Monday Musings: Seasons and Champions – Changing The Guard

Why doesn’t Paul Nicholls run more horses in Flat races? I am less than indebted to the Racing Post’s new-style trainer statistics which do not seem to allow me to investigate the multiple jumps’ trainer’s Flat performances before the 2013 season, writes Tony Stafford. [Should have used Geegeez' Query Tool - Ed.]

In that latter period, when in common with the previous ten jumps campaigns he has maintained £2m earnings and more every term, his 14 Flat runners (one unplaced in 2017) have not brought a single win. Despite these numbers, I’m sure he’d win plenty if he bothered.

A busy final end to this jumps marathon will probably mean he concedes the jumps title to Nicky Henderson even if a discrepancy of £170,000 to his rival is not impossible with Sandown’s Saturday riches to play for. Hendo, though, has the sublime Altior to head up a similarly strong raid on Esher.

By contrast with Nicholls, who recorded another notable achievement when Vicente collected a second consecutive Scottish Grand National at Ayr on Saturday, beating 29 opponents one week after his first-fence exit at Aintree, Henderson targets some prime Flat races each summer. Royal Ascot is a favourite while the Cesarewitch is another on his radar every autumn.

Henderson has enough in hand to ignore most of the minor midweek meetings in the UK, save Perth, where he might stretch the lead as Nicholls will be staying nearer home. His own location, though, will be in his favourite spring destination as house guest with Jessie Harrington.

Never before has Mrs Harrington been able to welcome her great friend from such a position of professional strength. For all of her big-race wins, spectacularly so in the case of her multi-champion two-mile chaser Moscow Flyer, Jessie has never experienced the like of the last month or so.

Her three Cheltenham Festival wins last month were headed up by Sizing John’s emphatic Gold Cup triumph and momentum has continued unabated under both codes. Our Duke, a novice with a big weight, dominated the betting before the 28-runner Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday and also the race, winning almost unchallenged after leading some way from home. He will clearly be a serious rival to Sizing John in all next season’s major staying chases.

That victory came just a couple of days after a Flat hat-trick at Cork, two of the winners being owned by her daughter and assistant trainer/amateur rider, Kate. As if Jessica Harrington hadn’t already proved her versatility over many years with her handling of Group-race Flat fillies especially, and more recently, done a great job with smart 2010 juvenile Pathfork.

That Niarchos-owned colt went unbeaten through his three-race campaign, all at The Curragh, culminating in a narrow defeat of Casamento and favourite Zoffany in the Group 1 National Stakes. His only other run in Europe was the following spring when an 8-1 chance, joint second-favourite with Roderic O’Connor for the 2,000 Guineas when he finished seventh of 13 behind the inimitable Frankel.

Yesterday Jessie moved another step forward. Her three-year-old Sepoy colt, Khukri, making his seasonal debut and only his fourth career start, contested the Listed sprint and easily reversed debut juvenile form with Aidan O’Brien’s Intelligence Cross, who beat him first time up.

Then in the Group 3 Coolmore Vintage Crop Stakes over a mile and threequarters she again had the edge on Ballydoyle when her new recruit Torcedor, a five-year-old previously with the now retired David Wachman, made it two out of two for her in beating Order of St George, last year’s Gold Cup winner at Ascot.

She must be relishing the chance to challenge that champion at the Royal meeting, and no doubt will hope at least to share the headlines on home soil this week with her lifelong friend and sometime rival.

It was wonderful in Easter week to have an unbroken series of high class Flat-racing days at Newmarket, with the restored to three-day Craven meeting, and two high-class varied cards at Newbury.

Somehow between the ever-growing imitation of Hong Kong if not quite Manhattan, Newbury’s new facilities are gradually emerging. It’s hard to work out where to park or even whether to take the little bridge over the railway; the new roundabout from the Thatcham Road or go through the town, they seem to be getting there.

John Gosden clearly found his way and in a week of almost unbroken success, his powerful yard sent out 11 winners over the two major fixtures. One that got away was the second division of the maiden, won by 100-1 shot Duke of Bronte, a gelded son of Mount Nelson, trained by highly-capable and versatile Rod Millman. The Royal colours were carried into second place here by Musical Terms, half an hour after Call to Mind, also trained by William Haggas, gave the Queen a belated (by a day) 91st birthday winner.

Her pleasure when having a home-bred winner, as always, was clear for all to see, as was the understated way she arrived driven by Racing Manager John Warren with only minimal evident security. Coming down in the lift with a camera-brandishing photographer, I learned on Friday from him that his local newspaper: “always know where she’ll be this weekend, so we don’t really even bother to check whether she’s coming”. Imagine that informality in any other country.

Late April brings a quickening tempo for many owners of Flat racehorses and the Raymond Tooth string is no different. The consistent Stanhope is ready for his first run since being gelded in Yarmouth’s finale tomorrow and Micky Quinn hopes he can follow half a dozen placed efforts with a first success.

Yesterday Hughie Morrison had his Owners’ Day and I stood in for the boss as what seemed like possibly the trainer’s best-ever team of horses was paraded in front of a big attendance. Sod’s Law (half-brother to last year’s star Dutch Law, but bigger than his sibling) and the giant French Kiss, got generally positive reaction from the crowd and guarded optimism from their trainer.

French Kiss is from the first crop of Ray’s smart 2011 juvenile French Fifteen, who after winning the Group 1 Criterium International at Saint-Cloud, was sold and then finished a close second to Camelot in the 2,000 Guineas. Outside his box, there’s a sign suggesting “this horse bites”, but it was his neighbour Sod’s Law that grabbed hold of my jacket. “Don’t you remember me from Kinsale Stud?” I asked, to which he seemed to reply: “Sure.” Sod’s Law indeed.

Great racing continues this week. For those with long memories, Epsom’s Spring meeting, once a three-day affair, is a disappointment, but even though it’s now just the Wednesday, the races get beefed up a little each year. It’s always enjoyable to be there, while two days at Sandown at the end of the week, with the jumps finale on Saturday, promise plenty of excitement.

My own Friday will be a little more prosaic, chauffeuring Mrs S to Sheffield, not to see the snooker, but for her date in the British Adult Skating Championships (Bronze) for which there are 31 runners, even more than the Scottish National. Sadly, I’ll be on dog minding duty so cannot stay up there to see it. When she recently went to Estonia and won, that was on the Internet, but this time I’ll have to wait for less immediate communication.

Monday Musings: A Good Friday

Good Friday for racing fans historically meant there was no chance to watch any action. Instead for the last 20 years or so, the Lambourn and Middleham Open days gave enthusiasts the possibility to see the sport’s equine heroes at close hand.  Lambourn has gone on serenely every Good Friday and there was again a massive attendance in the Valley last week. Middleham missed last year but another 7,500-plus is anticipated there today.

For the past four years, racing has finally been allowed and the winter all-weather season has ended with the crescendo of All-Weather Winter Championships Day at Lingfield Park. Musselburgh joined in, until this year when that track switched to Saturday.

The Arena Racing Company (ARC) this year bolstered its hold on the one-time sacrosanct Good Friday by adding two of their other tracks, Bath and Newcastle, in a monopolistic treble with enhanced prizemoney for both the latter along with the usual cash bonanza at Lingfield.

The crowds flocked in – certainly at my chosen venue in chilly Surrey – but I wonder just how many of them were happy with the continued absence of any on-course betting shop facilities at ARC tracks. Recently at the Raceform reunion, I met the manager of the Coral betting shop in Lingfield, promising to call in “the next time I’m there”. Of course, I didn’t stop – lay-by crowded, too much traffic et al – but I will one day if only to ask, how many people stood there all day listening to picture-free commentaries?

One friend, an owner with Highclere and member of four of their syndicates for this year, went through his fancies for the day and said which ones he intended backing on track. When I told him that he wouldn’t find an outlet there, he switched to the phone, as so many people must be doing these days.

Maybe that’s why Ladbroke-Coral and Betfred seemingly aren’t too worried about ending their dispute with ARC, at least not before the new Levy arrangement laws kick in later in the spring.

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of sympathy for David Nicholls. Two horses in his care until February, when he handed in his licence, appeared on the card and each won prizemoney of £93k.

There is no question that Nicholls was for many years an excellent trainer, especially of sprinters. Last October at Doncaster, he ran both Sovereign Debt (winner of the Mile race for Ruth Carr on Friday) and Kimberella (Sprint for Richard Fahey) in a seven furlong conditions race. Sovereign Debt won impressively with a late run and Kimberella set a fast pace before weakening into fifth.

Meanwhile the boss’s Dutch Law toiled at the back under what could only be described as a pretty complacent ride by the already-crowned champion, Jim Crowley. My confidence before the race in this three-time 2016 winner was hardly improved when Jolly Jim came into the paddock declaring, “Basically, he’s a shit, isn’t he?” and their performance matched his lack of enthusiasm.

Unlike the Nicholls pair, who have continued to thrive, Dutch Law’s only public appearance since was in the sales ring at Tatts the following week when he was bought for 150,000gns. Where he is now is a thing of mystery.

Racing Post shows that Nicholls ran five individual horses in the opening six weeks of the season, none making an impact. His last winner at around the same time was Sovereign Debt, collecting another 90k plus in Doha, Qatar, when he beat Cougar Mountain and 14 others over a mile. I hope Dandy eased his disappointments with a little double on the pair – at 44-1!

Willie Mullins sent out 12 runners at the two Irish jumps meetings yesterday and with odds-on shots in the two most valuable races, could have been expected to narrow the deficit with Gordon Elliott (ran 22, two minor wins) in the Irish jump trainers’ championship.

He did to a degree, but neither Let’s Dance nor Yorkhill could land the odds. Let’s Dance got a fine ride from Ruby Walsh, but after leading going nicely turning in at Fairyhouse, could not withstand the late run of stablemate Augusta Kate and David Mullins close home.

Walsh had another unusual experience in the big novice chase, again being collared, this time after making almost all the running on headstrong Yorkhill, who jumped, as the commentator said, “alarmingly left” at most of the fences on the right-hand track. Cheltenham Festival winner, Road to Respect, trained by Noel Meade and ridden by Brian Cooper, steered a more conventional course and was rewarded with a neck victory, despite a brave rally from the runner-up.

The day’s action leaves Mullins £200,000 or so adrift of his rival and with a €290,000 first prize in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, in which Mullins has three representatives in the 30-horse field, he clearly has a chance of something like parity between the pair. Unfortunately, on a day where again Elliott has almost double Mullins’ 12 runners between Fairyhouse and Cork, ten of them are in the National alone. No wonder Tony Mullins among others is calling for a limitation on the number of runners trainers and owners can have in a single race.

It’s hard enough for small owners to match the big battalions, but when the luck goes as well, the game is hard to take. I had to make two unwelcome calls to Ray Tooth on Tuesday morning. First Mick Channon called to say that Ray’s unraced French-bred three-year-old Weekender, there for just two weeks, had been found dead in his box in the morning, presumably after a heart attack. “That’s the first one I’ve had in 30 years,” said a distraught Mick.

Then a couple of hours after Channon’s call, Mark Johnston’s vet called to say that the two-year-old filly, Tarnhelm, had been lame after galloping very well the previous Saturday and needed an operation to remove a chip in a joint. That went successfully during the week and hopefully all will be well, but with a late April debut in mind, this was a real frustration.

There was a bit of a setback, also in the early stages of what was to be Frankel’s first-season progeny’s assault on the Classics when Lady Frankel and Taulifaut could finish only third and fourth behind favourite Senga in the Prix de la Grotte at Chantilly yesterday. The winner was completing doubles for owners Flaxman Stables (Niarchos family), Pascal Bary and Stephane Pasquier, and it will be great if those shades of blue colours enjoy a revival in fortunes.

Three Frankel colts are among the declarations for Thursday’s Craven Stakes on Newmarket’s opening fixture. Frankuus, Eminent and Dream Castle are engaged and they are among six sons of the stallion entered to emulate dad in the 2,000 Guineas next month. The other trio are Cracksman, Seven Heavens and the David Elsworth-trained Swiss Storm, who continues to get glowing reports of his well-being. The Frankel three will do well to cope with Rivet and the chosen of the Aidan O’Brien pair, Peace Envoy and War Decree, in the Craven.

The happily-restored three-day meeting is wrapped around the two-day Craven Breeze-Up sale at Tatts, after racing tomorrow and Wednesday. The breeze-up gallops were shown this morning on Racing UK. Watch at home as it’ll be a bit parky on the Rowley Mile, but the bidding will be somewhere north of frenzied, no doubt, come tomorrow night.

Monday Musings: A National Treasure…

I never know exactly what I’ll write about each week until the last Eureka moment, writes Tony Stafford. This morning I expected it to be something Aintree-orientated as ever since my trip to the track on Friday, I’ve been troubled by a recurring dream, which wasn’t actually anything to do with sleep.

Going through one of the Mersey tunnels on the way to the course, a quartet of passengers with me, I had a feeling of unease. But it was only on the way back to their hotel on the Wirral, that the slight feeling became stark reality as that long, single street, passing close to Everton and Liverpool football grounds gave full illustration of the North-South divide.

Once my fellow travellers were alerted, we all participated in the unhappy sport - spot the shuttered business premises. On block after block, the metal barriers were fully down, even at around 5 p.m. on Friday. One of our number, Steve Howard, said that just about the only fully operational places were pubs, betting shops and fast food outlets. Most of the rest had seemingly given up.

That pessimistic view was in stark contrast to the many thousands of upbeat locals thronging the track. Much is made in the media of Ladies Day at the Grand National, expecting, indeed wishing, to see outrageous behaviour, especially from the aforementioned ladies. Admittedly, in such a big crowd, it was more sensible to find a comfortable base rather than look for embarrassments, but the clear impression for me was of well-dressed and well-behaved people of both sexes having a wonderful time.

I watched the Randox Health Grand National on television at home, fully expecting my last-minute find, the 12-year-old Raz De Maree to emulate Pineau De Re, the winner three years ago, when similarly I had the house and sofa to myself.

He’d run in that race, finishing eighth behind Pineau De Re having apparently jumped the last fence in 17th place, and I had at the back of my mind his strong finish to be just one and three-quarter lengths behind Native River in the Welsh Grand National over Christmas.

When Raz jinked to the right over first Becher’s, having jumped with great alacrity over all six fences including his last, he jettisoned Ger Fox out the side door. Not only was I on the wrong horse, but also the wrong Fox as Derek of that surname eventually guided One For Arthur to a memorable victory. Never mind, we’ll get it all back over Easter in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse.

“I won the race!” said my four-year-old grandson, Arthur, apparently for the rest of the weekend, and the result was a source of joy for his father, a general non-punter, but a tenner investor here, who spent much of the early part of his professional career working under the tutelage of JLT boss and prominent racehorse owner, Jonathan Palmer-Brown.

Raz De Maree’s abrupt exit was a typical Becher’s eventuality, but until I just now identified the culprit, I hadn’t fully realised how safe the race has become. There are 30 jumps to negotiate, 16 on the initial circuit and 14 (The Chair and Water excepted) second time round. Two fancied horses representing the stables fighting for the trainers’ title, Vicente, ridden by Brian Hughes for Paul Nicholls, and Cocktails at Dawn, Nico de Boinville for Nicky Henderson, fell at the first.

For the remaining 29 fences, only two more horses could be said to have fallen, The Young Master, Sam Waley-Cohen, Neil Mulholland at Becher’s where he not only caused Raz De Maree to change direction abruptly, but also triggered the serious hampering and saddle-slipping of heavily backed Definitly Red, who pulled up soon after. A second Nicholls casualty was Saphir Du Roi at the 11th fence, ending the hopes of Sam Twiston-Davies.

So 19 got round and 40 horses and jockeys came back in one piece – subject to Sunday morning inspection. Driving back on Friday night, I listened to the Radio 5 Live preview programme and Cornelius Lysaght was prophetic when declaring that the Safety Review of the race, costing more than £1 million had been a great success, with fatalities being avoided in subsequent years.

Until I had that look this morning, I was unaware of the limited number of casualties, and this great race was the richer for it. It was a nice winner for Lucinda Russell, her bloke Peter Scudamore, and Scotland, collecting a first win since Rubstic – I found that one – back in the dim and distant days of the late 1970’s.

The other inescapable feature of the week was the sudden return to form of Colin Tizzard’s stable, so out of luck at Cheltenham. Cue Card didn’t quite make it, going under narrowly to Tea For Two and Lizzie Kelly in the Betway Bowl. I rarely differ with the quantitative assessments of the Racing UK experts, but it did seem a bit rich for those of them on duty on Thursday so readily to assume Cue Card to be in serious decline, just because they couldn’t beat “the girl”, I suppose.

This season, Cue Card started with a warm up third in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby before a 15-length demolition of 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. He was around three lengths second behind Thistlecrack in the King George, when Silviniaco Conti and Tea For Two were close in third and fourth. Silviniaco Conti was miles behind on Thursday, and Tea For Two improved his position by less than a length compared with Kempton.

Racing Post ratings gave winner and second a mark of 172, 7lb behind Cue Card’s highest rating of 179 when beating Don Poli majestically by nine lengths in the corresponding race last year. His Gold Cup fall three out was no more an accurate measure of his ability than any non-completed race ever is.

Whatever the Cue Card status might be, there’s no mistaking the merit of Tizzard’s other big wins, three Grade 1’s and a handicap chase for Ann and Alan Potts, and the Topham with 50-1 shot Ultragold.  Pingshou, Fox Norton and Finian’s Oscar won the graded races and Sizing Codelco collected the handicap on Grand National day.

Alan Potts had his 80th birthday during the week and his level of success suggests, maybe surprisingly, there might still be time for those of us not quite of his vintage to have something to anticipate with optimism.

One near miss for the Pottses was Supasundae in the three-mile Grade 1 stayers’ hurdle on Saturday. Yanworth, stepping up to the longer trip for the first time, following his disappointing effort in the Champion Hurdle, was all out to beat the Jessie Harrington-trained gelding.

In that regard he was avenging a defeat at the hands of Supasundae, then trained by Andrew Balding, in a bumper at Ascot in late 2014 after which he was bought by present connections. Yanworth had already won twice, latterly for J P McManus after a debut success in the colours of his trainer Alan King.

It would not be a surprise if Supasundae, an easy winner of the Coral Cup at Cheltenham previous time out, one day gains another verdict over Yanworth. A son of Galileo, the Newsells Park-bred gelding is a half-sister to that stud’s young stallion Nathaniel, also by Galileo. His mare, Distinctive Look, is a daughter of the great Danehill, a fine cross for Galileo and she has also bred Derby-placed and smart jumper Percussionist and Great Heavens, among a host of 100-plus rated progeny.

Orderofthegarter duly followed on from his emphatic comeback win the other day with a fluent success dropped to seven furlongs in the 2,000 Guineas trial at Leopardstown on Saturday. Ryan Moore may well wonder why he was on the runner-up, Taj Mahal, rather than the winner, but logic says that with Churchill or even Caravaggio as more likely 2,000 Guineas mounts, it might have been sensible to let Seamie Heffernan make this progressive colt’s acquaintance.

Monday Musings: The Kempton Horse Watchers

I’d been looking forward to the start of turf Flat racing 2017, but in the end I didn’t make it to Doncaster for either Saturday or Sunday, settling instead for the easier trip to Kempton Park, writes Tony Stafford.

With its future to an extent uncertain, you might think the track management might have taken their eye off the ball, but this first-day card had a special merit. The historic Rosebery Handicap, a long-time Easter feature over ten furlongs in the pre-Polytrack days, has taken an upward step, offering £28k to the winner (45 grand in overall money).

Over the past few years there have been a number of personnel changes on Racing UK and if you only took notice when something jarred, you’d have to say there was almost a monopoly of voices emanating from Hull. Often it only took until one of the younger-generation Timeformers who dominate Channel 432 punctuated a long, considered and usually pretty serious thought with “so”, but sounding more like “seew”, for me to spot them.

But now when brothers Chris and Martin Dixon are appearing, far from noticing their highly-distinctive accent, I listen closely hoping to hear about the latest horse they’ve brought into their “Horse Watchers” stable, handled so efficiently by Mick Appleby.

At Kempton on Saturday, they were both there to see a couple of runners, first the poorly-drawn Hakam, who might not have carried too much owner confidence because of that issue, but Silvestre De Sousa finessed a late run up the outside for a last stride nose win at 6-1.

This was the sixth appearance for them from the former Hamdan Al Maktoum horse, originally bought from Claiborne farm for $450,000 and re-cycled for £28,000 out of Charlie Hills’ care last summer. He won first time for them off 81 and having collected for the second time at Chelmsford three months ago, duly defied 86 this time round.

There is a close similarity with Big Country, the Rosebery winner, and one who could be called “home and hosed”, or rather “herm and hersed” a long way out. Again brought wide, but this time from an early close up position, he led at the top of the straight and the Brazilian and the onwatching Watchers never had a worrying moment. Sometimes to say a trainer has a talent for improving cast-offs from big stables, can become received wisdom without too much evidence, but Mick Appleby lives up to that reputation time after time.

Big Country cost £28,000 from Charles O’Brien and having won first time for the Watchers off 75, defied 84 now with ease.

One of the Raceform reunion boys from the week earlier alerted me to the team’s expectations and if only I ever had the urge to shout one home, I’m sure I would have done. The Ebor and then jumping are on the short- and mid-term agenda, and they have great things to come. Let’s hope they enjoy them, because racing and racehorse ownership isn’t always so rewarding.

I did actually shape for a shout a while later. I met a man representing an absent owner, as it turned out for a second time after an accidental, brief encounter last May, which he remembered but I didn’t. Resplendent in red-framed specs and Fred Astaire patent leather shoes, to go with mutton chops and a ready ear-to-ear smile, he sailed through the day.

He stayed close to my small party – located in the owners and trainers – for much of the day and plucked up the courage to show us his off-course morning bet, to small stakes. I’ve no licence to reveal any details, but I can say the first four had won and he needed a fifth later on, at Kempton, to land the big one.

He joined in the Ryan Moore bonanza at Doncaster – the Racing Post said bookmakers reckoned the Lincoln narrow defeat of another Moore – Hannon horse saved them a £40 million payout. Considering his bet, I’m sure there would have been lots of happy participants. He asked me to calculate how he stood, and from where I stood, he stood pretty well indeed. Of course the real big one - he’d avoided the Lincoln - would happen if the last one collected.

Considering the potential optimum outcome, he watched the race as it unfolded with great calm, and once his horse, who led from the start, was caught in the last furlong, finishing third, there was no recrimination.

Unlike the time at the track a decade ago maybe when one late friend, a long-standing racegoer and useless race reader, pursued what he thought to be J P Magnier, after the then amateur rider got left and took no part on one of his father John’s bumper horses, a hot favourite trained by Nicky Henderson. A totally innocent fellow rider in the race got the full force of my pal’s torrid invective and high-tailed it into the weighing room and temporary safety.

This very interesting chap simply took his medicine and ordered a bottle of champagne, nice stuff, too. On hearing my location, he told us he’d lived in Hackney at one stage in his varied, colourful life, first working for a burger bar owner and then becoming owner of the business with six of the fast-food vehicles, having bought out his boss.

Soon after, though, the realities of ad hoc trading in the East End of the 70’s came home to roost. A gentleman approached him saying he needed insurance for his business. He disagreed, but when one of the vans was destroyed by fire, he wised up - and sold up - eventually becoming a successful antique dealer, a profession from which he is now retired.

I don’t suppose there’s any betting on the Irish Flat-racing apprentices’ title, but if there is, Anastasia O’Brien, my favourite name, even if she only ever uses the diminutive, is a certainty. The result of being comfortably lighter than her fellow apprentice brother Donnacha means she gets on many more of the team’s fillies in maiden races than him and is improving in just the way Josephine Gordon did over the past 18 months.

After an initial flurry with a couple of first day maiden wins, Aidan seems to be relying on the Naas racecourse session of (was it 90 horses?) the other day and home gallops rather than actual races to frame the Classic horses’ immediate steps, so we’ll only see Churchill in the 2,000 Guineas; and Caravaggio, who knows?

I’m still at the stage where the latest Horses in Training book has largely supplanted my usual staple of novels as required reading. If you’ve not got it, go up to Tindall’s in Newmarket High Street during the Craven meeting and have a lengthy browse at John Gosden’s page. To see how very few of his 2016 yearlings – those bought at auction – cost less than six figures helps explain why domestically, he does so well in all categories. His judgment and methodical tactical astuteness don’t hurt either.

Premier League football and footballers might be in a different world to those clubs and players lower down the scale, but the difference is no less stark than for the haves and have nots in racing. More than such trifles, though, the book reveals who’s coming forward, and who might be declining. It’s a perfectly legal way of nosing into trainers’ business.

Monday Musings: Arrogate, You Heard It Here First…

Thirty weeks is a long time in journalism, but my, does it fly by nowadays, writes Tony Stafford. It was that long ago when I began one of these wanderings with: “Have you heard of Arrogate? No neither had I, not until 5 a.m. yesterday morning, but he might well be the best racehorse in the world.”

The fact that he was a 1-3 shot for last Saturday’s Dubai World Cup suggests that pretty much everyone in the international horseracing firmament is now in agreement on that premise, not just because of the August Travers romp at Saratoga, but also two defeats of the admirable California Chrome since then.

First Arrogate overcame relative inexperience when beating the then five-year-old in the Breeders’ Cup Classic as the pair went 11 lengths clear of the rest at Santa Anita, before confirming his status in the “pay a million and you’re in” Pegasus Invitational at Gulfstream in late January when California Chrome seemed not to fancy a second bash at his new nemesis and trailed home with stud duties in mind.

Three’s-on shots are not meant to have to do much to bring home the bacon, or in this case the best part of £5 million converted to sterling. Maybe interestingly, especially if, like me,  you have an odd perspective on things, his earnings for Saturday were equivalent to 300,000 pork bellies, one of the more enduring of stock market commodities based on the part (13lb) of the pig that produces bacon.

In Arrogate’s case, and again like his Travers win, you need to see it to believe it. At Saratoga, he was an 11-1 shot after three small wins and a debut defeat and was more than double the price of his stable-companion American Freedom, who had been runner-up to Exaggerator in the Haskell at Monmouth Park. Yet he won by more than 13 lengths in the only 10-furlong Travers ever to be run below two minutes.

Here at Meydan, he missed the break and got into a tangle so that after a furlong he was the best part of 20 lengths behind the leaders. Among these, Travers and previously Kentucky Derby third Gun Runner, the second favourite, was looking to build on a flawless winning comeback at Oaklawn Park last month.

Jockey Mike Smith, now 51, could well have panicked and set off after them in a frenzy, but as he revealed afterwards, he had the experience of riding the great mare Zenyatta and got used to coming through late for unlikely victories.

So he allowed Arrogate to make stealthy progress, but they were still a fair way back turning in. By this time Gun Runner was in front, and the fact that he finished five lengths clear of another decent American colt in second cements Arrogate’s class. The champ got level a furlong out and drove clear in a few strides with remarkably little energy needed on his rider’s part.

In that August 29 story, I anticipated that because Arrogate is almost free of Northern Dancer blood, his mares will make ideal partners to Frankel, like the Bob Baffert colt, owned by Prince Khalid Abdullah. In the week leading up to the race, Baffert called his four-year-old, “the dirt Frankel” and that looks about right. Already rated the best in the world on official figures, he showed here he has the wonderful attribute of being able to overcome adversity in his races.

I might guess correctly now and then about the relative abilities of horses that win by 13 lengths in record time, but I’m not too clever at holding onto my own possessions. During Cheltenham, my phone disappeared into thin air between car and hotel room, but an even more mysterious occurrence ruined an otherwise serene weekend in the Stafford household.

A quintet of pre-2005 suits were reassessed as wardrobe space was deemed inadequate by the mistress of such matters. The trousers were found to be routinely too small, so the garments, apart from three of the jackets which by some peculiarity sort of fitted, were jettisoned.

As you will guess, I’m no expert, even though my late father was a tailor, but it seems for me to have got into said jackets, it required over-wide shoulders for my frame, to compensate for the mid-section. This area, too substantial for the trousers, owes more than a little to pork belly consumption over the years.

Not to worry, I still had the light grey costume which graced all four days of Cheltenham and the nearly black one, the newest and smartest of the lot. But hang on, where was it? Not in the wardrobe and after some initial telephone communication with the two dry cleaners I occasionally use, not there either.

Mrs Stafford sort of forgot – don’t think so, Ed! – that inexplicable loss of the phone she described as expensive when purchased in Russia, but as she also bought that suit, the bonhomie is wearing thin. How can you lose a suit? I’m the wrong man to ask.

Presumably, among the thirty or more one-time colleagues at last week’s Raceform reunion in a pub in Battersea around the corner from the old office in York Road, there would be some old gibbers prone to such accidents. But considering most were a few years either side of me in vintage, they are all wearing particularly well.

We had some celebrity guests like Jilly Cooper, Bob Champion and Derek Thompson on hand. The longer you know Tommo, he of the third-person alter-ego, the more you have to admire his qualities. Race reading, programme presenting and even the sometimes cringe-making public contacts on a meeting-long microphone-armed sweep of a racecourse are all done with total honesty. You don’t know what you had until it’s gone, as they say. The reunion’s organiser, Will Lefebve, who started at the PA a week before I did back in the late 1960’s, could have proved another Tommo had he got onto the telly instead of running a hotel in York in his prime years.

It was great that Prince Pippy could get there and contrary to my expectations, the Racehorse’s former Paris-based correspondent, who reported to me one spring morning 41 years ago that Lester Piggott would ride Empery in the Derby, stayed for the duration. Lester had ridden the Nelson Bunker Hunt, Maurice Zilber colt into third in the Prix Lupin, then the principal French Derby trial, the previous day behind stablemate Youth, on whom Yves Saint-Martin would resume his winning association in the French Derby.

I think we got 33-1 that Monday morning, and watched a few weeks later his becoming one of the easiest Derby winners of that era, even though in historical terms he was an ordinary victor of the Classic. If that had been the only benefit of my working a seven-day week, with double shifts on Monday and Tuesday as editor of the Racehorse and my main job at the Daily Telegraph, it would still have been acceptable, but last Wednesday proved otherwise.

There was of course the odd absentee, notably Howard Wright, my old Telegraph Deputy, signed up because of his immaculately-researched and framed weekly Racehorse articles. He was in Dubai, but at least for once he made the Bedfordshire Racing Club Cheltenham preview the previous week.

It might be a little early to put Arrogate-like possibilities on Aidan O’Brien’s opening day Naas mile maiden winner Orderofthegarter, but the Barronstown-bred colt drew 11 and then eight lengths clear of a 20-horse line-up which also contained two other apparently well-fancied Ballydoyle horses.

Orderofthegarter was building on two second places last year behind smart stable-companions, and the way in which he strode clear under Ana O’Brien, and in faster time than both the Group 3 fillies’ race and the 17-runner Irish Lincolnshire suggests a big one will come his way. By the way, he’s by Galileo. So’s Frankel!

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Lost Phone, Failing Memory

To say the last seven days have been eventful for me would be an understatement, writes Tony Stafford. For most people slogging through all four days of Cheltenham it would be a similarly apt description, but I bet not many of them lost their phone, such is their constant adherence to it.

The week started as usual on Monday night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club where my performance in terms of results was possibly the worst ever. But the other regulars David Dickinson, the BHA handicapper for two-mile hurdlers, and the ever-informed Ian Wassell of Coral/Ladbroke provided much better input for the members.

Prompted from the chair by Howard Wright, Dickinson touched on the angry debate between the handicappers (headed by Phil Smith over his Grand National ratings for some Gigginstown horses) and also an issue between Dickinson over another Irish horse running over here.

Dickinson always stresses how he is not allowed to bet under the terms of his employment and then, quite early in the piece – we attempt to analyse the Grade 1 races first – declared there was a certainty in the Champion bumper on the Wednesday.

His selection was Fayonagh, beaten on debut but twice a winner making all since then. Dave said she was already top on his figures even before he added the extra7lb for the mares’ allowance she was entitled to as only two of her sex in the race.

As I said earlier, I lost my phone on Tuesday night, it disappearing into thin air, apparently between being stuck in the traffic for an hour after racing, talking on the car phone for a while and getting to the hotel 35 miles away. Having lugged the luggage – I suppose that’s where that word originates? – up two narrow flights of stairs and repairing to the bar, the discovery was made.

No, not in the car, in the room, nor even in the pitch black of the pub’s car park – it wasn’t until Friday that I realised we could have parked in the brilliantly-lit market square directly in front of the hostelry’s main entrance. Calls to the number suggested the device was still in the area – rubbish connection around there, said the landlord – but by Wednesday morning I had to cancel my two numbers (expensive dual-sim phone from Russia) and have been bereft ever since.

Friends I’ve tried to call almost to a man (and woman) seemingly refuse to answer strange numbers and even more so when on arriving home, I’ve attempted again on the land line. One good friend did answer but completely failed to recognise the voice and fearfully cut the connection.

The point made by the Irish is that their handicappers get unfair treatment over here. Ten handicaps were run at Cheltenham last week and there were 59 Irish runners from a total of 226 in those races, a proportion of just short of one in four. The Irish won seven of them (almost treble what they should have achieved pro rata), while they also collected 12 places (second to sixth), for which there was placed prizemoney.

They had a clean sweep of the three handicaps on the last day and the seven wins were shared between six trainers with Jessica Harrington securing two to go along with Sizing John’s epic Gold Cup triumph. Alan Fleming, Patrick Kelly and Noel Meade joined in, leaving just a single handicap success each for Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott. The only handicaps that escaped the invaders were the Ultima Handicap Chase, where they had three of the 23 starters; the Fred Winter Hurdle, seven of 22 and the Kim Muir, four of 24.

Not that the big two were at all phased, even if Willie probably resented that Elliott, who now handles loads of his former stars, including Apple’s Jade for Gigginstown, won the Leading Trainer award. They were on six winners each but the Gordy hordes won on place countback. In all the Irish won 19 of the 28 races, leaving scraps pretty much for everyone else bar Nicky Henderson’s trio.

So now I must return to the issue of Fayonagh and the lost phone effect. Most of the day was spent trying to meet people by borrowing Harry Taylor’s mobile, using it to speak to someone else who might know the third party’s number. Then if that double improbability was survived, often going from one end of the track to the other, only sometimes with a satisfactory outcome.

Accidentally, I was actually in the paddock for that last race on the Wednesday and Harry told me that Anne-Marie O’Brien had told him that the Gordon Elliott people reckoned “their mare” was a flying machine. At the same time, a more usual Mullins/ Elliott contact told him he thought she wasn’t too well fancied. All the time I was blissfully unaware that it was she that Dave Dickinson reckoned a certainty plus 7lb, until hearing that Fayonagh was left. That finally resonated.

Thank God. That’s who I should have been on, and she had made all, the last twice, both on heavy ground. Surely she couldn’t win from there, could she, especially on this much faster ground? She could and did, finding as good a turn of foot even as Arctic Fire in the County Hurdle.

Now if the Irish moan at British handicappers in general and DD in particular, they have to take it back after that display.

Two runs ago, Arctic Fire had an Irish handicap mark of 169, but dropped to 166 after failing to stay three miles, before his second in a Mullins 1-2-3 in the Irish Champion Hurdle, 15 lengths behind Faugheen, but 13 ahead of the Stayers’ Hurdle winner Nicholls Canyon, rated 161 before Thursday.

I know the Editor of this publication had a lump [more a small interest – Ed.] on him ante-post for last year’s Champion Hurdle – he’d been second to Faugheen in it in 2015 and also second in the County Hurdle the previous year – but injury kept him out. For this belated (14 months nowadays is hardly a deterrent given the facilities the big stables offer for their inmates) return to allow him in on 158 was a gift, as it turned out, and he flew up the hill to win by a neck.

Watching him win was a minor irritation for me, and hopefully a joy for the Editor [no, sigh – Ed.], but the same day’s action provided an even greater cause of frustration than had Fayonagh two days earlier. I’d watched a three-mile race where Willie Mullins had a couple of runners recently, and the apparently less-fancied, trying a trip beyond two miles for the first time, bolted home.

That horse was Penhill, a decent Flat handicapper with first James Bethell and then Luca Cumani, with whom he achieved an official rating of 100. He won four of his first six starts before that three-miler, where he came from way back and spread-eagled a five-runner field by seven lengths and more. I remember making a mental note to remember him. I did, but only after an even more striking, but identical in composition, last to first effort on Friday. Fayonagh at 7’s was tolerable; Arctic Fire at 20’s was irritating, but Penhill at 16-1 broke what was left of my heart. Finally, I can tell someone!

Penhill is a son of Mount Nelson, newly-relocated to Ireland, having been sold by Penhill’s breeders Newsells Park to Boardsmill Stud as a jumping stallion.

The beautiful-looking Mount Nelson produces stock with plenty of substance, and that was the general opinion of onlookers at Clive Cox’s new season stable parade yesterday of the colt out of I Say, Ray Tooth’s nice winning mare. Many were surprised at his size, given he’s a first foal, but by all accounts he’s not backward: “He’s a big boy, so we’ll look after him,” said Clive.

Proper Flat racing starts at Doncaster on Saturday week. Can’t wait!

- Tony Stafford

 

Monday Musings: Confusion Reigns

All this Cheltenham stuff seems to be getting to a lot of people, writes Tony Stafford. Take Eddie O’Leary, brother to Michael and Racing Manager to his brother’s Gigginstown Stud. In yesterday’s Racing Post, Fast Eddie is quoted as insisting that a decision on whether their Empire of Dirt will run in either the Ryanair Chase or the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup will be delayed until next week.

In view of the litany of absentees from the meeting due to late injury, among them a handful of fellow Gordon Elliott inmates, such insistence – the word in one or other of its forms, got a couple of airings in Brian Sheerin’s page four piece – on pragmatism might be understandable, but next week, really?

It’s always tough to get weeks and years right. We talk about events in a jumps season as this year, when as with Moor Racer, now definite for the Champion Hurdle rather than a novice target, he might not have run since November 2016.

I’m finding it hard to distinguish this week from last, having set off at 4 a.m. on Saturday for Mark Johnston’s breeze morning where the most precocious batch of his juveniles set out on the road which might take one of them to the Brocklesby at Doncaster in three weeks’ time.

If that might seem too much time to allow for a 10 a.m. appointment you’re right, but Wetherby services offers an ideal opportunity for a Greggs breakfast special, bacon (three rashers) in a roll and a tea (my option) or coffee for £2.70. Anywhere else in that locale costs an arm or a leg. Thereafter, a wash and brush up, refuelling and an hour’s shut-eye were the perfect preparation for seeing third lot at Park Farm, Middleham.

Thirty or so of us were there to watch our particular interest, some intent on possible new acquisitions, others like me to appraise a possible early runner, as in Ray Tooth’s Tarnhelm. She has the distinction of being a regular partner for Deirdre Johnston and they were towards the back of a line of youngsters, some galloping, others like her doing a couple of canters – “maybe two weeks”, according to Mark, before joining them.

Anyway as they neared the onlookers, provided with a platform of rubber maps a fair distance away from the all-weather gallop, one distracted youngster veered left, hit the rail and ended on the other side. Luckily the rider took timely evasive action, and both she and her mount were unhurt.

Apparently, down at Richard Hannon’s last week, leading apprentice Hollie Doyle also came off, her mount spooking when several motor bikes sped past the string along a small road. She expects to be back race riding in a day or so.

Tarnhelm had to stop – she was the next one along – and if she can react with the same alacrity when asked to go faster, she could be all right. Time will tell, but Deirdre likes her.

Yesterday was the lull in the madness of Cheltenham week. Tonight I’ll have my usual pre-Festival night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club with Ian Wassell of Corals, BHA two mile hurdles handicapper, David Dickinson, and MC, Howard Wright – if he’s not in Bhutan or somewhere at the last minute – to run the final preview gathering of the year.

We might not be the best, but we are the last. Then after getting home at say 1 a.m. it’s up at 5 a.m. in order to collect Harry Taylor at Chigwell at 6.30, praying that the M25 will be kind to us for the first third of the trip west.

Howard has been an absentee a couple of times recently, I seem to remember Qatar as one lucrative alternative to his nice bottle of Bedfordshire RC wine, and Bhutan was a purely contrived possible destination. I knew Lennie Dorji, a great friend of Edward St George, and the pair spent every summer in England, betting in partnership and sometimes making money.

One year Edward had a successful time with David Loder horses, when I was a sort of advisor to the then young trainer, and even got a trip to Grand Bahama, which Edward basically owned with Sir (Union) Jack Hayward, that winter as a reward. He was totally disciplined. On hearing that Pat Eddery would be unable to ride the object of one potential 10 grand bet, he asked the trainer: “Who rides?” Upon hearing, “Paul Eddery”, he snapped back: “No bet!” It lost.

According to a comment made in the movie “The Lunchbox”, filmed a couple of years ago in Mumbai, Bhutan is the best place in the world to live: “you get five rupees there for one rupee here” one of the main characters says at one point.

Dorji was from that mountain nation’s Royal family and took important political roles, including I believe Prime Minister in his earlier days. If you saw the film on BBC2 last night, I bet you are still thinking about it and maybe like me quite affected. Try to see it.

Sorry Mr Editor, no more distractions. I started out talking about confusion for the Racing Post writer yesterday and in the same issue four pages later, my experiences on Champion Hurdle day eight years ago, when I was not there to see Punjabi win the big race, are recalled.

As with Chinese Whispers, even collaboration with the best of writers can be open to the odd confusion. If it seemed to read, therefore, that I drove there and back to Moorfields, “battling the London traffic”, I hasten to reassure that the 35 bus was my only conveyance option while recovering from a detached retina operation.

We’re not missing it this year, though, staying at a place called Highworth, between Swindon and Cirencester, and if 2016 is anything to go by, a better way into Cheltenham than from either A40 or M5. Starting as early as we do, there should be bags of time to see Punjabi and Rachael Kempster in the parade, unless like last year I’m forcibly prevented from the paddock by the security men.

Around New Year, I had a frustrating few days, wrestling with the apparent disappearance of the RCA despatched envelope which contained my new press badge for this year. I keep the robust, ideally-sized envelopes to contain such as driving insurance and car park documents and the like in the kitchen drawer.

When it came to taking it out possibly to go to Cheltenham on New Year’s day, I found to my consternation it wasn’t there and after a couple of lengthy searches, came to the conclusion I had erroneously thrown it out with the Christmas rubbish.

After a short correspondence with the RCA, I had no option but to part with £150 (£120 plus VAT) for a replacement. On Saturday night, returning at 10 p.m. after a stop-off at Chelmsford after the A1, I was met by a less-than-amused wife who said: “Did you lose this?” It was not the badge, but another RCA envelope with motoring documents. “That fell down behind the drawer”, she announced. “But I looked there a couple of times”, I whined. “Maybe there’s the one I wanted two months ago?” Two minutes later she retrieved another envelope, this one containing the missing press badge.

Saturday March 11. Hackney Wick, London. Dear RCA, I enclose the original 2017 press badge, issued to me, with car park label and use of badge instructions. Please send me the £150 so I can have a bet on Gordon Eliiott’s horses at Cheltenham next week.

Hope you all back plenty of winners, and maybe I’ll find one or two for the nice people of Bedfordshire tonight.

 

Monday Musings: From Tiny Acorns

It is very easy to under-estimate the beneficial effect that the big stables can have on others lower down the scale, writes Tony Stafford. They (especially the Maktoums) start with many hundreds of raw, well-bred horses and the simple fact is that they cannot all be talented, many certainly not good enough for their original owners.

Take Symbolic Star, a son of Nashwan from a typically-classy female family, who won one of three – a Wolverhampton all-weather maiden race – before being gelded four days after his next disappointing handicap run off 85 and sent to Tattersalls Ascot sale in July 2015.

Symbolic Star departed after a 7,500gns bid by Carlisle-based Barry Murtagh. In nine runs between his arrival in the far north and Wednesday, Symbolic Star never got in the first four – a fifth of six was his nearest. By the time he turned up at Newcastle on Wednesday last week, he was rated 50 and was running there for the seventh time for the Murtaghs.

Barry Murtagh trains a string (according to the 2016 Horses in Training – I’ll get the new one this week) of 14 horses and his wife Sue is listed as assistant trainer, with elder son Lorcan as conditional jumps jockey.

Lorcan has nine wins to his credit so far, the first on the Flat for Rose Dobbin in 2014, the rest in the north over jumps. Last winter he rode three consecutive winners for Ms Dobbin on Rocking Blues, topped off by a wide-margin success in the Eider Chase, and again in 2016-17 she has provided three wins, the best last Friday when 12-1 shot Monfass won the novice handicap chase at Doncaster.

So Lorcan Murtagh’s progress will have delighted his parents, but last Wednesday, Sue Murtagh was clucking around like a mother hen as she conspicuously guided her younger son Connor through the preliminaries to his first ride in public, on the afore-mentioned Symbolic Star.

Having tried blinkers during the non-productive nine-race lead-up to Wednesday, the Murtaghs now gravitated to a first use of cheekpieces and the five-year-old, expertly guided by Connor, stormed in at 25-1.

With tears in her eyes, mum Sue was understandably emotional as she told anyone close enough to hear – and luckily I was – that Connor, 16, had undergone open-heart surgery just six months earlier. He is an apprentice in the Richard Fahey stable and had his first ride for the Malton winning-machine back at Newcastle soon after brother Lorcan’s Doncaster win, finishing third on 2-1 favourite, Dose.

Coming hard on the unlikely Royal Artillery Gold Cup success of amputee Capt Guy Disney on Rathlin Rose, young master Murtagh showed just how adversity can be overcome with the right support and the skill and willpower of the individual.

Guy Disney was serving in the army in Afghanistan when the truck in which he was travelling was hit by a rocket. He lost his right leg below the knee, but after encouragement from Irish-based trainer Fergie Sutherland, who similarly lost a leg in the Korean War but later rode in point to points, he was set for his target.

It’s a big jump from winning one’s first race in a 0-60 on the all-weather to the top of the tree, but everyone has to start somewhere. I love recalling the fact that Ryan Moore’s first ever win came as an amateur in a hurdle race.

Most observers regard Moore as the top jockey in the world and the demand for his services in the Far East, Japan especially, illustrates that status. But over the past couple of years, particularly in Hong Kong, a serious challenger has emerged.

His name is Joao Moreira, a 32-year-old Brazilian, who relocated to Hong Kong in 2013. In September of that year he won on all of his eight mounts on a nine-race card at Kranji, Singapore, but in matching that tally with another eight-timer in the highly-charged Hong Kong racing arena at Sha Tin on Sunday, he was entering new territory.

Before Sunday, a maximum six winners had been achieved on a single day in Hong Kong, two of them by Moreira, but after breaking that tally with a seventh success on 6-1 shot Mighty Maverick, he closed out the epic meet with a dominating performance on last-race favourite Prawn Baba.

There was no particularly well-endowed (for Hong Kong) race on the day, but Moreira’s winners still totalled around £660,000 in prizemoney. He is sure to be in demand for Dubai World Cup Day in three weeks and no doubt Nick Smith at Ascot will be trying to entice him over for June’s Royal meeting.

Moreira has appeared at Ascot twice before. In 2013, he was selected for the Rest of the World team for the Shergar Cup and had five rides, winning on the Charlie Appleby-trained Ahtoug in the Sprint. At the 2015 Royal meeting, he was beaten a neck on Medicean Man (50-1) by Goldream in the King’s Stand Stakes. His only other ride that week was in the Queen Anne when, like Moreira, the well-fancied Able Friend travelled over from Hong Kong, but could finish only sixth to Solow.

Another of his 2013 Shergar Cup rides was the then Mark Johnston-trained Heavy Metal. Now seven, that gelding has been on a real upsurge in form at Meydan and won by six and a half lengths on Saturday, the last checking point before the World Cup meeting. Moreira might be an interesting contender, but will have to dislodge the revived Mickael Barzalona, who I notice has reached the grand old age of 25.

He seems an altogether different character than the extremely self-confident youngster who celebrated Pour Moi’s Derby win at Epsom even before getting past the runner-up Treasure Beach, never mind the winning line.

Barzalona has been re-crafted after a less than glorious spell as a Godolphin senior rider over here, back under the scrutiny of Andre Fabre, who trained Pour Moi for the Coolmore boys. That son of Montjeu never ran again, but after a slow start as a stallion – stamina rarely shines as brilliantly among young horses as speed – he is now newly grafted onto the Coolmore NH sire register.

Even as a late arrival, it will be hard to imagine his covering fewer than 200 mares this year. I hope the three Pour Moi youngsters that Ray Tooth has – two yearlings and a foal – will be precocious enough to make a mark on the Flat. They look nice types at any rate.

Monday Musings: Looking Forward, via Memory Lane

The weather men have never forgotten October 1987 and the unexpected hurricane that felled half the trees in the South of England, writes Tony Stafford. The Dewhurst Stakes had to be postponed by a day at Newmarket and I still recall the gaps in the treeline on the last leg from Six Mile Bottom, past Lordship Stud up to the roundabout by the National Stud and July Course when I drove along the next day.

Now every hint of a breath of wind from the Atlantic is viewed with utter suspicion by the forecasters. Last Thursday’s wee drop of Doris did cause some inconvenience in terms of wind speed, but less structural damage - nothing like what was predicted.

I spent the previous morning visiting two Berkshire stables I’d never previously seen. First it was to Beechdown Farm, Lambourn, owned and built by John Francome and professional home to Clive Cox throughout his now 18 seasons’ training. Then it was on, after a last-minute call, to West Ilsley, base for pretty much all of this century for Mick Channon.

The boss, Ray Tooth, has three “new” trainers for this season’s two-year-old intake, with both Channon and Cox joining the roster, along with Chris Wall. When asked whether he would like a two-year-old, Mick Channon said he’d be delighted. “I had one horse a while ago for Ray, and he wasn’t much good”. We’re hoping for better.

The Cox visit was pre-planned, its object to see the progress of the home-bred colt, called Nelson River, by Mount Nelson out of the winning mare, I Say. He’d had two easy days before Wednesday after possibly getting cast, so he did a canter limited to a short burst up the straight, but satisfied his onlooking trainer as we raced alongside in the jeep.

The rest of that batch of juveniles – “as a group they’re the best I’ve had”, said Clive – went a little further and Nelson River, a big, nice-moving colt, would hopefully have been back with them by the weekend.

Cox proudly showed me the private gallops of the 260-acre site developed with such skill by Francome, departed from our screens but in no way rueful, according to his tenant. “John is never happier than when driving a digger around the place.”

With Profitable now in Godolphin colours and My Dream Boat and Zonderland also back for another season, Cox must be hopeful of beating last season’s tally of 65 wins and £1.5 million in prize money. Harry Angel, easy winner of the Mill Reef Stakes on only his second start, is the main hope among a nice group of three-year-olds.

Wednesday’s work was undertaken in the expectation of a light morning, probably in the spacious indoor arena, when Doris arrived on Thursday, so plenty was done. I was soon heading back east and while Jenni Tait in Mick Channon’s stable reported neither Mick (in Dubai, basking after Opal Tiara’s Group 1 win the previous week) or Michael junior, on the way to watch a runner at Doncaster, was there, they would happily entertain this surprise visitor.

So it was to West Ilsley, the stables that were to become the new home of Major Dick Hern the year after he won Classic success with my first equine hero, Hethersett, in the 1962 St Leger, when private trainer to Major Lionel Holliday.

For me, still at school, it was the ultimate betrayal, Hethersett being left to languish under the nominal care of head lad, S J Meaney, while actually having his campaign directed by the irascible Yorkshireman. Hern, taking over from Jack Colling, even had the effrontery of saddling Darling Boy to beat Hethersett in his comeback race, the Jockey Club Stakes, in 1963.

Jenni and her office colleague Gill Hedley seemed surprised I’d never previously been to West Ilsley, but both were understandably still bubbling over Opal Tiara’s big win in face of major Godolphin opposition in that Group 1.

Gill was part breeder of the filly with Channon. From the least promising beginnings, the unraced mare Zarafa was sent to Rathasker stud’s stallion, Thousand Words, a Juddmonte-bred quadruple winner, for Barry Hills and latterly in California for the late Bobby Frankel.

The resulting filly went through Ascot sales as a yearling, going unsold at 1,800gns, but after showing plenty of ability at two, attracted Qatar Racing, who privately acquired a half-share. Last year she made great progress, winning a Group 3 at Goodwood, but Qatar wanted to cash in, and she was sold at December sales last backend for 230,000gns.

Happily Gill stayed in and she said: “We have new partners who bought into her and they are delighted, as we all are”. No wonder, how many people breed Group 1 winners? If she does get sold later in her career, the numbers are sure to multiply once again.

Having enjoyed a classy filter coffee and luxury biscuits while talking to the ladies, we made the short 20-metre walk to see Telltale, another home-bred, already gelded, by Monsieur Bond  out of Yarn. ‘Mum’ was a strapping filly who was always placed but never won, coupling natural ability along with a wind problem.

When he arrived, the initial idea was to put him into one of the normal boxes, but as Mick junior said: “He’s so tall, he couldn’t go in there, so it had to be one of the big ones.”

I understood from Michael it was formerly Youmzain’s box, but Jenni said: “No, that’s two along.” So here he was, the gentle giant, impossible to miss with his big white face. So after admiring him, I noticed a plaque outside the box, proclaiming that it had been Halicarnassus’ domicile. That high-class Channon performer is now a stallion in Turkey.

Underneath, though, there was a larger plaque in bronze, with a single word scratched underneath – “Henbit”, the Derby winner. The names on the plaque, though, might give Telltale something to live up to. I searched my memory since driving away, but came up with only four of the five names.

In reverse order they were: Little Wolf, winner of the Ascot Gold Cup; Minster Son, St Leger; and then Nashwan, 2,000 Guineas and Derby; and shockingly, the great Brigadier Gerard. That supreme champion, winner of 17 of 18 career starts at the start of my career in racing journalism, according to his only ever jockey, Joe Mercer, was sick with mucus pouring down his nose, when losing to Derby winner Roberto in the first Benson and Hedges Gold Cup (now Juddmonte International) at York.

The Brigadier, later very disappointing as a stallion, was the last horse to beat his contemporary, the equally-talented Mill Reef, in the 2,000 Guineas. Most racing historians reckon that field, with My Swallow only third, was possibly the best ever for the Newmarket Classic.

So I enjoyed a wonderful walk down Memory Lane, but it was not long before the mood was replaced by frustration at Lingfield on Saturday. While the racing was excellent, with the featured Winter Derby winner Convey adding further lustre to Opal Tiara, who beat him at Goodwood, the absence of any betting shop, thanks to the ongoing dispute between Ladbrokes, Corals and Betfred, and the racecourses, diminished the experience.

You could catch sight of races from elsewhere, where allowed by the direction of the course TV feed with replays, previews and the like interrupting the middle of major races elsewhere. Betting, though, was limited to the Tote with the three main Ladbrokes points uninhabited and the screens blanked out. I bet many of those who paid £25 for Premier admission wished they’d stayed at home.

I was interested in Jack Quinlan’s mount Sir Note at Kempton and noticed it was around 4’s, not bad, on the machine. When he won - yes, Racing Post, Jack Quinlan was riding! - the SP was 7-1. That was annoying for ordinary racegoers without apps or Betfair accounts. This is one disagreement that needs ending fast.

Monday Musings: Being AP

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

Funnily enough, I never really fancied seeing “Being AP”, the documentary film about the period leading up to the 2015 retirement of Sir Anthony McCoy, which had its limited cinema opening and DVD release later that year, but was screened late last night on BBC2, writes Tony Stafford.

It was rather inconveniently placed if you were caught up with the competing snooker final on Eurosport which ended halfway through the McCoy film, but I compromised and saw the bulk of what proved compelling watching.

We knew for many years all about the almost manic drive which characterised 20 consecutive jump jockey championships, but saw here first-hand his total unwillingness to allow such trifles as injury to prevent it happening for the final time.

The domestic trappings of success and his high-level income as J P McManus’ retained jockey were evident as he forced himself through the various periods of rehabilitation onto yet another 200-plus seasonal tally.

This was the season (2014-15) of his fastest ever first 50 winners, designed, as he graphically says: “to sicken everyone else” and make them see the inevitability of the eventual outcome.

But McCoy admits to a glass half-empty mentality. Dave Roberts, his equally-driven agent, who slipped out of the shadows for a rare public appearance throughout the piece, tells him that it will be impossible for anyone to match his 4,000 winners.

“To get 2,000”, says Roberts, “Someone will need to get 100 winners for 20 years.” McCoy has doubled that, yet his slant on that is “yes, I have had more winners than anyone else, but more losers and more falls.” Always, for Sir Anthony, it has been a case of fearing not becoming champion. In this final season, the early dominance led to hopes of a first-ever 300-winner campaign, but when injury ruled that out, the eventual decision was to announce imminent retirement on reaching 200, as he did on Mr Mole on February 7 2015 at Newbury.

Roberts was on hand to escort him back to the paddock, presumably to make sure he would stick by the planned announcement, and sure enough, as Rishi Persad moved in, microphone pushed into the rider’s face for the first interview, remarking on “yet another 200”, AP said: “That’s the last one, I’m retiring at the end of the season”.

For once the press corps was stunned. It was a big enough event – Betfair Hurdle Day – for the bulk of the media to be on hand, and the news was self-perpetuating, with wife Chanelle later fielding umpteen messages from friends as the couple drove home.

Clearly, Lady McCoy has had a serious challenge to compete with her husband’s riding and admitted selfishness – you have to be selfish as a sportsman, he maintains - but she has come through as an equally strong character.

Many of the nicest images are the way in which she supported him as he rode in races. “Come on Honey” was the usual exhortation from the missus as she watched races like the last Grand National on fourth-placed Shutthefrontdoor. On the day he received his 20th championship title at Sandown, she had both their children with her. In the midst of great emotion all around, the lasting image for me was her ginger-haired infant son Archie oblivious to it all in his mother’s arms, nonchalantly munching endless soft sweets.

Naturally JP McManus and Jonjo O’Neill were equal participants in this unique story and I expect they both approved of the outcome of what could have ended up an embarrassing sequence of wins and self-satisfaction. Sir Anthony McCoy’s character meant that could never be the case, and indeed the fact he was so worried about what retirement would mean for him also proves he does have some human frailties.

There were plenty of JP stars around over the weekend, with Yanworth not exactly stressing his almost-favourite status for the Champion Hurdle with a narrow win in Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle, but eight years ago Punjabi failed to win that race before beating Celestial Halo and McCoy on Binocular at Cheltenham.

Maybe more worrying for the owner was Jezki’s odds-on defeat by Tombstone at Gowran Park, the latter horse overturning previous form between the pair. Still, Forthefonofit, Dream Berry and Sutton Place, the last-named in a Grade 2 at Navan, kept the green and yellow colours to the fore. Maybe Jezki should try the three miles of the Sun Bets Stayers’ (ex-World) Hurdle, worth a highly acceptable £170,000 to the winner this year.

At nine, Jezki still retains most of his ability, but until Saturday, Zarkandar, another probable for the Stayers’ race, was looking an habitual non-winner, having gone almost four years since his last triumph in the UK. Paul Nicholls’ 10-year-old did win a French Grade 1, easily beating the talented if enigmatic Gemix at Auteuil more than two years ago, but his Haydock win on Saturday offers hope for one more big Festival effort. Winner of the 2011 Triumph Hurdle, Zarkandar appeared at the fixture for the next four years but was absent in 2016.

It must be hard for a smaller trainer to eschew running a decent horse at Cheltenham, but Tom Symonds, 32 today, who escorted Punjabi back to the winner’s enclosure in 2009 when joint assistant trainer at Nicky Henderson’s with Ben Pauling, will not be sending Don Bersy there.

The French-bred, another notable find for Claude Charlet and his France-based ally Joffret Huet, made it three wins in a row for Tom when collecting the Victor Ludorum at Haydock, giving 8lb to the runner-up.

“We didn’t enter him for the Triuimph, and he won’t go to the Fred Winter. We might look at Liverpool,” said Symonds, as ever under the radar. This observer hopes he will break into the next level and owners Sir Peter and Lady Gibbins, who also own the smart pair Hollywoodien and Kaki de la Pree, can help him with that ambition.

On a weekend of some successful and some less-so old-timers, the best performance by far was Cue Card’s 16th win in 35 career starts in the £85,000 to the winner Betfair Ascot Chase. The 2010 Cheltenham Bumper winner and Ryanair Chase victor four years later, it’s hard to see why he shouldn’t go close in a race he might have won a year ago bar a late fall. I trust Michael O’Leary is not too fussed that after his Kempton King George defeat by Thistlecrack, handicapper Phil Smith chose to drop Cue Card  from 176 to 170 before Saturday’s tour de force!

Monday Musings: All Change at the Top Table

Last Good Friday I made my first visit to the Lambourn Open Day, not in the usual way of the racehorse and horseracing enthusiast, but specifically to catch up with the estimable Corky Brown at Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows stables, writes Tony Stafford.

From the centre of the village the cars formed an orderly crocodile, mostly set on the same venue, with recently revitalised Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Sprinter Sacre the object of everyone’s adulation.

I remember writing that weekend how amazed I was that the old, maybe not so old, horse had spent most of that morning standing dutifully still as repeated waves of admirers took selfies with the four-legged superstar, probably filching the odd hair from his mane.

Nicky said, as he and Corky looked on a shade anxiously, that you couldn’t do that with any other horse. I cannot recall whether the question of retirement had yet been addressed, but soon after, his exclusive role as paddock adornment for major races – as at Newbury on Saturday – was established.

A mutual friend, Sir Rupert Mackeson, proprietor of Marlborough Bookshop among more colourful achievements in a long sometimes military life, had arranged the connection with Corky, who had at least informally agreed to become the subject of a book, written by yours truly.

That it did not come about was almost entirely due to the, as Sir Rupert called it, “Pot Boiler” published by the Racing Post on Sprinter Sacre’s career. The heroic champion chaser was a big part of the latter years of Corky’s long career with Fred Winter and then Henderson, and I thought it would have made a competing one about Corky Brown difficult in the limited specialist marketplace.

That said, on Good Friday the auguries were good: Hendo seemingly approving the concept and also understandably not dissenting from my opinion that Altior must be the one to beat in the following year’s Champion Hurdle. In the old days I would have steamed in with a proper ante-post bet, but those days for me are long gone.

So in a way it was something of a relief when a chasing career was decided for Altior, who, although seven lengths too good at the Festival for the otherwise flawless Min in his time with Willie Mullins, the trainer presumably still had in the back of his mind, the frustration of his inability to match the Irishman in recent seasons.

Since Binocular (2010) followed Punjabi as successive Champion Hurdle winners, Henderson has watched Mullins win four times with Hurricane Fly (2011 and 2013), and Faugheen and Annie Power, a late sub for her predecessor, in the last two runnings.

With both seemingly still at the top of their powers, Henderson must have been aware that Mullins would probably compile a team of top horses purely to stop Altior, but that worry would not have been so obvious if the gelding were to be switched to fences.

Three initial chase wins confirmed that the acceleration that took him unbeaten through his initial hurdling campaign was intact over fences. On Saturday in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury he annihilated admittedly a small field, but three classy and more experienced opponents with a display that suggested he might have similar ability as Sprinter Sacre at his peak.

The Arkle must be at his mercy and, with stablemate Buveur D’Air now switched from his supremely-promising novice chase programme to the suddenly talent-denuded Champion Hurdle, all must be serene in the Seven Barrows firmament.

Buveur D’Air and Altior have already met twice despite being in the same stable. Two years ago, on the Betfair Hurdle undercard, they filled second and third places behind Barters Hill, trained by former Henderson assistant Ben Pauling, in the Listed bumper. Barters Hill, winning for the third time in the midst of a seven-race romp only halted behind Unowhatimeanharry in last season’s Albert Bartlett, made all that day. Altior, hot favourite stayed on for third without matching the first two.

Altior gained his revenge in the Supreme Novice Hurdle, with Buveur D’Air third behind Min in a race full of talent, much of it from the Mullins stable and several of them running unexpectedly poorly.

Min’s defection from the Arkle at the same time as Faugheen’s reported injury early last week, soon after Annie Power’s own problems were reported, would have made Altior a short-priced favourite had he gone the hurdling route. Instead he’s 1-3 for the Arkle, while Buveur D’Air after a classy display against sub-standard Sandown opposition switched back to hurdling, may well collect the big one for the JP McManus ownership powerhouse.

Chances abound for Seven Barrows in many of the other feature races and if you want to see them detailed fully, Peter Thomas had a marathon write up in yesterday’s supplement of the paper of his recent trip to the gallops and stable last week, complete with news of a deer attack on one of the horses.

The Barters Hill bumper of two years ago was prophetically described immediately afterwards by Pauling as probably a top-class affair and while lacking in the same depth, last year’s renewal was won by nine lengths by subsequent Cheltenham bumper hero and Saturday’s Betfair Hurdle winner Ballyandy.

Saturday’s bumper there could well be in the ballpark of its 2015 version as this time it was Henderson to the fore with French import Daphne Du Clos, taking advantage of the hefty combined filly (5lb) and four-year-old allowance (10lb) from her elders, along with a 4lb extra penalty for previous Listed winner, Western Ryder.

It is rare, even in relatively uncompetitive bumper events in this country, for a horse to come to the front under a double handful as Daphne Du Clos did at the two-furlong pole. Sean Bowen, having his first (and almost certainly not his last) ride for the stable in his fourth season as a jockey, waited until Western Ryder came alongside and then pushed his mount, a daughter of Spanish Moon, clear in the last furlong. She will probably go either to Sandown or Aintree rather than the Festival bumper, and the style of her win was totally in keeping with the feeling of goodwill emanating from her handler these days.

It seems the Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci disappointments are beginning almost to match the excessive good fortune and success of recent seasons, and a quick snapshot of recent racing in Ireland confirms the downswing. Mullins has sent out 33 runners in the past two weeks, 14 starting favourite, and has won with eight of them. Admittedly, with six in the Grade 1 novice hurdle at Leopardstown yesterday, the average had to drop, but it was one of the outsiders Bacardys that won with hot favourite Saturnas tailed off last.

Bacardys was third in last year’s Champion Bumper at Cheltenham behind Ballyandy and no doubt will be pointed at one of the staying novice hurdles next month by which time his trainer will hope for the fortunes to have turned.

Monday Musing: Dream Season

As we get within a month or so of Cheltenham, the familiar forces are gathering, writes Tony Stafford. Over here the Nicholls and Henderson pulses quicken as expeditionary representatives travel far and wide to put down markers. In Ireland, the 1-14 shots that are Douvan and the rest toddle around to collect the odd €20k prize without breaking sweat on the way to Festival glory next month.

We’ve seen most of it before, so when something totally out of kilter with the norm confronts our vision, it is all the more enjoyable.

In Ireland, jumping especially is mostly about the Mullinses and the Walshes, leavened with increasing vigour by Gordon Elliott. All of the above were typically among the winners at Punchestown yesterday.

The scale of Willie Mullins’ and Elliott’s stable power must constantly frustrate would-be challengers for the major prizes, so when one of the lesser lights beats them at their own game, the satisfaction must be all the greater.

That sort of pleasure was clearly evident in the body language between rider Katy Walsh and trainer Ross O’Sullivan after Ruby’s sister made all with an enterprising and powerful ride aboard Baie Des Iles in the three and a half mile Grand National Trial. I would go so far as to say I reckon it was one of the best front-running rides I’ve ever seen in a long-distance chase, given depth of opposition and testing ground conditions.

The historical fact is that O’Sullivan, who happens to be Katy’s husband, was winning his third race of the season. His French-bred six-year-old mare is already building up a decent record, this being a second Irish victory following a Punchestown three-miler last season before a good second behind Bonny Kate in this event a year ago.

Ruby Walsh rode her that time, but yesterday was required for Sambremont, trained by Willie. That gelding stayed on late to pass Bonny Kate for second close home, but for almost the entire trip, Baie Des Iles, jumping boldly and accurately, led a nice few lengths clear of her old rival, with the remainder of the 15 runners, all geldings, miles behind.

Ross O’Sullivan’s best score to date has been four, two seasons ago. In seven campaigns over jumps (latest first) his scores are 3, 3, 4, 0, 3, 0 and 0. On the Flat it’s 2, 2, 0, 1, 0. Both last year’s Flat wins came with the veteran Doonard Prince, who collected consecutive autumn sprints at their local track, the Curragh, in fields of 27 and 23!

This though was at the other end of the stamina spectrum and considering Baie Des Iles’ relative youth, the fact she stays so well explains the trainer’s relish for a challenge for Newcastle’s four-mile Eider Chase next month. She’s already been sixth to Rogue Trader in the Irish Grand National and fifth behind Gold Cup candidate Native River in the Welsh Grand National, in each case as the only five-year-old in either race.

Yesterday’s win will have earned the daughter of Barastraight – unfashionable in France where he stands - a hike towards the 150 mark, but seemingly the prospect of soft ground on the tough Newcastle track offers the potential of perfect components for Baie Des Iles and her determined ally in the saddle.

I often get a reminder of the Eider Chase and two or three other now otherwise fading memories of an old former Daily Telegraph colleague, especially when, as on Friday, I see Grand National-winning jockey Graham Thorner at the sales, where he has become a bit of an ace in picking up unexposed hitherto under-achievers from the big yards.

He regularly turns £2k ugly ducklings into nice jumping prospects, but there’s always time for a reminder, as on Friday, of the day at Kempton when he rode a winner for Noel Blunt’s father-in-law. My Mate won by 25 lengths and the next day, recounting the tale, Blunty added proudly that of course he had given the jockey, who’d become a bit of a pal to him and his wife, a present. “Yes,” said Noel, “I gave him two quid!” I don’t think Thorner ever declared it to the tax people.

Noel eventually went on to the Sporting Life as chief sub-editor and there enjoyed cult status with such headlines as “Scaling the Eider” and “The Hanging Baskets of Babylon” actually appearing in the paper. Even before he so helpfully engineered my recruitment to the DT when a racing desk member died suddenly, the funniest of all was the Kruggerand episode when John Oaksey mentioned the gold South African coins in his Sunday article. Scratching of heads all round, until Noel had a brainwave. “Ask Tony <I was doing minor sports results on the next desk>. “He knows Latin!” Still miss you mate.

This is the time of year that my week quickens with young horses getting going on the gallops and mares preparing to foal. Ray Tooth has one on the board already from Lawyers Choice who has a nice big colt by Garswood, whose foals made up to £75k despite his modest initial stud fee of around £6,000 (£4,000 this year).

Garswood, of course, is a Group 1 winning son of Dutch Art, who produced two nice winners from Lawyers Choice – Dutch Art Dealer and Dutch Law, the latter who did so well for us last year. Their brother, Highway Robber, is the likely favourite for a race at Newcastle tomorrow.

His trainer, Wilf Storey, won with Table Manners on the same track on Saturday night, so she became the third dual winner for her dam, Nine Red, who is about to produce to consistent Yorkshire-based sire, Monsieur Bond.

As Tattersalls’ newly expanded two-day sale showed, demand for British and Irish bloodstock remains high, and Ray’s policy of producing his own horses rather than pay what’s needed at auction with so much high-powered overseas investment has to be our way forward.

To that end, I got to see a nicely-made son of Equiano out of flying filly Catfish, who we still maintain might have carried the accolade “the world’s fastest racehorse” had her saddle not slipped at the start of her Vodafone Dash attempt at Epsom a few years back. She finished third behind the John Best-trained Stone of Folca in the fastest electronically timed five furlongs, so, mated with a fast stallion, could well produce a decent juvenile. Chris Wall likes what he’s seen of him so far.

In all there are eight juveniles (seven home-bred) going into training and no doubt I’ll be boring you with all the minor excitements as their training regimes proceed. After all, Flat racing on turf returns next month. What happened to the winter? We didn’t get one, just daily Festival updates from November onwards.

Many Clouds, and Two of the Best in the World

I finally got to see the entire ITV4 coverage on Saturday – in a pub - and considering the understandable outpouring of grief after Many Clouds’ collapse following his gallant defeat of Thistlecrack in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham, I thought they did rather well, writes Tony Stafford.

Luke Harvey is warming to his job alongside Mick FitzGerald and assured anchor Ed Chamberlain and, while they all gave suitable reverence to the horrific conclusion to an epic race, they left the tears for Oliver Sherwood’s close friends Warren Greatrex and Nicky Henderson.

Maybe they would have wanted to be a shade more emotional, but the races kept coming and there was Unowhatimeanharry on hand to register his claims as Thistlecrack’s probable successor as World (now reverting to Stayers’) Hurdle champion.

The snag with ITV (or indeed ITV4) is that they still miss a few races at the start of the meeting so the Triumph Hurdle Trial had long since been contested before the cameras rolled for live coverage.

Most people on the other side of the betting battleground find it hard ever to be sympathetic to the bookmakers, but in this they got a rare-old pants-down experience. Two J P McManus horses, Charli Parcs, set to be ridden by Barry Geraghty, and Defi du Seuil (Richard Johnson) were equal favourites in the morning, with the possible understanding that if one was to be withdrawn, it would probably be Johnson’s mount.

In the event, Defi du Seuil, the Chepstow Christmas winner, for all his erratic late course and iffy jumping that day might have made him vulnerable here, was the chosen one, ridden by retained rider Geraghty, and he dotted up. The evens that shrewdies took translated to 1-5 at the off, whereas Rule 4 designates a much smaller cut in such circumstances.

On a weekend when the Willie Mullins hordes were so diminished, Faugheen and Annie Power both taken out of races and Nicholls Canyon falling – Ruby Walsh has been having a few of those - it was amusing to hear Rich Ricci quoted as saying: “We’re running out of horses!” Never mind Rich, you can send your man off to France and buy a wagon-load more.

What was remarkable on this particular weekend, was that both the outstanding American dirt horse and the supreme French trotting horse enhanced their already stellar reputations.

Ever since I fluked seeing Arrogate’s Travers Stakes romp – 13.5 lengths – last August, I have had no doubt that Bob Baffert’s now four-year-old is the best in the world. He beat the only feasible contender to the crown, California Chrome, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last autumn, coming with a powerful late run to win by half a length.

That pair were always going to be the prime factors in the inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational over nine furlongs at Gulfstream Park; and Arrogate (Mike Smith) always had the jump on Chrome, who faded – possibly injured – into the pack as his rival cantered to a near five-length win. The dropdown in form may have been a case of Arrogate’s looking Chrome in the eye late last year and telling him: “I’m best”: it was after eyeballing his foe down the back straight here that Victor Espinoza’s mount wilted.

Before Gulfstream, Baffert was sounding very negative about following on with the $10 million Dubai World Cup in two months’ time, but less so after this performance when presumably he considered how little risk and indeed opposition there is likely to be to his champion, outside the usual shipping/feed/track conditions concerns.

California Chrome retires with record earnings of $17m and Arrogate, beaten only on debut in a wonderful upwardly mobile career, is within $6m and surely will go to Dubai now to pinch the bit he needs to match his old rival.

The Pegasus Cup was an interesting exercise, 12 ownership groups contributing $1m each to have the right to run. Several, like Coolmore with nothing good enough to take the pair on, traded the slots, unsurprising in view of the fact the big two were both close to evens, and no doubt, there was a bit of a discount in some cases. Every horse got a pot, the numbers four to 12 collecting $250,000 while they were all promised a share in associated revenues.

If Arrogate is supreme in world dirt racing, the French trotter Bold Eagle is just as pre-eminent in his sphere, and he won his second successive Prix d’Amerique with a display of great superiority. He was a 3-5 shot in a 17-horse field and apart from a slightly sluggish start, was never questioned as he travelled up to the leaders in the straight and went well clear.

Bold Eagle, a six-year-old entire, was not the highest money-earner in the field. That distinction belonged to the 10-year-old Timoko before his 91st and last race and he certainly made a decent show, leading for the first mile of the 13-furlong distance before dropping away.

This was Bold Eagle’s second consecutive Prix d’Amerique win, and the champion could have four more attempts as trotters can run until the age of 10. The last dual winner was his sire, Ready Cash, in 2011 and 2012, interestingly after Bold Eagle was conceived. This was Bold Eagle’s 31st win in 35 starts and the French experts find it hard to see what can beat him going forward, like Arrogate. If he wins next year he will equal the achievements of the brilliant Ourasi, the best French trotter in the latter part of the last century.

Returning to Saturday, another of the Mullins hot-shots, Vroum Vroum Mag, was absolutely all out to win the mares’ race at Doncaster. Beforehand, with the Annie Power/ Faugheen issues in mind, the assumption was that Mag could step in for the Champion Hurdle, but it would take a big leap of faith to project forward from what was an ordinary performance.

Monday Musing: The Rust Is Settling…

Blame it on the cricket yesterday morning, writes Tony Stafford (pictured), but without it I would have seen more of the very entertaining Attheraces Sunday Forum, hosted by the eminently sensible Sean Boyce with guests BHA Chief Executive Nick Rust and journalists Peter Thomas and Chris Cook, all three firmly on my racing A List.

Slightly flummoxed by attempting to plot the course of the white ball in Kolkata, I switched over and thought I was seeing something. The vision was of a white shirt on a big frame, red tie and up close, a sleeked back fair mane. What’s President Trump doing over here? But no, that was first Mr Rust’s white shirt and red tie, Mr Thomas’s blond locks. Meanwhile Mr Cook on the end had an even more luxuriant haircut than even the Donald, but clearly the wrong colour.

The main topic I managed to see was the errors made in the lead up to the original Jim Best disciplinary hearing and stiff sentence, and the internal soul-searching before the recent independent re-hearing and its perceived feeble penalty.

Even now the journalists seem to struggle with the concept that Nick Rust has been fundamental in ensuring correct procedure after the Matthew Lohn fiasco. And, to his credit, Rust held his ground in face of persistent but respectful journalistic prodding in the absence of a McCririck presumably. Obviously Rust is still luxuriating in the wake of the agreed (by Government) Levy Replacement scheme starting on April 1 which should safeguard racing’s finances and bodes well for future prizemoney levels.

Whether or not the issue of Kempton’s possible closure in 2021 was discussed [it was, Ed.], I heard an interesting side-bar on its replacement as an all-weather track by Newmarket. Apparently there is just as much opposition to the idea of taking lesser horses a few furlongs down the road to run on all-weather as to slog round the M25 to go the 100 miles each way with the even-money chance of long, irritating delays to Sunbury.

My horse whisperer passed on the news that John Berry, small stable Newmarket trainer and former mayor of the town, is apparently strongly against the idea. He (my correspondent) then reminded me of the general opinion of the Newmarket trainers when Newcastle, 240 miles distant, announced it would replace its turf Flat-race track with a Tapeta surface. They were strongly against that scheme, but as he says, since its inception, the town’s horseboxes have been making the odyssey in droves for most meetings, especially to farm the maiden races.

It doesn’t seem to matter either that rewards can be skimpy bearing in mind that expenses for horsebox travel these days are so stringent.
I remember when I was first just about old enough (so 1964) to go into betting shops there was a trainer based quite close to Newmarket in Ingatestone called Peter Poston, or P J as the formal racecards of the day billed him.

He had a two-year-old filly in his care called Pidgeon Toes and his practice was to load her up in his converted meat van – he supplied meat to Smithfield Market - usually with two or three other no-hopers and collected a travel allowance for them all.

Hence they would be sighted in Carlisle and especially Hamilton Park. Pidgeon Toes almost always was second or third favourite in weakly-contested affairs and was always a bet to nothing each way against the normal odds-on shot for a place, which in those days was a third the odds for five to seven runners. She ran up a sequence of seconds and thirds, I think with the odd win.

It was largely the realisation that the travel allowance was more important to P J than the prospect of some prize money and it ended soon after he did – his fault basically. No wonder the French owners love the fact that their runners in PMU-covered meetings get travel allowances, although each horse nowadays seems to have a limit against its name on the France Galop site.

An article in the Guardian in 1968 by the late (Sir) Clement Freud called Poston the £120 man – presumably that was the allowance. I found the small print on the Internet coverage too testing for my eyes, but strangely in the same publication 43 years later, Chris Cook also spoke about the man.
Elsewhere there is a report about Poston’s best horse, Heathfield, apparently the 25-length winner of Ayr’s Tennant Trophy after a series of wins and another carries the fact that he died in 1991, soon after the Racing Post’s arrival. Sadly the nearly-complete set of form books which weighed down the loft of my house in Hertfordshire until early in the last decade did not come with me to my reduced circumstances in East London. But the odd glimmer of those old days 50-odd years away remains in the back of the brain.

If I don’t go racing soon – this last weekend makes it four weeks in a row for various reasons - I’ll go mad, for all the excellence of the coverage by the three Channels. But the Tooth team will resume action with the Mick Quinn-trained Circuit at Lingfield on Wednesday, and the newly ramped-up RCA red tape permitting, I’ll be there to cheer her home (or somewhere near it).

The cold weather in the South stopped Ascot on Saturday and what seemed an excellent card might have persuaded me to make the effort other than a certain event in Tallinn, Estonia, which I could watch on my computer screen in its entirety.

It was called the Juna Cup, for adult ice skaters and it attracted competitors from many European countries, especially Sweden, Finland, Russia, Italy and Great Britain. My wife has been skating for just over three years, so it was with a mixture of pride and disbelief that I watched her win her class (Bronze1 – the level goes up to Silver, Gold and Masters) by a clear 11 points. Not bad for a first overseas tilt and now it will be all systems go for the British Adult Championships at Sheffield in May.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musing: On Passing Kempton…

 

You’d better hurry. If you want to go to Kempton Park before the bulldozers move in as planned in 2021, there are only around 300 chances, writes Tony Stafford. If it’s jumping you want to see rather than all-weather, floodlit or otherwise, it’s somewhere around 45 meetings, based on the present fixture list.

It’s a funny thing about Kempton. While it’s going along in an untroubled, unspectacular manner, almost nobody loves it, but the minute its future is threatened, the over-my-dead-body brigade sharpen their metaphorical pencils.

Unless there are feet of snow or temperatures at around minus 5 Centigrade, meetings are rarely even threatened to be abandoned on the turf track, while during the now almost 11 years of its life as a Polytrack Flat circuit, it has become the venue for decent younger horses on the way up the ladder even if nobody is there to see them. Decent telly and bookmaker fodder nonetheless.

Now, though, the one-time Kempton Manor, first enclosed in the 13th Century and a racecourse since the 1870’s , is to be sold (the OMDB brigade notwithstanding) for housing. The overall 210-acre site is expected to realise around £100 million and initial plans are for 3,000 homes to be built.

Kempton’s owners, Jockey Club Racecourses, want to build, as replacement, an all-weather track at Newmarket as part of a £500 million group future investment. Unsurprisingly, the plans have brought extremes of opinion, with the OMDBs the more vociferous so far.

Anyone reading these notes will be aware that one of my main obsessions is with time. For instance, it has always intrigued me that if I project back the 87 years of age of my great-grandmother (who died when I was 11) before her birth in 1870, we’d get to 1783!

I first went to Kempton, on the old Hackney-based Fallowfield & Britten coach, picking up at Clapton Pond. The firm were actually taken over by George Ewer (Grey-Green Coaches) in 1952, but kept the old livery for a while. We certainly were regulars at the Easter meeting by the late 1950’s and the main recollection is crawling along in a great crocodile of coaches beside the retaining wall that goes all the way from the old Jubilee start 10 furlongs from home.

Another memory of those days is viewing from the stand at the top of the straight, a full three furlongs out and watching them flash by, then shaking my head when the end result was nothing like the order when they passed us.

That fixture featured both the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas Trials, and one name that has stuck is that of the 1964 1,000 Trial winner, Gwen (maybe Jack Jarvis and Lord Rosebery), who beat subsequent 1,000 Guineas heroine, Pourparler, to my great delight. Winding back the near 60 years from my first visit there – we went to Newmarket in 1952! – you get to 1900. To think that 70 years from now it’ll be 2087.

It seems strange enough that there are two courses as close together as Kempton and Sandown Park, which is likely to be the main beneficiary of any Kempton closure as the expectation is for the King George VI Chase to be transferred there.

When you drive the seven miles from Kempton to Sandown, you pass within a short walk of another well-known track, the now defunct Hurst Park, which closed in 1962. Hurst Park was built on part of the old Hampton Court Racecourse (closed in the 1880’s) plus some extra land and staged the Victoria Cup, now at Ascot. I believe I saw the last running of that race, and for many years always told whoever would listen that I backed the winner, King of Saba. I did back it, but I found out recently it finished second.

The differences in the make-up of the two tracks – Kempton is Pancake flat, Sandown tight around the bends but stiff uphill at the finish – bother some observers who believe that the King George’s traditional nature will be lost.

A major bug-bear for me over the years has been the insistence, even among leading trainers, especially Nicky Henderson, Kempton’s major spokesperson, that Kempton is a notably sharp course. Non-stayers rarely win three-mile races there as they are usually truly-run, while the King George itself, with a high-class field and winter going is always a true stamina test.

I’ve had a lot of luck at Kempton, most notably with a horse called Tangognat. He lined up for his second start under Rod Simpson’s care for the three-year-old maiden on Easter Monday April 8 1985 after finishing third on debut in a Leicester claimer.

Starting 20-1 in a field of 10, he swept to the front two furlongs out and won by 20 lengths from Fire of Life, later winner of the Italian St Leger for Ian Balding. Four days later we went back to the track for a conditions race and won by 15 lengths, each time loving the rare (for Kempton) heavy going. After two flops on faster ground, he went on to win a couple of nice juvenile hurdles around Cheltenham before fast ground in the Triumph effectively ended his career.

In more recent times, Kempton has been a good winning venue for Ray Tooth’s horses, Fair Trade winning both over hurdles and in a jumpers’ bumper, in which now abandoned category, Cousin Khee was also successful. I can still picture Skeleton’s rocketing home, passing almost the entire field in the last furlong under Silvestre De Sousa while an always fond memory is of Lawyers Choice.

The late Pat Eddery trained this filly to win twice, at 16’s at Wolverhampton and then at 25-1 at Kempton in my first year on the Tooth team. She has since proved a diamond as dam of both Dutch Art Dealer and Dutch Law, the latter sold for 150k last autumn after a four-year-old campaign when he won £80,000 for his owner-breeder.

Dutch Art Dealer, now six, raced for the Paul Cole stable until changing hands for an almost unbelievable 3,000gns last backend. He had his first run for new trainer Ivan Furtado at Newcastle recently and bolted up off 80 and I reckon that even though 6lb higher, he can follow up back at Kempton tomorrow night.

I think of Chelmsford and Newmarket almost as my local tracks, but it is 45 miles to the old Essex Showground and 60 to HQ. Kempton, if I go the direct (thus traffic-strangling) route through Central London, is barely 20 miles away, and that was always the balancing factor as I strove to get there each night meeting a few years back when I was lucky enough to host the evening entertainment in the Panoramic Restaurant.

Kempton featured some talented performers in those days, along with excellent food and one of the regular and most admired singers had been a contemporary of Kate Winslet’s at stage school. She recalled the future star of Titanic was just “OK at singing and dancing, and a little better at acting”. Not much different from attitudes in racing among trainers and their relative abilities.

Those evenings were a highlight in my later incarnation. From those days, so many of the Kempton personnel have gone on to bigger and better things in Jockey Club Racecourses, notably Paul Fisher, who signed me up, and Amy Starkey, now the boss at Newmarket. Good luck to them. I’m sure they’ll shed a collective tear, like me, if and when their alma mater goes.