Monday Musings: Serpentine Tributary to Sea of Galileo

In late April when the first clamour for a resumption of racing was brewing up with, at the forefront, particular criticism of the BHA in the person of Nick Rust’s perceived failure to hurry the process along, there were still more than 5,500 UK weekly deaths from Covid-19, writes Tony Stafford.

By the time the announcement came that June 1 would be the witching hour, the figure was still above 2,500. Time and history will show that the starting date coincided with numbers in the 1600’s and by yesterday, over the last week, the fifth since racing resumed, the number was down to 680, barely ten per cent of the peak in early April. New daily infections, despite massively greater testing, were around only one-sixth of the peak figures.

The BHA, in conjunction with France, who started two weeks earlier, and Ireland, a week after us, has managed to salvage a great part of the Pattern. So in the short time since the resumption, we have seen the crowning of a true champion filly in the emphatic 1,000 Guineas and superlative Oaks heroine Love; the development from an occasional soft-Group bully into a fully grown-up superstar in Ghaiyyath, conqueror of Enable and Japan in the Coral-Eclipse; the confirmation of Stradivarius’ place in the pantheon of great stayers and so much more. A start any later than June 1 would have made all that impossible while any earlier would have been highly contentious.
I have a feeling that Love will be the Horse of the Year and I hear Ryan Moore believes she is better than Minding, her predecessor to a 2016 1,000 Guineas/Oaks double on the way to seven Group 1 wins in a career tally reading 9/3/1 from 13 starts. The common link of course is Galileo, also as if it were ever going to be in question, once again sire of the Investec Derby winner on Saturday, albeit not the most likely one, either by riding arrangement or betting prominence.

Five Galileo colts turned out in the 16-runner Derby line-up on Saturday, including the spectacular five-and-a-half length all-the-way winner Serpentine, and the other four were all in the seven-horse cluster from second to eighth, supplemented by two Andrew Balding runners, 50-1 second Khalifa Sat and the 2,000 Guineas winner Kameko, who was fourth. He, like all the other fancied runners, was never nearer at any time than the finish. English King, the mount of Frankie Dettori, also ended in that group, fifth after a tardy start from stall one, more in the manner of an unraced two-year-old than a race-hardened Classic contender.
You can bet that there will be much more to come from the other O’Brien/Coolmore team members in that respectful grouping as the season progresses.

Amhran Na Bhriann, a 66-1 shot, was, like the runner-up always nearest and clear of the remainder if never close enough to challenge the winner. Their more-fancied trio of Mogul, Russian Emperor and Vatican City, who filled sixth to eighth places will have plenty of opportunities as the season progresses.

Emmet McNamara’s ice-cool ride, a week after his near-miss on Tiger Moth in the Irish Derby shows that the riding talent on the gallops at Ballydoyle extends well into the support team.

This was a fifth Derby triumph for Galileo, himself one of the best winners of that race. Serpentine follows New Approach, Ruler Of the World, Australia and Anthony Van Dyck as the champion stallion’s quintet. The last four were trained by O’Brien, who with eight wins is now the leading trainer in all the 240-year history of the great race. Michael Tabor and Mrs Sue Magnier both appear in the partnerships of nine Derby winners, the most ever, a figure equalling the long-standing tally of Lester Piggott’s unique riding record.
If anyone had suggested to the East End-born former hairdresser and bookmaker that one day he would make history in this respect, he would have laughed. You’re not laughing now, Michael!

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Actually, probably you are.

In his run before the Derby, Serpentine was still a maiden, something he corrected in very similar fashion to Saturday’s virtuoso show just six days before his great success. That statistic fuels the suggestion that ten- and 12-furlong maiden form in Ireland early in this truncated season is probably equivalent to UK Group 3 level at least. Such as Tiger Moth (Irish Derby second) and Ennistymon (Oaks third on Saturday), are among 19 winners for the sire back home since the resumption on June 8. In that time Group 1 wins for Magical, who seems sure soon to resume rivalry with Enable after their impressive respective returns to action, and Peaceful in the Irish 1,000, have been the domestic highlights.

The latter filly’s rider, Seamie Heffernan, her greatest admirer, might well have been in not quite the best frame of mind when partnering Peaceful to a close third in the Prix De Diane in Chantilly yesterday. In the first colours of Michael Tabor he was always struggling for room as Coronation Stakes winner Alpine Star set the pace from the Donnacha O’Brien-trained Fancy Blue, sporting the all-blue cap second colours of Mr Tabor.

Seamie had clearly forgotten the newly-installed French whip requirement of hitting a horse no more than five times. In the Prix Du Jockey-Club (French Derby) which preceded the Diane, he was found to have hit pace-setter Order Of Australia 11 times on his way to seventh place only four and a half lengths behind the winner Mishrif, trained by John Gosden for Prince AA Faisal.

In Ireland or the UK you could imagine a maximum few days for a similar effort but the French not only frown on numbers, they took the importance of the race (and presumably the greater likelihood of public sensibilities being offended) into account and came up with a number for the Heffernan misdemeanour, 22.

Given that Heffernan was already resigned to spending the first 14 days after fulfilling his trip to the Derby Days of the UK and France in quarantine back home, he will now be free to concentrate his efforts fully on the Ballydoyle gallops as he will be off the track until... August 9.

Blimey! Lockdown mark 2!

It’s not taking long for Donnacha, 21, to follow his equally precocious elder brother Joseph into adding Classic success as a trainer to Classic wins and championships as a jockey. His first turf winner as a trainer came only last week by which time Fancy Blue had already given him a placed runner when second to Peaceful in the Irish 1,000. Now, under former French champion Pierre Charles- Boudot, the same filly raced just ahead rather than a few lengths behind her rival and did well to hold Arctic Star and Peaceful in a tight finish.

In the UK since the resumption there have been fewer Galileo victories, 11 in all since June 1, but four of these, two for Love, one for Septentine, and also Circus Maximus in Ascot’s Queen Anne Stakes have been at Group 1 level, and two more at Group 3 for Russian Emperor and Nayef Road. Four of the other five have been in handicaps, three of them for a modestly-rated horse who also started out under the Coolmore banner.
Until this year the seven-year-old Le Musee was regarded as a decent chaser with a 147 rating. His last run before racing’s resumption was at the Cheltenham Festival where he finished 13th of 23 in the Kim Muir having won twice in the previous summer.

Nigel Hawke is his trainer and the West Countryman has for many years been highly-respected as a jumps handler with successive tallies over the past seven seasons of 19, 19, 11, 28, 17, 16 and 17. Contrastingly, before this year from a total of 76 runners on the Flat over 23 years he didn’t send out a single winner.

Then In January, between runs at 100-1 at Newbury and latterly in that Kim Muir, he decided to try Le Musee on the Flat, and he was rewarded with his and the horse’s joint first Flat-race success at Southwell in January.

When he originally showed up for sale in France as a yearling, Le Musee was bought by Coolmore for Euro 300,000 and was sent to be trained by Andre Fabre. Unraced at two, he finished a 20-length sixth in the Tabor colours on his sole three-year-old start in a March Compiegne maiden. His next outing was at the Arqana summer sales where Hawke picked him up for Euro 3,000.
He took his time, gelding him the following October and before making the track Le Musee had a wind operation in July 2017. His first start for Hawke was as a five-year-old over hurdles and he proved quite useful, winning twice. By the time he shipped up at Cheltenham this spring he was having his 24th run for the stable within 26 months, a compliment to the trainer’s skills at keeping fit and well a gelding that had proved hard to train for the redoubtable M. Fabre.

Already a winner on the Flat, post-lockdown Hawke decided to exploit his gelding’s great stamina and also a highly-tempting handicap mark in the 60’s. This was more than 80lb lower than the jumps figure and therefore potentially a stone or two too low. In the past five weeks Le Musee has gone to the track three times and won them all, first at Newcastle and then twice at Chepstow. Judged on the economical way he races, just getting up late, more success should follow.

It seems only poetic justice for Hawke who must have spent the last seven years regretting his actions over another bargain sales recruit who stayed in his care only long enough to make a winning debut in a juvenile hurdle. That horse was a son of another Derby winner, Authorised, out of a mare by Mrs Magnier’s and Michael Tabor’s Entrepreneur, winner of the 2,000 Guineas and beaten odds-on favourite for the 1997 Derby.

Unraced for Sheikh Mohammed, Tiger Roll cost the princely sum of 10,000gns from the Darley consignment at Doncaster sales in August of his three-year--old season. On debut at Market Rasen in early November he won easily at 12-1 and if they got a few bob there, another £80k came into the coffers of his owners when Mags O’Toole paid £80,000 for him at Brightwells sale at Cheltenham racecourse the following month.

Within three-months Gordon Elliott had produced the gelding to win the Triumph Hurdle on his way to more than £1.3 million in prizes, two Grand Nationals, four Festival wins and greater national fame than Love, Serpentine or even Enable will earn in their careers. Nigel Hawke deserved to get one back after that. It’s nice that a Coolmore reject should have persuaded him that he can indeed train Flat horses.

For most ordinary owners, picking up crumbs from the rich man’s table is often the only realistic route to racing success. There are three days of breeze ups and Horses in Training on offer at Tattersall’s in Newmarket from Wednesday and in this strange year of all years there will undoubtedly be some cast-offs with more than a little potential for the shrewdies to unearth. Good luck!

-TS

Monday Musings: Bjorn to be King?

Almost a month in from the resumption of racing, today we await the publication of the names of the horses that will comprise the first-ever five-day entry for the Derby, writes Tony Stafford.

Historically a race which closed long before any of its eventual protagonists had even flexed their muscles on a racecourse, this year owing to Covid-19 the original entry stage structure had to be scrapped.

Many years ago, changes of ownership after entry meant horses were barred from running in the race and, famously, the death of one giant of the industry, owner-breeder Major Lionel B Holliday, meant that his colt Vaguely Noble was ineligible for the 1968 Epsom Classic.

The seven-length winner of the Observer Gold Cup (now Vertem Futurity), a month earlier Holliday’s son Brook, realising this issue, had entered him for auction at Tattersalls where he was sold for a record 136,000gns. Switched to race in France as a three-year-old, eventually running in the colours of Nelson Bunker Hunt, in the care of the great Etienne Pollet, Vaguely Noble proved himself the undisputed champion of his generation.

Sir Ivor had been favourite for the 1968 Derby and the Vincent O’Brien-trained and Raymond Guest-owned colt exuded class and speed when he easily cut down the raw Connaught, trained by Noel Murless in the last furlong at Epsom. Sir Ivor went on to Longchamp but was no match for Vaguely Noble who was his equal him for speed but had much the greater stamina.

Less than a generation after Vaguely Noble, buying Epsom contenders after they had shown their mettle in the trials had become commonplace, and one man constantly on the look-out for potential Classic horses was the Italian industrialist Antonio Balzarini. In May 1988 he bought Carroll House from his original owner-breeder, Gerald Carroll, after he had finished a close second in the 1988 Italian Derby.

Balzarini wisely left the colt with Michael Jarvis, his original trainer, and was rewarded in November the following year when Carroll House won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. A sale to stand in the Yoshida family’s Shadai Farm in Hokkaido, Japan, soon followed.

Jarvis had also trained the owner’s Prorutori to win the Italian Derby the same year. Balzarini, through my Daily Telegraph colleague and long-time friend George Hill during that period did the deal, acquiring the filly Atoll from Robert Sangster. She won the 1990 Italian Oaks and was the neck runner-up to Knight’s Baroness in that year’s Irish Oaks.

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Two years later, Balzarini was impressed by the Lingfield Derby Trial victory of Assessor, a staying-bred colt trained by Richard Hannon for Bjorn Nielsen who 28 years further down the road, will be hoping that his own life-long love affair with the Derby might be finally realised on Saturday through the favourite English King, also the Lingfield Derby Trial winner.

I had got to know Bjorn Nielsen as a racecourse acquaintance a few years before that, and I am indebted to Alastair Down for today’s Racing Post profile of the owner to fill in some forgotten details. As Down relates, Nielsen was born and raised in South Africa – to Swedish parents. The family moved to Australia where he developed his love of racing and pedigrees, before they came to live in Epsom in Bjorn’s teenage years. Talent on the tennis court brought a sports scholarship to the United States, excelling on the highly-competitive college circuit. A lucrative career as a trader in the metal exchanges followed, eventually founding his own company, which funded his racing and breeding exploits.

George Hill knew I often saw Bjorn on the racecourse and, seconds after Assessor won, he called me and passed on a bid from Mr Balzarini. At the time I did not believe he could win what was going to be a good Derby, so fully expected the offer of £1 million to be enough to sway the colt’s owner. After a short period of balancing the pros and cons, he told me: “No, thank him for the offer, but I grew up in Epsom and I can’t pass up the chance of winning the Derby”.

I remember seeing Bjorn and his family in the owners’ dining room before the race. I was there, obviously in my journalistic role, but also as a friend and supporter of Mrs Virgina Kraft Payson, owner of St Jovite, trained by Jim Bolger to whom I had introduced her. He ran a great race finishing second to Dr Devious, trained at Robert Sangster’s Manton stables by the young Peter Chapple-Hyam.

St Jovite turned the form around in the Irish Derby, winning by 12 lengths in record time at The Curragh, but then, having won the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes by an unchallenged six lengths, was pipped by Dr Devious in the Irish Champion.

Over the next few years I made numerous calls to the New York office of Mr Nielsen, always being reminded by his secretary that my voice was uncannily like that of the English-born journalist Robin Leach, who had made his fame and fortune in Las Vegas fronting and producing the television programme, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Then in October 1995 I stayed for a few days at Mrs Payson’s house on Long Island, and arranged to meet Bjorn at his office on Wall Street. After making my acquaintance with his secretary who repeated my inner-London vocal exactness with the Perivale-born Mr Leach, we went out to a deli for a six-inch thick beef sandwich after which I was advised to catch the race special to Belmont Park.

Arriving at Grand Central station, I found I was too late for that service, having to abort at Jamaica station where I was told a taxi could be found. Apparently my driver, the only one available, had recently arrived in the City and his lack of local knowledge, and the general direction of Belmont Park was only exceeded by his non-grasp of the English language.

After asking “Balma?” a couple of times; on seeing a green expanse on the left side he pointed and said “park!” Luckily we soon arrived at a bus stop where a queue of around 15 women waited. I asked him to stop, rolled down the window and called out: “Does anyone know the way to Belmont Park?” One lady said she did and offered to join me to help direct the driver towards the destination.

She said that her son Joe was in the racing business: “He works for Godolphin in Dubai”. I apologise to the kind lady who did indeed put us right for Belmont for not remembering her surname. She had been among a crowd of 75,000 people attending a blessing by Pope John Paul II at Acqueduct racecourse that morning.

I told her that my son had been based in Dubai the previous winter and I can exactly pinpoint the date of his departure for a six-month stint in Sheikh Mohammed’s sports club coaching his young kids in various sports. It was Saturday November 19th 1994, the date when the National Lottery was launched. He was based in the same apartment complex with Vince (now Victoria) Smith and Johnny Murtagh and the trio played plenty of cricket together while he was over there. Joe, I discovered when I checked later with my son, had also been staying in the same block. Papal intervention indeed!

Bjorn Nielsen’s study of pedigrees has famously produced one of the greatest stayers of any generation, one to stand comparison with Ardross, Le Moss, Sagaro and Yeats. If there’s ever been a better example of the speed that is still required for a champion stayer, you would struggle to improve on the latest of his three Gold Cup wins at Ascot.

Now Nielsen is relying on his €210,000 Arqana sales purchase to fulfil that Epsom ambition. By a Derby winner, Camelot, who just missed out on the Triple Crown, himself a son of French and Irish Derby winner Montjeu, he has more than enough genetic quality for the job. His Derby Trial triumph was much more obviously compelling than Assessor’s all those years ago. Assessor, for his part, raced on until six years of age, winning good staying races, later becoming a successful jumping stallion.

It must have been more than a little disconcerting for the English King team and the rest when Aidan O’Brien suggested after Santiago’s Irish Derby win on Saturday that it was not impossible that one or more of his runners, which included the first four home in that race, might be joining his already formidable Derby squad, headed by Russian Emperor, if they make the right signals on the gallops this morning.

I would be especially wary if he comes across with the neck runner-up, Tiger Moth. In only the third race of his life he stayed on so well in the last furlong that it momentarily looked as though Emmet McNamara might be following Padraig Beggy as a second consecutive unlikely winner of the Irish Classic. By the inevitable Galileo, he would seem an ideal candidate for Epsom Downs.

Beggy’s win on Sovereign last year was questioned in many parts after the apparent pacemaker capably fulfilled the first part of his task but palpably failed in the main objective, to usher home the Epsom hero Anthony Van Dyck, who never got nearer than his six- length second place at the line.

Sovereign had been off the track from one Derby Day to the next and put in a totally different type of display. He showed clear signs that, like the recently-retired Kew Gardens, who got the better of the Gosden champion on Champions Day at Ascot last October, he could become a challenger for the important staying prizes.

Seamie Heffernan held him up at the back of the field, and his strong run into a closing third behind smart stayer Twilight Payment in the Group 3 Vintage Crop Stakes was one of many highlights on a great Curragh weekend graced in magisterial style by Magical. Her Pretty Polly exhibition was a fourth Group 1 success among ten wins from 22 starts.

Meanwhile, back at Epsom, The Oaks is also up for grabs on Saturday and it will not be easy to wrest the initiative from the two Ballydoyle 1000 Guineas winners from either side of the Irish Sea, Love and Peaceful.

- TS

Monday Musings: He Who Dares…

In the event, I didn’t dress up for Royal Ascot, writes Tony Stafford. Lockdown Tuesday has become our day for Tesco shopping and Mrs S didn’t see any reason to alter the schedule even for a fixture she likes to visit once every year. She timed it nicely, so I was able to watch the first four races before setting off. I listened to Battaash and Nazeef, two of the endless stream of Hamdan/Jim Crowley winners, courtesy of John Hunt’s Radio Five Live Radio commentary, while the two-metre queue inched forward, and we were back just in time to see Blue Laureate trail the field for almost the entire 4,390 yards of the Ascot Stakes.

It would have been inconvenient on Tuesday, having to change out of Fashion Show week catwalk mode into car park waiting mufti halfway through the piece. So I didn’t bother.

Having missed it on Tuesday, the incentive to “Go Royal” after so many had already had their first-day home champagne parties lost its glister. Indeed that was more and more the case as the week progressed. By Thursday I was wondering how we had ever managed to get there at all in all those years. Driving across to pick up Harry and Alan; negotiating the M25; employing the well-worn but not generally-known short cuts like Watersplash Lane which leads down to the Golden Gates and doing all that to arrive by midday for a coffee in the box and a 2.30 start was always a real trial. Now we had to be ready for a start at 1.15 and I found it was almost impossible even without the travel.

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” and that adage, first formulated in the 1940’s, certainly mirrors my experience of the long weeks of isolation during lockdown.

The normal Royal Ascot routine post racing always required a quick departure after the last and a brisk stroll past the community singing as the bulk of the crowd, unaware of the potential horrors of delaying, would be left behind. Talking of the singing, I wonder if the obvious changing tide of popular sentiment in the UK will ever allow such jingoistic throw-back melodies to be allowed in future, a thought that symbolically coincided with the death of Dame Vera Lynn last week at the age of 103. Even when we got back to the car park before the queues started in earnest, the M25 was still the major obstacle, and I rarely managed to get home much before 8 p.m.

One nonagenarian who would have managed to find elements of the cut-down menu to enjoy was Her Majesty, at 94 still vigorous and, in Dame Vera terms, a relative spring chicken. While denied for the first time since the War of the full Ascot experience of which she is always such a centre-piece for so many, including Mrs S., she had to find a private way of celebrating the success of her home-bred colt Tactical. How odd that she – I presume that’s where she remained after the Trooping the Colour transposition the previous weekend – was in Windsor Castle at the precise moment that her colt was winning the eponymous event!

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Her carriage routinely passes along our Watersplash Lane/ Cheapside Village route. No doubt the bunting will have been out as usual last week and the locals will have been feeling among the most penalised of all those denied that early summer feeling of normality. Now, as the days grotesquely start to grow shorter, and with Coronavirus deaths finally dropping below a thousand for the past week from a peak of 6,500 in mid-April, hopes of some degree of normality are rising.

For some stables the outward impression of the status quo remains. Royal Ascot success was largely the province of the big yards, but not exclusively so. Possibly the most remarkable were the achievements of Alan King, once almost exclusively regarded as a National Hunt specialist, but now a man for all seasons.

Royal Ascot encompassed 36 races over the five days. King had runners in five races. His Tritonic finished a half-length second to Highland Chief in the one-off Golden Gates Handicap which opened Thursday’s card and 40-1 shot Painless Potter was a creditable fifth in Saturday’s Coventry Stakes which will live long in the memory. Its victor, the Clive Cox-trained Nando Parrado, ridden by Adam Kirby for Mrs Marie McCartan, a 165,000 guineas buy as a foal, won at 150-1, the longest-priced Royal Ascot winner in its history. That exceeded two 100-1’s: Fox Chapel, who won the 1990 Britannia Stakes and Flashman’s Papers in the 2008 Windsor Castle.

Nando Parrado had run two weeks previously in one of the highly-competitive Newmarket races where trainers anxious to give preps to their nominated Royal Ascot hopefuls, took advantage of being guaranteed a run. Nando Parrado finished fifth behind Bright Devil whose trainer, Andrew Balding, opted for a step up in distance in Thursday’s Chesham Stakes. He finished fifth to the promising Coolmore colt, Battleground.

As well as Nando Parrado, three other subsequent winners started in that race. The fourth, Saint Lawrence, and sixth, Jimmy Sparks, both won races impressively last week, and London Palladium, last of 11 in that debut, was a 16-1 victor at Redcar yesterday.

Amazingly all three of King’s remaining runners won the final race of their respective days. Coeur De Lion made it third time lucky in Tuesday’s Ascot Stakes; Scarlet Dragon, at 33-1, gave Hollie Doyle a first Royal Ascot success in Friday’s Duke of Edinburgh Handicap and the final accolade of the week went to the redoubtable Who Dares Wins, just too tough for The Grand Visir, ridden by Hollie’s partner Tom Marquand in the Queen Alexandra Stakes for which he was the hot favourite.

Who Dares Wins, at eight, is the oldest of the King trio and has proved durable enough to run 44 times in his long career. The others are seven, Scarlet Dragon, with 45 runs on his card, and Coeur De Lion, 35.

Let’s deal with the other two first. Scarlet Dragon had 23 of his 45 runs for Eve Johnson Houghton before switching to King three seasons ago. He won five Flat races for Eve and, until Friday, his only wins for King had been in two hurdle races. He put that right here with a spectacular run from the back of the field, Hollie emulating Hayley Turner’s repeat win for Charlie Fellowes, this time aboard Onassis, in the Sandringham Handicap, Thursday’s finale.

Coeur De Lion has been with King from the start, the son of Pour Moi winning six races, two over hurdles, three on the Flat turf and one all-weather race. Who Dares Wins, with whom he has occasionally shared a horsebox to the races, had a remarkable time of it in 2019 and the first part of this year.

He was second in the Chester Cup on his third attempt. He was fourth in 2017, third the following year, and beaten only by Making Miracles last season. Between the two later Cup efforts he’d been off the track for almost a year before finishing a warming-up third under 9st 12lb behind Coeur Blimey and the inevitable Coeur De Lion in a long-distance Newbury Handicap.

Next came the Northumberland Plate, only a third all-weather run, but in the event a second triumph with a career-defining £92k winner’s prize. After that he was fourth to the smart Withhold in a valuable (but slowly-enough-run for him) two-mile handicap and then fourth in the Group 1 two-and-a-half-miler At the Arc meeting in Longchamp before finishing seventh to Stratum in the Cesarewitch.

So now Kingy would surely be giving him a break? Certainly not! Next came, of all things for a rising eight-year-old, four chases. Second places at Kempton, then (at 2-7) Plumpton before a Grade 2 win, showing all his stamina back at Kempton. His final run, in the Ultima Handicap at the Festival, probably owed more than a sideways look to the King stable sponsors, and his 13th of 23 was probably as well as could have been expected against “proper” chasers.

In the context of this weird season, a run on March 10th happily made him one of the less ring-rusty turning out for the Queen Alexandra, whose extended two miles, five furlongs could well have been written almost specifically with his requirements in mind. It needed many of those qualities to get him home ahead of The Grand Visir, who had been good enough to win last year’s Ascot Stakes under top weight. In truth, no other outcome seemed likely once the pair stripped off to do battle up the home straight.

Who Dares Wins fully lives up to his SAS-style motto. He could easily have been a Special Forces hero. In syndicate owner Henry Ponsonby’s eyes he surely is. It was such a pity that we couldn’t be there to celebrate, apart from everything else, the most heart-warming of his 11 victories and pay tribute also to Alan King, who has kept these three veterans of 124 races going to such wonderful effect.

  • TS

Monday Musings: Trainers with Form

A few hours from now (I’ve started even earlier than usual today) UK betting shops will be opening for the first time in three months, writes Tony Stafford. Those frustrated souls who do not have access to computer or telephone betting will therefore be back in the game. With the two-metre social distancing rule, sort of still in place, it will be interesting to see how it will be managed by designated employees.

Over time, many betting shops have become denuded of staff, often appearing at quiet times to be one-man or –woman affairs. So while Tesco, Sainsbury, Morrison, Lidl, Asda and the like can provide employees to monitor the outside queues, who can be spared by Hills, Coral, Ladbroke and the rest to ensure safety entering the betting emporia?

But, as we saw in various public demonstrations last week, the British red-blooded male (and sometimes female) is all-too-willing to ignore such niceties when the mood takes it. Let’s hope the much-sought-after “R” number was not too much inconvenienced by the various scrums in London town and elsewhere.

On my weekly analysis, Monday to Sunday, another 452 fewer deaths brought the latest tally to 1156, a fall of more than 32% on the week, more than maintaining the trend. So if the premature return to lemming-like crowd scenes did not damage the “R”, the return of the public to the racecourse in probably a limited degree, might not be too far off. Goodwood and York must be the two tracks most hoping for that prospect.

Many other shops are opening – even hairdressers! – from today, so anyone dressing up at home for Royal Ascot as I’ve promised myself to do tomorrow, can go for a quick tidy-up in preparation.

The overnights for the first two days are now set and the trainers who have made the most dynamic re-start, Messrs Gosden, Johnston, Hannon and Balding, all have double-figure representation. Six extra races have been added, bringing more opportunities for smaller stables, but the top teams still dominate with multiple chances in the handicaps especially.

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From the first two weeks’ action, John Gosden, who will be expecting success from 11 overnight declarations on the first two days, and with Stradivarius in the Gold Cup to wait for on Thursday as he goes for a third Gold Cup, clocked up 29 wins from his 93 starters. Mark Johnston has 17 declared on the first two days, and he too has made a flying restart, with 20 winners from his 128 runners.

A Saturday four-timer, all in Michael Tabor colours and with Seamie Heffernan in the saddle, projected Aidan O’Brien on to the domestic 13 mark at home in the first week, plus Love in the 1,000 Guineas. The Saturday quartet was spearheaded by Peaceful’s emphatic triumph in the Irish 1,000, yet another Classic winner, along with Love, for Galileo. The suggestion – it must have come from somewhere, but I’m not sure where – that Peaceful might join the team and come over for Saturday’s Coronation Stakes is both mouth-watering and eminently possible, knowing the ambition of owners and trainer.

I’ll be hoping to be still wide awake around 1 p.m. today waiting for the five-day entries. If only we could go on Saturday. The eight races kick off with the Silver Wokingham, like Wednesday’s Silver Hunt Cup, a 24-runner innovation, with the Wokingham itself staged as the seventh race on the card.

Then it’s the Queen Mary, the Coronation, the Coventry and St James’s Palace, with the chance of 2,000 Guineas runners coming on from Newmarket and Ireland. It would be great to see Siskin, especially after his fine display in the Irish 2000 Guineas, his power finish seeing off the Ballydoyle hordes. It’s more likely, however, to expect a few of the supporting cast from Newmarket and The Curragh to get an entry. Then it’s the Diamond Jubilee, the Wokingham and ending fittingly with the Queen Alexandra as the 36th race of the week. I can’t wait.

Eight races and, as so many are saying, a great chance for racing to get a bigger profile than has been the case hitherto. ITV will make it accessible to all who want to watch it, but without the pomp, ceremony and fashion we’ve come to love. Maybe this emasculated, work-a-day version will leave us with as much regret as pleasure, but I think the BHA and racing’s trainers and owners, jockeys and stable staff, and racecourses, have all done a wonderful job in getting the show back on the road in the  most challenging of circumstances.

The Queen has had plenty of interest from her horses on the track in the past fortnight. So far only First Receiver, a facile seven-length winner at Kempton in the opening week for Sir Michael Stoute and Ryan Moore, has been successful; and he looks to hold a great chance in Wednesday’s Hampton Court Stakes. I thought it also reflected well on the organisers that they were able to do the low-key televised Trooping the Colour ceremony from Windsor Castle on Saturday, on her official birthday. She was actually 94 on April 21st and the way the cameras picked up her still mobile, fully engaged and alert self was a great pick-me-up for everyone watching.

How irritating it must have been for her that the usual venue for the ceremony, Horseguards Parade, tucked in between the Cenotaph and Trafalgar Square in Central London, was being invaded by rent-a-mobs at the precise moment her first official engagement since lockdown was continuing with such dignity and efficiency 25 miles to the west.

If there is one constant irritation for me even in the general goodwill generated by the simple fact of there being some racing – and good stuff – to watch, it’s that “his stable has been in form” routine by various presenters. Form is governed by opportunity and the 200-plus stables by definition, just as the top riders, can have a string of fancied losers, but get another good chance in the next race after which the inevitable “in good form” line is trotted out.

What I think is worth noting, is to identify the up-and-coming operations. Archie Watson has already gone from upstart to top trainer usually with horses sent forward from the start. That rewarding pattern, almost A P McCoy-like, has been a constant factor, apart of course from natural talent, in the emergence of Hollie Doyle, already flying past the 50 mark for the year.

Now she’s getting the best out of all her mounts, for Archie and everyone else, and from the back of the field as well as the front. She, no doubt, will be one of the riders gaining the most attention, if not necessarily the most success, in the coming week.

Among the trainers, it’s been very good to see the emergence of Tom Clover. He had the good sense to learn his trade as assistant to the highly-accomplished David Simcock, and even more to marry Jackie, daughter of the late, great Michael Jarvis.

Last year the couple made the switch from Willie Musson’s Savile House just around the corner from Newmarket’s Clock Tower, a few strides up Fordham Road to Kremlin House, scene of Michael Jarvis’s greatest achievements.  So the Tottenham fan married into an Arsenal household, but harmony is clearly the name of the game. And talent, too, as Tom has fired in six winners from only 16 runners in the two weeks since the restart and 11 from 42 overall this year.

That puts him within reach of last year’s tally of 19, following seven in each of the previous two years, his first two full campaigns as a trainer.

Another to have switched yards even more recently is William Knight, up to HQ after a longish stint in Sussex to take over Rathmoy Stable, formerly the base for the legendary Neville Callaghan and more recently David Lanigan, who is departing for the US.

Knight has also been quick off the mark, and in his case, the “trainer in form” comment is fully deserved. From 14 runs, he’s sent out three winners (13-2, 22-1 and 33-1) and three third places. Four of the eight also-rans have started at 50-1 and above, and talking of opportunity, the average price of ALL his runners has been 33-1. Gosden’s 93 have averaged 4-1. Now that’s making the most of one’s opportunities and Knight I’m sure will continue to be a man to follow, as will Clover.

- TS

Monday Musings: Rapid Start Far From Flat

The two unbeaten favourites didn’t collect the first two Classics of the UK racing season as many, including the bookmakers, were expecting, writes Tony Stafford. Pinatubo was a slightly one-paced third as Kameko gave Andrew Balding a second UK Classic in the 2,000 Guineas, 17 years after Casual Look was his first in the Oaks. Yesterday, Love made it six 1,000 Guineas triumphs for Aidan O’Brien, four in the last six years, as the Roger Charlton filly Quadrilateral also had to be content with third place.

For quite a while in Saturday’s big event, staged behind closed doors of course, it looked as though O’Brien would be celebrating an 11th “2,000” – from back home in Ireland as he left on-course matters to be attended to by his accomplished satellite team. Wichita, turning around last October’s Dewhurst form both with Pinatubo and his lesser-fancied-on-the-day stable companion Arizona, went into what had looked a winning advantage under super-sub Frankie Dettori until close home when the Balding colt was produced fast, late and wide by Oisin Murphy.

The young Irishman might already be the champion jockey, but the first week of the new season, begun eight months after that initial coronation last autumn, suggests he has a new confidence and maturity built no doubt of his great winter success in Japan and elsewhere. A wide range of differing winning rides were showcased over the past few days and Messrs Dettori and Moore, Buick, Doyle and De Sousa clearly have an equal to contend with.

It was Dettori rather than Moore who rode Wichita, possibly because of the relative form in that Dewhurst when Wichita under Ryan got going too late. This time Arizona got his lines wrong and he had already been seen off when he seemed to get unbalanced in the last quarter-mile. Kameko will almost certainly turn up at Epsom now. Balding was keen to run Bangkok in the race last year despite that colt’s possible stamina deficiency. The way Kameko saw out the last uphill stages, he could indeed get the trip around Epsom a month from now.

The 2020 Guineas weekend follows closely the example of its immediate predecessor. Last year there was also a big team of O’Brien colts, including the winner Magna Grecia, and none was by their perennial Classic producer, Galileo. The following afternoon, the 14-1 winner Hermosa, was Galileo’s only representative in their quartet in the fillies’ race. This weekend, again there were four Ballydoyle colts in their race, and none by Galileo. Two, including Wichita, are sons of No Nay Never. As last year, there was a single daughter of Galileo in yesterday’s race, the winner Love. Her four and a quarter length margin must make it pretty much a formality that she will pitch up at Epsom next month.

Love was unusually O’Brien’s only representative yesterday which rather simplified Ryan Moore’s choice. It will surely be hard to prise her from him at Epsom whatever the other Coolmore-owned fillies show at The Curragh and elsewhere in the interim.

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With Irish racing resuming at Naas this afternoon, attention will be switching immediately to the Irish Classics next weekend. What with those races, which Ryan will sit out under the 14-day regulations, the Coolmore owners and their trainer will have a clear course to formulate their Derby team and Oaks back-up squad. It would appear that the good weather enjoyed in the UK after which so many big stables, notably Messrs Johnston, Gosden and Balding, have made a flying start on the resumption, has also been kind to Irish trainers.

I know that sometimes in the spring the grass gallops at Ballydoyle have barely been usable by the time of the first month of action. The delayed and truncated first phase should continue to be to the benefit of the more powerful yards and maiden races, just as those in the UK, are already looking like virtual group races, especially on the big tracks.

Aidan O’Brien has 11 runners on today’s opening card, including four in the second event for juveniles, where Lippizaner, who managed a run in one of the Irish Flat meetings squeezed in before the shutdown, is sure to be well fancied. A son of Uncle Mo, he was beaten half a length first time out and the experience, which is his alone in the field, should not be lost on him.

The shutdown has been a contributor to a denial of one of my annual pleasures, a leisurely look at the Horses in Training book which I normally buy during the Cheltenham Festival but forgot to search for at this year’s meeting. The usual fall-back option of Tindalls bookshop in Newmarket High Street has also been ruled out, and inexplicably I waited until last week before thinking to order it on-line.

There are some notable absentees from the book and it has become a growing practice for some of the bigger trainers to follow the example of Richard Fahey who for some years has left out his two-year-olds. John Gosden has joined him in that regard otherwise they both would have revealed teams comfortably beyond 250.

Charlie Appleby, William Haggas, Mark Johnston, Richard Hannon and Andrew Balding all have strings of more than 200 and all five have been quick off the mark, each taking advantage of a one-off new rule instigated by the BHA. In late May trainers wishing to nominate two-year-olds they believed might be suitable to run at Royal Ascot, which begins a week tomorrow, could nominate them and thereby get priority status to avoid elimination with the inevitable over-subscription in the early fixtures.

In all, 163 horses were nominated with Johnston leading the way with 11; Charlie Appleby and Fahey had eight each; Hannon and Archie Watson seven and Haggas five. All those teams have been fast away in all regards but notably with juveniles. The plan, aimed at giving Ascot candidates racecourse experience in the limited time available, has clearly achieved its objective.

Among the trainers with a single nominated juvenile, Hughie Morrison took the chance to run his colt Rooster at Newmarket. Beforehand he was regretting that he hadn’t realised he could have taken him to a track when lockdown rules could apparently have been “legally bent” if not actually transgressed. Rooster should improve on his close seventh behind a clutch of other Ascot-bound youngsters when he reappears.

When I spoke to Hughie before the 1,000 Guineas he was adamant that the 200-1 shot Romsey “would outrun those odds”. In the event Romsey was the only other “finisher” in the 15-horse field apart from Love and, in getting to the line a rapidly-closing fifth, she was only a length and a half behind Quadrilateral. So fast was she moving at that stage, she would surely have passed the favourite in another half furlong. The Racing Post “analysis” which said she “lacked the pace of some but kept on for a good showing” was indeed damning with faint praise. Hughie also could be pleased yesterday with a promising revival for Telecaster, a close third behind Lord North and Elarqam in the Brigadier Gerard Stakes at Haydock despite getting very warm beforehand.

No doubt I’ll be returning to Horses in Training quite a lot in the coming weeks, but just as the long list of Galileo colts and fillies was dominant among the Ballydoyle juveniles for many years, the numerical power of Dubawi among Charlie Appleby’s team is now rivalling it. Last year, when I admit I didn’t really notice it, there were 40 Dubawi juveniles: this year the number has grown to an eye-opening 55. At the same time the yard has gone well past 200, reflecting his upward trajectory ever since taking over the main Godolphin job ten years ago. I’m sure Pinatubo has some more big wins in his locker.

I always look forward to seeing the team of Nicolas Clement, French Fifteen’s trainer, in the book, and he is there as usual with his middling-strength team. Nowadays much of what used to pass for free time for this greatly-admired man is taken up with his role as the head of the French trainers. He confessed that carrying out his duties over the weeks in lockdown and then the changes in the areas in France where racing could be allowed had been very demanding.

This weekend, Nicolas along with everyone in racing had a dreadful shock when his younger brother Christophe, who has been training with great success in the US for many years, suffered a terrible tragedy. On Saturday a Sallee company horsebox, transporting ten Clement horses from Florida to race in New York burst into flames on the New Jersey Turnpike, killing all ten animals. One report suggested that the horsebox had collided with a concrete stanchion. It added that the two drivers attempted to free the horses but were unable to do so.

At the top level, where both Clement brothers have been accustomed to operating on their respective sides of the pond, the rewards can be great. But as this incident graphically and starkly shows, there is often a downside for trainers and owners, though rarely one of quite this horrific finality.

- TS

Monday Musings: We’re On!

So finally, after 76 days, 330 lost meetings and something of a cliff-hanger, the wait is officially over, writes Tony Stafford. Oliver Dowden, Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, was in the saddle to announce the go-ahead at Saturday’s coronavirus briefing in Downing Street. Thus, unlike his government’s much-maligned advisor Dominic Cummings, Newmarket trainers and horses will legally have carte blanche to take the long road north to Newcastle.

With ten races both on Monday and Tuesday at Gosforth Park, all limited to maximum fields of 12, it might have been expected that there would be an imbalance of runners from HQ. In the event, while there are Newmarket-trained representatives in most (eight) races on Monday and all ten on Tuesday, the total is a fairly modest 22 on the opening day and only 15 on the second, which must have been a relief for many trainers and owners in the north.

Kempton on Tuesday predictably has a southern bias, but it will not be until today Monday’s 72-hour declarations for the first of four days at Newmarket that the skilful hand of the BHA will be properly shown. The first four of seven races are all restricted to two-year-olds and, with the same limitation of 12 runners per race as elsewhere, three of the four can be divided. That means we will have seven races for juveniles, helping to make a start to redressing a few of the forfeited opportunities in the void of April and May.

Smaller fields and racing behind closed doors will enable the continued practising of social distancing rules. With the last week also (thanks principally to a big drop on the Tuesday after the latest Bank Holiday) contributing another approximate 20 per cent fall in the number of UK deaths (on my figures a 21.4% decline and 1696 deaths), the government felt able to counter some northern politicians who wanted a further delay. Even more compelling is the continued reduction in the weekly numbers in hospital suffering from the disease, down 15% on the week.

Dowden clearly believes that horse racing will be an important potential agent for renewed public confidence after the shock and denial of entertainment of the past 11 weeks. Even better news for the man in the street, not that he’s been anywhere in sight of late, is the prospect of re-opened betting shops on Royal Ascot eve, Monday June 15. Just as it was deemed possible to regulate customer-flow in supermarkets at the height of public hysteria and fear about Covid-19 - which would have been fine apart from many customers’ refusal to comply with the two-metre apart arrows - then it should be easy enough to allow the smaller volume of people wishing to enter betting shops to do so in an orderly and safe fashion.

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With top professional football also resuming that week, couch potatoes will be in their element. However it’s the four days of Newmarket that excite me with last year’s Derby winner, Anthony Van Dyck, heading a possible team of three from Ballydoyle in the Hurworth Bloodstock Coronation Cup, transferred from Epsom. Broome and Sir Dragonet can bolster the Aidan O’Brien team and the Irish maestro is reportedly taking a short lease on a property in the town to accommodate his staff in what will be something of a satellite operation with 14-day isolation rules in place while the horses can fly back and forth as needed.

Two other highly-interesting names are included in the 11-horse entry, with Stradivarius, champion stayer for the past two years, dropping back to a mile and a half, and Godolphin’s Ghaiyyath, who would have been one of the obvious favourites had the Dubai World Cup meeting gone ahead as planned, representing Charlie Appleby. Ghaiyyath has the advantage of a run this year, winning a Meydan Group 3 by eight lengths in late February.

At five, so a year younger than Stradivarius, he is lightly-raced with six wins in nine starts, but critics will point to his flop when only tenth of 12 in last autumn’s Arc behind Waldgeist and Enable. So far he has yet to click on the biggest days but his official mark of 126 clearly indicates what a classy performer he is.

Later today, the acceptors will be known for the 2000 Guineas but also today the French maintain their edge of getting going first of the three major European racing powers with both Guineas mile Classics, transferred to Deauville from Longchamp. That latter track was summarily, but probably only temporarily, closed after an initial flurry three weeks ago.

Many of the big trainers are based near or in Chantilly, which was previously also in the same proscribed Red Zone as Paris proper, but they will have been relieved that Chantilly has now been given the all-clear so meetings there and at nearby Compiegne can resume from this week. One obvious exception is Jean-Claude Rouget who trains in the west, so within easy reach of Deauville. Rouget and Andre Fabre both have fancied runners in each race, but I expect Ecrivain, second while not getting a clear run in the trial (Fontainebleau) three weeks again, to beat both in the “2000” for the Carlos Laffon-Parias stable.

As with the Coronation Cup, Appleby and O’Brien will be going head to head on Saturday in the 2000 Guineas, but five-day confirmations will not be known until after these words are published on Monday morning. Pinatubo has been favourite, and a short-priced one throughout the winter and the subsequent period of no racing, and remains odds-on to confirm his superiority over Coolmore’s Arizona, whom he beat by two lengths in the Dewhurst Stakes last October.

While confidence abounds in the favourite, word from Ireland suggests that O’Brien, already winner of the Newmarket colts’ Classic ten times, could not be happier with Arizona’s progress, so an each-way bet at the prevailing 6-1 could be a value bet-to-nothing, possibly with a small saver to be second to the favourite as insurance.

Ryan Moore has had his moments of misfortune as well as success in the 2000 Guineas in the past decade, winning on Churchill and Gleneagles, but having to watch from Churchill Downs two years ago while Donnacha O’Brien collected on Saxon Warrior before his own unfortunate ride on Mendelssohn in the Kentucky Derby. Last May he looked across from the middle of track on the non-staying favourite Ten Sovereigns as stable-mate Magna Grecia, again with the younger O’Brien son riding, swept to victory up the stands rail.

Ryan’s international pursuit of big prizes has often extended across to Japan and as recently as last November he teamed up with the two-year-old Contrail to win a Group 3 race in Tokyo. The colt won two more important races without Ryan, the Group 1 Hopeful last backend and the Japanese 2000 Guineas (Satsuki Sho) this spring. Both races were over ten furlongs and Yuichi Fukanaga had the mount each time. Contrail won the Guineas by half a length when the runner-up was Salios.

I’m sure that without those quarantine rules, Ryan would have been seeking out connections to try to get back on Contrail in yesterday’s Japanese Derby (Tokyo Yushun) for which he was the 2-5 favourite in a field of 16 over the mile and a half trip. Salios again proved to be his main challenger but this time the victory margin was three lengths as the winner, a son of star stallion Deep Impact, took home the first prize of more than £1.5 million.

No doubt Moore will be fully aware of the missed jockey’s share, but will hope he can pick up some compensation nearer home. Already O’Brien has intimated that the jockey will not be going across to The Curragh for the following weekend’s Guineas double. As to Contrail he seems to be following hard on the example of the brilliant filly Almond Eye as another potential Japanese star set to take on the world’s best in the coming months.

- TS

Monday Musings: On the Resumption

After a first week of a successful and seemingly uneventful return to racing on the Flat, over jumps and, no doubt, while unseen on our screens, the equally popular trotting, the French government surprisingly invoked their colour co-ordinated map to ban racing in the Northern and Paris regions, but allowed it to continue elsewhere, writes Tony Stafford.

Fortunately for Sky Sports Racing, it was still able to continue with its daily offerings. Once I heard though on Monday the first strains of South African tones, with its accompaniment of some odd pronunciations, identity-delaying tactics like “in second placing, in third placing, and then came” <a switch of tenses another irritation> “in fourth placing…” one sole non-Ian Bartlett commentary was more than enough.

Mr Bartlett it seemed had done his bit for now, his rather posh and supremely accurate English “chalk” superseded by southern hemisphere cheese for the latest week. Smaller fields were the norm for this period compared with the generally bigger and therefore more demanding line-ups in the Paris region before Longchamp and the rest closed their doors once again. Maybe from today another commentator might be on duty for the third and final week before France becomes more of a side-show as, everything crossed, domestic sport gets going at last next Monday.

The French government’s unexpected pull back away from the country’s red zone prompted scepticism that the June 1st date might not be adhered to over here. One friend, in particular, who with two family members was laid low (though happily not hospitalised) with the virus in its early days, predicted that the hoped-for Monday week restart in the UK, would not go ahead. He pointed out that the schedule had never (and still hasn’t) been formally confirmed by government.

Now though we have a much more detailed programme of fixtures from the BHA, with races and prizemoney fully documented. Initially after the French decision on red zones, Betfair’s market on the June 1st resumption had swung to odds against. Early today it was around 4-1 on to resume on that date or earlier. Indeed the delay until the first day of June, after an earlier hoped-for date two weeks prior by trainers, owners and the BHA, has been fortuitous.

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Last week’s article outlined evidence which showed that the infection had been steadily reducing week on week for the previous month or so. One week further on, the trend has continued apace so that for each of the past five weeks, the number of fatalities and people remaining in hospital with the virus has continued its steady decline.

Most encouragingly, for the fifth week in a row, the percentage decline in deaths has been in double figures. Week one, Sunday April 19th-26th fell from 6207 to 5573, representing a fall of 11%; week 2, 5573-4791, 14.6%; week 3, 4791 to 3409, 28.3%; week 4, 3409 to 2781, 18.4% and the latest period until yesterday it was 2781 to 2157, and 22.4%.

A similar level of decline into the middle of next month – by the time of the behind closed doors’ five days of Royal Ascot – could coincide with the number of deaths falling some way short  of 1000 per week. Most striking has been the very small numbers for London, fewer than 20 mortalities a day over the past week, astonishing for a city of around 10 million inhabitants.

I’ve looked back again at the March 15th bulletin, when the first briefing from Downing Street was called. It was announced that there had been 15 UK deaths over the previous 24 hours. That day, one official predicted that as many as 80% of the population, thus potentially approaching 50 million people, could become infected. Of the three million plus people that have now been tested, around one in 20 (fewer than 270,000) have been found to have had the virus.

A couple of weeks ago I was pretty rude to Weatherbys, suggesting that while owners will have to be prepared to accept smaller prizes when racing resumes, Weatherbys’ administrative costs never seem to go down. In retrospect I have to agree with one of the firm’s top officials who pointed out how unfair a side-swipe it was. I had been referring to a small increase in the Levy yield for the past year, without factoring in that there would be no spectator or corporate catering income for the foreseeable future. No wonder prizes need to be reduced.

Over the past week the timetable for the early part of the revived season has firmed up. Most exciting and best received by all quarters has been the five days of Royal Ascot which will now include six extra races, seven rather than six each day from Tuesday June 16th to Friday the 19th and then eight instead of six on the Saturday. Racing will also begin earlier than usual each day.

There will be a maximum field size of 24, and three of the meeting’s existing races are now being divided with the Royal Hunt Cup and Wokingham both having consolation races. The Buckingham Palace Handicap has also been revived, the race having been lost upon the founding of the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup sprint for three-year-olds a few years ago.

My wife usually comes racing once during Royal Ascot every year although in 2019 she could not attend. She suggested to me that it would be fun if on the one day she normally goes, we could put on our finery and wear it while we watch the sport from home – she’ll stretch to one race at least! She did tell me the name of a site where such things are habitually shared with others, but I cannot remember what it’s called and I daren’t wake her at 5 a.m. I know my top hat still fits and the lockdown slimdown means the morning suit and waistcoat will also have a little welcome room. Join us if you will!

Ireland’s revived start of June 8th begins at Naas, while the following weekend features the opening fixtures at The Curragh with the Irish 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas staged on June 12th and 13th respectively.

Four tracks have not been included in the initial provisional UK fixture list which stretches to the end of August. Brighton and Worcester have had damage caused respectively by gales and flooding and, combined with the lockdown, it has proved impossible for ARC (the Arena Racing Company) to undertake the necessary repairs in time. Jockey Club Racecourses also have had to forego any fixtures during the resumption period at Carlisle and Nottingham, two of my favourite smaller tracks.

Many of the other highlights later on from the initial flurry are scheduled pretty much on their customary timings. If the recovery from the worst excesses of the virus continues at its present rate, it could even be that by Goodwood or York’s Ebor meeting some elements of a crowd could be possible.

We’ve missed coming up for ten weeks of racing, with Aintree, Chester’s and York’s May meetings as well as the Guineas lost, though thankfully those two Classics will be held over the first weekend at Newmarket. I reckon I would normally have been racing at least 30 times in that period which is always the most enjoyable and informative time of the year for me.

Thank goodness we have the two specialist channels able to televise the sport. Roll on next Monday and Newcastle. The entries will be out by noon tomorrow for the eight races (1.00 to 4.30) and I expect them all to be vastly over-subscribed. Good luck to everyone for the resumption.

Monday Musings: Chapeau, Barty

Since racing in the UK ended abruptly on March 17th there have been few enough opportunities to admire the sport’s largely-hidden professionals, but the past week has provided a solo virtuoso demonstration of the commentating skills of Ian Bartlett, writes Tony Stafford. Racing in France began again last Monday with no spectators, but deep in a Paris studio, the unflappable Bartlett has been a constant and supremely accurate dissembler of all things France Galop.

Starting with Longchamp early last Monday morning he commentated with hardly a pause for breath for ten races each, first at the principal Parisian venue; thence north a shade to Compiegne and down south to Toulouse. Over the next six days his all-seeing eyes took in two more Paris tracks, Saint-Cloud and two high-class jumping cards over the past weekend at Auteuil, in midweek stretching a bit further north to Chantilly. In between, his kingdom encompassed Marseille in the south, Angers in the west and Lyon and Vichy smack bang in the middle of the country.

In all Ian ran his forensic rule over 13 fixtures, 128 races and approaching 1,700 horses. Different owners’ horses often run in specific regions in a country which has a land mass more than double that of the UK, yet if there was ever a mis-identification – not that it was easily spotted – he would quickly and self-deprecatingly correct it. It is hard to imagine many of the regulars on the UK roster getting anywhere close to his accuracy of identification, pronunciation of the French names, which he conveys without any over-“Frenchiness” and indeed stamina. Ten-hour days have been the norm. I hate to think just what would have happened if one South African who often in the recent past has been let loose on the racing over there with his embarrassingly wide-of-the-mark attempts at the names, had been thrust into this extremely difficult task.

But Monsieur Bartlett has been amazing. And with a fair number of close finishes while I’ve been watching, I don’t think he’s got one of them wrong. He’s become a real jewel in the Sky Racing crown. I hope he gets a nice bonus for that first week’s magnificent endeavour. Maybe the exchanges should open a market on when he will finally end this marathon stint of clinical excellence. If the management of Sky Racing has any sense, it would block-book him for the next two weeks and then with full fanfare reveal him as the man to broadcast the first UK meeting at Newcastle on June 1 which will be on their screens.

The cast-off portion of the Racing TV deal which brought the Irish racing from the opposition onto their portfolio was looking in a sorry state with an original renewal date of no earlier than June 29th, but that happily has been brought forward by three weeks to begin a week after the resumption of UK racing.

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The earliest track to get going on the Racing TV side is Kempton on June 2 and 3, two days of midweek all weather before a spectacular four days on the turf at Newmarket, the highlights of which are the 2,000 Guineas on Saturday June 6th and the 1,000 Guineas the following day. The second afternoon features the Coronation Cup, transferred from Epsom, and other important races also have unusual temporary locations in that first week. Newcastle will stage the Group 3 Pavilion Stakes, normally at Ascot, on June 4th, the third of its four days’ action and the Brigadier Gerard Stakes (Group 3) will be on June 7th at Haydock rather than Sandown. Lingfield, Chelmsford and Kempton all feature in the initial flurry, when Lingfield’s card on June 5th will include both the Derby and Oaks Trials.

I always love going to Haydock where there’s a choice of hotels within walking distance of the track. In the same way as Newcastle, with only the odd owner, one per horse eligible, there will therefore be ample accommodation for jockeys, trainers and stable staff.

Newmarket’s four days in a row, Thursday to Sunday, within the opening seven days is obviously sensible with so many likely participants - equine and human - being locally based and with a selection of potential hotels. I don’t know about you but I’m getting highly excited about the whole thing. I know I’m very much an optimist, but I believe that when the lockdown ease enters its next phase, there will be so much will for action in every area, that the recovery will come quicker than the many pessimistic voices (mostly with political points to make) suggest. Certainly at this stage, Royal Ascot with modifications will be run in its correct dates, June 16-20 and the Derby and Oaks early in July.

The few trainers I have managed to keep in touch with during the lockdown and those I’ve seen on television, as in an interview the other day with Roger Teal, suggest that in most cases, their stable routines have generally been little affected by the virus. Country areas have been far less susceptible to its spread than urban centres like London. They have found it possible to maintain social distancing rules within training on the gallops.

There is no question that numbers will continue to be the principal element in just how quickly certain restraints will be relinquished by the government. One factor which has stealthily been given increased importance is the concept of “R”, the number which expresses the rate at which infected individuals pass on their infection to others. Early in the virulent part of the disease, in mid-March when the numbers started going up, “R” was reckoned to be around 3. By the time the daily graph started to turn downwards the “R” number was agreed to be below 1.

Then all of a sudden in the middle of last week, some “expert” announced that “R” was increasing again. Yet this is contrary to most normally-accepted yardsticks. The numbers of people remaining in hospital have been falling every week for the past month; fatalities in all areas have been falling steadily. In the week ending April 12th, 6425 people died; the next five weekly totals have been 6207, 5573, 4791, 3409 and in the latest week 2781 with a single lowest day of 170 yesterday. Apart from one aberrant jump on Saturday to 468 from 346 a week earlier, every day – Monday to Monday, Tuesday to Tuesday, and so on over the past four weeks has shown a consistent drop in the number of fatalities, apart from that single ‘sore thumb’ total. That was almost corrected by yesterday’s lowest daily number for almost nine weeks.

Even care homes are now showing long-overdue reductions. The government has persisted in keeping to its June 1st date for resuming racing and it looks as though Premier League football will also be back at around the same time. The hunger is there and obviously racing can’t get going soon enough.

One reason for disquiet does remain. Matt Bisogno, this column’s editor in his role as the owner of geegeez.co.uk was previously a member and then for a while chair of the Horseracing Bettors Forum which, in consultation with the BHA and major bookmakers, formulated a Betting Charter. One of its main thrusts was to keep over-rounds per horse in markets on individual races to a manageable figure. During the week of French racing and the action on the limited number of US tracks that have been running, “industry” prices have been the rule rather than exception.

With no spectators in the foreseeable coming weeks, starting prices will need to be arrived at by some agreed method. The almost constant figure for each French and US race in this period has been at around 30%. In the US, there is rarely more than a dozen runners per race; in France fields of between 16 and 20 have admittedly been quite common since the resumption as Ian Bartlett will testify, in which case a 30% over-round would perhaps be fair enough.

But as one good friend of mine said the other day: “No wonder the bookies like the overseas racing: with those prices, it’s like having eight zeroes on a roulette wheel!” Let’s hope the HBF have that unacceptable number in its sights.

- TS

Monday Musings: Allez France

We were simply kidding ourselves, writes Tony Stafford. Friday May 15th sounded a nice date for racing in the UK to resume and, with three meetings in France today as the shining example and some of the domestic trainers suggesting they would be ready by then, we waited for Boris to offer some encouragement on Sunday night. No such luck.

The PM’s message, supplanting the old “stay home” slogan with “stay secure” while allowing extra outside time for exercising was hardly the hoped-for signal suggesting the return of professional sport in any form. Horse racing it appears, even behind closed doors, will have to wait its turn.

At least horseracing enthusiasts, starved of meaningful action for eight weeks, will have full coverage on Sky Sports Racing from all three returning reunions, Longchamp, Compiegne and Toulouse. Coverage from Longchamp starts with a bang at 9.55 with the five-furlong Prix Saint Georges, one of four Group races on the Parisian track.

Wall-to-wall action will ensue until late evening and whatever else is uncertain in these unnatural times, there will be a relief that betting on something tangible will at last be available. Bookmakers and the exchanges will be doing great business and in the way of such things, the possible resumption dates for the UK are probably most accurately signalled by Betfair Exchange’s special markets. June 1st (on or before), so two weekends on from the putative first date on Friday, at 5 a.m. today was a pessimistic 2.26 (5-4) for yes and 1.72 (8/11) for no.

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Slightly less predictable was the market on Royal Ascot going ahead on the normal opening date of June 16 which was 2.84 (almost 15-8) for yes and 1.52 (1-2) for no. Racing had seemed to believe that the Royal meeting was sacrosanct, but maybe the monarch will be open to a date adjustment, or perish the thought, even accept a one-year blank. A restart of racing by July 1 was 1.2 or 5-1 on. No doubt the talks between government and the racing lobby, with the more vociferous trainers at its helm, will be continuing. For the sport to expect to be made a special case might be hard to gain much traction while so many others are still making life-changing sacrifices every day.

So let us enjoy the French for a change. At least their sport has a tradition where spectators are almost an after-thought, so sparsely have they traditionally attended except when the Brits come en bloc to the Arc. The Pari-Mutuel monopoly over generations meant a traditional culture of the morning Tierce bet in the coffee shops and bars and non-attendance at the sports. The betting there, like everywhere else, has benefited from technological advance and it is hard to argue with a racing administration that can produce three cards that between them offer around £800,000 in overall prize money on a single day.

I think I’ve mentioned before that when Racing TV (ex Racing UK) pinched Irish Racing from At The Races (now Sky Racing), few thought that having the French stuff dumped on them as a token was anywhere near an equitable exchange. But they quickly found an excellent equivalent to Racing UK’s outgoing professional Frenchman, Claude Charlet, in Laurent Barberin, whose patient unflappable style and genuine knowledge of his subject has been highly impressive. While many of Ireland’s races on busy UK days nowadays inevitably clash and require split screens or even delayed relaying, Sky has made a big move forward. Today will be a great opportunity and for its presenters represents something of a penalty kick.

The trio of fixtures reflects France Galop’s new-found flexibility where its financial muscle is shrewdly stretched throughout the day. Longchamp kicks off mid-morning, 10.55 a.m. in France, so an hour earlier here and there will be unbroken coverage throughout its ten-race card which concludes at 2.35 p.m. BST.  It would be hard to imagine a single UK meeting on a Monday afternoon offering anywhere near as much as £230,000 yet remarkably that figure is comfortably outstripped by its near-neighbour Compiegne, around 60 miles to the north, whose own ten-race card weighs in at a hefty £350k.

Compiegne is an all-jumps programme with no race worth less than £30k. It offers decent fields throughout with the top trainers and jockeys all on show. Sky again will show all ten races from the 3.05 starting time to a 7.35pm conclusion. A good proportion of the evening mixed fixture at Toulouse will also be featured. This begins at 5.20 UK time, so overlaps Compiegne. Another ten-race affair begins with a hurdle race and two chases, with the remaining seven events on the Flat. Two of these are Listed (worth £38k each in total), while two more are confined to Arabians, including a Group 2, the finale at 9.42pm.

Toulouse, in the South of France, is one of the more important provincial tracks, and offers only £10k less overall prize money tonight than the £230k available at the Group race-sprinkled principal meeting at Longchamp.

Listening to Barberin, from his home in Bordeaux yesterday, I got the impression he would be in for the long haul today. It seems as though he hopes to abandon ship after the second Listed race at Toulouse, (7.20) when he and the cameras might be taking their leave, so Arabian horse fans could be denied. But that still leaves around 25 mostly high class French races to tickle the punters’ fancy. My own fancy, I must confess, has been tickled by one name, Je Deviens Moi – I want to be (or become) me! He runs in a conditions race at 5.05 at Compiegne and, while up in class, goes for four in a row.

I would hope that, following France’s example, when UK racing does return there could be at least one attention-grabbing card rather than some routine betting-shop dross that can do little more than stifle enthusiasm. Okay, we want opportunities for all owners and trainers, but in the crucial early stages, racing should have something special to offer. The good horses have been training towards their comebacks and the possible normal path to stardom. They will need suitable targets, especially as if we do have to wait for a start into June, the season will already have been drastically truncated.

The French have successfully averted one major political threat to their return and it came from a by no means inconsiderable quarter. It seems French Ligue 1 football teams were unimpressed by having their return to action delayed until September or whenever and tried a spiteful legal block against racing’s resumption. In Nicolas Clement, the trainers have got the right man at the helm!

Now the stage – Covid-19 permitting, and the numbers of fatalities and infections in France have been going down steadily – should be set for their mile Classics being run in three weeks. Let’s all hope for a problem-free day. At least the spectators won’t be getting in the way - not that they ever do over there!

- TS

Monday Musings: A Minor Miracle in the Numbers

Most numbers associated with the last two months of life in the UK, first under the imminent threat, and then quickly the awful reality, of the Coronavirus pandemic have been shocking, writes Tony Stafford. More than 28,000 deaths with at least 75% of them in the 75-and-above age group justifying the Government’s initial and apparently over-the-top strictures that it could be several months before those over 70 could be allowed freely to leave home except under highly-limited conditions.

But one statistic which has been little discussed is the most miraculous. The latest detailed data is up to April 22, showing that 119 NHS staff died from the virus. With more than 1.5 million people working throughout the NHS and a further 350,000, taking in temporary staff and also medical workers in the private sector, that means fewer than 1 in 15,000 have died. That said, many more will have been infected in differing degrees of severity and have recovered.

Considering the exposure to patients in hospitals suffering from the virus – Boris Johnson talked of having up to eight nurses and others attending to him during the most severe stages of his stay in ICU – those 119 deaths are truly miraculous. Approaching 200,000 people have been admitted to hospitals suffering from Covid-19. The overall death rate in the total population is closer to 1 in 2,500. In the NHS 60% of those that have died have been age 50 and above.

Numbers have been the key to the Government’s release of details over the last two months with sensitivities in the media and how it would react to the numbers being paramount. You can only draw that conclusion when upon the figure of 20,000 deaths being reached, even though it was inevitable for some time beforehand, it brought the usual BBC and Piers Morgan blame-game hysteria.

Much has been said about the rights and wrongs of allowing Cheltenham to go ahead. For it to have been cancelled, it would have meant a decision at least a week before the March 10 starting date. At that time, the daily briefings were still two weeks off, and the first figure I have found for daily deaths is the 15 on March 15, two days after Cheltenham finished.

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Since the end of March I’ve kept a table of the daily fatalities and until early last week, the highest single number was an admittedly-shocking 980 hospital deaths on April 10. Then last Tuesday, with figures clearly on a downward curve among people dying in hospital, for the first time the increasing proportion of fatalities in care homes and elsewhere was included. Now April 10 is revealed to have had an even higher overall number, 1,152, one of eight days when the total death toll exceeded 1,000.

It’s still horrendous, but when the Government’s reaction to the situation initially instructed people to stay home, no single day had yet brought more than the 43 deaths, on Wednesday March 19, by which time I, and many in my advanced age group, was already locked away. The first three-figure “score” was the 149 on Monday March 24 but by eight days later it was 670 and soon after it reached those eight thousand-plus spikes.

As racing fans we’ve been denied so much normal action where, in my case, reading a book every two days, catching up on television and our once-a-week walk were only partial consolation; although somehow I’m almost a stone lighter! But then an hour on Racing TV yesterday brought home the frustration of our missing the scheduled Guineas meeting over last weekend.

It was great to see the last 30 years of what is probably the most significant race in the selection of stallions. Not all of them won the race, notably Dubawi, only fifth in his year to Footstepsinthesand, and both Kingman and Australia just a few years ago, stumped late on by Night of Thunder despite the winner’s across-the-course wanderings in the last 150 yards.

We saw Sea The Stars denying my 33-1 win only ante-post bet on Delegator and Camelot’s narrow defeat of formerly Ray Tooth-owned French Fifteen in two thrillers, but still pride of place goes to the extraordinary Frankel, off like a scalded cat under Tom Queally and thereafter never closer to his pursuers than his six-length winning margin over Galileo Gold. In 14 unbeaten runs, this highest-rated horse of all time gets my vote over another Guineas hero, Brigadier Gerard from the 1970’s, and Sea Bird II, a brilliant Derby winner from my youth a decade earlier. Can Frankel’s romp really have been nine years ago?

The timely reminder of the pre-eminence of that race comes with racing deriving positive vibes from recent meetings with Government. May 15 is now being suggested as a likely starting point with Lingfield close to London and Newcastle in the north providing the initial hubs for behind-closed-doors sport. Both have hotels, in the case of Lingfield, part of the grandstand, while Newcastle’s well-appointed Gosforth Park Hotel is a walk along the avenue of rhododendrons which always brightens the spring and especially the summer meetings there.

My first visit to Newcastle was in my Press Association days to cover a jumps meeting one May Bank Holiday in the early 1970’s. Arthur Stephenson dominated the card that early evening and I still remember the leisurely stroll down after lunch in the hotel and the surprising discovery that the horses had gone out of sight behind the trees down the far side. I found it difficult to find them again when they came back into view.

Racing has advantages over other sports in that you need not be there to get the impression that you are; in fact sometimes you get only a limited view of the race compared with viewers at home. A commentator’s crescendo as the horses near the line is much more vital than any crowd noise. The big races that have continued in Hong Kong and Australia without the public have given the UK authorities a blueprint of why and how it should be possible, while as I’ve said before, it must help that the Health Secretary’s East Anglian constituency includes Newmarket.

I haven’t been able to check this fact, but one friend yesterday told me that the Minister is also godfather to one of John Gosden and Rachel Hood’s children. If it is true that can’t hurt either.

The ambitious plan for two weekends of Group races in the lead up to the revised proposed Guineas meeting on the first Saturday of June means that if racing does get the go-ahead, it will start with a flourish. The bookmakers will do wonderful business and I can imagine action-starved horse racing enthusiasts jamming the phone lines and internet connections to get on.

Bookmakers do not always get the best of press coverage, but I was gladdened to hear last week that the 2019-20 Levy yield at £97 million is £2 million higher than the top estimated figure. It seems to make the BHA’s “promise” of races at reduced prize money more than niggardly. Apart from the better races, foreign owners laugh at what’s on offer here day to day. As trainers and owners will tell you, the one thing that never reduces are BHA and Weatherbys’ administration costs.

But in these times, I prefer to take a glass half-full attitude rather than the faux-combative criticism of Government. The Nightingale hospitals haven’t really been needed and within the awful figures, at least one miracle – those 119 deaths where thousands were being predicted – exists whatever the point-scoring after-timers think.

- TS

Monday Musings: The End is Nigh?

At last some movement, writes Tony Stafford. The five-week-long stretch of mockingly-sunny days with unblemished blue skies is about to break in the South of England according to a weather forecast I took scant notice of on Saturday evening. Horse racing is about to start in Germany, on May 4th, and in France a week later.

Hints and allegations, to quote Paul Simon, swirl around the possible resumption in the UK, with mid-May being hinted and Nick Rust reportedly the target of allegations from some senior trainers according to yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. Rust, whose six-year stint as chief executive of the BHA will end at the conclusion of a year’s notice on Dec 31, according to the paper has been urged to step aside immediately by senior trainers including Ralph Beckett and Mark Johnston.

That pair is reputedly among a group that has canvassed Annamarie Phelps, chair of the BHA, to remove Rust amid disquiet about his handling of the sport during the suspension of racing as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. They clearly believe a rapid resumption behind closed doors is vital, with no racing having been staged in the UK since March 17th, a week after the beginning of the highly controversial Cheltenham Festival.

It is likely that any hesitancy by the sport and its figurehead Nick Rust to press for an imminent return is partly based on the lingering embarrassment that some feel because Cheltenham was allowed to proceed. Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, is also the MP for Newmarket and it would be interesting to discover how he voted when the calls by other politicians to cancel the meeting were being discussed in Cabinet.

Hughie Morrison, interviewed by John Hunt on Sky Sports Racing the other night, put a very strong case for an early resumption. He said that a behind-closed-doors race meeting could easily be staged with probably a much lower chance of spreading a contagion like Covid19 than mooching round a supermarket to do the weekly shopping. People might be asked to keep their distance in shops, not that they do, so it’s hard to see how anyone with the virus will contrive to keep it to him or herself in that environment.

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Morrison reckons race meetings would be relatively easy to organise: with no racegoers other than trainers, jockeys, officials and the odd owner – one per horse the norm when Ireland were racing behind their closed doors before drawing stumps last month – and in the countryside, risks Hughie says would be minimal.

I like the potential look of a mid-to late-May restart, with the plan for both Guineas at the start of June, Royal Ascot – maybe Prince Andrew can be persuaded to come out of his Royal lockdown and tasked to present all the winners’ prizes – fan-free but in its usual slot, and the Derby and Oaks on one day at Epsom at the end of June or beginning of July. The May resumption would allow Classic trials to be staged in advance of the Guineas races.

One unkind soul, when the likelihood of crowd-free meetings extending some way into the future, suggested there might in that case be more people than is usual at some Newcastle and Southwell all-weather meetings!

But joking apart – this is no joking matter – we need racing to return. I heard second-hand from a friend of a friend, who is also a friend, that one major bookmaking company is suffering very little compared with normal activity, such has been the take-up of on-line games and the like.

There is such a hunger for something to bet on – as I hinted or alleged last week – that many bookmaker and casino-game firms are inundating the breaks between television programmes with advertising material.

Imagine how much more business they will be doing when racing and top-flight football return. As to the latter sport I find it totally mind-numbing the way certain newspaper web sites keep reporting on possible future transfer deals and what their tame football celebrities think on many matters, mostly about how little they deserve to have their salaries reduced.

For all the tragedy of at least 20,000 hospital deaths associated with the virus, while obviously by no means the only cause, and however many more elsewhere especially in care homes, some elements of normal life remain.

One long-term friend, a racing fan who had been struggling in the winter despite having for many years sold motor vehicles while also running a shellfish cabin in deepest Essex, told me the other day things have turned around. The fish bar was never a restaurant, so it didn’t need to close. Meanwhile he’s been furloughed from the car sales job so has been able to run the cabin full-time on the four days it opens from Thursday to Sunday, rather than just the weekend.

Now they are doing deliveries and take-outs and he says business is booming. When I’m allowed out again I’ll go down to Billericay and take up Kevin’s offer of a free surf and turf. It’s too far for their home delivery service to accommodate me in Hackney Wick, 30 odd miles away, so I’ll have to be patient.

There were two million-pound-to-the-winner races at Sha Tin in Hong Kong yesterday morning with mixed fortunes for jockey Zac Purton on the two odds-on favourites. Beauty Generation was foiled by a short-head in the Mile race, but Purton got his revenge aboard Exultant in the QEII Cup. Exultant, the champion middle-distance horse in HK is now a six-year-old; as a three-year-old for Mick Halford when called Irishcorrespondent, the son of Teolifio won his first two races and then finished third to Churchill in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.

The Irish Guineas, and all other Classic races in that country and the UK, will need to be slotted into the European programme and full marks to the French for getting their retaliation in first. One positive side-effect for racecourses is that their ground has had a much better chance to recover from the rigours suffered during the incessant rain and universally-heavy ground early in the year, while the Flat-only tracks will be looking pristine.

A happy consequence of that will be that they will last longer into the year when we resume. For instance, in Yorkshire, Ripon and Thirsk, which normally are looking to close their doors early in September, can be capable of going on much longer. I believe that Flat racing in the UK in 2020 could easily be staged on grass well beyond the normal early November finale at Doncaster. Who’s up for a New Year’s Eve spectacular at Newmarket?

 - TS

Monday Musings: Time Flying By

Logic told me time would pass slowly during lock-down. Five weeks in, it’s definitely speeded up, writes Tony Stafford. I spoke to my son twice last week, briefly on Sunday and then again for a few minutes more on Friday and I swore that there could only have been a couple of days between the two contacts.

Twin came around on BBC4 again on Saturday evening in my favourite 9 p.m. international drama slot and will already be finished by next weekend. Thankfully I’ve now joined BBC I-Player so I can have a second look on the confusing bits of that rapidly-evolving and brain-challenging eight-part (two each week) Norwegian epic when I get some time. I was very disappointed that Spiral, a series of series I most wanted to see and that motivated my joining, is not on the list.

The other evening it was still light when the Thursday 8 p.m. clapping reverberated from the flats all around. Racing fans in the UK, denied so much since the shut-down on March 18 and more so in Ireland, will have lost most markedly; along with the mainstream we all are aware of, the accelerating number of evening meetings, many of them over jumps, that bolster the normal spring racing menu have also been cancelled. Just to let you know, the days start getting shorter in nine weeks’ time!

The Racing Post’s online-only newspaper carries the cards, like Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay, that have kept racing going in Florida. Like everyone else, the Post included, I expected the Wesley Ward juveniles on show at Gulfstream on successive early evenings last week to do a Lady Aurelia and blow away the opposition.

But both on Thursday and Friday, first the 30-100 shot Lime, a daughter of Iqbaal, and then Golden Pal, 1-2 (by Uncle Mo), contrived to show the trademark Ward early pace only to succumb in almost identical fashion to a single stronger finisher even though their races were over only four and a half furlongs.

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This pair was reportedly among the planned Ward annual contingent for Royal Ascot but first that spectator-free entity needs to be confirmed as does secondly that overseas runners may be accepted if it does. Should they come, I’m sure the traditional fear in which they are held by home trainers may have been a little diluted, although there’s plenty of time for Wesley to build some of that extra physical maturity that his juvenile challengers always seem to display.

I’ve been intrigued by the identity of today’s evening offering at Will Rogers Downs and thought it might justify a little investigating. I wasn’t at all prepared for what I readily discovered on the web. Will Rogers Downs is a gaming (principally, of course) and horse racing venue in Rogers County, close to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is operated by the Cherokee Nation.

That administrative area encompasses 14 counties in North-East Oklahoma and a local population of around 200,000 in one way or another descended mainly from Cherokee and two other Native American tribes.

If that wasn’t unusual enough, the jockeys and trainers will be totally unknown to most of us, unlike the stars who descend on Florida each winter and spring, especially with New York firmly shut down. For the record, Floyd Wethey, Jr. is the top rider so far in 2020 and Scott Young is leading trainer. Tonight’s 10-race card offers one quite valuable prize, a near £25k to the winner fillies and mares race. I won’t put forward a potential winner.

The gaming provides the prizemoney and the track keeps a chunk of all the race wagering. Gaming is also keeping the UK bookmaking companies going, and if the number of advertisements for casino betting that we see in the commercial breaks on most channels nowadays is indicative of betting levels in these odd times, gambling is probably going off the charts.

How the BHA must wish it could get its claws on even a small percentage of that massive cake, not that it would be right to do so (as we saw with the FOBT fiasco). Maybe they should ask Captain Tom to do a sponsored walking-frame-push around the Ascot paddock on his 100th birthday on Thursday next week while singing his chart-topping duet with Michael Ball of You’ll Never Walk Alone? The £23 million (probably more by the time you read this) by which his exploits will be aiding the NHS efforts exceeds the not-insignificant £22 million that the Levy Board is targeting to help racecourses and others through their troubled financial times.

Yesterday we went for a fourth walk of the lockdown, this time forsaking the Olympic Park, for the newly (at Easter) re-opened Victoria Park, which is in the opposite direction. The park had been closed for some time after that initial period when sunbathing and all the other indicators of holidays in good weather in the summertime caused a Government re-think. Everyone was doing the keep-out-of-the-way six-feet walk yesterday; there is no cycling and all the dogs including our Yorkie Josephina were on a lead.

What was obvious, though, was that while the ground is not yet showing any real suggestion of much new growth, the five weeks of drought, following hard on the months of near waterlogging, has already brought great cracks in the turf at some places.

Hughie Morrison has been kindly sending me a brief video every Friday of Ray Tooth’s big homebred and still unraced three-year-old Bogeyman going through his paces. Each week they have been working on the wonderful grass gallops, developed over many years by the Cundell family but now owned and managed by Sir James Dyson.

The Victoria Park phenomenon is extending into Berkshire as the colour of the terrain seems to be lightening week on week. How ironic, with barely a day’s racing after the turn of the year and before Cheltenham being staged on anything but soft or heavy ground, unless we get some rain soon, it will be firm or as near as makes no difference when we resume. Expect to see stand-pipes in the streets by July.

Finally, after hearing that he thinks racing should start as soon as possible – Nick Rust’s line at the weekend too – it was salutary that Mark Johnston has subsequently revealed he is in isolation at home after being quite ill after contracting Covid-19. It must be so frustrating, frightening even, with the Flat season still to start, for Britain’s winning-most trainer that the new norm is so alien. I’m sure that everyone in racing will be wishing Mark, wife Deirdre and their family and staff all the best in the coming trying days.

- TS

Monday Musings: The Month Long Day

Four weeks in and I don’t know about you, but it’s almost impossible to tell the days apart, writes Tony Stafford. I know I’m writing this on what they tell me is Easter Sunday; but with little varying day to day – even the weather, with the sun blazing incessantly and perma-warm temperatures – what we have had is a totally homogenised month.

The initial shopping frenzy has cooled. I act as driver for our once-a-week taxi journey a few miles to the usual supermarket where I stay secure in the car with the windows firmly closed while Mrs S does the six-foot-apart car park snake towards the entrance. Inside, she assures me, she scrupulously adheres to the one-way arrows on the floor and reckons she’s almost the only shopper who does. Food is available now and thousands have died as we proceed in our frozen state.

The Racing Post, predictably and understandably, has been forced to reduce the size of its daily computer newspaper usually to eight pages, so I’ve no idea if the birthdays remain available. For my part I just have a quick squint before looking elsewhere.

I mention birthdays because Easter Sunday would have been the 100th birthday of my father had he not died 18 years ago. For years I regretted he had never seen the development of the Olympic Park, part of his home turf for all his life, apart from the six years he had to give up to join in the Second World War, which he spent mostly in Egypt. Not only did he not see the Olympics, he never knew they were coming. My mum was still alive and I can still picture sitting with her as the announcement that the Games had been won and would be staged in London in 2012 was broadcast to the nation.

Dad took me racing, to Arsenal and to the Oval as a kid, three pastimes that have never wavered in my interest. His principal goal in life seemed to be to ensure that I joined Eton Manor boys sports club as soon as I could, which meant on my 14th birthday.

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Sixty years on, we took our permitted walk on Saturday with a puffing Yorkshire terrier, close to the River Lea, on the same land where I’d played so much of my cricket as a kid. I had even contrived to play in a match there rather than watch the World Cup Final in 1966, three years after – between innings – watching the famous Irish Derby when Relko, the runaway Derby winner, had to be withdrawn lame a few minutes before the start. That left the nine-length Epsom third Ragusa to step up.

Working for the racing press led me to so many places and a great deal of the more unlikely connections came from making summer trips to Kentucky when Keeneland still had the July Selected Yearling sale. In the late 1980’s I’d bumped into the former teen idol David Cassidy there, so when on Friday I noticed that an hour and a half documentary was to air promising the last recordings of the life that ended aged 67 three years ago, it was required viewing.

The all-encompassing years when his role in the antiseptic TV show The Partridge Family, which led to his becoming the most-worshipped pop star of the early 1970’s, were already way behind him. He got into racing and breeding and a couple of times we happened to be in the same company at dinner in the famed Dudley’s restaurant in downtown Lexington.

Then at Epsom on Derby Day 1987, I noticed someone in morning dress looking over at me. It was David, and he said he recognised me from Kentucky and asked where could he get a good view of the big race? It was the days of the old Epsom grandstand – two structures ago! -and I said I could sneak him up to the top of the Press stand.

As an American, he got a great thrill seeing his compatriot and friend Steve Cauthen coming home clear on Henry Cecil’s all-the-way winner Reference Point. Cassidy was in London that summer having taken over the leading role originally played in the West End by Cliff Richard in the musical, Time. He invited the family to see the show and asked the five of us backstage to his dressing room afterwards. He seemed a very nice chap and it was salutary to discover from the documentary the problems he had with his own father, the film star and famous tenor, Jack Cassidy.

Even more devastating was the evidence of his dementia, which as he honestly and perhaps possibly for the first time in his life, stated in interviews was caused by alcoholism.

Mortality is being brought home to us every day right now. One person whose recovery from coronavirus was revealed recently was Sir Kenny Dalglish, who shares a birthday with me. It’s so random who will be struck down next, you just have to keep out of harm’s way as much as you can.

Racing is going on in a few selected areas around the world under strictly-controlled circumstances, and two people who have been delighted that Australia has kept going are William Haggas and Tom Marquand. On Saturday at Randwick, taking advantage of the retirement of Winx, winner of the previous three runnings, they stepped up to win the Queen Elizabeth Cup with Addeybb by almost three lengths from Verry Elleegant. The near £700,000 first prize will no doubt have been causing envious glances from their training and riding counterparts around the UK.

Addeybb was following up his victory in another Group 1 10-furong race at Rosehill last month when he beat Verry Elleegant by only half a length. Forty minutes before the Queen Elizabeth Cup, the pair teamed up with recent Australian Group 3 winner Young Rascal, the 19-10 favourite for the two-mile Sydney Cup. Young Rascal disappointed, finishing unplaced and well behind former stable-companion Raheen House, who was a close third a week after winning a 50k prep race over the same track.

I see from the now long list of owners that Lew Day, who originally bought the six-year-old as a yearling on the advice of Sam Sangster and his first trainer Brian Meehan, still has his name as part of the syndicate. I’m delighted that he will have picked up a few pounds, or rather Aussie dollars, from his now far-away involvement.

On the same card, another well-known name, Con Te Partira, a winner at Royal Ascot for the Wesley Ward stable in 2017, collected a big prize for mares, the Group 1 Coolmore Legacy Stakes. The daughter of Scat Daddy was winning her third race for the Gai Waterhouse stable and will be worth a fortune when she eventually goes to stud. What price Royal Ascot, even behind closed doors, this year?

 - TS

Monday Musings: Different Numbers

Did you miss me? I missed myself. I think that was only the second blank week since I started my musings more than eight years ago, writes Tony Stafford. I relayed my withdrawal symptoms to the boss and he gave me the all clear to resume, but no 4 a.m. Monday for me. The other day, the phone rang and I looked at the clock, it was 8.45 a.m., the latest I’d awakened in decades.

There’s been a slight confusion whether these offerings have been musings or meanderings – the latter term hardly describes my physical movement over the past three housebound weeks.

No racing, football, cricket or anything else. Just three-hour daily afternoon sessions with eons-old reruns on Channel 120 – ITV4, the place we see ITV racing when 103 is tied up – of Minder, The Professionals and The Sweeney from around 1980.

Sometimes, when I was the editor of the Racehorse magazine at that stage of my career – doubling up with my Daily Telegraph job to help pay off Mr Lippman – we’d be out for lunch In Battersea and see them filming The Sweeney. – Sweeney Todd, Flying Squad for those of you without the rudiments of Cockney rhyming slang.

In those days I had a fair knowledge of day-to-day form. Racing was not encumbered with anything like the volume of bookmaker-benefiting dross of today, but I had an opinion on pretty much every race, just as well as I had to make a selection in them all each day for the Telegraph. Even holidays brought no respite from the sausage-machine of racing and betting even if most of it was not televised.

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Now we see it all, except in Covid 19 Great Britain there’s nothing to see. There’s only Hong Kong twice a week or the odd still-soldiering-on action from one or two tracks in the US. I rarely bother with either.

Then suddenly, on Saturday, the 18th consecutive day without horse racing in the UK, we had the Computer Grand National, 40 runners over what passed quite impressively and realistically for the track. The horses’ gaits and strides over the fences, while a generation up from the early betting shop “jumps” computer tracks, still had an artificial look about it. I suppose it would!

What struck me again, and I’d mentioned it after the autumn Aintree meeting, was the totally-unexpected difference to Becher’s Brook. Where the horses used to have to stretch to clear the gaping breadth of the brook while ideally half-turning in midair to take the immediate left turn towards Valentines, they now appear to go straight on. The fence has been rendered pretty innocuous in fact and its computer-model looked even more straight-forward on Saturday. That’s a big loss for purists, but then 30 fences and almost four and a half miles is test enough for most people.

Anything computer-generated needed human input to provide the data for whatever device crunched the numbers to elicit the result, so the outsiders in the market almost by definition, were most unlikely to prevail. Punters, or even in many cases, non-punters, because in normal times plenty of once-a-year bettors break their annual disinterest with racing and have a flutter on that Saturday in April at Aintree, grabbed at the chance of relieving the present torpor.

Trainer Ian Williams had the initiative to set up a sweepstake on the race, offering handsome prizes for the lucky few to secure horses “finishing” in the first four. As I said, the computer was hardly going to reward those of us unlucky enough to land on a rag.

In the old days, I’d invariably had a Grand National fancy on the day of the weights, always tipping and backing it at that stage, and enjoyed plenty of winners over the 30-year spell. Those were the times of office sweeps when unfailingly I’d get one of the outsiders. Yesterday my name came out alongside the 66-1 shot Peregrine Run. I can safely say I’d never previously heard its name and marvelled that his black and red colours were relatively prominent for much of the “race” before wilting away as 66-1 shots were bound to do.

It seemed after the event that Ian reckoned around £4,500 had been earned for charity from that single event. I think he had multiple – possibly four – full fields, so the offers of expensive meals for two in a top Birmingham restaurant, champagne breakfasts for four at his stables quite close to the Second City and other lesser prizes were recycled and put up for auction by at least one of the winners.

On his What’s App feed, Ian even showed pictures of his stable’s real horses gently exercising with the riders all keeping appropriate Social Distancing. For those of us who did take part, it was great to see somebody bringing enjoyment at such a time of fear and unease.

When I first got to know Raymond Tooth, one of the main reasons we met was the input of Derek Hatter who had known Ray in business for many years. Derek dropped out of our little team around six years ago when already just into his 80’s and it was sad to hear that his elder brother Sir Maurice Hatter had died aged 90 last week. Sir Maurice was a great man in charity work with his wife Lady Hatter for many years and the news of his death made me wonder if Derek is fit and well.

So where are we now? After a couple of weeks, I’m reading almost a book a day; am surprisingly rubbish at sudoku; only slowly taking off the surplus pounds from the last year’s excesses – probably solely because there are no more Set 1 breakfasts at the café – and am still in the early stages of a fitness regime.

Meanwhile horses have to be exercised and fed, although most jumpers will have been “roughed off” with the BHA announcing no jumping until July, concentrating on a return to Flat racing before that. The jumps trainers will have had some respite in that at least the weather has become much more Spring-like with the prospect of new young grass on the horizon in place of the bare and flooded fields of winter enabling turning out.

Everyone is raring to get going again, but as Derek Hatter always used to say when discussing anything to do with money or life. “Everything’s the same all the time, it’s just different numbers!”

The key will be those graphs which will hopefully show a slowdown and then downturn in deaths and new Covid 19 cases. At the moment, the total to have died in the UK is fewer than 5,000, which is less than one in 10,000. As one of the leading healthcare experts suggested last week, the UK will be “doing well” if the death toll is restricted to 20,000. That would be around one in 3,000. If you stay healthy and stay safe at home, as I intend to continue to do, we should hopefully all be around when the world gets back to normal. Different numbers.

Monday Musings: The New Abnormal

Just nine days ago my over-riding thought as I contemplated the very strong card at Kempton was still how awful it was that Goshen had been cruelly robbed of his rightful crowning as the best four-year-old hurdler in memory, writes Tony Stafford. Sympathies for Gary and all the Moore family and the owners were intruding ahead of the general feeling that I’d witnessed one of the great four days of Cheltenham.

Just over a week later, along with everyone in the country, if not the world, apart of course from China where it started and where they now claim there have been no new cases for several days - sure! – even Goshen has been put at the back of the brain.

Looking back, there we were, between 53,000 on the first day and 65,000 on Friday talking, greeting and breathing on each other. A good proportion of racegoers at any time are in the older age group. Now 1.5 million of us senior citizens around the country are to receive letters telling us to stay at home for three months to help “damp down” in Boris’s words, the dreaded Coronavirus.

I’ve already effectively remained in the house under instruction from my wife, who will not be receiving such a letter. My only relief from the embargo has been three short taxi-service one-way trips to drop her at shops that have been denuded of fresh meat and fish, bread, pasta, toilet and kitchen rolls and household products. She did yesterday, though, and much to my amazement, come home triumphantly brandishing a copy of the Racing Post, cost £3.90. I wonder what the publication’s 110 journalistic employees are doing to keep that listing vessel above water?

Every day for the past week I’ve been pondering whether I’ve had it, got it or am incubating it ready to transmit to anyone I meet – which pretty much begins and ends with Mrs S. Yesterday she started a daily exercise session, prompted by my difficulty with putting on my socks without sitting down. It couldn’t have been too taxing, but today and on subsequent days it will be ramped up. Whatever you can say about people born and brought up in the old USSR, especially in Siberia, they can be pretty relentless!

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I was thinking last Tuesday that the UK racing no-spectator model might work, but that stopped after one day. Then on Wednesday the Irish decided to race on crowd-free, so on Saturday we had Thurles on Racing TV and South Africa’s two meetings on Sky Sports Racing. Somehow, my copy of the Racing Post arrived in time to have a look at the 4.10 from Thurles in which a horse I’d seen run well recently over two miles, stepped up in trip and class for a beginners’ chase.

He’d previously won a hurdle over three miles and was trained by Joseph O’Brien, so more than enough reason to have a good look. I thought he would be around 6-1, checked and found he was double those odds, and had a tiny tickle. Backed down to 9-1, Thermistocles proved once again that young Mr O’Brien can win any race over any discipline at any level and sound jumping and stamina enabled this eight-year-old to beat a strong field with some comfort.

Sky Sports Racing also had yesterday’s Sha Tin card which started at 5 a.m. and featured, almost four hours later, the Hong Kong Derby with its £1 million-plus first prize. Local jockey C Y Ho was entrusted with the ride on the 3-4 favourite Golden Sixty and as he brought him towards the straight he was right at the back of the 14-strong field; meanwhile Aussie rider Blake Shinn sent the 290-1 shot Playa Del Puente into a long lead on the inside. Ho and Golden Sixty came wide, gradually gained ground, but still had at least three lengths to find a furlong out.

Instead of the frenzied tumult had the Sha Tin stands been as usual full of punters, there must have been almost an eerie silence that accompanied the favourite’s continued run which bore fruit three strides from the finish.  The Australian-bred Golden Sixty, a son of Medaglia d’Oro, has now won ten of 11 career starts, and never had a winning margin more than just over two lengths in any of them.

While everything is on hold here – I can imagine just how frustrated the few UK trainers nowadays that concentrate on early juveniles must be feeling – Ireland actually stages its first turf Flat meeting of the year today at Naas. Joseph and his father Aidan both had entries in the first two-year-old race of 2020 in Europe but Aidan’s runner, Lipizzaner, participates.

In between the sparse live fare available, there have been some interesting offerings on the specialist channels and one commentator for whom my regard has grown greatly in recent months has been Mick Fitzgerald. I confess it took ages to get past that gratingly-harsh accent but in a long discussion with John Hunt on Sky Sports Racing the other day he spoke very intelligently on the challenges facing trainers and jockeys, not to mention owners. His thoughts, not least his compassion, equated to the attitude of the Prime Minister and Chancellor as they announced the tightening up of measures to stop the virus.

But now I must return to Goshen. Anyone who saw the Triumph Hurdle on Friday the 13th of March will have been convinced that the margin – some say a dozen lengths – that he held over his toiling rivals coming to the last where he made his calamitous, race-ending mistake, would have been considerably extended by the line.

David Dickinson, the BHA handicapper responsible for two-mile hurdle assessments, had the job of putting the race on a numerical footing. We don’t see the Irish ratings, so the two horses that finished first and second under sufferance, Burning Victory and Aspire Tower, the latter who had a 152 mark pre-race, do not appear on the BHA ratings list.

But Allmankind, Navajo Pass and Sir Psycho, who finished third, fourth and fifth, went into Cheltenham on ratings respectively of 148, 139 and 147 and finished within a couple of lengths, close behind the second who was almost three lengths adrift of the winning Willie Mullins-trained filly.

Dickinson has left Allmankind and Sir Psycho on their existing marks, choosing to raise Navajo Pass to 147, which neatly makes this race a true ratings barometer. If Allmankind is 148 then presumably Aspire Tower could be dropped to 149 from 152 in Ireland and then the winner 152 (less the 7lb filly allowance she benefited from) thus around 145. Of the others Solo, rated 157 after his Kempton Adonis Hurdle romp, ran a stinker and has dropped to 152.

So what to do with Goshen? He was 151 going into the race and on the way he just scooted away from as we have seen some already decent opposition into an overwhelming last-flight superiority, I thought it the best performance (until he exited of course) ever by a four-year-old. I think it was probably only challenged by Our Conor’s 15-length victory seven years earlier which brought a 161 rating.

If the eventual winner had been male, the rating would be 152 and she was hardly going to reduce the margin, yet Dickinson has bottled it! He has chosen to raise Goshen to only 158, in other words suggesting he would have beaten the runner-up by six lengths. Ridiculous, indeed shameful! Not only have Goshen’s connections been robbed of a massive prize and well-earned recognition, the performance has been dimmed for no other reason than small-mindedness.

Goshen should have got at least 165 as I suggested here last week, and that would only have reflected his maintaining the margin to the line, when that seemed a conservative prospect. It’s not an easy job, I realise that, but when it hits you between the eyes, have the decency to admit it!

- TS