Monday Musings: Looking Forward, via Memory Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: Being AP

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: All Change at the Top Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musing: Dream Season

As we get within a month or so of Cheltenham, the familiar forces are gathering, writes Tony Stafford. Over here the Nicholls and Henderson pulses quicken as expeditionary representatives travel far and wide to put down markers. In Ireland, the 1-14 shots that are Douvan and the rest toddle around to collect the odd €20k prize without breaking sweat on the way to Festival glory next month.

We’ve seen most of it before, so when something totally out of kilter with the norm confronts our vision, it is all the more enjoyable.

In Ireland, jumping especially is mostly about the Mullinses and the Walshes, leavened with increasing vigour by Gordon Elliott. All of the above were typically among the winners at Punchestown yesterday.

The scale of Willie Mullins’ and Elliott’s stable power must constantly frustrate would-be challengers for the major prizes, so when one of the lesser lights beats them at their own game, the satisfaction must be all the greater.

That sort of pleasure was clearly evident in the body language between rider Katy Walsh and trainer Ross O’Sullivan after Ruby’s sister made all with an enterprising and powerful ride aboard Baie Des Iles in the three and a half mile Grand National Trial. I would go so far as to say I reckon it was one of the best front-running rides I’ve ever seen in a long-distance chase, given depth of opposition and testing ground conditions.

The historical fact is that O’Sullivan, who happens to be Katy’s husband, was winning his third race of the season. His French-bred six-year-old mare is already building up a decent record, this being a second Irish victory following a Punchestown three-miler last season before a good second behind Bonny Kate in this event a year ago.

Ruby Walsh rode her that time, but yesterday was required for Sambremont, trained by Willie. That gelding stayed on late to pass Bonny Kate for second close home, but for almost the entire trip, Baie Des Iles, jumping boldly and accurately, led a nice few lengths clear of her old rival, with the remainder of the 15 runners, all geldings, miles behind.

Ross O’Sullivan’s best score to date has been four, two seasons ago. In seven campaigns over jumps (latest first) his scores are 3, 3, 4, 0, 3, 0 and 0. On the Flat it’s 2, 2, 0, 1, 0. Both last year’s Flat wins came with the veteran Doonard Prince, who collected consecutive autumn sprints at their local track, the Curragh, in fields of 27 and 23!

This though was at the other end of the stamina spectrum and considering Baie Des Iles’ relative youth, the fact she stays so well explains the trainer’s relish for a challenge for Newcastle’s four-mile Eider Chase next month. She’s already been sixth to Rogue Trader in the Irish Grand National and fifth behind Gold Cup candidate Native River in the Welsh Grand National, in each case as the only five-year-old in either race.

Yesterday’s win will have earned the daughter of Barastraight – unfashionable in France where he stands - a hike towards the 150 mark, but seemingly the prospect of soft ground on the tough Newcastle track offers the potential of perfect components for Baie Des Iles and her determined ally in the saddle.

I often get a reminder of the Eider Chase and two or three other now otherwise fading memories of an old former Daily Telegraph colleague, especially when, as on Friday, I see Grand National-winning jockey Graham Thorner at the sales, where he has become a bit of an ace in picking up unexposed hitherto under-achievers from the big yards.

He regularly turns £2k ugly ducklings into nice jumping prospects, but there’s always time for a reminder, as on Friday, of the day at Kempton when he rode a winner for Noel Blunt’s father-in-law. My Mate won by 25 lengths and the next day, recounting the tale, Blunty added proudly that of course he had given the jockey, who’d become a bit of a pal to him and his wife, a present. “Yes,” said Noel, “I gave him two quid!” I don’t think Thorner ever declared it to the tax people.

Noel eventually went on to the Sporting Life as chief sub-editor and there enjoyed cult status with such headlines as “Scaling the Eider” and “The Hanging Baskets of Babylon” actually appearing in the paper. Even before he so helpfully engineered my recruitment to the DT when a racing desk member died suddenly, the funniest of all was the Kruggerand episode when John Oaksey mentioned the gold South African coins in his Sunday article. Scratching of heads all round, until Noel had a brainwave. “Ask Tony <I was doing minor sports results on the next desk>. “He knows Latin!” Still miss you mate.

This is the time of year that my week quickens with young horses getting going on the gallops and mares preparing to foal. Ray Tooth has one on the board already from Lawyers Choice who has a nice big colt by Garswood, whose foals made up to £75k despite his modest initial stud fee of around £6,000 (£4,000 this year).

Garswood, of course, is a Group 1 winning son of Dutch Art, who produced two nice winners from Lawyers Choice – Dutch Art Dealer and Dutch Law, the latter who did so well for us last year. Their brother, Highway Robber, is the likely favourite for a race at Newcastle tomorrow.

His trainer, Wilf Storey, won with Table Manners on the same track on Saturday night, so she became the third dual winner for her dam, Nine Red, who is about to produce to consistent Yorkshire-based sire, Monsieur Bond.

As Tattersalls’ newly expanded two-day sale showed, demand for British and Irish bloodstock remains high, and Ray’s policy of producing his own horses rather than pay what’s needed at auction with so much high-powered overseas investment has to be our way forward.

To that end, I got to see a nicely-made son of Equiano out of flying filly Catfish, who we still maintain might have carried the accolade “the world’s fastest racehorse” had her saddle not slipped at the start of her Vodafone Dash attempt at Epsom a few years back. She finished third behind the John Best-trained Stone of Folca in the fastest electronically timed five furlongs, so, mated with a fast stallion, could well produce a decent juvenile. Chris Wall likes what he’s seen of him so far.

In all there are eight juveniles (seven home-bred) going into training and no doubt I’ll be boring you with all the minor excitements as their training regimes proceed. After all, Flat racing on turf returns next month. What happened to the winter? We didn’t get one, just daily Festival updates from November onwards.

Many Clouds, and Two of the Best in the World

I finally got to see the entire ITV4 coverage on Saturday – in a pub - and considering the understandable outpouring of grief after Many Clouds’ collapse following his gallant defeat of Thistlecrack in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham, I thought they did rather well, writes Tony Stafford.

Luke Harvey is warming to his job alongside Mick FitzGerald and assured anchor Ed Chamberlain and, while they all gave suitable reverence to the horrific conclusion to an epic race, they left the tears for Oliver Sherwood’s close friends Warren Greatrex and Nicky Henderson.

Maybe they would have wanted to be a shade more emotional, but the races kept coming and there was Unowhatimeanharry on hand to register his claims as Thistlecrack’s probable successor as World (now reverting to Stayers’) Hurdle champion.

The snag with ITV (or indeed ITV4) is that they still miss a few races at the start of the meeting so the Triumph Hurdle Trial had long since been contested before the cameras rolled for live coverage.

Most people on the other side of the betting battleground find it hard ever to be sympathetic to the bookmakers, but in this they got a rare-old pants-down experience. Two J P McManus horses, Charli Parcs, set to be ridden by Barry Geraghty, and Defi du Seuil (Richard Johnson) were equal favourites in the morning, with the possible understanding that if one was to be withdrawn, it would probably be Johnson’s mount.

In the event, Defi du Seuil, the Chepstow Christmas winner, for all his erratic late course and iffy jumping that day might have made him vulnerable here, was the chosen one, ridden by retained rider Geraghty, and he dotted up. The evens that shrewdies took translated to 1-5 at the off, whereas Rule 4 designates a much smaller cut in such circumstances.

On a weekend when the Willie Mullins hordes were so diminished, Faugheen and Annie Power both taken out of races and Nicholls Canyon falling – Ruby Walsh has been having a few of those - it was amusing to hear Rich Ricci quoted as saying: “We’re running out of horses!” Never mind Rich, you can send your man off to France and buy a wagon-load more.

What was remarkable on this particular weekend, was that both the outstanding American dirt horse and the supreme French trotting horse enhanced their already stellar reputations.

Ever since I fluked seeing Arrogate’s Travers Stakes romp – 13.5 lengths – last August, I have had no doubt that Bob Baffert’s now four-year-old is the best in the world. He beat the only feasible contender to the crown, California Chrome, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last autumn, coming with a powerful late run to win by half a length.

That pair were always going to be the prime factors in the inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational over nine furlongs at Gulfstream Park; and Arrogate (Mike Smith) always had the jump on Chrome, who faded – possibly injured – into the pack as his rival cantered to a near five-length win. The dropdown in form may have been a case of Arrogate’s looking Chrome in the eye late last year and telling him: “I’m best”: it was after eyeballing his foe down the back straight here that Victor Espinoza’s mount wilted.

Before Gulfstream, Baffert was sounding very negative about following on with the $10 million Dubai World Cup in two months’ time, but less so after this performance when presumably he considered how little risk and indeed opposition there is likely to be to his champion, outside the usual shipping/feed/track conditions concerns.

California Chrome retires with record earnings of $17m and Arrogate, beaten only on debut in a wonderful upwardly mobile career, is within $6m and surely will go to Dubai now to pinch the bit he needs to match his old rival.

The Pegasus Cup was an interesting exercise, 12 ownership groups contributing $1m each to have the right to run. Several, like Coolmore with nothing good enough to take the pair on, traded the slots, unsurprising in view of the fact the big two were both close to evens, and no doubt, there was a bit of a discount in some cases. Every horse got a pot, the numbers four to 12 collecting $250,000 while they were all promised a share in associated revenues.

If Arrogate is supreme in world dirt racing, the French trotter Bold Eagle is just as pre-eminent in his sphere, and he won his second successive Prix d’Amerique with a display of great superiority. He was a 3-5 shot in a 17-horse field and apart from a slightly sluggish start, was never questioned as he travelled up to the leaders in the straight and went well clear.

Bold Eagle, a six-year-old entire, was not the highest money-earner in the field. That distinction belonged to the 10-year-old Timoko before his 91st and last race and he certainly made a decent show, leading for the first mile of the 13-furlong distance before dropping away.

This was Bold Eagle’s second consecutive Prix d’Amerique win, and the champion could have four more attempts as trotters can run until the age of 10. The last dual winner was his sire, Ready Cash, in 2011 and 2012, interestingly after Bold Eagle was conceived. This was Bold Eagle’s 31st win in 35 starts and the French experts find it hard to see what can beat him going forward, like Arrogate. If he wins next year he will equal the achievements of the brilliant Ourasi, the best French trotter in the latter part of the last century.

Returning to Saturday, another of the Mullins hot-shots, Vroum Vroum Mag, was absolutely all out to win the mares’ race at Doncaster. Beforehand, with the Annie Power/ Faugheen issues in mind, the assumption was that Mag could step in for the Champion Hurdle, but it would take a big leap of faith to project forward from what was an ordinary performance.

Monday Musing: The Rust Is Settling…

Blame it on the cricket yesterday morning, writes Tony Stafford (pictured), but without it I would have seen more of the very entertaining Attheraces Sunday Forum, hosted by the eminently sensible Sean Boyce with guests BHA Chief Executive Nick Rust and journalists Peter Thomas and Chris Cook, all three firmly on my racing A List.

Slightly flummoxed by attempting to plot the course of the white ball in Kolkata, I switched over and thought I was seeing something. The vision was of a white shirt on a big frame, red tie and up close, a sleeked back fair mane. What’s President Trump doing over here? But no, that was first Mr Rust’s white shirt and red tie, Mr Thomas’s blond locks. Meanwhile Mr Cook on the end had an even more luxuriant haircut than even the Donald, but clearly the wrong colour.

The main topic I managed to see was the errors made in the lead up to the original Jim Best disciplinary hearing and stiff sentence, and the internal soul-searching before the recent independent re-hearing and its perceived feeble penalty.

Even now the journalists seem to struggle with the concept that Nick Rust has been fundamental in ensuring correct procedure after the Matthew Lohn fiasco. And, to his credit, Rust held his ground in face of persistent but respectful journalistic prodding in the absence of a McCririck presumably. Obviously Rust is still luxuriating in the wake of the agreed (by Government) Levy Replacement scheme starting on April 1 which should safeguard racing’s finances and bodes well for future prizemoney levels.

Whether or not the issue of Kempton’s possible closure in 2021 was discussed [it was, Ed.], I heard an interesting side-bar on its replacement as an all-weather track by Newmarket. Apparently there is just as much opposition to the idea of taking lesser horses a few furlongs down the road to run on all-weather as to slog round the M25 to go the 100 miles each way with the even-money chance of long, irritating delays to Sunbury.

My horse whisperer passed on the news that John Berry, small stable Newmarket trainer and former mayor of the town, is apparently strongly against the idea. He (my correspondent) then reminded me of the general opinion of the Newmarket trainers when Newcastle, 240 miles distant, announced it would replace its turf Flat-race track with a Tapeta surface. They were strongly against that scheme, but as he says, since its inception, the town’s horseboxes have been making the odyssey in droves for most meetings, especially to farm the maiden races.

It doesn’t seem to matter either that rewards can be skimpy bearing in mind that expenses for horsebox travel these days are so stringent.
I remember when I was first just about old enough (so 1964) to go into betting shops there was a trainer based quite close to Newmarket in Ingatestone called Peter Poston, or P J as the formal racecards of the day billed him.

He had a two-year-old filly in his care called Pidgeon Toes and his practice was to load her up in his converted meat van – he supplied meat to Smithfield Market - usually with two or three other no-hopers and collected a travel allowance for them all.

Hence they would be sighted in Carlisle and especially Hamilton Park. Pidgeon Toes almost always was second or third favourite in weakly-contested affairs and was always a bet to nothing each way against the normal odds-on shot for a place, which in those days was a third the odds for five to seven runners. She ran up a sequence of seconds and thirds, I think with the odd win.

It was largely the realisation that the travel allowance was more important to P J than the prospect of some prize money and it ended soon after he did – his fault basically. No wonder the French owners love the fact that their runners in PMU-covered meetings get travel allowances, although each horse nowadays seems to have a limit against its name on the France Galop site.

An article in the Guardian in 1968 by the late (Sir) Clement Freud called Poston the £120 man – presumably that was the allowance. I found the small print on the Internet coverage too testing for my eyes, but strangely in the same publication 43 years later, Chris Cook also spoke about the man.
Elsewhere there is a report about Poston’s best horse, Heathfield, apparently the 25-length winner of Ayr’s Tennant Trophy after a series of wins and another carries the fact that he died in 1991, soon after the Racing Post’s arrival. Sadly the nearly-complete set of form books which weighed down the loft of my house in Hertfordshire until early in the last decade did not come with me to my reduced circumstances in East London. But the odd glimmer of those old days 50-odd years away remains in the back of the brain.

If I don’t go racing soon – this last weekend makes it four weeks in a row for various reasons - I’ll go mad, for all the excellence of the coverage by the three Channels. But the Tooth team will resume action with the Mick Quinn-trained Circuit at Lingfield on Wednesday, and the newly ramped-up RCA red tape permitting, I’ll be there to cheer her home (or somewhere near it).

The cold weather in the South stopped Ascot on Saturday and what seemed an excellent card might have persuaded me to make the effort other than a certain event in Tallinn, Estonia, which I could watch on my computer screen in its entirety.

It was called the Juna Cup, for adult ice skaters and it attracted competitors from many European countries, especially Sweden, Finland, Russia, Italy and Great Britain. My wife has been skating for just over three years, so it was with a mixture of pride and disbelief that I watched her win her class (Bronze1 – the level goes up to Silver, Gold and Masters) by a clear 11 points. Not bad for a first overseas tilt and now it will be all systems go for the British Adult Championships at Sheffield in May.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musing: On Passing Kempton…

 

You’d better hurry. If you want to go to Kempton Park before the bulldozers move in as planned in 2021, there are only around 300 chances, writes Tony Stafford. If it’s jumping you want to see rather than all-weather, floodlit or otherwise, it’s somewhere around 45 meetings, based on the present fixture list.

It’s a funny thing about Kempton. While it’s going along in an untroubled, unspectacular manner, almost nobody loves it, but the minute its future is threatened, the over-my-dead-body brigade sharpen their metaphorical pencils.

Unless there are feet of snow or temperatures at around minus 5 Centigrade, meetings are rarely even threatened to be abandoned on the turf track, while during the now almost 11 years of its life as a Polytrack Flat circuit, it has become the venue for decent younger horses on the way up the ladder even if nobody is there to see them. Decent telly and bookmaker fodder nonetheless.

Now, though, the one-time Kempton Manor, first enclosed in the 13th Century and a racecourse since the 1870’s , is to be sold (the OMDB brigade notwithstanding) for housing. The overall 210-acre site is expected to realise around £100 million and initial plans are for 3,000 homes to be built.

Kempton’s owners, Jockey Club Racecourses, want to build, as replacement, an all-weather track at Newmarket as part of a £500 million group future investment. Unsurprisingly, the plans have brought extremes of opinion, with the OMDBs the more vociferous so far.

Anyone reading these notes will be aware that one of my main obsessions is with time. For instance, it has always intrigued me that if I project back the 87 years of age of my great-grandmother (who died when I was 11) before her birth in 1870, we’d get to 1783!

I first went to Kempton, on the old Hackney-based Fallowfield & Britten coach, picking up at Clapton Pond. The firm were actually taken over by George Ewer (Grey-Green Coaches) in 1952, but kept the old livery for a while. We certainly were regulars at the Easter meeting by the late 1950’s and the main recollection is crawling along in a great crocodile of coaches beside the retaining wall that goes all the way from the old Jubilee start 10 furlongs from home.

Another memory of those days is viewing from the stand at the top of the straight, a full three furlongs out and watching them flash by, then shaking my head when the end result was nothing like the order when they passed us.

That fixture featured both the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas Trials, and one name that has stuck is that of the 1964 1,000 Trial winner, Gwen (maybe Jack Jarvis and Lord Rosebery), who beat subsequent 1,000 Guineas heroine, Pourparler, to my great delight. Winding back the near 60 years from my first visit there – we went to Newmarket in 1952! – you get to 1900. To think that 70 years from now it’ll be 2087.

It seems strange enough that there are two courses as close together as Kempton and Sandown Park, which is likely to be the main beneficiary of any Kempton closure as the expectation is for the King George VI Chase to be transferred there.

When you drive the seven miles from Kempton to Sandown, you pass within a short walk of another well-known track, the now defunct Hurst Park, which closed in 1962. Hurst Park was built on part of the old Hampton Court Racecourse (closed in the 1880’s) plus some extra land and staged the Victoria Cup, now at Ascot. I believe I saw the last running of that race, and for many years always told whoever would listen that I backed the winner, King of Saba. I did back it, but I found out recently it finished second.

The differences in the make-up of the two tracks – Kempton is Pancake flat, Sandown tight around the bends but stiff uphill at the finish – bother some observers who believe that the King George’s traditional nature will be lost.

A major bug-bear for me over the years has been the insistence, even among leading trainers, especially Nicky Henderson, Kempton’s major spokesperson, that Kempton is a notably sharp course. Non-stayers rarely win three-mile races there as they are usually truly-run, while the King George itself, with a high-class field and winter going is always a true stamina test.

I’ve had a lot of luck at Kempton, most notably with a horse called Tangognat. He lined up for his second start under Rod Simpson’s care for the three-year-old maiden on Easter Monday April 8 1985 after finishing third on debut in a Leicester claimer.

Starting 20-1 in a field of 10, he swept to the front two furlongs out and won by 20 lengths from Fire of Life, later winner of the Italian St Leger for Ian Balding. Four days later we went back to the track for a conditions race and won by 15 lengths, each time loving the rare (for Kempton) heavy going. After two flops on faster ground, he went on to win a couple of nice juvenile hurdles around Cheltenham before fast ground in the Triumph effectively ended his career.

In more recent times, Kempton has been a good winning venue for Ray Tooth’s horses, Fair Trade winning both over hurdles and in a jumpers’ bumper, in which now abandoned category, Cousin Khee was also successful. I can still picture Skeleton’s rocketing home, passing almost the entire field in the last furlong under Silvestre De Sousa while an always fond memory is of Lawyers Choice.

The late Pat Eddery trained this filly to win twice, at 16’s at Wolverhampton and then at 25-1 at Kempton in my first year on the Tooth team. She has since proved a diamond as dam of both Dutch Art Dealer and Dutch Law, the latter sold for 150k last autumn after a four-year-old campaign when he won £80,000 for his owner-breeder.

Dutch Art Dealer, now six, raced for the Paul Cole stable until changing hands for an almost unbelievable 3,000gns last backend. He had his first run for new trainer Ivan Furtado at Newcastle recently and bolted up off 80 and I reckon that even though 6lb higher, he can follow up back at Kempton tomorrow night.

I think of Chelmsford and Newmarket almost as my local tracks, but it is 45 miles to the old Essex Showground and 60 to HQ. Kempton, if I go the direct (thus traffic-strangling) route through Central London, is barely 20 miles away, and that was always the balancing factor as I strove to get there each night meeting a few years back when I was lucky enough to host the evening entertainment in the Panoramic Restaurant.

Kempton featured some talented performers in those days, along with excellent food and one of the regular and most admired singers had been a contemporary of Kate Winslet’s at stage school. She recalled the future star of Titanic was just “OK at singing and dancing, and a little better at acting”. Not much different from attitudes in racing among trainers and their relative abilities.

Those evenings were a highlight in my later incarnation. From those days, so many of the Kempton personnel have gone on to bigger and better things in Jockey Club Racecourses, notably Paul Fisher, who signed me up, and Amy Starkey, now the boss at Newmarket. Good luck to them. I’m sure they’ll shed a collective tear, like me, if and when their alma mater goes.

Monday Musing: Channel Hopping and Interrupted Airwaves

No Bank Holiday this week? Then I’d better crack on, writes Tony Stafford. There has been an unreal feel to the past fortnight, but everyone should be getting back to work, unless they travel on London Underground, that is, where I understand there’s a strike today; or Southern Railway, where there usually is.

One good friend, Prince Pippy, called yesterday for his tri-monthly catch-up and our chat touched on those travel difficulties which often prevent his sister’s managing to reach London from Brighton. Of more concern to him was the damaging stand-off between the Arena Racing Company (ARC) and several major bookmaking chains over the broadcasting of pictures from the 15 tracks they control – those of the original Arena Leisure group and Northern Racing tracks formerly owned by the late Sir Stanley Clarke.

William Hill, whose yearly results are due this morning when the City are anticipating the green shoots of recovery <nice cliché, Ed>, and Paddy Power are in the “in” corner, having agreed, along with a sizeable number of independents, to pay ARC for their pictures. Ladbrokes and Coral, their merged main rivals for supremacy, and Betfred, staunchly refuse to join them.

I didn’t plan to visit a betting shop later today, and if I did it would almost certainly be to a William Hill outlet as they have almost a monopoly around here. And, more critically, it’s possible to park for free nearby – a rarity in the London Borough of Hackney.

I’ve had a bit of an Internet look at the William Hill situation, whereby it appears they have been attempting to find a suitable successor to James Henderson, their last Chief Executive, who resigned last year apparently because of the “digital decline of its online verticals”. If, like me, you are still mystified, look it up on the net.

But to return to Pippy, as he suggested, Ladbrokes and their allies in this dispute will be unable to show action from any of the three fixtures from Doncaster, Lingfield and Wolverhampton, all ARC tracks. I first got wind of this last week, when another pal, Roger, called from Yarmouth asking if I was watching the racing at home.

I was, and then he said: “are they near the start?” “Where are you?” I replied. “In Ladbrokes, but there’s no pictures, can you give me a commentary?” Apparently someone had had a decent bet and was shocked that he couldn’t see what was happening. Needless to say, the horse lost. They always do when you can’t see it. And when you can.

According to Charlie Brooks, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Ladbrokes intend relaying an in-house commentary, without pictures, from an employee watching in an office at their HQ. There are also plans for the firm to offer their shop punters an app (getting the hang of this techno talk!) enabling them to get the pictures on their mobile phones.

As usual it’s all about price, as with the always-contentious Betting Levy which Sports Minister Tracey Crouch has recommended should be based at ten per cent of gross profits from both retail and online bookmakers in the Levy replacement scheme to be implemented by April 1.

The Sports Minister, born in Ashford, Kent, and an old girl of Folkestone School for Girls and the University of Hull, might sometimes rue the fact that her local course, Folkestone, also under the ARC banner, remains frustratingly closed. Could she not intervene?

The chat is mostly about televising of racing in these early days of 2017. The much-heralded hand-over of terrestrial free broadcasting of racing from Channel Four to ITV has brought varying degrees of approval, presumably on the grounds of previously-held opinions on the broadcasters that have found their way onto the “new” team.

I did switch over during Saturday’s racing from Sandown a couple of times, but remain more attuned to Racing UK. The one thing I found grating was the repeated screaming of Luke Harvey that Finian’s Oscar was “a champion” after his 32 Red Tolworth Novice Hurdle win, when runner-up Capitaine was brought to a complete standstill by a mistake at a crucial part of the race. The fact Capitaine recovered to take second, five lengths behind the admittedly easy winner, up the run-in makes Luke’s insistence somewhat questionable.

Harvey has history. On Attheraces he portrays himself basically as a buffoon. His tipping skills are negligible as is the blatantly off-the-cuff manner in which he has historically arrived at them on his two-man show with Jason Weaver. To his new audience, though, he is presented as an expert. Time will tell. One of the many critiques of the new team I’ve seen reckoned that, in their initial broadcast, four people seemed to be talking at the same time. That’s Luke.

It was with some surprise that I discovered that what goes for terrestrial television may not be what it seems. One pensioner – she must be old, she’s my age! – down in Cornwall is in an area which cannot receive ITV4, on which subsidiary channel most if not all the new team’s output will be restricted until the Cheltenham Festival.

Even though ITV4 is on Freeview, it is unavailable in certain outposts of the country, including where that particular pensioner lives. She’s a big fan of racing. If there’s a Ladbrokes anywhere near, she can go there today and listen to the commentaries, but she won’t see too much! <Or she could get the internet or use her phone, Ed>

It appears ITV is unlikely to get any better in recognising Jack Quinlan’s talents in the saddle than the other broadcasting outlets. After he rode an exemplary race to win on the Amy Murphy-trained Mercian Prince, coming late and strong up the final hill in a competitive handicap chase, trainer and her father Paul, the owner-breeder, along with the horse, got all the plaudits. Naturally he didn’t get a mention at all in the Racing Post the following day – what’s new?

We’ve had no action with the Raymond Tooth horses since well before Christmas, but the home-bred juveniles are now all but one – hang on a bit longer Mick Channon, he’s been gelded – with their intended trainers.

It was planned to have a runner at Wolverhampton on Friday, but Mick Quinn decided against running Circuit – hope he enjoyed Liverpool’s gallant draw with Plymouth yesterday. In the event, it was slightly irritating in that Camaradorie, the horse which finished third at 100-1 and should have won the race with any luck in running, was a place behind Circuit when Ray’s filly made her debut at Chelmsford.

Mick has one of the two-year-olds, a daughter of Mayson and the Dubawi mare Grass Green, but he was especially happy to take renewed charge of six-times-placed Stanhope, who returned from Shropshire having dropped two stones, but has rather more than that to shed after his grass-gorging break. The trainer and owner will be disappointed if he doesn’t get that first win on the board pretty soon.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Musing: New Beginnings

You can take a horse to water, the saying goes, but you can’t make him drink, writes Tony Stafford. You can put racing back on ITV for the first time in 32 years, but if Racing UK and Attheraces start showing races before the new team’s 1 p.m. New Year’s Day opening time, you can’t make us switch over.

So my appreciation of the first offering from the totally “new” team of Ed Chamberlain, Luke Harvey and Sir A P McCoy can only be derived from other people’s appraisals. To think I missed both Luke and Matt Chapman! Now I’ll have to wait until the Festival to see them on ITV proper, as they’ll be on ITV4, while the main channel is apparently showing some compelling 32-year-old movies.

I was, though, able to see the arrival onto the Cheltenham scene of new trainer Samuel (as the racecard says) Drinkwater, at 26 the same age as his better known sporting namesake, Danny, the driving force behind Leicester City’s unlikely Premier League title in 2015-16.

Sam Drinkwater started out as a teenage amateur attached to the Nigel Twiston-Davies yard at a time when both Sam and Willy were at a similar stage in life. In eight seasons’ riding he managed 14 wins from 166 rides under Rules, of which 14 unsuccessful efforts for Nige were presented to him at a time when the trainer averaged around 600 runners per season. Hard to get in there!

He operated mainly in points and hunter chases and in the latter sphere collected three of his wins at Cheltenham, all for Fergal O’Brien. Bradley, 16-1, Dammam 14-1 and the 2-1 favourite Creevytennant were the Prestbury Park triumphant triumvirate from very limited rides for the O’Brien stable.

Sam’s been training pointers for a couple of years now and one of them, the now 15-year-old Working Title gave him an initial success when strolling home at Sedgefield on Boxing Day, having been backed from 20-1 overnight to 5’s, ridden by the trainer’s brother Joe, 20.

Joe Drinkwater had won nine points on the one-time Nicky Henderson horse – rated 142 as a young hurdler – between December 2013 and last March and now was in the plate as he took full advantage of the purely guess-mark of 99, which will no doubt be upgraded tomorrow.

Working Title won pretty much all his pointing starts, apart that is when the trainer stepped in twice, and more publicly and dramatically less successfully when Victoria Pendleton failed to get round on her two acquaintances with the old boy.

Victoria, of course, is another of the new ITV team, and I think she should be made aware that there will be plenty of people trying to get her to buy another “great prospect” or two for between the flags as she maintains her horsey obsession.

But Sam Drinkwater will always be remembered in that his first Cheltenham training success came with a 50-1 shot, recently recruited from the Twiston-Davies stable. He was multiple winner Tour Des Champs, who stayed on bravely to beat Doctor Harper and Tom Scudamore by a short head in the long-distance handicap chase.

Luck seems to stick with the same people and the signs are that young Sam is going to be a chosen one. But for the fact that his licence had not come through when entries for the Coral Welsh Grand National were made, his gelding would no doubt have been admiring Native River from behind as he soared to victory. Thus this target was selected instead.

There are 50-1 chances and then Sam Drinkwater 50-1’s. The local Gloucestershire Live issue of December 30 featured an article saying that while the family celebrated the trainer’s first winner, they were looking forward to Cheltenham and the stable debut of Tour Des Champs.

Sam is quoted as saying that: “Tour Des Champs is a big, stuffy horse, but he’s done twice as much work as our winner”. He goes on to say he trains in a yard with access to 1,000 acres with woods and lakes to keep the horses happy. He has 11 inmates with room for nine more. It won’t take him long to fill them up if he carries on like this.

Raymond Mould’s widow Caroline wanted to sell on a couple of her Twiston-Davies horses, but her daughter Katy suggested offering him to Sam rather than sell him at a sale. Seems like a great idea all round.

When you look in the BHA site, Sam Drinkwater’s only horse with an official rating is Tour Des Champs, the Working Title entry just missing the December 20 deadline. We’ll all be looking closely at anything else he runs, starting with Working Title again at Hereford on Wednesday. He would be carrying 12st5lb, including a 7lb penalty, but the trainer has until the morning to see whether to wait for the new mark.

Willy Twiston-Davies has, unlike his elder brother, been confining his talents to the Flat over the past five seasons, clocking up 189 wins, but the unequal task of keeping his weight down seems to have been lost. Before switching to the Flat aged 18, he’d ridden only eight jumps winners, including once on Tour des Champs.

Yesterday his recent return to jumping brought its first win, with Cogry from whom his previous regular rider, and Willie’s best friend, Ryan Hatch suffered a serious leg injury when falling in a chase over the course last month. Twiston-Davies senior sent him back over hurdles for a confidence boost, which will also have provided Willy with optimism for the immediate future.

With brother Sam fully occupied in his role as Paul Nicholls’ number one, Willy could well have a good few weeks until Hatch comes back.

Another with an optimistic slant on life after a New Year double was Lizzie Kelly, who said afterwards that the stable had been in a miserable phase, with them expecting the horses to run moderately when they did go to the track. So let’s hope for better luck for the very talented Lizzie and the Williams/Kelly family in 2017.

That wish goes out for all trainers, jockeys and owners, although as we know for most it’s an uphill battle. I just had to break off from this for a while for a call from a trainer friend, who can often come up with a witticism.

He was relating why he prefers not to use a particular jockey, whom he says he’s so laid back it’s as though he couldn’t care less. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a lovely lad, but he just never follows instructions. He often comes back and says, ‘You know what, he’d have run much better if I’d have done what you told me!’”

 

 

Tony Stafford’s Extra Mince Pie…

So I ate an extra mince pie rather than keep to the schedule, writes Tony Stafford. If apologies are in order, then sorry, but I’m sure you had something better to do rather than read about horseracing, at least my sometimes oblique slant on it. It was probably also that I knew I would be having a bit of a rant.

A few hours’ sleep would mellow me a little, I thought, but all night long, visions of something I hadn’t fully believed at the time, intruded on some fitful slumber. It’s all too easy to criticise a jockey – in the country’s 8,809 (March 2016) betting shops, people who watch every day will show you how with a vengeance – but I rarely notice, which suggests they (jockeys) might be generally competent.

But once in a while a ride is so out of kilter with the norm that even my customary lethargy is disturbed. Such a ride was perpetrated at Kempton Park on Boxing Day by Daryl Jacob, and I’m sure that after Might Bite’s last-fence fall when as the Racing Post reported, he was 18 lengths clear, trainer Nicky Henderson and owners The Knot Again Partnership will have been looking for an explanation of the latter portion of the ride.

Lining up for the two and a half mile Grade 1 Kauto Star Novice Chase, Might Bite was rightly one of the leading contenders, having won four of his eight career starts over three seasons and one of his two novice chases, for each of which he’d started 2-1 on favourite.

Firstly on chase debut at Newbury in November he was rallying under Nico de Boinville, his hitherto regular partner, when a blunder at the last fence resulted in a half-length defeat. Then earlier this month at Doncaster, with Jacob replacing the injured de Boinville, he made all, was left clear at the tenth, hit two out and then allowed to coast home.

Yesterday, once again Might Bite was ridden prominently, and after some initial skirmishes, went clear readily from the fourth-last fence. By the straight it seemed only a fall would prevent connections from collecting the £40,000 first prize. At the second-last he was well clear, whereupon Jacob had a look round at his toiling rivals, but unlike at Doncaster, for some reason he decided to go for broke.

He could hardly have detected danger from behind, but he proceeded to administer three strong left-hand blows with the whip and as they stretched ever further clear, kept riding vigorously and hurled him at the final obstacle. I must say I fully expected the outcome, a heavy fall, and there has been nothing since to convince me that a more measured performance from two out would have given the team a more than adequate winning margin.

Had he got over the last, he’d have won by an official “distance”. Instead it was left to Royal Vacation, at 33-1, to collect the trophy and the accolades for the seemingly-blessed Colin Tizzard stable. While Henderson was in the process of enduring a most un-Henderson-like Kempton Boxing Day – he had two minor winners elsewhere – Tizzard was enjoying the benefits of unworldly stable riches. As he said later, once Thistlecrack – yes I’ve finally got round to him – was aimed at the King George and a clash with Cue Card, then he was looking around for “something for the novice” and the solid, dependable and now top-flight winner Royal Vacation fitted the bill.

You’ll read plenty about Thistlecrack elsewhere, and his exemplary performance in just his fourth chase, beating Cue Card and a rallying Silviniaco Conti – unwilling to adhere to his unflattering 20-1 odds - with great authority.

So he’s a general 5-4 shot for the Cheltenham Gold Cup with the likelihood of a second novice winner of the race in three runnings after a 41-year gap between Captain Christy, whose victory I’ve just reprised on the internet, remembering my winning bet, and Coneygree last year, who had previously run over fences only three times.

In that regard Thistlecrack will have an experience edge on his predecessor, and will also, at nine next week, be a year older than the Bradstock family horse was when he won the Gold Cup. Coneygree missed Kempton, having chased home Cue Card at Haydock last month, but could well be in attendance at Prestbury Park in March having missed the race in 2016.

There might not seem, at first sight, to be too many similarities in the breeding of these two outstanding stayers. Coneygree, winner of nine of his 12 career starts, is by the multiple Group 3 winning miler/10 furlong performer Karinga Bay. John Oaksey, looking for a mate for Coneygree’s mother Plaid Maid settled on Karinga Bay because he was a son of the Noble Lord’s favourite horse, Ardross.

By contrast, Thistlecrack is a son of Kayf Tara, twice winner of both the Gold Cup at Ascot and the Irish St Leger and the perennial champion jumps stallion based in the UK. He is now 22 and will stand for a private fee at Overbury Stud next year.

But then the plot thickens. Ardross, also a dual Gold Cup winner, appears in Thistlecrack’s pedigree, as the maternal grand sire and father of the Tizzard champion’s dam, Ardstown. So they both have pedigrees packed with stamina. If anything, Thistlecrack carries a double dose of staying power and with 13 wins in 18 starts so far, it looks as though he’s just getting going.

For his first ten outings, he was beaten, then won, five times in a row, explaining perhaps why in his eighth start, in the long distance novice hurdle at Aintree in April last year, he started 25-1. The margin of success might have been less than the eventual 13 lengths had the weakening Alpha Des Obeaux not fallen late on. Beaten next time in Ireland, he has since won nine in a row in his last 19 months’ action.

It is interesting to delve further into the respective abilities of the two broodmares. Both raced over fences – Ardstown exclusively, collecting three pointing wins for the Knipes, who bred Thistlecrack, and four over fences from 23 career starts.

Plaid Maid won once over hurdles, and like her counterpart, four times over fences under rules in 19 career outings. She was a year younger than Ardstown, and eerily the pair met on the racecourse at Newbury on March 24 2001 in a decent 12-runner field which also included the former Champion Hurdler, Collier Bay.

The then 10-year-old Ardstown had been confined to hunter chases in both 2000 and the early part of 2001, but trainer Venetia Williams, considering the lightly-made mare unsuited hefting big weights, found her a suitable race over the three-mile trip. She was 4lb wrong in the weights, meaning her official 107 rating was swollen to 111 for the race.

Plaid Maid was conceding 7lb and at the finish Ardstown and Norman Williamson had a six-length margin over her and A P McCoy. That equates to an almost identical level of ability for the pair. Ardstown never won again, whereas Plaid Maid had one more payday next time out, before they both went on to their real purpose in life – producing jump racing legends.

Dropping It Might Have Been The Best Course of Action…

"Did you do your Jim Best?"

"Did you do your Jim Best?"

So the British Horseracing Authority finally got their man, writes Tony Stafford. For the second time in 2016, trainer Jim Best has been found guilty of instructing his former employee Paul John to prevent two horses from winning and now faces a six-month suspension of his licence to train.

That outcome was greeted with near-disbelief in many quarters considering that the original ban was to have been of four years’ duration, but was quashed three months later after Best appealed it.

The main reason for the original ban’s overturning was the fact that the first hearing’s Chairman, Matthew Lohn, had previously been employed on a paid basis by the BHA on other legal matters. Also it was found that the reasons published by the first panel were insufficient for such a stringent penalty.

No doubt considerable costs had been incurred first time round and equally certainly, another chunk of the BHA’s resources were needed for the second instalment. In the way of such things, a similar outcome need not entail identical penalties and this was the case here.

Having had their evidence characterised as “insufficient” it was probably wishful thinking on the Authority’s part that relying on a single witness – Paul John – once again was unlikely to make their case any stronger.

Paul John was portrayed by Jim Best’s side as unreliable, citing his earlier frequent changes of employer. It was probably unhelpful also that there was the suggestion that a deal had been made between the BHA and John once he’d come forward to make his complaint against the trainer.

After the May decision to overturn the verdict on conflict of interest grounds I would have expected the BHA to admit they’d made a major error in the conducting of the case and to have accepted the fact. After all, every day there are senior policemen who are certain that murderers are walking around us either having gone undetected or more often having managed to convince juries of their innocence.

The other eventuality is the wrongful presentation of evidence by police or incorrect procedure before or at the time of arrest which of itself invalidates prosecution, much like the technical aspect of Best’s case.

There is not, in such cases, a clamour for a re-trial. The authorities have to accept it.

Stopping horses is rightly regarded as a cardinal sin in horse racing, as jockey Darren Egan found when given a 12-year ban for colluding in the stopping of two horses he rode for gambler Philip Langford.

Egan admitted what he did was wrong and cannot ride until 2027. Langford showed a profit of £53,000 on total stakes of £838,000 at the time his Betfair account was suspended.

That severity of sentence is clearly at variance with the eventual Best verdict for the identical number of stopping rides. The fact that the trainer did not attend on the day the verdict was handed down last month suggests he was unworried enough to fulfil another previous engagement.

Within days, the news came that Best’s wife Suzy was applying to take over the licence for the period of her husband’s suspension, while his present assistant, brother Tom, could just as easily have stepped forward.

The main difference between somebody who has got away with a criminal act and someone under the jurisdiction of an Authority like the BHA is the question of control. Once Joe Bloggs either goes unpunished or undetected it is unlikely that he will be monitored for future breaches of the law, there are not the resources for that to be possible.

But a licensed trainer is under the spotlight for every runner that he sends to the racetrack. It is interesting that Jim Best’s horses have been in a relative lull over the past 18 months. Between season 2007/08, his fourth as a trainer of jumpers and 2014/15 he only once dropped below 15 wins in a season, with a high of 22 from 158 runs in 2008/09.

Last jump season brought a modest five wins from 89 runs, and so far this term from 34 runs, he has three wins on the board. He has sent out five winners from 87 runs, between 18 horses, on the Flat this season.

In the past fortnight, the Best stable has concentrated entirely on the Flat. Seven of his horses have appeared, one of them Slowfoot running twice. Despite the fact that three of the seven had won its previous race and another was second, the joint outcome was that none got nearer than ten lengths behind the winner. In all, there was a total of 84 horses in the eight events, and Best’s team finished ahead of only four of them.

Excepting Newcastle, his horses have turned up within the past 14 days at each of the other five all-weather circuits. Maria’s Choice was 10th of 12, beaten just over ten lengths at Southwell; Officer Drivel was last of eight, beaten 22l at Lingfield, Slowfoot ran twice, 34 lengths last at Kempton then 11 lengths last at Lingfield. Since coming to England this one-time German Group-race performer has slipped down the ratings from 98 (May) to 78 and could well be set for another drop tomorrow.

Alberta trailed home 88 lengths last at Kempton having won last time out; New Street (rated 65, from 84 in April), bought for 185,000gns by the stable’s leading owner Mr Jack Callaghan was 8th of 10, beaten 19 lengths at Chelmsford, at which track Bobby Benton, on his previous start in September a winner, was last, beaten more than 17 lengths. Briac, yet to show anything, was last of 12 at Wolverhampton, beaten 30 lengths.

Anyone studying the performances of the Jim Best horses during his most successful period between 2007/08 and two seasons ago, will find it easy to detect patterns. Often the money was down, a top jockey employed and the level of form was suddenly transformed and gambles routinely landed. It will be interesting to follow the fortunes of his latest group of horses considering that in the eight races reviewed, they have been beaten a combined 232 lengths, at an average of 29 lengths per race. Are you kidding me?

On a more positive note, the crowds thronged Ascot on Saturday for their pre-Christmas bash and if they didn’t spot many horses because of the fog, there is no doubt that this track once again excelled itself for entertainment outside the confines of the race.

I noted Dan Skelton’s daughter in full face-paint mode during the afternoon while Anthony Honeyball had an even younger sprog, eight and a half months old, in his care in the owners and trainers dining room. I thought the fact he was in charge suggested wife Rachael must be supervising their two runners at Haydock, but in fact she was leading up Regal Encore before the Lavazza Jolie Silver Cup Chase, and collected the best turned-out prize.

With five pulled ups in his previous six runs, he was sure to be an outsider, but he appeared like an apparition out of the murk to win with a flying finish under Barry Geraghty. Not a bad race to win for J P McManus!

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Murphy’s Law Alright for Jack

Is it better to be a small fish in a big pond or the only fish swimming around a puddle? Few are better qualified to make that judgment than Jack Quinlan, possibly the only remaining authentic jump jockey in the surprisingly underused National Hunt location of Newmarket, writes Tony Stafford.

Home for thousands of choicely-bred and often highly-priced Flat racers, all but a handful of horses are kept to that discipline. The occasional jumper has the chance to use the excellent facilities of the Links, close to the centre of town where they are more than likely to share the parking areas with golfers, often jockeys, at the local club.

Until a couple of years ago Neil King’s team was the best equipped to win jumps prizes and Trevor Whelan took the lion’s share of his boss’s mounts. Now they are plying their trade in Wiltshire at a yard close to namesake but un-related Alan King at Barbury Castle.

Unsurprisingly, when Whelan was in town, he and Jack often found themselves in demand for schooling horses, but as son of former HQ trainer Noel, Jack’s lucky break came when John Ferguson began overseeing the training of some of the Godolphin overflow stayers over jumps up the road at Cowlinge in a property once owned by the Mintons.

At first it seemed to outsiders that Fergie would probably be playing at it, a sop by his employer Sheikh Mohammed to Ferguson’s original wish to be a trainer. He, like Simon Crisford, started out as a young assistant, in his case to Sir Michael Stoute until switching to his long-term role with the boys in blue.

Firstly as an amateur and then as a conditional, Jack got onto the Ferguson team riding nine winners in 2010-11 and a career best 27 the following year. But then, ironically he was a sufferer from the success of the Bloomfields project – the Godolphin jumpers run in that corporate entity – as increasingly the top jockeys were employed as the stakes rose.

Initially Denis O’Regan, then Tony McCoy and latterly Aidan Coleman got pretty much all the rides, but even those relative riches for HQ riders ebbed away early this year when John Ferguson reverted to a more central role as Godolphin’s supremo, closing down the jumping operation.

Many of the horses were either sold or transferred to Godolphin’s Flat-race handlers, so even the odd winner that Quinlan still got had disappeared by the start of this season. He’d collected 10, then 19, 16 and 18 in subsequent seasons but often must have thought he should have listened to the suggestions of many friends that maybe he should re-locate outside Newmarket.

The snag for young Master Quinlan – he’s still in his mid-20’s - is that he comes from a close-knit family, with two sisters and a younger brother all steeped in the business. Noel still retains his old contacts and does some trading and preparing horses while his mother Jo spent many years taking the kids to various shows around East Anglia and beyond and training the family’s point-to-pointers.

In mid-summer, Jack’s hopes revolved around some largely unexpected opportunities for Robin Dickin and that West Midlands trainer has supplied Jack three winners from 15 rides, usually when stable jockey Charlie Poste is otherwise engaged. But that, apart from his riding the dribs and drabs of jumpers from around 20 Flat-race operators in the town, seemed to be that. And then along came Amy.

Amy Murphy, that is, daughter of owner Paul, who had plenty of success with among others Charlie Longsdon. His mare Kalane once ran third to Annie Power at the Punchestown Festival but now is probably team leader for Ms Murphy at the stable she occupies in Michael Wigham’s Hamilton stables in the Hamilton Road.

That accident of location – Noel in also based there – meant Jack would be an obvious choice for picking up schooling duties in what is beginning to look like becoming a bit of a powerhouse.

Amy can’t be too slow. As recently as November 3 she went along to Tattersalls Ireland Ascot sale and for the princely sum of £3,500 came away with a dual winning five-year-old out of Gordon Elliott’s burgeoning yard.

I’d be surprised if Gordon’s even noticed he’s no longer there. A couple of weeks earlier he’d taken two runners to a four-horse claiming hurdle at Stratford and came away with a 1-2. The runner-up Tajseer was the better fancied and was claimed afterwards by an owner of Phil York’s for £5,000. The winner, maybe because nobody could get anywhere near to pronounce his name, was left alone after a two and a quarter length success under Gordon’s much-respected amateur, Lisa O’Neill.

Lisa was the highly-proficient rider of Wrath of Titans, the ill-fated Kerry National winner in the autumn from six Elliott runners. On the same day that Shan Dun na NGall won the claimer at Stratford, she was also successful on the heavily-backed Presenting Julio, owned and trained by Liam Lennon. Her only other UK ride this season brought an unlucky unseated from a David Pipe horse at Cheltenham’s Open meeting.

The Stratford victory encouraged the jumping handicappers to give Shan, you know the rest, a rating of 117. The Racing Post analysis suggested 110, his mark before race, would be testing enough, but Amy did not waste too much time in deciding his future.

Four weeks to the day since his purchase at Ascot, old Dunny was sent to Chelmsford for a 13 furlong Flat-race handicap, from what now looks a gift mark of 48, almost 70lb less than his jumps figure – so probably 25lb too little. Starting 16-1 and ridden by Lemos de Souza, a Brazilian like namesake of former champ Sylvestre, he bolted in.

The official reaction was to adjust him 4lb to 52, and last Saturday he made it two out of two for Amy, her partner Lemos (and owner Mr Melo) by running away from his opposition over two miles at Newcastle.

If it was a red-letter day for the couple, they couldn’t keep JQ out of it, as three hours previously at Doncaster, he’d steered Kalane to a 17-length win over the Doncaster fences – her first chase success and Jack’s second win for the trainer after ex-French Mercian Prince’s easy victory at Southwell in late November.

After a couple of months with a licence, Amy Murphy has already reached five wins, two from seven on the level and three from 14 in her main sphere of operation. I’ve never met the trainer or her father, but a good friend bumped into them at the stable recently and says there’s plenty to come from some classy, unexposed horses. Clearly this looks like a project that could come to fruition probably sooner than even Amy and her two “boys”, Lemos and Jack, could have believed possible. Maybe Newmarket’s jumping pond is going to get a little bigger!

Monday Musings: A Weekend Roundup

The Elliott bandwagon continued to roll with Apple's Jade usurping her former guv'nor, Willie Mullins

The Apple of Elliott's eye

I’ve promised not to stray far outside the confines of horse racing for these musings, but how can I talk about the two people that head up this week’s offering without a mention of Arsenal and Chelsea football clubs?, writes Tony Stafford.

The pair concerned are linked even more closely than my own emotional allegiance to the former. The first, Neal Wilkins, sadly died last week after a long, debilitating illness. The other, Alan Spence, was yesterday celebrating a fine win for Josses Hill in Huntingdon’s Peterborough Chase the day after Chelsea’s confirmation at the top of the Premier League.

Many in racing will have known Neal, with whom I worked for a couple of years at the Press Association where he was a typist, but one always destined for higher things. Later he was the public face of Victor Chandler as their on-course rep, always getting in his ante-post television quotes with the same alacrity as Mike Dillon for Ladbrokes.

As another contemporary, Geoff Lester, said in last week’s story that recorded his death in the Racing Post, “Neal was always first to the bar and last to go home”. He certainly enjoyed a glass of wine as well as he stoically endured what he, like many Arsenal fans, regarded as under-achievement by his team.

Alan Spence was once a director of Chelsea in the Ken Bates days and remains an honorary Vice President – often promoted to Chairman by Derek Thompson when his horses go to post. My boss Raymond Tooth’s Tommo handle is “the most expensive divorce lawyer in the country” – maybe I should ask him if that’s true?

During the Flat season, Spence’s horses, including a few shared with son Michael and friend Peter Hargreaves, won more than 20 races, with Profitable collecting the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes for the Clive Cox stable. Profitable will not now appear in the Godolphin colours in next Sunday’s Longines Hong Kong Sprint after a deal was announced last week, but few horses will have better lived up to their name.

I met Neal Wilkins soon after a brief association at the Press Association with Claude Duval, whose recent retirement was accompanied by a bit of a shirty send-off in these parts. Claude had a fair old name to live up to – the 17th Century version is described as the “most gallant and courteous rogue” who earned his money robbing stagecoaches on the approach to London, in Holloway, between Highgate and Islington, in other words, outside the Emirates stadium.

While unable to resist the repetition of a one-time unflattering headline, I sent Duval off by ridiculing his final scoop, scoffing at the suggestion that Paul Hanagan was to lose his job with Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum. Well now he has, so hats off to the most courteous and dashing of journalists, whose retirement should be rather happier than his predecessor’s – he was hanged in Tyburn in 1670!

Alan Spence will have no more than four horses to jump in the winter – Soldier in Action will aim at the Triumph with Nicky - but obviously Josses Hill will be the focal point with possibilities of Cheltenham Festival success after placed efforts behind recently-deceased Vautour (Supreme) and Un de Sceaux (Arkle) in 2014 and the following year. He’ll want to avoid the latter, probably running in the Ryanair over 2m5f,  but just a cursory look at yesterday’s action at Fairyhouse shows just how strong the Mullins and Elliott teams will be next March.

Un de Sceaux showed a different side to his always-evident talent when forsaking the customary early lead under Ruby Walsh in Saturday’s Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, leaving that role to Gary Moore’s speedy Ar Mad.

Once that horse’s exuberance had been pricked in his first run after a layoff, Un de Sceaux settled down for a battle with Sire de Grugy up the final hill and over the last, coming out narrowly on top. With Sprinter Sacre – on parade again – out of the equation, the pair will be among the major contenders for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. They may only be keeping the seat warm, though, for Altior. Nicky Henderson’s gelding remains a hotpot for the Arkle after a second workmanlike novice chase win in the Henry VIII Novice Chase. Altior beat Charbel by six lengths in a rare case of two Irish- and Flat-bred animals contesting a major jumps race.

There were still more than enough French imports on show on either side of the Irish Sea. Aintree’s two big chases, the Becher and Grand Sefton, over the National fences, went respectively to Vieux Lion Rouge and As de Mee, both French-breds. Vieux Lion Rouge, seventh in this year’s Aintree spectacular, came late and fast under Tom Scudamore to get the Becher on the line for the David Pipe team.

As de Mee, ridden by Sean Bowen for Paul Nicholls, is jointly owned by the Stewart family of Big Buck’s fame and Dame Judy Dench, who when work allows, likes an evening at Sandown. I’m sure the next time she goes to Esher, she’ll love the newly-enlarged and improved owners’ room, just in time for Peter Jensen’s takeover as Chairman.

The best story from Aintree though was the excellent first post-wind-op effort of Many Clouds who impressed in the Betfred-sponsored Listed Chase over 3m1f. He was well on top at the finish and the Oliver Sherwood-trained 2015 National winner will be the one to beat again next April.

In Ireland yesterday, the potential state of things to come where Willie Mullins is concerned was brutally revealed when Apple’s Jade, his wide-margin Aintree Juvenile Hurdle winner, now with Elliott, brought to an end the winning run of 2016 Mares’ Hurdle champion, Vroum Vroum Mag. In ten previous starts for Mullins, shared between hurdles and fences, Mag had been unbeaten, but Apple’s Jade showed great resilience to hold her off by a short head in the Hattons Grace Hurdle.

Other notable winners there were Landofhopeandglory, completing a hat-trick for Joseph O’Brien in the Juvenile Hurdle; and Airlie Beach, who made it seven out of seven for Mullins in the Royal Bond Hurdle, in which Ruby Walsh chose fourth-placed Penhill. Airlie Beach won once last year in a bumper. He made his hurdles debut in mid-July and less than five months later has made it six-in-a-row over jumps with this smart performance. Bapaume, second to Landofhopeandglory in the Juvenile Hurdle, looks one to follow.

Amanda Perrett is one of Alan Spence’s trainers and she supplied him with three 2016 successes with the handicapper Frozen Force. Amanda and husband Mark, a high-class and stylish jockey in his riding days, always enjoy the occasional foray over jumps and at Huntingdon they sent out the former Juddmonte-owned Glaring to win first time at 33-1.

Glaring’s 2016 campaign on the Flat since his 50,000gns acquisition from Prince Khalid Abdullah, a long-standing owner with the stable, was modest. But considering he started with a rating of 108 based on French placed form in Group company, dropping to 93, it seems hard to understand his price of 33-1 in a novice hurdle. Spencey was there and I bet he backed it: after all it was his weekend!

Monday Musings: Aftertime Acca’s

Native River scores Hennessy glory

Native River scores Hennessy glory

Do you like a multiple bet, say a Placepot, a Jackpot, or a single trainer combination wager? I was talking last Monday about Gordon Elliott and his rather high number of runners and having seen events at Navan yesterday, I think I’ve got a system, writes Tony Stafford.

If I’d played it yesterday, it would have yielded a profit of around 93 times my outlay, so, better late than never, here goes.

Take all Elliott’s horses – except where Willie Mullins has an odds-on novice chase newcomer certainty, as was the case with Min at Navan, and link all his other runners in a win accumulator. Wisely Gordon kept the opposition to Min to a min(imum), just a single 12-1 shot who finished seventh, but he won, as the system predicts, all the other six contests.

Admittedly, you needed to make a substantial stake, but as with the Jackpot attempts you and certainly I made in the old days, around 440 units is not out of the way.

That final number was arrived at helpfully with two singles and a two, while you would have needed five in the 30-runner opener (against another Mullins odds-on shot – thought he would beat that!), a four and just the 11 (yes ELEVEN!) to solve the featured Ladbrokes Troytown Chase.

So for 5 x 1 x 4 x 11 x 2 x 1 we would have got it. The successful horses were in turn 11-1, 11-10, 7-1, 12-1 (with Elliott’s 7-2 favourite 4th, that’s why you need the cover because he can win with anything!), 5-1 and 13-8 in the bumper. That’s 41,276-1 for the accumulator, 93 times the 440 unit investment.

Four of the six winners, from 16 and 25 overall, were owned by Gigginstown House Stud. I remember months before the recent exodus of Mr O’Leary’s hordes from Mullins, Gordon was interviewed about some new raw recruits joining his stable. The inference from him was that they were to be in a virtual holding phase before going to their eventual destinations. It seems they were already there, along with the new bunch arriving from Willie.

For all the polarised nature of Irish jump racing, there is still a macabre thrill when one of the big boys gets beaten (as long as you aren’t backing him), but increasingly in Elliott’s case it’s often Gordon beating himself. One of the triumphs of present-day commentators is the ability to identify the multiple caps worn by the same owners’ jockeys and for that Des Scahill deserves praise.

Elliott’s winners yesterday collected €152,000, and a good few more of them for the places, but that was less than the other man of the moment in jumping, Colin Tizzard, won for his owners with his Newbury treble on Saturday.

He had runners in six of the races, five singles and two in the last Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup - won in great style by the six-year-old Native River, who was backed down to 7-2 favouritism and given a brilliantly aggressive ride by Richard Johnson. His treble, which also included Thistlecrack, brought a collective £155,000.

At various times Native River looked likely to be overhauled by better-travelling, more conservatively-ridden rivals, but the combination of the horse’s constitution, the trainer’s brilliant stable form and the rider’s determination to win the race for the first time proved crucial.

It’s probably old age, but while sitting on one of the benches just outside the paddock, which face the weighing room, I noticed something about that jockey that had never previously caught my eye.

I do confess that had I not been watching a wonderful film featuring Eddie Redmayne and Michelle Williams, playing respectively Colin Clark (son of Lord Clark of Civilisation; brother of politician, Alan) and Marilyn Monroe, a couple of nights earlier, I definitely would not have been so inclined.

Young Colin, it seems, had a week-long dalliance with Marilyn when she came over to play in the film, The Prince and the Showgirl, alongside and under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier. In one scene, the car in which they are leaving Pinewood Studios, passes some actors, among whom a famous British comedian of the 50’s and early 60’s comes briefly into view.

From that minute, the subconscious took over, and as the champion jumps jockey of last and this season entered my vision on Saturday, that clinched it. It’s …… ……!  Naturally I daren’t reveal who it was, and if anyone starts calling him ……, they’ll have me to answer to.

*

The sales are winding down to their annual conclusion with five days of mares starting today following four of foals and one of yearlings last week.

Believe it or believe it not, last year I happened to be at the sale when a friend and very experienced one-time racehorse owner who still plays at the odd house valuation, tagged along with me to the Juddmonte pavilion.

The owners of Frankel, Kingman and most memorably this autumn, Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Arrogate, always provide the highlight of the mares’ sale, their classy cast-offs providing smart pedigrees for smaller breeders around the world to augment their stock in many cases making foundation mares.

In all, 58 of their home-breds will go through the ring, withdrawals apart, so the Juddmonte hospitality will be at full swing. Their mares sell tomorrow and Thursday and to get to the refreshments, you need to pass through Someries Paddock, just behind the main sales restaurant.

There could be no better man to meet and greet the needy and greedy who gravitate to the tent than the genial Lord Teddy Grimthorpe. Nobody in racing spends more time smiling than Teddy, which is just as well for the almost-unemployed valuer friend of mine, whose days as an owner are long gone, but who has been salivating in anticipation since New Year’s Day..

Last year I think my man - like the model for Richard Johnson he must remain nameless - was fairly frugal in his consumption as he’s not a drinker, but the beef on the bone and several desserts found the way onto his plate. I think he plans a more serious assault this week.

It looks as though I’ll only make it there today, with a couple of longer trips elsewhere scheduled for later in the week. I hope Juddmonte mares sell for fortunes, and that everyone has a lovely time.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Noteworthy Gallic Raiders

Thirty-six Mondays ago, I was thinking about giving Dan Skelton a call, writes Tony Stafford. At the time, Raymond Tooth had a couple of pretty ordinary jumpers in the yard and they were both being prepared for a return after a midwinter break. In the end I decided not to.

Later that afternoon I was looking through the results and noticed that he’d sent two horses totally unheralded to Enghien – his first runners as a trainer in France – and they had both won. A case of lightning striking twice, you might say. The fact that one, a three-year-old debutante called Mont Lachaud could start at almost 19-1 and win a €24k first prize by 14 lengths was extraordinary.

But then the more experienced Shelford, having his first run almost a year on from his fifth place in the 2015 County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, also collected a big pot – in his case €28,800. To do so, and by 20 lengths at more than 14-1, defied belief.

A fiver double would have been nice – around £1,500 – but the fact that Dan, Harry and everyone at Lodge Farm could even countenance such a spectacularly successful raid, was the most impressive element to my mind. It ranks up there with Gordon Elliott’s first Grand National winner when he’d hardly even had a runner in his native Ireland. That was before dad Nick Skelton’s Rio gold medal, too.

Shelford might have been sent on to a second County Hurdle attempt carrying the penalty if he’d had the misfortune of being in a different yard, but instead he went back to Enghien 44 days later and won again, this time less extravagantly in terms of distance and odds, but with €40,800 in the bank. It came almost as a shock when in a third French foray, he and Harry Skelton were foiled by a nose at Auteuil in late June, €20,400 providing reasonable consolation.

Mont Lachaux has also undergone a return trip, again to Auteuil, where he met some of the better early domestic juveniles, finishing a close third in a well-contested affair.

Why, you ask, do I choose today to rehash all that rigmarole? Well, if you believe in lightning striking twice, twice, then go along to your local betting shop – or maybe Racing UK or Attheraces will be up to speed - and watch the 1.25 (local 2.25) and 2.25 (local 3.25) races from Enghien. I’ll be taking close attention at Newmarket sales.

Dan Skelton has sent back both March’s winners for today’s fixture. Their three aggregate victories all came on officially “very soft” ground. Today, they will encounter “collant a lourd” – holding to heavy, which should be right up their boulevard.

Each is aiming at a Grade 3 prize of €60k to the winner and runs again over the identical distance, just under two miles for the juvenile; two miles, three furlongs for Shelford. Expectations for the latter will not have been diminished by the excellent fettle of the stable’s other high-class hurdlers, North Hill Harvey collecting £56k in Cheltenham’s Greatwood Hurdle on Sunday last week and Ch’Tibello earning £61k in Haydock’s Betfair Price Rush Hurdle on Saturday.

**

Saturday’s big prize at Haydock, run on much heavier ground than might have been expected a couple of weeks back when trainers were crying out for rain, provided an ideal comeback opportunity for 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Coneygree. Coincidentally, because of his helpful pacemaking under Richard Johnson, it brought an equally satisfactory third Betfair Chase success for the seemingly evergreen and ever-improving Cue Card for the unstoppable Tizzards.

While not quite in the Gordon Elliott or Willie Mullins situation of having multiple options for almost every major race, especially in Ireland, Colin Tizzard could have one impossible choice to make, almost in the “which is your favourite child” degree of difficulty.

Cue Card’s winning at Haydock means all he’ll need to do to qualify for the available £1 million bonus is to add Kempton’s King George VI Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. As trainer’s son, Joe, said at Ascot on Saturday, “no one else can win it!” The snag is that if the bonus is still on come March, one of the bigger obstacles for Cue Card’s winning it is the stable’s own Thistlecrack, more likely to go there than challenge for a second World Hurdle, but possibly more likely to run in the RSA than either of those.

A few years back, one now defunct betting exchange formulated a similar bonus for three equivalent major hurdle races, the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and the Champion Hurdle. Punjabi won the first of them – rerouted to Wetherby – but fell when looking the probable winner two out at Kempton. Had he stood up, his Champion Hurdle chance, when clearly less fancied than stablemate Binocular, might have been taken more seriously.

Of course, had he won at Kempton, would he then have gone on to Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle, when frankly he disappointed and possibly been less fit and prepared for the big day? When I saw Punjabi in his paddock in Shropshire the other week, he was still reminding us that it was he that won the big one almost eight years ago.

They don’t often come back, so it was great to see Sire De Grugy collect another big prize off top weight at Ascot. It was almost as though Gary Moore had whispered into his ear that Sprinter Sacre was out of the way, so maybe it was time for him to come to the fore again.

Cue Card, Sire De Grugy and to a lesser extent Coneygree, served notice last weekend that the enthusiasts who follow jumping in preference to the comparatively ephemeral Flat racing code of the sport, have more familiar names to latch on to every winter than their counterparts.

All three senior pros, interestingly, are with connections and indeed stables not totally in the top bracket, although Gary Moore could hardly have more influence on the sport than through his family with Ryan, Jamie, Josh and their media-involved sister Hayley, while Tizzard is rapidly moving towards the top six jumping stables in the UK, helped by some new bigger investors.

Some of the big Irish cards are worth watching, often on Sundays, but with smallish fields at Punchestown yesterday when there were three Gigginstown horses in each of the first two Graded races (five and then six runners) and three more for Mullins in the five-runner Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle, it’s sometimes hard to match the enthusiasm of the Attheraces presenters. Yesterday’s fog at the track which blotted out much of the action, didn’t help the entertainment value either.

Meanwhile at Cork, the other Irish meeting yesterday, the weather was contrastingly lovely but everyone else had to scrap for the left-overs with fields of 24, 15, 14, 12 and 18 lining up for the first five events. If they think it is hard now competing against Mullins, Elliott, Meade and the rest, imagine how tough it will become when Joseph Patrick O’Brien fully gets his feet under the jumping table.