Monday Musings: All About the A’s

This weekend for me was all about the A’s, writes Tony Stafford. Starting with Ascot and the Shergar Cup which - along with 31,000 other attendees - I thoroughly enjoyed, it progressed yesterday with Alpha Centauri and Advertise collecting the two Group 1 races in France and Ireland respectively.

In between, young Andrew Breslin was the focal point in a four-day Gordon Elliott plot for a Scottish Flat-race hat-trick with recent Perth hurdle winner, Kuiper Belt. Most enjoyably for me, though, Aegean Mist ended a long barren spell for her owner-breeder, Jack Panos, at Lingfield on Saturday night.

Five-year ownership records for Jack’s Theobalds Stud until Saturday morning showed only one place and no wins from 22 runners. That came just over a year ago at Lingfield when Aegean Legend, trained by John Bridger, finished third in a modest five-furlong juvenile affair. Her only subsequent start was a highly-creditable fifth in a much better contest at Ascot in the autumn, but she has yet to reappear.

Bridger was also the trainer when Panos’ home-bred full-sisters, the two-year-old Aegean Mist, in her first handicap after three runs from the Richard Hannon stable, and previously-unraced three-year-old Aegean Beauty, ran in two of the later races on Lingfield’s Saturday night card.

can declare a slight interest as when Aegean Mist previously appeared in the last of those Hannon-managed races at Chelmsford on June 21, I took the liberty of asking Jack whether he had any spare badges as a good friend was going there. He kindly said he did, also suggesting a small each-way bet might be a good idea.

I’d looked back at both her previous runs, having seen both of them live, promising enough on debut in a big field at Leicester and then, possibly unsuited by the track when a well-backed but never dangerous third at Brighton. We both came to the conclusion after Chelmsford when, quite well supported at 11-1, that she didn’t enjoy the kickback.

That still didn’t fully explain her last of ten finishing position all of 20 lengths behind the winner. For much of Saturday’s race, a similar eventuality looked likely for the 20-1 shot, but in the last 100 yards she passed at least half a dozen opponents, finishing strongly under Kieran O’Neill to win with a little in hand.

An hour later her inexperienced elder sister overcame a slow start initially to cut through her six rivals, strung out the width of the track, to lead inside the two furlong pole. Here she immediately darted left to the far rail, enabling the odds-on Invincible Spirit filly, Aaliya, to tackle and pass her. The favourite also showed slightly erratic tendencies, almost pinning her on the rail before O’Neill extricated his mount.

She still looked a certainty for another Theobalds Stud place until Petite Fleur, out of sight on the opposite side of the course, caught her on the line. I’ve no idea, as daylight was ending in deepest Surrey, whether the stewards took much of a look at the finish, but Kieran might have been lucky not to be made aware that he appeared to take things a little too easily late on.

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Aegean Mist’s win on turf should not have been too much of a shock. Nine years earlier, her dam Aegean Shadow won first time out, also on Lingfield’s turf at 33-1 from the Michael Wigham stable, before being beaten on Kempton’s all-weather. Panos moved her to Henry Cecil the following season, and she maintained her turf unbeaten record with wins at Lingfield again on May 22 and Brighton two weeks later, both under Tom Queally. She raced just twice more in a concerted seven-week campaign, again failing to fire on all-weather switched to that surface for her final Lingfield sortie, before finishing with a Doncaster fifth for her only turf defeat.

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Ever since back in the early 1980’s when I suggested a quick-fire Saturday, Monday, Tuesday raid on English tracks for Jim Bolger for his three-year-old Lynconwise – he flopped at Doncaster before winning twice at Leicester in the mud over Whitsun - I’ve loved the concept.

I was made aware of a similar challenge late last week when Wilf Storey told me he’d been unable to get Andrew Breslin, a  young rider from the Mark Johnston stable we both admire, for Jan Smuts at Musselburgh on Friday. He was riding elsewhere, but that he’d also not be available should Wilf choose to run anything on Saturday or Monday as he’d be required for the Gordon Elliott-trained Kuiper Belt, as there was a family ownership connection.

Kuiper Belt was another of those questionable handicap beneficiaries that have been exercising, nay irritating, my equilibrium recently, Jan Smuts’ own rating of 56 a case in point. Kuiper Belt started out as a Niarchos family homebred with David Lanigan, running five times unplaced until his sale for 17,000gns five days after the fifth run, at Newmarket’s July sale just over a year ago.

Sent to Ireland, he raced four times over jumps for C P Donoghue, beaten in turn 47 lengths at 66-1; 42 at 50’s; 34 at 100-1 and 58 lengths at 100-1. It would appear that at this point the Mysterious Men Syndicate had enough, and the next stop was with trainer William (hope that’s right) Ross, when after pulling up at 50-1 and then finishing eighth of ten at 33-1 beaten 44 lengths, the penny seems to have dropped.

Running off 92, Kuiper Belt, now in the trainer’s ownership having previously been running under the executors of Cecil Ross, was a well-backed 100-30 favourite and finished a half-length second of 12 to Politeness in a competitive handicap hurdle.

Raised 5lb for that, he reappeared on the same track, but this time under the Elliott colours, in a novice hurdle on August 1 winning by 15 lengths in a canter under James Bowen. The latest official rating has gone up by what seems a lenient 6lb to 103. Wonder what will happen when he next comes to Perth?

When he signed off for David Lanigan, his 57 Flat rating had already been readjusted downwards to 53, and it was off this mark and under Jamie Spencer, who was hardly traipsing up to Musselburgh for his health, that he had the task of beating the ten-year-old Jan Smuts receiving 3lb to boot. The result was highly-predictable, Kuiper Belt winning with Jamie doing his statue impression, by a neck from another Elliott raider, Hurricane Volta, while Jan Smuts trailed home last.

Young master Breslin came in for Saturday night, when a 12-strong field melted away into a four-horse affair with excuses by the dozen, and another painless exercise, aided by the claim offsetting the laughable penalty, ensued.

Today at Ayr, with 12lb extra for the two wins, less Andrew’s 7lb, Kuiper Belt will be tested by dropping down in trip to a mile and a quarter. That said, 65 probably still underrates him markedly, and his pedigree is not that of a slogging stayer as he’s by Elusive Quality out of a Storm Cat mare – ideal for the distance.

Tomorrow at Chelmsford, another “A”, Alexanderthegreat, runs off 68 in a 0-60, showing that William Haggas learned plenty in his time with Sir Mark Prescott. Raised to 62 from 53 after his Eureka win over a Prescott hotpot at Lingfield after three long-priced coconuts to get the initial mark of 55 and a modest Chepstow fourth to reduce it by 2lb, he sluiced past Twister after turning for home miles behind.

He followed up by six lengths in better company at Newbury and gets in here because of the newish rule which enables 61- and 62-rated horses to contest 0-60’s. In tomorrow night’s 14-furlong finale, the three-year-old, rated 68, still carries the same weight of 9st 11lb as the year-older Ginger Lady, thanks to the 11lb weight for age advantage at the distance. His new rating will hit the BHA web site at 7 a.m. tomorrow. How high will they dare to go, and also for Haggas’ Saturday Chelmsford winner Croque Monsieur, an easy well-backed first-time gelded scorer after previous form figures of 777?

Monday Musings: A Lull in the Programme

Knowing that this coming Saturday is something of a non-event racing-wise – unless you enjoy the concept of the Shergar Cup and the delights of Ascot in midsummer – I’ve tried to make some sense of the seven Flat-race meetings on offer around the country, writes Tony Stafford.

Trainers and owners have become frustrated by the continuing hot weather, many being unwilling to risk their valuable assets on unsuitably fast ground. Inevitably, though, the wait for appreciable rain to alter underfoot conditions will lead to massive entries for all categories of races when it finally arrives.

From north to south, handicaps are the staple offering. There’s nothing new in that, but of the 48 races scheduled this weekend, 37 are handicaps. Ascot’s six races with ten runners in each and two reserves are contested by 12 jockeys, three each representing teams of Ladies, Great Britain/ Ireland, Europe and the Rest of the World.

In general terms, its success depends on whether Frankie Dettori can be steered away from more meaningful mounts elsewhere. With only the Rose of Lancaster (Group 3) and a two-year-old Group 3 race at Newmarket domestically as competition, the now veteran’s love of the Royal racecourse will only be challenged realistically by Arlington Park, Chicago, where the Arlington Million is just one of four valuable races regularly targeted by European stables.

If you are thinking surely the jockeys booked for Ascot will have been revealed some time ago, you are probably right, and I’m sure the Editor – him of unbounded knowledge – knows the dozen names. But at 5 a.m. it’s not possible to quiz him.

But along with many other matters which previously would have been at one’s fingertips in an Internet search, Ascot racecourse, BBC weather and airline arrival times all seem to have disappeared under a cloak of commercial interest.

So sorry Ascot if you have had an expensive press conference to reveal the names which will no doubt include the happily back-in-action Hayley Turner, the other perennial crowd pleaser of Shergar Cup day, but I simply could not find any mention anywhere. [They’re here – Ed.]

I do know that Rita Ora will be one of the post-racing attractions and the very much family-oriented crowd which as ever will pack the racecourse will have plenty to enjoy, especially as Ascot keeps its prices within reason. Plenty of owners would like to have a runner but the structure  - all six within the 0-95, 0-100 or 0-105 bands – will mean it will be hard to break past the Mark Johnston, Richard Fahey type of stables to be involved.

A few weeks back I was moved to write about the paucity of maiden as against novice races for two and three-year-olds. Of the 11 non-handicaps on Saturday, there are 2yo novice races at Ayr and Lingfield;  2yo maiden fillies’ races at Chelmsford and Newmarket, which also stages the Group 3 Sweet Solera, sponsored by the German breeding industry, and is for juvenile fillies.

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The only other non-handicaps on offer are Haydock’s Rose of Lancaster, supported by the Listed Dick Hern Stakes, both for three-plus fillies and mares.  Lingfield offers in addition to its two-year-old race, two novice events, one a median auction for three-, four- and five-year-olds and the other for three and up. Then there is Redcar, where there is a median auction maiden for three and four year olds only, and, praise the lord, a juvenile seller, the sole race of that category on the entire day.

The fall from grace of selling and claiming races has been marked, given that traditionally that type of race proved a potential outlet for owners and trainers to move out horses that had lost their form or whose handicap ratings made it impossible for them to remain competitive.

Last Thursday, Stratford had a selling hurdle race and the Olly Murphy-trained Royal Plaza, rated 125, started 1-2 and won in a canter. At the subsequent auction, conducted by my old friend Capt Nick Lees, famous as the founder of Newmarket Nights, he went for £11,500, producing an £8,500 surplus to the advertised selling price of £3,000.

That was a benefit both to the course and the owner, although in the weighing-up nature of such events, the trainer was wondering whether he had done the right thing, suggesting there was probably some potential for Royal Plaza as a chaser.

The BHA has managed to list only eight selling races and no claimers – with one intriguing exception – among the 222 Flat races scheduled to be contested in the week starting today. Three, including Redcar, were for juveniles, and four of the other five are low-level handicaps with a ceiling of 0-60. One conditions seller is staged at Leicester where Capt Lees is a key member of the course board.

I did read a couple of weeks back that Jamie Osborne was very much in favour of a ground-breaking innovation on Chelmsford’s as ever well-endowed weekend fixture. The race, run over six furlongs is snappily called The Bet totequadpot at Totesport.com Optional Claiming Handicap, a Class 2 affair with £40,000 guaranteed and a winner’s prize of £25,876.

For a £200 entry, owners and trainers have the option of making their horse available for claiming, a practise in the United States, where top-class animals can be entered for an optional claimer, but usually as NOT made available for a claim where lesser animals are in for a claim.

The race is designed to attract decent animals, as the generous prize would suggest, but search as I have, I’ve been unable to find either in the relevant (July 12) issue of the Racing Calendar, or on the BHA’s Racing Administration site, what the advertised claiming prices should be if connections wish  to avail themselves of that option.

There is a note which states: “An allowance of weight may be claimed up to a maximum of 7lb, provided that the horse is claimable at the advertised claiming price. Any horse competing off a rating higher than 105 <see what I mean about the possible level of the race?> i.e. the horse’s official handicap rating minus the allowance of weight to be claimed, shall initially be treated as having that rating and the highest weight shall be 10st. Subsequently the excess over 105 in any rating shall be added to the weight allotted without limitation to the highest weight to be carried (Only one allowance may be claimed).” Are we still paying attention?

It probably would be easy enough if the buggers would tell us somewhere what the claimable prices are and indeed, why when mentioning the possible weight allowance, it states a maximum of 7lb rather than simply 7lb. Presumably it means the less money you put your horse in to be claimed for, the greater the allowance, So your 105 rated horse will get the maximum if you put him in to be claimed for 10k? BHA please clear it up for we dunderheads. [Details are here – Ed.]

One thing is certain, US racing revolves around and flourishes under claiming, rather than selling races, and the claims have to be made before the race. French racing also has a healthy number of claiming races and without them the highly-successful Stan Moore’s business model would be a lot less commercially viable.

Who doesn’t enjoy the post-race action of an auction, especially when somebody has had a bit of a touch and then has to try to keep the winner, having calculated how far he needs to go so as not to absorb the excess over the nominated sale price? The preponderance of handicaps and the sheer necessity of trainers’ having to conceal horses’ true ability in their early races, makes for an unsatisfactory structure.

More claimers and extra winners-of-one, two, three and even four races would lessen the need for the “three runs at the wrong trip” game played with such aplomb by a number of major trainers. Smaller stables simply do not have the resources to play that game, though they may try, but then it’s by no means a level playing field. Never was: never will be.

Monday Musings: Stoute and Fleet wins the King George

It rained on Friday, but not enough for Cracksman to run in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot the following afternoon, writes Tony Stafford. John Gosden’s colt’s absence, together with the late defection of Ballydoyle’s principal hope Kew Gardens, seemed to leave the midsummer feature at the mercy of Sir Michael Stoute and so it proved.

Many of the King George’s since Stoute’s first victory with the ill-fated Shergar in 1981 have featured fancied runners from the Freemason Lodge stable. Poet’s Word, in beating stable-companion Crystal Ocean in a memorable tussle nine lengths clear of the rest, was Stoute’s sixth in the race, which started life in 1951.

Poet’s Word recorded the second-best time ever in the race, bettered only by the German colt Novellist in 2013. Track records at Ascot are generally considered only valid since 2006 when the home straight was remodeled with the construction of the present grandstand, but there has been little apparent difference in overall race times compared with pre-2006.

The fastest times for Ascot’s mile and a half have generally come in fast-run King George’s and for a while the record was held by the Race of the Century in 1975 when Derby winner, Grundy, overcame Bustino after Dick Hern’s use of two pacemakers almost defeated Grundy with the previous year’s St Leger hero.

That time stood for a relatively short period and unusually it was broken in the Hardwicke Stakes of 1983 when the Irish mare Stanerra, trained by the part-time handler and Dunnes Stores family member Frank Dunne, more usually an owner with Jim Bolger, won two races within three days at Royal Ascot.

Relishing the lightning-fast ground at the meeting, the five-year-old won the Prince of Wales by four lengths as a 7-1 shot and then rolled over Electric by a length and a half in the Hardwicke with Be My Native, the Coronation Cup winner from the previous month, 12 lengths back in third in a time 0.03sec faster than Grundy’s 2min26.98sec.

More recently, another Stoute winner, Harbinger in 2010, recorded 2min 26.78sec. The fastest-ever King George time was set three years later by the German colt Novellist, whose talent has never been fully recognized over here. In an 11-race career, Novellist suffered the first of only two defeats after four wins, when runner-up to Pastorius in the German Derby. That was followed by a fourth behind the 2012 King George heroine and fellow German, Danedream, in the Grosser Preis von Baden five weeks after that filly’s Ascot triumph.

From then it was wins all the way for Novellist, who went through 2013 with victories at Baden-Baden (Group 2), in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and then Ascot before putting right the Grosser Preis von Baden defeat of the previous September with a workmanlike win at odds of 1-6, after which he went off to stud in Japan, with so far unspectacular results.

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What was spectacular, though, was the five-length romp away from Trading Leather, Stoute’s Hillstar and favourite Cirrus des Aigles at Ascot in 2min24.60sec. Poet’s Word’s time of 2min 25.84sec (2.66sec fast) stands up well after Friday’s rain on a day when no other race was run in anywhere near standard time.

Although on the day, the O’Brien team made only a minor impact on the eventual result, the fact that second string Rostropovich – number one Hydrangea found the ground much too fast – set a strong gallop and sustained it until well into the straight, played to the Stoute pair’s strengths. Fifth behind Coronet and Salouen hardly flattered him.

When William Buick on Crystal Ocean, the St Leger runner-up to Capri last year, went into a two-length lead on Saturday, few in the stands expected him to be reeled in, but as in the Irish Oaks James Doyle again came fast and late to gain a memorable win on his first ride in the race.

Doyle’s rise to prominence will have pleased one television pundit. In his early days, Doyle was often championed by James Willoughby as a jockey out-performing his opportunities, and that remains very much the case, although the opportunities are now much more numerous.

The days when the King George was the unchallenged midsummer target for Europe’s best horses are long gone, although the fact that two high-class and still-improving stayers such as Poet’s Word and Crystal Ocean were on show, adds some much-needed gloss. The fact remains, though, that prizemoney here has been fairly static in face of dramatic rises elsewhere.

The King George winner earned considerably more on his first race of the year when runner-up to Hawkbill in the Dubai World Cup. His career, typically with Stoute, has been a case of gradual improvement and after Saturday, more credence will have been afforded Poet’s Word’s defeat of Cracksman and the aforementioned Hawkbill in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes last month.

While it is hard to imagine Goodwood 2018 being in any way comparable to last year when incessant rain so disrupted the going, the sight of a leaden sky for the first time for a couple of months as I looked out from my office towards the Olympic Stadium just after dawn today, suggests caution.

If the heatwave returns leaving the ground to stay on the fast side, I’ll be going with the Brian Meehan-trained Bacchus in the Stewards’ Cup on Saturday. The Wokingham winner got what looked a less-than-inspired ride (unusually) from Frankie Dettori at Newbury just over a week ago, but is reportedly in fine fettle. There is a slight chance that he might go instead for the Maurice de Gheest over an extra half-furlong, so it might be wise to wait until final declarations on Thursday morning before committing.

I’ll be at Goodwood for the first four days of the meeting, but will switch to Newmarket on Saturday where Laxmi will tackle the valuable fillies’ nursery for Tooth, Siddiqui, and Sharma from what we hope is a fair mark. Ray’s colours will also be on show half an hour later with My Law, who deserves a break after her Newbury stumble out of the gate which deposited Fran Berry on the ground.

As Steve Gilbey said after that latest kick in the teeth (or Tooth):  If we didn’t have bad luck, we’d have no luck at all.

Monday Musings: Born on the 22nd July

While doing my best under a straw hat – wasn’t it etiquette in the old days never to wear one before Goodwood? – to avoid the unrelenting sun at Newbury on Saturday, I caught a glimpse of a jockey of former days, writes Tony Stafford. It was Bob Curant, someone I knew on little more than nodding acquaintance, but his brother John much more so. Bob, never in the top flight, was always a dependable jockey mostly for Lambourn trainers.

I’ve trotted out the tale of when Johnny, then a 5lb claimer, and Lester Piggott, multiple champion, were the pair in a small selling-plate field riding for Curant’s boss, Ken Payne. John of course was on the winner. I trust the irascible “window” Payne rewarded Lester suitably for the indignity.

John was a friend of Rod Simpson’s early on in their racing careers and as a result we got to know each other quite well. I called out to Bob, “How’s Johnny?” from my pitch outside the new, lavish owners’ facility at Newbury – where the long drawn-out building transformation is going on apace. The reply shocked me: “He’s not too bad now”, revealing unexpectedly a four-year period of illness that his brother has been going through.

The Curant boys originally came from Putney and after John retired, for a number of years his then girlfriend Sue ran quite a smart fashionable stall at Cheltenham racecourse. He was unfailingly friendly and cheerful, attributes which I hope are helping him through his adversity.

I would never have started off this always random affair but for the fact that, blow me down, in yesterday’s list of Racing Post birthdays, there was Bob Curant, aged 69, listed as the rider of decent sprinters, Frimley Park and Gabitat.

Slightly older at 73 on yesterday’s list was Howard Wright, significantly so as it’s him one has to notify to get included on said roster. When Sam Sangster bumped into me, also at Newbury earlier in the spring, asking how to join racing’s who’s who, we had to contact Howard, via wife Ann (sorry Howard I can never remember, should it be Anne?) for onward communication to supreme arbiter John Randall. Howard, as usual, was working away on a job - in Korea if you please – he’s retired, you see.

Howard, of course, best known as former Deputy Editor and lndustry Editor at the Post as well as a Director of the Northern Racing College, initially came down to London from South Yorkshire to work with me when I first took over as Racing Editor at the Daily Telegraph.  However hard I try, I can never quite catch him up for age – and many other things besides.

Bob Curant shares an exact birth date with Seth Hancock, whom I never really got to know back in the distant past when I first went out to Kentucky in November 1982 on the recommendation of the late David Hedges – why me, David? – founder of the still-flourishing International Racing Bureau. Seth took over the legendary Kentucky nursery on the death of his father Arthur B (Bull) Hancock when aged only 23 back in 1972.

That first US trip brought me into contact with Henryk de Kwiatkowski, owner of Danzig, who was already standing at Clairborne where Seth had syndicated him for $2.8 million after going unbeaten in three minor races for Henryk. The following year, the son of Northern Dancer’s first crop showed exceptional talent right off the bat and continued to do so for the next two decades as it was in 2002 that War Front was born. Although only winning one (a Grade 2 handicap) of his seven starts for Joseph Allen, former husband of the late Henryk’s wife Barbara, he has since attracted Coolmore’s attention and for them has produced many top horses, most topically US Navy Flag, winner of last weekend’s July Cup.

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The Hancock family were involved in the process whereby a toss of a coin led to Secretariat’s ending in the ownership of Penny Chenery rather than the Phipps family, New York nobility where racing and finance are concerned. Secretariat’s rider, unlike his owner, is still with us. Ron Turcotte was 77 yesterday.

Two more jockeys with a July 22 birthday, who’ve ridden eiher for me or for Ray Tooth are Iona Wands, unbelievably 43, and Adam Beschizza, 26, still the source of mirth when an appearance in front of the stewards is recalled. “Could you give us your name?” “Biscuit,sir <Beschizza>”. “Well, Mr Biscuit”.

Adam, who rode a pretty dire horse trained by Chris Wall for my boss last year, has since departed for the US. He, like Sophie Doyle, is making a much bigger impact over there than would have been the case in the UK.

Sophie’s brother James, after a tricky period when Godolphin’s internal politics meant he needed to replace temporarily the banned (for betting offences) James McDonald in Australia over the winter, is now in full swing and not just for his principal employers.

On Saturday, Doyle dominated a day that beforehand looked Ballydoyle’s personal property with a hat-trick in the Group races on the Curragh, culminating in a thrilling last-stride win on the William Haggas-trained Sea of Class, carrying the Tsui family colours adorned with such distinction by the filly’s sire, Sea the Stars.

Doyle’s classy ride denied a fourth 2018 Classic win to Donnacha O’Brien, riding Forever Together, on whom he’d won the Oaks when Ryan Moore partnered Magic Wand. Moore stayed loyal to the latter filly, but after her lack-lustre effort in fifth, Aidan O’Brien suggested she might be ailing.

Donnacha, winner of two of his 28 rides in the UK this year, clearly has few problems with his temperament, as those two were Saxon Warrior in the 2,000 Guineas and Forever Together in the Oaks. His places include Forever Together at Chester behind Magic Wand, Saxon Warrior in the Coral-Eclipse and seconds on Gustav Klimt (St James’s Palace Stakes) and Rostropovich, behind William Buick on Old Persian in the King Edward VII Stakes, both at Royal Ascot.

Buick, like Donnacha, has made a big impact in the top races this year, with Masar’s Derby for Charlie Appleby and Godolphin taking pride of place, along with the pair’s Dubai World Cup with Hawkbill back in March.

Coincidentally, both Buick, 30, and Donnacha, ten years his junior, also celebrated birthdays on July 22. William took time on Friday night in the Newmarket paddock to come over and partake in selfies with a friend of a friend, still the same helpful person he’d been 14 years earlier when he first took out his licence.

Donnacha, at 20, seemingly has his potential weight difficulties under control and the racing world at his feet. He leads the Irish jockeys list and with the power of his father’s and brother Joseph’s stables to call on, will be hard for Colin Keane to catch. Amazingly none of his 212 domestic rides, which have brought 56 wins this year, has been for a stable outside the family circle: shades of Dan and Harry Skelton.

One last footnote: I was able to enjoy the splendours of the Newbury owners’ room thanks to the absent Lew Day, owner of Spark Plug, who unfortunately did not fire in Saturday’s opener. With the Ashmore family I shared a table with Chris and Jenny Powell who said that although they had more horses in training than previously, they hadn’t been having much luck, suggesting that Jenny’s filly Ginger Nut had it all to do in a highly-competitive Weatherbys Super Sprint.

An hour later, the pair were in the winner’s enclosure after the filly’s thrilling £122,000 win – I thought my fancy Kinks was a little unlucky in third – celebrating with Richard Hannon junior, but regretting that Hannon senior, who’d been the inspiration with Lord Carnarvon for setting up the race, rarely goes racing nowadays and was an absentee.

Peter’s mum Elizabeth is a once-a-meeting £2 punter, often on short-priced favourites. On Saturday, considering the company at lunch and the fact that ginger nuts are her favourite biscuit, she collected a gargantuan £28.40 from her minimum stake. Biscuit, sir? Naturally!

Monday Musings: A Pot Pourri

No wonder they stayed in town. After the disappointment of Masar’s missing the previous weekend’s Coral-Eclipse Stakes – parlayed into a season-long absence late last week – the full Sheikh Mohammed entourage was on view for the whole of the Newmarket July meeting’s three days, writes Tony Stafford.

The boys in blue were rewarded with seven victories, commencing with long-term standby Saeed bin Suroor’s annexing of the Princess of Wales’s Stakes on the opening day with Best Solution. After a halting and highly frustrating start to the season, bin Suroor has reached an acceptable 33 from 155 for the year, with nine from only 27 coming in the past fortnight, admittedly most of these at minor levels.

Not so with Charlie Appleby whose eight wins (from 24) in the same period included six during the July Meeting. Quorto, in the Superlative Stakes, set 2019 Classic ambitions into overdrive while the only other disappointment apart from the Masar news was Blue Point’s July Cup seventh place behind US Navy Flag.

Blue Point, so impressive in the King’s Stand Stakes at the Royal meeting, ran too freely on Saturday but should be back in his element in the Nunthorpe at York next month, especially as his Newmarket conqueror will be missing. Unlike Mozart, the previous Aidan O’Brien three-year-old July Cup winner to come back from mile racing – he was runner-up in the 2001 Irish 2,000 Guineas – US Navy Flag is unlikely to go on to York, as he is to be prepared for the Everest, Australia’s vastly-valuable sprint in the autumn.

Rather like Scat Daddy, who died prematurely after having his stud fee raised to $100,000 before the 2016 breeding season, Mozart’s stallion career was very much one of what might have been. Having won the Jersey, July Cup and Nunthorpe, the son of Danehill ended his racing days with an unplaced effort at the Breeders’ Cup. He sired plenty of winners including the high-class Amadeus Wolf, and top sprinter and now promising sire, Dandy Man, from his only crop but died as a four-year-old.

Godolphin’s livery featured in an astonishing 28 winners worldwide from 123 runners over the past fortnight, Australia and Japan joining the party, while the French-style Godolphin SNC added four more from 22.

Appleby’s 2018 is rapidly becoming a stellar campaign. So far from only 200 runners he has 60 wins to his credit at the sort of strike-rate (30%) that Sir Mark Prescott, William Haggas and the rest of the top trainers with a mind to such statistics would die for. William Buick and James Doyle, who get to ride most of them, are fully justifying the decision to rely on their burgeoning talents from an early stage in their development.

Until the weekend, the Coolmore fortunes had been frankly in and out, but the victories of US Navy Flag and later in the evening, Kew Gardens (Galileo) in the Grand Prix de Paris on Longchamp’s Bastille Day card, put Aidan O’Brien on six Group 1 wins for 2018.

Kew Gardens will now aim to follow up in the Qipco-sponsored King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes on Saturday week, when Ascot will have the usual fight for horses and jockeys against the same triumvirate of competing fixtures in York, Newmarket and Chester, with Salisbury once more operating in the evening.

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The crowds invariably roll up for York and Chester, as they did again on Saturday, but finding suitable jockeys is a perennial problem for trainers. The Tooth, Siddiqui, Sharma partnership was happy that Brian Meehan could secure Martin Harley for their promising filly Laxmi and Dilip Sharma was equally pleased to meet his racing hero Aidan O’Brien in the paddock before the July Cup.

Laxmi, as I’ve mentioned before, has US Navy Flag in her dam’s pedigree, and Aidan told Dilip that with the first-season sire War Command, like US Navy Flag a son of War Front and a Dewhurst winner, his filly has a terrific page.

For much of Saturday’s seven furlongs she looked a possible winner, but she weakened up the hill and finished seventh to strong-running Antonia De Vega. Harley reported her as “still weak” but a “lovely filly” and that when he asked her he really thought she would win.

Meehan will give her a little time to strengthen, but that could still give her time to contest the £300,000 guaranteed Goffs UK Premier Sales race for graduates of last year’s Doncaster auction where she was acquired for £42,000 by the shrewd Sam Sangster. Harley reckoned a drop back to that race’s distance of six furlongs and a flat track would be very much to her liking.

That race concluded a busy few days for the Tooth colours. On Wednesday at Lingfield, Telltale was a one-paced fourth of five, but showed enough to suggest that a combination of distance, better ground and time to develop could still make this gentle giant into a winner, probably over jumps.

My Law, like Laxmi, in the Meehan team, travelled up to Carlisle for a 10 plus fillies’ race that looked pretty good and didn’t really get going until the last furlong when Paul Mulrennan took her wide and she stayed on into a closing fifth. Maybe a mile is what this good-looking home-bred needs.

Then on Friday night it was Ffos Las and Starcrossed and it was no help to this accurate jumper when just as they arrived at the start, the two hurdles in the straight for the £21,000-added prize were dolled off due to the low sun. The race was over two and a half miles, so after jumping the first they had at least a seven-furlong run past the stands to the second flight at the start of the back straight.

Three more hurdles followed on that far side before another long Flat-race section to the winning post. Starcrossed, always in the leading group under Harry Skelton, and the least experienced in the field, stayed competitive all the way home, eventually finishing fourth. Dan reckoned he needs the hurdles to keep him interested, but to his credit, he was the only one of the leading group in a hot contest for the grade, to stay competitive, the others filling the last three places at the finish.

I had cause to complain to the official handicappers on behalf of my friend, Wilf Storey, when his 10-year-old Jan Smuts, was raised 8lb after winning what had proved an uncompetitive two-mile race at Musselburgh recently. Matthew Tester, freed a couple of years back from his concentration on the two-year-old division, took responsibility for his actions against the veteran of 106 Flat races, arguing Jan Smuts could well have suddenly rediscovered earlier abilities – his last win had been 25 races earlier. Wilf’s parting shot of “It’s a waste of time talking to them” is what many trainers believe.

There were handicapping elements to the hurdles race, too. Starcrossed had been raised 3lb for finishing second to well-treated (and 10lb claimer-ridden) Rebel Yates at Fontwell, which looked tough enough. Meanwhile the eventual winner of Friday’s near £13k first prize was Voodoo Doll, who was completing a hat-trick for Evan Williams.

Voodoo Doll, a five-year-old son of Getaway, had opened his account at the seventh time of asking with an easy success in a £4k handicap at Bangor in June, for which he was raised 7lb. He followed up three weeks ago narrowly in a Worcester race which carried a similar prize to Friday’s – more than £12,000 to the winner. For that he went up another 2lb. Williams will probably expect him to be dropped a few pounds after this!

Monday Musings: Blame it on the novichok…

You can blame it all on novichok and Brexit, writes Tony Stafford. But for the political reaction to the first Salisbury poisonings back in the spring of a former Russian spy who years ago sold secrets to the British, and his daughter, many more England supporters would have dared to travel to Russia for the World Cup.

It was suggested around 3,000 England fans were in the stadium in Samara on Saturday as they beat Sweden 2-0. By my reckoning, not far short of 3,000 more blocked the traffic going down from Regents Park towards Camden Town at around 5.30 on Saturday afternoon. Luckily I was able to take a right turn and escape with a clean car unlike the Emergency Ambulance, jumped upon and as good as wrecked in Borough High Street, Central London, that evening.

As England’s path to a second World Cup win moves ever closer, confusion over Brexit and indeed novichok, following another dual exposure in the Salisbury area late last week, deepens.

David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, resigned over the weekend. Governments like to issue bad news when there are other distractions, so Mrs May might well be grateful of the progress in the World Cup by the home country’s footballers.

She will probably also be relieved that it was Croatia rather than the hosts that won Saturday’s other quarter-final after a penalty shoot-out in Sochi. Croatia’s female president showed her dancing skills when her team opened the scoring, while Russia’s PM Medvedev looked away. Considering the extreme cool in the Putin – May relations since Salisbury, it might be worth Betfair’s opening a market on whether Theresa will find time to travel to the Final next Saturday should we be there, with so much turmoil around Westminster.

My Internet-minded wife did show me one video image late yesterday, on the reaction of the Russian police when one misguided England fan, mirroring the ambulance abuse back home, jumped on a vehicle over there. Within seconds he was hauled off and got an instant “correction” from a policeman’s baton.

I played cricket the only time we won the World Cup when probably a good few of Eton Manor’s team preferred to watch the football. On Saturday I was at Sandown for the Coral-Eclipse Stakes which suffered a last-minute absentee when Masar, the Investec Derby winner had to miss the race through a minor setback.

Many thought Sheikh Mohammed and his Godolphin entourage might also avoid the engagement, but such is the renewed confidence especially with the Charlie Appleby end of the team, that there was a full contingent to see Hawkbill finish fourth. While not collecting the major prize, Sheikh Mo will have been gratified to see the Derby form upheld, with Roaring Lion, third at Epsom, maintaining his superiority over Saxon Warrior, fourth in the big one, in a tight finish.

Had the pair been competing in France or the US then the slightly errant late course of Roaring Lion, which caused Saxon Warrior to be tightened up might well have been reversed. But with the Sandown crowd building up the excitement with those other Lions about to take to the pitch in Samara, the result, a popular one with the favourite winning, was allowed to stand. The four-day ban that Oisin Murphy, 22, received for the move on Donnacha O’Brien, 19, was enough to salve any protests.

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It has been widely assumed that Donnacha , already the possessor of three Classic wins this year to Ryan Moore’s zero, will not wish or be able to continue riding for much longer. Elder brother Joseph at 25 is already an established top-level trainer a couple of years in after his precipitous retirement, but the incentive for the younger O’Brien to remain in the jockey arena could hardly be more attractive.

Well used to reading in the footnotes to ordinary races in Ireland that his mounts would be liable to carrying overweight – 9st was supposed to be his absolute limit – it certainly surprised me that he was allowed to resume his 2,000 Guineas winning partnership with Saxon Warrior. Moore, absent on Kentucky Derby duties with Mendelssohn on that first Saturday in May, was back on the favourite both at Epsom and The Curragh, but again in the US for the very disappointing Mendelssohn at Belmont Park on Saturday night. Luckily Athena – my late mum’s name – picked up just short of 400k when winning the Belmont Oaks, so the trip did have some minor financial recompense for his troubles.

Saxon Warrior, along with the other three-year-olds in the Group 1 Coral-Eclipse, had 8st11lb, but when I asked Aidan O’Brien after the race whether Donnacha had “done” the weight, there was a hint of surprise that I’d even asked. He did. As with Lester Piggott in an earlier age, and until recently George Baker, the lofty Donnacha is showing the amazing will-power that jockeys can employ to manage their weight and of course their appetite.

My appetite was given a bit of a test in the Coral tent – no doubt the early start, England’s match and above all a blockade on the M25 contributed to a host of non-runners among the guest list– after I got a late call from Matt Yates, to partake of some excellent victuals.

Matt was an Olympian 1500-metre runner and if you could believe it actually beat Messrs Coe and Ovett back in the day. He walks pretty quickly too, and his athletic prowess didn’t hurt as he shepherded Coral and Ladbrokes customers from table to bar, and of course to the betting point while Colin Brown (without Desert Orchid) mastered the ceremonies in his usual effortless style.

The food was good, the company even better and until attention switched from horse racing to England on the big screen it was all serene. The initial stages of the match were fairly sterile, and the decision was made to drive back with Peter Ashmore and family to St John’s Wood and watch the second half and the inevitable shoot-out after the probable 0-0 draw in comfort and quiet.

Harry Maguire’s missile-guided head had already altered calculations by the time we got there and the second goal by Dele Alli offered security. It was left to some excellent saves by Jordan Pickford – “that’s what he’s there for” – to retain the victory margin and disguise the actual superiority. With two games to go, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a win. Champions of the World!

Will Mrs May dare to go, though, and sit alongside President Putin at the Final in Moscow? Or even more intriguingly will it be Boris, as Foreign Secretary, or will he have resigned by then, too, in an attempt to unseat the PM and nick the top job for himself amid the inevitable fall-out? When I used occasionally to be in close proximity to Boris (and others of course) going up in the the lift at the old Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street all those years ago, I’d never have believed where he and all of us would be now.

While there may be distractions, the top trainers do not allow themselves to be diverted. On Saturday there were notable multiple wins, not the least impressive being Ian Williams’ four-timer – one at Haydock and three-out-of-three for a 143-1 treble from his only runners at Nottingham.

The horseboxes rolled out early from Kingsley House on Saturday morning, no doubt waking the owners in the guest apartments, aiming for six of the seven Flat meetings on the day- avoiding perhaps fortuitously Sandown and those motorway frustrations.

Mark Johnston’s sole Nottingham runner finished only fourth, but his other 23 contenders fared far more impressively. I wonder whether expectations were particularly high, as of the 24, only two started favourite and neither Austrian School, runner-up as 4-1 market leader at Haydock or the odds-on Winger Spur also second at Beverley, could quite justify the position.

Otherwise it was success everywhere else, with wins at Chelmsford (two), Carlisle, Leicester, Beverley and another double at Haydock. In price order, the winners started at 20-1, 12-1, 8-1, 6-1, 9-2, and 5-2 twice. Johnston had sent out 28 winners in the previous 14 days, so with another at Ayr yesterday, that makes it 36 wins in 16 days. Man in form? He’s almost in the Gareth Southgate class.

Monday Musings: Remembering Trips to Sandbanks

Last Wednesday, my wife suggested a trip to the seaside to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, writes Tony Stafford. This Thursday will be the 49th anniversary of my first wedding – I doubt I’ll be marking that date other than sub-consciously, never mind next year.

The present Mrs S’s suggestion for the location of the trip came as a result of a friend’s recent experience. “I’d like to go to Sandbanks”, she said, and in preparation she scoured the internet for suitable lunch venues.

The previous time I’d visited the now exclusive resort, on the Poole (therefore Western) side of Bournemouth, was only a few years into my initial association in the early 1970’s but I’ll come to that a little later.

We arrived just before 2 p.m. but still in time for a quick lunch. The chosen restaurant proved to be yards from the car park and when I saw it was Rick Stein I could hardly believe my eyes – or my luck!

Me: “You know while you’re catching up on all those Russian programmes on the computer upstairs, I’m often watching the Food Channel < 133>? Well it’s usually Rick Stein!”

Her: “Really, I’ve never heard of him!”

The food was great, as it had been when Brian Meehan and his now wife Jax took me and a dozen other people to the Marlborough High Street branch of Rick’s last October after the parade of available yearlings at which I spotted Laxmi.

A leisurely walk along the beach towards Canford Cliffs and an ice cream followed in the 30 degree heat, before a return home listening to the England-Australia 20-20 on the car radio. Do not worry, dear reader, Mrs S had the earphones on and had something more suitable to entertain her.

The first trip to Sandbanks, as with most things in the early years of my Daily Telegraph employ, resulted from a telephone call from Fleet Street after the sales results from Doncaster appeared in the Sporting Life newspaper of that day.

A twice-raced horse called Princehood, trained at Newmarket by Atty Corbett, had won on debut by a short head, but had appeared only once subsequently, running down the field. Probably broken down, he was sent to the sales and made only 360gns to the bid of Mrs Louie Dingwall.

I believe it was in 1972 or the following year, but sadly the mountain of racing books that occupied the loft of a former Stafford household were dispersed many years ago. What I do know is that I called Mrs D, who would have been pushing 80 <born 1893> and asked if she had an owner.

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“No, my dear”, she replied in the Devonian burr she retained for all her long life – she died aged 89 in 1982 - and we agreed that I would organise a syndicate to buy the gelding, a light-framed chestnut as I recall. <I wanted to say chesnut, but the computer’s word-check would not allow it, even though the Telegraph style book would definitely have given the latter ruling>.

So I managed to find nine like-minded souls, mostly in the paper’s sports room, and a trio of likely punters from the Coral shop opposite to pay 30 quid each and we had a horse! One guy was called David Oldbury, and I haven’t seen him for 40 years. The other two were Trevor Halling and Chris Allen, both musicians, and Trevor, as a result of our meeting, eventually became a racing journalist. His son Nick is a boxing commentator on television.

A few days after the initial contact, I found my way to Sandbanks, then nothing like the swish resort it is now. I located the petrol pump and small garage on the beach and the nearby stables, obviously no longer to be seen.

Mrs D, by this time nearly blind, had as recently as 1968 driven her horsebox all the way down to Cagnes-sur-Mer to win the local Grand Prix, worth £6,000, with the veteran gelding Treason Trial. She had been a taxi and ambulance driver during the War from the garage on the almost deserted sands and was one of the first women to be granted a licence when the Jockey Club relented in 1966.

That day I met the jump jockey Gary Old, who was to form a winning partnership a little later with the Donald Underwood-trained True Song, trained near Godalming, down the road from Trevor Halling’s home, and also veteran Sussex trainer Paddy Butler. Gary, who died a few years back, used to ride the jumpers, but as soon as the weather turned, he’d switch to summer mode, renting deck chairs as a beach gigolo.

During the war years, Gordon W Richards, also a West Countryman, went to stay with Louie and her husband Archie when a raw 11-year-old as the stable apprentice. Better than sweeping chimneys!  Gordon, who had the “W” imposed – he had no middle name – to differentiate him from the 26-times Champion Jockey, became one of the great National Hunt trainers of the second half of the last Century far away from Dorset up in Cumbria where son Nicky still trains.

I digress. Princehood had a few runs for Mrs D, but in the manner of partnerships, a change was soon mooted. I’d got to know Ken (Window) Payne in his days training in the New Forest and he had by then moved into the main yard of Kingsley House – now the focal point of Mark Johnston’s operation in Middleham.

Ken reputedly not only used to sell multiple shares in single horses – there were apocryphal tales of six half-shareholders in some animals – but also occasionally resorted to housing two horses in a box such was his popularity for a while.

In the end he ran off with his (male) hairdresser years after his wife Lynda had decamped for a fling with the singer Gilbert O’Sullivan. One of the best Payne stories, of which there are many, concerned the day when he ran two horses in a four-runner Warwick (?) seller. Stable apprentice John Curant rode the winner, Big Jake, while Lester Piggott had the mount on the unfancied Mr Bojangles. Or was it the other way round? Why did I let those form books go?

We moved the horse to Payne, and we were on to a man when told he’d win the Doncaster seller one Thursday afternoon. He was unplaced. Two days later, some of us watched in the bar of the pub next door with a mixture of horror and disbelief as Princehood – his race televised on BBC with Julian Wilson’s commentary – strode home at 14-1 in a Lanark handicap, setting  a track record.

**

Last week I wrote about the likelihood of Sod’s Law’s being balloted out of last Wednesday’s London Gold Cup qualifying race at Kempton and he duly missed the cut by one, three horses on the same weight getting in.

It looked long odds-on that a similar fate would befall him this week in another of the series, but after Hughie Morrison took his terrier-like reasoning into battle with the BHA’s Paul Johnson arguing that there was no reason that the BHA could not sanction a division of the race, he won the day. Let’s hope Sod’s Law runs well on Wednesday. As Hughie said after his triumph, “I didn’t make any new friends today!”

On Friday, up in Co Durham, I saw Sod’s Law’s full-brother, a gorgeous flashy chestnut colt foal with four white socks and a big white face, along with two more home-bred foals, both by Garswood. When Gabrial The Wire won unchallenged the following day at Chester, we were encouraged that, as with Dutch Art and Mayson, both previously patronised, the choice of cheap-as-chips Garswood and Cheveley Park stud would pay off for Ray Tooth one day.

 

Monday Musings: Strange Conditions

I’ve always liked the idea of a series of races with a valuable final as a decent way of promoting a commercial organisation, writes Tony Stafford. Many years ago I was asked by a man called Roger Broomhall – sadly no longer with us, like I fear many of the guests of the 20 days of qualifiers – to devise such an event.

The company which wanted to support the event was Harcros Building Services, also no longer around. They had branches and clients all around the country and we settled on stayers’ races of varying classes, all at different tracks. The Final was run during the St Leger meeting at Doncaster and based on the still-thriving Mallard Handicap over the full Classic distance.

As far as we could tell it was a great success, the guests, who in the main were the firm’s most valued clients lapping it up and around half of the races gaining television coverage. Unfortunately, they discontinued it after a year, but the Final was a smart occasion and I remember sitting next to Gladstone Small and telling him I fancied facing him in the nets. The look he gave me was probably fully deserved.

Before Harcros, Crown Decorators – still very active – had their Apprentice Series, beginning with the then season’s opening race, also at Doncaster, which meant for half an hour the winning rider led Eddery, Carson and the rest with publicity to match.

That tortured intro to this week’s main theme is to outline what I believe to be the absurd framing of conditions of an existing series – Kempton Park’s London Mile. This has eight qualifying races and culminates in a £70,000 Final (£43k to the winner) with no handicap parameters on Saturday September 8, a date which competes as often is the case, with Ascot maybe half an hour down the M3.

So far three qualifiers have been staged, one each in April, May and early June, all with identical conditions, 0-85 handicaps for four-year-olds and upwards. On Wednesday, for the first time three-year-olds are eligible, this time in a 0-80. With opportunities few enough to find for the younger generation at this distance as the summer gets going, it was to be expected that as many as 20 three-year-olds would be entered.

They are supplemented by 19 of their elders, making a 39-horse entry. Kempton race on Wednesday evening and unfortunately, no race can be divided so a maximum of only 14 can run.

I’m not sure whether this situation was envisaged by the BHA’s Race Planning department, but not one of the 20 three-year-olds is guaranteed a run if all 39 are declared. At this stage of the season the weight-for-age scale determines that the younger generation runners receive 10lb from their elders, so an 80-rated 3yo carries the same weight as a 70-rated elder. Even more irritatingly, Seyasah, a four-year-old trained by Chris Wall and rated 70, does not get a ballot figure while three 80-rated 3yo’s all do.

You’ve probably guessed that there is a personal element to this moan, and there is. With few suitable opportunities in this time of ubiquitous fast ground, Hughie Morrison has settled on Kempton, with its forgiving surface, for Ray Tooth’s thrice-raced maiden Sod’s Law.

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He was well named. After three runs he has been rated 78. Three years ago his half-brother Dutch Law was originally rated 74, but after a good first handicap effort at Haydock, he was on 75 and ran in and won a mile handicap with that ceiling at Newmarket’s July meeting.

Nowadays, 0-75 races can be competed in by horses rated 1lb or 2lb higher, but not 3! So we’re stuck at 0-80 unless we have another go against novice-race-eligible Group horses. To get a run on Wednesday we need nine to come out. When Dutch Law was running in his last season two years ago he was consistently the last in the ballot when horses were on the same handicap mark and it cost him his chance (by one horse if I recall correctly) of going for the £150,000 Balmoral Handicap at Ascot where he’d previously won a fifty-grand pot. On Wednesday five horses have 9st 2lb, his weight. The other four have higher ballot numbers than us.

The following Wednesday, the fifth race in the series is also run as a three-year-old plus 0-80 and a week later again, the first of two heats restricted to the younger generation, is staged, not as a 0-80, but a 0-70, so that’s out! The final two are on August 21, a 0-90 three-year-old plus and on August 29, just over a week before the Final and belatedly, a 0-80 for three-year-olds only.

Last year’s decider, which accommodated 16 horses, included five three-year-olds, none of which made much of an impact. The race conditions reveal that any horse declared at the 48-hour stage, as Sod’s Law will be, is qualified to be entered for the Final. As to whether he has a chance to run in any of them save possibly the last, is highly doubtful and hoping to make the Final is probably fanciful.

**

A couple of weeks ago I suggested that Main Edition’s second career win at Goodwood, when she recorded a time almost two seconds faster than a fellow juvenile six-length winner of a later race on the card, gave her a great chance in last week’s Albany Stakes at the Royal meeting.

The Mark Johnston-trained filly duly obliged in a tight finish, but many of the most high-profile juveniles were blown away through the week. Archie Watson got his first Royal Ascot win in the Windsor Castle on Saturday, but Soldier’s Call was possibly a little fortunate that runner-up Sabre had so much to do at halfway.

Sabre, the National Stakes runner-up is by Mayson, one of my favourite young stallions, now producing better-quality juveniles in his third crop. The only flash entry so far for Sabre is Redcar’s Two-Year-Old Trophy in October and I wouldn’t mind betting that Richard Fahey is leaving a space in his trophy cabinet for that valuable prize.

Sprinkled through the week were some memorable performances, but none to rival Alpha Centauri, who matched Ray’s Indian Ink’s six-length winning margin 11 years earlier in the Coronation Stakes. She’ll be a joy to train for the versatile Jessie Harrington for as long as owners, the Niarchos family, want to delay her entry into the breeding shed.

A day earlier Magic Wand won the Ribblesdale in the manner in which many of us had expected her to take the Oaks after her Chester romp; and Stradivarius stayed on to win a very competitive Gold Cup from Vazirabad, Torcello (Mrs Harrington) and Order of St George for owner Bjorn Nielsen. I’ve probably told the tale before but many years ago I used to call him regularly about his horses to his office in Wall Street, New York.

His secretary always greeted me with: “You sound so much like Robin Leach” – the man who presented the cheesy show: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. While in New York one autumn, I arranged to see Bjorn and when I got to reception, I started to say: “I’m… and the secretary said. “Hi Mr Stafford, you do sound just like Robin Leach, even before you say anything!”

I’m delighted that Bjorn has managed to breed a horse of the quality of Stradivarius. Although US-based, he has always been a purist, preferring to produce staying stock to sharp horses, although he did own the top sprinter Tante Rose.

Monday Musings: Fine Margins and the Royal Regatta

What is the relevance of the following succession: neck, head, nose, short head and neck? No they are not a new variant on the heads, shoulders, knees and toes kiddies rhyme, although they would comfortably fit the meter of the song, normally sung to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down, writes Tony Stafford. They are race distances which added together barely stretch to a single length.

These narrow margins offer unarguable evidence of the toughness and talent of the Karl Burke-trained, John Dance-owned, P J McDonald-ridden Laurens.  They were achieved successively in one maiden race (on debut); one Group 2 and three Group 1’s, the latter trio encompassing the Fillies Mile (last October) and then the Prix Saint-Alary and yesterday’s Prix de Diane, her first Classic.

When she didn’t win, second time out as a juvenile at Deauville, and behind the Richard Hannon longshot Billesdon Brook in the 1,000 Guineas on her 2018 reappearance, the margin of defeat was also uniform, one and three-quarter lengths each time.

Maybe the fact of five tight photo-finishes has kept us from celebrating her class until now. There were distinct impressions for instance that if she met her nose Fillies Mile victim, the strong-finishing September, again, she would struggle to replicate the performance, but while September has been off the track since her Breeders’ Cup third at Del Mar in November, Laurens has continued to thrive.

At Chantilly yesterday, race commentator Patrick Faraday (or is it Ferraday, I can never quite catch the name accurately, so sorry Pat) gave emotional gloss to the drama as he talked of a “host of challengers” as they neared the finish. His additional information, after she crossed the line, must have given a jolt to one former jockey who until George Baker’s career-ending injury in San Moritz last year, acted as his driver. No Patrick it was P J, not Frankie McDonald, but happy soul Frankie would have enjoyed the mention.  Again there was a late flourish from the Andre Fabre-Godolphin runner, Musis Amica, coming from last into second, but we won’t be fooled this time.

Who is John Dance? We ought to know as in 2017 he ran 34 individual horses on the Flat and already this year 24 have carried his predominately white colours. These are (or were until sold in a couple of cases) spread among nine trainers with Burke ‘s Spigot Lodge in Middleham housing eight, the most. They are all based in the north apart from one, so far unsuccessful, with Hugo Palmer.

Mr Dance is the proprietor of Salcey Forest Stud, in the centre of Forestry Commission land ten miles from Northampton and he added to that breeding involvement by acquiring Robert Barnett’s Fair Winter Farm in Buckinghamshire last October.

When that purchase was announced, reflecting the history of the place based on the family’s Time Charter line, Mr Dance was already anticipating having Laurens as his own foundation mare, calling her a Classic prospect for 2018. That prediction looks pretty smart eight months down the line.

Will Edmeades, who looked after the Barnett breeding interests in Buckinghamshire, has returned to his former base in Newmarket, no doubt leaving Dance to undergo another demanding activity, staving off the bids which are sure to come from the biggest breeding operations around the world.

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It would be nice to think that he will be as resolute in resisting them as his daughter of Siyouni, one of the most promising young French stallions, has been during her racing career. One of the friends of Salcey Farms Stud’s web page was congratulating herself last night for having “backed her for the Arc before her latest win”. I’m not surprised.

Trainer and owner have already shown admirable enterprise in her programme, never flinching from the next challenge however daunting, so I fully expect to see her back at Parislongchamp – great name for a racecourse! – on the first Sunday in October. Maybe Happily, one of the foiled “host”, barely half a length back in fourth after a far less smooth run than the winner’s, will be there but the O’Brien filly  has been generally frustrating so far this year.

Aiden will have his usual blanket coverage at Royal Ascot this week when there is little doubt that victory for Order of St George will be among the principal aims. There will be no Big Orange to foil his delayed quest for a second victory in the race unlike last year but the quirky Frenchman Vazirabad and John Gosden’s Stradivarius pose obvious challenges.

Royal Ascot always represents the mid-point of the Flat racing year, with car park activity before and after racing celebrating the approach of the year’s longest day. I hope to take up invitations to Jamie Osborne (“Tuesday or Friday, usual spot”) and Brian Meehan (Wednesday), same location, but it all gets a bit hectic. I wonder how I ever got on when I had to write about it, do the tips for every race and bet on all of them – not always the ones I’d selected for the Daily Telegraph readers either?

I enjoyed a ride in Jamie’s gallops car in Lambourn last week, marvelling at his ability to travel up a dirt road at above 30 mph, anticipating and accommodating the regular speed bumps and still keeping the five horses in the work sufficiently in his camera phone screen for me to receive a What’s App recording immediately afterwards.

Raymond Tooth was encouraged by the representation of the display of his home-bred Pour Moi colt, Waterproof (ex Laughing Water), and this first foal might have a bit of a future. On one hand Pour Moi has been swiftly re-branded as a jumps stallion at Coolmore’s NH division: on the other, he was sire of the 2017 Derby winner Wings of Eagles, so clearly he can get a good one given the right ingredients of nature and nurture.

Saturday night was interesting. I’ve never been to Fontwell for a race starting at 8.55 p.m. but that was the assignment of Ray’s lightly-raced Starcrossed in a handicap hurdle stretching up to nearly two and a half miles for the first time.

Compared to the much more experienced and improving staying mare Rebel Yeats, he clearly has plenty to learn as a quite serious mistake at the third flight showed. That meant the gelding and Harry Skelton (who had ridden the two previous winners) forfeited first run to the 10lb claimer-ridden winner, but Starcrossed stayed on resolutely up the hill to get within a length and a half.

Dan Skelton reported him in great shape on Sunday morning and will no doubt be scouring the final days of Volume 2 of the Programme Book 2018 for a quick return. More realistically, he might wait until early next month to find the winning opportunity he strongly anticipates for the Cape Cross six-year-old, bought cheaply on Steve Gilbey’s inspired hunch at Newmarket sales in October 2016 and already a novice hurdle winner at Huntingdon on the second of just four runs.

So enjoy Ascot, whether you are there in person or watching on the box. One normal regular attendee of my acquaintance is staying away in favour of blanket home absorption of all things World Cup. Hope he’s been laying the short ones! [No comment! – Ed.]

 

Monday Musings: If it wasn’t for bad Luck…

Nick Luck on Sunday should be required viewing every week on Racing UK, writes Tony Stafford. This Sunday the show conveniently wrapped around racing from Hong Kong featuring Graham Cunningham who seems to have settled seamlessly into the racing there after a long career on this side of the pond, in more recent years as a regular on the channel.

In my case, disciplined as ever, I usually miss most of it. Yesterday the first segment included Hugo Palmer, who according to his stable jockey Josephine Gordon, also on the show before her dash to Goodwood, had to attend a party so left precipitously. I didn’t begin watching until after Hugo’s departure unfortunately.

That left Luck, soon, believe it or believe it not, to attain the unimaginable age of 40 with Gordon, tipster Maddy Playle and Hughie Morrison, with emphasis on the last-named’s trials and tribulations with the BHA courtesy the Wolverhampton steroids case.

As both interviewer and interviewee readily attested, the affair could easily have ended with Morrison’s losing his licence under the “strict liability” rule even though almost nobody believed the trainer likely to have been in any way involved in wrong doing.

Morrison believes it was his previously unblemished disciplinary record and the access to (if not ownership of) the excessive funds needed to challenge the BHA’s in his mind dilatory approach to the making available of evidence that ended with a satisfactory if expensive outcome on his part.

He talked about “£5,000 to send a letter and £25,000 to arrange a meeting with a barrister and the BHA”, figures which would take the cost of possible justice “far beyond the reach of most trainers”. Far beyond reason if you ask me.

Hughie, who trains three horses for my boss Raymond Tooth, also readily attested that few owners expect to make anything like a profit from their horses but that they should expect to be treated much better on the racecourse than was previously the case. He says, though, that the situation is improving at a number of courses.

Morrison cited the new facilities for owners at Cheltenham and Newbury – both top notch – but could easily have included Ascot and York at the upper end as similarly exemplary. I was at Haydock on Wednesday and that course provides another enjoyable experience for owners, but the five and a half hour trek back down the 50mph limit blighted M6 was less tolerable.

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That was after a disappointing sixth place for Raymond’s and his partners Dilip Sharma and Shahpur Siddiqui’s Laxmi in a fillies’ maiden race over six furlongs. Harry Bentley reported afterwards that she found the going too firm and the trip too short and the fact she did rally late on after getting outpaced seemed to support that opinion.

Laxmi could have run in any number of different types of two-year-old races, being an auction buy (£42,000), and also a product of a stallion (War Command) whose progeny qualify for mid-range median auction races, as well as the now ubiquitous novice contests.

The same cannot be said of all juveniles. In the old days, most races for two-year-olds at this stage of the season were either maidens or winners’ races. This year, the BHA’s race planning division – you know that part of the executive which scheduled afternoon meetings on Saturday at Haydock, Beverley, Catterick and Musselburgh to make it simple for northern trainers and racegoers – have thrown the programme into almost total reverse with previous winners being allowed into most races, both for two and three-year-olds.

Hughie Morrison was more concerned with the older division, complaining that inexperienced, later-developing maidens in their early days are habitually confronted by pattern-class horses totally schooled in racing. He reckoned most novice races for three-year-olds now go to previous winners. He implied that all this is doing is offering additional easy pickings for the most powerful stables – step forward Mr Gosden, and he does!

As an attempt to try to put myself into a trainer’s place, I had a look at the 57 two-year-old races over six furlongs in Volume 2 of the Programme Book for 2018. In order of availability there were 21 novice races, 12 novice auction, nine novice fillies’, five maidens, three each novice median auction and novice filly auction, two for maiden fillies (including Haydock last week) and one each median auction maiden and median auction fillies’ maiden.

The five maiden races were interesting. The first is at York this weekend, a Class 3 that carries a £15,000 prize fund and will therefore be very hard to win. The others are at Brighton, Windsor, with two (in a course series) at Hamilton. In all only nine are confined for maidens out of the 57. For home-breds that didn’t go through a sale to secure a mark for auction races, their opportunities are also limited, in my opinion unnecessarily so.

**

A few weeks ago I rather unfortunately chose Jeremy Noseda as an example of a small-to-medium size trainer who habitually takes on the big stables with excellent hopes of success. I was pointing to his forthcoming proposed challenge with the high-class, Phoenix Thoroughbreds-owned Gronkowski for the Kentucky Derby, even though news had come out the previous week that his colt had suffered a setback and would miss the race. I missed the news! It needed the better-informed resources of the Editor to prevent total embarrassment in this quarter. For Noseda it could hardly have gone worse in the interim.

Subsequently Phoenix, presumably in a pique that the Derby challenge was off, removed all their horses, including Gronkowski (three for three this year) and Walk in the Sun (two for two), along with 12 others. The latter has joined Martyn Meade, while the useful Lansky has gone to Robert Cowell.

It must have been galling for Noseda to read in the build up to Saturday’s Belmont Stakes from new trainer Chad Brown that Gronkowski came to him in wonderful condition. But that would have been nothing compared to his feelings after Gronkowski came from a long way back on his delayed US debut to get nearest to Justify as that brilliant colt gave Bob Baffert a second Triple Crown in three years following American Pharoah in 2016.

After some quiet times it seemed that 2018 would herald a major revival in Noseda’s fortunes. Understandably, following the removal of pretty much all of his best and certainly most expensive horses, his yard seems almost to have ceased operations with no runner since the unplaced Laughing Stranger at Newmarket on May 17. One can only hope that a mid to late summer surge will be forthcoming.

Monday Musings: Derby Fallout

Almost 12 years on from riding his first winner on the Paul D’Arcy-trained Bank on Benny at Salisbury on September 27th 2006, William Buick fulfilled all the aspirations of his friends and family, not least his father Walter, when driving home Masar to win the Investec Derby at Epsom on Saturday, writes Tony Stafford. He has rightfully earned his place in the Annuls of the Turf.

Scots-born Walter had to relocate to Scandinavia and, for a while, Germany where he trained to make a decent living, but he was always determined that young William would make it over here. Regular school holidays to the UK put him in contact with potential future employers, but also introduced him to a few Press Rooms, notably Newbury, where he met a number of racing journalists.

Walter’s numerous connections – not to mention his son’s obvious innate riding talent - helped secure an apprenticeship with Andrew Balding, where he’d been a regular holiday visitor for years. However, when the young Buick, not exactly totally at home speaking English in those days, started out he found the rides hard to come by.

Buick senior is traditional jockey-short in stature and while William was to grow to considerably taller, in his mid-teens he weighed barely 5st. Bank on Benny opened the flood gates, or so Walter thought, but getting on for a month later, that was still the state of play, while the reaction to him at the Jockey School was not always too positive either.

The person who pushed William’s career forward more quickly than would have been the case was a former trainer who sort-of shared Sunday’s Racing Post’s front page with Buick’s Derby win.

By mid-October 2006 Walter Buick was getting desperate – in the true sense of the word – and I managed to put him in touch with a small trainer, based at Exning near Newmarket. That person had already had his first Group 3 winner – his Blitzkrieg beating the previously-unbeaten Dylan Thomas, the future Arc winner - in a two-year-old race at Salisbury a couple of years earlier. Prior to training, Vince Smith was a journeyman jockey specialising in winning the Jersey riding championship both on the Flat and over Jumps.

You might have thought that this would be the impetus for Vince’s career, but owner Richie Baynes, a major nurseryman in East Anglia, decided to sell Blitzkrieg to Hong Kong and then soon after remove the rest of his string.

Anyway, in the remainder of the 2006 season, wins on the Dave Clayton-owned Vacation on November 3rd and December 2nd, interspersed with a Balding-trained success on Lordswood on November 13th, did have the effect of bringing the young jockey, whose struggle to carry the saddle back to weigh in tested his fortitude, to more general attention.

Then it clicked. In the last fortnight of the year Buick rode six more winners, including a double on December 16th, which were the prelude to him amassing 67 victories the following year. Of his 94 total rides in the year, Vince Smith provided 19, not just encouragement, but useful match practice. By contrast William had only 11 rides for his boss. Without Vacation, the start would have been even more hesitant, although the outcome for this highly-personable young man was always written clearly in the stars. It also helped that he was given an invitation to spend the winter riding in the US early in the piece.

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So where was Vince Smith on the Racing Post front page? Like all his friends – and he trained the last winner in my old red colours, coincidentally Richie Boy in the 11.25 a.m. race at Warwick on a Saturday morning in 2004 – I was shocked when I heard he was going to live the rest of his life as a woman.

Now as Victoria, in yesterday’s article he gives Steve Dennis chapter and verse about the whys and wherefores and also the physical steps he will be taking to make the total transformation. I had no idea it would happen and I’m happy that I had an hour or so in the owners’ tea room at Newmarket back in the spring to listen to his detailing the constant anguish he suffered for all his adult life while we all thought him first and foremost a ladies’ man. Having had my 18 stitches out (ouch) last week after my minor surgery, I’ve been imagining what Victoria will have to endure over the coming months and years. I wish her well.

Buick fits comfortably into the Godolphin operation as does their other main rider, James Doyle. Like Buick, Doyle and his sister Sophie, who has done extremely well as a jockey since relocating to the US, are from a racing family, mother Jacqui having trained before latterly devoting herself to her son’s career. Their father Bill Perrin trained jumpers in the East Anglia region.

James and Sophie were often to be seen around Huntingdon racecourse when the Perrins had a runner and when that marriage failed, Jacqui started a stable in Lambourn backed for a while by my old Eton Manor opening partner, Tom Ford, who remains a racehorse owner and a person ever ready for the chance to offer criticism of my fielding prowess of 50-odd years ago to anyone who will listen.

After the Guineas this year I bumped into Jacqui Doyle and she was with Charlie Appleby’s mother, who I learned used to train point-to-pointers in Devon and that was where and when her son had his first win as a rider. Mrs Appleby admitted to her pride in her son’s career, but knew he craved a Classic winner above all else.  That’s happened and now, like young Buick, they will find themselves in a different category.

Charlie Appleby has been with Godolphin for 20 years, for a while with David Loder when he trained, and it must be interesting that so long after those days, the sales purchases that come his and Saeed bin Suroor’s way are jointly sourced by Loder, with Anthony Stroud now reinstalled at the centre since the departures of John Ferguson and earlier Simon Crisford, and with John Gosden as the supreme arbiter.

Saeed’s irritation at what was perceived as an imbalance of talent in the two-year-old intake of last season will not have been assuaged by the sight of the highly-approachable and modest Appleby at the top of the trainers’ table with more than £1.6million in prizemoney from 44 wins and 131 runs, and 33 individual winners from 70 horses. Saeed’s £116k from 15 wins and 66 runs, and 11 winners from 40 individuals must make frustrating reading, bearing in mind the glory days, although he does seem happier with the present crop of juveniles.

But nobody in Godolphin will be anything other than euphoric this morning. Back in 1982, soon after we met in Kentucky for the first time, I sat in a car outside Richard Casey’s livery yard in Dullingham near Newmarket with Sheikh Mohammed and (now Sir) Michael Stoute when the Sheikh was waiting to inspect the young horses about to go into Freemason Lodge.

At one point the Sheikh looked over and said, and this is a sentence I’ve never forgotten: “It doesn’t take just three years to build a stud operation, it can take 30!” Until Saturday and the home-bred Masar, I often found myself saying to myself: “And you’re not there yet!” Now, in New Approach, admittedly a  son of Galileo, but one that they recruited along with Jim Bolger as a way to circumvent their own self-imposed ban on Coolmore pedigrees, they’ve bred a Derby winner from their own Derby winner. True it has taken 36 years, but nobody’s counting any more.

I’m sure that when the disappointment of whatever caused Saxon Warrior’s eclipse – and I did find his pre-race unease in the paddock with some pretty scary raising and pushing forward of first one then the other hind leg towards the front of his body slightly alarming – the common sense among the defeated tribe might reflect that this will help keep the other major player interested.

Going forward it will be interesting to see whether Saxon Warrior will be campaigned again at a mile and a half. Certainly middle-distance Aidan O’Brien Classic-standard colts – though not fillies – are thinner on the ground than for some years. It would be no surprise if Mark Johnston steps in at The Curragh with the ultra-tough Dee Ex Bee.

On the subject of Mark Johnston, his filly Main Edition, almost four lengths too good for the boss’ and his partners’ strong-finishing filly Laxmi on debut at Windsor – as told last week – stepped up with a fast win against colts at Goodwood on Friday night. She won by a similar margin to Windsor’s and the obvious merit of the win can be gauged by the six-length debut romp half an hour later of the Roger Varian-trained filly Impulsion. It took her almost two seconds more – around ten lengths – to complete the six furlongs. Maybe a few will be frightened of Laxmi when she goes to Haydock on Thursday!

Monday Musings: Cut it out!

The clock was ticking on towards 3 p.m. last Wednesday, and the staff in Theatre 1 of Homerton University Hospital’s Day Stay Unit – I think that’s its correct description – prepared yet another patient for surgery, writes Tony Stafford.

Actually surgery is rather stretching the point for what was a minor procedure to excise a tumour from said patient’s forehead, except that the patient was your correspondent. An atmosphere of good-humoured professionalism pervaded, but then one of the female assistants to the surgeon confessed to being a little worse-for-wear after a long day at the battlefront between the NHS and the hordes of patients that make never-ending demands on its resources.

“I can’t wait to go home”, she said plaintively, to which her boss replied: “You’ve still got three hours to go.” “I know”, she sighed, adding: “But when I do get home, I’ll have a massage. I have a man to do that, just for the back”.

Already shrouded, in advance of anticipating the various agents of the surgeon’s trade, I couldn’t help but ask, to somebody I’d never actually seen: “Do you have another man for the front?” a question that got general mirth from the other female attendees, and an admission from the surgeon: “I was thinking that too, but didn’t dare say it!”

Having promised to show me the offending cancerous intruder, it was with a little disappointment when 45 minutes later, after the endless number of stitches was finally applied, I was advised to wait a while before swinging my legs off the bed. My first sight was of the surgeon, scrupulously honest with all my questions during the procedure, already walking away to his next appointment.

It could have been anything or anyone. In the initial stages after my 12.30 p.m. arrival at reception, with around nine others I was settled in a small, private cubicle awaiting the initial consultation. It was more than an hour later that one much younger man – in for a vasectomy, poor lad – was getting quite irritated that he might not be out in time to collect his car, as the parking time was up at 2.20 p.m. He was pushed forward a little, but was probably in for pain on more than one front.

The chap next to me, who I did see beforehand, was told by his surgeon – not mine – he would have the one on his (BCC like mine I assume) cheek removed, but he would have to wait until another time for them to do the one on his nose. “And hang on,” the doctor said, “You have others on your front. Could I look at your back? Wow, they’re all over. You’ll have to have them all biopsied!” In that moment I resolved to stay covered up for the rest of my life, just imagining what horrors awaited the poor man over the coming months.

After discharge, I was expected to wait two days for the dressing to come off, which it finally did on Friday night. My wife reminded me that the previous time, four years ago when a more substantial intruder was removed, it had been bleeding profusely as soon as I got home, and by 9 p.m. my head seemed to have swelled to almost one and a half times its normal size, requiring a drive back to the hospital and a night-long wait for attention.

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This time there was no bleed, but on exposing the wound, I saw that there is a three-inch line, not too straight either, above the right eyebrow. Cosmetically the last one can hardly be noticed, even by the doctors, but this time I’m going to look more like a victim of the 1950’s gang wars of the West/East End of London.

Before signing off last week I did offer some racing intelligence, suggesting that Laxmi, owned in partnership by Raymond Tooth and his Star Sports Mayfair betting shop pals Shahpur Siddiqui and Dilip Sharma, would run a good first race at Windsor last Monday night. The filly, from the first crop of Coventry/ Dewhurst winner War Command, has Saturday’s Irish 2,000 Guineas runner-up US Navy Flag in the dam’s side of her pedigree.

The prediction proved well-founded, as after a slow exit and at least half a furlong to get organised, Laxmi came through fast and late and just failed on the line to get second behind impressive fellow-debutant Main Edition who is destined for the Albany Stakes. Despite being substantial punters, Messrs Siddiqui and Sharma had never previously tried ownership in the UK, but they have certainly entered into the spirit of their new pastime.

“Sharps” as Bobby (the Taxi) Gray, his constant companion when in the UK from his business base in Dubai, calls him, came alone (with Bobby). Dilip though had half a dozen friends and family with him. To say Dilip’s first contact with ownership was exciting was an under-statement. Both new owners posed for pictures in the winner’s enclosure afterwards and then the rest of Dilip’s entourage stepped in to record the moment, and were still there with the patient filly long after the “horses away” call.

That was probably the most encouraging aspect for a debutant. Calm before the race – her groom almost had to drag her around the paddock – she was equally relaxed after the exertions, never showing any sign of irritation at the succession of human celebrants. Bobby, whose brother Johnny, a one-time jockey with Brian Swift was also there to offer professional insight, reckoned when the filly runs again, Dilip will need 40 owners’ badges not six! My thought was if that’s how much they all enjoyed her finishing third imagine how they’ll be if and when she wins?

You always know from trainers’ entry patterns what they think of their horses, and the fact that Brian Meehan suggested Haydock on Wednesday fortnight as her next objective certainly filled me with excitement. He often runs his decent animals there, and won the corresponding Haydock race with Blue Bayou two years ago.

Talking of Bobby the Taxi, he was destined to meet for the first time at Windsor, Harry the Cab (Taylor to regular readers) and as ever prominent on the box as the coterie of Aiden O’Brien jockeys was instructed before yesterday’s Irish 1,000 Guineas.
Both are black cab drivers of long vintage, Harry being far senior, and they both live in Chigwell, on the north-east borders of Metropolitan Essex, just off the M11. It was strange that they had never met before as they have numerous mutual friends and acquaintances, most notably Maurice Manasseh, former County cricketer, businessman, racehorse owner and close friend of Michael Tabor for most of their adult lives.

I’ve no idea whether Maurice, back at base in Star Sports, joined in the each-way support of Laxmi, but I do know that nobody in the world would have cheered more loudly when Gareth Bale, a client of Maurice’s son David and partner Jonathan Barnett, bosses of the Stellar Group, smashed in the overhead kick to kill off Liverpool in the Champions League Final on Saturday night.

I did intend making my racecourse comeback at Lingfield tomorrow when Brian initially pencilled in Ray’s home-bred juvenile My Law for the maiden fillies’ race, but on second thoughts he has decided to wait for a race on turf.

My Law, a full-sister to the promising but as yet non-winning Sod’s Law, and half-sister to the useful handicappers Dutch Art Dealer and Dutch Law came into Manton several months after the sales intake last year. According to Meehan and especially assistant trainer James Ferguson, she is catching up fast.

Ferguson, son of John and until last year’s Godolphin upheaval, filling a similar position with Charlie Appleby, singled out Steve Gilbey, Ray’s right-hand man in the restaurant after Monday’s race and said: “My Law is going to surprise a lot of people.” I hope he’s right. Certainly, so far, our return to Manton where Ray had plenty of success in the past, has rekindled the boss’s enthusiasm. It helps greatly that he has two new partners who also happen to be friends, to keep up the optimism.

Monday Musings: When The Fun Stops…

Anyone who has regularly waded through these jottings over the past six years or so will probably believe that my professional life has been one of many more ups than downs, writes Tony Stafford. However, thanks to an inability to equate a decent knowledge of horse racing and before that greyhound racing form with sensible gambling, I’ve spent much of the past 50 years in various stages of distress.

As the self-righteous ads in the racing press and in the television bookmaker ads say: “When the fun stops, stop”. What they really mean is: “When the money runs out, stop.”

Fourteen or fifteen years ago, in one of the deepest troughs, my son plucked up the courage to suggest I tried to find a branch of Gamblers Anonymous. Around six months of regular Monday night meetings in a church hall in East London went a long way towards curing me of my worst excesses. It helped though, that the money truly had run out.

What imprinted itself on my conscience were the stories of the dozen or so fellow sufferers, with their various illnesses and obsessions, much like drink or drugs. The compulsion to have the next bet whether on horse racing, greyhounds, betting shop machines, at bingo or in casinos, was common to all of us.

One very nice woman came along only sporadically, but the memory of her fall from grace, which she readily admitted, must always have been with her. She’d been in a position of trust in the accounts department of a small company and to fuel her compulsion to play the machines and bingo, she’d embezzled quite a large five-figure sum. She admitted that it was only by a degree of mercy by her employers that charges were not brought, but she would need to pay back the money over time, which she was doing. Hopefully that process will have had a happy conclusion by now.

Others of them, and there was quite a wide age and social background spread, would be in betting shops from start of play until the close, a bit like my own story at the time of my greatest level of betting activity, more than 30 years ago. Still others would bet on-line, bearing in mind that it was relatively early days for that activity.

With all of that in mind, I’ve always hated the presence of the FOTB machines in betting shops. Next year the limit of a single unit stake will be reduced from the present £100 to £2, causing some of the major bookmakers to scream that “up to 4,000 shops might have to close”. That in turn, they say, will lead to a serious reduction in prize money from horse racing.

To paraphrase one insider last week: “If our wonderful sport needs the FOTB machines to be allowed to ruin lives as they undoubtedly do, then that is too big a price to pay in human terms.”

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The scale of the money the machines rake in is not only obscene to my mind, it defies belief. I rarely go into betting shops, but one friend, who lives in a town in the East of England, gave me two recent examples that he swears are correct.

One regular, after two winning turns, lost all the previous profits and then some, putting £22,000 in cash in a single machine in one day. Another punter, who apparently would struggle to verify his source of income as honestly earned, lost £5,000 on his own debit card and systematically racked up similar losses with five family members’ cards.

During the Cheltenham Festival last year, Harry Taylor and I wanted to find somewhere to watch a Champions League match. The only place in the small town we found was a betting shop, and there was just one other person in there, betting compulsively on every race, be it domestic horse racing, US racing, or dogs. Me all over: 1980’s style.

There was a single member of staff on duty that evening, and his main task, coming up to closing time was to empty the machines. I always understood that there was a maximum of four per shop, but I’m sure, by some device, this shop managed to have at least double that. The £20 notes came out in a thick bundle from each machine and the manager - as the only one there he qualified for that title - confided that they could take up to £6,000 in a single week.

That’s a handy £300,000 a year, so the bets they take on the various forms of racing in relative terms are a flea bite in comparison. Yet the few successful horse racing gamblers who regularly make a profit quickly have their accounts closed, and often only a fraction of their requested bets accepted.

With a £2 minimum stake, given the quick repetition time on the machines, it will still be possible to lose a nice amount of cash; it will just take longer to lose it than is possible now. Coming back to “When the fun stops, stop”, the same observer says that every week he sees machines being punched and pushed over, such is the frustration and anger, hardly surprising, with the fact they are “tailored” to guarantee a decent profit for the shops.

“Many years ago,” he recalled, “one friend of mine found one of the earliest machines and three weeks in a row on a Saturday, he lost all his wages in it. After the last episode, he went away, returning with an axe. He broke the machine, took out the money and was lucky that the manager, who had tried to make him stop, accepted the loss.” Clearly, it’s only fun when you win.

Over the years, I’ve noticed some unlikely machine punters. My friend Peter, once fairly regular in casinos, can be found playing Rainbow Riches with the best of them at times, while at least three trainers, one retired, to my knowledge have if not an obsession, certainly an affinity for the machines.

Naturally, though, there will be no corresponding limitation to on-line casino betting once the changes come through. Predictably, the bookmakers were immediately on their guard when it was suggested that any short-fall resulting from the reduction to a £2 maximum unit bet could be made up.

*

I might be tempted to have a tiny each-way tonight at Windsor on the Brian Meehan-trained two-year-old filly Laxmi, owned by my boss Ray Tooth, with two new partners, Messrs Siddiqui and Sharma. She’s a daughter of War Command and worked nicely at Manton last week. Most of Brian’s are running well and she could out-perform what seem like generous odds on the overnight markets.

Monday Musings: Harry’s Knight To Behold

After last week’s eulogy about the continuing success and imagination of the Coolmore operation, I got a gentle nudge from my editor, saying “other stud farms are available”, writes Tony Stafford. At Lingfield on Saturday, one such stud, Abergwaun Farms, took centre stage with its home-bred colt Knight to Behold, impressive winner of the Derby Trial for the Harry Dunlop stable.

It was the second win in the race, now only Listed, but a Group 3 back in 2005 when Kong won for Abergwaun and Neil King. Trained by John Dunlop, Harry’s father, Kong beat the Michael Tabor-owned Walk in the Park for his only career success from 21 starts. After 14 runs from Dunlop’s stable he was sold for 65,000gns, proving a severe disappointment for Sublimity’s trainer Rob Hennessy in Ireland.

Walk in the Park didn’t do much better on the track. His only success in 15 races was as a juvenile, trained by John Hammond in France, in a one mile minor event. A week later he was third in the Criterium International at Saint-Cloud.

After Lingfield, the pair went on to the Derby, Kong finishing a remote last of 14 under Richard Hughes, but Walk in the Park far outstripping any other performance when a five-length runner-up to Motivator. Two years after Epsom, he even tried hurdling for Hammond, finishing fifth of eight in a newcomers event at Auteuil, an experiment which was never repeated.

Of course, as a stallion he has produced umpteen good jumpers, and in the case of Douvan and Min, two Willie Mullins-trained champions. John Hammond was at Newmarket for the Guineas meeting, and I had a quick chat with him about Walk in the Park, a son of the brilliant Montjeu, whom memorably he also trained for Michael Tabor.

John said: “The problem with Walk in the Park was that he could never quicken, and that’s true of his progeny, even Douvan and Min. Obviously they are very good but they just do not have instant acceleration.”

It is odd to think that when Walk in the Park finished second at Epsom, he was three lengths ahead of Dubawi, racing at a trip longer than a mile for the only time and palpably failing to stay. Dubawi won five of his other seven starts before becoming the international stallion Godolphin and the Maktoum family needed to go head to head with Galileo over the past decade.

Sadler’s Wells was the sire of Galileo and is also the maternal grandsire of Knight to Behold, a son of Sea The Stars, another of the supreme racehorses of the modern era and a half-brother to Galileo to boot.

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Neil Jones has had his greatest success to date with Millenary, the 2000 St Leger winner for John Dunlop. Such was his durability, Millenary gained his 12th and final win from 35 starts as an eight-year-old in the 2005 Doncaster Cup. As a late-starting stallion Millenary has been a decent producer of staying jumpers, Last Goodbye winning a €50k pot at Leopardstown in February. In the UK, Brother Brian has done well over jumps for Hughie Morrison.

Harry Dunlop might have been destined for training greatness, not only because of his parentage and as brother of Ed, trainer of Ouija Board and Snow Fairy, but also as a godson of Sir Henry Cecil. Warren Place was one of a number of learning locations, and Harry was a well-liked pupil assistant there when the Thoroughbred Corporation had horses of the order of Royal Anthem, Oath and Dr Fong in the stable around the turn of the century.

He continued his education elsewhere, but made his best career move when marrying Christina. In his web site he relates that one of his greatest triumphs was when he showed his wife’s pig to earn a third prize in the local show. The graduate of Cirencester Agricultural College confesses his alternative career would probably have been horticulture.

As many well-connected young aspiring trainers have discovered, you need luck to succeed and the day that Dunlop, via Anthony Stroud Bloodstock, paid €47k for the Con Marnane pin-hook Robin of Navan, he was provided with the impetus he needed.

The first trick was to get him sold, and he could hardly have done better in that the four-man partnership included Peter Deal, a long-standing owner who won the 1997 Champion Hurdle with the Martin Pipe-trained Make A Stand.

Robin of Navan, as a French-bred, was immediately targeted at races in his country of origin, where ordinary events carry significantly better prizemoney than in the UK and also generous premiums for owners. To date, his five wins have all come in France, with the Group 1 10-furlong Criterium de Saint-Cloud providing a decent percentage of the half a million he has won so far - without the premiums!

I made a silly decision at Chester last week, offering my Horses in Training 2018 book for what I thought would be a brief look by Harry Taylor. Bet he fell asleep once he got past Jeremy Noseda. Of course he didn’t return it yet, so I’ve no idea if the 40-odd horses Harry Dunlop raced in 2017 is matched or even exceeded this year.

What I do find slightly odd, is that Pirate King, to my mind one of Lionel Holliday’s home-bred stallions around the 1960’s and Roman Warrior, a champion sprinter for Nigel Angus at the end of that decade, now reside in the Dunlop yard. Both are owned by Daniel Macauliffe & Anoj Don. One assumes they are racing history nuts like me.

Also in the yard, once home to Nicky Henderson and Peter Walwyn, is the Dutch Art filly, Laura Kenny, named after the multiple Olympic champion cyclist, formerly Laura Trott and owned by Velocity Racing.

When a couple of weeks ago I suggested to George Hill that maybe he would authorise a small portion of the mounting pile in his coffers to buy into a certain racing partnership, he responded: “Too late, Liz <wife> has been persuaded by James Fry <International Racing Bureau> to go into a two-year-old filly with Harry Dunlop”. Later, after her debut at Kempton, he said, “Everyone loves Harry!”

Well if Knight to Behold can produce a performance to match his runaway Lingfield win when the heavily-backed and strongly-fancied Kew Gardens could never get in a blow, everyone truly would love Harry. At any event, he will provide an interesting sidebar to what has become the province of the big guns. Whether he can trouble Saxon Warrior, now down to odds on, might be beyond him, but where there is a possible question mark on the favourite’s stamina, with the Lambourn horse there’s absolutely none. Good luck Harry, Neil Jones and Richard Kingscote, who gave him such a fine, opportunist ride last week.

Monday Musings: Sunday Silence and the Daddy

When you watch American racing – not that I do very often these days – it is always obvious that when there is a tight outcome, any deviation off a straight line by one of the protagonists is treated with unsympathetic correctitude, writes Tony Stafford.

Memories of those middling-to-far-off evenings in the old Racing Channel studio around the corner from London’s City Road – Old Street junction, scene of my schooldays at Central Foundation Grammar School – bring back overwhelmingly-superior winners being unceremoniously and totally-expectedly taken down.

On Saturday at Churchill Downs, poor old Ryan Moore (can we call him that?) and the Coolmore team’s Mendelssohn were given such a buffeting at the start; on the way to the first turn, and apparently just at the bend, that he never had a chance to add to his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and UAE Derby (on the Meydan dirt) triumphs on a rain-drenched night in Kentucky.

Step forward Luis Saez. He and his mount, the Todd Pletcher-trained Magnum Moon, have been identified as the catalyst for the mayhem which brought Moore such initial difficulty. From a single viewing it looked as though after such a rough introduction, Ryan had battled his mount valiantly into a reasonable position quite close to the turn but then came out of it mysteriously a fair way back and was never happy thereafter.

So while one Scat Daddy colt trailed home last of the 20 – one place behind the initially-swerving Magnum Moon – another, the favourite Justify, was always in the first two; led four furlongs out and was never troubled to maintain his unblemished record.

Favouritism - he started a shade under 3-1 on the local Pari-Mutuel – was guaranteed a long way before the off. I remember on my sole trip to the Kentucky Derby in 2002 we were gathered in the paddock for at least an hour before War Emblem went out to do his stuff, gazing up at the giant odds board. For the whole of that time the prices for the 20 runners barely fluctuated.

It left such an impression on me that when I was in the studio for the following year’s race, I had cause to question the normally-erudite James Willoughby. He said with a decent while to go before the race: “The prices could still change quite a lot”. I felt qualified to suggest, rather too forcibly I fear, that like Exit Polls in UK elections, these very large samples are almost set in stone.

This re-telling of an old story is not used to imply excess knowledge on my part. Rather it is to rebuke UK bookmakers for their treatment of punters aiming to back Mendelssohn.

A year ago, almost as a mark of respect to the great statesman after whom last year’s 2,000 Guineas winner was named, I stopped off at Woodford Green, close to the statue for the area’s former MP Sir Winston Churchill, and bought a nice piece of fried fish in Churchills fish shop, having first looked in on the odds on that evening’s big race in Churchill Downs.

My interest, though not for a bet, was on Thunder Snow, also previously winner of the UAE Derby, but in his case, only narrowly, whereas Mendelssohn won his renewal by 18 lengths. In the event, Thunder Snow proved intractable, and once leaving the gate, rather than run with the others, did a fair impression of the bulls which are specially trained to test the skills of the rodeo riders in the Wild West shows.

Whatever assailed him there, Thunder Snow bounced back three weeks later to chase home Churchill in the Irish 2,000 Guineas; was third just ahead of him in Barney Roy’s St James’s Palace, and more recently won the Dubai World Cup, beating the Bob Baffert-trained favourite West Coast by almost six lengths.

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On Saturday, having dropped off Mr Taylor at his car in Loughton, I retraced my steps, satisfying my unfathomable need for further sustenance with a battered sausage in Churchills and then looking in again on William Hill’s shop across the road. I was amazed to see him quoted the 11-4 favourite.

Ridiculous, I thought, but upon asking the counter assistant whether an SP bet would be settled at “industry” or American odds, was told that William Hill prices would hold. A long time before the race, Justify was clear market leader at 3’s with Mendelssohn one of a trio around 6-1. He ended up 6.8-1 on the machine, but less than half an hour before the race, was showing 9-4 with most bookmakers on the Oddschecker facility on the Internet. Larceny of the highest order, I would call it.

What with the shenanigans, intended or otherwise, of Senor Saez and his errant mount, and the corporate “price-fixing” of the UK layers where the Ballydoyle colt was concerned, his backers were the gambling equivalent of drawn and quartered. Fortunately the boys and their trainer have seen it all before, so Aidan’s pledge that the colt will return for the Breeders’ Cup Classic back at Churchill later in the year was both reassuring and realistic.

I cannot imagine whether the identical plan for the Roger Teal-trained and Mrs Anne Cowley-owned and -bred Tip Two Win will bring too much trepidation for O’Brien, but the small grey Dark Angel colt certainly gave the awesome Saxon Warrior a race when runner-up in Saturday’s 2,000 Guineas just ahead of the favourite, Masar. Roger and his intrepid owner deserved their 30 minutes of fame and Mrs Cowley pledged once more that her little champion will never be sold. Who says racing is not for the small owner?

Like Justify, Saxon Warrior is unbeaten with four from four, and like his American counterpart, could have Triple Crown pretensions, although it’s much less likely to be attempted on this side of the pond, with an honourable mention of its closest recent attempt by Camelot, whose stock predictably are on the up. This was Saxon Warrior’s three-year-old reappearance, unlike Justify who became the first colt to win the Derby for 136 years without having run as a two-year-old. Apollo in 1882 was the last.

Justify and Mendelssohn are, as mentioned above, both from the penultimate crop of the much-lamented Scat Daddy; and as the television screens showed the deluge from Churchill – three inches fell during the day – it reminded me of a similar day’s weather when I attended a party arranged before the day at Monmouth Park 11 years ago when a broken leg tragically ended George Washington’s career. I believe the host for the party was James Scatuorchio, the original owner and latterly partner with Michael Tabor in Scat Daddy.

Scat Daddy’s racing career had ended with an 18th place in the Kentucky Derby that May, but he went into Ashford stud the following season for a $30,000 fee. As is normal with untried stallions, the early years are tough commercially, so by the 2011 season, when his first crop was about to be launched, the fee was down to $10,000.

From then until his untimely demise in late 2015, when the price for his 2016 matings had already been fixed at $100,000, his progeny have far out-performed those limited expectations. Had he lived, with the quality of the runners since, it would have been more like $400,000 by now.

Saxon Warrior’s emphatic win on Saturday proved yet again what brilliant and imaginative people run Coolmore. He was one of the first examples of the bold decision to send a number of Group 1 winning mares to be mated with Deep Impact in Japan. At a stroke, a much-needed outcross source for the many high-class mares, particularly daughters of Galileo, seems to have been established.

That top-class son of Sunday Silence was foaled late in his sire’s long career in Japan at the Yoshida family’s farm in Hokkaido. I had the good fortune to get a trip to Japan in the early 1990’s and saw Sunday Silence winding down at the end of his first year’s residence.

Back in 1989, Sunday Silence won the first two legs (Derby and Preakness) of the Triple Crown, but failed in the Belmont as was often the case until American Pharoah came along two years ago to end the void since Affirmed in 1979. Both times he beat the favoured Easy Goer, his major rival, before losing the argument by eight lengths in the Belmont. Finally, by defeating Easy Goer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he earned championship honours.

A disappointing four-year-old campaign left US breeders generally unmoved, but Shadai had already bought an interest and he was shipped to Japan where he became the perennial champion stallion, a position Deep Impact has inherited a decade and a half after his father’s passing.

Deep Impact might conceivably have had another European Classic winner if his diminutive daughter, September, had been able to take her place in yesterday’s 1,000 Guineas. She was very unlucky when a fast-finishing runner-up in the Fillies’ Mile over the same course and distance behind Laurens, herself runner-up yesterday behind Billesdon Brook, at 66-1 the longest-priced winner of the race.

As with Saxon Warrior, who had won the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy over a mile at Doncaster last autumn, the May Hill Stakes over that course and distance at the St Leger meeting provided the fillies’ Classic’s winner. Billesdon Brook, trained by Richard Hannon, was twice successful at Goodwood last year, showing finishing speed and determination to win a handicap and then a Group 3. After those runs, fifth at Doncaster behind Laurens was probably a disappointment. She certainly put it all together up the hill yesterday and never looked like being caught.

I’m off to Windsor this Bank Holiday Monday to see if Sod’s Law can confirm what we’ve long hoped might be above-average ability. Raymond Tooth and Steve Gilbey are coming too, so let’s hope he’ll at least go close. Apres Le Deluge has been entered for Market Rasen on Friday. As the only previous winner in the field he has to be interesting, but there are some well-connected and quite pricey newcomers to worry about. Hughie Morrison can do it if anyone can.

In between it’s off to Chester, to check whether the scoff in the owners’ room remains up to standard. For me, it’s the best anywhere.

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