arabia for that kingdom’s big race, the multi-million-dollar Saudi Cup at the end of the month, fiancé Tom is bound for a return trip to Australia where he had such spectacular rewards last year.

It is fair to say that twin Group 1 wins on the William Haggas-trained Addeybb ‘down under’ instantly propelled him into the top echelon of Flat-race jockeys. Understandable, then, that he is prepared to spend the next two months – thereby missing the start of the 2021 turf season – on those lucrative shores.

The circumstances will be different though this year, as they will be for every UK resident not managing to secure an overseas “pass” in these days of limited air travel.

You need a valid reason for going but I‘m sure even the strictest enforcer of the rules will have agreed that travelling over to ride in races for a percentage of million-pound pots every few weeks is justifiable. Marquand will this time have to spend two weeks at the start of the trip stuck in a hotel room living off room service and, no doubt, Zoom calls to his beloved at the other side of the World.

Covid-19 first assailed, briefly relaxed its grip, and then re-established itself in Australia, where the discovery of a cluster of cases in a quarantine hotel in Melbourne which had been latterly free of the virus caused the removal of spectators from the Australian Open tennis championships halfway through a match on the main court towards the end of last week.

Luckily, Tom is bound not for Melbourne but Sydney where he had 30 wins during last year’s Autumn Carnival. Parting will be such sweet sorrow for the Golden Couple of horse racing but a few more big pots will help them hopefully on their way to getting a joint mortgage!

The two-week “house arrest” it seems will feature an exercise bike to keep the fitness up although if there are two better-prepared jockeys in the UK weighing rooms these days than Doyle and Marquand I would be surprised.

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Hollie’s principal employer, apart from the plum job she got last year with Imad Al Sagar, for whom she will be riding in Saudi Arabia, is Archie Watson. The Lambourn trainer has provided her with 115 wins from the 548 mounts she has had for his stable.

Watson and Doyle teamed up for the Group 1 win of Glen Shiel in the Qipco Champion Sprint at Ascot in October when it took all the rider’s strength to get him home from the equally-gallant veteran Brando in a desperate finish.

Watson, I was surprised to note on looking through his stats this morning, actually had quite a slip in numerical terms of winners between 2019 (133) and the comparatively-modest 70 last year, although quality – rather than the quantity that made his reputation – was the stable’s new focus. Now he faces an even quieter spell after antibodies of the highly-contagious EVA (equine viral arteritis) were discovered in one of his horses.

Watson has imposed an immediate halt on having any runners from his stable for the foreseeable future and is working closely with the BHA to ensure the outbreak is confined so as not to spread it through the racing community.

Jump racing’s recent hiatus with the ravages of one of the more aggressive winters of recent memory looks likely to get a reprieve for the rest of this week. Exeter managed half a card (no chases) yesterday but it is full speed ahead today at Warwick where the featured Kingmaker Chase pits the Skeltons’ highly-regarded front-runner Allmankind against Cheddleton and Sky Pirate.

It will be great to see horses of that class aiming to secure their places in Cheltenham Festival’s Arkle Trophy. I have in the back of my mind that Chaddleton, trained by Jennie Candlish, might be value at 6-1 in a four-horse race where the ground is sure to be very testing even at two miles.

I trust you will forgive what, by necessity, is a less comprehensive view of matters racing but there can rarely have been in the seven years or so that we’ve been going in this place – except of course from mid-March to May 31 last year! –so little of note happening on a racecourse .

As they say, even reminiscing about the past is not what it was, although uncannily on the morning that the last piece was landing in the inboxes of my correspondents and on this site, the events of June 10th 1989 were to be spookily rekindled.

Referring back to a planned four-timer for horses trained by Peter Hudson at the privately-owned Linkslade Stables of Al Deera Bloodstock Holdings – now Willie Muir’s base – following last week’s two-out-of-three attempted coup, I also had to recall that time a failed final leg.

By all accounts one of the architects of the Scottish-initiated bet would have won between £2 and £3 million had the third leg won. That’s the widely-touted figure and of course I have no intention of pointing a finger anywhere! But bad luck anyway, if that’s what it was.

What I can say with some accuracy is that Pharaoh’s Delight’s failure to win Leicester’s Sports Mercury Maiden Fillies’ Stakes at 8.45 p.m. on that Saturday evening some 32 years earlier cost the owner of the horses the best part of £250k – although getting the money from the 300 shops covered by Danny, Kevin, Paul, Lennie and my dad would not have been easy.

When it came to collecting the cash, my then 69-year-old father left those duties to his dog trainer, Paul Philpott, and Paul’s boyhood Homerton mate Roland, known as Boo, who for many years has been a noted collector of racing memorabilia.

Boo, who upscaled to Hertford years ago, has so much stuff, largely racecards and the like that he has had to take a lock-up to house it all. Recently he was asked to vacate the rented space as the owner had a better use for it and, while going through some of his collectibles from the 1980’s, came across the very Leicester racecard which I now have in front of me.

Pharaoh’s Delight was ridden by Pat Eddery that night and she had worked well at home although David Dineley, who had ridden her in work before the race, is still adamant more than 30 years on that he reckoned at the time she would need the run.

That wasn’t the trainer’s view and the now Norfolk-based garden designer was of the opinion she had the best chance of the quartet. The other three won well enough (at 11-2, 3-1 and 8-11) so £10k that had been placed in a variety of bets but the majority as Yankees, was shaping up to be a proper coup.

The plot thickened when Pat returned to the weighing room after her sixth place – “dwelt, headway halfway, eased when beaten final furlong”, said the close-up in the year-old Racing Post. Pat told George Hill - there as I couldn’t attend that night: “Bad luck, she’ll win at Royal Ascot.” She did, by just the six lengths in the Windsor Castle Stakes; and, for good measure, she won the Princess Margaret Stakes (Group 2) at Ascot and then the Heinz 57 Phoenix Stakes (Group 1) at Phoenix Park on her next two starts.

I wonder where Gallahers Cross, the beaten third leg of last week’s much grander coup at Musselburgh when shortened to 4-5 favourite, will run next. If what happened to Pharaoh’s Delight is anything to go by, the Daragh Bourke gelding, having his first race for more than a year, will bolt up next time – but that will be much too late! I expect they’ll see him coming!

Monday Musings: Willie Mullings and A Plot Awry

The Dublin Racing Festival, two days of the best jump racing in Ireland and perfectly placed five weeks before Cheltenham to offer definitive clues about the likely destination of many of its major prizes, did its job this weekend, writes Tony Stafford.

It also made the more than considerable likelihood that Willie Mullins will see off Gordon Elliott as champion trainer once again in their homeland into a formality. Fifteen races, mostly Graded and bolstered by some very valuable and fiercely contested handicaps, were framed. Mullins won nine of them, four of seven on Saturday and five from eight yesterday.

Elliott won one, in his juvenile hurdle niche where he still has the stranglehold on Triumph Hurdle calculations after Mullins decided that he needed to give French Aseel a little more time to settle into the stable routine. Ruby Walsh, the most brilliant race reader (Flat and jumps to be fair) I’ve yet to encounter on television let us in on that secret when discussing the Elliott winner Quilixios, who has supplanted French Aseel as second favourite at 6-1 behind his unbeaten stable-companion Zanahiyr, a 5-2 chance.

But elsewhere at least three Mullins Cheltenham candidates cemented their claims on major prizes next month. Last year’s Albert Bartlett Hurdle winner, Monkfish, maintained his unblemished record over fences in the 2m 5.5f novice and is now an 11/10 shot for the Festival (RSA as was) Novices’ Chase over 3m1f. If you think he’ll go instead in the shorter Marsh Chase you can have 7/1. Don’t take it because he won’t!

Saturday’s bumper winner, Kilcruit, bred by Willie Mullins’ mother, is now the 6-4 favourite for the Festival Bumper after a 12-length romp under the breeder’s grandson Patrick in Saturday’s Grade 2 event. The only problem with taking that 6-4 is that there are sure to be other Mullins runners in the race; but they will need to be good to beat this one.

Incidentally, when he made his debut at Clonmel last season, Kilcruit was actually beaten, and at the time was trained by Willie’s brother and the rider’s uncle Tony, who had such a spectacular summer with the staying German-bred mare Princess Zoe, winner of the Group 1 Prix Du Cadran at Longchamp last autumn.

Kilcruit turned up in Willie’s string for his seasonal debut at Navan in December where he won by almost ten lengths and, up in grade, had even more real estate and a good deal of extra goodwill to spare over Saturday’s rivals.

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A third certain Festival favourite will be yesterday’s easy novice hurdle winner, Appreciate It, now only 7/4 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. All three of these will have been heavily linked in multiple bets but the bookmakers are far less likely to be wrong-footed by these as they clearly were over the weekend by a very well-planned and almost as well-executed three-horse bet that could easily have repercussions for the far-sighted originators, or unscrupulous conspirators, according to where you stand.

Late on Saturday night, bookmakers, among whom Bet Victor have come forward to declare their hand, were assailed online by punters all wanting to back three horses, I would imagine in singles and linked multiples.

In Saturday night’s early betting they were all outsiders with only one – the middle leg, Blowing Dixie, at Southwell – having any realistic credentials according to yesterday’s Racing Post analyses.

Anyway, the three horses were firstly Fire Away, a 20/1 chance in the newspaper’s betting but double that the night before. In his last runs in Ireland he had been 7th of 15, beaten 38 lengths at 20/1; 14th of 25, beaten 25 lengths at 66/1; 8th of 11, beaten 26 lengths at 16/1; 6th of 8, beaten 39 lengths at 8/1; and PU of 16 at 8/1.

Those runs in Ireland took place between November 19th 2019 and March 2nd 2020. Transferred to Daragh Bourke’s Scottish stable he had three runs in late summer. They were 10th of 15, beaten 51 lengths at 50/1; 7th of 10, beaten 61 lengths at 20/1; and, last time out on September 16th, he started 50/1 and pulled up in a field of 11. Over the period his rating had fallen from an initial mark of 116 to 98.

Yesterday he was making his debut for a new stable, having joined Laura Morgan’s team near Melton Mowbray from Bourke only 11 days before the race. “He had two horses for sale and I originally had a different one in mind but chose him. I’m delighted I did,” she told Racing TV, understandably as he won the race unchallenged by 18 lengths at even money!

Leg two, Blowing Dixie, had won four races at Southwell, all of them over a mile and a half when trained by Jane Chapple-Hyam but, even so, for an 80-rated four-year-old Fibresand specialist to realise as much as £50k at last year’s July Sales at Newmarket might seem rather surprising.

Fetch it he did and, switched to the ultra-shrewd Iain Jardine, Blowing Dixie began a busy autumn schedule running six times between early September and late November. His card reads 7th of 7, beaten 25 lengths at 80/1; 8th of 9, beaten 22 lengths at 66/1; 7th of 8, beaten 28 lengths at 10/1; 10th of 13, beaten 21 lengths at 66/1; 5th of 6, beaten 16 lengths at 66/1; and finally 8th of 9, beaten 25 lengths at 17/2.

Starting for Jardine on a mark of 80, by yesterday he was down 15lb to 65. A 12/1 shot in the Racing Post, he started 4/6 and won by an easy two and a half lengths. His most obvious market rival, Drew Breeze, winner of two of his previous three races, started slowly and was never nearer than fifth of the eight runners, beaten 16 lengths at 13/8.

Daragh Bourke also figured in the third member of the overnight triumvirate. A former £260,000 buy from Tattersalls Cheltenham sale in 2017 after winning an Irish point and Galway bumper, Gallahers Cross didn’t win for Nicky Henderson and was sold on for £40k.

Between June 2019 and January last year he ran five times for Bourke beginning with an 8th of 9, beaten 48 lengths at 7/1, when the gloss of the decent placed Henderson form had not properly worn off. Next came an 8th of 10, beaten 62 lengths at 20/1; 11th of 12, beaten 54 lengths at 28/1; 7th of 7, beaten 39 lengths at 16/1; and, finally, last month, 7th of 8, beaten 50 lengths at 9/1. This time the official reaction to the string of poor performances was a reduction from 115 to 90.

So it is possible, even on the scantiest of scrutiny, to discern a pattern. Each of the three horses had a series of very poor runs from their respective (two, close together) bases in Scotland in the latter half of last year, and all three dropped just over a stone in the ratings and suddenly found form enough on the home gallops to persuade certain people to want to back them, and all on the same day.

The only thing that went wrong – possibly denying winning trebles into the thousands of odds against – was that Gallahers Cross, a 4-5 shot at the off, could finish only fourth of the seven runners, behind an all-the-way Paul Nicholls top-weight winner, Get The Appeal. Like Gallahers Cross, Get The Appeal is a son of Getaway.

As someone who set up a multiple bet many years ago which foundered at the final leg of four (when a future – two runs later! – Group 1 winner ridden by a multiple champion jockey finished unplaced), I can sympathise with those who thought their big pay day had come. On the other hand, any one of them whom I happen to know who didn’t bother to let me in on it – serves you right! But then, as with our try all those years ago that involved physically covering 300 betting shops, rather than pushing a few buttons on computers, two out of three isn’t bad.

Finally, it just remains to question how can any horse beat Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle after Saturday’s romp in the Irish Champion, a victory far more emphatic than last year’s? Tough, with plenty of stamina and unbeaten in one point-to-point and ten runs under Rules, surely the Henry De Bromhead mare can give Rachael Blackmore the distinction of being the first woman to win the Champion Hurdle. Sorry Epatante, unless Nico can contrive to make this a speed rather than a stamina test, her crown definitely looks to rest precariously on her head.

As Liverpool FC are finding, it’s one thing to win a championship, quite another successfully to defend it.

Monday Musings: Taxing Matters Pre-Cheltenham

It was good to see that Denise Coates, boss and joint founder of Bet 365, was still smiling (ish!) in the picture accompanying the story that she is once again the highest taxpayer in the UK, writes Tony Stafford. Not just the leader, but the Stoke-on-Trent based magnate has more than doubled her 2018-19 payment to HMRC of £276million. This time round it was a mind-boggling £573 million.

Fred Done of Betfred fame by comparison is a well-beaten third – behind distiller Glenn Gordon – on £191 million, showing if ever we doubted it that there’s generally only one side of the betting argument you want to be on and that’s not the punters’.

Talking of punters, many of the more successful ones – a large number of whom are paying subscribers on this site – complain these two firms are very selective about what bets and how much of them they care to accept liability.

Both are massive companies, especially Bet 365, even if their support of Stoke City FC hasn’t been over-successful in terms of results – I’d be amazed if their fans didn’t encourage Denise to open up her purse-strings an inch or two for today’s Deadline Day.

As its regular TV advertisements pronounce, they have 53 million customers around the world. Paddy Power/Betfair, the main domestic (Irish and UK) elements, along with Skybet, in Flutter.com, claim to have 13 million customers world-wide.

The Flutter.com site explains that their business, based in Dublin, obviously the home of Paddy Power (some of whose ads I love, much more than the exaggerated Cockney delivery of actor Ray Winstone – maybe he can’t help himself) is in five divisions.

Division I is Paddy Power/Betfair. Division 2 is TSG which includes the Stars Group containing Poker Stars. Division 3 is Sky Betting and another television stalwart, Jeff Stelling, is currently exhorting viewers to join the half a million customers that are accepting their policy of agreeing deposit limits in the admirable aim of protecting punters’ finances.

Their Division 4 embraces Australia’s major companies Sportsbet and Easybet while in the US Division 5 is earmarked as a major growth area. There, Flutter.com embraces Fanduel, FoxBet, the race broadcast company TVG, Poker Stars, and Betfair. They are concentrating on “online retail sports and online gaming and poker”. They claim to be the leading online sportsbook and casino operator in the rapidly expanding US market.

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So that’s Flutter.com with its millions of clients and no doubt Paddy Power, as the instigator of it all, has to pay a few Euro in his homeland to satisfy the authorities while clearly having financial obligations on this side of the water, too. Whatever the story, his very public face deserves to be the focal point for the sort of astonishingly questionable treatment of one of Betfair Sportsbook’s regular customers I learned about over the past week or so. No doubt, many others have similar tales to relate.

On Friday January 22, this customer, a former racecourse bookmaker, requested £100 each way at SP, on Bullion Boss, trained by Nicky Richards in a race at Musselburgh. He finished second at 3-1 favourite. Betfair Sportsbook was only prepared to lay him £3 each way.

On Friday at Doncaster he requested a £200 win bet on Donladd, again at SP. Donladd finished second at 8-1. The would-be customer was offered £1.25 win at SP.

Yesterday he wanted to back Escaria Ten, a chaser trained by Gordon Elliott for the three-mile novice chase at Naas for which the gelding was the morning third favourite in an eight-horse field. He asked for £150 each way at SP. They offered £4.67 each way.

Further, on the same horse ante-post in the National Hunt Novice Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, for which the gelding was priced up in their non-runner no bet market at 16-1, he again requested £150 each-way. He was offered 63p each-way!

Escaria Ten ran a very good race, finishing a closing runner-up to all-the-way winner Eklat De Rire and Rachael Blackmore, but ahead of his own stable-companion and the narrow favourite, Pencilfulloflead.

Judged on this performance you would have to say Escaria Ten has many of the credentials for staying the extra six furlongs of the Cheltenham race. No doubt Betfair Sportsbook will be thinking of trimming those odds. If my informer contacts them again, maybe they will increase his ante-post bet to £1 each-way, although whether they will be prepared to take on the extra risk is another question!

A month ago, I marvelled at the debut hurdles performance of the Ellemarie Holden-trained French Aseel, a son of French Fifteen who beat 17 others at Leopardstown by 22 lengths and upwards.  Predictably the Holden family seized the chance to take a profit on a horse they’d acquired at Arqana last summer for €62k.

He now resides in Willie Mullins’ stable and will probably take his next step towards the Triumph Hurdle at the Dublin Festival fixture back at Leopardstown next weekend.  A 6-1 chance at present, if French Aseel can beat the current market leader, Zanahiyr, in what is always a decent trial, he will surely go to the Festival as the hot favourite.

Naas provided a clue yesterday when the Dermot Weld-trained Coltor, who was runner-up on their respective debuts but by a margin that could easily have been increased a good deal had Denis O’Regan wished, won the juvenile hurdle from 17 rivals. As with all similar races at the major Irish tracks, the race was full of classy graduates from some of the top Irish Flat-race stables.

One big Cheltenham question was answered in the affirmative by Shishkin in the Lightning Chase at Doncaster on Saturday. The narrow winner of a very competitive Supreme Novice Hurdle last year, from Abracadabas, stable-companion Chantry House, and Asterion Forlonge, Shishkin had been sent straight over fences, echoing the previous Nicky Henderson pattern with Altior five years earlier, indeed in the same Kempton race.

An easy debut win and an equally facile follow up also at the Sunbury course sent him on his way and, although faced with only three opponents on Saturday, they were all decent animals. He was a 1-7 shot which seemed skinny enough but the way in which he asserted and drew clear after halfway was reminiscent of his eminent predecessor, almost making those odds look generous.

Now firmly odds on for the Arkle at the Festival he will be most people’s banker of the meeting, if such a thing still exists, and deservedly so.

The most valuable prize on offer in Europe over the weekend was not for a flat or jumps race but the €1 million total prize for what by my calculation was the 100th running of the Prix d’Amerique, trotting’s biggest race of the year in Vincennes, Paris.

Begun in 1920, it was halted for only two years during the early phase of World War 2 and its history is littered with many famous names. In the years before all-weather racing started – so pre-1990 – there was an attempt to educate the UK betting public in the winter to bet on French trotting.

I well recall Vincennes race programmes being published in The Sporting Life newspaper as winters in those days could be more severe than now, although this one is having a good go at following their example.

In the years coming up to 1990 I remember the name Ourasi, winner of three in a row, 1986-8, plus 1990 to make it a record fourth win, around the time that Conrad Allen was cheering home the first winner of the all-weather era at Lingfield Park. [I was delighted that his Little Eva, owned by Simon Lockyer, won at Lingfield for him on Friday and she could be one to follow in the coming weeks.]

Yesterday’s Prix d’Amerique’s winner, despite another 18-horse field, was never in doubt. A six-year-old, Face Time Bourbon had won last year’s big race and was a 4-6 chance to follow up. In almost Shishkin mode he went comfortably for home in the 2700-metre race at the entrance to the home straight and was never troubled in picking up the €450,000 first prize.

Now a winner of 19 of his 21 races – he was second in the other two – he was the automatic choice for most punters in France in the race which attracts even more betting revenue every year than the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. A son of another dual winner, Ready Cash, Face Time Bourbon is still an entire, so the demand for his services – trotting horses are usually artificially inseminated and often race on while their sperm is harvested– will be immense.

- TS

Monday Musings: Two Major Contenders from Left Field

At the age of 25 back in 1978 Kim Bailey took over the training licence from his father Ken at their family farm in Brackley, Northamptonshire, with the experience of having learnt his trade from three training greats, Humphrey Cottrill, Tim Forster and Fred Rimell, writes Tony Stafford. In 1995 he enjoyed the almost unthinkable achievement of winning both the Champion Hurdle, with the novice Alderbrook, and the Gold Cup with Master Oats.

Until Saturday they had been the only Grade 1 wins on his card. Now, 26 years later and in his 43rd year as a trainer, the still-boyish Bailey, greatly to his own surprise, can refer back to a wonderful performance by the nine-year-old, First Flow. After an end-to-end battle he emphatically saw off reigning Champion Two-Mile Chaser Politologue in Ascot’s Clarence House Chase.

Kim Bailey has, over the years, gone through a number of transformations and training locations as well as a major domestic upheaval and a Henry Cecil-like slump. That must have caused this consummate horseman to question whether he should continue to pursue his career.

Throughout, Bailey has always had the respect of his fellow professionals, even in the darkest days. The same was true of course for the future Sir Henry before the arrival of Frankel and the subsequent great loyalty – hardly surprising one might say – of Prince Khalid Abdullah. The recent passing of Prince Khalid could have significant implications for the future of many of the present-day’s leading Flat-race trainers.

Bailey’s own darkest years came in the first decade of the present century when in the four seasons between 2004 and 2008 he won respectively only six, six, nine and finally three races. Those three in 2007-8 came from 131 runs and produced earnings of a little over £29,000. Nowadays he characteristically has one of the higher strike rates, operating at close to 18%. Less than three per cent must have given him kittens!

The Racing Post statistics for each trainer includes a section at the bottom entitled Big Races Won. Between March 2002 and November 2012, a full decade, none of the Bailey winners qualified for entry in that section.

In more recent times, he has built up his business again at a modern farm in Andoversford, 15 minutes or so from Cheltenham. A great adherent to modern technology, he was moving around his snow-covered 70-strong yard on Sunday morning, reflecting by video on the previous afternoon’s exploits by one of three chasers that could be lining up in the top races at Prestbury Park in six weeks’ time.

As he progressed with his commentary, all the time he was sharing the credit, principally to David Bass, whose opportunist ride on First Flow he described as “one of the best rides I’ve ever seen”. Also earning his gratitude were various key members of his staff. If ever there was a benevolent boss, it is Kim Bailey, who stresses that any success achieved by Thornfield Farm is very much a team effort.

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That attitude will undoubtedly bring loyalty from the staff and he certainly has managed to keep a number of owners, among them First Flow’s, Tony Solomons, with him over many years. “Tony was one of my first owners all those years ago and I’m so happy for him. First Flow was not an expensive buy and he’s done so well for us,” says Bailey.

He certainly has. Saturday’s win for First Flow was his sixth in succession and his tenth in all from only 16 races over obstacles. The race was worth a few bob short of £60k and represented a nice early birthday present for his owner.

Tony rarely has more than a couple of horses in training but the retired banker also had tremendous success in recent years with the staying Flat handicapper, Nearly Caught. That smart gelding, trained by Hughie Morrison, won nine races and was placed 15 times.

His last win, as an eight-year-old, came on his final appearance when he easily won a Newmarket Listed race from an official rating of 107. That was his fourth Listed win, to which he could add a Group 2 victory at Deauville as a six-year-old. All of his five stakes wins and eight places came in his final three seasons’ racing.

While Bailey had some sparse years where major races were concerned, that could not be said of 2020 when he earned seven entries in that category. First Flow is joined by Imperial Aura and Vinndication as fellow high-class performers and Bailey hopes all three will make it to the Festival.

He regards Vinndication as a potential Gold Cup candidate. The eight-year-old is still lightly-raced and although he has yet to win going left-handed, he ran a blinder when only two lengths behind Cyrname in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby when starting out the present campaign at the end of October.

Bailey aimed him at the Ladbroke (ex-Hennessy) Handicap Chase at Newbury the following month and the gelding was still very much in contention when unseating David Bass five fences out (his only non-completion) under a big weight. The trainer hopes he will be able to prepare him in time to participate.

Until Imperial Aura’s unexpected early exit from his Kempton Grade 2 target a couple of weeks back he had been carrying all before him, adding two nice wins to his Cheltenham Festival novice handicap chase victory in March. Another eight-year-old, like his two stablemates he also has an enviable win ratio, seven from 12.

Nothing succeeds like success. From the dark days Bailey has now put together seven highly rewarding seasons, all bar last term’s 32 (for obvious Covid) reasons bringing between 43 and 61 wins and at least £400k in earnings.

With £450,000 already this term and more than three months to go, he could even get close to the £696,000 of the extraordinary Master Oats/ Alderbrook campaign when he had 72 wins from 312 runs, especially if things work out at the Festival.

It is hard not to be excited by First Flow, but one other horse produced an even more eye-opening performance the same afternoon. The Venetia Williams-trained and Rich Ricci-owned Royale Pagaille turned the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock Park into a rout and must be followed over a cliff for the rest of the season and beyond.

This race has had a proud heritage since its inception in 1981, with its early winners including the three Cheltenham Gold Cup victors, Little Owl, Bregawn and The Thinker. Jodami made it four a decade later, while its best recent champion has been Bristol De Mai, also a three-time winner of the Grade 1 Betfair Chase over the same course and distance.

Royale Pagaille was bought as an experienced four-year-old by French agent Guy Petit out of the Francois Nicolle yard in November 2018 at Arcana for €70k. He had won one of ten starts, a minor hurdle race at Pau, although he did have plenty of experience over fences after that victory.

Sent To Venetia, it was more than a year before he saw a British racecourse and his two runs last season before racing was summarily curtailed were hardly  earth-shattering. First, in a two-runner Chepstow novice chase he found the 150-rated Vision Des Flos predictably too good, trailing home almost ten lengths behind. Then, in a three-runner chase at Huntingdon he was miles behind the lower-rated pair Equus Secretus (Ben Pauling) and Lies About Milan (Fergal O’Brien) who fought out a close finish over the near three-mile trip. Those performances gave little inkling of what was to come.

Hence when Royale Pagaille reappeared for this season at Haydock on December 2, the son of Blue Bresil was the 11/1 outsider in a four-runner novice chase over two miles and five furlongs. He confounded those odds, very easily coming from the back to draw clear of the Kim Bailey-trained favourite Espoir De Romay, who carried a 5lb winner’s penalty.

After that, on the second day of Kempton’s big Christmas meeting, his winning margin of just over three lengths might not have been extravagant, but the style of the victory off his revised mark of 140 was such that the chase handicapper raised him 16lb to 156.

At no stage on Saturday did it appear likely that Royale Pagaille would have any difficulty in defying his new mark, travelling and jumping with utter authority. Conceding 20lb to the proven staying handicappers Just Your Type and Potters Legend, he was already a long way clear of the pair at the last fence in the heavy ground and it seemed as though Tom Scudamore could have doubled the eventual victory margin of 16 lengths over Potters Legend had he wished.

That suggests to me the chase assessors will struggle to keep his new mark below 170 and at the present rate of progress, further improvement could easily be forthcoming. That already takes him right into the top echelon of chasers. For the record, in its 41-year history the Peter Marsh Chase has never been won by a horse younger than seven, Royale Pagaille’s age.

Bookmakers are quoting Royale Pagaille for four races at the Festival, but if he was mine I would find it difficult to disregard the big one. There are many instances of trainers thinking their emerging horses are not quite ready but with the number of pitfalls that can assail them, those delaying plans often prove fruitless with the horses never actually making it to a later Gold Cup. And this one already has eleven chase starts to his name, so is hardly an inexperienced novice.

I’m suggesting you take the 12-1 (unless you can get better) for the Blue Riband of the meeting.  If you prefer to be safe, he is 8-1 non-runner no bet.

Monday Musings: It’s Jumping, but largely Flat…

Eight weeks tomorrow and the Cheltenham Festival 2021 will start as late as it can be, and almost a week later than last year. So it will be more than a year since I last went racing and, by the look of things, a good while longer than that yet, writes Tony Stafford.

My guess is that, once the vaccines start working and the latest stay-home admonitions get through people’s mindsets, the numbers affected – and more pointedly dying – will begin to come down.

A few of my friends have already had the call and I shouldn’t be far off, but the risk is that you get a rogue message from one of the ever-mushrooming scammers to invite you to an appointment. The clue is that they add: “but could you please send us your details”.

A few of those who have already been seen will have known scallywags and con-artists from London’s West End in the 1960’s and 70’s but they will tell you that the old-style villains never targeted the sort of people that seem to be most in today’s roll-call of victims. As this year-long agony continues I’m becoming totally sickened by the nastiness of modern-day life and how much the internet has helped it along.

Even a year ago, there was nothing like the feeling of today. But then we were actively trying to anticipate what might happen at the Festival. Now the trials come along and there’s no atmosphere. Nick Luck or Luke Harvey might be on track to say what they think and the odd trainer or jockey offers an opinion, but it’s all getting so homogeneous – so drab.

It was sad that David Thompson died recently, leaving his widow Patricia to try to enjoy the successes of the Cheveley Park Stud jumps horses in Ireland. Envoi Allen of course is the biggest star, and yesterday at Punchestown he maintained his 100% career record with another bloodless win in a beginners’ chase where Asterion Forlonge was supposed to pose a question.

One of the major Willie Mullins hopes for the future, this fourth to Shishkin (and in the same ownership as that one) in the Supreme Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham last March had fallen on his second chase start when odds-on at Limerick on St Stephen’s Day and repeated the error as early as yesterday’s opening fence.

That left Gordon Elliott’s seven-year-old to jog round at his leisure and complete an unblemished ten-race record under Rules to go with another in a point-to-point after which winning debut the Thompsons paid an eye-watering £400,000 for him.

If you needed to know just how unrealistic prices for the most promising jumping-bred horses can be, Envoi Allen’s ten wins still leave him just about £60k short of the owners getting their purchase money back, never mind training fees. That figure includes his two Cheltenham Festival successes, the first in the 2019 Champion Bumper, where he beat Blue Sari, Thyme Hill, Abacadabras and The Glancing Queen, smart horses all with the last trio having won nice races this season.

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I was about to say “already”, but even after an unusually slow start at the beginning of July owing to Covid we’re nearly two-thirds of the way through the campaign.

Saturday’s racing was entertaining enough – especially if you like horses stopping dead in the mud – but one horse that certainly did not was the Pam Sly-owned, trained- and bred-filly Eileendover who ran away with the Alan Swinbank Mares’ Open Listed Bumper at Market Rasen.

It was a day for the senior and distinguished ladies of the Turf. Pam, a sprightly 77, has run a mixed yard near Peterborough for many years and will always be known as the owner, trainer and breeder of Speciosa, winner of the 2006 1,000 Guineas.

She told Nick Luck after Saturday’s win she was never tempted to sell Speciosa despite the riches that would have bought, and Eileendover is a grand-daughter of the giant killer of her time. While it’s a long chalk from a Listed mares’ bumper to a Group 1 Flat race, her three wins have been way out of the ordinary.

I don’t know whether she shocked her trainer first time out – if she didn’t, I trust they had a nice touch! - but after making the short trip to Huntingdon for her debut she was allowed to start at 28/1 in a junior bumper over the “short” mile and three-quarters. She actually outran those odds, not just in terms of winning, but in numbers too, scoring by 29 lengths, almost unheard of in a 14-runner race.

That said, seven years earlier, an unraced three-year-old came down for the same race for his debut, bred by Ray Tooth but running in trainer Mark Brisbourne’s colours as the true owner didn’t want to be embarrassed. He won by 12 lengths and at 25/1. I seem to remember nobody had a killing that day either – I might have had a tenner on it and drinks with the directors were nice!

Next stop for Eileendover was Wetherby where, down by another furlong for a second junior bumper, she now had only 16 lengths to spare but at least the punters were more clued up as she started at 1-3!

On Saturday, as the only four-year-old in the field, she might have confounded a few punters as the much-publicised first UK runner for Willie Mullins since Brexit was signed and sealed; his mare, Grangee, was preferred to the Sly filly in the morning market before strong support for the domestic runner ensured Eileendover went off clear favourite by race time.

So it proved as Paul O’Brien allowed her to track Grangee while outsiders cut out the pace, and when the main rival moved, O’Brien went with her, but very wide trying to avoid any interruption to the run. Momentarily, he had to switch a shade inside but then the daughter of Canford Cliffs gathered momentum and Grangee was soon in trouble.

At the finish it wasn’t the Irish raider but the Jedd O’Keeffe-trained Newcastle and Wetherby unbeaten mare Miss Lamb, a 22-1 shot, who followed her home most closely, still more than six lengths behind the winner but eight in front of Grangee.

Another interesting element is that Miss Lamb is also a home-bred and, indeed, by one of the doyens of the Northern turf. Miss Sally (born Sarah Elizabeth) Hall, niece of the legendary Sam Hall and a distinguished trainer in her own right at Middleham, celebrated her 82nd birthday yesterday. She first took out a licence in 1969 and held it until 2016 with her last winners the previous summer. Just the 47 years!

Miss Lamb is under the care of Jedd O’Keeffe, a former assistant to Micky Hammond before starting out on his own in 2000. Hammond incidentally runs his star hurdler Cornerstone Lad over fences at Ayr today after his second at Haydock on debut last month.  He has one horse to beat this afternoon!

Eileendover is primarily Flat-bred and it will probably be most unlikely that she ever runs over jumps, but the series of junior bumpers gives an ideal opportunity for later-developing horses with stamina to run at a realistic level rather than try to get their three runs for handicapping with all the pitfalls that can entail.

Smaller trainers can fall foul of the “schooling in public” regulation, an inexact science which rarely seems to be much of a concern to the major yards. At least this way round they can get valuable experience into their charges and Alan Swinbank was one of the most successful in that respect.

Basically a businessman, he turned to training in North Yorkshire when he had the benefit of learning from former trainer Bill Haigh, his long-time assistant. Swinbank’s greatest triumph came with the purchase for 3,000gns of the Dr Devious gelding Collier Hill, bred by George Strawbridge but unraced with John Gosden in his days of training for the Sangster interests at Manton.

He won first time in his only bumper then, after qualifying for handicaps and starting off with a mark of 58, Collier Hill won 15 of 45 career starts (including one from four over jumps in a single spell). He earned a total of £2.3 million, largely through his wins overseas which culminated with Group 1’s in Canada and Sha Tin, his last two career starts late in 2006. He also won the Irish St Leger as a seven-year-old the previous year.

Two of the better UK-trained bumper performers of the past couple of years have been Roger Teal’s Ocean Wind and Hughie Morrison’s mare, Urban Artist. Ocean Wind, a Godolphin chuck-out, also won that same Huntingdon race 12 months before Eileendover but by only a narrow margin and the third horse that day, Audacity, turned the form around with him when they met again at the Cheltenham December meeting. [The second horse, Makthecat, is now in the ownership of a geegeez syndicate – Ed.]

But Ocean Wind then won a hot Newbury Listed bumper and although only sixth in the Festival bumper, has won three of his four “proper” Flat races and has quickly moved to a mark of 104. Valuable long-distance handicaps on the Flat rather than jumping beckon for this likeable money-spinner.

There are parallels, too, with Morrison’s mare Urban Artist, whose path to the Flat from bumpers was scouted a decade earlier by her dam, Cill Rialaig. She had won her bumper first time at Exeter, a race the trainer tries to target every year with his home-breds, before graduating to a Royal Ascot handicap win as a six-year-old.

That is Urban Artist’s age now and with three Flat wins from five on her record, she is likely to be in direct competition with her contemporary Ocean Wind in 2021. Expect to see them both in the Ebor next August at York.

Another that may join them once her initially unsuccessful switch to jumping – Urban Artist had one indifferent try, too – is the geegeez syndicate-owned mare Coquelicot, at present recovering from a minor wind-op. Matt Bisogno always believed that this five-year-old half-sister to Ebor winner and Melbourne Cup runner-up Heartbreak City was more a potential staying Flat-racer than a jumper for the future and her first three tries at the winter game seem to suggest that will prove to be the case.

On the level, though, she deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the last pair and Eileendover as she also won three in a row to end her 2019-20 season, culminating in an easy victory in a competitive Listed race at Kempton. With the jumpers’ bumpers liable to be around for a while in the present dreadful weather, hopefully she will soon be ready to pick one off and I’m sure the owners and clued-up trainer Anthony Honeyball will be on high alert!

Monday Musings: Trainer Titles

The frost relented at three of Paul Nicholls’ most productive racecourses on Saturday morning and the 11-times champion National Hunt trainer took heavy toll with a remarkable seven winners, writes Tony Stafford. Kempton, Chepstow and above all Wincanton are the three.

At the same time he was emphatically (albeit inwardly) announcing that his re-building of stable strength back to that of its heyday when Kauto Star and Denman were in their pomp, has been fully achieved.

I was half aware of somebody being quoted on the television last night – definitely not in my favourite French-language and subtitled detective show Spiral on BBC4. It was: “Men can lie, women can lie, but numbers can’t!” The numbers are there for all to see in the 2020-21 jump trainers’ championship.

The Nicholls decline, if you could call it that, was characterised last season by a first failure in 19 to reach 100 wins, when 96 victories from 445 runs brought total UK prizemoney of £2.34million. Nicky Henderson, his sole realistic challenger over the past decade, won his fifth title and third of the last four with 118 winners and £2.54million in prizemoney.

That said, the normal post-Cheltenham section of the campaign with its handsome prizemoney levels especially at Aintree, Sandown’s finals day, and the Ayr Scottish Grand National meeting distorted the figures. Nicholls’ routine century would have been assured and the relatively close money margin for Henderson could easily have been bridged.

Henderson’s first interruption of a near-Martin Pipe-like monopoly for Nicholls since his first title in 2005-6 came in 2012-13, 27 years after his own first Trainers’ Championship in 1985-6. Henderson, now 70, lacks nothing in energy and horse-power but the die is already cast for 2020-21.

While Nicholls has been serenely proceeding towards title number 12 with already 107 victories and £1.46m in money won, Henderson is languishing on less than half the monetary rewards with £673K and just over half the winners, 57 from 268 runs, both well down on his normal schedule.

Considering the jumps season didn’t begin until July 1, Nicholls’s pace has been remarkable but so too has Dan Skelton’s 74 wins and £823k from 408 runs even allowing for the fact that his customary summer starting splurge has been abandoned – for the better – with some potential stars in the pot.

Lower down, some interesting names follow and Evan Williams, after his emotional capturing of the re-scheduled Coral Welsh Grand National with the heavily-backed and well-named in the circumstances favourite, Secret Reprieve, just edged over the half-million mark from only 30 wins.

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Williams was talking up the prospects of Secret Reprieve’s tackling a Grand National at Aintree and he will be hoping on Tuesday morning to see the Ruckers’ seven-year-old getting a few pounds more than his present mark of 142 – he was able to run on Saturday off 8lb lower after his previous win.  Secret Reprieve would probably make it into the top 40 with 142 but 145 makes it a certainty - if Covid doesn’t intervene again.

The next three trainers in the list, all within a winner or two of getting over the half-million are Messrs O’Neill, Fergal O’Brien and Twiston-Davies. Fergal’s consistent form has brought him to 70 compared to a previous best of 63 and with expansion firmly in place, a first century is the aim and seemingly a realistic one with three months to go, subject to acts of God, God forbid!

Nicholls’ Saturday seven-timer was also a contributor to another multi-winning performance on the day. Daryl Jacob must have gone to Wincanton confident of winning the opener on Ben Pauling’s highly-regarded Malinello but found Nicholls’ Flash Collonges, one of two Harry Skelton winners for his former boss, much too good.

I’ve no doubt that when that one lost he didn’t expect to win on five of his remaining six mounts.

The Nicholls winner for Jacob was Capeland, a 6-1 shot in the second most valuable race of the day there, the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase and the jockey also won races for Robert Walford, Alan King, Pauling and Milton Harris.

Within that quintet, he collected the big race, the re-staged Dipper Novices Chase, just a three-runner affair, on Messire Des Obeaux, where Alan King’s gelding shocked odds-on Protektorat in a rare reverse for the Skeltons in recent times. Both Flash Collonges and Messire Des Obeaux are sons of the late-lamented Saddler Maker.

Jacob’s five-timer worked out at a massive 3275-1. Nicholls’ septet, while not quite his best - he’s had an eight-in-a-day before now – amounts to more than treble that at 10,418-1. Of course to get the latter up, you’d need to navigate the 11 losers that besmirched his record. Jacob has surged onto 39 wins for the season but the title-holder Brian Hughes, with 90, looks to have a strong grip on his trophy, currently having 15 and 19 in hand of the two Harrys, Cobden and Skelton.

It’s very unusual in the depths of winter that Ireland suffers more than the UK, but there has been a flurry of abandonments across the Irish Sea with frost as the principal factor. Whatever happened to the milder west winds picking up moisture as they sweep across the Atlantic?

The perennial struggle at the top of the table there between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott is as compelling as ever. Usually at this point in the season Elliott has been ahead but this time it’s the other way round.

Mullins has already gone past the century with 104 wins from only 326 runs to earn €2.18m at a spectacular 32% strike rate.  An impressive 76 of the 162 individual horses he’s run since racing resumed have won.

Elliott is only around €70k behind Mullins in winnings but it has taken 125 wins from a bumper exactly 800 runs – almost double both Nicholls’ and Skelton’s number and treble Henderson’s – to get that close. Equally he has needed 292 horses, 90 of which have won, to make it that far.

Mullins is having his normal effect on the jockeys’ title race. Since Ruby Walsh’s retirement Paul Townend has been in pole position, but third-placed Henry de Bromhead’s 69 victories have given a big boost to Rachael Blackmore, his stable jockey.

Townend leads on 69, all but five for the Closutton trainer, but is far from secure for another title as Blackmore’s 46 wins for her boss have been supplemented by another 19 from outside rides making the deficit only four.

Talking of jockeys, the 2021 Flat championship will be very interesting given Oisin Murphy starts the year under a three-month ban imposed by the French authorities. He managed to get it reduced from the original six months on appeal and while it doesn’t interfere with the championship which starts in May, or the first phase of turf racing or indeed anything after March 11, it could still have an effect on his confidence.

No need to go into how he got the trace of drugs in his system. In these perilous times I wonder how many people contracting Covid, like my mate Steve Gilbey who said it was the most frightening experience of his life, know where they caught it. He says maybe it was Christmas shopping in Sainsburys.

Steve, a one-time repo man and night club bouncer before his more acceptable roles as a bodyguard and then Ray Tooth’s much-valued right-hand man, has seen and heard of many friends and some family members who haven’t managed to stave off the effects of the virus. I pray – as does Ray – that he’ll get through, just as I do that my son, his wife and their son, whose symptoms are less severe, will all recover soon.

Back to Flat jockeys, though, and as I said it could be a pivotal year. One Whatsapp I received just the other day made very interesting reading. It claimed that Ben Curtis would be joining Mark Johnston as stable jockey. Now confirmed as true, his odds of 10/1 for the title have plummeted to 3/1.

Mark’s most active jockeys, Joe Fanning and Franny Norton, both celebrated their 50th birthdays last year. Norton is the older by eight weeks, his birthday coming on July 27 to Fanning’s on September 24th (the same as my son incidentally!).

Between them they rode 56% of Johnston’s winners and 55% of the stable’s runners. Fanning was the busier – well, he’s younger, it makes sense! – with 50 wins from exactly 400 rides in 2020. Old-man Franny was only 75% as busy but just as tidy with his 45 from 300 rides. No other jockey achieved more than the 15 wins of P J McDonald. Then came William Buick and Silvestre De Sousa with ten each.  Curtis had six wins from 35 rides for the stable.

Their longevity says much for their iron constitutions but even more for the amazing loyalty of the trainer. Had he not kept them on, riding many of the yard’s best horses as well as the majority of the lesser performers, they would probably have retired a while ago.

A second compelling item on the same Whatsapp message concerned Paul Mulrennan who it seems might be getting closer to a connection with Karl Burke. Interesting? Not many!

Monday Musings: Christmas Racing Roundup

Yes, it was brilliant stuff for the first two days of Christmas at Kempton, Wetherby and Leopardstown, not to mention the other venues that none of us could go to, writes Tony Stafford. Shock results abounded in the big races and over two days at Kempton, Dan and Harry Skelton had the type of magical 48 hours that professional racing people can normally only dream about.

Five big wins from only nine runners including the convincing Nube Negra, who started out life as a non-achieving Spanish-bred (nought from seven) at Madrid’s La Zarzuela racecourse and now easily humbled an admittedly sluggish Altior in the Desert Orchid Chase.

What with Nicky Henderson also left to try to explain to himself and presumably owner JP McManus (and for that matter me!) how Epatante could be beaten so emphatically in the Christmas Hurdle, not this time by a Skelton runner but Evan Williams’ Silver Streak, a hard-working seven-year-old, it was a rum old do for Team Seven Barrows.

Epatante, in winning this race a year ago, had Silver Streak five lengths behind and that margin had swelled to a dozen lengths in the Champion Hurdle in which Silver Streak was only sixth.

Williams’ runner met another classy Henderson mare in Verdana Blue on his reappearance over Saturday’s track back in October and was not troubled to overturn that odds-on chance. Then his third meeting with Epatante, in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, ended abruptly when Not So Sleepy jinked himself out of the race at the first flight and carried out Silver Streak at the next.

Evan quickly salved his frustration at a wasted 655-mile round trip from his stables in the Vale Of Glamorgan by taking him to Cheltenham a fortnight later when he was only a neck behind another improver, Song For Someone.

Then it was Kempton and another big step forward although whether he can win a Champion Hurdle will depend on further progress from the son of Dark Angel.

Obviously the biggest excitement was Bryony Frost doing over Kempton’s fences what Hollie Doyle has been achieving on racecourses everywhere throughout 2020 by becoming the first female rider to win the King George Chase on her inseparable partner, Frodon.

She already has a Cheltenham Festival win – a fair exchange for Hollie’s Royal Ascot success in the summer - and now on yet another rag, not just a 20-1 shot but Paul Nicholls’ third string, she humbled his dual previous winner Clan Des Obeaux into third, while much-vaunted Cyrname (my fancy) was out of petrol by halfway and pulled up a long way out.

It was left to Waiting Patiently to finish second but Bryony controlled the pace from the start on Frodon and the tried and trusted partnership never looked remotely in trouble.

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Who’s to say that Frodon, always a great jumper, could not stretch out to the full distance of the Gold Cup? Many of its winners have gone there with the question of stamina unresolved. It usually comes down to the quality of the jumping and Frodon has few peers in that regard. The only difference from the Thursday two years ago is that if he goes there, it will not be a repeat same-day dream double with Paisley Park.

Looking further afield, I would not be surprised if another Skelton horse, Shan Blue, who saw off The Big Breakaway in the Kauto Star Novices Chase, didn’t one day win a Gold Cup. He had been very impressive in his first two chases, both at Wetherby, in the second of them outclassing the very tough and talented staying mare Snow Leopardess by 16 easy lengths.

Again on Saturday he was always in control against main market rival The Big Breakaway whose jumping of fences was far less secure. The pair had met before when in fourth and sixth respectively behind the still-unbeaten Envoi Allen in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham in March when Shan Blue was the loser of their private battle.

It’s great to see the Skeltons doing what Dan, and for that matter Harry and their extraordinary father Nick, had always planned. The dozens of summer jumping winners have been sacrificed for the development of horses that can challenge for the top prizes from a showpiece training facility. It’s just a pity we couldn’t all be there to enjoy their move into the very top echelon of the profession.

As ever, Christmas racing in Ireland provided some brilliant sport and high-class winners, again with the top names to the fore. Willie Mullins is far more accustomed to multiple wins at major fixtures and he matched Skelton’s feat with his own quintet over the first two days of the Leopardstown meeting, but from many more runners – he needed 21 to reach the landmark.

If everything had been as intended, the score would have been six as the Irish Racing TV producers emphasised before the finale. “Imagine what the other trainers must be thinking. Willie’s had three winners already today and he says his one on the bumper is the banker”. And so it looked when son Patrick sent 4/11 shot Reality Cheque clear in the short straight.

But there are no certainties in racing and Patrick, Willie and the horse’s connections were left to mourn the loss of their exciting prospect who broke down a furlong from home.

Before I go on to my final offering, and as you can guess, yes there is a Raymond Tooth element to it, I must return to the Desert Orchid Chase and Nube Negra. The race was delayed for several minutes when Sceau Royal, the majority choice beforehand to challenge the favourite, needed to have some remedial work by the farrier and then made a summarily early exit from the race itself, falling at the fifth.

If you get a chance, try to watch the video of the race. If you scan back a long way behind the surviving runners as they enter the last half-mile of the race, you will pick out the riderless Sceau Royal miles behind.

Astonishingly, by the line he was bombing up the outside, powering past Altior and almost catching the winner – and Alan King’s superstar will have gone back to Barbary Castle thinking how unlucky he was to get up.  As he goes onto the gallop in the morning he’ll be telling his equine companions: “I was at least a furlong behind and would have got them in another stride. I’ll be a certainty wherever the boss takes me next time!” He probably will.

And, finally, to the opening race on yesterday’s Leopardstown card, an 18-runner juvenile hurdle. There were contenders from some of the best stables and, of those that finished in places from second to eighth inclusive, all bar two were at no longer odds than 6/1. As they say, all the right ones were there.

Coltor, 6-1 and rated 86 on the Flat and trained by Dermot Weld, who only ever bothers with nice horses over jumps, was second. Third was the Jessica Harrington-trained 9-2 shot Ilmig, a Galileo gelding who won his maiden second time out at Navan in late October for Aidan O’Brien. This was his third jumps run after a good debut second but an odds-on flop next time.

Henry De Bromhead introduced a well-regarded Golden Horn gelding they’d picked up from the summer sales for £34k, a little more than 10% of the 300 grand the Highclere Stud product fetched in Tattersalls Book 1 sale in October 2018. He was sufficiently well-fancied to go off at 5/1.

Joseph O’Brien usually has serious contenders in juvenile hurdles and he supplied the fifth, Flying Scotsman, the McManus-owned dual Galway winner from this summer. Rated 87, he’s another Galileo and was an 11/2 shot after a couple of okay tries over jumps.

Charlie Bassett, Noel Meade’s Lawman gelding, finished sixth. He is a non-winner in ten Flat races, but with four seconds and three thirds good enough to acquire a rating of 80. He was a 16-1 shot on his third jumps start having been fourth at Fairyhouse two weeks earlier. Seventh came the only true interloper, Denise Foster’s 125-1 chance Ahaziah who made the most of the experience gained from two previous runs.

He was ahead of the Willie Mullins-trained and 77-rated Dark Voyager, another 5/1 shot. The highest-rated of them all was a second Aidan O’Brien graduate, Iberia. This horse was still rated in the low 100’s by the time he left to join Coolmore’s main vet John Halley’s small but shrewd team. He ran in the Irish Derby this year and competed in high-class juvenile races in 2019. Naturally he is another son of Galileo.

Are you bored yet? Well I think if you make time for another look at the videos from yesterday, take note of another newcomer, French Aseel, a son of Raymond’s smart Group 1 winner, French Fifteen. Sold after his Group 1 success to Qatari interests but remaining in Nicolas Clement’s stable, he finished a close second to Camelot in the 2012 2000 Guineas.

French Aseel won once in nine starts in France for a minor stable, never racing beyond a mile and even concluding his career in a six and a half furlong race after which Paul Holden bought him for €62,000 at Arqana’s July horses in training sale in Deauville.

A 22-1 chance in yesterday’s Racing Post betting, word clearly got around and the Ellemarie Holden-trained gelding was down to 7-2 favourite by the off.

French Aseel set off behind a 150-1 outsider, racing easily in second until moving smoothly ahead coming to the end of the back straight. Denis O’Regan kept him to his narrow advantage all around the long bend and approaching the straight he started to edge further clear.

O’Regan gradually allowed his mount to stretch the margin as they approached the normal final hurdle which, owing to the low sun, would not be jumped on either circuit.

As they passed it, O’Regan still had a firm grip on the son of French Fifteen – there I said it again! – and soon after they went past the flight, still needing  only minimal encouragement, he had a look behind and could hardly have believed the gap. This had stretched to 22 lengths by the finish! Honestly you have to look to see it. I have a few times and still can’t believe it.

I wonder how long it will take before black and white hoops become green and yellow? For information purposes only, the extended distances were 22 lengths, 6, 3.5 and 5.5 (to Mr McManus’s Flying Scotsman).  If JP hasn’t bought French Aseel yet - he should!

- TS

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