Monday Musings: Triskaidekaphilia?

The number 13 is supposed to have unlucky connotations, writes Tony Stafford. Events thirteen years ago next weekend were the reverse for me. As the tall, mid-European said having approached me with a yellowish-coloured ring between his fingers all those years ago: “It’s your lucky day!”

He could hardly have imagined that his theatrical display of stooping down a few yards in front of me as we progressed in opposite directions along Finchley Road near St John’s Wood Station and brandishing the item triumphantly would have such lasting repercussions.

Or indeed just how lucky it was to prove.
It led to my being introduced a few hours later at Kempton Park to Raymond Tooth by his friend Derek Hatter, who’d been asked to verify the authenticity of the ring as we bumped into each other at the track. Derek revealed a few days later that the jeweller tasked with that professional action declared the fact it went green very quickly was not encouraging.

Entirely encouraging was the meeting with Punjabi’s owner, after his Nicky Henderson-trained gelding had romped to a 19-length triumph in the Adonis Hurdle booking his place in the Triumph at the Cheltenham Festival the following month.

We hit it off and then another chance encounter with my good friend Tony Mullins, outside the Victor Chandler tent where we had all been based that Gold Cup day, led to a going-home 12-1 winner, Pedrobob, in the County Hurdle, which clearly sealed the deal as Raymond’s racing manager.

Now on Saturday, again a consequence of unlikely events, the Tooth colours of grey and pink will be in action in the same Kempton race with Waterproof. We had formulated a plan to try to get him qualified for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle next month. That needed him to have had three runs over jumps and the third was to be either at Haydock in last Saturday’s Victor Ludorum or the back-up race suggested by Shaun Keightley at Market Rasen yesterday.

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We didn’t fancy the heavy ground at Haydock, or the likelihood of having to face Goshen, pencilled in by Gary Moore for that race. A hard race on heavy would probably have caused his 127 rating to be vulnerable had Goshen run riot, but in the end he didn’t run at all. Nor did we as Storm Dennis washed out Market Rasen and most of the countryside everywhere else.

It’s doubtful that running this weekend will constitute qualification. Entries for the Boodles close tomorrow and at that stage he does not have the necessary three runs. The handicap is fixed next week but I fear it is probably too late, so we’re going to check. David Dickinson gave Waterproof 127 after his wide-margin Fakenham win, but he probably wouldn’t have won at all had Bran, who’d just taken it up, not fallen heavily at the last flight.
It had been a plan for some time, immediately after his promising debut third at Huntingdon, to get two placed runs into him and then run against older handicappers, taking advantage of the big age allowance for juveniles. The number 127 certainly didn’t enter calculations at that stage. Now the best way of dealing with it is to get the third run in so that entry in future valuable handicaps can be made. If he’s not good enough for the Goshens of this world – and no doubt he’ll be in the line-up at Kempton – then so be it.

Goshen’s latest win, by 11 lengths in a small field at Ascot, had the experienced Nordano in a respectful second. That Neil King-trained gelding had run six times before Saturday with a couple of wins in acquiring the same rating as Waterproof. I remember writing in this column that I thought Goshen could give twice the 17lb he’s officially rated above Waterproof and still beat him half the track, so not much confidence there for Saturday!

But when Nordano turned out back at Ascot in the mud last Saturday off 127 which translated to 10st bottom weight against his elders, I think my opinion of Goshen’s rating was borne out. Nordano and Aidan Coleman set off in front and, jumping fluently, strolled away in the straight to win the near two and a half miler by 16 lengths. Mr Dickinson will exact his revenge: I wonder if he might act retrospectively on Goshen’s mark?

A couple of the sport’s icons returned to action over the weekend. First Cyrname, reappearing after his King George blow-out and back on the scene of his earlier explosion of Altior’s unbeaten record, looked a much less formidable chaser than hitherto, already consigned to last of four in the attempt at a repeat in the Ascot Chase. Riders Onthe Storm also looked sure to be denied as long-absent Traffic Fluide loomed up dangerously.
His capsize, which was spectacular enough, did not carry anything like as much public concern as Cyrname’s and when the latter eventually rose, it was to a massive cheer of relief.

Even though Cyrname was a 4-11 shot, I didn’t fancy him one jot, unlike Nordano earlier. His defeat of Altior over a trip beyond anything previously attempted by the champ, would have taken a toll on both horses. While Nicky Henderson gave Altior until Newbury nine days ago for his comeback, Cyrname was asked to battle with stable-mate Clan Des Obeaux, again over a longer distance than he’d ever previously attempted.

I was told that Nicholls excused the defeat saying that Kempton was a stiff track, exactly contradicting anything he and many others including Nicky Henderson always say about it being “sharp”. The way Cyrname stopped almost to a walk in the King George could hardly have been encouragement for his winning a top-class race only five weeks later and so it proved, hopefully with no lasting after-effects.

A similar situation occurred two decades earlier when I was involved with the Thoroughbred Corporation whose Royal Anthem had just won the Group 1 Juddmonte International by eight lengths from a top-class field of 12. Just over three weeks later he went on to the Irish Champion Stakes, with the general in-house attitude: “He never had a race at York!” Winning a Group 1 race of that quality? Not much he did, and it showed with a 13-length fifth to Daylami at Leopardstown. Neither trainer, owner, US racing manager and UK manager were there. Just me, and it befell me on Dick Mulhall’s irate say-so from California to check with the racecourse vet whether he’d been got at! The answer was easy enough. He was knackered. It cost him Horse of the Year honours, too.

The second icon to appear this weekend was dual Grand National hero Tiger Roll, only fifth but far from disgraced in a  Boyne Hurdle run in appalling ground at Navan. He’d won the race the previous year as a 25-1 shot building up to the Cheltenham Cross-Country and second Aintree triumph. He’d run the previous November but this time after much-publicised training issues and even more public attempts to intimidate handicapper Martin Greenwood into handing him a penalty kick of a handicap mark for the hat-trick attempt, it’s now down to business.

Fifth place here in a very strong race, won by stable and owner-mate Cracking Smart at 16-1, was creditable, especially as Magic of Light, last year’s Grand National second and already a winner over both hurdles and fences this term, was last home. The fear for the Tiger Roll team, more than the weight itself, would be if this extreme wet weather should result in testing ground at Aintree. Then, I fear, something, probably a light-weight, will come along to deny the hat-trick attempt.

- TS

Monday Musings: French Imports Galore

As Storm Ciara wipes out racing in the British Isles, I thought a leisurely mid-morning Sunday rather than a 4 a.m. Monday start would make for a nice change, writes Tony Stafford. It’s windy here too, and I keep thinking the front door’s about to blow in. I’ll let you know if it does.

A standing start and the inevitable criss-cross of half a dozen of Not Too Sleepy’s opponents, three from either side, in front of him was enough to decide the Hughie Morrison hurdler’s fate in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. That left the way clear for a trio of five-year-old French imports to clean up in first, second and close fifth for the big-spending Nicholls (Johnny De La Haye, first and fifth) and Willie Mullins/ J P McManus teams. Pic d’Orhy, 33-1, won from the 13-2 favourite, Ciel De Neige, with the Nicholls second string Tamaroc Du Mathan a close fifth at 50-1.

Every February I know David Dickinson, the two-mile hurdles handicapper, steels himself for the identity of which of the Ditcheat (funny that the word ends as it does!) UK debutants is the one to fear in the Fred Winter (now Boodles) Juvenile handicap. Dave has to assess them on French form and by the time they come over there’s already plenty to go on, unlike with the domestic bunch.

For example, Waterproof, a winner second time for Ray Tooth at Fakenham, getting 127, might just squeeze in at the bottom on ratings, but needs a third run to qualify, hopefully in the Victor Ludorum at Haydock on Saturday before next Tuesday’s closing date.

Meanwhile the 2020 French Cheltenham Festival juvenile candidates will have racked up plenty of experience. Ciel De Neige ran in last year’s Boodles, finishing a creditable third of 21 on debut for Mullins after three seemingly undistinguished runs, 445, for Guy Cherel. They were enough to earn a figure of 132 and his position just over three lengths behind Band Of Outlaws seemed to guarantee imminent success. Amazingly after Saturday, he remains a maiden, beaten twice more in Ireland this winter before yesterday’s near miss.

The second of those “undistinguished” runs came on April 28th 2018 at Auteuil when he was fourth, eight and a half lengths behind the odds-on Pic D’Orhy, the Francois Nicolle trainee having already won on debut. More significantly, runner-up at three lengths on debut and seven lengths in this race was Goliath Du Berlais.

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A non-winner in four hurdles, Goliath Du Berlais switched to fences following another run behind Pic D’Orhy in June and won seven of eight races before May last year since when he has disappeared from the circuit. The France Galop site not only lists form for all horses but also all entries and Goliath remains un-entered since May 19, the day after his last win.

The race I just referred to on June 9 2018 was won by Porto Pollo, who had been 13th, then pulled up and a faller in three runs on different provincial tracks. No wonder he started almost 13-1 for the seven-runner Grade 3 juvenile hurdle for which Pic D’Orhy was a 1-2 shot. But he prevailed by a length and a half. It is only when you see what was behind the pair that you realise the merit of the run, especially for the winner who incidentally has never replicated it since despite a couple more wins.

Third, a head back, was Beaumac De Huelle. That son of the great and recently-deceased Martaline only ran as a three-year-old and this was his sole defeat in six starts. He twice subsequently got the better of Pic D’Orhy in valuable races, first by a short neck in a €66k event in October then by a length and a quarter the following month, this time in a €101k contest. Second places in those two races earned a combined €80k for the son of Turgeon before his switch to Nicholls. Beaumac De Huelle has now joined the stallion team at Haras de Montaigu, in part replacing Martaline. Aliette and Guy Forien, the stud’s owners, also bred the Nicolas Clement-trained French Fifteen and they joined me on the winner’s podium after he won his Group 1 at Saint-Cloud for Ray.

The also-rans in that June 2018 race also bear repeating. Flumicino (fourth) has won three times; Goliath was fifth as I said earlier and then came two horses destined for Joseph O’Brien. Sixth home was the 29/1 shot Fakir D’Oudairies, now a 149-rated hurdler and 156 chaser for the young master, while Konitho, who trailed the field as a 56-1 shot that day, was good enough to beat 23 others by five lengths and more at Naas a year ago today in the colours of his sister Sarah. They soon were switched to the green and gold hoops.

So what of Pic D’Orhy since his departure from Nicolle? He started his UK career in the Triumph Hurdle, finishing tenth of 14 behind Pentland Hills. That race came almost four months after his French finale and you could excuse ring-rustiness. Less forgivable was his fall when returning to Auteuil after another break, on November 10 last year. Then on his only subsequent run before the Betfair, Pic D’Orhy, running over almost two and a half miles, pulled hard, raced round the outside and faded, finishing sixth more than 14 lengths behind Thomas Darby.

So now we can fast forward to Newbury, back to two miles and in a field where he could be covered up in midfield. Harry Cobden achieved this requirement comfortably and they came through to outdo Ceil De Neige, just as he had 22 months previously in Paris.

The number 33 is doubly significant for Pic D’Orhy. Not only was that his starting price, remarkable given his outstanding French juvenile form, but it was also the perhaps even more astonishing age at which his sire Turgeon, in his racing days winner of the Irish St Leger, died last year.

That means Pic D’Orhy was conceived when his sire was 28 years old. Turgeon’s amazing fertility can be judged by the fact that his 2015 crop including the Betfair Hurdle hero comprised 42 foals, his biggest of recent times. It only dropped below 30 with 20 in his penultimate crop of 2018, and in the year of his death, a final group of five remained as a legacy to his longevity.

I love the statistics in France Galop. They tell me that Turgeon, who still commanded a fee of €4k in his final year, 2018, had 853 foals. They have run in 6,901 races winning 748. Total earnings from that little group amount to more than €25 million. The way Pic D’Orhy won the Betfair Hurdle, he will probably go on and win the County Hurdle next month with plenty more victories to come.

**

Apologies to all who sail in her, but I’m afraid the geegeez.co.uk filly Coquelicot is only a footnote rather than the week’s top news. She looked pretty good at Huntingdon under a penalty in a bumper where they were strung out all along the straight. “Poppy” has the prestigious fillies’ bumper at Sandown as her target. One day she might win a Queen Alexandra on the Flat, or more lucratively emulate her older brother Heartbreak City by winning the Ebor and then improve on his record to win rather than be second in the Melbourne Cup! Matt, you have to dream in this game. There are enough nightmares to endure when you own horses.

-TS

Monday Musings: A Bumper Haul for Geegeez!

No, I wasn’t imagining it. For the second time in 15 days, a concluding bumper on a Taunton card was dominated by a female horse trained by Anthony Honeyball and ridden in geegeez.co.uk’s red, black and white colours by Rex Dingle, writes Tony Stafford.

On Saturday January 18, Coquelicot, third time out, had come wide of her Taunton field and drawn five and a half lengths clear of a Paul Nicholls runner. Yesterday, newcomer Windswept Girl travelled the 26 miles from her Dorset base near Beaminster to the Somerset course, this time scoring by 13 lengths.

The only difference this time was the margin as Dingle, sporting breeches denoting his sponsorship by the owner, produced an effort from his five-year-old partner that typified the Honeyball pattern.

Coquelicot had been somewhat atypical, as six of Honeyball’s other eight bumper winners this season had won first time, including Belle de Manech, who beat Coquelicot by almost two lengths when the pair made their debuts at Warwick back in November. She then went on to another second at Newbury before breaking her duck two weeks ago.

Windswept Girl is not the widest-margin debut winner for Honeyball this season. Kid Commando, a point winner, won his first bumper by 18 lengths from the Nicholls-trained Threeunderthrufive at Fontwell. He then was beaten despite running creditably twice in more competitive affairs at Ascot before putting in another wide-margin successful intro, this time in a Plumpton hurdle race. The Fontwell runner-up duly won next time at Chepstow last month, but surprisingly is one of only two Nicholls bumper winners from 27 starters in that sphere this campaign.

Windswept Girl comes second in the Honeyball wide-margin hierarchy. Then it’s Kilconny Bridge, by 12 lengths at Plumpton in December and, since then, already an 11-length hurdle winner second-time over jumps at Chepstow. Midnight Callisto won by eight at Fontwell and You Caught My Eye by seven at Uttoxeter. In all 24 Honeyball bumper runners this season have yielded nine victories at 30 per cent. Only one trainer boasts a better percentage this term. David Pipe has won seven from 21 for 33.3 per cent while only championship leader Nicky Henderson, with ten wins from 38 (26 per cent) has won more races in the category than Honeyball.

The irony of this second bumper win in short order will not have been lost on Matt Bisogno, owner of this site and the supremo of the geegeez.co.uk ownership group. We met, as I related two weeks ago, a few days before Coquelicot’s victory when he was talking about drastically reducing the numbers and stressing “I won’t be buying any more stores”. Well the five-year-old mare Windswept Girl couldn’t have been much more of a store, having only once gone through a sales ring in November 2016, more than three years ago, and leaving it unsold at €5,000.

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I can’t be sure exactly when she became a part of the geegeez team but I seem to recollect a conversation with Matt just after he had agreed to buy her. [June 2018, Ed.] With a couple of wins from the Mick Appleby-trained Forseti also in the bank in the last fortnight, the geegeez boys are certainly flying.

In comparison to Honeyball, some of the top jumps trainers are finding NH Flat wins elusive. Among the beaten horses yesterday, there were runners trained by Harry Fry (two wins from 18), the one-time almost-unbeatable in bumpers Warren Greatrex (three from 27) and, most surprisingly, Colin Tizzard and Philip Hobbs, both winless from nine and 21 runs respectively.

Greatrex has had a quiet winter but victories for Bob Mahler (Saturday) and Gangster yesterday on the valuable two-day Musselburgh card, will have boosted confidence for the remainder of the season.

He was also represented by the tough La Bague Au Roi in Ireland yesterday, and while the mare has not yet come back to her earlier eminence which includes a previous win at Leopardstown, she was far from disgraced in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup, feature event on the two-day Dublin Festival there.

In the leading group throughout, La Bague Au Roi was still in contention coming to the second fence from home. From here she struggled but held on for fifth as Delta Work (Gordon Elliott) beat Kemboy (Willie Mullins) in a thrilling finish with Presenting Percy a revived third and the outsider Jett fourth.  Possibly unlucky when third in the RSA Chase behind Topofthegame (Tizzard) and Santini (Henderson), Delta Work could be the pick of that changing-of-the-guard trio and offers of around 5-1 for next month do not look unrealistic.

Gordon Elliott was also in the winner’s circle after another Gigginstown horse, Darling Daughter, also carrying the first colours but a 25-1 shot despite being an easy winner on bumper debut behind fellow Elliott inmate Bigbadandbeautiful, had too much under Lisa O’Neill for Politesse. Bigbadandbeautiful was carrying the well-known colours of Jupiter Island’s owner, then known as the Marchioness of Tavistock, but now the Dowager Duchess of Bedford.

Yesterday’s favourite had won three times since finishing second in the corresponding race 12 months previously and the owner was logged on the card as Andrew Bedford. Andrew, a long-standing director of Tattersalls, succeeded his late father as the 15th Duke of Bedford and runs the family’s beautiful Woburn Abbey estate as well as the bloodstock interests.

There was another Gigginstown runner, this time trained by Joseph O’Brien, and also at much shorter odds than the winner. Castra Vetera, a winner on debut at Fairyhouse in November, disappointed in eighth place.

It is interesting to compare the bumper statistics for the three leading Irish trainers this term. Normally Willie Mullins is almost invincible so for him to have dropped below his five-year strike-rate of more than 30 per cent, down to 25 with 17 wins from 69 runs is almost unconscionable. Elliott has the most bumper wins this season, but his 24 victories from 125 representatives is a relatively low 19 per cent. The best percentage figure is held by Joseph O’Brien. His 16 wins from 51 runners are marginally better than Honeyball’s UK figure, 31 compared to 30.

Saturday at Leopardstown had been a celebration with some of the best Irish candidates for Cheltenham showing their credentials. Chacun Pour Soi, Notebook and Honeysuckle all won, although the unbeaten Honeysuckle’s narrow margin of success over the outsider Darver Star did not please every onlooker. A quick perusal of Darver Star’s rapidly-improving profile for trainer Gavin Cromwell reveals it almost uncannily echoes the quick rise last season of the ultimately ill-fated Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D’Allen. I wouldn’t mind, in a confused market, a little of the 25-1 about him.

A string of long-priced winners wrapped around Delta Work and the day’s most generously-received winner, the 12-year-old Faugheen, forging a new career as a chaser with a characteristically-gallant win over Easy Work in the Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase. If he could go on to Cheltenham and win, five years on from his Champion Hurdle victory, there won’t be a dry eye, or throat, in the house.

For the rest it was 14/1, 12/1, 33/1 and the concluding 25’s. Let’s hope the boyos saved a little for next month!

- TS

Monday Musings: Well Chosen by Willie

It was a fairly routine Sunday jumps day of racing in Ireland at Naas yesterday with just over six weeks to go before the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, writes Tony Stafford. What was routine about it? Three Willie Mullins odds-on shots for Paul Townend in the seven races and all three won with the trainer promptly declaring their definite participation at the Festival. Stormy Ireland and The Big Getaway go there with prospects enhanced.

Only one of three experienced any difficulty in landing the odds, Carefully Selected making hard work of giving weight away in the three-mile Grade 3 novice chase. He will still be taking up his place in the newly-shortened National Hunt Chase, now 3m6f rather than the traditional four miles after the sight of only four of the 18 runners last March completing the course, sufficiently unpalatable for the sport’s image custodians to make the change.

Two of the non-completions were in action in England on Saturday with starkly different outcomes. OK Corral, second-favourite that day behind Ballyward (9-4), whose fatal injury in the race undoubtedly contributed to the clamour for change, won the Skybet Chase at Doncaster in game fashion for Nicky Henderson. Back at Cheltenham, Warthog, only recently a course birthday winner for Prof Caroline Tisdall, got no further than the first fence of his return to the track when pulling up having gone badly wrong and had to be put down.

Therein is racing’s impossible dilemma. It’s dangerous to be a racehorse and they can “go wrong” as the catch-all phrase goes at any time during any activity, and it doesn’t need to be when hurtling across big fences at 35 mph.

Warthog’s recent history is precisely the all-or-nothing nature of the activity and no matter how well horses are looked after, the loss of a horse, for owner, trainer or, most emotionally, its lad or lass walking past its vacant box the morning after cannot truly be understood by outsiders.

To say anything can cause death, I will relate two incidents involving Raymond Tooth horses. A few years back, we had a nice novice chaser called April Dusk with Warren Greatrex who’d sourced the horse. He’d won successive two and a half mile races at Uttoxeter, a novice hurdle then first time over fences a handicap chase, showing all the signs of being a potential Grand National horse in time having already achieved a 133 rating.

Warren was disturbed when he started to show signs of growths on various parts of his anatomy, to the extent that they were becoming uncomfortable. He went into the veterinary hospital for their removal, and was recovering from the surgery when he fell and broke a shoulder, requiring immediate euthanasia.

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A couple of years later, Raymond had a slow-maturing horse, unraced as a two-year-old with Nicolas Clement called Weekender (Fr), not to be confused with the John Gosden-trained stayer of the same name. We brought him over at the start of his three-year-old year to Mick Channon and from memory it could not have been much more than a week after his arrival at West Ilsley that he was discovered laid out dead in his box at 5.30 a.m. when the first rounds of the day were being carried out.

As Mick so indelicately said: “Where there’s livestock, there’s dead stock”, probably not the slogan to affix to advertisements for the sale of racehorses in the manner of Government Health Warnings on cigarette packets, but true none the less.

I digress. “You always digress!” I hear you say. I was going to talk about the sire of Carefully Selected and also of the last winner at Naas, another Mullins special, in this case a 9-2 shot in a hunter chase, ridden by Patrick Mullins. “Did we hear you right, Mullins 9-2 in a hunter chase?” You did and, like Carefully Selected, that winner was Billaway; and, coincidentally, like Carefully Selected, he is a son of Well Chosen.

This was a decent hunter chase. Runner-up (at eight lengths) was Stalker Wallace, returning in the J P McManus colours after a 1,078-day – so nearly three years’ – absence with form behind the smart Nambour and Jury Duty in a maiden hurdle and later third on his final start behind two brilliant hunter-chasers, Foxrock and On The Fringe, at Leopardstown.

Third for Joseph O’Brien and McManus again was Edwulf, one-time Irish Gold Cup winner on his way back and third behind 25-1 shot Dylrow (he was only fifth yesterday) and Billaway on the latter’s comeback at Down Royal on Boxing (St Stephen’s to him) Day.

With such as the evergreen former dual Foxhunters Cup winner Salsify, but now at 15 a shadow of his former self, also gracing the race this was, as I said, a decent contest. Interestingly, afterwards Mullins senior said Billaway was bought with the Cheltenham Foxhunters in mind and that’s where he’s going. Talk about planning, the actual purchase date was February 18 2018, soon after he won his maiden point in Ireland, and was picked up at the Cheltenham racecourse sale by Howard Kirk for £50k.

I mentioned the stallion, and also in passing in relation to Stalker Wallace, his run behind Nambour and Jury Duty. The latter is the highest-rated product of Well Chosen, achieving a mark of 156 after starting just a 10-1 shot among the massive Gordon Elliott back-up squad to Tiger Roll who gave him only 8lb, in last year’s Grand National. He was still in with a chance when coming down at the 18th fence. Six months earlier he’d won the Grand National Hurdle in America, itself worth £200k!

Well Chosen was bred to be a champion Flat-racer, a son of Galileo’s sire and previously pre-eminent of them all, the wonderful Sadler’s Wells, whose life-size sculpture adorns the Coolmore museum in uncannily-lifelike splendour. If you get a chance to visit, take it with both hands!

The dam of Well Chosen was Hawajiss, a Maktoum Al Maktoum-owned and bred filly (by Henry Cecil’s champion Kris) who was good enough with Sir Michael Stoute to finish third to Balanchine in the Oaks and second to Bolas in the Irish Oaks.

Despite those exalted relatives, Well Chosen won only a 13-furlong all-weather race at Lingfield at the end of his three-year-old career with Ed Dunlop, finishing on a rating of just 80. The blood told though and given a chance at stud - he’s based at Kedragh House in Ireland - he now commands, at the age of 21, a fee of €6k, having been listed as “private” previously, which often denotes a fair degree of flexibility for mare owners.

He clearly has earned the right to cash in for his owners. In the past two weeks alone, five wins have been recorded, two by Carefully Selected who was turned out again quickly after bolting up at Punchestown in order to gain qualification to the Festival. Two more in that period, Chosen Mate and Chosen Hunter, are additional evidence if any is needed that this stallion, who I must confess had pretty much passed me by, is a big player in producing staying chasers. Everyone’s had to wait but it’s been worth it.

It was also worth the wait for Paisley Park’s second run of the season in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday and the champion staying hurdler kept the winning sequence going with a workmanlike defeat of Summerville Boy.

The winning margin was just over a length and the runner-up (off level weights) is a very high-class performer, good enough to pick off Kalashnikov when that horse was probably in the best form of his career in the Supreme Novice Hurdle two years ago. That two-mile speed, stretched out to three miles, makes him a realistic contender to turn around the form at the Festival with Emma Lavelle/Andrew Gemmell’s star, and with the Irish waiting in the wings, 4-5 looks skinny indeed, especially if Benie Des Dieux finds her way into the line-up.

Saturday’s other big pointer came from Santini, and Nicky Henderson is wondering why all the scepticism about his chance. The way he saw off Bristol De Mai in the Cotswold Chase, Nicky’s view is hard to argue with.

- TS

Monday Musings: Needs Must…

Never say never. I had lunch last week with a good friend, who also happens to be the owner of this website and editor of these weekly offerings, writes Tony Stafford. Analysing the state of play with his various syndicated horses, he said: ”Over the next few months we will be cutting back and moving on most of the horses. Recently one was put down and another retired. One thing I can tell you, I won’t be buying any more stores.”

Project forward a few days and at Taunton on Saturday, the four-year-old filly Coquelicot (French translation “Poppy”) started 1-2 for the concluding bumper and romped away from 13 opponents to win by five and a half lengths. The daughter of Soldier of Fortune, bought by his trainer Anthony Honeyball with Matt Bisogno (Italian translation “need”), as well as Ron Huggins and Ryan Mahon on the inspection committee, as a yearling at Arqana in November 2017 for €26k has probably caused some re-evaluation after this spectacular win.

I say spectacular advisedly. The runner-up was a Paul Nicholls debutant, a year older than Coquelicot and almost three times (68k) as costly. The extended distances back to the fifth in a field of 14 were 4.75, 7 and 5.5 lengths.

The form of her first two runs, second places at Warwick to a stable-companion and then Newbury in fillies-only Junior bumpers, has not been endorsed by either winner on their next starts; but, in fairness, in each case running with promise stepping up to Listed class. But the third horse from Newbury, Hughie Morrison’s Maridadi, five lengths behind the Honeyball horse over a mile and a half, won by that margin at Wetherby last weekend.

Maridadi’s victory was one bright note in Matt’s gloomy mood when we met in time for the special breakfast menu in the Well Street Kitchen, London E9, just before the 11 a.m. cut-off point. (I note McDonalds have now altered their Breakfast times to 11 a.m. to fall in line with the Kitchen).

When Matt first told me about that purchase and the fact he was syndicating her among some of his usual adherents, he was particularly excited about her pedigree and the fact that she would have a residual stud value even if she proved to be of limited ability.

She is a daughter of the dual purpose, Ireland-based Coolmore National Hunt stallion, Soldier of Fortune, himself Irish Derby winner and Arc third for Coolmore and Aidan O’Brien. His best two Flat-race products are both owned by Alan Spence. Fire Fighting and Soldier In Action were (and in the case of the former, still is) trained by Mark Johnston. Soldier In Action also took high rank as a young hurdler with Nicky Henderson.

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The real gem in Coquelicot’s pedigree is the fact that she is half-sister to Heartbreak City, the four-length winner for Tony Martin of the 2016 Tote-Ebor and then next time out runner-up by a head to Almandin in the Melbourne Cup in which Big Orange and Wicklow Brave finished miles behind.

There are plenty of jumping performers close up in her pedigree and I’m sure Matt and his cohorts, not least the trainer who does so well with bumper horses, will have ambitions of bigger and better things. The way she strode on up the home straight at Taunton suggests, when she goes hurdling, two and a half miles will not trouble her, but she looks to have the speed to cope with shorter. Who knows, maybe she could even switch over to the Flat later in her career. I’m sure Matt wouldn’t mind winning a million-pound Ebor in a couple of years.

As I said earlier, Matt, never say never. As Mr Bisogno hovered over the counter while generously settling the bill on our departure from the Kitchen last week, he confided that while bisogno means “need” in Italian, it is more colloquially the term used when a person is desperate for the toilet. Matt seemed desperate for a change of luck with his horses. He got it. Poppy was certainly a friend in need.

As is often the case with my peregrinations, I happened totally accidentally on Coquelicot and her race and wouldn’t have noticed it (didn’t see it live) if I hadn’t been on an early-morning quest to get translations for some of the more obscure French names, usually for the AQPS-bred animals that are so liberally sprinkled in UK and Irish jump racing.

It was sparked by the clash between Defi Du Seuil (Challenge of (or on?) the threshold) and Un De Sceaux (One of the seals, no not the mammal) in the Clarence House Stakes. I agree with most received wisdom that even if Altior can be brought back from his mid-season misfortunes, I’d expect Defi Du Seuil to beat him in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. We also had Domaine De L’Isle (self-explanatory) winning at Ascot for the underrated Sean Curran while the disappointing Pic D’Orhy (snow-covered peaks of Mount Orhy in the Pyrenees) flopped behind Thomas Darby.

Over at Haydock, Le Ligerien (person from the Loire basin in France) won the opener from Flamboyant Joyaux (we can all work that one out) with Vengeur (avenger) De Guye (who knows who that is?) a well-beaten fourth.

Then yesterday at Thurles, perhaps my favourite of the weekend’s Frenchies, La Lavandiere (the washer-woman) was unplaced.

It’s one thing to have French horses running. It’s another to pronounce the names through a two-mile race with any degree of accuracy. Simon Holt, as one would expect, was spot on with Sceaux and Seuil, but others on the BHA commentating strength are less secure. No names, as Mr Bolger might have observed.

One name I will put forward for special admiration is Sky Sports Racing’s French expert Laurent Barbarin, whose knowledge of the sport in his native country is exceptional. He is the biggest plus – apart from the wonderful Alex Hammond – of the deal which prised Irish racing away from At The Races (now Sky) forcing them to put major emphasis on France. He is clearly vastly experienced in all facets of the sport and his initial hesitancy in his use of English is now much more assured, at the same time highly enjoyable with his semi-Inspector Clouseau delivery.

This morning I was recapping an event of January last year when the horse that according to Barbarin was “France’s best four-year-old hurdler of 2018” came to Plumpton and won in a canter. Unfortunately Master Dino, sportingly aiming at Cheltenham after a stellar two seasons’ racing in France – 18 races and nine wins exclusively at Auteuil – suffered an injury during the race and has not been sighted since. Can you imagine, running a top-class horse 18 times over jumps in 20 months? Still it was shocking luck for Guillaume Macaire and Messrs Munir/Souede that one run outside his comfort zone would have such repercussions.

Next Saturday all roads as the clichés always used to say, lead to Cheltenham and the Trials Meeting. This is my time for the annual homage to Tangognat’s win in the race which is now all of 34 years ago. Sadly he never reached his full potential, but I noticed that Terry Ramsden, who bought into the horse with me before the race, had his 68th birthday yesterday so hopefully is still going strong though no longer participating in ownership.

Did I hear you say: “That’s nothing?” Well, amazingly, nowadays it isn’t. Two Kentucky stud owners of my acquaintance, Alice Chandler of Mill Ridge Farm (at whose pre-Keeneland sales party I first met Virginia Kraft Payson, owner of St Jovite) and Josephine Abercrombie of Pin Oak Stud, both celebrated their 94th birthdays on the same day last week.

Without my meeting Alice, Jim Bolger would never have trained Virginia’s 12-length Irish Derby and six-length King George hero. Ms Amercrombie had success with some classy horses trained by Sir Mark Prescott. Earlier in her varied life she had been a highly-successful boxing promoter in the United Stakes. Two (or if you add their younger counterpart Virginia) three formidable women and all breeders of top horses. Long may they enjoy their later years and they certainly give hope to those of us coming up in the fast lane towards that time of life!

- TS

Monday Musings: May Debestyman Win (Soon)

It hardly beholds me to criticise a fellow member of the media, but prompted by my friend Peter Ashmore, with whom I attended Kempton Park races on Saturday, and having reviewed the film of the finish of the Lanzarote Hurdle, I have to agree with him, writes Tony Stafford. After the horse we’d mutually dug out, Debestyman had jumped the second-last flight in front and was clearly going further away, there could have been little danger.

But then, edging left as they often do approaching the last flight in hurdle races there, unlike first time round when they cluster on the far side, Debestyman, an 8-1 shot carrying a little of Peter’s hard-earned made the first semblance of any mistake. He hit the flight and, jack-knifing to an extent that made it impossible for Micheal Nolan to stay aboard, the jockey duly went out the side door.

Meanwhile the nearest challenger, Notre Pari with Barry Geraghty in the J P McManus colours, also came down, in his case with an authentic heavy fall leaving Nicky Henderson, Geraghty’s more usual employer in the UK, to benefit for another of his major owners, Michael Buckley, with Burrows Edge, ridden by Nico de Boinville.

Sometimes Peter favours watching some of the “away” races in the small William Hill betting shop and returning there we both found it pretty galling to hear the winning punters coming up to the counter behind us saying: “He probably would have won anyway.”

Debestyman had three-mile form, so this 2m5f was in no way the limit to his stamina and such comments were as ridiculous as the average betting-shop punter from the 1970’s who used to stay all day and do his cash every afternoon. “No names!” The big firms must be wishing there were a few more of us (sorry, them) around never mind the public face of the “bet responsibly” rubric.

But returning to my point, Debestyman was edging slightly leftward and as horses clearly do have peripheral vision, he could hardly have missed the sight that confronted him immediately behind the obstacle. There, standing on a step ladder, was a photographer intent on the best shot. He got one. Peter was sure in the moment of his jumping, he must have been at least a little distracted, maybe even a shade frightened by the sight of a giant human within yards of him in mid-leap. Scrutiny of the film does not entirely rule out the possibility.

I’d love to see his shot. In the old days it would have been hawked around the Fleet Street picture desks – any unusual action like the completely unbalanced attitude of Debestyman at the time of the collision with the obstacle. At Kempton just at the side as you enter the track, they have a hurdle and a fence and they are both – even the smaller hurdle – very solid and big enough.

There were many more disadvantaged people after that incident than Peter and myself, for all it had turned a nice winning day for us into a small loss. But for owners The Plumpton Party and trainer Suzy Smith it was an unmitigated disaster.

She’s gone to one of the top tracks for a featured hurdle race on the back of a season where from 30 previous runs, she’d won two races. I saw the latest at first hand at Fakenham on New Year’s Day when Clondaw Bisto collected £5,490 for winning a handicap chase in good style.

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Suzy, based on the old Lewes racecourse, has also won this season with Oscarsman, who earned £4,094 for his defeat of Bean in Trouble at local course Plumpton at the beginning of December.

She had gone to Tattersalls Cheltenham sale in May 2018, returning home with Irish point winner Debestyman for £28,500 and almost to the day of Saturday’s frustrating events, “did what it said on the tin” by winning a two and a half mile novice hurdle at Plumpton. A proper Plumpton Party indeed.

So then it was on to Kempton and a challenge for a big one. Before the day, a season’s endeavour had yielded a total of £21,061 in win and place earnings for the Smith stable. The owners collectively would have got around 65% of that; the trainer maybe enough to pay the diesel for a few trips to the races from her couple of grand share of the riches.

Saturday’s race was worth almost five thousand more alone at £26.5k and most annoyingly of all, as the Racing Post analysis glibly observed: “…he looked unlucky and the handicapper will take note, so this may have been an opportunity missed.”  That’s right, put him up 10lb and make sure he won’t win again. You have one good horse and opportunities are few and far between. Maybe this is a time for the handicapper to show some sympathy.

What I’d like to see is for the Horserace Writers and Photographers Association to identify the snapper concerned, confiscate his step ladder and offer Miss Smith and the owners an apology. Obviously nobody can tell whether the horse was distracted but there’s a fair chance he was.

It was interesting that Suzy Smith had a welcome winner at Fakenham on New Year’s Day, just before Waterproof, also the beneficiary of a last-flight exit, the fall of Bran when almost a length to the good.

Waterproof got a 127 rating which makes him a borderline possibility for the Boodles Handicap Hurdle (Fred Winter) but Shaun Keightley thinks we might need another win and say an extra 4lb to increase the chance of his making the cut.

It wasn’t the idea to brag about Ray Tooth’s Pour Moi gelding – not this week anyway! - but another nice one for the exiled sire, Wolf Prince, won again at Fairyhouse on Saturday and also has ‘our’ race in mind. It was simply to applaud the tiny but ultra-friendly Fakenham track, run so efficiently by David Hunter, for its excellent prize money.

Kempton’s card opened with what was in effect a Triumph Hurdle / Boodles warm-up and the first three finishers would all easily make the top half of the Boodles field. The winner Goa Lil (Twiston-Davies/ Munir, Souede); Lord Lamington (King/ Netherfield House Stud) and Fraser Island (Henderson/ Spence) will all be on at least 135, yet they were running for a scandalous £4,158. Waterproof, yet to show anything like their class, collected £5,198 for his four minutes around Norfolk.

Gary Moore had juvenile hurdle races on his mind after the Friday abandonment of Huntingdon, the course suffering a creeping flooding when the neighbouring streams suddenly encroached after it rained in mid-morning.

The loss of an obvious opportunity for his Triumph 7-1 joint-favourite Goshen was an irritation but nothing like his reaction to the news that the BHA would not re-schedule the race.

They argued a four-horse field was one factor while the availability of other options made it unnecessary. Gary seems set on a juvenile race at Ascot this Saturday when the penalty scales are only slightly different. At Huntingdon Goshen would have carried an 8lb penalty, whereas at Ascot it is 10lb. The Ascot race, Gary will have noted, is worth less than half the value of the abandoned Chatteris Fen Hurdle.

Interestingly, Moore, who was a frequent in-and-out visitor to our sometime perch in the little William Hill shop, looked thunderous most of the time. Maybe he was remembering that 12 months ago, he ran the similarly-penalised Beat The Judge in the same race and he was a well-beaten third behind two unpenalised rivals.

Beat The Judge, around 20lb inferior to Goshen on the Flat, has never won since, but remains rated around 140. Goshen is on 143 and I reckon on what I’ve seen of this highly-talented stayer he’d give Waterproof at least double the official amount between them and still kick him into touch.

My favourite moment from Saturday, apart from another fantastic performance from a Hughie Morrison bumper filly, Maridadi, a five-length victress at Wetherby, was further proof that three miles around Kempton takes some getting in soft ground.

In the handicap chase, On The Blind Side ran a brave race but was anchored by 11st12lb, still gallantly running on to pinch third on the line. The winner was Miss Millie Wonnacott, claiming 7lb on the Neil Mulholland bottom-weight Fingerontheswitch. Her allowance brought the 10-year-old’s weight down to 9st8lb and therefore he was receiving 32lb from Alan Spence’s horse. Up the straight there was only one horse running!

Sharp track isn’t it?

- TS

Monday Musings: What a difference a win makes!

A New Year – A New Dawn? Maybe. What Sod’s Law, Say Nothing and co couldn’t deliver in any race for Raymond Tooth in 2019, Waterproof tested my “Pour Moi’s are better jumpers than Flat-racers” theory at Fakenham on January 1, writes Tony Stafford. He duly confirmed it, and by 15 lengths.

True, it needed a last-flight capitulation by Bran - a length up with only a short run-in to survive – but he was miles ahead of the rest after a nimble exhibition of jumping and enthusiastic galloping.

One swallow might not make a summer, but one winning jumper certainly invigorated the Raymond Tooth team. The boss has been saying for ages that it’s getting almost impossible to compete with the big battalions of both codes, but one “1” beside a horse’s name certainly brings optimism to aim at greater targets.

One more novice or handicap win – and as a four-year-old he’ll still get a hefty allowance against his elders – could get him into the Fred Winter (Boodles Juvenile) at the Festival. The Tooth colours of pink and grey, which collected the top hurdling prize 11 years ago when Punjabi won an epic Champion Hurdle tussle with Celestial Halo and Binocular, might just be dusted off in eight weeks’ time.

Shaun Keightley has done well to turn a 51-rated middle-distance horse to a winning jumper at only the second attempt. Jack Quinlan, who’d ridden him on debut and schooled him on the morning before the race but had to be at Cheltenham on Wednesday for a very disappointing Kalashnikov, reported immediately on first acquaintance that Waterproof was a natural.

The initial steps were actually undertaken by Josephine Gordon, his regular partner in recent Flat runs, and she accompanied the party to Fakenham on Wednesday. Now we’re scouring the entry pages to try to find a suitable follow-up, preferably where we won’t be meeting any stars.

The problem with any win is that instinctively you project forward. It’s the same when people are thinking of selling their improving horses, or in fact not, but are being pestered to do so. The tendency is to ask too much – the new figure more usually what the horse would be worth if he did win that next target. Yet if you keep him and win that race, the new people will think that’s one less opportunity for them if they did manage to buy. I can report that to date J P McManus has not put in a bid, so we’ll be soldiering on!

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After the flurry of big meetings in Ireland, the pace will be much slower over there this week with only Clonmel on Thursday and Fairyhouse on Saturday to offer opportunities for the major stables. Not even a Sunday this week.

It is almost uncanny how closely matched the two big Irish jumping entities have been over Christmas and New Year. Willie Mullins won with 17 of his 99 runners: Gordon Elliott with 16 of 98. So far this jumps season (May to May) their scores are Mullins 117 from 493 and Elliott 120 from 812. Elliott’s numerical advantage also extends to individual horses raced – 267 to 206.

It would have been impossible for the old-time trainers to get their heads around such numbers. When Nicky Henderson started out with Fred Winter, normal stable strength for the top teams was in the 40-50 range. Now Henderson controls an operation which has sent out 145 individual animals for 77 wins from 292 runs, only exceeded by the 193 horses that have combined to get Dan Skelton up to 97 for the season.

Elliott has once or twice come to the business part of the Irish jumping season challenging long-standing champion Mullins but his ambitions of a first title, decided of course on prizemoney,  have been thwarted usually by the big guns from Closutton cleaning up at the season’s conclusion at Punchestown.

In 2016-7 it seemed an inevitability that Elliott would prevail, but his financial advantage was whittled down and then exceeded at Punchestown even though he had 13 more winners than his rival. This season he is around €340k ahead but, with many big prizes to be contested and among potential game-changers, the arrival of Cheveley Park Stud as major jumps owners can give Elliott hope that he can stay at the helm.

Yesterday Cheveley Park’s Envoi Allen made it seven out of seven with a convincing defeat of Mullins’ front-running Elixir D’Ainay in the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle over two and a half miles. I’m not sure that he is ready for the Champion Hurdle on what I saw once he headed the runner-up. Maybe he can follow Istabraq’s example by winning the two and a half mile novice at Cheltenham before returning to dominate the next three Champions.

The embryo stars are lining up for the three Cheltenham novice races. Abacadabras, so impressive over Christmas, had been a length and a half behind Envoi Allen, his fellow Elliott inmate, over the minimum at Fairyhouse on December 1 and is the nearest to him in the betting for the Skybet Supreme Novice Hurdle. Envoi Allen is favourite both for that Festival opener and also the longer Ballymore Properties Novice, and is a shorter price (7-4) for the latter.

Here Thyme Hill, at the moment the leader from among the home contingent, is 7-1 second best. The form of his wins keep working out well, as with his Chepstow October victim Fiddlerontheroof, much too good for Saturday’s Tolworth Hurdle rivals, and still tempting at around 20-1 for whichever Cheltenham option Colin Tizzard selects.

**

This writer has – as do many in racing – a high regard for the talents of Ian Williams and one of his all-weather performers has all the signs of becoming a winter star. Noble Behest is a six-year-old that joined Williams last year following a 541-day absence, having previously enjoyed rewarding initial spells with Marcus Tregoning (three wins) and Robert Stephens (two out of two).

Four of the five wins had been in all-weather races of two miles and more. Once he got racing with his new handler it took a few runs (and a good few pounds off!) for Williams to get the cobwebs fully blown away. A running-on second at Wolverhampton over 1m6f was the signal that normal service was imminent and so it has proved.

Victories since on the Chelmsford Polytrack (his third there) and Wolverhampton Tapeta (second) were the prelude to a first try on Fibresand at Southwell. I made the mistake of contacting Williams yesterday morning when wondering whether the son of Sir Percy would cope with the surface. “The Sir Percy’s have a horrendous record at Southwell” reported Williams, a few hours before Noble Behest went off in front and came home in splendid isolation five lengths clear. That’s one way of avoiding the kick-back!

His rating yesterday was 73, still 3lb below his last winning mark of the pre-Williams era, achieved almost two years to the day at Chelmsford so that’s due a hike.

As the reports stated, this was a seventh win in nine all-weather starts when racing at two miles plus – he lost the other twice at shorter – but what they do not reveal is what a look at all his race videos told me. He’s one of the gamest horses I’ve ever seen. Low level or not, there’s the potential for him to go a lot further up the rankings if the shrewd Williams can keep him sound.

- TS

Monday Musings: Short Sharp Shocks

They were at it again last week. Sir Anthony McCoy urged Harry Cobden not to doubt his mount Cyrname’s stamina first time over three miles in the King George, writes Tony Stafford. In the same Racing Post article, Lee Mottershead wondered whether the same three miles would be a sufficient stamina test to play to Lostintranslation’s strengths. As well as Paul Nicholls, the former’s trainer, Nicky Henderson, his fellow OBE recipient in the New Year’s Honours list, also reckons Kempton Park is a sharp track.

They almost got me at it too. After decades of arguing that it’s one thing to call it sharp when a few 0-120 journeymen trundle around Sunbury on good ground, which often pertains at Kempton, but in championship races in soft ground if you don’t stay you drop away.

What constitutes a sharp track: nippy mile or mile two around circuits with tight bends? Kempton is near enough a mile and five furlongs around; the fences take jumping and from the end of the back straight there’s a long easy bend into a three-furlong run-in with three final obstacles to negotiate. How can that be sharp when there’s nowhere to take a breather?

We knew Cyrname was good over two miles five, as at Ascot where he inflicted the only jumping defeat ever experienced by the previously-flawless Altior. At Kempton, sharing rather than dominating the pace as Sir AP encouraged, he stopped as if shot in the straight, in the end beaten 21 lengths into second by his stable-companion Clan Des Obeaux, an 11th King George winner for Nicholls.

Footpad was third for Ireland ahead of Aso, an outclassed nine-year-old and the only non-member of the gang of seven <years old> completed by the very disappointing Lostintranslation who was the first beaten simply because he jumped badly.

Top-class races, where all the participants are entitled to be there, put extra demands on horses. It was Cyrname’s 12th race over fences last Thursday, and his first over the distance less than five weeks after that battle royal with Altior. It had also taken Paul Nicholls plenty of time before allowing Clan Des Obeaux to try three miles which he did in his tenth steeplechase. He was third, around ten lengths behind Might Bite in the Betway Aintree Bowl, which ended his season. Nicholls then brought him back to finish fourth behind course-specialist Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Chase at Haydock  in November 2018, so when he turned up at Kempton last Boxing Day, he was a 12-1 shot for the King George.

He took advantage of mishaps to both those horses – Might Bite finished last and was found to have bled during the race, while Bristol De Mai was an early faller - and beat Thistlecrack by a length and a half. It was unfortunate that the veteran Thistlecrack, who had given Paisley Park such an examination over hurdles at Newbury last month, was unable to take part on Thursday after sustaining a minor injury.

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Though only a seven-year-old, Clan Des Obeaux was having his 17th race over fences.  After last year’s King George he picked up a nice pot at Ascot in February; was fifth to Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup and second to Kemboy at Punchestown in May at the end of a demanding season. He reappeared at Down Royal last month, going under only to the smart Road To Respect.

If you thought Christmas might clear up the Gold Cup situation, think again. Saturday’s Savills Chase at Leopardstown, which featured the much-heralded return for Kemboy after the problems surrounding his ownership had finally been cleared up, might have brought clarity. Instead coming to the bend into the short straight, all eight horses were in with a chance, and it was Delta Work, coming fast and late and hanging left  in the Gigginstown first colours that got up to beat front-running Monalee near the line.

Road To Respect (Gigginstown and Gordon Elliott again), Kemboy and Presenting Percy were in a cluster just behind and three of the five – Kemboy (6-1), Delta Work (8-1) and Presenting Percy (10-1) – are among the leaders in the market for next March’s Gold Cup along with Clan Des Obeaux (7-1) and Lostintranslation, the deposed former favourite at 8’s.

The title-holder, Al Boum Photo, Willie Mullins’ first winner of the big race last March, has a potentially facile opportunity to get his season going at Tramore on New Year’s Day in a 2m5f conditions chase which appeals more than last week’s alternatives including the Savills Chase.

There were some Christmas re-alignments, too, in Champion Hurdle betting with seismic blows first at Kempton where the mare Epatante majestically outpointed the boys with a mixture of speed and accuracy. She is now the 3-1 favourite to give Nicky Henderson another championship, while the Mullins forces were also shaken up with yesterday’s demise of Klassical Dream in the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Klassical Dream was reckoned to have needed the run when dropping away late on behind one stable-companion Saldier and excellent yardstick Petit Mouchoir in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown last month but there could be no fitness excuses for yesterday’s abject failure behind another team-mate Sharjah in the Matheson, with Petit Mouchoir again second but twice as far behind this Mullins winner.

Saldier is second favourite for Cheltenham at 6-1 ahead of a second Henderson runner, the rising five-year-old Pentland Hills, last season’s Triumph and Aintree winner. His underwhelming fifth on comeback this month to another Nicky hurdler, Call Me Lord, was explained by a refusal to settle. He’ll need to get that out of his system next time.

The one name that might emerge to give that particular market a shake-up is Honeysuckle. The Henry de Bromhead-trained mare has a record of six wins in as many hurdles starts, five of them at Fairyhouse. Her winning margins to date have been 12 lengths, 3¼, 6, 5½, 11 and 9, and only once was the word “easily” not used to characterise the victory. That happened on her penultimate start when she beat Saturday’s Leopardstown winner Easy Game by 11 lengths. The comment here was “eased clear…not extended”.

Honeysuckle is generally a 10-1 shot but, like so many mares, especially those trained by Willie Mullins, there is a ready alternative at the Festival to stay with her own sex. It could well be, though, that de Bromhead might be persuaded to go for the big one. On the issue of persuasion, if you could entice your friendly <are there any?> bookmaker to give you say 8-1 with the run-guarantee concession, that might well be one to keep in the locker.

**

I got a call the other day from a very shrewd friend who said, “While Hughie Morrison’s in this sort of form you’ve got to stay with him”, and on the same day Hughie’s juvenile, Kipps, duly confirmed debut promise with a nice win at Lingfield, auguring well for his future as a stayer next year.

Unbeknown to my friend, Supamouse, one of the trainer’s two Boxing Day winners that had prompted the call after his 14-length bumper defeat of the Nicholls favourite and previous course winner Confirmation Bias, had collapsed and died back at the stables.

As the trainer said, with horses you can be up one minute and down on the floor the next. It must have seemed momentarily for Hughie, Mary and everyone else at Summerdown that all the hard work and planning had  been worthwhile with a brilliant future ready to map out for Supamouse, a son of his former star Stimulation, only for it to come crashing down. My sympathies go out to a wonderful trainer and a thoroughly good man.

- TS

Monday Musings: Hughie Not So Sleepy with Aspirations

As I look out of my office window at 8 a.m. this Sunday morning with the pre-Christmas gloom and apparently endless belts of rain still sweeping across the land, it’s hard to believe that the days are getting longer again, writes Tony Stafford.

I’m writing this a day earlier than usual as nothing will be happening in the racing world before Boxing Day – four days of marking time, unless of course you are working in a racing yard.

Horses have to be fed, their boxes cleaned and their fitness regimes maintained, all for our delectation in the coming days, weeks and months. The new 2020 programme books, for the first time separated into Flat and Jumps have finally arrived but with conditions as they are – apparently Huntingdon had one of its periodic mini-floods this weekend – cancellations will be likely.
When I spoke to Hughie Morrison on Saturday morning he was full of gloom about the chances of Ascot’s going ahead. We were between inspections and, with Not So Sleepy due to contest the last race, that pessimism, admittedly a characteristic of the East Ilsley trainer, seemed justified.

Arriving at the foot of Ascot High Street at 11.45, at least the cars were still going up and in rather than down and out, signifying a positive outcome to the 11.30 ‘look’. That it was tempered with a “monitoring the situation race by race” could have had little mollifying effect on connections of the home-bred gelding.

Not So Sleepy has a deserved reputation for being “quirky” and when you consider that after his third career start, in the Dee Stakes at Chester – stopping point of Derby winners in the past – he had a flat-race rating of 107. In 35 subsequent starts on the flat, he has added only one more victory – on Oaks Day at Epsom, 2017 - but fourth of 30 in the Cesarewitch this October signalled some progress four and a half years after Chester.

In the meantime, he’d had three runs over hurdles, sandwiching a wide-margin all-the-way victory at Wincanton with hard-pulling 20-length defeats at Kempton and then on a return to the Somerset track. So when he turned up at Ascot last month in a handicap hurdle, necessitated by the abandonment of the November Handicap at flooded Doncaster, he was pretty much either a handicap snip on the correlation between flat (94) and jumps (122) ratings or a powder keg waiting to implode again.

He was allowed to set off in a clear lead and while a couple of his rivals eroded some of the advantage up the straight. Not So Sleepy never appeared likely to be caught.

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I’d also spoken to Hughie before that race and the “handicap certainty, with a health warning” was our mutual assessment. Hughie didn’t have the extra bias of my high regard for Speed Company, an Ian Williams improver who had also been on schedule for the November Handicap. I’d caught him right at Chepstow; knew he’d go on the soft and he also had a reasonable jumps mark in relation to the flat. Two runners – trust me to go the wrong way.

Speed Company loitered at the back that day and was again disappointing last weekend at Doncaster, while Not So Sleepy returned to Ascot yesterday and was still on a detached bottom weight having been raised only 5lb for that previous win over course and distance. Many commentators believed he would struggle to get far ahead in a stronger and more highly-populated (13, or rather 16 with three ground defections) field.

Johnny Burke again got him off alertly and apparently settling better than hitherto, if understandably still a little novicey at some of the early obstacles – it was only his fifth hurdles start after all – he maintained a narrow advantage until the bend turning for home as the bunch tried to close.

It was soon evident though that nothing was going more comfortably and all the way up the straight the margin was extended, finally to a full nine lengths over Monsieur Lecoq at the line. He was in receipt of 23lb from the runner-up and no doubt the handicapper will be nowhere near as lenient next time. That eventuality is not worrying Morrison who has newly-ambitious plans for the seven-year-old.

Owner-breeder Lady Blyth had a major part in the decision to keep Not So Sleepy on the go over jumps and now the aim is for Champion Hurdle glory. Morrison went close with Marble Arch many years ago and Not So Sleepy is clearly capable of making steps towards that lofty ambition.

The ground was very testing – it caused the absence of Paisley Park, the one horse that many of the always large Ascot crowd had come to see. Yet Not So Sleepy’s winning time was less than three seconds slower than Mohaayed’s in the same race 12 months before. Mohaayed, back on the same mark as last year, was a long way back yesterday. All the other times were considerably slower – the best being the very smart Riders Onthe Storm, who comfortably beat On The Blind Side in the Betfair Exchange Graduation Chase. He was seven seconds slower than Kildisart’s 2018 time.

Even the real possibility that racing might not go ahead couldn’t deter a seasonal family attendance at a track which seems to hit the right note at every meeting during the year. As I’ve said many times here before, from Royal Ascot down to their humblest fixture, Ascot is unique and the punters just love going there. I do too.

***

One of the most eagerly-awaited moments in my household is the trademark three loud bangs on the door that heralds the annual arrival of the M & S Christmas hamper from the Editor of this publication. If you work for him and he doesn’t send one to you then sorry if I’ve caused envy, but maybe his generosity has something of the “he’s a poor old sod that needs some Christmas cheer” about it.

I rushed to the door and sure enough it was a “delivery for Stafford”. The big box duly came in and as I went to reach for the document to sign, he said: “There’s another one!” I took that in too, and it was in an apparently-identical container. These hampers, there are several to choose from, come in a wicker basket and by now we have accumulated a few and they adorn the lounge and among other things, conveniently house the Christmas decorations so they are readily at hand at tree-time.

I later called the boss and said he’d better check whether he’d paid twice. He came back with: “No, only once. Must be an M & S error, fill your boots!”, or sentiments to that effect.

Later, I was talking to Wilf Storey who I know is also customarily on the Geegeez hamper rota – he trains for them - and asked whether his had arrived. He answered in the affirmative, but when quizzed whether they were the same, confessed that far from containing a cross-section of Christmas victuals, his was purely of a liquid nature, with some exotic concoctions included.

Just as I was terminating the conversation, Wilf asked, “By the way, Brenda <Mrs S> wants to know if you received a parcel from her?”. Mystery almost over and when I finally found where to look for any message from the sender, one was indeed from the boss and the other from “Wilf, Brenda, Stella and all at Grange Farm”.

Of course it was identical. So as Mr Coincidence, I was able to add yet another unlikely tale to my lengthy litany of “can you believe it’s?”. Two people of widely differing backgrounds and age groups in two places almost 300 miles apart, simultaneously decided on sending the same person an identical item from M & S’s lengthy Christmas gift list, and they arrived in the same delivery. You couldn’t write it!
I hope the Festive season is as good for you as for Lady Blyth, the Morrisons and for me and mine!

-TS

Monday Musings: When a change is as good as a rest

As Brexit looms ever nearer, two of the biggest stud groupings in the British Isles have each exiled what might be described as an under-performing stallion, writes Tony Stafford. Might future events make those decisions by Coolmore and Cheveley Park appear questionable or even mistaken?

Step forward from Coolmore the 2011 Derby winner, Pour Moi. The son of Montjeu had already been relegated to the stud’s National Hunt division by the time his first crop had embarked on their third season. Even the shock Derby success of 40-1 shot Wings Of Eagles, stand-out member of the second crop, couldn’t sway the powers that be that he should be reinstated into the elite flat-race team. Maybe if Wings Of Eagles hadn’t broken down, finishing a close third, when trying to add the Irish Derby to his Classic tally, history might have been different.

Looking at subsequent results, though, it is hard to say that Coolmore got that initial decision wrong as Wings Of Eagles sticks out like a sore thumb as a top-class product of Pour Moi’s. Only Mine, a sprinter, is another rare exception to the general rule that he gets ordinary flat-racers for the most part. Hence his latest switch, from their Beeches stud to the Haras de Cercy, the Cooperative stallion farm in the middle of France, north-west of Lyon, which effectively replaced the French National Stud when it ended activity earlier in this decade. Ironically, it has coincided with an upturn in Pour Moi’s fortunes in jumping, more of which later.

Meanwhile Garswood, a Group 1 winner for Richard Fahey and David and Emma Armstrong, stood for five seasons at Cheveley Park after the farm bought an interest from the Armstrongs, thus returning him to his original birthplace. As a son of the highly-successful Dutch Art he was expected to get reasonably early or mid-season two-year-olds but the two crops to race have been generally later-developing.

So another commercial decision was made. Garswood, although still featuring in the Stallion Book I picked up at Tatts December sales, and listed at £5,000 a pop at Cheveley, instead has also made the move to France. He is now based close to Deauville at Haras de la Huderie where another one-time Armstrong star, Birchwood, who spent most of his racing career in Godolphin blue, is also based.

Garswood’s fee as principally a sire of Flat racers, is held at €5,000, actually higher than the £3,500 in his final season in Newmarket. Pour Moi, meanwhile has slipped to €3,500, so markedly less than the €5,000 of his final year at the Beeches. He attracted the services of only 53 mares – Wings Of Eagles covered well over 200 at the Haras de Montaigu, where he was born - so Coolmore have snapped up the younger Derby winner and have reduced his fee from the €12,000 it was this year in France to €6,500 for next year.

I’ve seen a good few Garswood youngsters and they have all been well-grown. Ray Tooth sent his decent broodmare Lawyers Choice to him and she produced a very strong foal, later called Bogeyman, who has been gelded and is unraced as a two-year-old with Hughie Morrison. Winners for the stallion have been relatively thin on the ground but, within days of his exile, what could easily be his best son to date emerged on the Newcastle Tapeta just over a week ago.

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Splendidly, a 35,000gns yearling sold by Cheveley Park, who bred him, is a half-brother to four winners. Sent out by Karl Burke and starting 16-1, he overcame inexperience to beat better-backed and more seasoned rivals trained by Simon Crisford, Jedd O’Keeffe, Richard Hannon, who provided the odds-on favourite, and a fellow newcomer from William Haggas. As those horses came to the last furlong challenging for the lead, his big white face and two white hind legs on a big frame could be seen slicing through the field for an eventual neck victory.

Splendidly could be the horse to give the sire’s reputation the sort of forward propulsion it needs. In the polarised French breeding world, which is dominated by Siyouni, Le Havre and Kendargent, there is plenty of room for a less expensive sire to make an impact. Haras de la Huderie will be hoping that will be Garswood’s opportunity. My own guess is that, as time goes on, trainers might start to believe that some of the stouter-bred Garswoods could have the physique to be trained for hurdling.

Pour Moi, with six-year-olds on the ground, has had plenty of opportunity to sire decent jumpers, and Coeur De Lion, from that first crop, has been a dual-purpose performer for Alan King, proving a smart handicapper at both codes. The odd winner from the next two crops has not been sufficient to have his being identified principally as a producer of jump horses, but that quick switch by Coolmore to the NH division four years ago is now clearly having its effect.

Jim Bolger, famed for his early support for Galileo’s sons and daughter, so richly justified and rewarded with Teofilo and New Approach, was also an adherent to Pour Moi after his retirement immediately following the Derby triumph. I was in Deauville, having successfully fulfilled the task of buying back Laughing Water, a winning Nicolas Clement-trained filly for Ray Tooth and a partner, who wanted to end the relationship.

I asked David O’Laughlin, from Coolmore, to come to look at her and to suggest a potential mate. He said: “I think Pour Moi is great value. Jim Bolger is sending a number of mares to her.” It wasn’t a difficult decision to make.

The product of that mating is Waterproof, and like so many of the line, he was slow to come to hand and even though he has been placed second a couple of times, has only a 51 rating on the Flat. Switched to hurdling by Shaun Keightley he dropped an immediate hint that better might come when third on debut at Huntingdon in November.

By that time, two more of the sire’s three-year-olds had already appeared. For Everyone, trained in Ireland by Mark McNiff, had an early trip to England, at Hexham on Derby Day, but pulled far too hard and beat only one horse home. Like Waterproof he is rated only 51 on the level, but back in Ireland he won his next two races over jumps, both at long odds. In the second of them he beat Joseph O’Brien’s A Wave Of The Sea, who won his next two impressively and was then only beaten narrowly by stable-companion Cerberus in a competitive race at Listowel.

The first to make an impact was coincidentally a Bolger-bred gelding called Repetitio, unplaced in all four starts for Jim as a juvenile. He turned up in Nigel Hawke’s West Country yard in the summer and made his debut over jumps in July. His first three races for Hawke were all at Newton Abbot, and showing gradual improvement, he won third time out in August.

Then came the post-switch Pour Moi acceleration. Tavus had won three of his last four races for Roger Charlton in Tony Bloom’s colours, starting off on 60 and ending after his third win on 78, the wins coming at 12 and 14 furlongs. He realised 105,000gns and very quickly made the first repayment when making a winning debut for Jedd O’Keeffe at Newcastle last month. I wonder if Brighton FC’s chairman wishes he’d sent him to Willie Mullins rather than sell?

Bolger and one-time Lambourn trainer Brendan Duke have had a long association. Brendan, since his return to Ireland when his traditional English-based Irish clients started to feel the pinch of the financial crisis at the beginning of this decade, has always trained some of his mentor’s home-breds and Clemencia is another. He had been unplaced in his five Flat runs and there seemed to be no discernible improvement a week after the last of them when he made his jumps debut at the end of August.

Then, sent to Cork on Sunday last week, Clemencia faced the 2-5 shot Pasley, a recent impressive Flat winner for Joseph O’Brien and beat him by 15 lengths, still in Jackie Bolger’s colours. Last Friday, Repetitio, taking advantage of the hefty weight-for-age allowance for three-year-olds in all-aged handicaps, won at Cheltenham in a 0-140, then on Saturday at Fairyhouse, Wolf Prince on second jumps start for Gavin Cromwell, won by 14 lengths from a big field. He’s yet another Pour Moi maiden on the Flat, acquired for 35,000gns from the Amy Murphy yard.

I believe the pattern is set. Like most of the others, Wolf Prince needed a run, in his case a debut third. Maybe Waterproof will follow his example. While I’m on the subject of jumping, Sod’s Law, sold for 30k to Luke Comer at the Horses in Training sale, runs over two miles, three furlongs at Naas today, his debut over jumps. He’s the first Lawyers Choice to try hurdling. We are all hoping he’ll come home safe at the same time wondering why he’s not in the opening two-miler. [Stop press: turns out you need to have run three times to be eligible for the opener!]

- TS

Monday Musings: A long trek north

It must be an optical illusion. Something to do with the placing of the cameras at Aintree, but I cannot work out what’s happened to Becher’s Brook, writes Tony Stafford. Obviously it isn’t anything like as spectacularly dangerous as it used to be with the big, sloping drop on the landing side almost guaranteed to catch out one or two in every circuit of the Grand National. Now there’s no sloping drop to draw fallen jockeys into the Brook – and maybe even no brook.

What I did notice, having flopped into Wilf Storey’s vacant guest armchair on Saturday afternoon too late for the Becher Chase but comfortably in time for the Sefton, was that they no longer seem to have to twist and turn left in mid-air to continue onto Valentine’s. In the Sefton, two miles five and a bit, they were, as commentator Mark Johnson announced, halfway at the latter fence, the 11th, and they seemed pretty much to have gone straight on at the fearsome fence at which Captain Becher of historic Aintree yore came to grief, leaving his name to adorn the obstacle in perpetuity.

The trip North was partly to renew my 35-year association with the Storey family – the old sausage is recovering from a painfully-injured left shoulder - and also to check in on Apres Le Deluge, on winter holidays at Hedgeholm stud in Co Durham.

I wonder whether the Captain would have approved of the safety measures that many old timers believe have “neutered” the course. I have no such harking after the good old days, but it looked that they went straight on rather than turn half-left. Skilful course management to limit the potential for interference and consequent grief that was always the accompaniment to races over the Grand National fences, especially at Becher’s, or an optical illusion by the latest television director?

We still got a fatality, at the first in the Sefton, and sadly for the France-based Louisa Carberry, wife of Philip and therefore daughter-in-law of L’Escargot’s brilliant jockey, the late Tommy, who rode out two epic finishes – one successful, one in vain – in the days when Red Rum ruled Aintree almost 50 years ago.

I loved L’Escargot and whenever the names of jumping greats come up, I have to point out that he’d won two Gold Cups at Cheltenham before Dan Moore turned his attentions in later life to the Grand National. He was a 12-year-old when he eventually won it under 11st3lb in 1974, two years Red Rum’s senior, and the wonderful story goes that Brian Fletcher, who’d won the previous twice on Red Rum, told Carberry at the last to “go on, it’s yours!” He did, and it was by a wide margin, the weights having turned around considerably from their previous encounters.

Philip Carberry’s elder brother Paul also won the race, on Bobbyjo in 1999, so it must have been an even more agonising moment for the Carberry family when It’s Jennifer, a triple winner in France, fell at the first fence with Felix de Giles and was fatally injured.

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There was a similarly shocking incident at Sandown, which would normally be my choice of venue on that particular weekend, when the London National, over three miles and five furlongs – the course and distance of the old Whitbread Gold Cup every April – ended in confusion and tragedy.

The race commentary in the Racing Post talks of “stricken horses” in the plural and involved a yellow flag-waving official being apparently noted by jockeys who seemed to hesitate before continuing on to the finish rather than obeying the instruction.

Seven were interviewed and given ten-day bans, the timing of which means all seven will miss the valuable Christmas period. Whether the proposed appeals are successful or not, according to a friend, Scott Ellis, who had already set off for the station across the course, it was chaotic with hordes of punters gathered in front of every bookmaker’s pitch awaiting reimbursement. He’d had a “losing” bet using his phone and it wasn’t until he got to the station platform that he learnt the race had ben voided. Again there was a fatality, this time the epic old warrior Houblon Des Obeaux, and the pressure groups who would have jump racing abolished in this country will have tucked these two incidents 200-odd miles apart in their armoury.

One race I had been particularly keen to listen to on the William Hill Radio commentary in another friend’s car – the whole way north, Aintree, Chepstow, Wetherby and Sandown offered wall-to-wall coverage – was Sammy Bill’s second run over fences. Even with a 14lb raise for his debut chase win at Kempton, the Oliver Sherwood trainee still received a handy 11lb from Charlie Mann’s Fixed Rate, who had been off the track for 13 months.

Fixed Rate, a Juddmonte-bred son of Oasis Dream, won his first two races over fences last year, having run 17 times over hurdles. In 26 career starts, Fixed Rate won twice six from six on the Flat for David Smaga and Khalid Abdullah in France, three times over hurdles and two chases for cheerful Charlie.

It took the highly-promising Sammy Bill a long time to get past Fixed Rate on Saturday and I’m sure there are a few big races that will fall to these two talented six-year-olds in the rest of the season. Fixed Rate’s versatility reminded me of a conversation I had last week at December Sales with James Underwood, whose Bloodstock Review of the Year, is such a feature of the Tattersall’s  December sale when he gives it out to all and sundry totally free and gratis. James said it would be his last. “I am 91!" he suggested, to which I offered: “So what!” I was showing him a picture in another free book I’d picked up, a directory of stallions for 2020, a two-page spread of the stallion Intrinsic, who stands at Hedgeholm Stud in Co Durham.

“Oh, Oasis Dream!” he exclaimed. <He’s Intrinsic’s sire> “That horse can do anything with any mare. Sprinters,  stayers or middle-distance horses. He works with the lot!”

Five days later I could have added chasers to that list, but it was uncanny when yesterday, while looking out for Apres Le Deluge, a big grey gelding happily palled up with a quintet of barren mares quite close to the farmhouse, awaiting his return to action next year, the name Oasis Dream kept cropping up.

“That’s going to Oasis Dream; that’s by Oasis Dream,” said Andrew.

My point to James Underwood is that certain stallions get no help in the headlong search for potential mates for mares at the top end of the market. Intrinsic is a case in point. Owned by Malih Al Basti he boasts a top Cheveley Park Stud pedigree and a very active family yet has had only a handful of mares and consequently runners in his first crop. One or two have been placed at ridiculously-long odds, one at 150-1, one at 100-1, and a single UK winner was the Sir Mark Prescott-trained Najm in Mr Al Basti’s colours.

After that Najm was sold privately to race in France, and a glance at the Racing Post shows he won a 10k claimer at Chantilly almost immediately on arrival in his new home. As we went muddily around the farm on Sunday, Andrew Spalding said Najm has actually won three times over there and on looking at the France Galop site this morning I discovered he has indeed had three more races since Chantilly. Initially he finished second before winning twice since, all over 1500 metres at Marseille.

He has met the same horse, Pic Cel, in all three claimers, being beaten by a nose first time, gaining revenge over that horse by half a length on November 18th and then two weeks later giving 4lb and having two and a half lengths in hand over Pic Cel and a dozen others. Like his sire he’s improving with racing.

Intrinsic’s racing career, ten runs in all, featured wins in succession, the first for Sir Michael Stoute and Cheveley Park and the last three, culminating in the Stewards’ Cup for Mr Al Basti and sprint maestro Robert Cowell. Intrinsic, a very good-looking and impeccably-behaved horse deserves more support, as so many stallions do.

The trip was great, but when I got home I looked back at some old videos of races over the Grand National Course and still wonder what happened to the sharp left turn after Becher’s? Did I imagine it?

- TS

Monday Musings: Newbury a Cornerstone of the NH Season

The exploits of Paisley Park, last season’s champion staying hurdler, were fundamental in thrusting Emma Lavelle into the top echelon of jump racing in the UK last season even if she’d been highly respected with major winners for at least a decade before that, writes Tony Stafford. Labelthou and Crack Away Jack were among her early stable stars, but last weekend at Newbury produced a quickening of the Lavelle pulse.

There is always a slight (or sometimes more than slight) concern when an existing champion returns to start a new season, and both Lavelle and owner Andrew Gemmell were fully aware that resuming in a race as competitive as Newbury’s Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle offered a potential threat.

Off the track since his convincing win over Sam Spinner and 16 others in the Stayers’ Hurdle last March, it would have been understandable if Lavelle did not have him fully primed last Friday. There probably was something left to work with but the outcome was more than satisfactory as he came home under Aiden Coleman for a one-length verdict.

The victory should not be under-estimated as the runner-up was the 11-year-old Thistlecrack, running over hurdles for the first time since finishing a well-beaten favourite in the corresponding race two years previously when only fifth of six behind Beer Goggles. The last named, lightly-raced since that day, tragically broke down badly in Friday’s race and had to be put down.

Thistlecrack had turned belatedly to chasing for the Colin Tizzard stable, soon after preceding Paisley Park by three years in winning the Stayers’ Hurdle. Here, as Tom Scudamore produced the now veteran to head on up the run-in on Friday with a narrow lead, you wondered whether Paisley Park would be sharp enough to deny him; but Coleman had everything under control and the build-up to a second title is under way.

For most stables, such a triumph in Grade 1 company would have been sufficient excitement for one weekend, but Lavelle and the Makin Bacon Partnership, which also includes Mr Gemmell, had the effrontery to secure the weekend’s most lucrative prize, the Ladbrokes Trophy (formerly Hennessy) with De Rasher Counter.

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Many moons ago, in my formative years on the racetrack, the Exchange Telegraph Company shared with the Press Association (my employer at the time) the responsibility for compiling starting prices for the newspapers. In those days markets were strong and betting shops were in their infancy. Extel had a veteran SP man whose name I seem (possibly wrongly) to remember was Arthur. But he was universally known as Rasher for the simple reason that he had worked as a young man on the bacon counter at Sainsburys.

The Hennessy was never an easy race to win and with so many of chasing’s biggest names, equine and human, on its roll of honour, not least dual winner Denman, it has always had a cachet. This year’s race had no outstanding candidate so 24 horses lined up. De Rasher Counter and young 5lb claimer Ben Jones got the better of a finish of three seven-year-olds, followed home by The Conditional (David Bridgwater) and Elegant Escape (Colin Tizzard), with Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old Beware The Bear a close fourth.

Henderson also provided two other well-backed horses in ante-post favourite OK Corral and also On The Blind Side but neither ever held out much hope. Another with multiple runners was Tizzard and his 13-2 favourite West Approach was one of only two casualties, unseating Robbie Power at the seventh fence. Yorkhill, trained by Willie Mullins, was already a beaten horse when falling four fences from home, so in effect the only horse to hit the deck in a race of three and a quarter miles and 21 obstacles, all the better for the spectacle and the sport’s image.

De Rasher Counter, by winning off his mark of 149, might be some way off challenging for the weight-for-age championship races like the King George or the Gold Cup but Elegant Escape, who carried 11st12lb top weight and finished very well, must be among Tizzard’s host of challengers for both. Already the veteran of 15 runs over fences and with four wins, he has contested  big races for the past two seasons without much luck but the way he closed out the race on Saturday suggests he’s still progressing.

Another horse improving fast is Micky Hammond’s Cornerstone Lad, who overcame a 19lb gulf in hurdles ratings with dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’air to win the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. Henry Brooke sent the five-year-old clear from the start and despite being joined by the former champ on the run-in had the temerity and also the tenacity to see him off by a diminishing short-head despite all Barry Geraghty’s best efforts. After the race it was reported that Buveur D’air had finished lame on his off-fore leg, having taken a large shard of the second last in the top of his hoof.

Cornerstone Lad had already earned a rating of 142 over jumps when he finished last season with a win in April over the same course, his fourth success in 11 starts. At the time his Flat rating was only 65, ridiculously 77lb lower than his hurdles mark so when he turned up on Oaks Day in a two miles, one furlong handicap at Carlisle on heavy going I thought all my Christmases had come at once. All day I was regaling anyone at Epsom who would listen that this 6-4 shot was the biggest certainty of all time, so when he was beaten a short head by Only Orsenfoolsies, a 10-year-old 33-1 rag also trained by Hammond, imagine my embarrassment – only exceeded by the hit to my finances.

Only Orsenfoolsies won his next race over hurdles soon after, but Cornerstoine Lad was not sighted again until five months after Carlisle and, still rated 65, won as the 4-1 favourite at Catterick, an effort that brought his Flat rating to the dizzy heights of 71. A couple of weeks later he reverted to hurdles at Wetherby and showed how accurate the 142 was when “leading on the bit three out and drawing clear” in the words of the close-up man in the Racing Post.

So as he lined up at Newcastle on Saturday, also facing 154-rated Silver Streak and Lady Buttons (146), who received 7lb as well as the long odds-on favourite, he was available at more than double that pair’s price with only the Ray Tooth-bred Nelson River (142) at longer odds. That pair were comfortably beaten off and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict another big hike in Cornerstone Lad’s mark, possibly somewhere near 160, or 158 if the line to Silver Streak is taken literally.

That will mean if Micky Hammond wishes, he can revert to the Flat again, but now with an 87lb differential, in other words he’ll be a 10lb bigger certainty than at Carlisle – that is if Micky doesn’t have another old-timer to ruin the job.

A few weeks back I got a call from my son saying he was eating for the first time in the fish restaurant that had opened literally one hundred yards from my home in Hackney Wick about a year prior and it was “fantastic, we’ll have to go there one day soon”. I remembered those comments, so when a friend, Scott Ellis, wanted an option of where we could meet for lunch last Thursday, that conversation immediately came to mind. There wasn’t a chip to be seen but the food, overseen by the restaurant’s owner Tom Brown, apparently a Michelin starred chef in his earlier days, had recently been named Restaurant of the Year for London at the AA awards. There was never ANY restaurant in Hackney Wick for more than 60 years, just the Wick Café where I read my paper every morning.

“What’s it called?” asked Scott. “I’ll look it up.” “Hold on, yes, it’s Cornerstone! Bugger me!”

Monday Musings: The Kings Are Dead, Long Live The Kings

The Kings are dead – long live the Kings. Nicky Henderson and Nigel Twiston-Davies might disagree but in just 60 minutes on Saturday between the hours of 2.07 (the off time of the Christy Ascot 1965 Chase) and 3.07 p.m. (conclusion of the Betfair Chase at Haydock) two champions were dethroned, possibly terminally such is the merit of their respective conquerors, writes Tony Stafford.

First it was Altior, unbeaten and unblemished in 19 races over hurdles and chases, but almost psyched (well Nicky Henderson and owner Patricia Pugh were) by the official handicappers to risk his record over the longest distance he’d ever tried. There has been general disbelief in many quarters (not least this one) that the weights and measures men from Wellingborough could translate two wide-margin wins around Ascot by Cyrname as worthy of a 176 rating, 1lb more than Altior earned in 14 impeccable runs and 28 miles of effort over three seasons’ hard labour.

More remarkable perhaps was that when Cyrname had finished a remote seventh of 13 at Ascot last year on the corresponding day’s racing in a 2m1f handicap chase, Altior had already been adorned with his 175 mark ever since beating Min easily in the Arkle at Cheltenham back in March of that year. In none of his previous triumphal marches to victory was it deemed necessary to mark him even the single pound higher than would have staved off Cyrname’s two-race surge early this year.

Cyrname exploded with a 21-length demolition of Doitforthevillage, Happy Diva, Mister Whitaker, Flying Angel and Mr Medic, smart chasers and big-race winners all, in the bet365 Chase over Saturday’s course and distance in late January, necessitating a surge to 165 from 150.

Four weeks later, back on the same track, this time for the level weights Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase he made all, in another clinical humiliation of a top-class field, running home 17 lengths clear of the 170-rated Waiting Patiently with Fox Norton (166) and Politologue (168) clustered up close behind. It would have been possible to give Cyrname less than the 176 he got, easy on a literal application to go even higher. The result on Saturday with Altior just over two lengths behind, suggests the officials got it right – at the longer trip – but that Altior is still pre-eminent over two miles.

Then again Nicky Henderson might be looking over his shoulder towards Ireland where Laurina’s first try over fences resulted in an eight-length margin over the more than useful Minella Indo, all produced with an effortless stroll up the run-in after the pair were close coming to the last fence at Gowran Park. Maybe that’s why Nicky didn’t rule out a rematch even in the King George where Paul Nicholls is intent on next revealing the new champ to his soon-to-be-adoring public, never mind Saturday’s restrained reaction to the upset.

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For make no mistake, upset it was. The betting public had, it seems, as much respect for the present official ratings as the rest of us, making Altior a heavily-backed 1-3 shot after mathematically bigger  odds-on prices had been available earlier in the day. Cyrname was never bigger than his 5-2 starting price. One thing I didn’t expect to witness happened as the horses came up to the line. Harry Cobden is still a relatively inexperienced jockey, albeit one whose boss thought enough of his potential to cast aside the excellent Sam Twiston-Davies not too long ago as first jockey. I was waiting for the Dettori-esque whip brandishing, extravagant waving to the crowd or the triumphal shake of the fist and a loving grab of his mount’s neck, but there was none of that from Cobden, just a professional message to his horse to slow down, the job’s done.

Having seen that happening 55 minutes earlier – got this timing thing down to a tee! – I was a little surprised when after a masterful waiting-at-the-back ride from Robbie Power on Lostintraslation in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, he did the full victory celebration as his horse crossed the line a comfortable length and a half ahead of dual previous winner Bristol de Mai.

His victory was anticipated by approximately half the betting public as he was shortened in to 5-4 equal favouritism with the title-holder, despite there being a 9lb deficit in their ratings, 161 against 170, the stylishly-ridden and economically-minded Lostintranslation living up to all Colin Tizzard’s pronouncements.

Since being beaten by Defi Du Seuil at the Cheltenham Festival last March, Lostintranslation won at Aintree the following month and easily landed the odds at Cheltenham on his return three weeks ago. It is hard to see how Bristol De Mai would turn the form around in next year’s Gold Cup, despite last March’s third place, and at this stage the Tizzard improver has to be one of the main contenders.

It was a case of the Kings are all dead (if you include De Sousa, Dettori and Moore) and Long Live the King in Tokyo on Sunday morning as overwhelming 2019 UK champion Oisin Murphy guided home Suave Richard to an opportunistic first place in the Grade 1 Japan Cup, squeezing through up the rail inside the last furlong and a half and holding the renewed effort of Curren Bouquetd’or by threequarters of a length.

Suave Richard was third favourite at just over 4-1 and earned the £2.16 million first prize. None of the other international riders got into the money, which goes down to fifth place. William Buick partnered the 16-5 favourite Rey De Oro in the 15-runner, all-Japanese line-up but could do no better than 11th. Christophe Lemaire, a regular in Japan, did best of the others in eighth on a 14-1 shot; Christophe Soumillon was ninth (19-1), Frankie Dettori 10th (14-1) while Ryan Moore beat only two home in 13th on a 33-1 outsider. The changing face of international jockeyship appears to be echoing what is happening in the UK steeplechasing ranks.

This weekend’s big attraction is another race that habitually throws up potential Gold Cup winners to show their early-season paces. In the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase’s more recognisable guise as the Hennessy, I hit on what was almost a guaranteed formula for finding the winner – a seven-year-old second-season chaser – not that it always worked.

When I had one of my biggest bets of all time on Jodami, who fulfilled my conditions in the 1992 Hennessy, he carried 10st2lb, a full 25lb less than previous Gold Cup winner The Fellow. He did beat The Fellow, who finished third six lengths back in a wonderful renewal of the race, but was still threequarters of a length behind another seven-year-old, Geoff Hubbard’s Sibton Abbey, trained by the late Ferdy Muphy. He was a 40-1 shot ridden by the brilliant Adrian Maguire and ran from 21lb out of the handicap. Three unbeaten runs later Jodami lined up at Cheltenham and won the Gold Cup.

It’s was sad news to learn of Ferdy’s death two months ago. He’d relocated to France in his later years but it’s good to see Mr Hubbard’s great friend Pat Betts still looking in fine fettle at Sandown recently watching his horse Le Reve finishing third for Lucy Wadham. Pat didn’t take any reminding of Sibton Abbey and was also quick to mention the great French Holly.

That brilliant, versatile horse won ten of his 20 career starts and would have been even more vividly remembered had he not been around at the same time as Istabraq. In three consecutive Grade 1 races he was beaten one length by the brilliant Aidan O’Brien-trained star at Leopardstown; was a six-length third to him in the 1999 Champion Hurdle and then after leading the great horse over the final jump of the Aintree Hurdle the following month, again gave best by a length.

He raced only once over fences, three miles at Wetherby and still had 18 lengths to spare of the field despite being eased, presumably when rider Andrew Thornton “felt something”. That was his final appearance. Ferdy was a great man, prone to sudden bursts of energy, suddenly calling you up to discuss the latest “vital” topic or other, and just as quickly moving onto another, and as a horseman he had few peers.

Sibton Abbey was the first big winner under his own name but as head lad to Bill Durkan in Ireland - in all but name he was the trainer - Ferdy guided the great mare Anaglog’s Daughter through her brilliant career in the 1980’s.

Back to next Saturday and, whereas the Henderson stable’s nine-year-old Ok Corral is ante-post favourite, I’m hoping that fellow Seven Barrows inmate On The Blind Side, who does fulfil age and experience requirements, and who was noted here after his fourth to Vinndication at Ascot three weeks ago, can win the race for Alan Spence.

Monday Musings: Thoughts Turn to Winter

How Cheltenham ever managed to race for two days heaven only knows, writes Tony Stafford. As we – Steve Howard, a good friend whose mortgage-securing acumen helped me a couple of times in my financially-injudicious past, and me – followed directions to Fergal O’Brien’s new yard less than ten miles short of the track, water streamed or rather surged through the gulleys next to the road. Evidence of what it must have been like on Thursday, when the decision to abandon Friday’s card was made, remained all too visible.

Fergal’s brilliant start since his switch from alongside Nigel Twiston-Davies has been accompanied by the sights and sounds of extensive building work and on Sunday morning as a group of existing and prospective owners concluded their visit, the mud was testimony to the recent climatic excesses.

On a former working farm, non-descript barns have been imaginatively transformed to luxurious housing for the equine performers that have propelled O’Brien into the horse racing consciousness. He is one of the star names of this early phase of full-on jumping. As winter extends its grip, as by some forecasters’ accounts it may well do in this most capricious of years, you had to wonder how horse boxes will negotiate the gradients of the narrow roads by which you approach the farm.

Kim Bailey, just down the road from O’Brien posted pictures one day late last week of his snow-decked driveway, so there must have been some of that at his near neighbour’s place. The sign for “flood” showed where the worst had been, and Sally Randell, Fergal’s right-hand, still apparently believed it was a hazard, warning us while beaming us in that “your car will get through it okay”. It did because there wasn’t one, but we marvelled at the thought of how close to being flooded some of the properties along the way must have been on Friday.

The O’Brien team had a rare disappointing day yesterday, Benny’s Bridge never giving the slightest indication that he might replicate his last-to-first spectacular from the last meeting, and the two in the bumper finishing just outside the placings as a tag team.

Beneficiaries of the day were clearly the Pipes, with senior (Martin) accompanying son David to the sports. There were plenty of O’Neill’s there too, Jonjo senior and wife Jacqui, nephew Joe, who helps run the admin at Jackdaws Castle, and his dad over from Ireland for the weekend. Jonjo junior, recently back from injury, was the chosen one to steer the Pipe-trained and J P McManus-owned Duc De Beauchene in the opening conditional riders’ race – a benefit for Pipe in recent years – and he did that with style and exquisite timing.

If that success was predictable, 100-30 in a massive field the give-away, the last-race bumper win of Israel Champ was less so, as his 16-1 SP testified. Here it was supposed to be J P again with the once-raced course winner Times Flies By, who had given Barry Geraghty a comeback winner after his latest injury absence at the previous meeting, but that one was unable to peg back Tom Scudamore on the Pipe runner.

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Israel Champ, a wide-margin Irish point-to-point debut winner in the spring had been “expected” when running for the first time at Worcester less than a month ago, starting 13-8 favourite but, after setting what the race-readers observed was a very slow pace, faded into a modest sixth.

Up a good deal in class yesterday, and with Scudamore riding him for the first time, this was more traditional Pipe-Scudamore mode from a generation and a half ago. Now Tom orchestrated a sound gallop, one which none of the others, struggling to decide which portion of the by-now heavily poached terrain to choose for this last of 15 races over the two days, was able to counter.

Cheltenham very helpfully kept us appraised of the jockey standings and as we left the track after the last, the honours board listed a number of riders each with the number “1” alongside their names. In fact, possibly uniquely, especially with a couple of four-runner races yesterday, 15 different jockeys got into the winner’s position over the two days so there was no room for at least half the names to be displayed. I bet Richard Johnson, who won the first race on Saturday, never expected to share the spoils with 14 other riders.

Despite Time Flies By’s defeat in the bumper, J P will have been happy enough with his day’s work, present at Cheltenham to welcome Defi Du Seuil, who outpointed Politologue, Simply Ned and Saint Calvados up the hill to win an intriguing Shloer Chase. He also had doubles at Punchestown, initiated by Yanworth in his first try over the Banks course for Enda Bolger, and Cork where Joseph O’Brien chipped in with two young hurdlers with an obvious future.

There was no McManus winner at Fontwell where pride of place went to Gary Moore and his remarkable young stayer Goshen. After three runs as a juvenile, ninth of 12 at 40/1; eighth of 15 at 100-1 and tenth of 11, again at 100-1, beaten 21 lengths, Gary might have thought a 64 rating a shade defensive on the part of the officials.

Whether he realised just how ineffective that defence was when the horse showed up at Brighton early in June was not obvious from the betting, Goshen eventually strolling away to a 12-length win from a Mark Johnston odds-on shot. A week later I remember thinking him a mad short price to follow up at Sandown with other progressive young stayers in the field, but he won that by nine lengths off 70 (6lb penalty). After Sandown he again went missing until late October, reappearing at Nottingham, and again winning by a wide margin, this time seven lengths off a perch of 80, provoking a furrther 8lb rise.

Writing the Racing Post Analysis on that Brighton run back in June, Gary Savage made an intuitive point that Goshen is jumping-bred and the way he demolished his field by 23 lengths at Fontwell marks him out as exactly that. One downside was that he was showed exaggerated right-handed tendencies from the start and went markedly in that direction at the last two obstacles, between which Jamie Moore spent as much time looking back than forward. Goshen has to be a Triumph Hurdle candidate if the right-handedness, no use at all at Cheltenham, can be eradicated or at least tempered.

While Jamie was minding his father’s shop close to home in Sussex, big brother Ryan was continuing his world tour in Kyoto, Japan, along with new champion Oisin Murphy, William Buick and multiple former French champion Christophe Soumillon. They competed in the Mile Championship, worth a shade over £800k and won by Indy Champ ridden by local jockey Kenichi Ikezoe. Murphy did best of the visiting quartet, collecting his rider’s portion of the 200 grand his mount Persian Knight picked up for third in the 17-horse field. Oisin has ridden enough in Japan not to be impressed by the conversion of currency from pounds sterling to yen, but for you and me 140 yen to the pound would make an eye-opening sum.

Ryan, 16th of 17, and the other visitors would have had to be content with the appearance money one assumes they are paid for such jaunts. Meanwhile Ryan’s regular Ballydoyle team-mates, Seamus Heffernan and Wayne Lordan, were on Aidan O’Brien duty at Lingfield the day before, riding Simply Beautiful and Quote, fulfilling their Gillies Stakes engagements originally frustrated when Doncaster’s last day was washed out the previous weekend. Both were also out of the money, Lordan suggesting that Quote would have fared much better if able to run in the mud rather than fast Polytrack.

Meanwhile, Frankie Dettori checked in at Lingfield for two wins, starting with Scentasia for John Gosden, who was on the premises along with wife Rachel Hood and replete with US-style cap. With Lord North a non-runner, Frankie pulled rank on this year’s French champion and Arc hero Pierre-Charles Boudot, claiming back the ride on Crossed Baton when Lord North was withdrawn from the Churchill Stakes field.

It wasn’t a wasted trip for the Frenchman though, as in the opener he squeezed through on the William Haggas-trained Fruition, clearly enjoying his win in the Royal colours, and ran closest to Frankie on the Chrisophe Ferland-trained Velma Valento in the aforementioned Gillies Stakes.

My Law didn’t quite get her first win but a year on from her sale, Sod’s Law’s little sister gained her first second place in the opener for Jim Boyle, so promises soon to become a fifth winner for her dam Lawyer’s Choice after Dutch Art Dealer, Dutch Law and Highway Robber as well as Sod’s Law who was sold last month and will be racing in Ireland in the winter.

The day before Lingfield, I received WhatsApp messages from Joseph O’Brien, showing two fleeting sights of the latest of the family to go into training. Soon after came word from Joseph that this yearling colt has done well physically since starting exercise and is in the main training yard. This was a great fillip for everyone and I can’t wait to get to Pilltown to see him and the set-up. We’re trying for Gaelic Law which Ray Tooth agrees would be an appropriate name.

Monday Musings: A Winning Nap

So much happens in a week in racing. Last Monday morning I sat in front of the computer screen anticipating the Melbourne Cup and, a few days further along, the conclusion of the 2019 turf Flat season, writes Tony Stafford. The Cup did indeed stop the nation and I was up at 4 a.m. to watch it, and the Flat season did indeed conclude but without Doncaster, flooded in common with so much of much of the Don Valley in the worst conditions in living memory.

It is in no way meant to trivialise such a harrowing experience for so many people around the country and particularly in South Yorkshire and surrounding counties, but the weather, so different from the autumn of last year, has enabled jumping stables to get their horses onto grass with the result that fields for National Hunt racing are already looking healthier than in several recent late autumns.

Armistice Day, today being the 100th anniversary of the first one following World War 1, is a significant watershed between the racing seasons. This year, there is an actual week’s break in all-weather Flat racing and as long as not too many jump courses are unraceable, it should be competitive stuff starting at Kempton and Carlisle this afternoon. The ceremonial part of Armistice Day of course was yesterday, and as I’d decided to enjoy the rare glimpse of sunshine and travel to Sandown Park for the Sunday fixture, the usual sequence of military marches from the Cenotaph had to be experienced on the car radio.

One interested onlooker at both was the Queen, nowadays observing from the Foreign Office building alongside as Prince Charles leads her more youthful wreath-laying male relatives at ground level. I bet she wished she could have taken the car for the 15-mile hop down to Esher where her Kayf Tara gelding Keen On came with a thrilling run to deny the favourite Protektorat up the hill in a very hot novice hurdle. Nicky Henderson, who trains this prospect for eventual honours, also sent out Santini to win the following Intermediate Chase.

The official going for Sandown before Saturday had already been “heavy” so it was with severe misgivings that afternoon that I set off on a near reconnaissance of yesterday’s ride around the M25. The whole way to my destination for a brief meeting close to Kempton Park I travelled in near torrential rain and it only began to ease halfway home three hours or so later. Sandown can’t be on, I thought, but it was. Andrew Cooper certainly has something when it comes to course clerkmanship, or maybe he’s just lucky when he and his courses need to be.

A feature of yesterday’s racing was a hurdles double by the in-form Fergal O’Brien team with proven mudlarks Lord of the Island in the two-and-a-half- mile handicap, and Totterdown, who repeated last year’s all-the-way victory in the two-mile handicap. Totterdown had been in the Richard Phillips stable a year ago and it was some surprise on looking up that day’s results that I noted the ground had also been described as heavy on the hurdles course.

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Perhaps even more surprisingly, both O’Brien winners clocked faster times, in the case of Lord of the Island significantly so, than a year ago. Tottterdown made all on both occasions, in the earlier race as a 25-1 shot in a 20-runner field, going clear on the bridle two hurdles out and lasting home well by six lengths. Yesterday, at even money, he was sent into an immediate long lead by Paddy Brennan and none of his seven rivals ever got nearer than the ten lengths by which he passed the post in front, 0.40sec faster than in his initial victory.

With Doncaster abandoned on Saturday, Southwell’s early evening card which wound up Flat racing for a week until Wolverhampton next Saturday evening, took my notice. I mentioned here recently about my belated return to the world of horse race tipping competitions and the fact that along with a little job for Fromthestables.com, secured in a time of need with the help of the owner/editor of this publication, came a place in the William Hill Radio Naps table.

Fergal O’Brien is one of 16 trainers whose thoughts have gone towards my daily nap selections since I joined the team in February and for the first few months I was genuinely and blissfully unaware that the naps appeared anywhere. Then in late May it was mentioned that I was close to the leaders in the said event. By late summer I had taken the lead and it was one that was still in place on Saturday morning, the final day of the competition.

Doncaster’s cancellation denied me a much-fancied candidate in the big race, but also prevented the two closest rivals from having a decent chance of finding a feasible outsider to bridge the gap. My Saturday tip faded away in the Wincanton gloom just after 1 p.m. leaving me to make the drive to South West London fearing the 16-1 morning-price shot selected by the main challenger in a 0-50 classified race at Southwell would unseat me at the last. Opening at 10-1, the horse drifted out to 14’s causing a few quakes before settling at her SP of 12-1. The fact she was never in contention behind a Mick Appleby steering job was academic but pleasing in the extreme.

I’d won, but I couldn’t tell anyone. Suddenly on Friday, in between calls, my phone suddenly stopped working. Calls stopped coming in, as did texts and Whats Apps but I was stuck in such a ridiculous traffic jam after a major accident having dropped Mrs Stafford at a nearby Underground station, that it took me until after 4 p.m., two hours after setting off on the five-minute trip, to get home.

If there’s a telecoms expert in this house, there’s only one qualifier but she wasn’t due home until 9 pm and all my fiddling with the phone’s various menus had no effect. When she finally returned she concluded it was probably the Sim card, but in practical terms it wasn’t possible for that to be attended to until Monday morning from the Ray Tooth office.

So I decided – well one of us did – to get a pay as you go Sim to see if it worked in my phone, and fortunately it did but with hardly any of the numbers on its memory. It wasn’t until 9 pm on Saturday evening that part of the mystery was solved. Harry Taylor called round on his way to work asking “What’s happened to your phone?”

He said: “I called early yesterday afternoon and a woman answered saying her name was Anita. I rang off and dialled again and the same woman answered. I asked her to tell me the number and it was yours.

“I thought I’d ring again, but not just repeating the last call on the menu but dialling out the numbers and this time there was just a message. I thought ‘she knows it’s me and isn’t answering’ so I got Alan Newman to call and he had the same result.” So too, later did Steve Gilbey, Ray Tooth’s right-hand man and Mrs S. Seems someone got my number almost in mid-conversation. Strange. I’ve no idea at time of writing whether I’ll ever get the old number back.

Rekindling just a scintilla of the type of lifestyle that accompanied tipping horses every day for all those years became remarkably comfortable, indeed almost routine, even after 17 years of not living that way. It’s sharpened me up, not just in trying to find what might be winning each day, and tells me maybe I should never have left the Daily Telegraph. But then, they wouldn’t have waited much longer to get rid of me anyway!

- TS

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