Monday Musings: Catching Heatstroke!

Nicky Henderson said it himself on the Lambourn trainers’ site yesterday before Heatstroke made his jumping debut at Huntingdon, writes Tony Stafford. To paraphrase: “We have a good record for Jim and Fitri Hay, but if we manage to win with this gelding after almost two years off it would be quite an achievement.”

Apologies, Nicky, for any inaccuracy in the quoting, but the sentiments for anyone reading those comments would have been – they were for me – the great trainer was challenging himself. In those circumstances it was almost inconceivable that Heatstroke would fail, and how appropriate in a mid-February when temperatures of 17 degrees C are becoming almost commonplace that he didn’t.

In his days with Charlie Hills, the now seven-year-old got to a Flat rating of 87, indeed that was achieved after winning a Kempton maiden on the second of only two juvenile runs in the autumn. After an absent 2015, two unplaced runs followed at four years of age after which he was gelded.

Whether any tinkering with his wind during that time occurred was never needed in those days to be notified. Then 18 months after his sole subsequent unplaced run for Nicky’s next-door neighbour, the now almost-obligatory wind op was revealed  after which the move from one Lambourn yard to another was effected, presumably without any transport charge.

It was actually 676 days between runs, much longer – in fact 1579 days – between drinks. How Jim and Fitri, if they were there, and Nicky would have enjoyed Huntingdon’s always-generous post-race winning connections’ champers.

So, starting with Nicky’s slightly pessimistic morning comments, a five-times-raced seven-year-old with Flat-race breeding might not be the obvious candidate. However, when you’ve cared for and nurtured from birth an animal with Fitri Hay-type breeding, even owners of that prominence might want an alternative career for him later in the game.

The starting point, for racegoers on the Flat-race type Huntingdon circuit was that here was a son of the great Galileo, bred on the same Danehill cross as Frankel. The Racing Post, in listing the dam’s progeny confines itself to older siblings, in his case including The Corsican, who was pretty good.

You need to delve a little further to find that the next full-brother after Heatstroke was the very high-class Deauville, now six and racing in Dubai for Fawzi Nass. He has yet to show anything like the form that won more than £1 million for the Hays and which concluded under Aidan O’Brien’s care with third behind Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior in their epic Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown in September. He finished only three lengths behind the winner, starting 40-1!

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Mr Nass, based in Bahrain but a regular winner at the Carnival every year, must be biding his time. He recently announced the closure of his private Newmarket yard, where the winners proved elusive as they do for most people trying that sort of ambitious operation.

Just as John Gosden edged ahead of Aidan O’Brien in the 2018 UK Flat-race trainers list, so the incumbent Nicky Henderson is no doubt feeling the draft from Somerset. He was at Ascot on Saturday, so had a first-hand view as his predecessor and main rival, Paul Nicholls, dominated the post-EI card there and everywhere else.

Eight wins, five at the Royal course, though not the rescheduled from Newbury Betfair Hurdle (won impressively by Al Dancer and Twisty) and including the Triumph Hurdle Trial at Haydock and Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle blew the title race apart to the tune of £240k almost without reply.

One obvious highlight was the continuing climb to the summit of Cheltenham Gold Cup candidature of the seven-year-old Clan des Obeaux, much too good and ultimately far too pacey for Nicky’s Terrefort in the other Newbury refugee, the Betfair Denman Chase.

But far more excitement was delivered a little later by another French-imported seven-year-old, Cyrname, and before his demolition job on Waiting Patiently and two other more highly-rated stars in the Betfair Ascot Chase, Peter Ashmore and I had an entertaining few minutes with the talent scout that secured his re-location from Patrice Quinton to Ditcheat three years previously.

Everyone who watched Racing UK before the morphing into Racing TV would have seen Claude Charlet, much-travelled and including Macau-based trainer, offering his indelible insights into the channel’s regular cross-La Manche shows.

Now with Ireland coming into the Racing TV stable, the one-time At The Races is now Sky Sports Racing, starring Alex Hammond, and Messrs Chapman, Harvey and Weaver, and the repository for French racing. They are happy to “invent” places like Mont de Marsan and Angers (wasn’t that the favourite for the Derby that turned right at Tattenham Corner?) and I’m sure in time La Croise Laroche, racecourses too minor ever to appear on opposition screens.

Actually I’ve been to Le Lion d’Angers, near the other one, where French Fifteen won, and La Croise, where Nicolas Clement trained a lesser winner, My Boy Davis, also for Ray Tooth. If you care to jump on the Eurostar from St Pancras to Lille, not much more than 80 minutes and a short taxi ride gets you to a lovely track.

Claude’s deep knowledge and vast web of contacts which enabled him to source Sire de Grugy and many more under the noses of more financially-endowed agents and owners, comes with an accent somewhere between Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and Arthur Bostram’s depiction of Officer Crabtree in ‘Allo ‘Allo.

But Claude is great company and he always says “if you ‘ave a man with 300 Euro <thousands of course>, I will find ‘im a good ‘orse” and he will too. He said on Saturday that it is just unbelievable how much money English owners will pay for horses of potential from the land of his birth “to win a five grand race” and he even threw in a fair comic impression of some members of that grouping to complete the pantomime.

Early in Cyrname’s career in the UK it seems that not everyone, least of all Mr Nicholls, was convinced that the gelding needed running with conviction from the front and M. Charlet recalls a number of “heated conversations” with the trainer. There’s no question that’s the way it’s done now.

On Saturday, with an £85,000 first prize at stake and not just Waiting Patiently (rated 170), but Fox Norton (166) and stablemate Politologue (168) all theoretically the 165-rated Cyrname’s superiors, the packed Ascot stands must have been anticipating a changing of the guard as they turned for home with two to jump.

All three adversaries – the other pair Charbel (161) and Aso (163) was already dropped – moved closer and then Cyrname just stretched away as though on a piece of elastic. At the line it was 17 lengths to Waiting Patiently, and in a time only 2.50 seconds above the standard for two miles, five furlongs. Clan Des Obeaux was 16.70 seconds above the three miles standard time. The re-measured actual extra distance taken for the three-mile chases, of which there were three, over the Ascot Chase was two furlongs and 172 yards. Clan des Obeaux took an extra 49.46 seconds to complete his course.

My other highlight was the riding of Charlie Deutsch, so handsomely championed by Venetia Williams after his idiotic traffic and fleeing arrest offences which cost him a prison stretch last year. Recently on Luck on Sunday she waxed extravagantly about his talent and understanding as a rider and all that reverence was justified and repaid with the ride of the season to my mind (and in Venetia’s and owner Lady Bolton’s view too) on Calipto in the Listed Swinley Chase.

He told them beforehand he would drop Calipto right out at the start and the metronomic, unfussed way the partnership made their ground before driving away from the formidable Black Corton/ Bryony Frost team was steeplechasing poetry.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: UK Racing Reels from Point Blank Jab

Every autumn, while the days are still long and temperatures warm, the messages start, writes Tony Stafford. Either as SMS’s or calls from the surgery’s land line. “Don’t forget your ‘flu jab. It’s free!”

Boots the chemist also makes regular calls to one and all to take advantage of the offer for much of the pre-winter period. From my surgery the urgency increases with time. Obviously they have so many units of the stuff they simply do not want to be left with any. After all, who’s going to bother taking precautions once you get past Christmas?

A few years ago I succumbed to the onslaught, much as regular (possibly annual, although seemingly constant) demands to have one’s type 2 diabetes, blood pressure, eyesight, weight, feet and God knows what checked punctuate life for over 65’s in the Britain of the 21st Century.

So I have the flu jab each year and, while it does not guarantee immunity, I have never had what goes for “proper” flu when you are stuck in bed for a week and end up with agony in the bones and joints. Then again I’d never had more than a cold in any of the previous six-and-a-bit decades before Mr Flu Jab entered my senior life.

Every racehorse in Great Britain has to be fully inoculated against Equine Influenza before it ever races and each year has to have a booster injection. Just as my insurance against the worst potential effects of flu is no guarantee of escape from infection, so horses’ immunity is also not inevitable.

When Wednesday’s news of Donald McCain’s stable’s having three confirmed cases of EI was revealed it shocked and stopped racing in its tracks. These were revealed by the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket after swabs on the three horses were taken by vet Alasdair Topp on McCain’s instigation as those three horses had been exhibiting “worrying signs”.

All McCain’s runners since the previous Monday were monitored. Immediately the BHA ordered that every stable that might have had a horse possibly coming into contact with one of the McCain animals at those racecourses should go into “lockdown”. The race was on to test every horse in what amounted to 174 stables, and equally to get the swabs to carry out the tests. Soon after, three more McCain horses, including one of three from the stable to have raced in the days immediately before the revelation, were discovered to have the virus.

Those veterinary practices that were quick off the mark apparently bought up all available swab supplies, leaving some stables to have to wait in limbo for days before being tested. The vets have been to the forefront in this procedure as racing underwent an initial week-long hiatus, one that could well be prolonged further after Sunday night’s news that four Simon Crisford stable inmates have tested positive.

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So, most worryingly, especially for the sport’s top practitioners, Newmarket is not clear. Crisford, while at the moment concentrating more with his runners at Meydan, did have a beaten odds-on shot (Sajanjl) at Newcastle last Tuesday but not on a day that McCain had a runner there. Crisford is in an interesting, nay privileged, position, hardly surprising in view of his long previous career as Sheikh Mohammed’s racing manager at Godolphin.

Overseas trainers are allowed runners only on the days of the Carnival in Dubai, but alone, apart from Charlie Appleby and Saeed Bin Suroor, Godolphin’s main trainers in the UK, Crisford can also run horses at non-Carnival fixtures there. He is operating a satellite yard in the Emirate, so counts as a local trainer.

It did not take long for opinion to question the need for such stringent action. Nigel Twiston-Davies vociferously echoed the thoughts of many stablemen who believe that as all these horses have been immunised, the fact that a few cases have been revealed is little different from the run of the mill situation in all stables where runny noses and temperatures are a daily fact of life.

One trainer, not affected by the lockdown, said that for weeks around the country marts talk has been of rampant flu in non-racing animals in the UK and Ireland while he had heard that one of France’s leading trotting yards has voluntarily closed itself down.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, and clearly the BHA had to be seen to be acting to contain such a contagious disease, the costs for owners will as ever be considerable. Apart from missed opportunities at the track – who says the Betfair Hurdle prizemoney will ever be collected? – the blood tests must be paid for by somebody. My contact reckons the vets are the only winners in this costly exercise.

It was timely that Luck on Sunday chose this week for his principal guest to be Michael Dickinson, 36 years after his unique and much-celebrated Famous Five Gold Cup when Bregawn led home Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House that March day in Cheltenham.

Dickinson seems hardly changed in his appearance since those days, but more than 30 years on from his departure to train in the US after his sacking as Robert Sangster’s trainer at Manton, he is uniquely placed to assess such problems as the present veterinary crisis.

Luck asked how equine flu is dealt with in the US, to which Dickinson said that the system of training at racetracks makes it easier to handle any problems. With each stable and trainer having his own barn, any infected horse and therefore trainer’s barn can be quickly closed down and put effectively into isolation.

Just as when international runners go over for events such as the Breeders’ Cup, they have to go onto the track for training after the main body of domestic horses are exercised, so any barns with horses showing signs of infection have to exercise at separate times.

Newmarket stables identified as being in lockdown are similarly being required to exercise their horses in the afternoons, until clear returns for all those horses are established. As anybody that’s ever spoken to a trainer will tell you, horses have to be exercised every day once they have been brought to racing fitness, for their own and stable staff’s welfare. Monday morning traditionally, after a quiet Sunday, was always the day when lads expected a fiery first few minutes before the weekend “fizz” was extinguished.

Much of the 40 minutes of Luck and Dickinson devolved into a thrust and counter-thrust of the Mad Genius berating the Boy Wonder on his love of dirt racing. Dickinson, contrarily, while conceding the Triple Crown is safe, reckons dirt racing’s time may be coming almost to a conclusion.

As the developer of the Tapeta racing surface, as he revealed the result of 53 different elements – “we had them all in boxes” – his championing of turf and synthetic over dirt is hardly unexpected. But he backed his point of view with compelling statistics of the level of fatalities in dirt racing.

He said that the biggest complaints about racing in the United States were ”medication, facilities and dirt”, while agreeing that when Da Hoss won his two Breeders’ Cup Mile races two years apart, he did race with both Lasix and Bute.

Luck called that hypocritical, but Dickinson would not be shamed saying, “Lasix moves a horse up four lengths. If we’d not allowed him to use it, we wouldn’t have won and you wouldn’t be interviewing me now”. The “four lengths” theory explains why Frank Stronach, boss of Gulfstream Park in Florida wrote a condition in the two multi-million dollar Pegasus races recently allowing 7lb for horses not using any medication. Aidan O’Brien took the option and was rewarded with a highly-lucrative second place from Magic Wand in the Turf race.

Dickinson armed himself with a number of quotes. In one a New York racing secretary said that if he writes a maiden race on dirt, he’ll get two entries. The same conditions for a maiden on turf would attract 18. The writing it seems is on that particular wall, but then the fact that turf tracks are susceptible to wear and tear is a constant downside for US racecourses that may race every day for weeks on end.

Dickinson also offered a quote from Aidan O’Brien, perhaps understandable after the shocking experience of Mendelssohn in last year’s Kentucky Derby: “Dirt racing has an aggression approaching the level of savagery.” Point taken! As for racing here, let’s hope enough of the swabs come back clean so that it can resume before too much more damage is done.

Monday Musings: Klassical keeps the Dream alive

Last August, I had a brief drink before racing at York with Mark Smith when he told me about a horse his closest friend John Coleman had bought from France and sent to Willie Mullins, writes Tony Stafford. Sadly, since buying Klassical Dream, the name of the horse, John had died. “You must remember John, he always came racing with me, especially to Cheltenham,” said Mark. I did and do.

“It’s such a shame. He’s a really good horse and Willie loves him, but although he ran in some good hurdle races in France he didn’t win one. I don’t know if Joanne, John’s wife, will be able to keep him though,” Mark added.

The connection between that brief conversation and events yesterday in Ireland was lost on me until, post-race, Gary O’Brien mentioned the name Mark Smith, and blow me down it was that Mark Smith being interviewed by Nick Luck in the winner’s enclosure along with another pal.

I’d never had the retired-at- an- embarrassingly-early-age former City trader down as emotional, but in full view of the cameras it was as much as he could do to get out Joanne’s name and the fact of the “three boys watching at home”.  Clearly he was delighted at the turn of events, Joanne indeed keeping the horse and getting a Grade 1 prize, the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle, to help defray expenses.

Now Mark Smith will have a good reason, as if he ever needs one, to be at the Festival next month when the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle will be the target. Klassical Dream, who battled back under Ruby Walsh to hold stable-companion Aramon by a head, is 8-1 for that championship race.

I know whenever I refer back to horses that have run at Cheltenham or anywhere else in my old colours, I have to pinch myself at how long ago it all was. No doubt Mark will be amazed that next month will be the 25th anniversary of his greatest day as an owner, when Balasani was awarded the prize for the BonusPrint Stayers Hurdle after narrowly failing to catch Avro Anson, who was disqualified.

Like Klassical Dream, Balasani was a French import, in his case an Aga Khan-bred who won on the last of three races in his homeland, at Saint-Cloud in April 1989.He never went through a sales ring as far as my researches could reveal, and if Mark had phoned back yesterday – he said around an hour after the race: “I’m with some people, I’ll call later” - the mystery might have been cleared up.

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Suffice to say, Balasani eventually appeared from the John Jenkins stable from where he ran a total of 15 times on the Flat and over hurdles. Despite the best efforts of Messrs Piggott, Eddery, Asmussen and Dunwoody and several others, he never managed to win.

That took him to early 1991 and the switch to Martin Pipe. Second time out, at Worcester, Balasani won at 10-1 and was in a winner’s enclosure seven more times before Christmas. He ran off a modest 91 at Worcester and by the time of the last of five jumping victories that year, the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Sandown, he beat a field of 21 decent handicappers from 4lb out of the weights and a mark of 129, just 38lb higher! Some trainer, Pipey.

In between had come a Flat hat-trick, Lester contributing once and Darryl Holland the other two starting off in the 40’s.

Then, in the manner of Martin Pipe, Balasani was re-born from being a decent two-miler to a top staying hurdler, at the same time mirroring that progress on the level. In March 93, after a fallow 1992, he began with victory over one mile seven furlongs off 65 at Warwick before romping away with the Ascot Stakes (2m4f) from 10lb higher.

Now it was big races all the way. Next time he was runner-up, giving plenty of weight to the winner Highflying in the Northumberland Plate (off 83) and was jolted up to 91 when predictably stretched by the weight in the Cesarewitch. All that remained for that winter were three hurdle runs. He was fourth to Sweet Duke in the Long Walk at Ascot; and beat the smart Cab On Target easily in the Rendlesham Hurdle in its then home at Kempton before the Cheltenham win which showcased his ability to sprint up hills at the end of long-distance races. Post Cheltenham, he was the beaten favourite for the Queen Alexandra at Royal Ascot.

Presumably that was one test too far as he was off the track for more than 18 months, returning for a low-key five-race farewell tour for Pipe, who managed to fashion one last success as a 10-year-old in a long-distance claiming hurdle at Newton Abbot. Another break was the prelude to a final few runs for permit holder John O’Neill, also a one-time City man.

Mark has never lost his interest in racing, despite leaving ownership to others and is one of the shrewdest punters around, like his one-time City colleague and now Racing TV betting pundit Dave Nevison, who would have enjoyed yesterday’s win from his trackside pitch. One day Mark asked me whether I could arrange with the Daily Telegraph for his elder daughter to do her work experience there. She did, as also did her younger sister a few years later. Both have had long careers associated with newspapers and publishing. As Alan Newman might say: “It’s not what you know”!

I was delighted when Sir Erec made all the running in the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle to confirm the overwhelming strength of Joseph O’Brien’s Triumph Hurdle hand. Racing TV’s Irish team, O’Brien and Donn McClean, seemed surprised beforehand that Sir Erec was shaping to make the running, but having finished a close third to Stradivarius in Ascot’s Qipco Champions Long Distance Cup last October for Aidan and the Coolmore boys, he would hardly be lacking in stamina.

Then after he sprinted away, putting six lengths between himself and the equally well-fancied J P McManus-owned stablemate Gardens of Babylon, the suggestion from the team was, “he had the run of the race”.  I often find that a nonsensical concept, but surely the way for him to find out the other runners’ limitations was to press on from the start. The question for the Triumph will be whether he or Cheltenham winner Fakir d’Oudairies will be the one. Don’t ask me.

The very limited English challenge over the two days of the Dublin Racing Festival was pretty much limited to La Bague Au Roi in the Flogas Novice Chase over two miles, five furlongs. Richard Johnson had the Warren Greatrex-trained mare in front from the start, and she stayed on as bravely as ever to make it 14 wins in 19 career starts. She remains unbeaten in four chases and looks another banker for the Festival, presumably in the RSA Insurance Novice Chase.

I left Leopardstown to Harry Taylor – more air miles than Judith Chalmers – in favour of Sandown on Saturday, where the best clerk of the course in the business, Andrew Cooper, once again played the percentages to get the meeting on. No frost covers – “if we had it would have cost 30k and we couldn’t have lifted the snow off” – but temperatures were helpful over the previous two days so the judgment call paid off with a good crowd and competitive racing, headed up by Buveur d’Air.

Sandown remains the best viewing course in the country and, according to Peter Jensen, its chairman, racegoers can expect a number of easily-visible improvements before the end of 2019 as the track undergoes the first phase of a multi-million pound re-development.

In the near future some rather more spectacular re-structuring is promised and with Spelthorne Borough Council seemingly strongly against any closure of sister-track Kempton, prospects for racing and racegoers in the area are bright indeed. That’s just as well in a period of increasing gloom in the sport, especially if the news of Sheikh Mohammed’s questioning of the financial extent of his involvement goes much further.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Hearing is believing

Spectacular! Scintillating! Jaw-dropping! Eye-opening! All of the above, except for Paisley Park’s owner Andrew Gemmell who, of necessity, merely listened to the brilliant performance of his fast-improving hurdler as he romped to victory in Saturday’s Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, writes Tony Stafford. The Emma Lavelle-trained gelding is deservedly now favourite for the Sun Racing Stayers Hurdle back at the track in March.

Andrew, blind from birth, had his loyal friend Tony Hunt and some other regulars in Paisley Park’s fan club close at hand as he reacted with increasing optimism as the race unwound.

Before racing Gemmell admitted to being “Nervous, more nervous than Ascot”, presumably remembering the disappointment of his horse’s 13th place in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the Festival last March. Afterwards the soft ground was attributed principally to what was a below-expectations effort. In retrospect Paisley Park, a 33-1 chance, previously had only a small Hereford novice win among only three hurdle races on his record.

Now a seven-year-old, he has fully matured and Saturday was his fourth win of an unbeaten season. Starting in handicaps at Aintree and Haydock, he then polished off Ascot’s Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle before this emphatic victory.

I stood a yard or two away from Mr Gemmell in the paddock as, with back to the big screen, he strained to hear. When commentator Ian Bartlett observed soon after the fourth-last that Paisley Park had not immediately responded to his rider’s urgings, his face gave away inner doubts.

Until then, the jumping had been fast and accurate and the first few strides after each jump, fluent and constantly resulting in net gain. Bartlett’s attention had been drawn to the only occasion when a slight misjudgement altered the status quo, instant recovery translating to a few sluggish strides.

From the downhill third last, which he jumped in eighth, to the home turn, at which point he was still in that same grouping but a few lengths nearer, Aidan Coleman had him level with Unowhatimeanharry. He was on the outside, but as they turned for home the jockey manoeuvred him between horses at which point it was obvious he was going best, with just a slight worry of potential crowding.

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At Ascot, off level weights, he had needed to catch the Colin Tizzard-trained 40-1 shot West Approach, which he did to the tune of two lengths. Here, conceding 6lb for that Grade 1 win, he again had West Approach as the final horse to overtake. This he managed easily before the last this time. By the line, three lengths there had been stretched to a dozen with another two to Black Op in third and Sam Spinner a further ten away in fourth.

This field, which contained most of the home candidates for the Stayers Hurdle, had been blown away. Unowhatimeanharry, a multiple Grade 1 winner and, like Sam Spinner a Long Walk faller which caused many to question the worth of Paisley Park’s win there, was 30 lengths behind at the finish, all lost in the last quarter-mile.

A strict interpretation of the two runs through the runner-up, suggests an improvement of at least a stone in barely a month and with the ground riding softer than the official pre-race verdict, any going and course fears can be consigned to the rubbish bin.

Before and after the race Andrew, who has shares in 20 horses including in Australia, unsurprisingly was the target for interviewers and he clearly gets a large kick out of owning such a good horse. I remember when Tangognat won the corresponding opening race on the same card 33 years ago to set up his illusory Triumph Hurdle prospects – he was a very disappointing second favourite – I could think of nothing else for the next six weeks. Let’s hope Andrew has other matters to concentrate on. I know he’ll never tire of listening to the commentary of the last part of Saturday’s race.

A couple of weeks back Joseph O’Brien was quoted as saying he’d just taken charge of a number of  horses bought from France for J P McManus. One of them, Fine Brunello, made his debut for the stable with a very promising second in the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle which opened proceedings.

A 25-1 shot, he will have pleased connections but while comfortably beating off the seven home defenders, he was nowhere near good enough to cope with stable-companion Fakir d’Oudairies, a son of Kapgarde, who sluiced in by 13 lengths in the manner of a potential champion.

Five jump races between April and August of his three-year-old season for top trainer Guy Cherel did not provide a win, and he fell in the second of two chases – that’s right, they can run over fences there while our backward Flat racers are just getting going!

But since joining O’Brien he already had a win in a 22-runner juvenile race at Cork and now dominated stronger company going ahead of the field three from home and winning by 13 lengths. With five French and one German import in this nine-runner field, the domination in jumping at the top end for owners wealthy enough to buy these horses is ever more obvious. The winner here was owned by M L Bloodstock Ltd, interestingly the breeders of the runner-up!

In all, 25 French-breds helped swell the wonderful Cheltenham card and one of them, Frodon, provided another highlight when making all under an inspired Briony Frost to deny Elegant Escape in the Betbright Cotswold Chase. He’ll give it everything if he turns up for the Gold Cup and if he does, Frodon will be the darling of all the non-racing media at the meeting. They’ll love Briony for sure. Who doesn’t?

Three weeks back I gave a mention to the former Andrew Balding trainee, now called Ka Ying Star, after his lucrative first run and win at Sha Tin. He made a big step up in class there in Sunday’s Hong Kong Classic Mile worth £570,000 to the winner and after a brave front-running effort compromised by having to go very fast from a wide draw to get the lead, held on for a good third. He earned his new owners £115,000. Hong Kong Derby here they come!

The proper Derby, run at Epsom, is one of the 43 Classic or Group 1 races that have fallen to products of David and Diane Nagle’s Barronstown Stud in Co Wicklow. Their Epsom winner was Generous, but they will rarely if ever have had a better weekend than early last September when Kew Gardens won the St Leger at Doncaster and Flag of Honour the Irish St Leger at The Curragh the following day.

In that context it is hardly surprising that their achievement has been officially recognised by their being inducted into the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Hall of Fame. The slight surprise is that after more than 30 years’ excellence, and with horses of the calibre of Yeats which Diane owned with Sue Magnier, they were not already in it! Well done indeed!

Mrs Magnier, as part of the Coolmore team, had a nice pay day in the US on Saturday. Magic Wand, winner last year of the Ribblesdale, was shrewdly sent by Aidan O’Brien to run in the first Turf Pegasus Invitational race at Gulfstream, which hosted its third year of the main event won previously by Arrogate and Gun Runner, both earning more than £5million for their trouble.

Now track owner Frank Stronach has decided to split the overall money three to two in favour of the Dirt race, but that still left $6 million to be divvied up in the Turf race and $9 milllion against the previous $15 million for the dirt, won easily on Saturday by City of Light. Stronach also offered the incentive of a 7lb allowance for any horse not using Lasix. Originally Magic Wand was due to carry 8st 7lb and Ryan Moore, who had been preparing himself for his lightest weight with rides on the all-weather.

In the event, O’Brien, who usually uses Lasix for his US runners, decided to take advantage of it and with Wayne Lordan in the saddle at 8st, Magic Wand ran home well into second place behind easy winner Bricks and Mortar, who conceded 12lb. Without the 7lb kicker, she would probably have been no better than fourth – a difference of almost £250K in prize money. Smart work!

Monday Musings: The Four Doyennes

The virtual ink had no sooner metaphorically dried on last week’s article before I noticed an unlikely coincidence, writes Tony Stafford. It’s strange that I hadn’t registered it on any of the previous January 15th’s I’d bought the Racing Post, but last Monday morning I finally did.

In my rather random progress around the horseracing world I’ve met only four female owners of American stud farms. One, Penny Chenery, I encountered only a single time, at a party at Lands End, Sands Point, on Long Island, New York, the mansion which is generally accepted as Scott FitzGerald’s inspiration for his novel The Great Gatsby. It was my good fortune to be a house guest there on a few occasions.

On suggesting <and I’m sure you would have read this here before>: "Didn’t you own a good horse?”, Ms Chenery patiently replied: “Yes we bred and owned Secretariat”! That is still the most embarrassing faux pas in my life, considering I was supposed to know something about the game at that time.

Penny, the real-life heroine of the film Secretariat, in which she was played by the amazing Diane Lane, was a major figure in the US racing and breeding industries for many years until her death age 95 in 2017. The host of the Sands Point party was the one of the formidable quartet I knew best, Virginia Kraft Payson, younger than her three counterparts. All four have had remarkable careers.

I am indebted to one of the other two ladies, Alice Chandler, who was 93 last Monday, for meeting Virginia. I went on appointment to her Mill Ridge Stud in Lexington, Kentucky, with George Hill during the 1989 or 1990 Keeneland July sales to see Kris’s full-brother, Diesis. Having said farewell to the future sire of Halling and Ramruma, we were stopped on the way out by Mrs Chandler who invited us to a party that coincidentally she was giving at the farm that evening.

On arrival, I was taken across by Alice to a lady and the hostess said: “This is Virginia Payson. You two should get on, she’s a journalist, too!” We did and but for Alice, Jim Bolger, at the time a regular contact, would never have trained St Jovite, six-length winner of the King George and previously by twice that margin in the Irish Derby.

The Derby itself had narrowly evaded St Jovite, who was less precocious than hard-fought winner Dr Devious and that colt was his immediate victim in the Curragh rout. As for journalist and journalist, while I cosily enjoyed life in Fleet Street, Virginia was the “hunting, shooting and fishing” correspondent for Sports Illustrated for many years, capably partaking in all those disciplines herself.

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The fourth stud farm-owning lady was Josephine Abercrombie, and she too was 93 last Monday. Apart from five husbands, and top-class horses bred at her Pin Oak stud in Versailles, just outside Lexington, she was a noted boxing promoter. Unlike most others in that field, she even developed her own stable of boxers who were housed and provided for in an almost racing stable-like arrangement in Texas, where her father made his fortune in oil.

In the UK she won the 1994 Ebor at York with the giant Hasten To Add, trained by Sir Mark Prescott, beating two pals who are also still going strong, Alan Spence’s Admiral’s Well (by Sadler’s Wells) and Solartica (Bjorn Neilsen).

I first met her the following October at the Meadowlands, part of the complex that includes the home of the New York Mets baseball team (once owned by Mrs P’s husband Charles Shipman Payson) and Flushing Meadows, location for the US Open tennis championships. I was there to meet Michael Dickinson, who had a runner that night and with whom Dale McKeown, previously a decent jump jockey with Reg Akehurst in the UK, was part of the team.

Mrs Abercrombie’s  smart three-year-old Peaks and Valleys won the Grade 1 Meadowlands Cup under Julie Krone over nine furlongs on that Friday night. Three weeks later he was unplaced in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont behind the incomparable Cigar. Mrs Payson’s homebred L’Carriere was an honourable second in that Classic.

It must have been the following July that I went across to Pin Oak Stud accompanied by Donna Rion, a noted Kentucky pedigree expert, where Peaks and Valleys had just started stallion duties alongside Sky Classic. More recently, Josephine’s high-class homebred, Broken Vow, still active, has kept Pin Oak to the fore.

Alice Chandler has been married to Dr John Chandler, a South African-born vet, since 1970 and Dr John has long been a key element in Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte stud operation. Alice Headley, as she was, started Mill Ridge in 1962 with four foundation mares and from one of them, Attica, she sold a Sir Gaylord colt for $42,000 at Keeneland.

Bought by Raymond Guest, the former US Ambassador to Great Britain, he won the 1968 2,000 Guineas, Derby, Champion Stakes and Washington DC International. Guest also owned my favourite ever jumper, the double Gold Cup and Grand National hero (beating Red Rum), L’Escargot, the fastest and most enduring snail in racing history.

Sir Ivor was the first horse ever bought at auction in the US that won the Derby. Lester Piggott rode him with the utmost confidence at Epsom to pick off front-running Connaught, but his late-running victory in the Washington DC, then one of the most important international races in the world, caused the local press corps to call Piggott “a bum”. Some bum!

So many birthdays coincide around this time. When St Jovite first went to stud in Kentucky, hopes were high that he would be a top stallion. Mrs Payson sent Indiscreet, the yearling she liked the most from the first crop, to David Loder and his three-length victory on his sole juvenile start in York’s always-competitive Convivial Maiden Stakes entertained Classic hopes for him.

Frankie Dettori was especially impressed and in his A Year in the Life, which a certain Daily Telegraph writer “ghosted” he showed that enthusiasm. That book needed an extra chapter – not easy in those pre-high tech print days – when he had the effrontery to ride seven winners in a day at Ascot after the book was set to go!

Virginia’s son Dean Grimm, who sadly died at the tragically-early age of 53 in 2017, and David Loder shared a birthday on January 26, while George Hill had his 72nd – catching me up, but you’ll never get there mate – last week.

In a quiet spell for jumping recently, Altior seemed a shade disoriented when having to make the running in the three-horse Clarence House Chase race at Ascot on Saturday. Funny, when thinking back to that irritating experience with the recent Kempton “lengths fiasco”, I overheard two punters talking before the Ascot race. One said to the other: “It’s down to above eight lengths for the winning margin. If it goes to seven, I’ll back it”. I don’t know whether the line ever did move to seven and above, but even if it did, the man would have lost. You guessed it, seven lengths was the official verdict when going to the last it looked like it could be nearer 15.

Saturday at Cheltenham features the next stop on the road to the Festival for Andrew Gemmell and Paisley Park, trained so assuredly by Emma Lavelle. He takes in the Cleeve Hurdle and another win there would probably force him into favouritism for the Stayers' Hurdle.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Some Luck on Saturday

I sometimes tune into Luck on Sunday, Nick Luck’s show on Racing TV, and always enjoy at least some of it, writes Tony Stafford. The odd regular might not be quite so welcome around my Sunday breakfast table but it was great that this morning he devoted half an hour to the brilliant Colin McKenzie, best known as the man who found Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber.

Slightly older than me, since Oxford Colin has eased seamlessly into whichever area of journalism he arrived in: from his earliest days in the old William Hickey social column on the then pre-eminent Daily Express, through to the formative days of the Racing Post at Brough Scott’s invitation, and thence to 20 years as the Daily Mail’s correspondent he’s been a player.

McKenzie loved a scoop, none better than when he travelled out to Brazil, where Biggs had been living for a number of years, to interview him. The paper’s then Editor unceremoniously  ”shafted” him by reporting to Scotland Yard that the Wandsworth prison escapee was living in Brazil, quite openly doing carpentry work for various Americans in Rio.

That episode, the one that resounds still more than 40 years after the fact, characterises Colin’s career, but so does the late in his Mail tenure story when he revealed that Kieren Fallon would be getting a ban for a second failed drug test in France, soon after Dylan Thomas’s Arc win.

Everyone else who had been reporting on the Old Bailey race fixing trial in 2007 which collapsed leaving Fallon technically free to resume riding, took that route. McKenzie, soon to retire from the Mail, had some inside information that the French would step in if Fallon was cleared. He took the solo route and was proved correct.

In between, indeed soon after his Biggs triumph, McKenzie received hot information from someone in his social milieu that Lord Lucan, another <assumed> criminal on the run – in his case after the murder of his children’s nanny of which he was suspected – and thought to be protected by his society pals, was alive and well and living in South Africa.

Luck probed skilfully for a few minutes, trying to draw out some detail, but McKenzie, with a “memoirs” book probably still in the back of his mind, preferred to stay pretty schtum. Can’t wait for that one. I wonder if they’ll send me a copy?

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The other part of the show I enjoyed was the telephone interview with Sam Waley-Cohen, whose win on his father’s horse Impulsive Star in the Classic Chase at Warwick proved once again that he has few peers as a steeplechase rider.

Impulsive Star, lightly raced over the past two seasons, drew on all his rider’s skill as he took advantage of his light weight and the 3lb allowance he is still entitled to claim. Almost laughably so, one might say as the 36-year-old veteran of six wins around the Grand National fences – plus a second in the National itself on Oscar Time in 2011 – and the Gold Cup on another of his father’s great horses, Long Run, the first in the race by an amateur for 30 years, hardly needs any extra help.

Those of us tempted by Impulsive Star’s chance could hardly miss the frequent pre-race mentions of the fact that Sam would almost certainly be putting up overweight – it’s been years since he has even tried to do a weight as light as 9st 12lb. The biggest put-away merchant it seems was father Robert, Chairman of Cheltenham racecourse, another track where Sam historically has done well.

Well Sam did the weight, but even so when the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Calett Mad moved up to join and then pass Impulsive Star at the second last in the short Warwick straight after the three miles, five furlongs, the game seemed up. Here one might have anticipated Sam’s wasting-induced strength running out, but between the last two fences, Waley-Cohen galvanised Impulsive Star and by the line he had more than three lengths to spare. I had to take a second look at the film after seeing the result in print yesterday.

This was only the fourth Rules win and 14th ride for Waley-Cohen since the start of the 2018-19 season back in April. By contrast, young James Bowen, rider of the runner-up and who was not born as Sam recalled “when I had my first winner around Warwick” has won 51 from 338 this season.

Apart from his riding credentials, Sam Waley-Cohen, a prominent charity fund-raiser since the death of his younger brother Tom from cancer just before his 20th birthday in 2004, has multiple interests. He climbs mountains, runs marathons, pilots planes and helicopters, skis and boxes all for fun, which is precisely his approach to his riding.

In business he has developed the Portman Dentalcare brand into a company with – according to the record I saw yesterday – 15 centres. As long ago as 2011, as well as winning the delayed until January King George at Kempton, ending Kauto Star’s run of four and two months later the Gold Cup, both with Long Run, he received the Spears Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. Some jockey – some man!

Kempton was my stamping ground on Saturday and for the second year in succession Mercian Prince leapt his rivals silly from first to last in the two and a half mile handicap chase sponsored by Unibet. Amy Murphy considers this ebullient jumper the horse that first put her ever-developing stable on the map, and he certainly works well with Jack Quinlan who was in synch with him from start to finish.

One of the better ideas on big-race Saturdays is that William Hill usually picks out a featured race on which to offer spectacular place terms. It need not be a race of their sponsorship and Kempton’s special offer was the also Unibet-backed Lanzarote Handicap Hurdle. Usual terms for 14-runner handicaps are three places at one-quarter the odds. Here Hills were paying out on the first six, but at one-fifth the odds, which is more than a fair exchange.

What it does and did do was encourage us (me and Peter, still trying despite the judge-lengths fiasco there two weeks ago) to look for an outsider that might make the first six. We landed rather fortuitously on Big Time Dancer, ridden by the upwardly-mobile Jonjo O’Neill, Jr., for trainer Jennie Candlish, who stayed at home in Staffordshire.

Initially a massive – considering he’d won his previous handicap at Doncaster by ten lengths, but admittedly up 9lb for that – 20-1 he was shortened to 16’s and all the way round this big slab of a horse was jumping fast and coasting along untroubled in midfield.

From a long way out only the prospect of a fall threatened at worst the place part of the bet’s being landed, for an effective 6-4 all-round win, but once in the straight, success looked inevitable. The same goes for young Jonjo. His dad wasn’t too bad and the young man couldn’t have two nicer parents with mum Jacqui also playing a big part in the Jackdaws Castle story. They must be very proud and rightly so.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Hong Kong? Phooey!

Why do people own horses? That’s a very good question in these days of high costs and, apart from at the top level, pretty ordinary prize money levels, writes Tony Stafford. In simple terms you have to love the game,  I assume, but some syndicates and racing clubs also manage to tap into social aspirations even for non- lovers.

At the higher level in that regard must be the Royal Ascot Racing Club which not only has the best facilities and catering standards available to its members, but the cachet of the Royal meeting itself to entice would-be adherents. They have also had a Derby winner, Motivator, run in their colours.

Not far behind, certainly for people of a certain vintage – and sadly perhaps racing still relies principally on that age-group – must be the Kingsclere Racing Club. This is run from Andrew Balding’s stable on the Hampshire-Berkshire borders and relies entirely on bloodstock bred by Kingsclere Stud.

Not the least of the appeal is that the Club is able to utilise the historic colours, black with a gold cross, worn by the wonderful Mill Reef, always referred to as among the top handful of thoroughbreds in the second half of the last century. Mill Reef was trained by Andrew’s father, Ian, for the colt’s American owner-breeder, Paul Mellon.

His 12 wins and two second places in 14 races included an impressive Epsom Derby success. His defeats were both at the very top level. As a juvenile he was edged out in a close finish by My Swallow, the champion European 1970 two-year-old, and then in the next year’s 2,000 Guineas when the equally brilliant Brigadier Gerard – who only ever lost once in 18 starts over three seasons’ racing – beat him and My Swallow in probably the greatest Guineas of all time.

Mill Reef would almost certainly have improved even on those figures bar a shattered leg sustained while being prepared for the 1972 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Happily, supreme care and rehabilitation meant he recovered well enough to fulfil a highly-meritorious stallion career at the National Stud in Newmarket.

Even after all these years the sight of those silks coming to the fore on the racecourse gives me a charge as it must the 25 shareholders (that’s the maximum Kingsclere Racing Club seeks according to their literature) when they appear on track.

For an interest in the stated 15 Flat horses – the odd one does run over jumps from time to time – each member pays £6,000 <hope that’s current> and in turn is entitled to one-fiftieth share of prize money, so the management keeps and underwrites at least one-half. In 2018, 14 individual Kingsclere Stud horses ran for a total of nine wins and around £180,000. I reckon that will boil down to around £110,000 of owners’ money after jockey, trainer, stable percentage and other Weatherbys deductions.

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So it should still leave in excess of two  grand to each member from the six invested – a not-unreasonable return for the excitement of seeing 71 domestic and a few overseas runs during the year, especially with the social aspect and free admission to the top enclosure on track.

I’m not sure how many of the members – or even the trainer - fancied yesterday’s jaunt up to Newcastle for their four-year-old Seasearch, a son of Passing Glance who won twice last year and stepped up to two miles in 0-65 company. Sadly the jury will still be out on his stamina as he was a one-paced sixth of eight, but the travelling costs for the horse – if not the owners – will have been partially defrayed by prizemoney of £400 for all the also-rans.

The bulk of the 2018 earnings for Kingsclere Racing Club was shared between two horses. Brorocco, who despite failing to win in seven starts, collected most with almost £60,000 from place prizes. The three-year-old Urban Aspect, a son of Cityscape out of Casual Glance, a Kingsclere stalwart, won £53,000 from four runs. After a promising debut third, he won three times, culminating in victory from a big field in a mile handicap at the York Ebor meeting in August.

Four weeks after York, Urban Aspect was gelded and the next time he appeared in a race programme was yesterday morning when he was due to make his Hong Kong debut in the concluding Lung Kung Handicap, a Class 2 race over a mile and worth £111,000 to the winner.

My former Daily Telegraph colleague, Jim McGrath, busily mopping up assignments all around the globe in his lucrative later years, penned a piece about the card in yesterday’s Racing Post. He suggested the former Richard Hannon horse Tigre du Terre was the one to be on.

But in a very competitive field he could finish only ninth, failing to build on a promising debut run last month. If any Kingsclere Racing Club member is none the wiser, I am very sad for you. Clearly a substantial price was forthcoming for their former money-spinner. At that point no doubt any ongoing pecuniary benefit would have ended in the way Motivator’s sale as a stallion did not enrich Sir Clement Freud and the rest of the Royal Ascot RC membership. I’m sure the Balding family and the club officials have that element firmly defined. This seems a very well-run and highly-successful enterprise from where I’m looking.

In the manner of Hong Kong racing, the new proud owner, Mr Leng Shek Kong, chose a “lucky” name for his investment at which point La Ying Star was born. When I looked briefly down the list yesterday morning, I could not understand why a horse with three wins to his name should be available at outsider odds in that 9.45 a.m. race.

Later, having not been professional enough to watch live – and even Jim’s wise words when I saw them had already been overtaken by actual events – I saw that the 3111- form figure horse had indeed won. I’m sure that even after the BHA hike from 93 to 104 as a result of York his previous owners would not have been dissuaded from backing him again wherever he appeared after wins at 2-1, 8-11 and 5-1.

If they were aware of his new surroundings they would have been rewarded at 29-1. If it had been me, I’m sure I’d have missed the Hong Kong wedding but tucked in at the Geordie funeral!

There were three more UK imports in the field. Sixth home Charity Go (BHA106) was also ex-Balding and this was the third Hong Kong outing for the former Fortune’s Pearl. He was a Qatar Racing “discard” if you could ever refer to the high-price Hong Kong Derby turkey shoot in that way, such are the prices received.

Ninth over the line was Classic Beauty (BHA 103) and unraced since winning easily at Naas in June for Adrian Paul Keatley. That was his third try for the one-time London Icon in the Far East where his record stands at 10/9/9. Lastly Tigre du Terre, no name change here, won three of nine for Hannon in the colours of another great ownership entity, Middleham Park.

It would be nice to think that the 25 or however many members there were last year, and will be for the new team in 2019, had their brains on at 29-1. Almost better than having 2% of the £111k!

As for New Year resolutions, I have made one in particular. Here and especially now – maybe later – might not be the place to reveal the details of a financial difficulty that has appeared in the carrying out of my usual function. What I have promised myself is that having spent the first almost 50 years of my horse-racing-aware (so 1962 on) life knowing pretty much everything about what’s running and therefore might be capable of winning each day, and latterly slipped markedly into sloth, I’m not too old or tired out to renew full attention. As someone – more than one – says from time to time, “You can still find them!” I realise, though, you have to look first. I’m looking, mark my words, and now and then I’ll feel confident enough to pass them on! Have a Happy Punting New Year.

 

 

 

Monday Musings: Altior by a distance

By a quirk of fate, Altior is destined not to be celebrated as the best hurdler since triple Champion Hurdler Istabraq, writes Tony Stafford. I remember joining the throng attending Nicky Henderson’s stable opening as part of the 2016 Lambourn Open Day on Good Friday (March 25)  when Altior shared attention with the great Sprinter Sacre, who was about to run his spectacular finale at Sandown the following month.

I was there to catch up with Henderson’s long-time assistant and confidant Corky Brown as we’d made the initial steps into writing a book about the great man – Corky, that is, although Nicky’s pretty great too!

Sprinter Sacre was unfailingly helpful for hours in several sessions as the devotees took their turn to be photographed with him, some even picking hairs out of his tail. The unlikely return to championship form after his survival from the well-documented heart condition that interrupted his career coincided with an admirable temperament. “You couldn’t do that with any other horse.” as Henderson said at the time.

The Corky book never went any further with no blame other than to Sprinter Sacre, whose phoenix-like rise from the ashes of his ailment was quickly and opportunistically celebrated in a book which definitively had to have plenty of references to Mr Brown. I didn’t read it – no sour grapes intended – but these days the trade review copies no longer darken my door.

Altior gained almost as much attention that enjoyable day when Sir Rupert Mackeson’s Marlborough Bookshop did a much-needed roaring trade, rather better than when I stood in as a trainee replacement at Ascot’s two-day November meeting.

The sensational son of High Chaparral had just thrashed his Supreme Novice Hurdle opposition in a manner that suggested to me he would be the one to challenge the then overwhelming superiority of the Willie Mullins stable in 2017. Faugheen, the 2015 winner, missed the next running but Annie Power’s able substitution kept the home team fearful that Irish domination might continue.

That 2016 Supreme was won with the now characteristic burst from the last obstacle that Altior exhibits in his chases, sometimes even when, as with his recent Sandown defeat of Un De Sceaux, defeat has briefly loomed as a possibility.

Min was his nearest Supreme challenger, with Buveur D’Air only third and Tombstone, Charbel, Mister Miyagi following and the multiple Grade 1 winners Supersundae and Petit Mouchoir in seventh and eighth in that select field of 14.

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Both Altior and Buveur D’Air switched to chasing the following season, the latter winning twice before serendipitously reverting to hurdles, with the probably unexpected outcome of two consecutive Champion Hurdle wins.

Meanwhile the boy who would be king kept to fences. Starting with a 63-length bloodless romp over sole rival Black Corton at Kempton, he has never faltered. Black Corton had already won two novice chases by then and by wide margins, but he still had the final fence to jump when Altior coasted past the winning post. That was the same Black Corton who has now won 13 times and last season gave emphatic notice of regular partner Briony Frost’s talent when they won seven of eight races together between July 2017 and last February.

Since then for Altior it’s been six lengths from Charbel, 18 lengths, 13 from Fox Norton, six again from Cloudy Dream in the Arkle followed by an eight-length defeat of Special Tiara in his season’s finale at Sandown.

Last campaign’s return was delayed by wind surgery in November and that ruled out his customary Christmas stroll around Kempton – in 2015 he won his novice hurdle there by 13 lengths before beating Min for the first time; Christmas 2016 brought an 18-length novice chase romp and of course normal service was resumed last week.

Henderson was restricted with only Newbury’s Game Spirit Chase as preparation for the Queen Mother Champion Chase and, in Politologue, Altior faced a fully fit and worthy opponent. He comfortably landed the odds by almost four lengths. He again saw off old rival Min in the big one and by the identical seven-length margin. Those who backed the great horse – still unbeaten over jumps – will have marvelled at his even-money starting price. He followed up with another nice win from San Benedeto at Sandown in April.

Back on an even keel this season, he powered home from Un De Sceaux at Sandown in the Tingle Creek before sauntering to that 19-length margin last week at Kempton. A few minutes after the race, Nico de Boinville was walking past the Bookselling Baronet’s stall near the weighing room and I called out: “Best ever, Nico?” He grinned and said simply: “Yes”. In case you were wondering, I do not loiter there the whole afternoon.

I wish Altior had stayed hurdling even though he has never been anywhere near being beaten in his steeplechases. If Nicky Henderson can keep him sound, I believe he will become one of the all-time greats, if he’s not there already.

Meanwhile on a Christmas of shocks for some of the stars of the sport, Buveur D’Air was caught late by his stable-companion Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle, to end a winning run stretching as far as his third to Altior as a novice hurdler.  In Ireland Getabird and Samcro were among a host of beaten favourites in the major races.

One well-fancied Irish jumper that did win was the Joseph O’Brien newcomer Sir Erec, who has transferred into the ownership of J P McManus since his good third behind Stradivarius for the Coolmore team and Aidan O’Brien in Ascot’s Champion Stayers race in October. While watching that narrow success in the William Hill betting shop I pointed out to Peter Ashmore what looked like a generous offer.

For the three English jumps meetings, Kempton, Wetherby and Chepstow, Hill’s offered 11-4 (from 7-4) against a cumulative winning margin of above 30 lengths at all three tracks. We took the bait and now it was all down to the horses – or rather in the case of Kempton, the Judge.

The second race at Wetherby was a three-mile novice chase and with the Skelton-trained and -ridden favourite flopping, Top Ville Ben won by 46 lengths to close out that part of the deal.

With the Welsh Grand National and a series of stamina tests in the Chepstow mud, we were confident of succeeding there, and with Altior and (so we thought) Kalashnikov for a couple of exhibition rounds to come at Kempton what was there to worry about?

Chepstow’s first two races were each won by seven lengths and with five more stamina tests including the Grand National, it looked comfortable, but the next three races including the  big one totalled only two lengths. It took a wide-margin bumper success for the favourite in the last to reach the target.

Meanwhile at Kempton, the opening juvenile hurdle, won by a Gary Moore 25-1 shot, produced 1.5 lengths; Kalashnikov was never going as well as Dynamite Dollars, but Jack Quinlan kept persevering  so only another 1.25 lengths was added. Disappointingly the three mile mares’ handicap hurdle was also won by fewer than two lengths. Altior’s margin of 19 lengths – let’s face it Nico, it could have been 99! - meant we needed just over seven lengths to collect.

We stayed to watch the penultimate race and when Adrien Du Pont drew away after the last, we thought maybe five lengths. The Judge said three and a half. So we still needed three and a bit for the last. We listened to the commentary in the car and heard Eddiemaurice going clear. Out of our hearing Unison, apparently beaten at the last, rallied to within – you guessed it – three lengths. That made it exactly 30 lengths. Looking back at the film when I got home, I reckon the Judge could easily have stretched the required tiny notch we needed in any one of them. It’s hard enough to win without the Judge conspiring against you, too!

Monday Musings: A Happy Past

When your past catches up with you, it doesn’t always bring back the happiest of memories, writes Tony Stafford. But one chance encounter at my regular vantage point in the buffet restaurant at Tattersalls sales almost three weeks ago defies belief, but in a positive way.

My wingman – actually it’s the other way round – as much-respected bloodstock insurance doyen, John Hancock, now winding down, as if ever he would, and working for Anglo Hibernian under Jim Wordsworth, is a much more permanent attendee.

Jim had invited his staff in the Newmarket High Street office to lunch in the posh restaurant next door to the buffet on the first anniversary of the firm’s being taken over by a bigger company last December.

While John enjoyed sampling the expensive menu I took a couple of hours to wander the grounds; watch a few going through the ring and to catch up with the ever-industrious – and unflappable – Wendy Normile in the Coolmore office.

Later that day, a friend, Andrew Pasfield, a veteran of many Highclere Thoroughbred Racing syndicates of varying success, was to meet up with me. He was there to witness the sale later in the day of Luminate, a one-time Classic hope trained in France by Freddy Head but ultimately disappointing.

I arrived back in the buffet and found John on a busy table, luckily with one spare space next to him. Unusually they were not his clients, but coincidentally they too were there to watch the same Highclere filly sell.

I was sure I had seen one of them before and said, on being introduced to Andrew Gemmell, “I’m Tony Stafford,” and was amazed when he said, “I know”. Considering he was clearly blind, I was further astonished when he said: “I recognise your voice from when you used to do BBC Radio London with Norman de Mesquita”.

Considering my three-year stint, driving down from the Daily Telegraph in Fleet Street to Marylebone High Street in the West End every Friday to record a broadcast on the big Saturday cards to go out on Friday evening and again on Saturday morning, ended in 1980, it took more than a reasonable memory.

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But what he added was even more amazing. “You were always talking about Honegger and Michael Dickinson, and how he was going to win again.” I’ve previously referred to my depleted racing library and irritatingly I could not find any form book covering either his career or that of Fear Naught, the smart filly Honegger beat at Redcar in the race that persuaded me to tell Michael: “You must buy him. He’s got so much guts, he has to make a hurdler.”

So when the then Luca Cumani-trained colt came to the Autumn Sale at Tatts, presumably in 1974, I was delighted when the Dickinson’s did indeed buy him. Obviously it was even more gratifying that he won I think seven times as a juvenile and at least 20 races in all. I reckon Michael, Luca and me are probably just about the only people around who would still recognise the name Honegger apart from the remarkable Mr Gemmell.

That day he was clearly keyed up at the prospect of the sale of his Lawman filly but should not have worried. She was knocked down for 900,000gns, so the two Andrews got a very nice dividend on their 10 per cent shares in a filly that was originally bought by John and Jake Warren for Euro 85,000 as a yearling at Goff’s sale in Ireland. That was just about – training fees apart – all profit as she won £84,000 in her racing career.

Andrew Gemmell did have time to tell me before the sale that he owned outright a nice staying hurdler, Paisley Park, that only ten days before had won a valuable (56k) handicap hurdle over three miles at Haydock under top weight of 11st12lb. He said the plan was the JLT Hurdle (registered as the Long Walk), a level weights Grade 1 race over the same trip at Ascot’s pre-Christmas fixture.

He talked about being blind from birth, the son of two local GPs who looked after the children at the school for the blind he attended near Shrewsbury. From an early age his father instilled in him the love of cricket and horse racing and he attended his first Test match aged 11.

For 20 years he worked for Westminster Council, finally leaving when yet another change in work practices coupled with a wish to go to Australia to watch the Ashes Test series propelled him into his later life as a full-time sports fanatic.

Andrew has been an MCC member for years; is a season ticket holder at West Ham United – sorry Racing Post, not Arsenal! - and has been to the last 11 Melbourne Cups among almost 30 visits to Australia where he has horses in training. Three years ago he was part of the La Grange syndicate which owned the Ed Dunlop-trained Trip to Paris, a close fourth behind Prince of Penzance in the Melbourne Cup having previously finished runner-up in the Caulfield Cup.

On Saturday morning I called Andrew and asked if I could come down to the paddock before the JLT Hurdle. “Of course,” was the reply, and in the manner of all good stories, Paisley Park, a Euro 60,000 purchase by Gerry Hogan and Emma Lavelle as a three-year-old, came away to win in good style. Before the race, the big topic was the heavy ground because when he ran at Cheltenham in the spring, he pulled hard in blinkers and finished miles behind.

This time, he settled well under Aidan Coleman and outstayed his rivals, winning by a couple of lengths, suggesting that the 14-1 on offer for the Sun Bets Stayers Hurdle at the Festival might be over-generous. Certainly he is in for a shot at the £185,000 first prize as his stamina and form cannot be questioned. He was especially gratified that the horse gave initial Grade 1 wins for both Lavelle, with whom he has had horses since she started training, and Coleman.

The reference by Andrew to Norman de Mesquita, likewise a cricket fanatic, but much more, caused me to delve a little into his story. I knew from first hand that he was from a Portuguese Jewish family, but it took a reminder in his obituary, published in 2013 upon his dying aged 81, that he had also been an ice hockey referee, the announcer at Wembley stadium and a lover of theatre and classical music.

My best memory of my time working with Norman was when tipping Tamalin for the 1979 Grand National. Later that day, back in the office I was aghast that Gordon W Richards had declared him a non-runner.

I had another look at what had been my luckiest tipping race for the paper and came up with Rubstic. I said to Norman I’d happily drive down from Hertfordshire the following morning to the studio and give my revised tip live. All the way down to my mother-in-law’s house in Highbury where I would be dropping off the family I had the radio on with Norman telling the listeners Tony Stafford was on his way.

The journey was punctuated with two stops for travel sickness between the three kids, then age six, three and a half and 18 months, but I finally parked on a yellow line outside the studio at 11.20, ten minutes before the end of the show. We managed a quick, breathless interview and blow me down Rubstic won later in the day at 28-1. It took a great broadcaster like Norman de Mesquita to take the chance of such an uncertain prospect both in terms of my getting there and then fluking the winner.

But I must finish with Andrew. When we first talked about Norman I said: “Do you remember who filled in for Norman when he went on holiday?” He thought for no more than ten seconds and said “Simon Reed”. Of course he was right.

That is the same Simon Reed whose elder brother Oliver was the hell-raising actor who died almost 20 years ago. Simon still keeps the viewers informed with his commentaries on tennis and ice skating at the top events around the world. Just before I started work at the Greyhound Express in 1966, the Reed boys’ father Peter was that long-departed paper’s horse racing tipster and the youthful Oliver and Simon used to come in to sub up evening dog results ready for the printer.

Monday Musings: If Only…

If only – the phrase of my life, as when taking people along to the old deserted Hackney Greyhound stadium and failing to get them to fork out £5 million for the basis of the future Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London, less than a mile from where I now live, writes Tony Stafford.

Then there was the idea , funnelled via Victor Chandler, one of the non-purchasers of the dog track, to get a dozen of his fellow bookmakers to join together to resuscitate the temporarily-closed Racing Channel, later re-vamped as At The Races, in pretty much the way it is structured nowadays. Only the Tote and Coral even bothered to reply.

A couple of less stark “if only's” occurred to me this past weekend, the second of them early yesterday when the Deauville meeting, delayed for the most part from Saturday when the icy weather caused the jockeys to lay down their saddles, was belatedly completed.

The local officials apparently took the decision largely to race on because of a considerable English and Irish invasion force of which Jamie Osborne was the most vocal protester. He invoked his old jump riding days when he and his counterparts went out in all weathers and coped with snow and poor visibility as a matter of course. “We’d have to take five pairs of googles to get through the races sometimes in those days”, was the gist of his complaint.

Well Jamie and his pals got a much better response with European officialdom than did Prime Minister Theresa May as she sought improvements last week on the ill-fated Brexit deal in the face of unbending opposition from 27 other nations.

I hadn’t looked at that Saturday card, with other matters more prominent in my mind, but if I had, what I wrote in this place six weeks ago would assuredly have come back to my memory. That Halloween weekend, while racing’s great and good were in Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup, I was at a very minor Newmarket finale. In unseasonably balmy weather for November, the Lope De Vega filly, Feliciana De Vega, romped away to a six-length debut win.

She was, as I related, the fourth of seven Lope De Vega fillies owned by Waverley Racing and trained by Ralph Beckett.  The other three, Antonia De Vega (two wins and then a last of eight after going lame in the Group 1 Fillies Mile);  Dancing Vega (one out of one) and Manuela De Vega (two out of two including a Listed) made it six wins in seven starts.

Three remain unraced, so at the time I made a mental note – no guarantees there nowadays! – to back Lope Scholar, Teodora De Vega and Lope Athena whenever they appeared.

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Trust Mr Beckett to slip Feliciana across the Channel when I wasn’t paying attention. Lining up for the 10-runner Prix des Sablonnets, a Listed race over 1500 metres (7 1/2 furlongs), she was the 11-10 favourite. The field included one other invader, the Hugo Palmer-trained Kodiac colt, Ours Puissant, who had won a maiden at Kempton by seven lengths on Oct 1 and then ran a more than respectable second (conceding 3lb) to the 90-rated William Haggas-trained Jarbath on the same course last month.

Feliciana was never troubled to maintain her unbeaten record and bring the Waverley Racing/ Beckett score to seven out of eight with a four and a half length romp. Eight locals were strung out behind the British pair.

Thirty minutes later Osborne’s frustration must have been partly assuaged when his useful gelding Hathal, the 33-10 favourite in another Listed race over the same distance, finished a length and a half behind two duelling locals who had a short head between them. Archie Watson, Aidan O’Brien (two) and Richard Spencer were represented among the field of 14.

The interesting point of that hotly-contested race was that it was run in a tenth of a second slower than the earlier and one-sided juvenile event. Never mind that obvious point in the favour of the younger horse, the weight-for-age scale determines that at this stage of the year, three-year-olds and upwards are required to give 20lb to their juniors in the event of their meeting. Hathal’s 108 rating suggests that Feliciana De Vega could conceivably end up considerably higher.

In my Halloween edition, I related how Lope De Vega had also made a huge impact at the Breeders’ Cup where his daughter Newspaperofrecord ran right away from her Juvenile Fillies’ Turf rivals, scoring by almost seven lengths from Becky Hillen’s Frankel filly, East.

Bred in the UK by TimesofWigan Ltd, one-time major sponsors and owners, and bought at Tattersalls Book 1 last year for 200,000gns, Newspaperofrecord is now being talked up as a potential challenger at Royal Ascot.

Such was the impression she made with her front-running demolition job, it might seem hard to believe that there might be another filly to challenge her, but the figures of the Deauville race suggest Feliciana De Vega might just be that filly.

Much was made of the fact that Enable was able to win the Oaks even though she didn’t make her first appearance until Nov 28 at Newcastle the previous season. Maybe that is evidence enough that next year’s Oaks could be within the range of Feliciana De Vega, and there could be enough stamina in the pedigree to be hopeful of her getting the Oaks distance.

She is the first foal of an Oratorio mare who won four races for Dermot Weld ending with a 112 official rating. Her best run was probably her half-length second to Declaration of War over 10.5 furlongs. Oratorio won the Coral-Eclipse Stakes for Aidan O’Brien.

Another first foal of an Oratorio mare and also by an O’Brien-trained Eclipse winner (Mount Nelson) was my biggest “if only” of the weekend. Much earlier in the year I tried in vain to get some interest in what trainer Wilf Storey and I believed was an excellent-value group of six horses intended to comprise the newly-instituted Wilf Storey Racing Club.

Advertisements went out in Michael Harris’s Racehorses for Sale site with pictures alongside pen pictures showing their good looks and conformation. Each 5% share in the six was to cost £1,800 and training costs would probably have been among the cheapest in the country.

Two that were identified as potential jumpers were the recently-gelded pair Nelson River (ex-Clive Cox) and French Kiss (ex-Hughie Morrison), each with three juvenile “coconuts” and consequently modest ratings. We thought that pitching the price low, given sufficient advertising and with compelling word of mouth, we’d comfortably fill the Club.

Four months later, we had attracted the princely total of two shareholders and both of those were “insider” friends. Wilf’s problems had intensified by that time as he’d had to carry all the costs for the six for several months and with the severe weather of the winter and spring in Co Durham, his gallop was unusable for much of the early part of the year. Illness among his staff complicated the issue further.

Reluctantly he had to put the two most obvious candidates on the market at reduced prices to attract potential buyers and stave off almost certain bankruptcy.

In the event his former jockey, Tony Carroll, stepped in and soon passed on the news that he liked what he had. French Kiss has taken time coming to hand, but Nelson River was more forward. That said, his 20-1 Wolverhampton win second time out for his new owners was totally unexpected.

Turned to jumping, he made a winning start at Bangor – where French Kiss was third – and on Saturday came from a long way back in now characteristically strong-finishing style to win the Triumph Hurdle Trial against some very expensive opponents.

When the sale took place, the two friends who had joined the club [one of them editor/owner of this website] agreed to morph their investment into another Storey horse, Nearly There, and on Saturday, ten minutes after Nelson River’s Cheltenham romp, Nearly There was runner-up to the favourite Para Mio in a handicap over Newcastle’s Tapeta track. If only!

Monday Musings: A Global Game

Racing at Sandown on Saturday was like going back in time at least 30 years, writes Tony Stafford. Traffic built up a couple of hours before the early start; car parks were packed but then came the major difference: going into the track, racegoers were funnelled through a narrow opening where the Saturday staple drug-detecting dogs had a sniff at everyone.

I don’t know whether the course releases details of the number of non-admissions as a result of the screening policy but at the time I survived the examination it was all pretty good-natured, as it remained throughout.

The main attraction obviously was the return to action of the peerless Altior in the Betfair Tingle Creek Chase. The sponsors’ yellow scarves were draped around many shoulders but did little to nullify the effects of a downpour during the running of the race.

With only four contestants it might have been a relative non-event, but in the form of Un de Sceaux, such a reliable adversary, the champion was faced with a serious test.

When Ruby Walsh gathered the Irish 10-year-old for his run for home it looked as though Altior might struggle, but once the acceleration which has characterised his entire career kicked in, there was only one possible outcome. Altior won by four lengths with the other pair, Saint Calvados – who took Un de Sceaux’s customary position at the front for almost half the race, and Sceau Royal a respectful distance behind.

As all three remain among the immediate group of possible beneficiaries should Altior lapse from his present level in next March’s Queen Mother Chase at Cheltenham, it is understandable that Nicky Henderson’s eight-year-old is now odds-on for that race.

The entire Sandown card provided entertainment as did the track executive’s decision to broadcast on the big screens all the action from Aintree complete with Mark Johnson’s commentary. Often going racing means you lose track of what is happening elsewhere and while you needed rather more research to dig out Chepstow, Wetherby and Navan, it could be done.

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I’ve always had a good crack at solving Aintree’s Becher Chase puzzle believing that previous visitors to the Grand National fences often hold an advantage. A field of 18 included a few with decent claims and, of these, previous winners Vieux Lion Rouge and Ultragold again performed with credit, unlike Blaklion who never recovered from an early mistake and trailed home in 11th spot.

With the ground all over the country suddenly having gone to soft or even heavy, I decided to have a late, brief look for a suitable light-weight and landed on the Robert Walford-trained Walk in the Mill, a son of Derby runner-up Walk in the Park, sire notably of Douvan and Min.

When Call It Magic, trained by Ross O’Sullivan, husband of the enchanting Katy Walsh, as seen on Luck on Sunday yesterday, was still well clear at the third-last fence, victory seemed probable. That was until you noticed Walk in the Mill, who found a strong burst around the outside and by the penultimate fence he looked unassailable. Denied a run in last April’s big race by an injury, he will be a contender next time round.

One For Arthur, the 2017 Grand National winner appeared on the Aintree card, in his first outing since, but in the Betway Many Clouds Chase over the smaller Mildmay fences. Unfortunately he blundered and unseated Tom Scudamore at the third fence leaving prolific winner Definitly Red to make all under Danny Cook. Brian Ellison has the Gold Cup firmly on his agenda.

Willie Mullins looked the trainer to follow in Ireland yesterday, with established and emerging stars sprinkling both the Punchestown and Cork cards. Mullins is fortunate to have – apart from a stable chock-full of brilliant horses – two authentic champion jockeys. So Ruby Walsh, fresh from his multi-tasking at Sandown, was at Punchestown, while Paul Townend took the road south to Cork.

Townend got the better of the day numerically winning four races while his senior colleague had a favourites’ treble. Townend was off with a rush, collecting the first two maidens with Maze Runner and Come To Me for his boss, then teaming up with Pat Fahy to collect the Hilly Way Chase (Grade 2) with Castlegrace Paddy after Mullins’ 4-7 shot, Great Field (Jody McGarvey), departed at the second fence.

Then Camelia de Cotte made it four in the mares’ novice chase before what looked a certain five-timer was narrowly denied in the finale. Here, Mullins’ well-backed Eight and Bob strolled clear before two out in a 20-runner novice handicap hurdle, but a scruffy jump at the last was all the encouragement fast-finishing Ronald Pump and jockey Robbie Power needed to get up late.

The aforementioned Min was the centrepiece of Ruby’s Punchestown treble, but the multiple former champion needed all his steel to overcome some tactical room-denying by a couple of his rivals coming to the closing stages of the John Durkan Memorial. In the end Min had a little to spare over Gordon Elliott’s Shattered Love and, with stable-mate Footpad, is one of the leaders in the group paying homage to Altior among the two-milers.

Sunday was an uncharacteristically barren day for Elliott, with none of his 12 runners getting top spot after three the day before at Navan. The last straw must have been the defeat of odds-on Santana Plessis in the concluding Pro-Am Flat race, where the honours went to Tom Hamilton on the Joseph O’Brien newcomer, Embittered, a son of Fame and Glory.

Joseph was not there to witness his winner although the communications from Hong Kong would have enabled him to see it. O’Brien was on track at 6 a.m. GMT, almost ten hours before his home winner, for the Longines Hong Kong Vase where his Irish Derby winner Latrobe was one of eight European contenders for the £1 million plus first prize.

Latrobe could manage only 11th of the 14 runners. Best of the Europeans, behind the four-year-old Teofilo gelding, Exultant, was Dermot Weld’s Eziyra in the Aga Khan colours. She picked up just shy of £200k while fifth-placed Waldgeist (Andre Fabre) collected just over £60,000 for fifth. None of the other visitors collected a cheque. Best of these in seventh was the much-travelled Rostropovich (Aidan O’Brien), with Charlie Fellowes’ Prince of Arran in eighth and Salouen, Sylvester Kirk, ninth. Ed Dunlop’s Red Verdon beat just one home, the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Mirage Dancer, who continued Ryan Moore’s run of overseas disappointments.

David Elsworth also sent over a challenger on the day, but his Sir Dancealot probably found the hotly-contested Hong Kong Sprint happening much too quickly after a busy season, and was never in contention, finishing last of eleven.

After her strong-finishing fifth at the Breeders’ Cup it might have been expected that William Haggas’ One Master would make an impact in the Hong Kong Mile, but while best of the three Europeans, she was still unable to collect any money for finishing a well-beaten eighth. Andrew Balding’s Beat the Bank was 11th and the Fabre-trained Inns of Court last of 14 behind Beauty Generation.

The Hong Kong racing pattern occasionally throws up horses in the mould of this New Zealand-bred six-year-old. Beauty Generation had won only one of his first ten outings as a developing horse. Since those days he has improved consistently and here completed a five-timer in the major mile races of the season at odds of 1-2. His earnings exceed £6,000,000 and it would seem he will continue to dominate for trainer John Moore and rider Zac Purton.

Monday Musings: Joseph is coming!

Something remarkable happened at Fairyhouse yesterday, writes Tony Stafford. Joseph O’Brien had six runners on the second stage of the track’s December Festival as it was billed and none of them won! Has the magic run out? I bet a few trainers at the top of the Irish jumping scene will be hoping so, not least Gordon Elliott, who will have noticed the drift of a considerable number of Gigginstown House horses into the young genius’s care.

I invoke the term “genius” in the clear knowledge that it is something Joseph and his entire family will prefer to shy away from. Having been the first of four products of champion trainers either side of his pedigree, he has been brought up in an atmosphere as far as one can judge by second-hand observation where to err on the side of modesty is the way to proceed.

Born as recently as May 1993, Joseph O’Brien, just like his siblings Sarah, Anastasia and Donnacha, has been immersed in horses and racing all his life. In May 2009 he finished third in the European Pony Show Jumping Championships and by the end of the same month, had his first riding success on a racecourse.

Such was the progress that by the end of the following year he shared with two others in a triple tie for the Irish Apprentices’ Championship; a first Classic success came on Roderic O’Connor the following May, and by the summer of 2012 he had collected the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and Irish Derby with Camelot. Together they only narrowly failed to record the first UK Triple Crown since Nijinsky and Lester Piggott in 1970 when denied by Encke in the St Leger.

Irish riding championships followed that year, and again in 2013 when 126 wins easily exceeded the previous record. As recently as March 2016 he announced he would stop riding, having succumbed at the age of 22 to the struggle with his weight. Like his younger brother, Donnacha, who will surely have to think about his future sooner rather than later, O’Brien is very tall for a Flat-race jockey.

I mentioned yesterday’s blank at Fairyhouse, which was all the more surprising when considered alongside Saturday’s exploits at the same track. He won four of the seven races on the jumps card, and none of the quartet started favourite. The cumulative odds, if you had managed to put them together, exceeded 700-1.

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Two of the four were for Gigginstown, the 10-1 shot Mortal, making a seasonal comeback in the opener, and the former Mouse Morris-trained Desir du Large in the bumper. J P McManus, easily his biggest supporter over jumps, picked up a maiden hurdle with Lone Wolf, one of seven wins in the green and gold hoops between Newcastle, Newbury, Bangor and Fairyhouse on the day.

Gigginstown House Stud, owned by Michael O’Leary of Ryanair and managed so skilfully by his brother Eddie, has so far this term had 16 Joseph O’Brien-trained runners, and at this relatively early stage of the winter season the brothers must be highly satisfied that ten of them have already won, five on their only start to date for the campaign.

It has become commonplace, especially since O’Leary’s split with Willie Mullins, to see multiple Gigginstown horses, mostly trained by Elliott, contesting  the most valuable handicap chases, but big Gordon will not be getting complacent.

No doubt, with 95 for the campaign to his credit already, he’ll be happy enough, but the stats for the young man in a hurry make spectacular reading. Over jumps, starting two winters ago, his figures are 38, 67, and 49 for the campaign already with exponential growth suggesting somewhere near three figures by the end of April.

On the Flat, his fast-developing training career brought 23 wins in a truncated 2016; more than double up to 52 last year and again doubling up to, so far, 106, with more sure to come before the end of the year at Dundalk where he is so successful. That makes a total 335 wins at the two codes in a little more than two and a half years.

He has yet to train a UK jumps winner from eight and then 16 runners in the past two seasons, and no raiders yet this time. The horseboxes have been only sporadically launched on the Flat, too, with five wins in all, two this year. He sent over a few all-weather runners early in 2018, winning a small race at Kempton in January. The other, Iridessa, obliged in rather more exalted company, defeating his father’s Hermosa in the Group 1 Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket in the autumn.

As a trainer who is yet to send out a UK jumps winner, it might be fun to ask a British bookmaker to name a price he trains at least a couple of Cheltenham Festival winners next March?

One race O’Brien – and all the other leading Irish trainers – will struggle to win is the Champion Hurdle, dominated for the last two seasons by Buveur D’Air. That gelding is now the overwhelming favourite to make it a third next March having treated Elliott’s Samcro with contempt in the BetVictor Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday.

Buveur D’Air came into Saturday’s big race with a record of 10 wins from his 11 previous hurdles starts; two from two in novice chases early in the 2016-7 season before switching back to hurdles when Altior was sent chasing. Two defeats in his four bumper runs are the only other blemishes. In that context it is hard to make sense of Samcro’s starting marginal favourite in preference to him on Saturday at level weights, especially after his comeback defeat by Bedrock at Down Royal last month.

Buveur D’Air’s sole hurdles lapse to date was behind stable-companion Altior in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, when Min was a seven-length runner-up. Buveur D’Air, at the time the accepted Nicky Henderson second string, was only third.

Since then the Henderson pair have each gone unbeaten, Altior into unchallenged pre-eminence among two-mile chasers and Buveur D’Air, with his exceptionally-fluent hurdling, in line to emulate Istabraq as a three-time Champion Hurdle winner for J P McManus.

The owner’s Saturday seven-timer featured three more victories for Henderson, one at Newbury and two at Newcastle;  one for Paul Nicholls at Newbury and a 50-1 shot for Philip Hobbs at Bangor as well as Lone Wolf at Fairyhouse. As ever, while many smaller teams have been waiting for the weather to break, the top stables seem to have the resources in all regards to keep going.

The ground is set to ease this week. We have been waiting for Ray Tooth’s Apres Le Deluge to make his jumps debut and have had him pencilled in for some time at Exeter on Friday. In anticipation of softer ground, 47 horses were entered for his race and because of the paucity of available stabling, and no chance of a division only 13 are likely to get a run. We have an elimination number of 25, so it looks as though eight of those with higher numbers or none at all will need to miss the race for him to get a run. Not very likely is it?

Monday Musings: Almond’s Japan Cup Record

Early yesterday evening I was flicking through the channels and was slightly surprised to land on Eurosport’s showing a recording of the closing stages of the Japan Cup, run overnight in Tokyo, writes Tony Stafford. The winner was named as Almond Eye and my ears pricked up when the announcer related that the race had been run “in record time”.

In the matter of such eventualities, I immediately did some research and found that Almond Eye, a three-year-old filly, making only her fifth career start, was a 2-5 chance defending an unbeaten record in a 14-runner field. In the 38th running of Japan’s most celebrated race, she sliced 1.5 seconds off the previous best time, set in 2005 by the Frankie Dettori-ridden and Luca Cumani-trained Alkaased.

I was interested in how Capri had done but sadly the 2017 St Leger winner’s truncated season did not end on a high note. Only a few Europeans have managed victory. In its third running, 1983, Epsom-based jockey Brian Rouse won aboard the Frank Dunne-trained and family-owned Stanerra.

That well-travelled mare also collected a couple of times at Royal Ascot for her Irish connections, owners of Dunnes Stores, and previously and indeed subsequently patrons of Jim Bolger’s stable. Stanerra’s record of over-achievement from her small private yard also included an Ascot track record.

Still early in the Cup’s history, Clive Brittain won with Lady Tavistock’s home-bred Jupiter Island, while also before the turn of the century Michael Stoute (pre-knighthood) took successive renewals (96-7) with his great middle-distance world prospectors, Singspiel and Pilsudski.

Clearly it takes a decent horse to win the Cup. Alkaased was a hard-knocking five-year-old when holding off the very talented Heart’s Cry and Christophe Lemaire by a head in a race where the four-year-old filly Ouija Board finished only fifth. That great Ed Dunlop trainee returned a year later to record a highly-creditable third to Deep Impact, the outstanding stallion in Japan over the past decade and sire of Saxon Warrior.

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In his turn, Deep Impact is a son of Sunday Silence, horse of the year in the US in 1989, but denied the Triple Crown the previous year by career-long rival Easy Goer, with an eight-length defeat in the 1988 Belmont Stakes after his own narrow victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

I had the good fortune to visit Japan in 1992 and that trip included a trip to Shadai Farm in Hokkaido where we saw Sunday Silence just before the momentous stud career which transformed Japanese racing and breeding. The son of Halo, another great, Sunday Silence died in the same year, 2002, in which Deep Impact was foaled.

My itinerary also took in visits to Tokyo for the Cup, and Hanshin racecourse near Osaka for an international jockeys’ event at which Pat Eddery was among the contestants. My Tokyo tour included a stop off at the office of Mitsuoko Haga, owner of the great Michael Kauntze-trained filly Kooyonga, who had been an intended runner in the Cup until her form tailed off at the end of that season. Mr Haga, a golf course developer at the time of spectacular growth in the sport in Japan, had a window in his office in which Mount Fuji was perfectly framed.

I was intrigued by the Almond Eye time, as to take a full one per cent, one and a half seconds, off 142.1sec seemed quite excessive. We get used to shaving rather than slicing. I wondered whether the components of Almond Eye’s pedigree offer the clue. I have a friend who believes emphatically that the dam is at least as important as the sire, and as he has only three horses and two of them are the high-class pair Spark Plug and Raheen House, it is easy to listen to his opinion at least.

Almond Eye’s dam Fusaichi Pandora also ran in the 2006 race won by Deep Impact and like him is by Sunday Silence, indeed they were among six by him in that 11-horse field. Fusiachi Pandora ended her career in the corresponding race a year later, finishing unplaced behind Admire Moon and retiring with a career tally of two wins in 12 starts, all in good company.

But it is when we come to Almond Eye’s sire, Lord Kanaloa, that we strike gold. The 2008-sired son of multiple champion stallion, King Kamehameha, won nine of 13 races culminating on his final start in the 2013 Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin, beating Sole Power by five lengths.

In that far-reaching career he only once raced as far as a mile – narrowly winning the 18-runner Grade 1 Yasuda Kinen – but in first-crop product Almond Eye, he has already clearly demonstrated the ability to get his progeny to stay much further.  No wonder the filly has been promoted to the front of the Arc betting for next year.

The Japanese have had dreadful luck in that race, which was one of only two defeats for Deep Impact when he finished third – later disqualified for a banned substance – behind Rail Link and Pride but ahead of 2005 winner, Hurricane Run, in 2006. Incidentally the same Heart’s Cry, narrowly beaten in the second-fastest Japan Cup, was the only horse to defeat Deep Impact in Japan, when regular jockey Yutaka Take gave the champion too much to do in the Arima Kinen (Grand Prix).

Meanwhile, on domestic shores, I had an unusual experience at the weekend but one which still afforded me much of the excitement of a great day’s racing. Owing to a staff crisis, I was a late addition to the racecourse bookstall at Ascot, run by war hero, one-time bank official and protector of old school manners, Sir Rupert Mackeson.

Having had a few weeks when Mrs S was hampered by a broken leg and ankle, needing wheelchair accompaniment around Tesco – every little helps – and support of crutches (happily at an end) around the house, I marvel at how Rupert manages with a severe disablement caused by a broken back. His long stick, effective as a weapon when necessary, is his means of mobility, but he is still limited and further hampered by an irritating driving ban. How he can run a book stall with all the humping about, I cannot conceive, but manage heroically he does.

We had a couple of nice signings from authors of Christmas-suitable volumes, Colin Tizzard popping up on Friday to put his name to his book on Cue Card, quite a favourite, and then Henrietta Knight and David Ashforth on Saturday for their offerings respectively on The Jumping Game and Fifty Shades of Hay.

The still-hirsute Ashforth retains an impish quality far beneath his years and he – or his publisher – certainly has a gift for knowing what will stop especially ladies of a certain vintage in their tracks as they peruse the stand. Henrietta’s presence was especially valued by me as she reported on last week’s school by Ray Tooth’s Apres Le Deluge, also passing on the news that he’ll be back again for a final top up on Wednesday before next week’s hurdling debut at Exeter. Hen said: “I never bet, but I’m going to back him!” I think we should take note and don’t miss Say Nothing at Wolverhampton on Wednesday either.

Monday Musings: Apres le Deluge

Early in the summer, I went up to Hedgeholme Stud in Co Durham to catch up on the boss’s breeding stock after their switch to that farm, writes Tony Stafford. Three of his remaining mares had safely delivered their offspring and had also been tested in foal for the coming season. After some serious thinning down over the previous 12 months, that left just a fourth, I Say, who on looks and one-time race potential had seemed the pick of the bunch.

But this bright day Andrew Spalding had a pessimistic report. She’d slipped her foal to Paco Boy earlier in the year. With that Highclere Stud stallion repatriated for the 2018 season to somewhere in Eastern Europe there was the option of a late switch to another from that highly successful nursery, but instead the tried and tested path to Cheveley Park had been chosen.

Unfortunately the mating to Lethal Force did not take and, as Andrew showed me the 2010-foaled daughter of Oratorio, there was little sign of energy or enthusiasm in her. Clearly her loss had been both physically and emotionally draining. “We’ll have to pass her on”, was the verdict.

Snag was,would she attract much attention at the sales? Her former colleagues at Kinsale Stud in Shropshire, Yarn and Grass Green, cost a combined £139,000 at auction and realised less than £6,000 last winter after disappointing racing and initial breeding careers. A third, Catfish, a better racehorse than either, would probably have won rather than finish third in Stone of Folca’s world record Dash at Epsom on Derby Day a few years back if her saddle hadn’t slipped at the start. She was as bad as a broodmare as she was fast but moody on the home gallops and she also attracted only minimal interest last December sales.

I Say’s first foal, by Mount Nelson, was very big, had three ordinary runs as a juvenile with Clive Cox and was destined for the proposed Wilf Storey Racing Club. For some reason that six-horse Storey/Stafford brainwave, despite some determined marketing and help from influential sources, not least Mr T, fell flat on its back.

By this time, I Say had two more foals on the ground, fillies by Nathaniel. The younger of them went to the sales as a foal last year, realising 13,000gns, thus not nearly recouping the stud fee. The elder one, then a yearling, was retained.

Also in the proposed Racing Club was a soon-to-be-gelded son from the first crop of French Fifteen, Ray’s Group 1 winner of the Criterium International at Saint-Cloud as a juvenile. French Fifteen was passed on after that within the Nicolas Clement stable and finished only a neck behind Camelot in the 2,000 Guineas.

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In the meantime, when asking Nicolas whether he might have a horse suitable for hurdling, he recommended the winning filly Ms Cordelia, and rather than attend the Horserace Writers and Photographers Annual Lunch, I went to France and bought her for €20k.

Sent to David Pipe she finished second on debut, but faded after hitting two out at Fontwell and sustained an injury. Nicolas suggested his former Group 1 horse, Stormy River, for her first mating and she stayed over to visit French Fifteen the following year before coming across to the UK.

She was a giant and the characteristic certainly stayed with the progeny. Both that first foal, called Apres Le Deluge – told you Raymond was good with names – and French Kiss, the younger one had plenty of size. With her deteriorating feet causing increasing problems, her final mating, with Pour Moi, aimed at replicating Treve, who was by another Derby winning Montjeu stallion, Motivator, and like her out of an Anabaa mare, required a foster mother as she barely lasted until the delivery.

French Kiss, like Nelson River, again after three ordinary juvenile runs, was earmarked for the Club, but with Wilf struggling with the worst Muggleswick winter in living memory – frost, snow or flood for four months – he felt compelled to pass them on and Tony Carroll stepped in and took the pair. Meanwhile the last foal, now a two-year-old, never showed as much ability as attitude, either with Mick Channon or at spells back at Hedgeholme and those high-blown aspirations ended with a £3k bid at Tatts’ Horses in Training sale last month.

Wilf did get fairly positive initial reports from Tony, who in between getting seriously injured in the spring when kicked by one horse, and recently less severely, but painfully sustaining cracked ribs with a glancing blow from a different animal, said Nelson River jumped very well.

It was probably not entirely the plan when on second start for Wilf’s former jumps rider, Nelson River came from last to first to win a Wolverhampton handicap at 20-1 off what had appeared a severe enough mark. A more predictable second at Pontefract – on the day Sod’s Law won for Ray – confirmed there was something there.

In the meantime, the Nathaniel filly, named Say Nothing, had been gently settling in at Hughie Morrison’s. Along with pretty much everything in the diminished Tooth team she had a sales entry and it was only when the trainer unilaterally took her out that the bells started ringing, especially for Steve Gilbey. “He must know something”, said Steve. He did.

I remember that the first time I went down to see her Hughie said she “looks like Enable”. Both fillies are by Nathaniel and as Hughie says they are wide rather than high. They also have Sadler’s Wells close up on the female side of the pedigree. Say Nothing, in the manner of the trainer, did nothing especially while the summer ground was rock hard. Then one day her lad riding out reported “she’s all right” and a gallop with a reasonably well-regarded colleague confirmed that view.

As suddenly as it seemed, she appeared on the card last month at Newbury, with minimal apparent expectations and the only pre-race hint was the sudden rush down from 16-1 to 7’s in the few minutes between paddock and the off. Eighth place and a commendation from the highly-skilled Gerald Mosse gave us heart, but not as much as Hughie’s departing words as he set off for Marmelo’s lucrative Melbourne Cup second: “She’ll run in a fortnight!”

That brought us to last Wednesday, when at 5.30 she lined up at Kempton for what was probably a hot enough fillies’ novice over a mile. That, though, was not before I Say’s first foal and Ms Cordelia’s second both made their hurdling debuts for Carroll in the 4.00, a juvenile hurdle at Bangor. Nelson River, backed from 7-2 to 11-4, beat an Alan King hotpot, with the 33-1 shot French Kiss a creditable third, but still betraying the fact he’s simply big and weak.

Say Nothing, cut from an afternoon general 33-1 to 12’s at the off, couldn’t quite complete the I Say  double, but was only half a lengths adrift of the 340,000gns Gosden newcomer, Kimblewick. It was the faster of two divisions and the suggestion of decent form is confirmed by the identity of the stables of the next ten home. Owen Burrows (Hamdan), Roger Varian, Roger Charlton, Martin Meade, Amanda Perrett (Abdullah) came next, followed by Messrs Botti, Beckett, Stoute, George Scott and Simcock. Looking at the pedigrees and understanding her trainer’s modus operandi, Ray’s filly will be the most obvious of them all to stay longer distances at three.

I Say was second on her only juvenile start at Newbury over the straight mile behind the more-experienced Secret Gesture, who was runner-up when favourite for her Oaks. Injury prevented I Say’s running until winning her maiden for William Haggas in late July as a three-year-old.

In the autumn I went back to Hedgeholme, and on a glorious late afternoon, picked up the clearly-revitalised I Say’s miner’s lamp of a heart-shaped star (not unlike Enable’s) glowing from 500 yards away on the top of a hill. She has passed that emblem on to both the Triumph Hurdle candidate and the promising staying filly. Now fully restored to health, she will go to Ulysses for an early covering in an attempt to produce a potential middle-distance Group performer at Cheveley Park.

Ray Tooth is still punching above his weight. We hope that Jamie Osborne’s Waterproof will run well at Kempton on Wednesday, while French Kiss’s elder brother is gearing up for a first hurdles run with Morrison. Apres Le Deluge has not been sighted in public since running away with his only bumper to date at Hereford last December. Nobody came in with a bid afterwards. Have a look on the Racing Post or At tThe Races site and try to work out why not?

 

Monday Musings: When the name sounds the same

One of the few pleasures for generally-beleaguered owners, weighed down by ever-increasing costs and hard-to-secure prize money in the age of the three G’s – Gosden, Godolphin and Galileo – is to name one’s own horses, especially when it’s a home-bred, writes Tony Stafford.

Raymond Tooth approaches the task with a mixture of intelligence, research and devilment, as the successful naming and so-far upwardly-mobile career of his nice miler Sod’s Law exemplifies.

He got that one past the names police at the British Horseracing Authority, and a quick look on their site, which gives an instant initial yea or nay to future applications, suggested that “Bogeyman” was available. Ray had liked the name for the big, strong and recently-reacquired yearling by Garswood out of Lawyers Choice, thus younger brother to Sod’s Law, Dutch Law and Dutch Art Dealer.

There is always a rider, though, that further investigation will need to be made before confirmation. On Sunday morning I retrieved an email from Jane, Hughie Morrison’s ultra-efficient secretary that the name had been rejected owing to the “phonetic match with Bowgey Man (GB)”.

Naturally, having never heard of said racehorse, I scoured the records and discovered that there is (or maybe was) a horse of that name. He was a 2015 foal by Pastoral Pursuits out of the winning Proclamation mare, Black Annis Bower.

The pronunciation by racecourse commentator Malcolm Tomlinson at Ripon on July 22 2017 was indeed Bogeyman, with no emphasis on the middle “W”. It may well be that the single utterance, just after the three-furlong pole in that minimum trip maiden will be the only one of his career. With at that stage two even slower starters in the 11-horse field behind him, Mrs A Jarvis’s home-bred was recorded thus: “Bowgey Man well back” and that was it. At the finish, the two that had been adrift of him were still in rear, but a long way ahead of Bowgey Man.

In a five-furlong race, the juvenile was 22 lengths behind the winner and hasn’t appeared since. He had been expunged from the Mick Easterby list in Horses in Training 2018 and also the full index of all named horses in training at the back of that volume.  The 2016 foal, a filly by Heeraat is listed and has subsequently been named Annie’s Bow. To date she has made little impact, well back in two late-season efforts at massive odds.

To assume that a “phonetic match” alone is justification for rejection of a name is clearly nonsense. Horses of different generations are unlikely ever to be in direct opposition and even if racing in different races on the same day, the names in this case are clearly differently spelt. Depending on which commentator you get, Bowgey Man could indeed sound as Bowgey Man (not Bogeyman) in the unlikely event he ever reappears 16 months on from his sole hapless effort to date.

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There are a number of doubled-up named horses racing in the UK, usually in the case of animals bred in different authorities. We had a nice colt called Weekender (Fr), originally with Nicolas Clement, but moved across to Mick Channon sometime over the winter of 2016/17 when he would have raced as a three-year-old at the same time as John Gosden’s smart Frankel colt of that name.

Unfortunately a few days after arriving at West Ilsley he was found stretched out dead in his box. I remember well the shock it caused Mick who said in all the years he’d been training, that was only the second example of such a loss.

I plan to write this morning (Monday) to the BHA, but in the hope that this might reach some people with a little influence in that organisation, maybe some intervention can achieve a more sane reaction. I would prefer not to inform Mr T of the situation until it is irrevocable.

The final day of turf Flat racing at Doncaster on Saturday was a joy and not just for the soup and steak and kidney in the press room. The weather was initially sunny, the racing competitive and, from the outset, it was a day of days for the always-jovial and immaculately-attired John Ryan.

Mick Ryan’s son may not have had the big-race winners like Katies and many more enjoyed by his father, but he shares his sire’s clubbable nature. The early start was cited a potential problem by Ryan and his equally-affable owner Jon Thompson, once of Ladbrokes, now one of the ownership lynch-pins in Ryan’s Newmarket stable.

They were on hand for the final racecourse appearance of JT’s four-year-old filly, Lady Freyja, and from the two-furlong pole there was no conceivable threat to the daughter of Mayson as she powered clear under Cieren Fallon. No-one seems to mind that the embryo jockey is a phonetic match to his father Kieran, not present this time. Maybe it was too early for the ex-champ to make it from Newmarket.

Lady Freyja, with three of Ryan’s 20 Flat winners this year – from 36 individuals – has been the most prolific, and she now retires to stud. I understand they are trying to get a nice deal with Bated Breath.

I should think there would have been a fair amount of bated breath, certainly from Messrs Ryan and Thompson, after the second race at Chelmsford later in the day. I trust the pair made it safely down in the afternoon drive south as there was a nice enough time gap before proceedings got under way at the track that Derek Thompson, no relation, always describes as: “the premier racecourse in Essex”.

Having collected the first winner in the nursery with joint-favourite Shining Armor, Ryan followed up in the novice event half an hour later with 10-1 shot Battle of Waterloo, close enough to the anniversary of that event. Both horses are owned by Gerry McGladery, also proprietor of Ryan’s two hurdles winners this season, Normal Norman and Needs To Be Seen.

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I very rarely doubt the wisdom or information emanating from Chris Richardson and John Marsh at Cheveley Park stud, but having committed the boss to using Garswood as well as Mayson for the bulk of his now reduced breeding operation, I was becoming edgy about the former’s first season even with Marsh’s assurance that: “there’s plenty of nice ones still to come!”

It all began well enough with Little Kim and early winner Gabriel the Wire, but midsummer was pretty bleak. Cala Tarida in France, with three out of four and a Group 3 win recently perked me up a little and Saturday’s nice win for Edgewood in a competitive novice race, kept the old red colours, now much better fitted on David Armstrong’s horses, mostly home-breds, in the picture.

One person you cannot keep out of any aspect of the 2018 Flat-racing season is John Gosden. He wound up the year with what in retrospect was a highly-predictable raid on the final decent Flat prize of the season with his Dubawi four-year-old, Royal Line, in the November Handicap.

A field of 23 lined up, but it was clear from some way out that Royal Line, in the old Sheikh Mo colours now adorned by horses owned by his daughter Sheikha Al Jalila, was cantering. Up 10lb from his last and winning run back seven months ago at Epsom, he duly took the prize under Rab Havlin, still benefiting from remaining second jockey to a boss who rewards loyalty in this tangible way.

That is equally true of Seamie Heffernan at Ballydoyle. After more than 20 years’ riding out every morning, he approaches each day with equal enthusiasm and despite partnering two fillies in Saturday’s Listed races whose chances had been compromised by heavy overnight rain, he still retained his good humour, before heading back across the Pennines for his plane home from Manchester.

As for Gosden, having already showed that he can pick up races like the Arc, Champion Stakes, Irish Champion and all the top staying races with his stable stars Enable, Cracksman, Roaring Lion and Stradivarius seemingly at will, you can just imagine him settling down to the task of identifying the horses with which he will knock off the massive prizes offered for the Ebor and Cesarewitch next year. He probably already knows which ones he is going to win them with!

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