Monday Musings: Palmer Loses Gold-en Touch?

Palmer and Galileo Gold were not at their best at the weekend

Palmer and Galileo Gold were not at their best at the weekend

Regular readers of these thoughts will be in little doubt that I enjoy digging out statistics, writes Tony Stafford. Many will be suspicious of them, indeed the well-worn phrase, popularised by the American author Mark Twain, who attributed it to the 19th Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, says “there are three kinds of lies - lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Senior politicians on either side of the Atlantic have had cause to question the worth and veracity of public opinion data following several elections, but I still go with the credo, “facts is facts”.

I’ve no idea whether the ever upwardly-mobile Newmarket trainer Hugo Palmer sets much store on figures, but after the tame effort by Galileo Gold, last year’s 2,000 Guineas and St James’s Palace Stakes winner in the Lockinge Stakes, sponsored by his owners Al Shaqab at Newbury, maybe the alarm bells are starting to ring, if only sotto voce.

Before the big race, Palmer was stood in front of the exit from the parade ring, exhorting his horse’s groom to “go straight out” onto the track, only for an official to bar his way and point out the Group 1 requirement for “a parade” and therefore the need for the horses to go out in a precise order.

Palmer’s body language, and where one could hear it, audible language both suggested irritation. A second irritation soon followed when the expected pacemaker, Toscanini, there to give a lead to Godolphin’s Ribchester, missed the break.

That left the two principals out in front, and while Ribchester, leading the main group up the middle stayed there, Galileo Gold raced more freely than desirable under the stands rail where he had been taken by Frankie Dettori. He faded away into sixth, a dozen lengths or so behind the emphatic winner.

Towards the back end of last year, Ribchester twice inflicted defeats on Galileo Gold, thereby reversing the relative positions of the pair from midsummer. Here the market anticipated a similar outcome, but hardly one with such a disparity. The trainer had said before Newbury that the harmonious partnership between horse and jockey was back where it was at 2,000 Guineas time last spring, but whatever the reason, that was not the case this time.

With two stables, one on either side of Newmarket and a horse complement according to Horses in Training of 170 inmates – less the odd inevitable departure through erosion – the expectation from Palmer will be again to beat his latest annual tally of 71 winners. That followed scores of seven, then six and the acceleration to 15, 24, 34 before more than doubling that tally in 2016.

Last week at York, the Makfi filly Vintage Folly delighted her trainer when runner-up to Shutter Speed in the Musidora Stakes, encouraging Palmer to make optimistic noises in his post-race TV interviews about her prospects of going one better in the Oaks, in which his Architechture was second a year ago.

But in all honesty – no lies, or damned lies in sight – Hugo’s stats for the past fortnight have been poor, and for the past few days since Vintage Folly, simply dreadful.

From 28 runs in the two weeks analysed, with horses from Kremlin Cottage and the new Yellowstone stable in Hamilton Road, he has had a single winner of a Lingfield maiden race. Of the remaining 27, Racing Post ratings calculated that three had improved on previous figures; four, presumably debutants, got no rating and the remainder ran below form, many to an alarming degree.

The 28 runners were beaten a total of 353.5 lengths, at an average of 12 lengths per run, the precise distance by which Galileo Gold was beaten. Since Vintage Folly, beaten less than two lengths, the distances by which all his subsequent runners have trailed the race winners have been 6.25 lengths, 3.75, 13.5, 41, 18, 81, 4.5, 12.5, 28, 10, 28 and 7.75  Many of these were prominent in the betting.

Palmer’s 2017 tally has been boosted by eight all-weather wins, all with three-year-olds, from 45 runs, but on turf, his 55 contestants have managed only four wins, for a combined tally of 12. Richard Fahey, admittedly with a stable containing many more inmates than Palmer’s, has sent out 59 winners, 35 on turf.  There’s plenty of time for the tide to turn, but the combination of few wins and poor performances that have typified recent activity cannot be argued.

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One trainer friend who has rather less regard for BHA handicappers than me trotted out his favourite phrase: “You couldn’t bend wire like them” about one piece of evidence on today’s Carlisle card. It was in response to my own pointing out the apparent idiotic handicapping of a well-known stayer.

Over the years, the now 10-year-old Teak has been up to the high 80’s and was at that point early in 2016. By the autumn he was running off 80, and his Cesarewitch 13th of 33, 14 lengths adrift of Sweet Selection, was hardly a sign of deteriorating ability, with 20 decent stayers behind him.

That race was his last Flat outing on turf, as after that he ran unplaced in a stayers’ race at Chelmsford; made a fair stab at a Newbury hurdle race, before switching his attentions to the sharp mile and a half around Wolverhampton.

It was at that track that he won the first two races he had for his new (and still) trainer Ian Williams after switching from Adrian Maguire (who I was delighted to see, beat a Mullins hotpot in yesterday’s Limerick bumper, ridden by Finny, his talented son. Let’s hope Adrian reconsiders his decision to retire soon).

Nowadays Teak, former winner of the two mile five furlong handicap at Glorious Goodwood needs further, so it was with some surprise that I noticed the official responsible for two-mile handicaps, allowed Teak’s rating to drop from 80, via 74, his all-weather mark for the Chelmsford race to 62 after the triple Dunstall Park whammy. And whammy it was, with apprentice Luke Catton, who is yet to ride even a single winner, entrusted with the mount on each occasion.

Today at Carlisle, Teak steps back into turf stamina tests in the two mile, one furlong finale, and, blow me down, not with Luke Catton, but last week’s Group 2 Dante Stakes-winning jockey Franny Norton stepping in. It’s as near to a certainty as you’d get, an 80 horse running off 62 on his next comparable appearance, and it should certainly be enough to foil Jan Smuts’ bid for victory in his 100th start.

Frankel, possibly to media relief, got his first Classic win in Japan over the weekend, but over here, six wins for his old rival and fellow Galileo-sired stallion Nathaniel, offered hopes that the Newsells Park inmate is beginning to flex his own Group-race muscles.

Natavia, carrying the Frankel colours of Prince Khalid Abdullah, was an emphatic winner at Newbury on Saturday and trainer Roger Charlton has a high opinion of the filly. Maybe the Ribblesdale at Royal Ascot will suit her.

It was horrible to hear about Hughie Morrison’s predicament. The only good thing of his anabolic steroids situation is that nobody who knows him and the way he runs his stable, believes for a moment that he would ever have anything to do with giving a banned substance to a 50-odd rated filly, or anything else. He seems convinced that unless the police can uncover the true culprit, he is sure to face a long ban. I’m not so sure. The BHA writes its own Rules, so it can change them if the situation fits.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: The Blooming Flat Season

After three days at Chester’s May meeting, when the improving weather encouraged all-comers to show off their finery, thoughts are already turning to the Derby and Royal Ascot, writes Tony Stafford. There seems no limit to the appetite of the female of the species for horse racing and Nottingham on Saturday continued the trend.

It’s always been said that Nottingham has a much higher proportion of females to males in its population than anywhere else in England, so if the racetrack chose to declare any meeting “Ladies’ Day”, as Colwick Park did on Saturday, then a large attendance would almost be guaranteed.

Well they did and it was, 5,000 and more turning out for a strong card featuring the Listed Kilvington Stakes for fillies. In the Directors’ Room, chairman Richard Pilkington entertained the connections of the German-based filly Artistica, and they were later delighted to collect the bulk of the £40,000 prize with their 33-1 chance.

For one reason and another I didn’t actually stay for the race – needing to get home fairly sharply I claimed – but more possibly as a result of a disappointing run by the boss’s Stanhope, the first sub-standard effort of his career, in the opening maiden.

Paddock duties meant I didn’t get the chance to talk to the filly’s owners, Gregor and Julia Baum, who run under the Gestut <stud in German> Brummerhof banner, before the race and they were busy with the excellent lunch when I returned. Unfortunately for the Racing Post reporter, he assumed the stud’s name was also the owner’s, but he did correctly point out that Herr Baum owns Hannover racecourse.

Not that I was entirely remiss in approaching the visitors. They had a familiar face among the entourage, namely Billy Newnes, who spent a long time riding in Germany and since retirement has advised the Baums and their trainer Dominik Moser, who was having his first winner in the UK, and we had a lengthy chat.

Newnes told me that the Baums had three or four other fillies of a similar standard in their stable and they were keen to get a handle on their level in relation to British and French fillies before planning their season. He was also delighted that Henry and Virginia Candy were expected and Billy looked forward to remembering the days when he was Time Charter’s regular pilot.

Richard Pilkington, son of Sir Thomas, took over from Peter Jensen, now the boss at Sandown, for this year and he is one of the rising stars in the Jockey Club Racecourses hierarchy. He was fulsome in his praise of his senior management team at the track, and the show they put on certainly impressed Gregor Baum who, according to Newnes, gets big attendances at Hannover.

Yesterday was a big day for Champion Jockeys, with Ruby Walsh (38), Johnny Murtagh (47) – who impressed with his insights on ITV at Chester, and Bob Davies (71), triple jumps champion in the 1970’s, all celebrating birthdays. Davies is father to Karen Quinn, wife of Mick, trainer of Stanhope, whose run mystified us all.

Clive Cox never got anywhere near the title during his time with Fred Winter, though he did emerge with a friendship with his long-term landlord, John Francome. He was also born on May 14, which was his 53rd birthday. Clive had a promising first-time runner in our race, but was in France for Profitable’s seasonal comeback second place in a competitive Prix de Saint-Georges, won emphatically by Signs of Blessing. He’ll be on top form for next month’s attempt for a second King’s Stand at Ascot.

We have our first horse with Clive this year, Raymond Tooth’s juvenile Nelson River, a big, well-developed son of Mount Nelson, who is waiting for ground and seven furlongs.

Chester proved almost a straight match between the two major protagonists for the British Flat-race trainers’ championship. Aidan O’Brien and John Gosden have quickly moved ahead of the field in prizemoney terms, and without Gosden’s double intervention, the fixture would have been an O’Brien benefit.

The visitors collected the Chester Vase (Venice Beach), Dee Stakes (Cliffs of Moher) and Huxley Stakes ( Deauville), but had to give best to Gosden in the Cheshire Oaks, where Nathaniel’s daughter, Enable, beat favourite Alluringly; and the Ormonde, won with a last-stride thrust by Western Hymn and Frankie Dettori, who just outstayed US Army Ranger and Ryan Moore.

Sources close to Ballydoyle were suggesting Alluringly might be their best chance of the week and afterwards they reaffirmed that continued faith in her would be rewarded. As to Derby prospects, the late-developing Cliffs of Moher might well be a strong candidate, but whether he will supplant Churchill as number one is questionable.

Coolmore may have little impact on the three days of York this week, with some of the Aidan O’Brien apparent lesser lights in the Dante where Joseph O’Brien, among the winners under his jumping guise yesterday, may have better prospects with the Lloyd Williams-owned Rekindling.

Like 1,000 Guineas winner Winter, Rekindling was with now-retired David Wachman as a juvenile, but moved to the younger O’Brien and duly beat a trio of his father’s in the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown last month. He could prove a big threat to Gosden’s Frankel colt, Cracksman, whose Epsom Trial win has been well advertised. It will also be interesting to gauge the progress of David Elsworth’s Swiss Storm, another Frankel colt, who could not be readied in time for the 2,000 Guineas, but of whom his experienced trainer has a high opinion.

Elsworth had a long association with Chris Harper, renting his yard at Whitsbury for many years before relocating to Newmarket. He has also had a strong connection with products of the flying filly Swiss Lake, who was the fastest to grace the colours of the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman’s Thoroughbred Corporation.

Swiss Storm is one of nine winners from the mare, owned by Lordship Stud’s Trevor Harris and whom he owns in partnership with Godolphin. In that regard it is unsurprising that Elsworth has a son of Swiss Spirit, whom he trained with some success and is also out of Swiss Lake, listed in his string for 2017.

Swiss Spirit stands at Whitsbury Manor, where fellow resident Foxwedge had a decent first season last year both in the UK and his native Australia. Over there he was a sprinting rival and contemporary of the Darley stallions Helmet and Sepoy, but John Gosden clearly believes there is stamina to find in his DNA.

On the day at Newbury where Shutter Speed won her Listed race decisively, Gosden collected the fillies’ 10-furlong maiden with Gracious Diana, who holds the Oaks engagement. Then on Saturday, another daughter, Hertford Dancer, outstayed O’Brien’s Pocketfullofdreams in the Lingfield Oaks Trial over just short of a mile and a half. No doubt we’ll see her in the Ribblesdale at Royal Ascot.

Monday Musing: The Coolmore Numbers Game

Life is basically all about choices, writes Tony Stafford. Do you turn left or right? When I collected my laundered shirts by Snaresbrook station on Saturday morning, with an immediate destination of Loughton to pick up Harry Taylor en route to the 2,000 Guineas and Newmarket, option one was to turn right and go via the A12 and M11.

But almost of its own volition, my car instead turned left and travelled the urban way through South Woodford, Woodford and Buckhurst Hill, all stops along the Central underground line, but avoiding the bottleneck at Debden.

Halfway there, at Woodford Green, it was impossible to miss the statue of that location’s former Member of Parliament, Sir Winston Churchill, cast in familiar bulldog pose and dominating a piece of greenery on the southern tip of Epping Forest. A few hundred yards on, Churchills fish bar, destined to be an impulse stop around 30 hours later for a celebratory cod fillet – no chips – offered a second nudge to possible events at turf’s HQ.

Classic winners are supposed to have “good names” and there is little doubt that the octet of 2,000 Guineas heroes trained by Aidan O’Brien, all for various combinations of the Mrs Sue Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith team, have that distinction in common.

King of Kings (1998), Rock of Gibraltar (2002), Footstepsinthesand (2005), George Washington (2006), Henrythenavigator (2008), Camelot (2012), Gleneagles (2015) and now Churchill all, bar maybe Foostepsinthesand, fulfil the nomenclature requirement and offer testimony to the language skills of Mrs Magnier, daughter of Vincent O’Brien.

More pertinently, as the late, great Vincent’s successor at Ballydoyle, Aidan (no relation) O’Brien has set the record for 2,000 Guineas victories, beating that set in the mists of time by John Scott, when that stable manager had neither the might nor the money of the Maktoums and the Qataris to contend with.

You say something, like “a record eighth win” quickly and as bald fact it deflects the enormity of the statistic. Nineteen years on from his first 2,000 Guineas triumph, it means that Aidan has won 40% of the possible opportunities in that timeframe. When you look at the potential fire power of some of the 200-strong teams around the UK and the almost bottomless pockets of a number of their patrons, such monopoly is truly embarrassing for his rivals.

I took a minute before yesterday’s 1,000 Guineas to talk to Michael Prosser on just that point, and he trumped me with an even more unlikely one. I’d just taxed Aidan with the question: “Are you any good at maths?” hoping to confound him with the 40% thing, but in true character Aidan had first to apologise and then rush away to monitor one of his trio into the parade ring before the Classic.

Prosser said: “We have nine Group 1 races here and last year Aidan won six of them.” Add to that the weekend Guineas double of Churchill and Winter and that makes eight out of the last 11 and 73%!

One 2,000 Guineas which Aidan did not win was its 2011 version, dominated throughout by Frankel, named for a great horseman, New York-born Bobby Frankel, Prince Khalid Abdullah’s principal US trainer. Almost an equal part of the Frankel mystique, apart of course from the fact that he was never beaten in a three-year career, was that he was trained by Sir Henry Cecil in the closing phase of his own eventually life-ending illness.

Frankel, the racehorse, shares with Churchill and Winter, as well as Saturday’s impressive Jockey Club Stakes winner Seventh Heaven, a common factor in that all four are products of Galileo, the most potent of the stallions that have fuelled Coolmore Stud’s recent pre-eminence.

For some sections of the media – especially television – members of Frankel’s initial crop have been portrayed as embodiments and thus likely equals of their father, but in horse racing that sort of expectation can only be cemented on the racetrack, rather than in sentiment.

A number have already proved precocious, and four of his early stakes horses appeared with a fair degree of expectation in the two Classic races. Fair Eva and Queen Kindly both made good starts to their juvenile seasons, but were respectively only fifth and ninth in the 1,000, while Dream Castle and Eminent were fifth and sixth, close behind the principals the previous day. Two other sons of Galileo, shared the spotlight with dad on Saturday: Teofilo, the best of his first-crop sons, is the sire of Permian, runaway winner of the Listed Newmarket Stakes and Ronald R is by Frankel’s old racetrack rival, Nathaniel.

I cannot resist one statistical fact away from racing that further embellishes the amazing level of O’Brien’s achievements. Tottenham Hotspur, renowned as the true FA Cup team – “if there’s a “1” in the year, Spurs win the Cup” as the adage used to go, last won that competition in 1991 and the League Championship 30 years earlier! Not that you would think so with some of the coverage of that “sport” in recent months.

I’m sure there must have been a number of Churchills racing in the UK over the years and the Racing Post also lists a few reared and raced elsewhere. James Burridge, breeder and part owner of the great Desert Orchid, also probably held quite high expectations for the 1995-born son of Derby runner-up Carlingford Castle – behind Teenoso, Lester Piggott’s last winner of nine in 1983.

Lester was in the paddock before Saturday’s race, but I doubt he remembers the 1995 Churchill, sold for 700gns  to Keith Brown Properties, Hull, and a four-time raced non-achiever with a 31-length seventh, 69-length 12th before an unseated and pulled up ended his unremarkable time in action.

Also in the house on Saturday was Andy Smith, owner and bloodstock agent, who might just have got the best of the Frankel euphoria. Andy was the original owner, apart from David and Diane Nagle, the breeders from Barronstown Stud, of the filly, Toulifaut.

She won three times for the Jean-Claude Rouget stable before going under the hammer at the Arc sale, less than 24 hours before her date in the Prix Marcel Boussac. She changed hands for 1.9 million Euro, becoming the property of the Yoshida family’s Shadai Farm but was only eighth in the Boussac behind Godolphin’s Wuheida and fourth of six in her comeback run this spring.

There were critics of Ryan Moore’s performance on Rhododendron after he was briefly denied a run on the filly, but the way Winter strode clear up the hill, makes it less of a certainly that the favourite would have beaten her even with a clear run.

I am less than overjoyed that two days after he took a little each-way 20-1 on what has proved inspired information, Mick Quinn only passed on the news when Winter was already down to less than half that price. He can begin to make amends by getting a good run tomorrow night with Circuit at Leicester. She’s in the last, under Jamie Spencer, after which it’s off to Chester for three days and a switch of emphasis to Derby and Oaks trials. Phew!

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Title Settlement

 

Bank Holiday Mondays allow me a little flexibility in terms of deadline, writes Tony Stafford. I know this because the Editor takes longer than usual to acknowledge receipt of these jottings. Saying that, he will probably have been awake early as the sun peeped across the horizon well before 6 a.m. the time today when I finally realised what the topic would be.

By a circuitous route, having started out with the Henderson-Nicholls and Mullins-Elliott season-long scraps finally decided and the likeliest subject, I landed on June 11 2006 at the picturesque Perth racecourse.

That day an unknown young Irish trainer travelled over his recent acquisition, a horse called Arresting, to Scotland and, ridden by Richard Johnson, Arresting was an emphatic winner, backed in to 7-2 favourite. He had won at the track on his previous appearance, on his sole run for Gavin Cromwell, but joined Gordon Elliott, according to official records, six days before the June 11 landmark.

Elliott, a graduate of the Martin Pipe stable, had yet to win a race in his home land, but Arresting gave him two more victories in the UK that summer, stopping off in between without success at the Galway Festival.

Thirteen horses took part in that first race and the lists of trainers and riders illustrate how quickly the pendulum swings in racing, like life really. Stuart Coltherd, Jim Goldie, Geoff Harker, Diane Sayer and Grand National winner Lucinda Russell remain active, while the remainder, including recently retired Keith Reveley have either handed in their licences or, in the case of doubly-represented Peter Monteith, died.

Of the 13 jockeys, only the relentless Johnson; James Reveley, then a 7lb claimer, now France’s jumps champion; and Paddy Aspell, still ride over jumps, although he has gradually switched more to the Flat. Graham Lee finished runner-up here two years after his Grand National triumph on Amberleigh House, who died last week aged 25. Now he rides exclusively on the level.

Michael McAlister, then a 5lb claimer, had his last rides, winning one of six in the season ending last April, while Richie McGrath, Jimmy McCarthy, Phil Kinsella, David da Silva and Peter Buchanan have all retired after varying degrees of success.

Tony Dobbin, 45 years old today and another Grand National hero, almost a decade earlier on Lord Gyllene, the only Monday winner, is now assistant trainer to his wife Rose, while Kenny Johnson has taken over his father Bob’s small yard in Northumberland.

There is another name from the race which has forced itself into the racing consciousness, particularly over the latest season. Neil Mulholland, unplaced in that Perth race, won 54 races over a ten-year span in the UK, again with a Martin Pipe connection, before starting out as a West Country trainer in the 2008-9 season.

He was an immediate success with 16 victories in his initial campaign, before collecting between that figure and 21 in the next four years. More recently, Mulholland has found acceleration and expansion, almost Gordon Elliott-like, with 31, 51 and 60 wins before the latest awesome tally of 108 wins from 129 horses. His list of owners makes impressive reading, dozens and dozens of names, with Bob Brookhouse, one who is always ready to pay plenty at the sales, a notable major operator for the yard. Big-race wins, usually in staying chases have come via The Druids Nephew, The Young Master and Pilgrims Way, while he’s also proved a dab hand at winning Flat-race handicaps with some of his lesser jumpers.

Gordon Elliott’s narrow failure to dethrone Mullins after their final day denouement at Punchestown cannot alter the fact that he has become the big name going forward. He did something nobody – to my limited knowledge anyway – has matched, to win a Grand National before winning a Rules race in his native country. Silver Birch, a Paul Nicholls cast-off, won ten months after the first of the three Arresting victories and it was not until later that year that the Irish explosion began.

After two blank seasons, Elliott had six wins in his third, then 14, 26, 62, 40, 54, 56, 92, 123 and a mammoth 193 from an astonishing 285 horses, 101 more than Mullins up to Saturday. As the still-champion Willie lost 60 of the Gigginstown horses – not all of which ended with his protagonist – it was indeed a doughty effort to stay ahead but a team of 184 active horses is hardly negligible.

The next three home in Ireland were Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington and Noel Meade, all with big teams, Harrington benefiting from the Ann and Alan Potts defection from de Bromhead with the other pair similarly indebted to the Mullins split with Gigginstown.

Of the trio, only Mrs Harrington is seriously involved in the Flat with 47 three-year-olds and juveniles listed in the latest Horses in Training book. She was at it again last week, winning five races at Punchestown while yesterday, she had a winner each at Limerick and Gowran on the Flat, beating horses trained by Aidan and Joseph O’Brien respectively.

Gordon Elliott sent out a remarkable 1,234 domestic runners last season, even more than Richard Johnson rode in his second-busiest season; 188 wins from 1,026 compared with easily his best, 235 from 1,044 the previous winter when he collected his first title after 20 years’ wait for A P McCoy to retire. Since 1996-7 Johnson has posted a century of winners every season, with between 102 and 186 until the last two. The McCoy retirement has brought an average of 200 extra rides, a good few of them horses McCoy would have partnered.

Johnson shows no sign of slowing down, bar injury or illness, so there is little chance he will fail to complete the hat-trick as he intends to mirror McCoy’s annual tactic of a fast start during late spring and summer.

Nicky Henderson’s stable stars contributed greatly to his fourth trainers’ title, but it also helped that he had more individual horses (173) to run than anyone other than Dan Skelton (202). Henderson and Nicholls had an almost identical win average, around 25%, a figure which only Harry Fry, among the leaders, with 23%, could get anywhere near. Fry’s Punchestown double last week confirmed his status as a future potential champion trainer.

Team Tooth had a first Flat runner (two getting-handicapped Winter AW runs apart) at Yarmouth, and Stanhope as usual suffered an element of bad luck as he finished a close fourth.

It seems he’s a horse that finds trouble, but when he doesn’t it finds him, as when at Sandown, a golf ball from the inside-the-track course flew up from a rival’s hoof and hit jockey Charlie Bennett a resounding bang on the helmet.

Here, Pat Cosgrave had just moved him into a gap to challenge, when it closed. In a desperate attempt to get home in front, Jamie Spencer launched his whip right handed, twice hitting Stanhope on the head. First you can see him flinch right, then more dramatically back and left, so it was brave of the horse to nick fourth under hands and heels after recovering. Pat says he’s stronger this year. He’ll need to be!

 

Monday Musings: Seasons and Champions – Changing The Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: A Good Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: A National Treasure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: The Kempton Horse Watchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: Arrogate, You Heard It Here First…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Lost Phone, Failing Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Tony Stafford

 

Monday Musings: Confusion Reigns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Monday Musings: From Tiny Acorns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: Looking Forward, via Memory Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: Being AP

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: All Change at the Top Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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