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!

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.

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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

In the week that Lord Derby’s much-hated Hatchfield Farm plan has finally been given approval in its latest scaled-down form, Newmarket’s own Member of Parliament has indicated that there will be further irritations to come for some of his most celebrated constituents, writes Tony Stafford.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health as well as West Suffolk MP, said that “in the coming weeks, people aged over 70 would be required to stay at home in self-isolation for four months” with the aim of protecting that vulnerable group from the ever-growing threat of Covid 19.

Sir Michael Stoute is one of the trainers who will need to work out feasible working patterns within his yard to fulfil those conditions. Nick Rust, outgoing Chief Executive of the BHA, indicated that within a very short time, the UK would echo most other racing authorities around the world by imposing the “no-spectator” format, with one groom and one owner only allowed for each participating horse.

I was looking forward to Huntingdon on Thursday but that no longer seems an option. Even if Waterproof is allowed to run, I’m in the soon-to-be-barred age group. Last night my wife, who doesn’t drive, confirmed that our local shop where I’ve bought my Racing Post each morning for the past 17 years had run out of toilet rolls in the manner of the supermarket we visited late on Friday after my return from Cheltenham. Yesterday morning, the Turkish-born owner laughed as he pointed to very full shelves of the largely-missing product. I don’t think the people that sanctioned the seemingly-annual price-rise in that publication, now £3.50 daily and £3.90 on Saturday, might experience a reader backlash!

It’s a fast-moving situation.

We knew we were on borrowed time in Gloucestershire (or across the border in Worcester where Harry Taylor and I stayed in the wonderful Barn B and B, Pershore) last week. Thankfully for the racing industry and racegoers, but more especially the local community, as the Racing Post headline put it, it was a Last Hurrah. See you, hopefully, sometime in July. Just how much damage in human and commercial terms will have been done by then is a terrifying prospect.

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Every day since 1962, the best part of 60 years, I’ve been obsessed by horse racing. I still find it hard to accept that almost everyone else has no conception of Hethersett, the 1962 St Leger winner who a month earlier at York was the agent of my first big win as a 16-year-old in a Bournemouth betting shop, part of a treble with Sostenuto (Ebor) and Persian Wonder.

In jumping, contrarily, it wasn’t ever Arkle: I was a Mill House adherent in their clashes in the mid-1960’s. It was his compatriot, L’Escargot, a few years on, twice winner of the Gold Cup and the horse that prevented Red Rum from a Grand National hat-trick in 1975 when the weights and the ground turned the tide in his favour. Rummy’s third win was delayed for two years, Rag Trade similarly denying the Ginger McCain star in 1976. These heroics from L’Escargot came five years after his first of two successive Gold Cups.

Last week Al Boum Photo joined the select group of dual winners of Cheltenham showpiece, with Kauto Star’s two victories being separated by success for that great horse’s equally eminent stable-companion and contemporary, Denman. Triple winners in the modern (post 1945) era have been restricted to Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate, whose trainer Henrietta Knight was busily autographing copies of her latest book in the Shopping Village last week.

On Gold Cup Day I believe we were in the process of witnessing the best performance ever by a four-year-old at the Cheltenham Festival when the final flight intervened to halt Goshen’s serene progress. Veterans, like me, will have been recalling a similar blunder by Attivo back in 1974, but he and rider Robert Hughes recovered. The Cyril Mitchell-trained and Peter O’Sullevan-owned favourite kept going to win by four lengths as his owner commentated with his usual unflappable calm on BBC television.

In 2013 - is it really seven years ago? - Our Conor won the race by 15 lengths, his final victory in a career ended a year later with a third-flight fall in the Champion Hurdle. Four horses have achieved the feat of following the Triumph Hurdle win in the next year’s Champion Hurdle. The first was Clair Soleil, in the race’s Hurst Park days. That track, between Kempton and Sandown, closed in 1962, the race transferring to Cheltenham three years later.

The Hurst Park years were generally a French benefit and some of that country’s top trainers targeted it. Francois Mathet, Derby winner Relko’s handler, trained him as a four-year-old but it was in Ryan Price’s care that he won the Champion Huirdle, Fred Winter the jockey both times. Alec Head was another to win the race during that era. At Cheltenham, the great Persian War preceded three consecutive Champion Hurdles with his Triumph victory and the others were Kribensis, trained for Sheikh Mohammed by Michael Stoute all of 32 years ago and Katchit (Alan King).

I’m convinced that had the understandably distraught Jamie Moore managed to retain his balance after his mount’s single error in an otherwise flawless performance, Our Conor’s margin would have been superseded. It was a display of raw power that the handicapper Dave Dickinson would have been hard pushed to keep below 165 at a minimum.

It was a week for the clever trainers, that is those with yards full of horses that they can engineer to enable them to target big races without giving away too much in the build-up, and some spectacular results were achieved. None was more striking than Saint Roi, a horse who had been fourth in his sole run in France, in an Auteuil Listed race in September. Transferred to Willie Mullins plenty was expected, but certainly not the 23-length fifth of 17 at 1-3 at Clonmel in December. He atoned by winning a maiden by nine lengths on New Year’s Day at lowly Tramore.

He’d obviously improved more than a touch in the intervening ten weeks under Mullins’ tutelage as the torrent of money told on Friday morning and, off 137, Saint Roi won the County Hurdle as he liked. McFabulous on Saturday at Kempton, a superb bumper horse the previous season, but surprisingly lack-lustre in his first couple of hurdles, also managed a timely win at the third attempt for Paul Nicholls at Market Rasen last month. That (minimum three runs) qualified him for the EBF Final. Off an undemanding 132, McFabulous strolled home as the 5-2 favourite in an 18-runner supposedly-competitive race where they went 10-1 bar one in the re-scheduled-from-Sandown event.

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I keep intending to give Coquelicot a bigger mention in these jottings and she certainly deserves a stage of her own after a third win in a row on Saturday. Her victory came with some elan in the also re-staged from Sandown EBF Mares’ Final, a Listed National Hunt Flat race which makes the geegeez.co.uk-owned filly a very valuable proposition.

Do I sense a move in her direction by someone whose horses run in green and gold colours and who has horses in the Anthony Honeyball stable? She certainly has the profile of a JP horse! By the time we get the answer to that, Sir Michael and me will almost certainly be in lock-down. This time a week ago we inhabited a very different world.

I’ve not had much to say about Cheltenham 2020 until now, writes Tony Stafford. Normally I would be preparing, as I have for almost all of the last 20-odd Festival Eves, for a trip up the A1 to the Bedfordshire Racing Club, but it has always meant a 12.30 a.m. arrival home and therefore a mad rush to get organised for the ride west the following early morning.

I reluctantly ducked out this time and I trust the rather more youthful replacement – I assume whoever he or she is, must be! - will add some vigour to proceedings. It has been a lovely privilege to see the members every year and as I sit down to dinner tonight in Pershore, I’m sure my thoughts will drift off to Langford a time or two.

Poor Nicky Henderson, newly-adorned with a well-deserved honour, has yet another ticklish issue with Altior. In a season where the best chaser of recent times – never mind Cyrname’s rating and defeat of him at two miles, five furlongs this season - now there’s an old splint flaring up to put Wednesday’s participation in doubt in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

For the past four years Altior has been a standing dish at the Festival. Initially as a 4-1 shot he beat Min by seven lengths in the 2016 Supreme Novice Hurdle. Then with a Champion Hurdle seemingly a future penalty kick, he was immediately switched to chasing and the following year he was 1-4 when winning the Arkle. His first Queen Mother Champion came the next year at even-money with a replica seven-length demolition of Min and then last season it was 4-11 as he swooped late after looking likely to be beaten by Politologue in his second Queen Mum Chase.

Now, Nicky OBE is wrestling with the will he?, won’t he? dilemma he’s faced a number of times before with Altior. The problem has been that a requirement to provide copy for the bookmaking firm that sponsors his yard brought negative publicity earlier in the season over another Altior issue. Now he clearly feels obliged to detail every step his horses take, so while other trainers would be quietly hosing down the culprit limb in total privacy, Henderson is duty bound to keep the betting public in the loop.

In any case, Altior at 3-1 seems no bargain to me in a year when there are two truly top-class opponents in Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi. I don’t think I’d want to run him in these circumstances, especially as Hendo’s and Mrs Pugh’s sporting instincts clearly took over in face of public clamour before his sole jumping defeat in that ill-judged clash at Ascot with a fitter and stamina-proven Cyrname.

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Henderson and Willie Mullins have been the overwhelming powers at Cheltenham this century and there seems no reason to think that they will not continue to dominate the four days at Prestbury Park. They have six between them in the 17-runner Unibet Champion Hurdle, Henderson’s quartet headed by Christmas Hurdle heroine, Epatante.

It is rare enough for a mare to head the Champion Hurdle market. She is the only female in tomorrow’s line-up as her stable-companion Verdana Blue has been withdrawn, presumably owing to the very soft ground, as has the unbeaten Honeysuckle, who has been switched to a mouth-watering opening-day clash with Benie Des Dieux in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.

In the 93-year history of the Champion Hurdle – four since 1927 have not been staged – only four mares have won the race. Even I can’t remember African Sister in 1939, but since then only Dawn Run (1984), Flakey Dove ten years later and Annie Power in 2016, have beaten their male counterparts.

Two of those four were of the highest class and if Epatante is to equal their achievements, she would need to be special, even if by common consent this might not be an up-to-standard championship race. In an open year I’m looking for a little each-way bet on Darver Star to help Gavin Cromwell gain closure for the understandable feeling that last year’s surprise winner Espoir D’Allen would have been the one to beat again had he not suffered a life-ending injury on the gallops late last year.

Darver Star’s rise echoes in many ways his predecessor’s arrival at Cheltenham last March, and while the 20-1 I should have taken is long gone, around 12’s is not too bad in this line-up.

I’ve been nagged ever since I’ve got to know him by a recently-acquired friend, Scott Ellis, who also makes the trek west today and in his case has done for 25 years, boy and man. He has been saying The Conditional, trained by David Bridgwater, is a certainty for the Ultima Handicap Chase, the race that precedes the Champion Hurdle. It is run on the Old Course’s version of the Gold Cup distance, so slightly less but just as severe a test and we have a full field of 24.

Scott was paranoid that the horse, originally in the 60’s in the first entry list, would not make the cut, and even on Sunday morning when at 9.30 there were still only 22 declared and 24 could run, he was worried The Conditional might not make it. In the event there are seven below him.

A course and distance winner in the autumn and then good enough to finish second to De Rasher Counter in the Ladbrokes Trophy (Hennessy) back in November, The Conditional then ran fourth over what proved a few furlongs too far at Warwick when favourite for the Classic Chase. I’m surprised considering it was stamina rather than ability that caused his defeat, that he was dropped 3lb to a rating of 139. I agree with Mr Ellis, he looks a big threat to all.

Solo on Friday in the JCB Triumph Hurdle has Gary Moore’s Goshen to beat among others, and I have to side with the latter, who could win by a cricket score. Solo won the race in which Ray Tooth’s Waterproof was being tested at Kempton. A burst blood vessel when apparently still well placed coming to the home turn ended Ray’s hopes.

Happily, after reassuring signals from the stable and the vet, he is being lined up for the Silver Cup on Friday at Fakenham, where he won his maiden. Last year there were eight runners in the race so we were hopeful when the entries came out on Saturday morning even though rated 127 in a 0-125 he’ll be the first to be eliminated. Depending on total entries on the day, the race can accommodate between ten (minimum) and 16. Thirty-two were nominated and I fear it won’t be like the Ultima. Instead it looks like a novice at Ludlow next week where he cannot be eliminated.

Great news that the mares’ bumper, lost to Sandown last weekend and the intended target of Geegeez’ smart filly Coquelicot, will be moved to Kempton on Saturday. If that track falls victim to the weather, I’ll give up. There’s more chance of being struck by lightning, or its modern-day equivalent, the CV!

- TS

Michael Tabor has seen many amazing and unexpected things – more positive than negative – in his long association with horse racing around the globe, but I’d be willing to wager that the one-time King of the Punters would never have expected to see his colours carried in a race in Saudi Arabia, writes Tony Stafford. That happened (twice) on Saturday night in Riyadh and Maximum Security came out on top while sporting them in the world’s richest-ever horse race.

His friends in London could only marvel – “Typical Michael!” they said – when his Thunder Gulch won the Kentucky Derby as a near 25-1 shot coincidentally 25 year ago. That win was the forerunner to Tabor’s teaming up with John Magnier at Coolmore Stud, and Thunder Gulch stood throughout his stallion career at Ashford Stud, Coolmore’s Kentucky breeding arm, albeit without ever producing anything near his own eminence.

Now his friends back home are no longer shocked with anything achieved by the Coolmore triumvirate – Derrick Smith, like Tabor a former London-based bookmaker, was the latest addition - and he has shared in the last six (since Pour Moi in 2011) of the eight Epsom Derby wins for the team.

As time has gone on, M V Magnier, John’s son, has been increasingly visible, at the sales especially. He was the on-site presence on Saturday after Maximum Security came with a sustained run up the straight at the King Abdulaziz racecourse near Riyadh to win the inaugural Saudi Cup over nine furlongs of the dirt course. Modest and measured as ever, he embodies the Coolmore reserve in the face of their coruscating triumphs.

To say that recent events on the world stage have made for tensions in western countries’ attitudes to the Kingdom is an under-statement, but KSA (as it likes to be known) has hit on the idea of using sporting events to counter that negativity.

Whether it works or not is questionable but the fact that last year, by paying a handful of top golfers massive appearance fees (far beyond the actual winner’s prize) for a Saudi golf tournament, they did persuade them to come. One or two, indeed, didn’t make the cut for the last two days of the tournament, but never mind, they came and had a lucrative little jolly.

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They certainly came from all around the world for the Saudi Cup with its world record prize fund of £15million – yes that WAS sterling! – easily outstripping previous record holders the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Pegasus (briefly) and the Dubai World Cup where you might expect some of Saturday’s principals to reappear.

Whether four weeks would be deemed sufficient for Maximum Security to go again must be doubtful. He had a tough enough race in chasing down early leader and old rival Mucho Gusto up the straight and, once getting past the weaving-around leader, he then had to resist the vigorously-ridden US mare Midnight Bisou in the final half-furlong.

The riders of three of the first four home were given suspensions, all for whip offences. Mike Smith on the runner-up, had 60 per cent of his share of the £2.6million second prize docked for hitting her 14 times (maximum ten) as she came from last to almost winning in the straight. Oisin Murphy, on the gallant third Benbatl, got a couple of days, but can shrug off whatever sanction he got when partnering the same horse in the World Cup.

The versatile six-year-old, a recent convert to dirt racing, will now assuredly go as Saeed Bin Suroor’s main chance of a tenth winner of his country’s principal race. The Americans will again provide the biggest threat to a home winner as they have ever since the great Cigar, trained by Bill Mott, was the first of their 11 victors in the inaugural running in 1996. American-trained horses filled four of the first five places, confirming that dirt is their playground.

The path to a Saudi win for the Tabor colours – Aidan O’Brien’s globe-trotting mare Magic Wand was the other, filling ninth spot and collecting an acceptable-enough £225,000 for her efforts – needed some understanding from Gary and Mary West, the breeders and, thereto, outright owners of the colt.

They had suffered the ultimate penalty back on the first Saturday in May last year when Maximum Security was “taken down” after crossing the line first in the Derby for an incident on the home turn when jockey Luis Saez was deemed to have caused significant interference. He was placed officially 17th of the 19 runners and the Wests’ mood at their misfortunate could hardly have been improved

when he failed when a 1-20 shot next time in a Monmouth Park Listed race. They could easily have dumped the jockey as a result and the new owners were wise enough to leave well alone.

Happily, consecutive wins in the Grade 1 Haskell back at Monmouth, a Grade 3 at Belmont and finally the Grade 1 Cigar Mile were enough to clinch the champion three-year-old colt Eclipse Award for the Jason Servis-trained colt. Coolmore stepped in for a half share, making it three recent “winners” of the Kentucky Derby to stand at Ashford. He will follow in the steps of American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), the only Triple Crown winners since Affirmed in 1978.

New Year’s Day, Maximum Security’s sire, is a son of Sheikh Mohammed’s Street Cry, most famed for siring 37-time winner Winx. New Year’s Day raced only three times, all as a juvenile, winning the last two, a Del Mar maiden race and then the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In that race he beat Coolmore-owned Havana, previously unbeaten and sporting the Tabor colours.

There was a link to Justify in Saturday’s big race. Gronkowski, the mount of Frankie Dettori and running for Phoenix Thoroughbred III and Khalid bin Mishref, sent over from his present base in Dubai, met Justify in the Belmont Stakes, the final outing in a six-race unbeaten career for the latter. Previously with Jeremy Noseda he was being prepped for the Kentucky Derby and won four consecutive all-weather races for the now-retired (but no doubt probably to return) Newmarket trainer.

I’m pretty sure that the last of them was a win-and-you’re-in qualifier, but in the end Phoenix fell out with Noseda and switched Gronkowski to top US trainer Chad Brown. He didn’t take up the Derby engagement, but Brown aimed him at the Belmont and he finished a one-length second to Justify who retired as the only ever unbeaten Triple Crown winner among the 13 possessors of that distinction. Even Secretariat lost five times!

Noseda’s former wife Sally is a sister to Lady Cecil and also trainers Rae and Richard Guest. The family is largely based around Newmarket but Richard has been based for many years in the North, riding the winner of the Grand National for Durham-based Norman Mason, and then training from a yard in Yorkshire. This week comes news that he is coming to town to join his siblings, effectively as private trainer to construction businessman Simon Lockyer, who most recently had his team with Shaun Keightley.

Do you believe the evidence of your eyes, or the less subjective, cold mathematics of the clock?  Solo, in the Weatherbys-sponsored Adonis Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday put in possibly the race’s most overwhelming winning performance in the past decade, galloping 13 lengths clear of the previously-unbeaten Fujimoto Flyer, writes Tony Stafford. The runner-up, bred in Japan, trained in Ireland and unraced since an easy victory at Auteuil at the beginning of September, possibly gives a line to the form, but how do we know?

Before the race, those of us with a vested interest were keen to ask the ever-colourful Claude Charlet, an agent with a long history originally as a trainer in his native France, then Newmarket and more adventurously in Macao, about his purchase for Mrs Johnny de la Hey.

He said: “Paul <Nicholls> thinks he’s going to be a chaser – whatever he does over hurdles, he’ll be much better, maybe even a Gold Cup horse over fences.” After the win, as a beaming Mr de la Hey looked on, quick to get the chance to talk of the “trauma I’ve experienced in the wake of Cyrname’s fall at Ascot last weekend”, Claude shifted course, a little, as emphatic winners can be expected to in this game.

Charlet was for a long time the Racing UK TV French expert-in-exile – but Racing TV has lost French racing in the fallout to the deal annexing Irish racing from At The Races, now Sky Racing. I never thought I’d say it but Sky and Laurent Barberin have been able to give better and more extensive coverage from France as a balance to their generally less precious piece of the UK cake.

Charlet is no stranger to buying winners on the pre-Cheltenham Kempton card. He was the man who sourced Sire De Grugy for the Gary Moore stable. After Sire De Grugy beat the Nicholls-trained Empire Levant by 11 lengths in the Dovecote Hurdle (unbelievably nine years ago!), Claude was quick to say he was a much cheaper buy than the runner-up. I seem to remember the figure €80k from the recesses of my memory. In the years between, we’ve come to characterise Claude, aka Clouseau, as the man who says every winter “I have a ‘orse for you – 300 Euro”, thousands, of course.

Claude must have had at least that amount to begin bargaining with trainer Guillaume Macaire on behalf of London fund manager de la Hey. He said: “It wasn’t easy. I was stuck in a French farmhouse for ten days with the owner <presumably Gildas Blain, also the breeder> and couldn’t get a deal. He asked if I was going home, I said, I’ll stay one more day, and I got the deal done. M. Macaire wasn’t happy!”

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Nicholls was and Solo has deservedly galloped to the top of the Triumph Hurdle market at around 7-2 and will have probably convinced a number of trainers of intended runners in the juvenile championship race to switch to the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.

But here I offer a note of caution. I had a quick glance at the times of the other two two-mile hurdle races on the card, the Kingwell Hurdle, retrieved from the previous weekend’s abandoned Wincanton card and the Dovecote, and both were quicker.

In the case of the Dovecote, by only a second or so, but the Kingwell, won by Tom Symonds, who I met for the first time on the corresponding day 13 years previously as part of the Punjabi entourage, was just over four seconds quicker. Tom’s Song For Someone ran on in determined fashion to justify favouritism, and needed to haul in the de la Hey colours on Diego De Charmil, and the Skeltons’ Ch’tibello in a style that suggests there’s plenty more to come.

Four seconds may not seem insurmountable – Solo won with ease while the three Kingwell principals were at it hammer and tongs up the run-in – and as ever the eyes have it. I was sold on Solo and so was everyone else. That said, after watching Waterproof drop away from the turn for home after going along in the leading group until after three out, the Ray Tooth team had to reflect on what might have been. I’ll leave it to Jack Quinlan to tell the tale.

“As we went down the back, at every hurdle he was very fast, so that coming to three out, I was sensing them gradually dropping back while he was pinging them. I was just thinking, “Blimey, I could give them a race!” I was right behind the winner and then we stopped dead. I wasn’t sure what happened and on pulling up the lad said that he was bleeding from the nose. He stopped so quickly from going well, and we know he stays, that it had to be something like that.”

So now we are at a crossroads. Ray was sceptical that we should even be tackling a race of that nature and was probably right, but the rules on handicaps are such that you need a third run to compete in the type of races a 127 rating forces you into. So now there’s another conundrum. It’s good to know that there was a reason for the late dropping away, but when horses bleed it could easily be something that recurs.

He did eat up overnight, so that’s a positive and the vet will take a blood this morning. What is not in doubt is that Waterproof is an exceptionally fast jumper of hurdles, gaining ground with accurate leaps and fast getaways each time. It would be a shame if such promise were to be compromised by physical issues.

**

I’m looking forward to Wednesday evening in London when I’ll be the Master of Ceremonies of a Cheltenham Festival preview night at the Horse and Wig pub in Fulwood Place, Holborn, 100 yards along from Chancery Lane station on the Central Line. On the panel will be Angus Loughran (Statto), the man who once took a deck chair out at Lord’s to sit on during a Test Match because Chris Tavare was so boring; Sally Randell, first- and triple-winning female rider of the Grand Military Gold Cup and now partner and assistant to Fergal O’Brien; Cheltenham expert Scott Ellis; Matt Bisogno, Editor-in-Chief of Geegeez.co.uk; and young Mr Quinlan.

I also got a promise at Kempton from Andrew Gemmell that as long as he can get the connections right from Wincanton that afternoon, where he fancies his Dagueneau in the 3.50 race, he’ll be there. It will be great to get the latest update, fresh from Dagueneau’s trainer Emma Lavelle, on Paisley Park’s quest for a second Stayers’ Hurdle. I’m sure we can find a glass or two of Pinot Noir to help pass the evening for Racing’s Owner of the Year. At the mid-point there will be a break for chilli and rice.

Admission to the evening is free. It is the brainchild of multiple Group 1 winning owner Les Straszewski, and is staged under the auspices of the International Racing Club, of which Scott Ellis is the joint-founder. So if you’re available, feel welcome to come along!

- TS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- TS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

-TS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- TS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- TS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- TS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharp track isn’t it?

- TS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

- TS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

- TS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

-TS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- TS