Monday Musings: Hendo’s Stamping Ground

Not much happened on another of those weeks which comprise the Phoney War between Christmas and You Know What, writes Tony Stafford. Apart that is from the septuagenarian trainer who recorded his 274th, 275th, 276th and 277th wins around Kempton’s jumping course since the Racing Post rather irresponsibly delayed its first issue in 1988 until after See You Then had already won his three Champion Hurdles from 1985-7.

That’s right. Nicholas Henderson LVO OBE, now 71 and newly recovered from Covid, would hardly have been in the best of form on Saturday morning. The fog had enveloped that much-beloved, dead flat slice of Sunbury-on-Thames from early morning and with the temperature being unhelpfully slow to rise, prospects for the meeting looked slim.

Two morning inspections came and went and I’m pretty sure that if it hadn’t been principally for the fact that Kempton’s greatest supporter both in terms of runners and with regard to its welfare, had a hatful ready to go, Barney Clifford might not have given it a final late-morning look.

It had been like that, too, earlier on Hendo’s private Lambourn gallop at just after dawn but there the fog never lifted and the stars having their top-ups with big targets imminent managed to get from A to B with only their riders having a clue of what went on. A fit-again trainer did, though, make it to Kempton.

And meanwhile, Barney did wait and magically the fog lifted rather fortuitously as the river can almost be heard gliding alongside the old but now-disused Jubilee course on its way to Hampton Court and thence the sea. Barney’s job done, it was left to Henderson, having already in the morning confirmed Shishkin for the Clarence House Chase next weekend – maybe Willie Mullins and Energumene might be the ones to blink and pass up the pre-Festival date with two-mile destiny – to fill his boots.

It was at Kempton over Christmas that Shishkin did his demolition job on Tingle Creek scorer, Greaneteen. On Saturday a quartet of winners at 7-1 (Falco Blitz), 15-8 (Mister Fisher) 9-2 Caribean Boy, and 11/2 First Street, equated to an 821-1 four-timer. If instead of finishing second at 22/1 in the finale and beating First Street, the four-timer involving Mengli Khan would have been 2908-1.

In addition Call Me Lord was third at 33-1 in the featured Lanzarote Handicap Hurdle, unbelievably well into its 40’s honouring the memory of the great Fred Winter-trained champion. Henderson spent his time as assistant and also stable amateur with Fred and ever since his training career has been conducted mainly on the top courses in the Southern part of the country, albeit with some diversions to such as Aintree, Doncaster and Haydock. It was good to see perennially under-rated Jack Quinlan get a chance in a big race and he took it with both hands on Ben Case’s runaway Lanzarote winner, Cobblers Dream.

This week, again with little to talk about, I thought I’d have a brief look at elements of the Henderson career and found one rather nice oddity. In the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle, being taught elocution as she attemps to turn herself from a Covent Garden flower girl to a lady fit for society, has to enunciate : ”In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen”, managing  in true Cockney fashion to drop all the h’s. No such problem for ‘enderson!

There are no jumps racecourses in Hertford or Hampshire, but Nicky has his share of wins at Hereford. To draw out a rather unnecessary segment of his career totals, at three alphabetically consecutive northern tracks, which fit the tempo of that far-off line, we can say “To Carlisle, Cartmel and Catterick, Henderson hardly travels.” With respectively two from four, one from three and three from 11, his horses have been to each of them far fewer times than me!

Hoping that my arithmetic has not been too inaccurate, I believe Henderson has won around £47 million in stakes from his 3017 jumps winners in the post-1988 period of his momentous career. I had some great times from close up in the prime of life of Ray Tooth’s Punjabi, notably the four trips to Punchestown which, while bringing two Grade 1 wins, denied him a shot at any Chester Cup, a race I always believed would have suited him. When he won his Champion Hurdle I was home alone on the sofa recovering from a detached retina.

Newbury comes next numerically in the roll call of Henderson victories but it is with some surprise that while his 267 tally at his local track is only ten short of Kempton, his prize-money haul is a clear £1 million less, £3.4million to Kempton’s almost £4.5 million.

Prestbury Park has been only third in the winner count with 209 victories, but the financial return has been a massive £12.2 million. Aintree, Sandown and Ascot have all also been wonderful venues for this classiest of operations.

Over the years the constant characteristic, especially among the two-miler chasers, has been just how sleek and classy they all have looked. Even non-expert paddock watchers have a decent shot at recognising a Henderson horse without the aid of his distinctive sheet.

With the largely good-ground team firmly in form, and with the weather unseasonably dry for the time of year, hopes must be high for the Festival. Shishkin and last week’s brilliant Sandown Tolworth Hurdle hero Constitution Hill look two of the more obvious potential home winners.

I’ve had a number of Moaning Minnie shots at the handicappers throughout the last few months. Last week, though, talking to Nicky Richards he felt the new approach of giving more lenient initial marks to novice winners could help increase the number of horses running on their merits in those races.

I hate to think what the Irish officials make of the big-field novice events over there where five or six (at a stretch) with a chance are already detached from the rest of the field by a wide margin before the second flight. The second much larger group then has a private battle to fight out fifth or sixth place.

Where would you begin if you were a handicapper in those circumstances? Equally why should trainers of those inferior animals get into an early tussle with Messrs Mullins, De Bromhead and Elliott and have a hard race for no potential  benefit… rather get an 85 rating and come to England, off 95 as it now is, and where the finishing straights are paved with gold!

Insurance companies have been good supporters of races at various big UK meetings of late and the Jonathan Palmer-Brown influence was felt with successive sponsorships of the race with the registered BHA title of the Golden Miller Chase, remembering the five-time Gold Cup hero of the inter-war period.

Palmer-Brown, a successful flat-race owner with the Hannons, through his company JLT, supported the two and a half mile novice chase which opens day three. Then a few years ago when JLT was being absorbed in the Marsh McLennan Agency in a deal brokered among others with Marsh’s Dominic Burke, Palmer-Brown – with the Festival’s well-being in mind – negotiated a continued initial period of support under the Marsh banner.

Burke, Chairman of Newbury racecourse, has been in the news lately. Last week he was a partner with Tim Syder in two winners. Firstly, Dr T J Eckleburg, trained by Olly Murphy, won a novice hurdle at Ludlow; and then on Saturday the Emma Lavelle-trained Éclair Surf was the wide-margin winner of Warwick’s valuable long-distance Classic Chase for the pair. This year the Marsh name has disappeared from Thursday’s opening race title and the contest will be henceforth known as the Turners Chase.

Whether Marsh McLennan’s US principals deemed the Marsh Chase brought little publicity benefit in terms of value for money or not, they might well have been advised that it could have been a different story this year. The Turners – nice ring to it, don’t you think? - is the chosen target for Bob Olinger, who won well at Punchestown yesterday. In so doing he was maintaining an unbeaten chase record in his two starts since strolling home clear in his novice hurdle test last March.

He is a very hot favourite for that race and trainer Henry De Bromhead will be basing his team around him, along with Honeysuckle on the Tuesday in her repeat Champion Hurdle challenge and Minella Indo and A Plus Tard, last year’s Gold Cup one-two. Can’t wait, and also can’t believe I got through 1,400 words without using ‘the C word’! [No, not that one! Ed.]

- TS

Monday Musings: Hill has the Constitution for Cheltenham

In these quality-starved weeks after the Christmas and New Year holiday periods, we seek largely in vain for a few strands of straw from which to build a brick or two of worthwhile form, writes Tony Stafford. The obsession with identifying UK horses capable of winning at Cheltenham 2022 is beginning to look a bit like Nicky Henderson – stricken at the weekend at home in Lambourn with Covid – alone against the world.

Actually the bricks-from-straw metaphor more accurately refers to my flimsy resources in putting together enough thoughts to make a 1200-1600-word weekly article at this time of year. Always the first glimmer of optimism is provided by the <clichés will say "rapidly-"> but for the sake of accuracy it’s "steadily-"increasing daylight.

I popped out on Sunday at 4.15 p.m. to the local shop and it was still light but already dark when I got home. Nine weeks to Cheltenham means 90 minutes more at either end of the day. Soon after, the clocks go forward and so do we. But that’s not saying much about racing.

The Henderson horse charged with defending his trainer’s and nation’s honour has instantly switched from the superb Shishkin, who some believe could find the brick wall of Willie Mullins’ former UK-raced pointer Energumene ending his Queen Mother Champion Chase hopes.

No, a new star emerged over the weekend in the shape of Constitution Hill, named after the road that flanks the big garden wall alongside Buckingham Palace on one side and Green Park in London’s West End on the other.

Constitution Hill, ridden by Nico De Boinville in the colours of Michael Buckley, put in an extraordinary performance in the mud at Sandown Park on Saturday, running right away from a quintet of nice novices, going two to their one as the old commentators used to put it.

Rarely do you witness horses coming up an incline in muddy conditions seemingly giving no mind to the arduous nature of the task. He could have been running up to the winning post on good ground at Royal Ascot so little did he look like a jumper somewhere near the end of his tether, as most animals have been this past couple of weeks.

Constitution Hill was the sixth Henderson winner of the Tolworth Hurdle, now sponsored by Unibet but a race of several guises and a few venues with seasonal abandonments, meaning Ascot, Warwick and Kempton have all played temporary host to this much-coveted novice prize.

A glance back at its history since inauguration in 1976 reveals the inevitable Desert Orchid in 1984, so he’s on that roll of honour as well as the Clarence House (initially Victor Chandler Chase) as was chronicled last week.

Henderson’s first of six, New York Rainbow in 1992, was also owned by Buckley, but I recall his owning smart horses even earlier than that. For almost three years between 1969 and late 1971 I was on the Press Association racing desk and just before I left, John De Moraville, son of the former trainer of the same name who handled the wonderful stayer and later breed-defining jumps stallion Vulgan, joined the team. John later became Bendex at the Daily Express, following the colourful Charles Benson in the role. He was still later a Jockey Club/BHA jumps handicapper.

John was half-brother to Peter Bailey, a successful jumping trainer at the time who had a youthful Michael Buckley among his owners. In those days his colours were white and black, halved I think, almost in the Oppenheimer manner and with sleeves reversed – one white, one black.

His best chaser at the time was Strombolus and while I could not find that horse’s career on wikipedia, I did find him participating in a race on the internet. I keyed in his name and was directed to the film of the 1979 King George VI Chase at Kempton Park, which was won by Tommy Carmody on Silver Buck.

As Peter O’Sullevan informed the gathered crowd, which included yours truly, victory would be the jockey’s second in a row as he had also ridden Gay Spartan to success 12 months earlier.

Tommy, who joined from Ireland as stable jockey to Tony Dickinson, would win it again on Silver Buck a year later for the hat-trick by which time Michael had taken over the licence from his father. It was during that time that Dickinson junior told me: “I’ve had that little sod William Haggas ringing me up from Harrow School again telling me how to train his mother’s horse!” Christine Feather owned Silver Buck.

The Harewood team was to make it five-in-a-row in the race when, after the 1981 renewal was lost to the weather, Wayward Lad collected the next two. Both horses featured in the Famous Five Gold Cup of 1983 but Carmody left after completing his hat-trick. He was supplanted principally by Robert Earnshaw – still working for the BHA as a stipe the last I saw – Graham <sorry mate, you can’t have a trainer’s licence> Bradley, Kevin Whyte, Dermot Browne (ahem!) but plenty more.

I used to talk to Michael most days then and when I heard Carmody, already a prominent rider in Ireland, was joining the team I decided to back him for the jump jockeys’ title and suggested to Robert Glendinning, the Daily Telegraph Racing Editor, he should back him too.

Bob duly agreed to take a tenner of my bet. A few months later, Bob was about to retire and on the Friday evening before Grand National Day as he was finishing that night he handed over the ten quid with a grunt – “worst bet I ever had!” in his best West Yorkshire tones.

It was one of my many impecunious days, so, aware there was one race still to run at Aintree, I dived down to Corals in Fleet Street and had a fiver each way on a Peter Easterby horse ridden by Alan Brown and it won at 15/2.

Also at that time I had a regular weekend slot on BBC Radio London with Wembley ice hockey announcer Norman De Mesquita – on his weeks off, substitute Simon (brother of outrageous actor Oliver) Reed, who still commentates on ice skating. I’d go off on my Friday lunch break to Marylebone High Street where Derek Thompson’s first wife (of three) Jenny was a producer.

My interview went out in a sports programme at tea-time majoring on the big meeting of the following day with a repeat on the Saturday morning show which ended at 11.30. When we did the interview I was very strong on the Gordon Richards-trained Tamalin, but by the time I got back with my winnings, he had been declared a non-runner.

A quick look through put me on to Rubstic, so I parlayed the winnings into 25 each way on him at 33’s,  then called Norman to offer to come in the following day and do the slot live. The complication was that I lived in Hertfordshire and needed to bring the family to my mother-in-law in Highbury. We left in plenty of time, but had to stop three or four times as the kids were all feeling car-sick. Listening to the show as I neared the studio, I heard Norman saying I was about to arrive. It was a tense few minutes but I made it to the studio at 11.22; duly tipped the winner and on Monday popped in to Corals again to collect. Six months later I was Racing Editor!

That 1979 King George had another link to the Tolworth Hurdle as the horse that won the first running, Grand Canyon, was in the line-up. A New Zealand-bred horse, he was trained in Sussex by Derek Kent and ridden by long-time Jockey Club/BHA starter Peter Haynes. Grand Canyon shared a good pace with Tied Cottage, later that season the disqualified winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, ruled out after his feed was found to be contaminated. Grand Canyon fell and Tied Cottage faded into fourth in the King George in question.

And a further link to this weekend was that Tied Cottage’s trainer was Dan Moore, who a decade earlier had been the highly assured handler of L’Escargot, my favourite jumper of all time and the most underrated, too, in my opinion. Dan and his wife Joan, parents of long-standing trainer Arthur, are commemorated every year in the big novice race on yesterday’s Fairyhouse card.

Silver Buck, later the 1982 Gold Cup hero, had to be ridden right out at Kempton to hold off Jack Of Trumps, one of the earliest high-class horses owned by a very youthful J P McManus. Third was another smart performer in Border Incident, trained by Richard (Lord) Head.

Strombolus was up there in the first four for a long way but gradually weakened; he subsequently won plenty of good long-distance handicaps. Buckley has done really well for almost half a century, but one of his lesser-known associations was with the 2008 Triumph Hurdle winner, Zaynar.

During the Victor Chandler Chase times, Nicky often tried to get the bookmaker into owning horses but ownership didn’t really interest him - unless he could have a major successful punt. Zaynar, who was an Aga Khan horse with a good jumping pedigree but a non-winner in three flat races in France, was offered to several people including Ray Tooth, who had Punjabi running in that year’s Champion Hurdle – he finished third. Eventually a mutual friend encouraged Chandler to buy the horse with him, initially 50/50.

Each half was later sub-divided in portions of varying size with an ownership name of Men In Our Position, an appropriate one to encompass any situation. Zaynar was unbeaten in his novice year winning the Triumph and his next two the following season before losing at 1/14 at Kelso after which he never reached the heights anticipated.

The entertaining Victor Chandler biography by the multi award-winning author Jamie Reid – Put Your Life On It – recalls that Triumph Hurdle. But the friend I mentioned remembers it for a different reason. He says with some irritation that while Michael Buckley had the smallest share, he left Prestbury Park that night with the magnificent trophy in his possession.

Buckley has had many great horses, and when for several years he reduced his involvement with jumpers and therefore Henderson, he built a significant flat-race team with Jamie Osborne. They had tremendous success together and it was by only a matter of inches that he was denied what would have been his biggest win of all.

In 2014 the three-year-old Toast Of New York, a £60k yearling buy, finished a neck runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on the back of success in that year’s UAE Derby, and arguably should have been awarded the race in the stewards' room. He cashed in, selling the horse to Qatari interests.

Michael Buckley can look back with satisfaction at his life of involvement with top-class horses and big-race success. Who’s to say that the best of all is not still to come with Constitution Hill, starting at Cheltenham in two months?

  • TS

Monday Musings: A Quick Look Back Before We Advance

With Boxing Day falling on a Sunday this festive season, the adjustments to the official handicap ratings for the entire Christmas to New Year period will be eagerly awaited by trainers and owners tomorrow (Tuesday) morning, writes Tony Stafford. I’d love to see the two-mile chase handicapper take full and realistic account of Shishkin after his flawless reappearance run at Kempton.

Equally, I’d expect him to allow him to take up the engagement in the Clarence House Stakes at Ascot, the sole early-closing UK jumps race in the coming three weekends, on January 22.

Nicky Henderson, having been vindicated by his decision to abort plans for the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown last month as Shishkin was not ready in favour of Kempton’s Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase on the second day of the Christmas meeting, now faces another conundrum.

“Do we avoid Ascot and a pre-Cheltenham encounter with Energumene?” will be Henderson’s question as he ponders whether to take on Willie Mullins’ unbeaten chaser who had been equally silky on his return in another Grade 2 race, the Hilly Way, at Cork earlier last month.

Shishkin’s disdainful mastery of Tingle Creek winner Greaneteen and Bryony Frost last week was so emphatic that Mullins’ comment that Energumene will take his place in the Ascot field so early in the piece might have been a tactic to try to inject a shade of uncertainty in the Henderson psyche.

The Ascot race, initially a handicap sponsored by Victor Chandler, had its reputation immediately cemented in 1989 when Desert Orchid won the first running under 12st, getting up late under Simon Sherwood to deny Panto Prince who received 22lb. The valiant grey got up having lost the lead when making a rare mistake at the final fence.

That contest is sure to figure high up among the many memories for Desert Orchid’s trainer David Elsworth, who recently announced his retirement after an outstanding career as a dual-purpose handler spanning half a century.

In its handicap years two other top two-milers to grace its honours board were Waterloo Boy and Well Chief, but when it became a Grade 1 conditions event, the quality rose to the top. Fields were small from the outset but most of the true greats of two-mile chasing were directed there and usually won the race.

Paul Nicholls, as with most steeplechases of the modern era has been a leading light, firstly with two wins by Master Minded , whose second triumph in 2011 was by the then minimum short-head in the face of a flying finish from Somersby, trained by Best Mate’s handler Henrietta Knight and ridden by Bryony’s elder brother, Hadden Frost.

In 2008, Hadden, in his time as a flat-race apprentice with Richard Hannon, and still with a 5lb allowance, won a claiming race at Lingfield for Raymond Tooth with a filly called La Colombina. Hadden had his best season with 32 the previous season and another 18 including La Colombina in 2008.

With increasing weight taking over – he already had a first jumps success before Ray’s winner - he quickly showed that father Jimmy’s talent had been safely passed on. That second place on Somersby came in the second of six consecutive seasons when he made double figures before retirement.

Bryony had her first rides in 2012-13 and for the last five campaigns she has clocked up between 36 and 50 wins every year, standing on 36 so needing 15 more by the end of April to achieve a career best.

She will have been hoping for one of the major wins associated with the Nicholls stable over the holiday period. While that didn’t work out, she clearly has the trainer’s full confidence to the extent that she shares almost equal standing in the Ditcheat team with stable jockey Harry Cobden.

Let us return to the Ascot race. After Master Minded, the next big name was the peerless Sprinter Sacre, a 1/5 chance when the race had to be transferred to Cheltenham in 2013. The oddity was that Sprinter Sacre and his equally lauded stablemate Altior each won it only once. Altior’s victory came three years ago as a 10-1 on shot in a three-horse race.

Gary Moore’s Sire De Grugy was the intervening horse between Sprinter Sacre and the race’s most prolific hero Un De Sceaux, three times a winner for Willie Mullins and even as an 11-year-old in 2020 good enough to share favouritism with Defi Du Seuil and finish runner-up as the Philip Hobbs star won his second consecutive Clarence House.

Last year it was Defi Du Seuil’s time, as sure as the years turn, to pass on the baton, this time to Kim Bailey’s First Flow while he, Defi, laboured home in fifth.

Un De Sceaux won 23 of his 34 career starts and considering his class and admirable durability, has a very proletarian pedigree. His sire is the little-known French-bred and -raced high-class hurdler Denham Red. That horse’s sire Pampabird never raced but his paternal grandsire Pampapaul certainly did. A top Irish juvenile, winner of among others the National Stakes for Sir Noel Murless’ younger brother Stuart, he was a classic winner at three.

Pampapaul sprang a major surprise when defeating subsequent Epsom Derby hero The Minstrel, and earlier Newmarket 2,000 victor Nebbiolo (from The Minstrel), in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.

More pertinently for the present day, and no doubt a factor in Willie Mullins’ admiration of him before he joined the team, is that he is also the sire of Energumene.  So we’re in for a treat. Here we have two horses with unblemished chase records at a similar stage of their development, each with one overall defeat on his card, facing up. Pistols at dawn: who will blink first? Is it too good to be true?

Encouragingly, neither trainer, unusually for Mullins at any rate, has an alternative at the initial entry stage. It cost £150 and to run it’s another £600, fair enough for the £160k prize which brings £85,000 to the winner.

But there is a supplementary on the Monday, so two weeks from today, and that will set back any takers £5,000. With a chance of either of the big two’s standing aside, it was sensible to sit back and wait as that sort of equation might be worth chancing.

I began by musing whether Shishkin’s rating will have been altered after Kempton. He went into the race 2lb higher than Greaneteen – 169 to 167 – and was receiving 3lb. I would expect a rise but knowing official handicappers’ propensity to fudge, would not be shocked if he gave him 171, the same as Energumene.

Already after only a nascent chase career, that figure puts the young Irish horse within 1lb of Un De Sceaux. I believe Shishkin has the potential to eclipse his brilliant predecessors Sprinter Sacre and Altior. I just cannot get out of my mind the way he gathers and then finds extra pace and strength to dominate his opponents in the closing stages.

Nicky had a great holiday, also winning the Christmas Hurdle emphatically on King George Day with 2020 Champion, Epatante. The re-match with unbeaten Honeysuckle is another to savour.

Honeysuckle did not appear over the holiday period so remains blissfully unbeaten and a sure-fire favourite to defend her title in ten weeks’ time – yes that’s all it is! But some of her prime Henry De Bromhead stablemates did appear and after the eclipse of Minella Indo at Kempton, A Plus Tard’s position as Gold Cup favourite is far less secure after his last-stride defeat by Gordon Elliott’s Galvin in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

While Elliott (15 wins from 94 runners) and Mullins (23 from 81) have been cleaning up over the past two weeks, De Bromhead has had the paltry return of just four wins from 74 runners. Envoi Allen did scrape home less than impressively dropped in grade and distance at Leopardstown but hardly enhanced his reputation either.

In mitigation, only three of the 74 started favourite, but it doesn’t take long for the betting public and more pertinently the people who frame the odds on which their bets are based to sense a problem. Watch, if not this space, certainly the day-to-day progress of a man who has performed, along with stable jockey Rachael Blackmore, the training equivalent of a miracle to join the big time so quickly and effectively.

As perhaps Henry is beginning to discover It is one thing to get up there, quite another to continue to repel the legions of expensively-acquired and brilliantly-prepared horses that the two incumbent top table teams can throw into the action year on year.

In the UK the news of Charlie Johnston’s now sharing the licence to train at Kingsley House, Middleham, alongside rather than assisting father Mark, certainly surprised me, but equally obviously, as most of the coverage suggested, nothing will change save the letter headings.

Certainly I do not anticipate any reduction in the flow of winners with what is nowadays the routine target for the team of 200 a season. It’s an amazing record and while Mark alone will never make the 5000 winners we thought was inevitable, it is equally unlikely that anyone will beat his score for many years to come.

Kingsley House is a remarkable operation and not least for one fact I’ve never forgotten of what Alan Spence, a long-standing owner, told me one day. He said: “I was telling <trainer A> that Mark is my cheapest trainer in terms of cost. He/she <so no clue there either!> said what are you talking about? He charges £xxx a day, much more than me!”

“I replied, yes, and when I get his invoice every month, even if a horse of mine had to have an expensive operation, it’s all on one line – everything included. When I get yours it runs to four pages with all the extras!”

Good luck to the new team, well actually the old team, not forgetting the wonderful Deirdre. So it’s Happy New Year especially to them, but also everyone else who takes the time to read these words.

- TS

Monday Musings: A King George Head Scratcher

The Irish duly won the 2021 Ladbrokes King George VI Chase, but not with either of the pair which shared in the five-strong short list suggested a week ago, writes Tony Stafford. The winner was 28-1 shot Tornado Flyer, ridden by Willie Mullins’ nephew Danny, successful for the third time over fences but after a losing sequence of nine.

Unusually, all five of the pretty obvious principals turned up, in one form or another and we certainly didn’t see the real Minella Indo, already well beaten when pulled up by a frustrated Rachael Blackmore a long way from home. He and Frodon, ridden by Bryony Frost, evidently wanted to put on a show of strength, not necessarily from the saddle, but certainly under them as their mounts shared a fast pace through the first part of the race.

Frodon and Bryony have been habitual and very successful front runners in their ten-win time together, three around Kempton, but this time the two heroines of 2021 (and a good while before) simply cancelled each other’s mounts out, compromising any chance of a finishing effort.

Perhaps it all goes down to the centuries-old presumption that Kempton is a sharp track: not when top-class horses share a fast pace over three miles on anything other than fast ground. We saw the same a race earlier when the nominal stayer Not So Sleepy pulled away his chance in the Christmas Hurdle leaving the more economical Epatante to gain an emphatic success.

Trainer Henry De Bromhead’s position atop the staying chase standings rests now on A Plus Tard’s seeing off three Gordon Elliott and four Willie Mullins opponents in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown tomorrow. The Gold Cup winner is looking rather tarnished at this point and it needs a big statement from A Plus Tard

So, team tactics anyone? It is probably tempting enough, one would think, especially for Elliott who is no longer a trainer for Cheveley Park Stud, owners of A Plus Tard. Mullins, whose Allaho ties in with the form of his two Kempton King George representatives, will need to be more circumspect although his stable’s owners have to get used to coming out on the wrong side in the very frequent event he has multiple contenders.

I expected it to be Asterion Forlonge yesterday, the horse that probably would have won the John Durkan Memorial for Mullins at Punchestown last time but unseated Brian Cooper when about to take the lead three fences from home.

That left Allaho to struggle home and Mullins clearly didn’t want to give him another tough race so soon after he looked pretty spent up the run-in.

Further back that day in fifth after some ordinary jumping was Tornado Flyer, and he had also been behind Allaho when that horse won at the Cheltenham Festival, but Mullins runs more than one if he thinks there is the slightest chance that he could pick up money further down the line in these valuable races.

I’m not convinced that Asterion Forlonge would have finished behind Tornado Flyer, who led him by three lengths going into the final fence with Clan Des Obeaux already beaten off. He appeared to jump the final fence the more spectacularly but this time crumpled on landing and Cooper again bit the dust.

It was left to Paul Nicholls to collect positions two to four with Clan Des Obeaux, a full nine lengths back, the outsider Saint Calvados almost four lengths behind in third and a spent Frodon toiling home another six lengths adrift in fourth.

Whereas Mullins was winning only the second King George of his illustrious career, Nicholls can point to 12 and with three, or rather two and a half realistic chances, he would have gone home less than chuffed even though they collected 95 grand between them as against £143k for the winner.

I must say I feel sorry for trainer Harry Whittington who could hardly have been accused of doing badly with Saint Calvados, winning five of his 14 chases and only narrowly failing to beat Min in a race at the Cheltenham Festival a couple of seasons back.

When it’s your stable star that gets whisked away to a man with a yard full of top-class animals, to the extent that your former horse will be a 25/1 outsider on debut, you can understand if his feelings are a little bitter. It’s a hard enough game and as we know the rich get richer and the rest get what’s left! Saint Calvados did actually look a possible winner inside the last mile but either insufficient stamina or simply limited ability at the top level took over.

The biggest disappointment of the King George for the home team was Chantry House, the 3-1 favourite on the day, who ran a shocker. He tied in with all the best form having beaten Asterion Forlonge back into third in the Marsh Chase at Cheltenham last season. A winner after that at Aintree and with the benefit of a comeback stroll round in a two-horse Sandown freebie should have put him right to run a big race but he was never travelling like a possible winner.

His performance was in stark contrast to the rest of the Henderson team who provided a treble for the trainer on a track which he loves so much he was sent into a state of apoplexy when the course’s management advocated the closure of its wonderful jumping track in favour of residential development.

I am with him on that, Kempton having provided many of my happiest racing experiences. It’s where I met Ray Tooth but also where I had a horse which won a mile and a half three-year-old maiden from 13 quite expensive horses by 20 lengths at 20-1 in heavy ground. Not many stayed that day either!

Epatante was the high point in Nicky’s treble, providing the filling in a sandwich between odds-on first-race winner Broomfield Burg, who must hold Festival novice hurdle aspirations for J P McManus, and Middleham Park’s last-race eye-opener Marie’s Rock who looked a mare with a future when adding a first hurdles success to three in bumpers two winters ago.

Last week I was suggesting that Christmas this year was falling ideally for me to circumnavigate the various requirements of work and family. Well here I am at almost 2.30 a m. on Monday morning absolutely knackered and spent of anything worth talking or writing about. So if you don’t mind, I’m turning in. It’s that or watching the cricket. Happy New Year!

  • TS

Monday Musings: Christmas Heroes and Heroines

Christmas Day couldn’t fall better for this column than it does in 2021, writes Tony Stafford.

Okay, so we miss the Saturday’s racing as we’re tucking into the turkey and the boss-provided M & S hamper’s goodies, but Boxing Day on Sunday will have a special resonance.

As someone who still needs to maintain a daily interest in the bread-and-butter action, it will be nice not only to have a blank Saturday, but also a further two-day reprieve on Thursday and Friday. And later today we will get the acceptances for what is likely to be a vintage King George VI Chase.

The 2022 Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite will not be there but his remaining at home for a target on Dec 28 means stable-companion Minella Indo, the reigning title-holder, will have Rachael Blackmore’s assistance at Kempton. The pair will renew rivalry with Bryony Frost and Frodon who beat them in the Ladbrokes Gold Cup at Down Royal, Galvin interloping in second, at the end of November.

The Down Royal race was Minella Indo’s first since his Cheltenham triumph on the day Rachael stayed loyal to A Plus Tard and finished a close second, leaving Jack Kennedy to come in as super sub on Henry De Bromhead’s equal stable star.

These two fantastic female riders could hardly have had a more eventful 12 months since Bryony and Frodon upset stable companion and preferred-in-the-betting Clan Des Obeaux in last year’s King George. Twelve months on, again Clan Des Obeaux, the mount of Harry Cobden, heads the market in front of Minella Indo.

Bryony, as we touched on last week, won her case, and overwhelming public and industry approval, against the now 18-months banned (three suspended) Robbie Dunne. Frodon, an 18-time career winner, has had Frost as his regular partner for most of the past four years and Down Royal was their tenth triumph together.

It seems odd that Frodon is again the second choice for her stable on a track where he, having fallen on his first acquaintance, has won on his next three visits. Minella Indo, though, will be tougher to repel than on that domestic reappearance after his long break.

If Bryony has been getting the sentiments, Rachael has been collecting the plaudits. Within a few days at home in Ireland last week she cleaned up the Irish Racing Hero Award, the RTE Sportsperson of the Year and the Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year accolade.

Then last night, perhaps the biggest distinction of all – we in the UK like to think so! – on the evening when Emma Raducanu predictably won BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Ms Blackmore annexed World Sports Star of the Year.
So it was four awards for Rachael.

Admittedly Emma was the first British woman to win the US Open since Virginia Wade in 1968 and only the fourth ever to do so. Even so, Rachael’s catalogue of unique achievements was probably more unlikely. The first to win the Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle in March, she also uniquely became first female to be champion rider at the Festival. Then in April her win on Minella Times was the first by a woman in the 182-year history of the Grand National.

The 2021 dominance at the top level among staying chasers enjoyed by Henry De Bromhead and illustrated by A Plus Tard’s bloodless victory in the Betfair Chase at Haydock has taken some of the gloss off the Willie Mullins chasers.

Mullins, after a 30-year training career where he had become the supreme big-race performer of these islands, had still not won the Cheltenham Gold Cup to 2018. Then Al Boum Photo, in 2019 and 2020, picked up two in a row. That gelding’s valiant attempt at the hat-trick resulted in a creditable third behind Minella Indo and A Plus Tard last March.

Al Boum Photo will probably take on A Plus Tard at home next week but Mullins does have a likely lad in the emerging talent of Asterion Forlonge lined up for Kempton

As a novice last season he was third behind Nicky Henderson’s Chantry House in the Marsh Novice Chase at Cheltenham but he has been transformed since then. He would clearly have won the John Durkan Memorial at Punchestown last time but as he came smoothly to challenge two fences out, he unseated Brian Cooper leaving Allaho to win gallantly.

Chantry House went on from Cheltenham last spring to win very easily at Aintree and resumed action last month with another bloodless win at Sandown. This pair, should they both run, will make up a five-horse nucleus with probably at least as many decent bit-players to ensure this is the race of the winter so far.

Nicky Henderson will be buoyed by the win in Ascot’s Long Walk Hurdle on Saturday by Champ, more normally regarded as his prime Gold Cup hope of recent years. It was especially so as his original favourite for the race, Buzz, had to be taken out through an injury sustained at home just before the stayers’ contest.

Champ’s stamina and talent have never been in doubt and it certainly looks that reverting to hurdles shows the J P McManus horse in his best light.
Injuries are such a part of jump racing and it was perhaps slightly ironic that so soon after Buzz’s former stable-companion Not So Sleepy shared the Fighting Fifth Hurdle that Buzz should succumb apparently with the world of long distance hurdling at his feet.

Injury on the home gallops also caused the demise of one of Not So Sleepy’s oldest rivals, Silver Streak. Evan Williams’ grey, a hugely popular multiple Graded hurdle winner, had been fourth behind the Morrison hurdler and fellow dead-heater Epatante at Newcastle and earlier sixth just behind fifth-placed Not So Sleepy in Honeysuckle’s Champion Hurdle.

Williams and jockey Adam Wedge dusted themselves down and replied in the best manner possible, winning the near £40k Howden Silver Cup, the race that followed the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday.

Xxxxx

Apocryphal evidence – and plenty of eye-witness stuff too – has accompanied the various evasions of triple champion flat-race jockey Oisin Murphy as he attempted to disguise his ongoing problems with alcohol over the years.

Last week, faced with the prospect of having to attend scheduled disciplinary hearings into two findings of excess alcohol in his system and also one into alleged breaches of the Covid-19 rules last year, he handed in his jockey’s licence.

In their reporting of the news, the BHA stated that it is their responsibility to be sensitive when riders get in difficulty. The news that there were two such alcohol-related inquiries pending – one previously unreported from May at Chester – suggest the leniency in the case of Oisin might have been inappropriate.

Murphy held on to win a third jockeys’ title by the skin of his teeth and by only two victories 153-151 over William Buick in a tussle that lasted until the final day of the season on Champions Day at Ascot in late October.

That first positive test’s being unreported and presumably not dealt with at the time made the second, which was followed by an altercation in a Newmarket pub, less likely to be adjudicated upon appropriately.

Several times, even in one interview since the end of the season that brought a third championship, he has made statements suggesting he has stopped drinking. Maybe he has, but even if he is being sincere in those sentiments, I believe his third title will always be tarnished. Everyone likes Oisin, but it’s time for the self-delusion to stop.

There are many instances of sportsmen’s careers being ruined by addictions of all kinds, with drink, drugs and excessive (and of course where jockeys are concerned, illegal) gambling most regularly. The true champions, people with the staying power of a Piggott and Eddery (11 titles each) and in the generation before Lester, Sir Gordon Richards with 26, had to stifle such temptations. Likewise, the remarkable Sir Anthony McCoy, winner of 20 jumps championships in a row, with no heed to injury or any other possible inconvenience, needed the utmost control.

Oisin Muphy is already a very good rider and still one young enough to change. If he ever wishes to aspire to their eminence, he first needs to start being honest with himself. He certainly has a fair bit of their talent – now he needs to show he has just a tiny portion of their resolve.

- TS

Monday Musings: Overseas Despatches

Time was when a post-season challenge for the international races at Sha Tin racecourse was a fairly commonplace objective for high-class horses still in good heart, writes Tony Stafford. Four contests, each worth in excess of £1 million to the winner, were attraction enough. In the world of post- and apparently still-present Covid, things have changed.

Seven European-trained horses set off for Hong Kong at the end of their European seasons. None of the one French, two British and four Irish took back a victory from yesterday’s challenges, but such is the generosity of the prize pool, four will return with six-figure hauls.

Transportation difficulties have been a major adjunct to Covid times in all spheres with regulations for horse travel being especially onerous. That Willie Muir and joint-trainer Chris Grassick would have the foresight to send the partnership-owned Pyledriver for the Hong Kong Vase took courage and determination to see the project through.

Pyledriver didn’t manage to win, but in finishing a length second under Muir’s son-in-law Martin Dwyer to odds-on Japanese-trained favourite Glory Vase – it truly was a glory Vase for the winner! -  the Lambourn-trained runner matched anything he had ever previously achieved.

The second-favourite at 7-2, he lived up to that status, seeing off French-trained Ebaiyra to the tune of two-and-a-half lengths with Aidan O’Brien’s Mogul only sixth. In collecting £415,486 he easily eclipsed all the prizes he’d earned in his twelve previous starts, with five wins from his three seasons’ racing.

The equal youngest, at age four, with the other two Europeans, Pyledriver, who is still a colt – the winner is also an entire – must have more big pay-days ahead of him. Many plaudits, as well as Hong Kong dollars and other international currencies, can come the way of his entrepreneurial connections.

Only Mother Earth ran for European teams in the Mile and the hard-working 1000 Guineas heroine, coming on after Del Mar and the Breeders’ Cup, picked up fourth. That was worth £139k, supplementing Mogul's £37k for sixth in Pyledriver’s race. Ebaiyra picked up £188k for third there.

The Irish duo in the Hong Kong Cup, over 10 furlongs and the most valuable of the four races at £1.6 million to the winner, were unplaced, Bolshoi Ballet only ninth for O’Brien and Jim Bolger’s Irish 2000 Guineas winner Mac Swiney last of 12.

William Haggas, the only other UK trainer represented, did better, his Dubai Honour picking up £161k for his close fourth behind Japanese mare Loves Only You who was adding to her Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf win last month at Del Mar. Dubai Honour, under Tom Marquand, was running at least on a par to his second behind Sealiway in the Champion Stakes at Ascot last month.

I would imagine that Haggas and his horse’ s owner Mohamed Obaida will have pricked up their ears that Sealiway’s trainer Cedric Rossi, as well as Cedric’s father Charlie, who was Sealiway’s previous handler, and other members of the family have been arrested in Marseille in relation to enquiries into allegations of doping. Who knows, there could be some ramifications to come and maybe even a Group 1 disqualification in favour of Dubai Honour.

Back home in the UK, jumping continues apace but this past weekend must be possibly one of the least informative in relation to the Holy Grail of unearthing Cheltenham Festival winners. Indeed the two days of Cheltenham’s December fixture were more notable first for the astonishing level of demand for National Hunt stock at the Friday night sale at the track, and then for Bryony Frost’s absence from the meeting, than anything happening on the course itself.

True, My Drogo restored what in reality had been only a minor blemish on his record when smoothly erasing the memory of his earlier course fall to re-emphasise his candidature for the Festival, much to the relief of the Skeltons. Otherwise it was ordinary enough.

Bryony, cheered by the crowd at Warwick on Thursday upon the news of Robbie Dunne’s 18-month suspension with all four charges of bullying proven, was despatched by boss Paul Nicholls to Doncaster over the weekend where she had an anti-climactic two winner-free days.

I have been canvassing some trainer friends around the country and they have all noticed over the years instances of inappropriate behaviour by jockeys to female riders at different times. It may have been thought acceptable in the days when girls were far less commonplace in stable yards and on racecourses, but those days are long gone.

Now they are ever more prominent and respected thanks to the exploits of Hayley Turner, Josephine Gordon, Hollie Doyle and Nicola Currie on the Flat and in the UK Bryony and the Andrews sisters, Gina and Bridget, over jumps. In Ireland, Rachael Blackmore has picked up the baton relinquished by Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh and carried their achievements to unprecedented and unimagined heights.

In these days of improved nutrition and the resultant increasing in the size of successive generations more women, with their natural lighter weights have been needed to offset the scarcity of smaller male riders, especially for Flat racing. Some yards like Sir Mark Prescott’s would have to pack up – although his stable is a case of choice rather than necessity.

In those far-off days of Sir Gordon Richards and his generation, girl riders never got a look in and nor were they to be found too often in stables, despite their success at the top level in show jumping and eventing. Historic examples abound like Charlie Gordon-Watson’s sister, Mary, and Marion Mould, not to mention Princess Anne and daughter Zara Tindall.

In many other sporting spheres – football, cricket and rugby in the UK are the most obvious in terms of professionalism –women have become much more prominent and women’s golf has long been at the forefront of international sport at the highest level. Nowadays racing could not survive without its female participants.

***

Yesterday when I heard the words “Tornado” and “Kentucky” in the same breath I confess I was instantly confronted by an image of flattened barns, devastated meadows - possibly already under snow as is often the case in much of Kentucky through the heart of winter - with animals helplessly strewn far and wide.

Kentucky to me is first Lexington and its stud farms - an area I’d visited so many times between the early 1980’s and 15 years ago. Second is Louisville, birthplace of Mohammed Ali and home of the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been there a few times, too.

The tornado which on Saturday came in at 220 m.p.h. and flattened a candle factory in Mayfield, trapping it was thought more than 100 workers – 40 apparently managed to get out – was centred near the western border of the south-eastern state. Lexington is way across to the east and 75 miles due south of Cincinnati on the borders of Ohio.

That south-western part of Kentucky is apparently tornado country, a manifestation that occurs when cold dry air meets warm moist air. The cold air is denser so it settles on top of the warm air and forces it to the ground where the tornado is formed.

While the terrible loss of life and devastation to people and their property is tragic in the extreme my initial dread I confess did concern the horses. I feared the tornado could have reached considerably further east – Mayfield is 265 miles south-west of Lexington – but that it seems was unfounded. These occur regularly in the region near Mayfield, though never previously with this intensity or effect.

Declared the biggest tragedy in the history of Kentucky by Democrat Governor Andy Beshear, a 44- year-old lawyer who won the state’s top job by 0.2%, you could imagine the initial worries in the stud farms of the region as the mares prepare to foal down their valuable produce in the New Year.

Sales prices have been booming. We have been here before when studs have been enjoying good times only for the hammer blow to fall. It only takes a little adjustment to make things less rosy. Like a misplaced tornado for example!

Monday Musings: Who’d be a handicapper?

I suppose I could mention the Bryony Frost issue and her triumphant return to race riding with a big win in the Tingle Creek on Saturday at Sandown Park, writes Tony Stafford. Certain writers thought that victory was vindication of her situation vis a vis Robbie Dunne and his alleged bullying, swearing and whatever else from last week’s enquiry.

The situation, though, was rather like a jury of 12 men and women true having not agreed a trial verdict on a Friday night then going off to watch together private videos of everything the accused had done throughout his life over the weekend before reconvening on Monday morning. Not exactly the best example of natural justice maybe but, like Hollie and Rachael, Bryony is one of the racing public’s favourites and understandably and rightly so.

Equally, I could refer to Protektorat’s arrogant dismissal of former Gold Cup winner Native River in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree the same day, and again a woman rider, Bridget Andrews, doing the steering and presenting at the fences of brother-in-law Dan Skelton’s much-improved chaser. He now faces the prospect of challenging the Irish heavyweights in the Gold Cup next March.

You have to love the way Dan never, except in the most unavoidable situations, like multiple runners at different tracks, goes outside the family. Brother and Bridget’s husband Harry might not win the title again this year – with Brian Hughes taking it so seriously he is operating twice as fast as last season’s champion. He is however playing the sensible card and helping ensure his own longevity in the saddle by keeping it in the family.

I also loved the effort of the grey mare and proud mum of a two-year-old – “I was courted by a Derby winner don’t you know!”, says Snow Leopardess as she goes on the gallops every day. “I would show you a picture but I don’t have one on me. He’s a handsome chap, by Sir Percy, and it’s his birthday soon”.

I believe the youngster is rising three but could be corrected on that. The bold-jumping grey mare conceived and foaled during the 26 months between her successful trip over to France from Charlie Longsdon’s stable in 2017 and first run back at Newbury in late 2019.

On Saturday at Aintree she treated the Grand National fences with respect but total efficiency. It would have been an awful shame if the front-running performance clear of the field for much of the three miles and two furlongs would have resulted in defeat by a nose rather than victory by that margin over Hill Sixteen.

Lots to talk about, then, but instead I’m going to harp on about the sitting duck syndrome, brought upon domestic owners and trainers by the people whose mandate is to make handicap races a level playing field.

These well-paid officials continually err in several regards. Number one, letting Irish trainers take the mickey. Take the case of a horse who had previously raced in seven maiden and novice races and a single handicap before his owner-trainer, Ronan McNally, a notorious “touch” merchant, lined him up, cherry picking a Huntingdon 0-110 yesterday against ten unsuspecting locals.

The horse, a six-year-old, to tabulate his entire Rules career, had been successively 17th of 20 beaten 53 lengths (25/1); 10th of 20 beaten 64 lengths (50/1); 8th of 15 beaten 74 lengths (150/1); 11th of 20 beaten 63 lengths (200/1); 11th of 13, beaten 19 lengths (200/1); 16th of 18, beaten 33 lengths (50/1); and 10th of 13, beaten 19 lengths (150/1).

Just to make the job look right he was sixth of 20 in his first handicap hurdle at Down Royal, starting at 8/1. You could say that the money was down and he didn’t have a great run but if it was half down then, they went the whole hog on Vee Dancer yesterday.

Choosing a conditional jockeys’ handicap hurdle and therefore able to book leading claiming rider Kevin Brogan, such was the weight of money he started an improbable 2 to 1 on. It would not be accurate to say he was always going to win as he was on and off the bridle all the way, but he won comfortably by three lengths in the end.

My complaint is that horses like that coming from another racing authority should not be allowed to run in any handicap without achieving a minimum placing: getting at least in the first four let’s say. Watch out for another three or four wins in rapid fire fashion.

He had run off 90 in that Down Royal race and our hurdles handicapper probably thought he was safe letting in him on 10lb more, but these horses have stones not pounds in hand once the hand-brake is let off.

One of the cleverest UK trainers is undoubtedly Gary Moore and I think he has even outsmarted anything he’s done previously in handicaps with his training of ex-French six-year-old Naturally High. This gelding is not only the same age as Vee Dancer but was running in a Sandown handicap hurdle on Saturday off the identical mark of 100.

He duly bolted in, dismantling some progressive young hurdlers having shot the pre-race market to pieces too. He still started odds against but when you examine his life story and the part the UK handicappers played in it, I’m sure you will see my amazement is justified.

Runner-up at Sandown was another ex-Frenchman, the Roger Teal-trained Kamaxos who was conceding him 15lb. His French Flat race mark had been 32, which equates to 70, meaning a pretty routine 45lb difference.

I mentioned Naturally High had also been trained in France, and his last four runs there in 2018 had been two victories in April in a Chantilly conditions event and a Longchamp Listed. He went up in class for his next run but finished 15th of 16 as a 16/1 shot in the Prix Du Jockey Club (French Derby), starting at much shorter odds than three of the four Aidan O’Brien candidates.

After his last run, fifth of six in a Group 2, he was allotted a mark of 47, which he still holds and which translates to 103. That makes him 33lb superior to Kamaxos from whom he was receiving 15lb on Saturday. He arrived at 100 having strolled home in his first handicap at Lingfield running off 88.

How that 88 mark was arrived at beggars belief. Normally horses are required to complete the course three times to be allotted a mark, but first time Naturally High unseated Jamie Moore before running twice more a long way out of the money. He was allowed in on that sketchy evidence but then having won the first time off a gift rating, allowing him in again off 100 was naïve in the extreme. Basically he started 15lb lower over jumps than the French figure when it should be nearer 45 or 50lb the other way!

I’ve no gripe at all with Gary Moore who had a big job to bring back to life a horse that had been bought for €120,000 at the end of 2018. Those two big wins might have started to get certain people somewhere near level with that investment because there is no doubt the money has been well and truly down both times.

It’s hard to see what can stop the hat-trick, save some overdue retaliation by the two-mile hurdles handicapper. Does he have the bottle or will he treat Naturally High (France) and (UK) as two entirely different horses?

*

I’m feeling a little bereft with the breeding stock sales’ conclusion last week and over the weekend in France. High-class racehorses and well-bred mares have rarely been in such demand and for a while on Tuesday any female with the requisite number of limbs and the ability to conceive was almost guaranteed to go to at least six figures.

I do not intend identifying the young lady who relates to this little tale save to say her putative trips to the sales have been mentioned here recently. She had her eye on a Shadwell filly – there were 90 in the catalogue last week – in Wednesday’s sale and hoped to get it for a song as it hadn’t run.

I had suggested going on Thursday when all the big buyers had gone home and she could pick up something very cheaply but at the same time be prepared for its being modest enough. She persisted and when I checked that evening whether she had any luck, she said, “No, it went for 70 grand!”

Now I know people in her situation that might have claimed to have been the under-bidder, like the Irish trainer who made very public that distinction in regard to the sale of triple Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq.

I was changing planes one day in the US coming back from Keeneland sales when Timmy Hyde caught up with me and said: “You were the under-bidder for Istabraq weren’t you? I know you were, I was standing right behind you.

“Well that fe..ing D…. M…..is telling everyone he was!” Saudi Arabia’s loss was Ireland’s gain, although when I asked how much short my 36k bid had been, Timmy said: “J P told me to go to 100 grand!”

- TS

Monday Musings: Of Hughie’s Fighting Fifty-Fourth…

They could have done a better job of it. After all, the two ITV racing presenters, Ed Chamberlin and Francesca Cumani, on Saturday sitting in their studio at Newbury and principally watching the Ladbrokes (morally the Hennessy) Trophy Chase did have some high-grade professional help, writes Tony Stafford.

You would have thought Ruby Walsh, normally the best race reader among television pundits who knows exactly where every rider and horse are throughout every race, jumps or flat, and Sir Anthony McCoy would have known better.

Their preamble to the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at snowy, windy Newcastle was restricted by its proximity to Newbury’s feature, but A P found plenty of time to laud former Champion Hurdler Epatante and, after the thrilling finish, praise Nicky Henderson for getting her back in top shape.

It was a fan club all round rather than an objective appraisal and they got half their wish, Epatante clinging on for a share of the £88k combined first and second prizes. I’ll come to her co-star in a moment, after saying there was plenty of mention in the short time available beforehand for Paul Nicholls’ second favourite Monmiral, evergreen Sceau Royal, and the striking grey, Silver Streak.

One name missing from their deliberations was that of Not So Sleepy, making his return to jumping following an unplaced effort at Aintree after a much better fifth in last year’s Champion Hurdle, two places and just over three lengths behind Epatante but ahead of Silver Streak.

As such, these were the first three home-trained finishers in Honeysuckle’s first Champion Hurdle and, Buzz apart if he takes the shorter route, there isn’t too much around that will obviously subvert their position come March. Neither, on the evidence of yesterday’s outstanding Hatton’s Grace hat-trick by the Champion, will the now 13-race unbeaten record for the mare be challenged seriously any day soon.

Saturday’s partisan attitude would be understandable if Epatante was still being considered as having a chance to avenge her defeat, but it is routine enough for serious Champion Hurdle contenders to begin their season at Newcastle. Nicky Henderson has achieved more mind-boggling feats of a revivalist nature than this. She really must be the apple of A P’s eye. It certainly sounded it.

Now seven years of age, J P McManus’ mare is the veteran of 14 races and nine victories, the first two coming from three runs as a three-year-old in AQPS Flat races in her native France.

Not So Sleepy has also won nine races, four on the Flat and five over hurdles for owner-breeder Lady Blyth and trainer Hughie Morrison. He is rising double digits in age, a factor that never phases Morrison who can always point to the victory of his ten-year-old gelding Alcazar in the 2005 Group 1 Prix Royal-Oak at Longchamp, a race in which the second and third home were respectively six years and seven his junior.

Not So Sleepy has had an unusual as well as a lengthy career for a high-class dual performer. He won first time out in October of 2014 as a juvenile over a mile and half a furlong at Nottingham. First time out at three, he was the narrow winner of Chester’s Dee Stakes, a Listed race but perhaps one long overdue a re-grading.

Successful before Not So Sleepy were Derby winners Oath (1999) and Kris Kin (2003), while since then, future Irish 2,000 Guineas and Breeders’ Cup winner Magical and the multiple Group 1-winning Circus Maximus (2019) have also won the race.

I was with the Oath team at the time and, forgive the after time, managed to get a nice price about Oath’s following up at Epsom from Simon Clare, Corals’ course rep at the time. If you think Not So Sleepy is long-lasting, then the same Mr Clare was presenting the prizes on behalf of Saturday’s sponsors to connections of Cloudy Glen who won the Ladbroke Trophy in the colours of the late Trevor Hemmings. Simon hardly looks a day older and deserves congratulations for the way he has sailed serenely through all the mergers and takeovers that have been so prevalent in the world’s biggest betting organisations.

The Chester 2015 win for Not So Sleepy understandably brought a reaction from the handicapper and he started life in that sphere on 107. Equally unsurprisingly, wins proved elusive and it was not until his 17th career run, on Oaks Day 2017, more than two years later, that he won a ten-furlong handicap off 98 under Adam Kirby.

Another 18 months were destined to pass with continued struggle meaning that not until January 19th 2019, after he had run 32 times, did Morrison experiment with hurdles. Sleepy ran three times, fourth running free at Kempton, then winning unchallenged at Wincanton before proving much too exuberant on a return to the West Country track where he finished a well beaten fifth of eight.

Back on the Flat and still with a mark in the 90’s, that summer he had a programme of six runs culminating with an excellent fourth of 30 to Stratum in the Cesarewitch. Here is where the Morrison imagination stepped in. Clearly believing a hurdles mark of 122 would be manageable given the jumping and the tearaway tendencies could be overcome, Morrison lined up an Ascot handicap that November. He bolted in and, a month later and raised just 5lb, he ran away with the £85k to the winner Ladbroke Hurdle back at Ascot on only his fifth jumping appearance.

Not So Sleepy was as a result one of the favourites for that season’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury but after a couple of false starts he found himself on the wide outside of the massive field and was hampered at the start, losing all chance. His 15th of 24 was disappointing but not enough to dissuade connections of a Champion Hurdle challenge. This soon fizzled out as Epatante strode home up the hill to a popular success.

Back on the Flat he polished off a little race over a mile and a half in late summer at Pontefract under Graham Lee, the prelude to another fourth place in the Cesarewitch, as Willie Mullins completed a hat-trick in the great Autumn staying race.

That was the ideal preparation for another jumps campaign. Unfortunately in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle he set off in front but unseated Johnny Burke at the first hurdle. Chastened, Hughie and Lady Blyth sent him to more familiar surroundings of Ascot where he delivered win number two in the Ladbroke.

This time, it was doubly satisfying as Buzz, a horse Hughie had nurtured (I used that word about their relationship last week and I still like the sound of it!) through his early career but had been whisked off by connections to Nicky Henderson for jumping, could get no nearer than second.

Buzz, two years his junior, was well ahead of Not So Sleepy later on when second at Aintree and he has since won the Cesarewitch, denying Mullins a fourth consecutive win in the race by beating Burning Victory and then the Coral Hurdle this month.

Although only fifth in the Champion Hurdle of 2021, Not So Sleepy far exceeded his handicap mark. At the time he was 7lb clear lowest in the entire field on 149, raised briefly to 155 before Aintree but again down to 152 for Saturday.

Again in a big race, he improved on anything he had done before. Epatante had been dropped to 154 after last season’s Champion Hurdle, but she received 7lb from the geldings on Saturday. Sceau Royal, another length and a half back in third and fourth-placed Silver Streak were both on 158 while the disappointing Monmiral is rated 153.

After Sceau Royal the gaps were six and a half and then eight and a half lengths. It seems inevitable that Not So Sleepy should be raised to at least 158, so his highest-ever figure will have been achieved as a rising ten-year-old. Not many trainers could manage that!

As to the way the race evolved, the complete outsider Voix Du Reve, Not So Sleepy and the grey Silver Streak formed the leading trio all the way round with the others grouping behind them.

One acknowledgement of Not So Sleepy’s performance was forthcoming afterwards, one of the experts saying he had been in the lead group but still rallied at the end.

My contention is that had he bothered to jump either of the last two flights properly, he would probably have won outright, and the verve with which he battled back, running in between the other pair up the run-in after the second mistake, spoke volumes.

Tough doesn’t cover it and when you consider how most of the way round with his unusual head motion out to the right between the jumps, you got the feeling he was playing rather than racing in a championship race, that is doubly valid.

I don’t suppose as a ten-year-old he will end the trainer’s Champion Hurdle blank – and something would need to cause Honeysuckle to miss the race on yesterday’s showing. Yet as long ago as 2002, Marble Arch, another of his Ladbroke Hurdle winners the previous December, finished second to Hors La Loi in the Champion Hurdle with a very youthful Ruby Walsh in the saddle.

Hughie is on target for his usual tally of around 50 Flat wins but at a markedly highest-ever strike rate of 18%. It is widely accepted he can train anything - juveniles, champion sprinters, middle-distance stars or top stayers. Indeed if he hadn’t come up against a future Irish St Leger winner, Sonnyboyliston, running off a gift mark in the Ebor, he would have easily beaten his best prizemoney tally too.

And what of Not So Sleepy, a veteran of 54 races, yet sound as a pound and honest – if quirky – as the day is long? He no doubt will continue to thrill and entertain us hopefully for a year or two to come. Maybe after Newcastle A P and Ruby will give him a little more pre-race respect next time he turns up when they are on the telly!

- TS

Monday Musings: An APT Comparison?

Last March, as Rachael Blackmore urged her mount in the Cheltenham Gold Cup to close on stablemate Minella Indo and Jack Kennedy up the hill after the last fence, she would have been excused for saying: “A Plus Tard” or “see you later” in the English version, writes Tony Stafford.

The comment might have been Lostintraslation for some – the much-fancied horse of that name pulled up two from home that day – but after last weekend when both latter horses won major races, the path appears set for a march to greatness for the Henry De Bromhead seven-year-old.

Lostintranslation’s easy win in Ascot’s Chanelle Pharma Chase signalled another pointer to the revival in form of the Tizzard stable – soon by all accounts to have son Joe’s name rather than dad Colin’s above the stable entrance. That effort, though, could not compare with the Irish-trained horse’s performance in running away with the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park.

Most enjoyable for British racegoers as the Irish won this coveted Haydock autumn feature for the first time, was that A Plus Tard carries the colours of Cheveley Park Stud, the principal UK-owned breeder which every year produces top-class animals. With more than 100 mares and in excess of 110 in training every year, Flat racing is the bread and butter. Jumping is the winter release.

Under the careful management of Chris Richardson the stud has fuelled on the enthusiasm for jump racing of Patricia Thompson and her late husband David. The couple won the 1992 Grand National with last-minute buy Party Politics, trained by Nick Gaselee and ridden by Carl Llewellyn, and in recent years built up a select team of high-class jumpers in Ireland.

A class apart though is A Plus Tard and although only a seven-year-old he has just entered his fourth season as a steeplechaser, and still has only 12 races over fences (five wins, five seconds and two thirds) on his record.

Much of the talk before Saturday’s race surrounded the possibility that Bristol De Mai would equal the achievement of Kauto Star who won the Betfair four times in the first decade of the millennium with one unseated preventing an unblemished five-race record.

Bristol De Mai, trained for the last eight seasons by Nigel Twiston-Davies and, like Kauto Star, an early acquisition from France after precocious efforts over hurdles, has won three. Initially he beat in turn Gold Cup winners Cue Card and Native River. He was narrowly beaten in the race in 2019 to Lostintranslation before outstaying multiple Grade 1 winner Clan Des Obeaux last November.

As with those two multiple Betfair victors, A Plus Tard started in France. Whereas Kauto Star had already raced nine times (winning three) before his dramatic step up in form to win a four-year-old Graded hurdle at Auteuil when a 36-1 shot in late May, A Plus Tard never raced at that level. His moment came on his fifth and final start (and second win) when collecting a 40k to the winner 4yo handicap early in April 2018 there.

Like Kauto Star and Bristol De Mai before him A Plus Tard switched quickly to chasing, running as early as November of that year and finishing runner-up in a field of 13 at Gowran Park under Blackmore – the first of the 11 races in which they have combined.

Remarkably, three races on and less than four months after that initial association the now five-year-old ran away with the 20-runner Close Brothers Handicap Chase. The only horse of his age in the race, he did so giving weight and a 16-length thrashing to Grade 1 hurdle winner Tower Bridge with 18 other decent performers trailing far behind.

His next run brought defeat in third over three miles at Punchestown at the end of his busiest season with De Bromhead. He was restricted to only three races the next winter, sandwiching defeats on reappearance and when a close third behind Min in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham with a first Grade 1 triumph at Leopardstown over Christmas.

And last season was another cherry-picked campaign of just three races. Again Leopardstown provided the one win, another at Grade 1 level over Christmas but this time without Rachael who partnered instead Minella Indo, who fell before the race warmed up. Darragh O’Keeffe was the lucky man to step into her shoes. Back on A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup as chronicled at the start of the piece, second place to her stable-companion and other regular partner came as their rally up the hill was a little trop tard.

There is an uncanny symmetry about aspects of the early careers of Kauto Star and A Plus Tard. Both started in France and showed precocity. Certainly in the case of Kauto Star, he burned bright for many seasons. De Bromhead’s deliberate planning for his young improving star’s career offers hope that his will also be long-lasting

The Knockeen, County Waterford, trainer has run him sparingly and, with a horse of such talent, there is no need to go searching away beyond the top prizes. I would be surprised if he turned out more than four times, with Punchestown a possible after Cheltenham, especially if he wins the Gold Cup this time. Next will likely be the normal trip to Leopardstown for a Christmas hat-trick attempt.

Minella Indo, who comes from the parallel universe of Irish jumps talent, the point-to-point field, is the De Bromhead version of Paul Nicholls’ Denman. That great chaser was a contemporary of and in terms of merit almost exact counterpart of Kauto Star and he too came from the Irish pointing field.

Kauto Star was by 29 days the senior and in terms of their careers with Nicholls earned almost twice as much as his colleague and rival, collecting £2.2 million from 19 wins in 31 chases. Denman won 14 of 24 for £1.14 million

When Kauto Star won his first Betfair Chase as a six-year-old he was rated 173. Afterwards he even once touched as high as 190 but mostly was rated in his prime in the 180’s.

Although at seven a year older at the time of his first win in the race, A Plus Tard is rated 1lb lower at 172. It is worth reminding ourselves of the ease of his win, and on faster ground than is normal for the Betfair Chase.

Bristol De Mai and Royale Pagaille kept each other company for more than two-thirds of the race on Saturday before Royale Pagaille got the edge in that private battle, with A Plus Tard always tracking them going easily. He was sent to the front three out and, pulling away all the way home, the finishing margin of 22 lengths over Royal Pagaille could have been much greater had Rachael wished.

Remembering just how impressive Royal Pagaille (rated 163) had been in the Peter Marsh Chase over the same course and distance last January, it was salutary to see a similar disrespectful beating being handed out to him. The winner must be raised for the win although Kauto Star’s rating as he won successively his first Betfair, Tingle Creek (two miles) and the first of his five King Georges brought very little reaction from the handicapper.

There was definitely a hint of Kauto Star in the speed with which A Plus Tard disposed of his 2019 Close Brothers rivals at Cheltenham, and again as he cosied up to Royal Pagaille before asserting. This was an exceptional performance but there is still that stable-companion and last season’s Cheltenham defeat to avenge before we declare him the best of the bunch.

Rachael Blackmore also had to make a painful (at least it looked that way beforehand) choice between A Plus Tard and her 2021 Cheltenham Festival winner Bob Olinger when that horse also made his seasonal return at Gowran Park, again with Darragh O’Keeffe as the beneficiary.

Bob, the deeply-impressive unchallenged winner of last season’s Ballymore Novice Hurdle at the Festival, was appearing for the first time since and enjoyed a nice school round to defeat useful yardstick Bacardys (Willie Mullins). This was the champion trainer’s first try at assessing the likely threat to his own best novice chasers later in the season. It might have dented his optimism a bit, but he usually pulls one out of the hat!

One Saturday winner who will offer some hope of a domestic success at the Festival is the Nicky Henderson-trained but Hughie Morrison nurtured and developed grey, Buzz, who followed his Cesarewitch success with another dominant effort in the Coral (to you and me Ascot) Hurdle.

While there is an intermediate distance race for the top-class chasers (the Ryanair) at the Festival, two and a half mile hurdlers are forced to drop back to the minimum for the Champion Hurdle or stretch to three miles and a bit for the Stayers. Otherwise they can wait for Aintree which does cater for them.

I think the level Aintree circuit would be perfect to utilise Buzz’s Flat-race speed and he would be meeting horses partly used up trying either of the possible Cheltenham options. But then, who can resist the lure of Cheltenham? Certainly not, it seems, James Stafford and his Thurloe Thoroughbreds syndicate.

Buzz races for the partners but, with a portion of the proceeds of their victories going to the Royal Marsden, Buzz will always have a feel-good factor going for him.

Never mind additionally that James did casual shifts for me ages ago at The Daily Telegraph and thereafter always greets me on the country’s racecourses as “Uncle Tone”. I can think of worse forms of address – indeed I’ve received a few in my time!

- TS

Monday Musings: Skeltonham

The 2021-22 jumps season – in a sort of foreplay since the end of April – began on Friday with three days’ intense action at Cheltenham, writes Tony Stafford.

The top five protagonists for the jump trainers’ championship, always supposing that Messrs Mullins, Elliott and De Bromhead do not intrude on a private domestic issue, have positioned themselves nicely for imminent take-off.
At this stage Fergal O’Brien leads the way with 72 wins and £622,548. Paul Nicholls is second on £561,628 from 60 winners.

Dan Skelton, boosted by the weekend, is on £531,752 from a modest 39 wins to date; Donald McCain has £466,295 from 65 and Nicky Henderson, well up to scratch with 50 wins, is lagging a little with £397,633 in prizes.

A couple of seasons ago, Dan and Harry Skelton, emboldened by the lavish support of their father Nick, Olympic show jumping gold medallist and icon of his primary sport for the best part of half a century, would have been the numerical summer pacesetters in the title race.

The trio knew that having a base in Warwickshire worthy of housing the best of bloodstock, would need a trigger to attract owners in a sport where they were accustomed to turning to Nicky Henderson or Paul Nicholls if they wanted their horses trained in the UK. The Skeltons needed numbers and the summer, with the best horses out at grass, was the time to put them on the board.

Even some of those two perennial champions’ owners had already gravitated to the better prizemoney and overwhelming superiority, talent- and numerical-wise of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott over in Ireland. It appears that the latter’s gauche blunder in being seen grinning and brandishing his phone to the camera astride a fallen horse on his gallops has been forgiven if not forgotten. Memories are long – practicalities are instantaneous.

The Skelton team has now clearly made it to the big league as their principal five challengers over the weekend emphasised. Meanwhile the mid-summer void has been comfortably filled by Fergal O’Brien, formerly assistant to Nigel Twiston-Davies and more recently a tenant of his.

The building of a new yard a few miles away enabled the breakaway from Twiston-Davies and was the catalyst for a major step forward last season when he broke 100 winners for the first time.

After two 60’s in a row, the next two campaigns realised 49 and 63 before 104 at 18% and £796k prizemoney in 2020-21.
Such has been the forward momentum that as we enter winter, O’Brien leads both winner and money categories. That reflects a 60k cushion, but Nicholls, Skelton and Henderson all have more obvious candidates for the very big pots which always define the season’s champions.

Fergal’s stable strength has been nicely augmented by the addition of around 60 horses that the BHA’s favoured barrister, Graeme McPherson QC, has bequeathed (not exactly, but you know what I mean!) to them. McPherson was more the money man than the day-to-day trainer, and graceful withdrawal from the licensee position in favour of giving it official satellite yard status is bound to have beneficial results.

Already several former McPherson horses have shown improved form since the merger and if Fergal intends maintaining his fast pace – 11 wins in the last fortnight – he needs the extra ammunition.

He stepped in with the Listed bumper winner Bonttay on the Saturday of the meeting and as she and stable-companion Leading Theatre led a big field up the hill you could imagine both being high-class jumpers further down the line, an opinion the trainer upheld with a snatched comment: “two lovely fillies” as he walked by. The stable seems to have a bigger proportion of fillies than any of their main rivals, but that merely confirms assistant and partner Sally Randell’s assertion that “they are cheaper to buy”.

Success attracts owners, as the Skeltons illustrate, and now new owners are flocking to the softly spoken Fergal. They had a new owner with them at the sale after racing on Friday and he came away with lot 1, Poetic Music, a debut winner of a Market Rasen bumper for John Butler, at £60,000. “She was our number one at the sale too. I’m delighted we got her”, Sally said.

Two-horse races rarely capture the attention of the racegoer, but Friday’s two-and-a-half mile novice chase in which fencing newcomer My Drogo, a brilliant unbeaten hurdler last winter for Dan Skelton, was meeting Henry de Bromhead’s four-time chase winner Gin On Lime.

The younger Gin On Lime, a mare, had penalties which should have ensured My Drogo’s favouritism and so it proved, the home runner 4-9 with 7-4 against Gin On Lime.

Then at the second-last fence, when Skelton was manoeuvring his mount to challenge on the stands side, he hit the fence hard and could not maintain the partnership. Meanwhile on the inside, Gin On Lime also blundered but as she started to sink to the floor Rachael Blackmore did a passable impression of all those rodeo tricks she must have seen in cowboy films and simply stayed glued to the saddle.

The mare recovered her equilibrium with Blackmore soon back in charge and they set off to the final obstacle which Gin On Line crossed with no further problems. Blackmore had been the darling of the last spectator-limited Cheltenham Festival and here, with the aid of her main supporter De Bromhead, was revealing a new sphere of excellence.

If day one was a major setback for the brothers Skelton, on Saturday the wheel of fortune turned with another spectacular run by Third Time Lucki, the first domestic candidate for the Arkle Chase and a welcome one with all that talent waiting to reveal itself on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Maybe it was a job only half done, but two exaggerated celebrations of Harry Skelton as he crossed the line in front twice in succession yesterday showed how much it all means to win at the home of steeplechasing. First he was in splendid isolation on the always-talented Nube Negra in the Schloer Chase and then the long-time absentee West Cork got the better of Adagio and No Ordinary Joe after a battle up the hill in a high-standard Greatwood Hurdle.

Winning big handicap hurdles with horses after a layoff has been part of the Dan Skelton DNA for some time and West Cork was a prime candidate for such a project. Absent since his second in the Dovecote Hurdle in February last year behind Highway One O Two, he had been dropped 5lb for that Grade 2 second place from the 139 he had earned by his easy defeat of a Nicky Henderson 1/3 shot at Huntingdon.

That generosity by the handicapper was the final piece in the puzzle for the stable whereas top-weight Adagio, only a four-year-old, had been assessed to the hilt on his form of last winter. The third horse No Ordinary Joe pulled hard from the outset yet was still there with a big shout starting up the hill. If Nicky can get this unexposed type to settle better there is no limit to the potential of J P McManus’ gelding.

Nube Negra’s victory, emphatically pegging back one previous Queen Mother Chase winner in Politologue and ending the hitherto unbeaten course record of Put The Kettle On, the reigning champion but one who was never going yesterday, was deeply impressive.

It certainly was not lost on the bookmakers, who promoted him to near the top of this season’s market on the two-mile championship, nor on the younger Skelton, who not satisfied merely with standing in the saddle and pointing to the crowd as they crossed the line, then sated his elation with a rapid-fire first pump. He might find it harder to peg back Brian Hughes this winter, but as he says, he has some great horses to ride.

Some jockeys win a championship and simply want more. Harry Skelton will take another one if it comes, but he’s not going to do the running around riding out and touting for rides on other people’s horses. Why would he with animals of the ability of those Cheltenham mounts?
- TS

Monday Musings: Breeders’ Cup Digest

It has taken 362 runs from 126 individual horses and many thousands of motorway miles in their distinctive royal blue vans to earn the Charlie Appleby stable £4,827,062 in win and place money this year, writes Tony Stafford. Thus he enters the last seven weeks of 2021 with an unchallenged situation, guaranteeing his first trainers’ championship in the UK.

It took six horses on a single day <if you count UK time, which for the purposes of the starkness of the comparison, I am> walking the few hundred yards from the Del Mar international barn in the backstretch to the saddling area and back, to add £2,690,000 (55.7% of his entire UK endeavours) on November 6 alone.

Purists will point to the last on Friday at 7.30p.m. (daylight saving kicked in a week later in the US than the UK) and the two on Saturday, but in any event they were all comfortably within a 24-hour time-frame. The clocks went back in California at 2 a.m. yesterday earning the team from Moulton Paddocks a theoretical extra hour in bed. I doubt if any of them even bothered to turn in at all!

Six runners made the walk to potential equine immortality, two adorned with the pre-race red hood which denotes a trainer worries sufficiently about his horse’s temperament to defuse the potential problem of walking through the boisterous crowds that line the route to the saddling boxes.

The red-hooded pair were in Friday’s Juvenile Turf, Albahr, drawn two and next to stable-mate Modern Games in one, and on Saturday in the Mile, again on the Turf track, 2,000 Guineas runner-up Master Of The Seas, drawn one with his better-fancied elder stable-companion Space Blues in three.

Connections of many of the other European contenders would have enjoyed the chance of running from those plum draws around the tightest of tight circuits. Conversely, in the aftermath, the ever-measured Appleby said: “When they do get drawn there on the inside, they potentially can have a much longer wait and therefore more time to get upset if that’s their character.

“We had no inkling that the horses would behave in this way and it is something we’ll have to address when we get home. Happily both horses, and riders Frankie Dettori and James Doyle, are fine. Frankie especially was lucky to be dragged from Albahr and it’s unfortunate that the stalls man who helped him, got an injury from the horse.”

From a dual assault on three races, only their runners in the Turf produced the full complement from the stalls, with seven-year-old Walton Street (Doyle) actually a shorter price at the departure than Buick’s mount, Yibir.

Both horses had been sent to North American on September 18 for their previous races. Walton Street was off first in Canada (10.35 p.m. UK time) for the Grade 1 Canadian International at Woodbine which he won in a canter by almost six lengths.

Ten minutes later (10.45 p.m.) it was Yibir’s turn at Belmont Park and he comfortably put away six fellow three-year-olds in the Jockey Club Derby Invitational. This race as yet carries no official Grade category – it was merely a very valuable Conditions race – and Yabir beat a field including Bolshoi Ballet, who finished sixth on Saturday.

That made it more than £500k for the two September 18 races in ten minutes. Yibir’s strong finish in the Breeders’ Cup Turf to peg back Broome, who had raced into what looked like an invincible lead in the straight, alone earned a second-best prize of the weekend of £1.5 million and change.

All three Godolphin winners won convincingly. Modern Games and Yibir both came wide under Buick from some way back and finished very strongly. Contrastingly, Space Blues was always close to the lead and held off a late challenge to win by half a length. He had been singled out by Appleby as the likeliest winner and in fulfilling that prophecy has earned a deserved place at stud after 11 career wins from 19 starts. As a son of Dubawi he will have every chance of making a success as a stallion.

The best Coolmore Ireland position was Broome’s second to Yibir on a day when Japan, the country, not the horse who was fourth to Yibir, posted (like London buses) its first two wins at the Breeders’ Cup. Broome all this year has worn the silks of M Matsushima, a partner in the five-year-old along with the Magnier, Tabor and Smith triumvirate. [Coolmore did record a score, via Wesley Ward, more of which anon]

A son of Australia, you would imagine Mr Matsushima might want to stand the horse in Japan one day. The racing fraternity will be euphoric after trainer Yashito Yahagi’s double that almost matched the exploits of Appleby and Buick. Japan is spectacularly the best-endowed racing authority in the world. While its industry traditionally has been inward-looking, these so-visible wins will provide more of their top owners and trainers with the confidence to target the biggest prizes all around the world.

Easily the more authoritative of the Japanese triumphs was the fast finish provided by Loves Only You in the Filly and Mare Turf race, extended this year to 1m3f to take account of the configuration of the Del Mar Turf course.

It hadn’t helped Audarya’s attempt at a second successive win after her victory over 9.5 furlongs at Keeneland last year. William Buick – guessing wrong for the only time over the two days – dropped her in from her widest draw, got across nicely and in good position on the rail only to run into an equine brick wall turning for home. In the circumstances, fifth and 40-odd grand would have been consolation for the Swinburn and Fanshawe families.

Love’s route could hardly have been worse, three wide all the way. She had the class to strike for the lead in the straight but was soon challenged and in the end could manage only fourth as Loves Only You brought her earnings within a UK Group 1 success of £5million. A five-year-old daughter of Deep Impact, she has a wonderful turn of foot.

No UK-based jockey has as strong an association with Japanese racing as Oisin Murphy, who spends as much of his winters – and collects as many billions of Yen – as he can riding over there. His association with Deirdre, now a seven-year-old on whom he won the 2019 Nassau Stakes at Goodwood, was a comparable breakthrough to Saturday’s at the time.

Oisin was seen congratulating the Japanese rider Yuga Kawada straight after the Filly and Mare Turf and two hours later he joined the party in his own right, partnering Marche Lorraine, also a five-year-old, in the Distaff on the dirt track.

This race was supposed to be a private affair between some fast locals, but they went much too quickly, cancelling each other out and all giving in before the straight. Oisin could be seen halfway down the back going best, his red cap moving forward while his mare, a 50-1 shot, was still under restraint. That collapse up front meant he got the lead too soon and in the end it took a triple champion’s ability to keep her going for a short-head verdict.

I loved the day’s final race, the Classic, where Knicks Go beat Medina Spirit, and I also very much enjoyed Life Is Good, runaway winner of the Dirt Mile and Golden Pal, flying winner of the Turf Sprint, the last named for Coolmore America and Wesley Ward.

Also, I’ve never seen a horse running in a million plus dollar race but not for betting purposes. The former favourite too, Modern Games bolting up to a chorus of boos from the crowd who had been obliged to give back their tickets for refund as the horses waited to go. [Worse still, our esteemed editor had ‘singled’ Modern Games in the last leg of a Pick 4: his sole option re-routing to the non-winning favourite in the race!]

No boos from the Doncaster crowd on the final day of the 2021 turf season at Doncaster. John Butler’s Farhan, the 9-2 favourite for the season’s final big event, the November Handicap, ridden by Hollie Doyle, bolted up. The only piece of luck was that the three-year-old son of Zoffany squeezed in exactly as number 23 at the foot of the weights. The triumph (and landed gamble) was delivered with military precision by trainer and rider on probably Hollie’s last year not to be asked to ride at the Breeders’ Cup.

Butler has another important assignment this week. On Friday Poetic Music, an easy bumper winner on debut at Market Rasen, is lot number 1 at Tattersalls Cheltenham post-racing sale. A big filly, she looks the type to figure in black type juvenile fillies’ races for the rest of the season. So bid away – you will be making someone very happy!

One happy camper – and he always has winners when in the US for the Breeders’ Cup – was my already mentioned editor Matt Bisogno, who runs the Geegeez syndicates. Their mare Coquelicot was an easy winner at Chepstow last week, adding a first jumps success to three including a Listed in bumpers. The only way is up, Matt!

Monday Musings: The New Phar Lap?

A lot of my friends are setting out today for the trip to the beautiful racecourse of Del Mar, just north of La Jolla (and Torrey Pines golf course) in Southern California, close to the wonderful City of San Diego, writes Tony Stafford.  That makes it not too far from the border with Mexico and Tijuana, where locals make their brass selling cheap religious items to unwitting tourists by the roadside.

Some of the above-mentioned pals, not just content with a week where the Turf Meets the Surf – Bing Crosby 1937 – will then tootle down the road to spend a second week at Palm Springs. Nice work? Hardly, if you can get it!

In recent years it has been possible to leave the US right after the two days of Breeders’ Cup excitement onto a flight that crossed the international dateline but arrived in Australia in time for “The Race That Stops the Nation” on the first Tuesday in November.

This time the Melbourne Cup will proceed without some of its usual adherents as it precedes its international counter-attraction. In 2020 it was staged with severe Covid-induced restrictions. Fourteen of the 24 runners started out in Europe, eight – including the winner, Twilight Payment – were still trained there when setting off for the always difficult journey and preparation.

Joseph O’Brien trained the winner and he will be back again, his now eight-year-old Australian-owned marvel this time as top-weight carrying around 9st2lb (58k), 6lb more than last year.

He shares second favouritism with the Andrew Balding-trained Spanish Mission, of whom there were serious doubts as to participation as the new veterinary rules flexed their theoretical muscles. He is safely in the list, but I would imagine the vets will have the same sort of scrutiny right up to the morning of the race that caused Hughie Morrison’s 2018 runner-up Marmelo to be being excluded from the 2019 renewal. Marmelo was strongly fancied having won the Doncaster Cup last time out but the local veterinarians differed with the opinion of the trainer and owners’ vets who consistently pronounced him sound.

Astonishingly, with half the 24-strong field for Tuesday - officially announced with draw yesterday - emanating from Europe, these two will be the sole European-trained contenders. Both have top form this year, Twilight Payment finishing second to Sonnyboyliston in the Irish St Leger and Spanish Mission running a close second to Stradivarius in the Lonsdale Stakes at York in August.

Nothing else is coming. No Aidan O’Brien, whose sadness at losing his 2019 Derby hero Anthony Van Dyck with fatal injury in last year’s contest might have swayed him against sending any of his better-class stayers at the end of an arduous campaign.

Another trainer persuaded by potential queries from the beefed-up vets’ panel to make an early decision against sending his best horse was Charlie Fellowes. His Prince Of Arran, an eight-year-old contemporary of Twilight Payment’s, had been third, second and third again in the last three Melbourne Cups.

The place money amassed from those heroic challenges exceeded £1.5 million towards Prince Of Arran’s career win and place earnings of just over £2 million. In retrospect, the decision, while probably agonising at the time, now looks fortuitous as on all this year’s form the gelding would have struggled to make an impact.

Last Monday when talking about Joseph O’Brien’s latest Australian exploit in winning the Cox Plate, I also referred to the previous winner of that prestigious weight-for-age race. That was the beaten 2019 Investec Derby favourite Sir Dragonet, third at Epsom behind ill-fated Anthony Van Dyck.

The colt had also been a creditable sixth in last year’s Melbourne Cup, just a few days on from his Cox Plate exploits. These excellent performances came from his new base at Warwick Farm, where he ran under the banner of the hirsute Ciaran Maher, one of the most successful of the domestic trainers over there.

At least Maher, who has four of the 24 in tomorrow’s field, has a British element to his stable which has three bases, two satellites apart from Warwick Farm.

Six years ago, a young Englishman, son of a long-standing and much respected Newmarket trainer, like so many before him, tried his luck in the Antipodes. So impressed was Maher in his young pupil’s diligence and innovation that in 2018 he added the name of David Eustace, son of James and brother of Harry who now runs the family stable back home, as joint-trainer.

That means we have an English trainer with four runners in the great race to add to Andrew Balding. Only the legendary Chris Waller, trainer of Winx but yet to win the Cup, matches their representation. Waller is less likely than Maher/Eustace to win as the partners’ Floating Artist (11-1) and Grand Promenade (14-1) are the next pair in the betting.

But this will be a Melbourne Cup with a couple of differences. For me, never getting there – that was always the province of fellow Telegraph man, “Aussie Jim” McGrath -  invariably meant staying up all night to see the show on telly.

On Tuesday when I went to Tatts Horses in Training sale watching the Australians make their ever-more expensive buys for next winter as they jousted with the Saudis for new middle-distance talent, I happened to run into John Berry.

He has been an integral and vital part of Melbourne Cup nights with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian and New Zealand form and I asked him if he was all set for Tuesday. A sad look came into that made for radio face – sorry John – as he related that the invitation always comes well in advance. As this October it hadn’t he feared he would, like me, watch it on the sofa.

Unless there was an oversight in the Sky Sports office, Newmarket’s former Mayor seems to have gone the way of so many other Sky staples – the latest being  Jeff Stelling who announced he will be going, too, at the end of the year. Can’t be much fun getting old, can it?

The other big difference of course, unless you haven’t heard of him, is a locally-trained five-year-old called Incentivise who until April 11 this year had the career record of three runs and no places, never mind wins.

He was a 17/1 chance for his fourth race but won that by three lengths and he went on to win another five races, all by wide margins in the next few weeks.

At season’s end it was decided that he needed to be moved to Melbourne as the Covid rules would have been complicated had he remained in his original base in Southern Queensland. He was transferred to top handler Peter Moody whose brief was to campaign him at the Melbourne Spring Festival.

The move also needed a new jockey for the same reason, and the gelding turned up with Brett Prebble at Flemington racecourse on September 11 for the Makybe Diva Stakes. This first Group 1 challenge commemorates Australia’s greatest staying racemare, the only triple winner of the Melbourne Cup. Her hat-trick was achieved between 2003 and 2005.

They made all the running, winning by half a length. Incentivise followed up in another Group 1 on October 2. Two weeks later he achieved what was by common consent from the experts and public alike, the most impressive performance in the Caulfield Cup in living memory.. He won that race by a very easy three lengths and few observers in Australia believe he can be beaten tomorrow. Nine wins in a row since April 11 yet still receiving 2lb from the top-weight? His price of 7-4 almost looks generous!

Australians hanker after another Phar Lap, the hero from the 1930’s who was their between-the-World Wars equivalent of Seabiscuit in the US. After their past-sell-by date cricketers’ performance in the World 20/20 group qualifying match against England, they could do with a modern-day hero, human or equine.

I confess I cannot see him beaten. As to the Breeders’ Cup it would be nice if James Fanshawe could repeat last year’s victory of Audarya and win a second Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar. I have a friend who has an interest.

Siobhan Doolan, highly-talented horsewoman and grand-daughter of Wilf Storey, had earmarked a Fanshawe horse in last week’s sale, the yet to win but lightly-raced four-year-old gelding Going Underground. Like Incentivise he made a slow start to his career, not appearing until late on as a three-year-old in December last year. Sadly, there the similarity ends, but the young lady is very happy with her nice-moving purchase since getting him home.

Siobhan made a discovery about him. Whether it’s correct or not I will try to find out from the horse’s mouth but I won’t ask until next week as James never likes to talk about his horses before they run.

This is the question. Is it true that Going Underground was a galloping companion with Audarya this summer?  Should it be true it would be a nice thought that her £5k buy in a very tough market might have helped a horse win another Breeders’ Cup race. Siobhan will be preparing him in the mornings for his imminent campaign before settling down to her bloodstock insurance work. Good luck Shiv – and grandad of course!

  • TS

Monday Musings: from Luxembourg to Oz

Luxembourg’s emphatic success in Saturday’s Vertem Futurity, the final Group 1 race of the year in the UK, reminded us not to under-estimate the power of the Aidan O’Brien team, writes Tony Stafford.

As he conceded after the victory, things have been going rather less his way than we have come to expect, but a year in which St Mark’s Basilica, Snowfall and now this feasible 2,000 Guineas alternative to the Charlie Appleby two – Native Trail and Coroebus - have been around, it is hardly the disaster it was being painted of late.

More of Luxembourg later but eight hours before the big race at Doncaster, a ten furlong Group 1 race, the private property of that unforgettable Australian mare Winx between 2015 and 2018, was being decided.

The Ladbrokes Cox Plate, run at the tight Moonee Valley racecourse in Melbourne, is universally known as Australia’s principal weight-for-age race – the even more valuable Melbourne Cup is a handicap. Joseph O’Brien, already winning trainer of two of the last four Melbourne Cups, as against his father’s still frustrating blank in the race that stops Australia on the first Tuesday of November every year, took the £1,700,000 first prize on Saturday morning with the three-year-old colt State Of Rest.

As befits a race of its value, the opposition was stern and the second and third home, the joint-favourites at 13-5, fully deserve such a description. It took a full 20 minutes’ deliberation from the stewards to decide that Craig Williams’ objection to the winner and his rider John Allen on behalf of short-head runner-up Anamoe would be rejected. Third, staying on, was the champion mare Verry Elleegant, veteran of both successful and less so Group 1 tilts with William Haggas’s globe-trotter Addeybb among 12 wins from 30 starts.

Moonee Valley might not be Verry Elleegant’s favourite track, but the five-year-old had to concede only 1lb to her three-year-old rival (actually she counts as only a year and a half his elder because of the difference in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere breeding seasons. Anamoe, who had won a Group 1 two weeks before, the £678k to the winner Caulfield Guineas over a mile, carrying 9st as the 11/10 favourite, was foaled seven months after the winner. He received 16lb from the O’Brien horse and while the same age, will not actually be three years old until next month.

Topically, Saturday was the anniversary of State Of Rest’s final run as a juvenile when finishing fifth behind subsequent Irish 2,000 Guineas winner Mac Swiney in last year’s Futurity. He had a busy time running six races between June and October of his juvenile season and was probably ready for a quiet spring.
O’Brien delayed his comeback until the last week in June when he tackled a one-mile Listed race at The Curragh.

Conceding 10lb to both the winner Fourhometoo and runner-up Khartoum, he struggled to get a run until the last 100 yards, then flew home and would have galloped right by those mid 100’s rated and race-fit rivals in another few strides.

Until Saturday, there had been one more run, a highly-ambitious challenge to his father’s beaten Derby favourite Bolshoi Ballet at Saratoga. After Epsom, Bolshoi Ballet had gone some way to restoring his reputation with a win the following month at Belmont Park and the Saratoga Derby, a Grade 1 worth £390k and run over 9.5 furlongs at the Spa in mid-August at the time looked his for the taking. Its timing for the younger O’Brien was ideal as it gave State of Rest time to recover from his returning Curragh exertions.

Understandably, dad’s runner was a shade of odds against while the main dangers according to the betting were Jessica Harrington’s Cadillac at 9/2 and Charlie Appleby’s Secret Protector at 5/1.
Having looked back at the Curragh comeback third and the way he finished the race it seems inconceivable that State Of Rest could have been allowed to start at more than 20/1 in that company. The betting clearly suggested the home team was nothing much, yet here was a horse already worth a rating in the mid-110’s starting that price – and he had legendary East Coast rider John Velazquez in the saddle to boot.

The outcome was a one-length win in the colours of Teme Valley Racing, while Bolshoi Ballet was only fourth and the other raiders were further back. The win was much to the elation of the owners’ Racing Manager Richard Ryan, who has a wealth of experience in many facets of the racing industry.

Ryan was the long-term assistant to the late Terry Mills, who made his money in the waste disposal and demolition businesses. Many Epsom habituees ascribed much of the stable’s success to his quiet and ever discreet right-hand-man. Then after Mills’ death and son Robert’s brief spell at the helm, he left Epsom and worked the sales, before joining Ian Williams as assistant.

In that period and then since relinquishing that full-time role he has continued to unearth good horses for the trainer’s clients. Now he represents Goff’s at auctions as well as his role with Teme Valley and also maintains a close relationship with Williams.

To run horses trained in Europe for major races in Australia was always akin to a military exercise, but Joseph outlined in detail the extra hoops that are required post-, or rather, where Australia is concerned, mid-Covid. Those, together with the increased veterinary procedures imposed after Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck’s fatal injury in last year’s Melbourne Cup, have caused a number of UK trainers to abandon proposed Melbourne Cup challenges this winter.

Anthony Van Dyck’s demise took some of the family gloss off Joseph’s success with the seven-year-old Twilight Payment in the Cup last year. At least Aidan can point to his own Cox Plate seven years ago with Adelaide, now a stallion in Australia, while last year’s Cox Plate winner Sir Dragonet spent his formative years, indeed all his races before the Cox Plate, at Ballydoyle.

The beaten 11-4 favourite in Anthony Van Dyck’s 2019 Derby, he ended his time with O’Brien with a second to the great Magical in the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup at The Curragh in July last year. His first run under Chris Waller’s care brought his Cox Plate win at the main expense of another former stable-companion Armory and he was then sixth in the Melbourne Cup, although his form this year has been nowhere near that level.

Doncaster’s confirmation that Luxembourg was indeed a potential Classic horse was underlined on Saturday as he drew steadily if not spectacularly away from three nice horses. Sissoko (Donnacha O’Brien), was just under two lengths behind the winner and only narrowly in front of another of Teme Valley’s (with Jock O’Connor’s Ballylinch Stud), the Roger Varian colt Bayside Boy, and Hannibal Barca inches back in fourth. This made it ten Futurity victories in 24 years for O’Brien enabling him to match the late Sir Henry Cecil’s record within the precise same time scale.

Brian Meehan had been bullish when we spoke on Saturday morning about the place chances of Hannibal Barca and it looked for much of the last furlong that the 50-1 each-way taken about the Sam Sangster-owned colt would collect. Sadly though track position on the far side as they came up the middle probably didn’t help rider Paul Mulrennan on the run home.

I’m going to the sales on Tuesday and it will be interesting to look into the box scheduled to be housing Hannibal Barca who until Sam and Brian wake up after the inevitable party they had for getting the 55,000gns son of Zoffany to a rating of at least 110, they will almost certainly pull him out. Then again they might let him have a spin round the ring with a big reserve. That would be nice. I’ll be there boys – and how I love a show!

Jumping proper started again with two days of Cheltenham and record crowds for the October meeting. The last time they had a crowd at Cheltenham, in March last year, the blame game merchants pointed to that largely outdoor gathering as a major component in the spread of Covid-19. With figures going up again that fixture is again a possible target for criticism, but the 76,000 crammed in at Old Trafford to watch Liverpool demolish Manchester United would potentially be a larger worry I would have thought. The maladies for distraught home fans might extend beyond Covid!

The most impressive Cheltenham performance for me was the flashy chase debut of the Skeltons’ First Time Lucki. A 144-rated hurdler after three wins from seven starts adding to two out of four in bumpers he looks destined for a much higher level over fences.

His jumping was fast, accurate and spectacular. At no time did Harry Skelton have a second’s concern and the eight lengths and the rest he had over some good horses in this initial novice chase could easily have been doubled had the champion jockey wished. Allmankind was similarly impressive for the brothers at Aintree yesterday.

That man (Harry) is going to be very hard to beat in his attempt at a second title and brother Dan might be an outside bet for the trainers’ title. Admittedly Fergal O’Brien is setting a very fast pace already up to 60 and if some of his potential stars waiting in the wings come through he could figure in the argument too.

Meanwhile Hollie Doyle, faced with what had looked a daunting calendar year record score of 152 for a female jockey she set in 2020, has passed it with two months to spare. Her initial title will not be long delayed.

Talking of titles, Johnny Weatherby, long-time Queen’s Representative at Ascot has been knighted. Was it Arise Sir John, or Arise Sir Johnny? I’m not sure if anyone’s taking money on it – it’s a bit like those bets on the Queen’s hat colour every day by those bookies before racing attracting once-a-year racegoers on the way from the main entrance to the grandstand. I’m sure they have their card marked! Psst- it was Sir John!!!

-TS

Monday Musings: Champions

An epic Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday definitely settled one major argument and all but decided another, writes Tony Stafford. In all honesty though, Murphy versus Buick and Appleby contra the Gosdens were the sideshows to an overwhelming afternoon for the Shadwell Estate Company, Jim Crowley and William Haggas.

There was a tinge of irony in the fact that in the week after the announcement of an admittedly expected but still shocking major reduction in the number of horses in the blue and white colours of the late Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, Shadwell won half the races.

Most – me at the head of that particular queue – expected a John and Thady Gosden benefit. But in the opening stayers’ race, Stradivarius suffered another defeat at the hands not only of Trueshan but 50-1 shot Tashkhan who came through late to give Brian Ellison a scarcely credible second place.

So once again Hollie Doyle was the nemesis for Frankie Dettori. He had accused racing’s favourite and most talented female rider of setting an inadequate pace on a pacemaker when the pair were riding for Aidan O’Brien in the Prix Vermeille on Arc Trials Day.

Dettori was on the unbackable Snowfall that day, previously a triple Oaks winner in the summer, including at Epsom under the Italian, but was turned over by Roger Varian’s Teona. Frankie reckoned Hollie got the pace wrong, but horses are supposed to run on their merits and in the event La Joconde was only a half-length behind the superstar in third. If that smacked of sour grapes, on Saturday it was more a case of sour face.

Riding his favourite horse the now slightly faltering multiple champion stayer Stradivarius, Dettori came back boiling, now blaming young Irish rider Dylan Browne McMonagle for twice blocking his run. My view of the closing stages was that any inconvenience could hardly have been of the order of four lengths – the margin by which he was behind Trueshan. McMonagle, far from bowed by the old-timer’s complaints, quite rightly called it “just race-riding”.

The fastest finisher of the front three was undoubtedly Tashkhan, who started out in 2021 having joined Ellison from Emmet Mullins on a mark of 70. He was already up to 106 by Saturday and no doubt will have earned another hike. For Trueshan and his owners, who include Andrew Gemmell, his exploits entitle him to be the year’s top stayer.

I felt it worth starting out on Grumpy Frankie, who in a magical career of well over 30 years has had more than his fair share of good fortune – and leniency from the authorities - notably that day with the seven winners on the same racecourse. That was the year when I had just finished writing his “autobiography”, a Year in the Life of Frankie Dettori. Come off it Frankie, imagine how many times you’ve got in someone’s way when they thought they had a race in the bag!

But we move back to Shadwell. Two of their three winners on the day were home-breds. These were Baaeed, emphatic winner of the QE II Stakes and Eshaada, another Roger Varian filly to lower the colours of Snowfall, again below par in third in the Fillies’ and Mares’ race. After the brilliance of her trio of summer Group 1 wins at Epsom, The Curragh and York Snowfall may just be feeling the cumulative erosion caused by those efforts – not least her sixth in the Arc just two weeks previously. Varian must be thinking she’s his Patsy!

The third Shadwell winner was like the other two, a progressive three-year-old. William Haggas had not even revealed Baaeed to the racing public until June 7 of his three-year-old career but in the intervening 18 weeks he had won four more times including at Longchamp. Here the son of Sea The Stars was faced with the Gosdens’ Palace Pier, the highest-rated horse in Europe last year.

That status has been usurped by last weekend’s Arc hero Torquator Tasso. Baaeed was a most convincing winner and must have a massive future. Whether it will be that much more glorious than what we will see from Haggas’s other winner in the same colours cannot be certain. Aldaary, by Territories, had won a handicap on the same track two weeks earlier, the 6lb penalty for which brought his mark in Saturday’s closing Balmoral Handicap to 109. No problem as he proved to be the proverbial group horse running in a handicap by galloping away from 19 others under an exultant Crowley in a time only 0.07sec slower than the Group 1.

If there was an element of sadness around Hamdan’s colours winning half the races on that massive day, for me there was just as much poignancy about Aldaary’s success. The breeder is listed as M E Broughton, slightly disguising the identity of a man who equally hid behind the name of the Essex-based company he built, Broughton Thermal Insulation, in his many years as an enthusiastic owner-breeder.

Michael died last year – as did his wife Carol – and that after a career where the Racing Post Statistics reveal more than 100 winners in his sole name. He won races in all but two of the 33 seasons for which the Racing Post carries statistics, and in his final days actually won four to get him past the century.

He was a one-trainer owner, relying on the always-reticent Wille Musson and when the trainer retired five years ago, he stayed on as Broughton’s racing manager. Clever man that Willie Musson.
Michael was a jovial red-faced enthusiast and for a few years he used to ask me to go through the Cheltenham card on the days when he entertained a table of friends. These included his loyal PA, Maggie and Michael’s brother Roger as well as the Mussons, in the main restaurant at the Cheltenham Festival.

All his horses carried the prefix Broughtons (sometimes with an apostrophe before the “s”) and Broughtons Revival won three races of the four she competed in on turf as against a winless five appearances on all-weather, of course for Musson.

Retired to stud she had six foals before Aldaary and five of them are winners. No wonder Aldaary realised 55,000gns as a foal to the bid of Johnny McKeever at the 2018 December sales and then, re-submitted the following year in Book 2 of the October Yearling Sale, jumped up to 150,000gns to Shadwell. More than 150 Shadwell horses are due to go under the hammer at the Horses in Training Sale next week. I doubt that Aldaary, who holds the entry, will be sporting the insignia of Lot 1308 at Park Paddocks, rather enjoying some down time back at Somerville Lodge.
However sad it was that Sheikh Hamdan could not enjoy his day of days, I have much more regret that Michael was unable to enjoy seeing by far the best horse he has ever bred over all those years. Willie and Judy Musson will have been pleased as punch no doubt.

Earlier in the piece I suggested that Snowfall might not have fully recovered from her demanding run in the mud of Longchamp 13 days earlier, but the horse that finished one place ahead of her that afternoon stepped up to win the Champion Stakes thereby unseating Mishriff, the second Gosden ace in the hole.

That top-class globe-trotting winner of more than £10 million had sat out the Arc presumably to save his energies for Ascot, but shockingly, he didn’t last home, fading to fourth as Sealiway and Mickael Barzalona strode forward. Dubai Honour made a great show in second for the Haggas team and Classic winner Mac Swiney was third ahead of Mishriff thereby keeping Jim Bolger well in the action hard on the news that his other star of 2021 Poetic Flare is off to a stud career in Japan.

Sealiway had benefited from the traditional French way of training top-class three-year-olds. He had not run for almost four months before his Arc challenge having been runner-up a length and a half behind St Mark’s Basilica in the Prix Du Jockey Club.

Trained then by F Rossi, he switched to Cedric Rossi during the layoff and this convincing victory showed him as a high-class performer and one that is sure to be a major force in European and world racing over ten and twelve furlongs for the next year or so.

Elsewhere, Oisin Murphy held on to win a third title, but I understand there might still be some uncomfortable moments for him. He is a wonderful jockey and we have to hope he can overcome his demons. William Buick’s strong challenge will have given this unassuming young man the confidence that a championship is within his grasp especially as the Charlie Appleby stable remains so powerful.

Last week I suggested the Gosdens had more than enough firepower to claw back the half-million or so deficit they had on Godolphin’s main trainer, but in the event they retrieved barely ten per cent of it on Champions Day. Admittedly the season and therefore the title race in name continues until December 31 but big John and son Thady have no realistic chance of breaching the gap.
Creative Force won the sprint for Charlie and William and a touch more than £300k in the second race of the six. With his main rival surprisingly failing to get a winner on the day – especially the QE II and Champion Stakes, worth considerably more than £1.1 million that looked at their mercy - Appleby assuredly will win his first title after a period when John Gosden and Aidan O’Brien have been dominant.

The massive crowd and good weather and not least fair ground made for a wonderful day – on the tenth anniversary of the lavish Qipco sponsorship. A couple of friends managed to secure tickets for the owners’ lunchroom and Kevin and Dave had a wonderful time. The staff seemed overrun at times but the very pleasant greeter at the top of the stairs was a superlative advertisement for the hospitality trade.

The smile never left her face and then later in the afternoon I was quite surprised to see her carrying out a heavy load of rubbish to the bins. On suggesting that might be someone else’s job, she replied: “They are so busy and have been working very hard, it’s only fair!” What a woman!

At the end of the afternoon, when Dave, having enjoyed a fairly long and liquid lunch, mistook a step and fell headlong down half a flight of stairs, again the staff were quick to come to his aid, calling immediately for the medics. Dave, 78, was pronounced okay so we were cleared to go off to an evening at an Essex hostelry to complete a lovely day. And while I was fully aware of my chauffeuring requirements, the boys made a night of it and true to form were up and ready to go early on Sunday morning with Kevin, I know, supervising the action at his shellfish cabin in Billericay.

- TS

Monday Musings: Newmarket Rejuvenation

I had intended writing copiously 24 hours after my first wholly enjoyable, nay rejuvenating, visit to Newmarket racecourse for two years about a brief conversation of which I was the sole observer, writes Tony Stafford. The conversants were those two genial giants of our sport, Charlie Appleby and Aidan O’Brien, but I will leave that until later.

It was in the evening during a catch-up scan through the Saturday results that I noted the 7.30 p.m. race at Chelmsford was called the Tote.co.uk Now Never Beaten By SP Handicap (Division 1).

I’ve noticed that race title before, marvelling that the object of so much ridicule and indeed suspicion in its Betfred-owned days between 2011 and 2019 had been apparently transformed upon its acquisition and operation by the group formerly known as Alizeti Capital but now UK Tote Group.

Their intention, I remembered reading, was exactly that - to ensure the Tote returns were never to be bettered by SP and to help grow its new version to be of financial benefit to the sport.

In its rubric, Tote Group UK says it is “now owned by a group of racehorse owners and breeders who are passionate about the sport, backed by people who own and train over 1,000 horses worldwide.

“We’re united by a shared desire to secure British racing’s finances for generations to come through a revitalised Tote”. Glowing contributions in that notice in support of UK Tote Group have come from Sir Anthony McCoy, John Gosden, Richard Thompson of Cheveley Park Stud, and the Racehorse Owners Association.

I scrutinised all 36 races run in the UK on Saturday and in 24 of them, including the 7.30 at Chelmsford, SP was better than the returned Tote price about the winner. Course and betting shop punters would not have benefited, but I am reassured that online Tote odds backers will have been, according to the publicity (admittedly confusing) blurb to the tune of a maximum £500 per bet. [The race title referred to tote.co.uk, the online arm of the tote]

The three regular backers I know whom I thought might have been able to confirm this as correct all were unable to do so as they all three to coin a theme “had my account with the Tote closed years ago.” They all habitually try to get a few hundred quid on a horse. One big firm, asked for £500 each way on a horse the other day, offered to take £2.80 each way. Still theirs is a happy slogan and I wish anything that might correct the joke level of prize money in the lower reaches of the sport, a potential blessing. But as my three friends I’m sure would say: “Don’t hold your breath.”

I mentioned Charlie and Aidan’s very amicable chat earlier at Newmarket soon after the Darley Dewhurst Stakes victory of unbeaten Native Trail and the Irishman was glowing in his congratulations to his younger English counterpart.

Three wins on the day had already pushed Appleby past Andrew Balding at the top of the trainers’ championship standings for the first time and Aidan admired both Native Trail and the less exposed Coroebus, easy winner of the Group 2 Autumn Stakes.

Where Native Trail was a breeze-up buy for 210,000gns in the spring, able to make his debut in early July and now was making it a perfect four-for-four, there is no Godolphin blood in him, being by Oasis Dream out of an Observatory mare – Juddmonte all the way.

Coroebus meanwhile is Godolphin through and through: by Dubawi, their version of Coolmore’s great stallion Galileo, out of a mare by Galileo’s first superstar, the unbeaten Teofilo.

O’Brien remarked on both colts’ physicality, to which Appleby replied: “Coroebus is 540 kilos and Native Trail is 545, and that’s as heavy as Adayar who you know is a monster!”  Formidable for two-year-olds you would agree!

The wins brought Appleby some elbow room at the top of the table and with a dearth of major and valuable races to come save next Saturday’s Qatar Champions Day at Ascot and the Vertem Futurity (just over £100k)  at Doncaster the following weekend, opportunities are somewhat polarised.

Aidan told me he plans to run his top juvenile Luxembourg in the Vertem Futurity and expects that outstanding Camolot colt to go first in 2022 for the 2000 Guineas where he will almost certainly encounter Native Trail and Coroebus.

While Appleby has been inching his way up to and past Balding, who has had a season that must have surprised him with more than £4 million already in the satchel, he will be aware that John and Thady Gosden, who started slowly this year, are still in there pitching.

Balding has ten entries for Ascot, but only a couple, both 8-1 shots – Invite in the Fillies and Mares race, and Alcohol Free in the QE II – have better than outside chances. Appleby’s hopes from six entries centre, should he run, on Derby winner Adayar, about whom 3-1 is probably a little tight after his Arc exertions.

But the Gosden ten, with six in the closing Balmoral Handicap - Gosden senior dearly wants to win that race – include four serious darts at the biggest prizes of the day.

Mishriff, saved from the Arc in favour of the Champion Stakes, is 6-4 favourite for the £680k Champion. Palace Pier vies for favouritism with improving Baeed in the £623,000 to the winner QE II. Additionally, Free Wind is 7-2 for the £283,000 Fillies and Mares, and Stradivarius, should he renew hostilities with Trueshan, is second favourite behind that horse in the similarly-endowed Stayers’ race.

The Gosdens lurk around £500,000 behind Appleby and, unless such as Snowfall and maybe something else can edge out Mishriff, or The Revenant, back with a near miss at Longchamp, could possibly again unseat Palace Pier with Baeed’s help. Otherwise it seems a dominant position for a hat-trick for Clarehaven. It looks theirs to lose.

While that stealthy challenge in the trainers’ race has suddenly crystallised, the jockeys’ battle between incumbent Oisin Murphy and his nearest challenger William Buick has been a constant side-show most of this year.

It’s easy to portray this tussle as between Mr Naughty and Mr Squeaky Clean and certainly Oisin Murphy’s second failed breath test, which for the moment merely cost him one day’s riding at Newmarket on Friday, has done nothing for his reputation.

The jockey stressed that the alcohol reading while exceeding the permitted limit for being allowed to ride a racehorse was below that excluding him from driving a car. Great! Only slightly pissed then!

He dominated talk at Newmarket on Saturday, most people saying that for a repeat offence the case should get a proper investigation and the inside story at Newmarket on Saturday was that an inquiry will be held at the BHA today.

A one-day slap on the wrist, if that is all that happens for the offence, seems inappropriate to me. Suppose he hadn’t been tested, thus was free to ride on Friday and had caused danger to other jockeys and their horses. That puts the six-month ban (now ended) for promising apprentice Benoit de la Sayette when he was found in breach of the drug rules back in the spring in some context.

In the end, of course, Murphy was free to ride Buzz in the Cesarewitch and he gave the one-time Hughie Morrison horse a peach of a ride, one befitting of a champion, to make it a third win in the race for Nicky Henderson.

Buzz came to deny Burning Victory and William Buick in the dying strides, maintaining his margin over his rival to eight, when had the result been turned around it would have been only six. Charlie isn’t giving up on his jockey though and plans to run plenty of talented maidens between now and D Day on Saturday. Burning Victory of course was only Mullins’ second string but it would have been a nice result for readers of this column who may have noticed my frequent mentions of the mare in recent weeks.

So we had a seven-year-old winner who hadn’t raced on the Flat for two years beating a mare who had never previously run in a Flat race either in England or Ireland outclassing 30 other stayers. Burning Victory’s defeat and the no show of favourite M C Muldoon stopped a Willie Mullins four-timer in this contest.

Why are jumps trainers so good at winning on the Flat? We’ve known about these two for decades, but another younger member of their profession, an Irishman based in Gloucestershire, is showing similar tendencies.

Until 16-year-old daughter Fern attained that age in the summer, her father Fergal O’Brien was so disinterested in Flat racing that he had only winner from 50 runners in sporadic seasons from 2013 to 2019.

Fern, mentored by Fergal’s assistant and partner Sally Randell, a former star military race rider, won at the first time of asking a couple of days after her birthday and now stands on four wins from eight rides for her father as a lady amateur. His other 16 runners have yielded another four victories, including smart hurdler Gumball making all in a decent staying handicap at York on Saturday and Polish getting home first in a jump jockeys’ Flat race at Goodwood yesterday.

That makes it eight from 24 and a strike rate of 33%, a figure the Gosdens, Balding, William Haggas and the rest would kill for. And none of them has 55 jump winners since the end of April either!

  • TS   
Your first 30 days for just £1