Monday Musings: Broadcasting a potential Classic winner

Three weeks ago, following the first weekend of turf Flat racing in the UK in 2019, I could hardly contain myself, writes Tony Stafford. I’d witnessed what I’d believed to be a new star and suggested that Telecaster could go all the way to the top after his debut performance behind the clearly useful thrice-raced Bangkok.

It wasn’t that he got within a length of Bangkok in the 17-runner 10-furlong maiden race but rather the way he accompanied the winner in formation as the pair drew from one length to nine lengths clear of Noble Music in the last furlong without Charlie Bennett even brandishing the stick in the final stages. Silvestre De Sousa was rather more animated on the winner.

Behind Noble Music, an outsider from the Ralph Beckett stable, it was a couple of lengths to Dubai Instinct of whom Brian Meehan was very positive in the paddock before the race. Those observations were proved correct when Dubai Instinct made all in a Nottingham maiden on Saturday evening.

After him came two previously-unraced Frankel colts, both heavily-supported and from the stables respectively of Hugo Palmer (Ironclad, 9-2) and Charlie Appleby (5-2  shot Just You Wait, a half-brother to Teofilo).

Imagine my surprise on the Tuesday after Doncaster when I noticed the BHA handicapper had allowed Bangkok to remain unchanged on his initial rating of 88, achieved in three juvenile defeats at shorter distances.

If that were accurate, then Dubai Instinct would have run to a rating of perhaps 62 and the two Frankels would have been hard pushed to be competitive in a 0-60 classified stakes.

Not that Andrew Balding will be testing that rating – and tomorrow morning I’m sure Mr Handicapper will be having second thoughts – we’ll know at 7 a.m. I’ll be astonished if it’s less than 100 and even that would be conservative.

Last week, having gone along to Hughie Morrison’s Owners’ Day, I couldn’t resist a drive the following afternoon to Windsor. Telecaster looked resplendent as he paraded on Sunday and again by the Thames with both senior travelling lads, Hughie and Mary Morrison and assistant Olli Rix (son of the great Henry) all in attendance.

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His physique is impressive, not just his size but also quality and all in proportion, while his coat gleamed. He looked a class apart from his 15 rivals – another big field, this time around a tricky track – yet was only narrowly preferred to another Frankel colt, the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Deal A Dollar ridden by Ryan Moore.

The in-the-know vibes had been strong about Deal A Dollar, runner-up at less than a length on his only start to the highly-regarded Roger Varian colt Kuzaam at Kempton in December, where there were another seven lengths back to the third.

As Ryan took his horse onto the track, he was heard saying: “I can’t believe we’re not favourite”. In the race, once Oisin Murphy had navigated Telecaster outside initial leader and previous winner Ginistrelli - yet another Frankel! – Telecaster made the rest of the running without ever being challenged.

Deal A Dollar belatedly put his head into second place after the two previous winners Ginistrelli and Ragnar had endeavoured to keep pace. At the line it was nine lengths to the running-on Stoute hope, half a length to another Ralph Beckett outsider Future Investment, while the rest trailed along some way behind.

An indication of how hard it is to win a maiden over this sort of trip in the spring can be shown by the identity of the sires. The winner is by New Approach, Derby winner and sire of the 2018 Epsom hero, Masar. After Deal A Dollar, the third to tenth home were respectively by Mount Nelson, Sea The Stars, Frankel, Motivator, See You Then, Toronado, Camelot and Australia, multiple Group 1 winners all and mostly Classic and even Derby heroes to boot.

You can bet there will be some decent animals in there but the Meon Valley Stud homebred simply annihilated them. No wonder the Dante Stakes was being mooted afterwards by Morrison and Mark Weinfeld who, with his sister Helena Ellingham, look after the family’s racing interests.

Luck often plays its part in racing and the fact that nobody wanted to bid above 180,000gns when Telecaster was presented at the 2017 yearling sales, meant he reverted to the family, which races their unsold colts as Castle Down Racing. The fillies of course run in the much more famous black with white spots of Helena Springfield Ltd.

The Weinfelds’ father, Egon, established the Hampshire-based Meon Valley Stud and made its name with the foundation mares Reprocolor, Home and Away, One in a Million and Odeon, all smart racehorses before embarking on their stellar breeding careers.

The level of their achievements is best explained by the home-bred Colorspin, dam of both King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner Opera House and top stallion and perennial champion NH sire Kayf Tara, both by Sadler’s Wells. The stud also bred, having sold her, the Oaks winner Lady Carla.

Telecaster is a son of Oaks and Irish Oaks runner-up Shirocco Star, a direct descendent of Reprocolor, this colt’s sixth dam, if my accounting at 5 a.m. was correct. Part of the plan to win a maiden as soon as possible after the Doncaster eye-opener was to eliminate the obvious fear that Telecaster might inherit his dam’s propensity to finish second as well as her 112-rated ability. Those fears look unrealistic now.

When I spoke to a delighted Mark Weinfeld after the race I suggested he’ll think of nothing else but Telecaster for the rest of the year. Nor will everyone at Summerdown Stables, and indeed nor me. I’m totally smitten. No wonder then that the natural extension of winning (should he do so, of course) a Dante would be a spin around Epsom on June 1.

As Mark rather wistfully pointed out, Telecaster, as befits his pedigree, was entered in the Derby but was withdrawn at the March 5 stage, three weeks before his Doncaster debut. Now he will need a hefty £85,000 supplementary fee to be re-instated. The Dante prizemoney of £93,000 – the winning owner gets just short of 60% of that – almost makes up for it, but I’d question whether two weeks and a couple of days is an appealing or even manageable gap between two top races. Hughie Morrison will know better than anyone.

The style, size and sheer majesty of Telecaster suggest to my eye the Irish Derby, where if he was not entered already for the initial Euro2,500 entry fee, connections would have until May 22 to pay a realistic Euro20,000 and there would still be a last-gasp opportunity at Euro100,000 after the Derby itself.

Of all the considerations – which a spectacular win at York in the manner of Windsor would undoubtedly negate – the 16-day gap is what would nag at my brain. As they always say, there’s only one Derby but, as the late Robert Sangster proved after Pat Eddery’s Epsom lapse on El Gran Senor, beaten by Secreto, was corrected at The Curragh, the breeders rate the Irish Derby almost as highly.

- TS

Monday Musings: Never Say No Nay Never

I happened to call Wesley Ward on Friday, writes Tony Stafford. The California-based Royal Ascot juvenile specialist trainer was typically bullish about having a half-sister of his brilliant Queen Mary/ King’s Stand speedball Lady Aurelia ready to make the trip to the meeting in June.

Indeed, after Lady Pauline’s near 10-length debut Keeneland win on dirt a week before our chat, he is even considering aiming the Munnings filly at the newly-branded Trials Day at Ascot on May 1. A £9,000 winner’s prize for the five-furlong conditions race might not be much of a financial draw but the chance to give this precocious filly a sight of the track is something he is trying to sell to connections.

Wesley was also understandably bullish about No Nay Never, his easy 2013 Norfolk Stakes winner at the meeting. Few horses better illustrate the topsy-turvy world of international bloodstock than No Nay Never, originally sold as a foal at Keeneland for $170,000 on 11/11/11 (any significance there?) but picked up at the same venue the following September for only $95,000.

Since then it’s been a case of an upward course all the way. Ward raced him only six times in all, going unbeaten at two at Keeneland, Ascot and in the Group 1 Prix Morny at Deauville. He stayed in the US at three, winning a Grade 3 at Keeneland in between second places at Gulfstream Park (Grade 2) and in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) when Frankie Dettori joined forces with the trainer.

Dettori, associated with around half of Lady Aurelia’s career, John Velazquez stepping in when the Italian had to miss Ascot in 2017, will be hoping to jump up on Lady Pauline. Lady Aurelia had a similar winning juvenile start as No Nay Never, at Keeneland, Royal Ascot (Queen Mary, by seven lengths!) and the Morny.

No Nay Never’s first-season exploits as a Coolmore stallion were so exceptional that his stud fee for 2019 has been quadrupled to €100,000, from €25,000 last year, and Wesley, who has an interest in the stallion, is understandably delighted that the colt he put on the path to the top has done so well.

There was a non-Coolmore No Nay Never colt on view in the Naas opener on Saturday and it would not have upset Ireland’s premier stud that Ming Warrior, a €75,000 yearling, bred incidentally by Anne-Marie O’Brien and trained by the talented Michael O’Callaghan, could fare no better than second.

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The winner, ridden by Ryan Moore, was the Aidan-trained and Coolmore (plus Peter Brant)-owned Monarch Of Egypt, the first son of US Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to make the track. The winning margin for the odds-on chance was close to three lengths.

The name of the game is producing stallions so the fact that American Pharoah was off the bat straight away will have been a source of much joy. Equally the Lads would not have minded that when Highland Chief, Gleneagles’ initial runner, also won on debut at Newbury the previous day, it was in Mrs Fitri Hay’s colours, especially as the Hays are well-established associates of the team.

Highland Chief’s SP of 16-1, despite his being in the care of Paul Cole, one of the all-time skilled handlers of juveniles was a big surprise. I realise it’s a long time ago, but when Cole gets a good horse he exploits its talents to the full. I well remember when he won three major two-year-old races at the 1991 Royal meeting all for the late Prince Fahd Salman. Magic Ring won the Norfolk, Dilum the Coventry and Fair Cop the Chesham. The last-named obviously has no connection with the filly of the same name that runs this afternoon at Windsor for Andrew Balding. She could well win.

Another more than shrewd participant in various areas of the industry is the veteran jockey John Egan, now 50 but well-established as a pin-hooker par excellence as well as father of the brilliant young rider David Egan.

Egan Sr. has been honing the talents of his US-bred pin-hooks, colts by American Pharoah and War Front (this one out of Coolmore notable, Quarter Moon) in preparation for this week’s Tattersalls Craven Breeze-Up and his investments of respectively $350,000 and $400,000 could well be lavishly repaid, with many of the big hitters expected to be around.

He was justifiably thrilled that Monarch Of Egypt has already made it to the track, emphasising a potential precocity in the breed, a remark that goes too for the progeny of Gleneagles when they turn up at Breeze-Up sales this spring and early summer.

*

There was a nice result in the Coral Scottish National on Saturday when the Nicky Richards-trained Takingrisks won the £122,000 first prize under Sean Quinlan by four lengths from Crosspark. Before the race Richards had pointed out that his 10-year-old had form on good ground – even though his preceding win at Carlisle had been on heavy! – and that he would get the four-mile trip.

With five non-runners from the original 28-horse acceptance because of the fast surface, it was something of a surprise that Takingrisks started at as big a price as he did, and for the last mile of the marathon he was always going like the probable winner.

Richards afterwards spoke emotionally about the fact that there are trainers in the north of England perfectly capable of competing with their relatively better-off southern counterparts and with some pride that Takingrisks’ owner, Frank Bird, is based down the road from Richards’ Greystoke stables in Cumbria.

I do a daily early-morning job (needs must!) compiling the thoughts of around a dozen trainers on a web site and Nicky is one of them. Apart from being unbelievably frank and accurate about his horses, he can come up with the funniest remarks. I could not have been happier when Takingrisks won, although I must admit to having a small each-way bet while at Newbury on seventh-placed 40-1 shot Red Infantry. Hill’s paid each-way first six. Plus ca change! (sorry no cedilla!)

To give an illustration of Richards’ frankness, I recall his comments about Glinger Flame before that horse’s recent handicap debut at Hexham. The horse had been beaten a couple of times when “expected” for decent novices while appearing not to go through fully with his effort. Nicky said “I never like to call a horse ungenuine…” leaving little doubt that he feared internally he might be.

Different tactics were employed, along with first-time cheek-pieces, in an attempt to find the key and Glinger Flame won by 18 lengths. Wisely Nicky is not letting him back into another handicap, for which he would be 16lb higher after that romp, but instead allows him to carry a penalty in the opener there today. Wise indeed. No wonder he’s long odds-on despite the 13-runner field.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Tiger’s No Red Rum… Yet!

So they wound up the clockwork horse once again at Aintree on Saturday and it all went, well, like clockwork, for Tiger Roll, Davy Russell, Gordon Elliott and Michael O’Leary in the Randox Health Grand National, writes Tony Stafford.

Once we first caught proper sight of the tiny star on his bay forehead coming down to Becher’s first time round, there was an air of inevitability about his second win in the great race. Indeed there wasn’t even a frisson of tension unlike last year when Pleasant Company rallied late to get within a head of the diminutive winner.

That horse’s departure from the leading group when unseating his rider Paul Townend at the fourth-last fence took away just about the last potential threat to the reigning champ. Thus the Summerhill-trained nine-year-old was left with the unexpected challenge of the year-younger and sole mare in the 40-horse line-up, Magic of Light.

Her trainer Jessica Harrington will have been especially proud of Magic of Light, running in the colours of the late Ann and Alan Potts, but originally in the ownership of the trainer’s daughter Kate and briefly after the couple’s sad death a couple of years ago, the trainer herself.

Since late December Magic of Light has raced six times in all, including once at Fairyhouse when unseating Robbie Power in the Bobbyjo Chase won by Saturday’s third Rathvinden. The other five represented a tour of the UK respectively at Newbury, Ascot, Huntingdon and Cheltenham before Saturday. One trip encompassed two runs, victory in a Grade 2 mares’ hurdle at Ascot and six days later runner-up spot in a mares’ chase over an inadequate two and a half miles at Huntingdon behind Happy Diva. She spent the intervening days with Paul Webber I seem to remember.

Last week in a very brief footnote to the article I suggested that potential pitfalls of the Grand National course vintage late 2010’s are very few once the legendary Becher’s (no Brook these days for fallen jockeys to roll back into for refuge) is negotiated second time round.

That obstacle’s once problematic nature has been eroded, happily with equine safety and public sensibilities to consider. In three races over the three days of the meeting, started in horrible weather on Thursday for the Foxhunters, better for Friday’s Topham and in glorious spring sunshine for the big race, only one horse was victim to Becher’s.

That was in Thursday’s Foxhunters when the 12-year-old Seefood unseated his rider, Miss Charlotte Crane. He has been racing in hunter chases this season for Justin Landy. The once Dessie Hughes-trained chaser started favourite for last year’s Topham for Dr Richard Newland but fell having made an earlier mistake at Becher’s.

Race-day absentees meant there were 27 rather than 30 runners in the two races over the Grand National fences before Saturday.  Twelve completed in the Foxhunters, with none actually being recorded as falling; three unseated and the remaining dozen pulled up.

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The stats were slightly different but in a way just as remarkable for the Topham. Twenty of the 27 completed the course, with three fallers, while two each unseated and pulled up.

The Grand National itself sadly did feature one fatality, the Willie Mullins-trained Up For Review, brought down when the much-fancied Vintage Clouds in the Trevor Hemmings colours, departed at the first fence. In the bad old days it was commonplace for approaching double figures to come down at that early stage.

The third fence also featured in multiple departures, but on the second circuit, as the 18th fence (normally 19th, but the 17th was by-passed because of the stricken Up For Review). Two of Gordon Elliott’s 11-strong team were eroded here, Jury Duty unseating and General Principle falling, bringing down Rock the Kasbah.

But 19 did complete, and of the remaining 21 only three actually fell, with two each unseating and being brought down and 14 pulling up.

It is easy, especially with only the statistics to draw upon, to mention Tiger Roll in the same breath as Red Rum, the first part of whose epic Aintree story was matched 45 years on with a second consecutive victory.

Starting at the same age as Rummy, he still has a fair way to go but the time also to achieve it. There can be little doubt that it will not be easy to gain a third victory next year even though the suggestion has been aired that he “would have won with another stone”, to which I offer the counter-claim “rubbish”.

Tiger Roll was relatively leniently treated by the handicappers. He won off 150 last year when he carried 10st 13lb. On Saturday he was 9lb higher on 159 but carried only 6lb more, 11st 5lb. After his second successive win in the Cheltenham Foxhunters last month, the UK chase handicapper said he would have put him up 8lb for that if the weights had not already been framed. So that will be the starting point before any extra massaging of his rating.

Red Rum’s first win in 1973 was achieved under a weight of 10st 5lb, relatively light in face of the opposition of the top-class two-miler, Crisp. He went agonisingly close after Richard Pitman took him miles clear all the way only to be foiled in the last 30 yards.

The following year Red Rum, like Tiger Roll flat-race-bred - he even dead-heated in a two-year-old race at Aintree six years before his initial National triumph - won under twelve stone top-weight, a demanding 23lb more than before.

One regard in which Tiger Roll has beaten Red Rum was in Saturday’s winning time of 9 min 1sec. Rummy’s fastest unsurprisingly came on his first attempt, but was 0.9 sec slower than Saturday’s time (though the start has of course moved forward in the interim). None of the four Nationals he featured in from 1974-7 was run slower than Tiger Roll’s 9min 40sec last year on heavy going. Twelve of 38 finished last year, the more testing conditions bringing six fallers, five unseated riders, two brought down and 13 horses pulled up.

Realistically it should be possible that faster times can be achieved nowadays with the demands of the old bigger, less forgiving fences with their exaggerated (especially Becher’s) drops on the landing side having been largely eliminated; and with the shortening of the run to the first fence.

Red Rum followed his second win with a gallant second in 1975 on very soft ground behind double Cheltenham Gold Cup winner L’Escargot, who still after almost half a century is my favourite racehorse; another runner-up spot to the very smart Rag Trade (Fred Rimell)  in 1976 and then his march to immortality the following April.

Trainer Ginger McCain had by now replaced Brian Fletcher, successful the first twice, with Tommy Stack, and the 12-year-old again carried top weight, though with only 11st 8lb in the saddle. My earlier reference to the relative demands of the fences was borne out by the fate of many of the 42 starters that day.

Eleven completed but seven departed (five falling, one unseating and another brought down) at the first; four fell at the third, the big ditch and three more fell at first Becher’s. That obstacle claimed five more (three falls, one pulled up and one refusal) second time and it was left to Churchtown Boy, carrying 10st to follow Rummy up the run-in in reverence, 25 lengths behind. Two days earlier Churchtown Boy had easily won the Topham.

Everyone loves a hero and in these days of social media, Tiger Roll is in danger of becoming an object of hyperbole if not hysteria. He’s great and he’s unique in his versatility – evidence his Graded hurdle win this year – but as yet he’s not Red Rum.

For a start to make it three he’ll have Magic of Light, now she’s shown her Aintree credentials, and my on-the-day each-way bet, fourth-placed Walk in the Mill, especially if it comes up soft, to worry about. Never mind what revenge the slighted handicapper will be planning. No wonder Michael O'Leary, his owner, is talking of retirement post-Cheltenham 2020.

What is not in doubt is the amazing popularity of the race, with ITV claiming an audience of ten million. Sorry ITV, I watched it on Racing TV and it was pretty good viewing there too!

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Doncaster Debrief

I rarely watch race videos but I’ve made an exception of the 4.45 race at Doncaster on Saturday, writes Tony Stafford. To my everlasting regret I left the track not long after Sod’s Law’s personally disappointing, but to trainer Hughie Morrison’s point of view entirely-predictable, unplaced run in the Spring Mile.

As he told readers in that morning’s Racing Post: “He prefers soft ground and hasn’t come in his coat” and as we watched the main rivals and their gleaming summer coats, he repeated: “I’ve no idea why he’s favourite!”

You spend the winter expecting at least softish ground at Doncaster.  At the beginning of last week, it looked possible, but a dry few days brought good, good to firm in places. Sod’s Law was brought to the outside for a clear run by P J McDonald, but the rider reported afterwards: “He was rolling around on it”. And so it appeared on the screens.

Hughie stayed around. A couple of hours after what had been a frustrating couple of minutes: “I walked the course beforehand and it’s rough. Where there was damage from the jumping, they’ve just filled in with soil. And, of course, they’re blood-testing him!”

Those frustrations were, if not forgotten, put on the Morrison back-burner by the performance of the previously-unraced Telecaster in the mile and a quarter maiden for three-year-olds.  That’s the race that’s been exercising my player this morning. It was won by the heavily-backed 88-rated Bangkok, ridden by Silvestre De Sousa for the Andrew Balding stable.

With three placed runs behind him as a juvenile, Bangkok, a son of Australia, represented a decent level of form in the 17-runner line-up, but had predictable market opposition from two Dubawi colts, 5-2 shot Just You Wait, a Godolphin / Charlie Appleby half-brother to Teofilo; and Ironclad, third-best at 9-2 and representing Khalid Abdullah and Hugo Palmer.

Bangkok, using his experience, raced close to the front from the outset, but on the turn for home, the major contenders were getting into formation for the near five-furlong gallop to the line. At this stage both James Doyle on Just You Wait and Adam Kirby on Ironclad were poised as was Charlie Bennett, a few places further back but clearly going extremely well on Telecaster.

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This son of Derby winner New Approach is out of Shirocco Star, runner-up in the Oaks, Irish Oaks and pretty much everything else in her three-year-old year for Morrison and owner-breeders Meon Valley Stud.

As Bennett easily cut through the pack to sit immediately behind Bangkok, who was already striking for home past pacemaker Allocator, Kirby made a more urgent move outside him to which Bennett responded and the Abdullah horse never actually got past Telecaster. Doyle was also in full drive on Just You Wait, but he proved a little one-paced on debut.

With Silvestre now taking dead aim on the winning line, Bennett allowed a single light tap with his right hand, a couple equally gentle with his left after pulling the whip through before settling to a sensible hands and heels motion for the last furlong and a bit.

But this was where the visual credibility was stretched. Bangkok, kept solidly up to his work by de Sousa, would normally have been stretching right away from his rivals. It was true in the case of his relative position with the other fifteen - the nearest was another newcomer, Ralph Beckett’s Noble Music, a son of Sea the Moon, the German Derby winner, who had an excellent first stud season in 2018.

But the first two kept formation, drawing away in unison, with Bennett keeping his cool and resisting even a single tap once the furlong pole was passed. When I spoke to Hughie on Sunday morning, inevitably he referred to the dam’s predilection for narrow defeats: “I hope Telecaster isn’t a bridesmaid like his mother, but he is a gorgeous-looking horse and that was a great start.”

Having had a close connection with one owner’s (Ray Tooth) horses in the yard and consequently a more than cursory appraisal of his other inmates, I couldn’t have a much higher regard for the trainer’s skill. One only needs to refer back to the Melbourne Cup last November and the five-year-old Marmelo’s one-length defeat by Cross Counter, to whom be conceded 9lb.

Marmelo is waiting for his usual diet of European stayers’ tests but Cross Counter, by Teofilo, starred on his first run since Melbourne by winning the Dubai Gold Cup over two miles on Dubai World Cup night at Meydan. Charlie Appleby trained that winner, also Blue Point in the big sprint and then watched from Dubai as Auxerre made all under James Doyle to win the Lincoln with ease.

I’ve not seen the World Cup itself yet, but it was suggested to me that Thunder Snow’s second successive victory, in this case by a nose from Gronkowski might have been questionable. The now UAE-trained Gronkowski, still owned by Phoenix Thoroughbreds, was still a nice pay-day for Oisin Murphy with his share of the £1.889 million second prize. Stepping up a place would have meant a chunk of an extra £4 million or thereabouts.

We had a nice Mother’s Day at Ascot, taking Peter and Jacqueline’s mum Elizabeth to lunch and she backed David Pipe’s Legal History in the (UK not Dubai!) valuable handicap hurdle. She never had a moment’s anxiety either. How on earth did he get beaten the previous Saturday when we (not Elizabeth) took the 16’s early price at Newbury only for The Knot Is Tied to outstay him?

Alan Spence kindly provided the Ashmore tickets for Ascot and certainly deserved a better fate than the first-fence departure of his talented but latterly-frustrating Josses Hill. Maybe that was divine payback for his team Chelsea’s outrageous luck against jinxed Cardiff the same afternoon.

We’ll both be anxiously monitoring the potential field for Friday’s Randox Health Topham Trophy at Aintree, a race in which Alan’s Kilcrea Vale ran an extraordinary race 12 months ago, staying on like a lion on the run-in to finish fourth after getting a long way behind. Kilcrea Vale also ran well there in the Grand Sefton in the autumn, and if the requisite five horses defect, he gets a run and must have a chance, one in 30 anyway. It’s a day I always enjoy.

After his domination of a very good Cross-Country field at Cheltenham, the remarkable Tiger Roll may only need to be wound-up in the manner of Red Rum, into his ever-developing  “clockwork horse” mode to gain a repeat victory in Saturday’s Grand National. Once past first Becher’s the potential pitfalls are greatly reduced and while he’s hardly backable, I won’t be trying to find an alternative.  Let’s hope all 40, the 30 in the Topham and all the rest over three thrilling days, come back safe for their owners and trainers.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Opening Day Far From Flat

The joy of Flat racing on turf – it’s here again, Naas yesterday stepping in for the opening Curragh fixture delayed in the manner of Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground, writes Tony Stafford. Both will be with us, shiny and welcoming soon enough.

Amid all the new and newish names on parade at Naas, especially among the trainers, quite a few old staples were to the fore, none more so than Jim Bolger, who revisited his former reputation as a fast starter with a treble from his 11 runners on the card.

As if in recognition of the Coolcullen stable’s instant discovery of form, they won at declining odds as the day went on, but none of Western Dawn (20-1), Solar Wind (16-1) or Normandel (14-1) could be reasonably described as “expected”, at least by the punters if not the trainer. That’s 5,354-1 for the treble if you were on, Jim.

The first two winners were Bolger home-breds running in wife Jackie’s colours. Normandel, at five, a mare owned by long-time Bolger ally, Ballylinch stud’s Jock O’Connor, was a fitting winner of the Listed Lodge Park Stud Irish EBF Park Express Stakes. This event commemorates one of Bolger’s best female performers during his long illustrious career since switching from car sales company accountant to major owner/trainer/breeder 43 years ago.

Many racing immortals set off on their road to success with Bolger, and every list begins with Aidan O’Brien and A P McCoy. Less well known is Brendan W Duke, but he was a valued staff member there for many years before leaving to train in Lambourn, where he was always a popular figure on racecourses especially around London.

His time as a small-time trainer was constrained by the financial crisis of the mid-2000’s as he found there were not quite so many UK-based Irishmen with the bundles of ready spare cash as had previously been the case.

So he went home to Ireland, eventually taking out a licence and training for a few friends. The Bolgers soon started to send him a number of their lesser lights to train. For the past few seasons, he has picked up a small number of races each year, usually three for the most part, but 2018 was a fallow season. He managed only one win in 56 runs from ten horses, six for Jackie Bolger.

The signs yesterday were better. In the opening juvenile maiden won in good style by Michael O’Callaghan’s Red Epaulette, Brendan’s Value Chain, carrying the first Bolger colours and starting at 9/1 finished almost two lengths ahead of Jim’s third-placed Dawn Approach filly, Feminista, a 7-1 shot, in a race he’d won a year earlier. The runner-up, by Garswood, must give him high hopes of imminent success.

Then in the concluding seven-furlong maiden, Duke was again in opposition to Bolger, and will have been delighted when his 33-1 newcomer Vocal Duke finished a creditable eighth, only a short-head behind the boss’s Son of Beauty. Both are geldings by Bolger’s own stallion Vocalised, whose progeny have been regular inmates at Brendan’s Curragh yard.

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Through all his vicissitudes, Brendan Duke has never been short of either enthusiasm or confidence. I remember talking to him less than a month into my Raymond Tooth Racing Manager job, in the days when there were plenty to manage, before Punjabi’s first of four consecutive runs at the Punchestown Festival in April 2007.

We agreed that maybe Punjabi’s Triumph Hurdle fourth and Aintree second behind Katchit entitled him to start favourite. But then Brendan appeared on the stage - from which a family of Slovakian string musicians had been entertaining the crowd - and told the crowd why he thought his Katies Tuitor was a good thing.

I’ve never actually studied that Kayf Tara gelding’s form before this morning, but I now see why he was hopeful. Easy wins at Kempton under Noel Fehilly and Sandown (Graham Lee) were decent pre-Christmas efforts. No wonder he was so proud of the horse - he bred him!

Katies Tuitor was a good fourth as Punjabi collected his first Grade 1, and the next two, the Irish Champion at the same venue a year later, and the Champion Hurdle in 2009 were the highlights of a great career.

Katies Tuitor didn’t do so badly either. Transferred at the end of that season to Charlie Mann, he won four more hurdle races, each time ridden by Fehily, who conceded on the event of his retirement with a farewell winner at Newbury on Saturday, that Mann had been his mentor.

After the Punchestown run, Katies Tuitor went three weeks later to Aintree and finished second as the 4-1 favourite to the 20-1 shot Lord Baskerville, trained by Charles Pogson. This was the 11th run and fourth win since Pogson had claimed Lord Baskerville out of Wilf Storey’s yard for six grand after a Hexham second in a selling handicap.

That annoyed Wilf, who reckoned that following 39 unsuccessful runs for him after my good friend and the horse’s original owner, Peter Ashmore, moved him on from the Michael Quinlan yard, he was primed to win. So it proved, Pogson collecting three-in-a-row straight off the bat.

I’ve often said how so many of my past activities have drifted away from my memory. I’d certainly forgotten that between February and 25th March 2004, I was the registered owner of the horse. So if you’re reading this Wilf, it is 15 years to the day that Mr Hutchinson took charge of him from me, so we ought to have a birthday drink! In all, Charles Pogson won six of 31 races with Lord Baskerville. I remember watching his promising debut at Doncaster on Derby Day 2003 from a box in the Epsom grandstand 20 minutes after Kris Kin’s big race triumph for Sir Michael Stoute.

Peter and his girlfriend Lorraine Botbol are horse-lovers extraordinaire. Peter had a beautiful horse with the Quinlans called Flashgun, who suffered injury as a three-year-old and had to retire. The vets were ready to put him down but Peter and Lorraine had other ideas. They have kept the son of Lemon Drop Kid for ten years and last week he finished fourth of 16 in his first dressage competition near Newmarket.

Both Peter and Lorraine are learning dressage riding – Peter rode along with sister Jacqueline at a riding school in Mill Hill, North London, in their teens, where Andrew Reid trained with some success years later – and they are precisely the sort of people that racing and equestrian sport should embrace.

Fehily’s retirement and his all-round-good-guy persona were the highlights of the weekend, but I enjoyed watching that day and Sunday on the box, other responsibilities keeping me from the racecourse. I hope I can make it for Sod’s Law in the Spring Mile (Lincoln consolation) at Doncaster on Saturday. He could well win.

I bet Racing TV are dreading having to make the sort of commentary decisions that followed the late off-time of the Irish Lincolnshire yesterday, caused by the re-shoeing of Bolger’s well-fancied Theobald, winner of his previous three at Dundalk.

The Irish boys on duty on course, already having seen a treble from the Co Carlow maestro, opined “it should not be a problem”. Sorry boys it was, Theobald finishing last of 20 behind ex – Sir Michael Stoute/ Hamdan Al Maktoum trainee, Karawaan, an easy first-time winner for Ger Lyons. Problem too for Tom Stanley, having to cut in on the 4.20 from Exeter to say: “Naas will finish first”, about the 4.10-scheduled first major handicap of the Irish season. It did, maybe by five seconds.

As the season draws on, there will be multiple times when a similar eventuality arises. Meanwhile Sky Sports Racing (At the Races to you maybe?) had to be content with a solo from France – good job they secured those rights – while Racing TV (ex-UK)  had to splice in Carlisle and jumping from Downpatrick, pretty much all long distance races, with Naas and Exeter.

Sky Sports Racing is lucky to have the highly-competent and ever-watchable Alex Hammond as their lead presenter and was not too badly fixed for French jumping yesterday with Laurent Berberin, Mick Fitzgerald and Mike Cattermole. Berberin is more Sacha Distel than Claud Charlet’s Inspector Clouseau. They were lucky, too, to have France’s best hurdler, the six-year-old mare De Bon Coeur, on show as she came back from a ten-month absence to stroll home in a Grade 3 hurdle, bringing her career tally to 12 victories from 14 starts.

Never mind, Sky Sports Racing had Bangor for the first time on Saturday; look forward to getting sister-track Chester from May and next Saturday will be able to supplement their Lincoln coverage with the return of jewel-in-the-crown, Ascot. Confused, with the Irish on Racing TV and Ascot on the other side? So am I!

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: A Paisley Tinted Festival

It is three months since I first met Andrew Gemmell at Tattersalls December Sales in Newmarket’s Park Paddocks, writes Tony Stafford. From the outset I was astonished by the acuity of his hearing which clearly compensates to a degree of his denial from birth of what most of us will agree is the most vital sense – sight.

On mutually introducing each other, he recalled listening to my broadcasts on BBC Radio London in the early 1980s. Since then I have been doing some new work where it is necessary to record and play back short interviews. Hearing my own slow, boring tones is something of a shock. No wonder Adrian Lee – I think that was the name of the man who decided who should be on the shows when At The Races returned from the ashes of the old Racing Channel, where I did get the odd gig -told me “You are too dull”. Why not say what you really mean, Adrian?

There’s nothing like building your confidence. After an early go on the channel I once bumped into Richard Hannon senior who opined, “You always look a bit uneasy on the telly”. If he meant I was constantly looking over my shoulder, for reasons any regular reader would understand, he wasn’t far wrong.

Would that I could be as comfortable in front of the camera as Richard junior, enjoying Cheltenham last week, obviously is. I asked him when he might have a runner in the Champion Hurdle as the old man often did with excellent, close to winning, results a generation ago, and his reply suggested he might like to.

The weeks go so quickly. In that initial article about meeting Andrew Gemmell, I related his remark that I constantly referred in those broadcasts to a horse called Honegger that I’d suggested to Michael Dickinson might make a hurdler. I kept talking about him, probably because the Dickinson’s did buy him and he kept winning – to the tune of 20-odd races.

Well I see from a quick perusal of the intervening dozen articles since, that Paisley Park gets a few mentions, starting with the suggestion that 14-1 for the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle “might be over-priced”. After his victory in such devastating style at 11-8, despite a shuddering mistake at the last hurdle, that was a fair observation.

A month after the first meeting, I mentioned I’d started looking at the daily race cards again after years’ meandering along with not much more than Ray Tooth’s horses and their possible targets on my mind. Diminishing numbers have lessened that part of my day, and I’ve needed (and fortunately secured) some additional employment where it helps to keep abreast of events.

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It doesn’t quite keep the head above water, but as I said in that issue two months ago, “I’m looking” and when I find something “I’ll pass it on”. Last Monday, forgiving Howard Wright for his part in the Racing Post birthday non-appearance fiasco the previous week, I made what he suggested was a 20th consecutive foray up the A1(M) to Langford FC and the Cheltenham Preview Night, “the last but the best” as Howard, who in his 70s is as silly as me, always calls it.

We did find some winners, quite a few nice ones I fact, but with the wi-fi at the hotel anything but reliable, by the time I finally managed to get to the track every day I’d completely forgotten what I’d said and allowed Le Breuil, City Island, Band of Outlaws, Ch’tibello, Hazel Hill and the Altior-Politologue forecast, as well as the obvious Paisley Park to go unbacked. I did manage on the last day to have a few pennies on Ray’s home-bred Nelson River in the Triumph Hurdle and he confirmed his jumping potential by finishing fourth for Tony Carroll.

Thus he did what all good each-way bets do, finished just outside the money. At the time of my single-figure wager on the Tote, seconds before the off, Nelson River was paying 77 for a win and 16 for a place. I’d managed to blag my way onto the fourth floor of the old main stand where the hospitality boxes are and felt obliged to make a vociferous – if slow and boring – protest at the absence of any live pictures at the Tote betting points, quite a number of which there are at that level. Most of the boxes are over-filled, often with racegoers who are reluctant to curtail conversations even during the races, so hearing the commentary can be almost impossible. It would have been nice to step outside and get a noise-free view. Next year please, Mr Renton?

All those years at the Daily Telegraph entitled all of us without question full media credentials. The main Press facility on the second floor of the same stand is of limited capacity but was ours by right. Many more of the mushrooming media crowd are housed nowadays just near the North entrance, below the paddock in a vast building. I crept in there a couple of times, without being challenged <someone wasn’t doing his job although they were with great enthusiasm everywhere else> and as Gina Harding wistfully suggested: “This isn’t the main one”. Know how she feels.

I can’t complain. The wonderful Sophia Dale sent me for the first time Club badges for every day rather than a rectangular Media badge to sling around the neck, which actually does little more than get one through the door with the hoi-polloi, God forbid! If you persist or look as though you are entitled to be there, as in the fourth floor box level, you might just be all right.

At the Trials day, back in January when Paisley Park won the Cleeve Hurdle in such devastating fashion, I stood next to Andrew in the paddock as he listened to and we watched the definitive rehearsal to Thursday’s great triumph. This time, from the back of the new Princess Royal stand, I watched on the giant screen as my ticket did not get me into the paddock, any more than I was able to see Punjabi parading before the opening race in both 2017 and last year.

There were still more than enough people to congratulate the owner and trainer Emma Lavelle, who has done such a wonderful job on the gelding, bought as a young horse by the trainer for €60k. As ever, Emma gave plenty of credit to her husband, Barry Fenton, who rides the champion stayer every day at home. I hope he doesn’t run again this time.

While not exhibiting any of the eccentricities of the great Baracouda, twice winner and twice runner-up in the same race, his owner and trainer believe he hits a “flat spot” in his races, but as Andrew says: “It didn’t hurt Big Buck’s, did it?”

Coming back to Baracouda, he was also a seven-year-old at the time of his first Stayers’. While Paisley Park was winning the race on his tenth lifetime start, Baracouda did not get there until his 22nd career appearance. The first seven on the Flat were for his original owner/trainer, Mme Jacqueline Mathis, who also gave him an initial Auteuil spin before he was transferred to Francois Doumen.

By the time of that first Stayers’ success, Baracouda had already been a frequent cross-Channel traveller with wins at Ascot (Long Walk), Fontwell, Sandown, then the next season Ascot twice (another Long Walk) and Kempton before Cheltenham.

Once that significant barrier was passed, Doumen and owner J P McManus were happy to fire down his targets. In 2002/3, only two runs at Ascot (winning the Ascot Hurdle but only runner-up to Deano’s Beano in the Long Walk) preceded a Cheltenham repeat. He had three outings before Cheltenham the following season, wins at Newbury, Ascot (a third Long Walk) and Sandown but was surprisingly beaten by Iris’s Gift at the Festival.

Another short campaign followed in 2004/5, comprised of victories at Newbury and Wetherby before his usurping by the next stand-out champion, Inglis Drever, at the Festival. The end was now approaching, the 11-year-old following a Newbury second to Inglis Drever with a final fifth at Cheltenham behind My Way de Solzen, who was benefiting from Inglis Drever’s absence through injury.

Brilliantly handled so far by Emma Lavelle, Paisley Park is sensibly staying over hurdles, where he can become a multiple champion in the manner of Baracouda, Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s. There is no need to do anything else and certainly granted freedom from injury and the manifold potential problems racehorses can acquire, he should dominate the staying hurdles division for a long time.

Meanwhile, it’s the Lincoln next week, believe it or not. I’ve had an update from Hughie Morrison about Sod’s Law who will definitely not make the main race, but if the required 14 above him do come out, he’ll get in the Spring Mile. He’s on target according to the trainer, despite hanging onto his winter coat longer than most in the stable, but we’ve been waiting for this race and the straight mile should be right up his street. Count that as a tip, not that you can have a bet until the final entries are known on Thursday week.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: The Power of the Pen

They used to call it the power of the pen, writes Tony Stafford. If the response to my plea last week for anyone who might normally have expected to have heard from me over the previous couple of weeks, to call and /or send me their number, that power is much diminished as we approach the year AD 2020.

My thanks go out to Kevin Howard. He read the piece and responded, not immediately, but more so than anyone else, especially his brother Steve, but that busy chap has probably been too preoccupied with his preparations for Cheltenham.

It was through Steve’s good offices that last year we (me and Harry Taylor) got a great rate in a nice hotel in Worcester for Cheltenham week. He wasn’t there last March, but will be back in his old stamping ground from tonight. Having been confronted with a near doubling in room rates, we’re in a pub somewhere. Not sure which one, you’ll have to ask Alan Newman.

I hope the pub has wifi. I’ve some work to do for the first time in years and that involves the use of a laptop. I had one of those back in the Daily Telegraph days and it took plenty of lugging around. This one’s okay but I have visions of getting to the premises and finding I have to go to a café or somewhere to get coverage.

The second issue of last week’s offering ended with a jocular reference to my rapidly-increasing age, and the fact I’d need to be going to the café and buy the Racing Post to check I’m still around. I wasn’t and felt a strange chilly feeling of real unease at the thought of being summarily excluded as my friend Steve Gilbey – “former owner with Nicky Henderson” was the identification - had been a few years ago. He’s still a former owner with Nicky Henderson and might even have been a 50% owner (with Ray Tooth) of a Betfair (Schweppes) Hurdle winner had Know The Law been less fragile, but he’s still excluded.

If my birthday wasn’t in on Monday, Lucy Wadham’s certainly was, as she was to find out every few yards she stepped around Fakenham racecourse that afternoon. The congratulations required constant rebuttals: “It’s tomorrow” she declared many times. The following day, confirmation of that truism appeared in print, along with the absent list of Monday people.

In true Stafford style I’d protested to the nearest to authority, past and present, that I still know at the Racing Post, among them Howard Wright, their former Industry Editor. Howard will be in the chair as usual at tonight’s annual and always the last of the pre-Cheltenham Festival race nights at the Bedfordshire Racing Club. No, I will be coming Howard, after all.

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The excuse came back about a “new staff member inputting the wrong list” and that’s just about what happened. Those few of us who still buy the paper were to be a little surprised that the management was unable to wait until Royal Ascot for the customary annual price hike.

If you thought £2.90 a shot was prohibitive, like me – poor old codger on a limited income – the sudden 30p extra to £3.20, as happened on Saturday, would appear excessive. Ten per cent is a chunk, but it’s in line with the equally-harsh increase on the online service that kicked in a couple of weeks earlier.

Two rather more serious issues graced its pages over the past couple of days. The farcical initially wrong and then soon after corrected result, not for the first time because of the necessity for separate winning posts at Sandown for chase and hurdle finishes, caused great embarrassment all round on Saturday.

In congratulating Hughie Morrison yesterday morning – he’d been very gracious in saying he didn’t like winning in those circumstances – I discovered that Third Wind’s trainer had played quite a part in getting the result amended before the weighed in announcement.

Historically, “weighed in” was the sacrosanct moment before which bookmakers never paid out on winning bets.  Its status used to be like “under starters orders”, which has been lost in the mists of time and starting stalls.  Life is so helter-skelter these days that nobody can wait a moment longer. What was different about the £42,000 to the winner EBF NH Novice Handicap Final was that One for Rosie, 12-1 and originally declared the winner, and 9-1 shot Third Wind, eventually rightfully given the prize, were such big prices.

Many on course bookmakers, having paid out on One For Rosie, then had to stump up for Third Wind, but having already paid some punters for their place part of an otherwise losing bet, were assailed by claimants whose Third Wind tickets had been left with the layers.

Hughie’s part in the regularisation of the result – in his opinion, the change would not have happened before the “weighed in” announcement without it -  was that having seen the image and heard the initial announcement, he went into the weighing room to seek out Third Wind’s rider Tom O’Brien to instruct him to object.

He stated that as he was talking to O’Brien, the stipendiary steward was on his way out having also seen that the initial result was incorrect. In true big organisation style, the blame has been put on the Racetech technicians who lined up the camera for the photo-finish on the chase finish line, rather than the hurdles one a few yards further on, because of the different angles from which the horses approach the line at Sandown in chases and hurdle races. There is a single point on the stands side from which the two finishing posts both originate and it is always surprising to me how far apart the two finishes apparently need to be.

Third Wind’s victory was pretty ironic for the Tooth team. When Apres Le Deluge, his bumper winner of the previous season, was preparing for his hurdles campaign he was reportedly galloping all over Third Wind, and when he made a promising enough start in fourth at Exeter, the EBF Final was Hughie’s big plan.

Training problems ended that objective, but Apres is back in work, while Ray’s useful miler Sod’s Law is starting his preparation for the Lincoln, actually the consolation Spring Mile, with some encouragement coming from the trainer yesterday.

Also yesterday I was reminded of Michael Dickinson’s scathing criticism of US dirt racing in his recent appearance on Nick Luck’s Luck on Sunday show where he was suggesting dirt’s lifetime may be under a greater threat than anyone appreciates.

His comments came home in yesterday’s Post in a report which said that Santa Anita had cancelled race meetings and training indefinitely after 21 equine fatalities in ten weeks. Frank Stronach’s Stronach Group announced the measures last week and significantly the same group owns  Gulfstream Park where horses running in its multi-million dollar Pegasus Cup races were allowed 7lb if they did not run on medication. Magic Wand ran in the Pegasus Cup Turf race with the allowance and was rewarded with a lucrative second place. Previously Aidan O’Brien had normally taken the opportunity to use medication where allowed on his US runners.

O’Brien and his wife Anne-Marie, both champion NH trainers in the past, will I’m sure be at Cheltenham to run the rule over son Joseph’s attempt at a first Festival winner in his own right.  Three years ago when Ivanovich Gorbatov surprised Apple’s Jade in the Triumph Hurdle, he was credited with having done all the work while Aidan was the official trainer.

Among a couple of potential Joseph winners, the one I’d like to see victorious is Sir Erec in the same juvenile championship race. A former Aidan stayer, he was classy enough to run a close third to Stradivarius in the British Champions Long Distance Cup and has looked a potential Champion Hurdler in his two hurdles runs to date. He needs to recover from a stone bruise to appear, but if he does, he’ll be my banker, as Kalashnikov was when caught late on in last year’s opener. What price Amy Murphy’s star will come back to life in the Arkle tomorrow?

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Beating Addiction

Last September – it seems as though it was the other day, but actually it’s half a year ago – I enjoyed a wonderful few days in Ireland over the Champions weekend with Harry Taylor and Alan Newman, writes Tony Stafford. We raced at Leopardstown and the Curragh, and at Newbridge and Shelbourne Park greyhound tracks on the preceding evenings.

At Shelbourne, where the Boylesports Greyhound Derby semi-finals were the highlight, Leon Blanche of the sponsors kindly invited us to dinner. There we met Sarah Kinsella, a devotee of the track and also Irish horse racing for many years.

It was not until that day that I learned there are no FOBT machines in betting shops in the Irish Republic. Leon told us that and reiterated forcefully: “And there never will be!”.

I must declare an interest. I’ve probably put around a tenner lifetime in betting shop machines, solely on roulette and in casinos, hardly anything. They just don’t interest me.

I’ve seen the damage they can cause, though. In a lifetime, the largest portion of it, I had an opinion on every race when I was the tipster on the Daily Telegraph, and most days I’d want to have a bet on all my tips. I could never operate betting accounts. Many good judges – i.e. those who get some help – find themselves being closed down by bookmakers. I used to get closed because I failed to pay and haven’t had any credit accounts for almost 40 years.

Soon after my first marriage ended, my son suggested I go along to Gamblers Anonymous. I found one in Leyton that operated every Monday night in a church hall. When they work, it’s because gambling victims respond positively to a number of crucial points with the fundamental being that they accept they are addicts, in the same way that Alcoholics Anonymous attendees must do.

I’d like to say I’m cured and believe I am, but not because of the golden rules or whatever they are called. No, it’s because after remarrying in 2008, my second wife who is from Russia, finally got me to have internet banking.

She waited until her English was good enough to understand what was on the statements and when the first one came online, she asked the obvious question: “What is Betfair?”

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At the time I was having a good run and maybe it’s the self-deception of the punter that made me believe it, but I was actually a little in front. Unfortunately the statement would have a dozen amounts of deposits and three or four of returns. For someone who grew up in Siberia during the latter stages of the USSR, this was impossible to understand. I’ve not had a bet on the Internet since after her predictable reaction.

But returning to that GA group, I went along to the church hall for much of that summer, meeting a range of people, but the single-most memorable encounter was with someone who only came along a couple of times.

Fellow sufferers – you’ve seen umpteen images on the screen of people sitting around a circle - take turns to open their hearts and reveal the scars. Here it was around a rectangular table with up to a dozen people. But the lasting memory from more than a decade ago was of a 40-ish year old woman, very quiet and polite with three children. Her weak spot was bingo, with presumably the machines that go along with it.

She was in a position of responsibility within the accounts department of a small firm and embezzled tens of thousands of pounds to fuel her obsession. Luckily for her and her family her employers didn’t prosecute her, merely asking her to pay the money back, which she was in the process of doing with her husband standing by her.

I was regarded as a good judge of horses throughout my time in newspapers, but I must have been one of the worst punters around, often going skint before I could benefit from the later good thing I’d unearthed in my obsessive research. If I’d have added FOBT machines to my list of money-wasting schemes, I’d probably have ended even worse than I have, but when the mainstream credit ran out, the loan sharks stepped in to fill the void and magnify the agony. That’s when you really have to pay, and I did.

Another experience shared with Harry involved an evening in Cirencester two years ago next week when we wanted to watch a Champions League game during the Cheltenham Festival, but no pub in the area was showing it. A major bookmaker in the town was showing the match on one of the many screens. Apart from one other punter, partaking of the fare from Newcastle night racing and some stuff from tracks far and wide around the world, we were the only inhabitants.

Halfway into our hour in the shop, the manager started clearing the cash from the FOBT machines, and there were handfuls of £20 notes in all of them. I understand there is supposedly a maximum of four per shop, but by artificially creating an area within the overall area, I believe there were eight. Maybe unwisely he revealed the shop made around £6,000 a week from the machines, so £300,000 a year. That represents a fair amount of misery.

In a few minutes’ early-morning survey on my 73rd birthday this morning, I read that FOBT machines are not “rigged” but scrupulously monitored to take 2.7% profit from stakes. The snag is with the £100 maximum as has been allowed and spins taking only seconds, punters can and do lose thousands in minutes.

Bringing down the maximum to £2 per spin might well cause more betting shops to close. So what! I’m pretty sure that the big betting firms are increasingly less bothered by their shops than their online gambling, be it racing, football or gaming. People will always find a way to lose their money. No matter how much people are encouraged in television ads only to “lose what you can afford” the primary objective seems to be the creation of gambling addicts, especially among young people.

*

ARC is deservedly being targeted by racing professionals, trainers and owners leading the way with support promised from jockeys, over its anticipation of future further falls in betting shop numbers, to justify immediate cuts in prize money.

The simplest way to react to that was what has already been done – make the racing uncompetitive and some races failing to have any entries, then the large amount of money ARC and other racecourse owners get for staging the races is reduced.  If that were to fail, the obvious remedy is to ensure there are no jockeys to ride the horses that are entered. ARC ‘s last-minute decision to increase prize money for certain races at the lower end, thereby also triggering Levy Board support for those races, proves the point.

Let’s hope the dispute ends swiftly. Racing is a wonderful sport and as I’ve discovered recently, you don’t have to bet heavily all the time to enjoy it. The days when I went racing looking for the nearest person to “nip” for £100 to have a bet are fortunately long gone. But my betting was on the horses and those races only come along every few minutes. The machines are far more unrelenting.

By the way, for anyone who might have been expecting a call from me over the past couple of weeks, I managed to damage the sim card along with my phone and it took a week for the replacement to come along.

In the manner of the true techno idiot, the phone numbers were never “backed up”, I think is the correct term. So anyone who hasn’t heard from me but expected a call is perfectly welcome to let me know their number. There is no need for any Happy Birthdays, the Racing Post do it for me. Hang on, I’d better check they haven’t assumed I’m no longer around!

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Some Anglo-French Relations

It’s funny who you see when you go racing, writes Tony Stafford. On Saturday I had decided upon Kempton rather than Lingfield’s Winter Derby principally because Nicolas Clement was running a debutant four-year-old in the closing bumper. When I spoke to the Chantilly trainer in midweek his plans were fluid. In the end he didn’t make it, nor did Rise and Dine who showed greenness and knee action in abundance as he followed the field home.

Outside the owners’ room beforehand, I snatched a moment’s chat with Andrew Gemmell, still keyed up in anticipation of Paisley Park at Cheltenham, and the following day the subject of a big Peter Thomas feature in the Racing Post.

At the neighbouring table I came across a family grouping. A few minutes earlier I thought I recognised Wendy Guillambert, and there sure enough, she was seated with husband Jean-Luc, one-time owner and amateur rider and daughter Francoise, complete with young son. Francoise’s husband, Ed Babington, whose father Nick was Peter Savill’s long-time assistant and brother-in-law to Lady Cecil, so being a Guest by marriage, was also around.

Ed had a few rides for Vince (now Vicky) Smith who called recently to say he had received an invitation to ride in the Legends race later this year. Jean-Luc used to ride out for the former trainer whose least memorable moment in a life of great future change was to handle Richie Boy, the last winner to run in my colours before they switched allegiance to David Armstrong.

The Guillamberts, as I am grateful to learn via a 2003 article by my late friend Colin Fleetwood-Jones, met at Jean-Luc’s restaurant in Brighton when Wendy, according to Fleeters was a triple winner of the Miss Watney Beauty Contest.

Since his restaurant days, M. Guillambert – he was born in Paris – made his money from Ascot Supreme Horseboxes in Newmarket. Whether he still runs them was difficult to ascertain at 5.00 a.m. when I was writing this, but I hope he does, because they are very nice horseboxes.

I asked what had happened to their son Jean-Pierre, being told he is riding in Qatar. I looked up his riding stats in the UK later and discovered that from 2001 when he failed to ride a winner until 2013, he always achieved at least double figures, starting with 15 in 2002.

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In Fleetwood-Jones’ 2003 article, the rising apprentice reveals (August) he was leading the apprentice title race with 21 winners, a figure that rose to 37 by the end of that year. In the article, CFJ says “only the unstoppable Ryan Moore among riders of his age <then 20> has had more winners.”

He went on to ride 434 UK winners in all with a peak of 63 in 2005. Since 2014 when he had just two successes, he has been based principally in Qatar and had no UK mounts until six without success last year. During 2017, joined by his wife the former jockey Kelly Harrison, he had a riding stint in South Korea at the time when fears, happily proven unfounded, of nuclear strikes from neighbouring North Korea were in the air.

It was only when I woke yesterday to catch up on Saturday events elsewhere that I realised by the time we had our chat, Jean-Pierre had already notched up a nice few riding percentages in the Emirate of which he is now a permanent resident.

He finished runner-up around noon UK time on the locally-trained, ex-Archie Watson inmate Luchador, in the Al Biddah Mile (£112k to the winner, £43k to the runner-up). In a later article Jean-Pierre admits he could not remain a UK tax payer on the far greater earnings he can generate elsewhere. Not least in that conclusion must have been the fact that lightweights - he could always manage 8st3lb - have been squeezed out by present-day handicap weights.

Luchador was runner-up to the Gay Kelleway-trained Global Spectrum, who was maintaining his unbeaten record at the third time of asking after two winter all-weather wins. Few will begrudge the now almost veteran trainer another big horse which she describes as her best since Sorbie Tower, who was third for her in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot 23 years ago.

Ms Kelleway will always be remembered as the first female to win a Royal Ascot winner, Sprowston Boy in the 1987 Queen Alexandra Stakes, more than 30 years ago and she remains the only one to do so. The key to her success, apart from a good deal of talent, is that she has in full measure all the toughness and determination of her late father Paul, a top trainer for many years after being best known as the rider of Bula for Fred Winter.

Perhaps as relevant these days, though, is that Gay has managed to secure a big owner in the form of Dr Johnny Hon, founder and chairman of Global Group International Holdings. The doctor is a Hong Kong-born, UK- educated (Sherborne, Harrow and Cambridge University) businessman and philanthropist with interests in finance, film production and theatre.

In 2018 he ran 22 different horses, all bar one with the Global prefix. The only exception is Oswald, bought presumably as a lead horse from a previous Kelleway owner for 9,000gns. She has six of the Globals, but Spectrum is comfortably the best and the step up to higher grade cannot long be delayed.

Hugo Palmer and George Scott  had unplaced runners in the Mile race, but earlier Andrew Balding’s Stone of Destiny finished a half-length runner-up, also earning £43,000 in the Sprint race, won by local runner Anima Rock.

Stone of Destiny had finished third in the Lingfield Listed race earlier in February behind the impressive Kachy, beaten favourite in last year’s All-Weather Championship Sprint. Kachy’s chance of avenging that defeat by French-trained City Light, when crucially he missed the break, are looking good. On Saturday at Lingfield, another Listed sprint was won by Gracious Noora who had been just ahead of Stone of Destiny but totally outpaced by Kachy in the earlier race.

Some colours that I recognised, and certainly a name which rings a bell, French Fifteen, also had something to remind me of on Saturday. French King, a son of Ray Tooth’s winner of the Group 1 Criterium International at Saint-Cloud and later in new ownership just beaten by Camelot in the 2,000 Guineas, won the £448,000 HH the Amir Trophy.

It was because the Qatari royal family sponsored the 2012 2,000 Guineas that French Fifteen ran at Newmarket rather than pick up the easier French Guineas (and its owner’s premiums) that would have been our objective if he were still in Ray’s ownership.

At the time of his sale, Nicolas Clement thought the new owners would become quite important for him, but after Newmarket, training problems prevented French Fifteen’s fully  realising what I’m sure was great potential. He stands for €6,000 and this home-bred is his best son. Sadly, though, the Qataris are no more in the Clement yard. Their loss, I’m sure, not his.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Catching Heatstroke!

Nicky Henderson said it himself on the Lambourn trainers’ site yesterday before Heatstroke made his jumping debut at Huntingdon, writes Tony Stafford. To paraphrase: “We have a good record for Jim and Fitri Hay, but if we manage to win with this gelding after almost two years off it would be quite an achievement.”

Apologies, Nicky, for any inaccuracy in the quoting, but the sentiments for anyone reading those comments would have been – they were for me – the great trainer was challenging himself. In those circumstances it was almost inconceivable that Heatstroke would fail, and how appropriate in a mid-February when temperatures of 17 degrees C are becoming almost commonplace that he didn’t.

In his days with Charlie Hills, the now seven-year-old got to a Flat rating of 87, indeed that was achieved after winning a Kempton maiden on the second of only two juvenile runs in the autumn. After an absent 2015, two unplaced runs followed at four years of age after which he was gelded.

Whether any tinkering with his wind during that time occurred was never needed in those days to be notified. Then 18 months after his sole subsequent unplaced run for Nicky’s next-door neighbour, the now almost-obligatory wind op was revealed  after which the move from one Lambourn yard to another was effected, presumably without any transport charge.

It was actually 676 days between runs, much longer – in fact 1579 days – between drinks. How Jim and Fitri, if they were there, and Nicky would have enjoyed Huntingdon’s always-generous post-race winning connections’ champers.

So, starting with Nicky’s slightly pessimistic morning comments, a five-times-raced seven-year-old with Flat-race breeding might not be the obvious candidate. However, when you’ve cared for and nurtured from birth an animal with Fitri Hay-type breeding, even owners of that prominence might want an alternative career for him later in the game.

The starting point, for racegoers on the Flat-race type Huntingdon circuit was that here was a son of the great Galileo, bred on the same Danehill cross as Frankel. The Racing Post, in listing the dam’s progeny confines itself to older siblings, in his case including The Corsican, who was pretty good.

You need to delve a little further to find that the next full-brother after Heatstroke was the very high-class Deauville, now six and racing in Dubai for Fawzi Nass. He has yet to show anything like the form that won more than £1 million for the Hays and which concluded under Aidan O’Brien’s care with third behind Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior in their epic Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown in September. He finished only three lengths behind the winner, starting 40-1!

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Mr Nass, based in Bahrain but a regular winner at the Carnival every year, must be biding his time. He recently announced the closure of his private Newmarket yard, where the winners proved elusive as they do for most people trying that sort of ambitious operation.

Just as John Gosden edged ahead of Aidan O’Brien in the 2018 UK Flat-race trainers list, so the incumbent Nicky Henderson is no doubt feeling the draft from Somerset. He was at Ascot on Saturday, so had a first-hand view as his predecessor and main rival, Paul Nicholls, dominated the post-EI card there and everywhere else.

Eight wins, five at the Royal course, though not the rescheduled from Newbury Betfair Hurdle (won impressively by Al Dancer and Twisty) and including the Triumph Hurdle Trial at Haydock and Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle blew the title race apart to the tune of £240k almost without reply.

One obvious highlight was the continuing climb to the summit of Cheltenham Gold Cup candidature of the seven-year-old Clan des Obeaux, much too good and ultimately far too pacey for Nicky’s Terrefort in the other Newbury refugee, the Betfair Denman Chase.

But far more excitement was delivered a little later by another French-imported seven-year-old, Cyrname, and before his demolition job on Waiting Patiently and two other more highly-rated stars in the Betfair Ascot Chase, Peter Ashmore and I had an entertaining few minutes with the talent scout that secured his re-location from Patrice Quinton to Ditcheat three years previously.

Everyone who watched Racing UK before the morphing into Racing TV would have seen Claude Charlet, much-travelled and including Macau-based trainer, offering his indelible insights into the channel’s regular cross-La Manche shows.

Now with Ireland coming into the Racing TV stable, the one-time At The Races is now Sky Sports Racing, starring Alex Hammond, and Messrs Chapman, Harvey and Weaver, and the repository for French racing. They are happy to “invent” places like Mont de Marsan and Angers (wasn’t that the favourite for the Derby that turned right at Tattenham Corner?) and I’m sure in time La Croise Laroche, racecourses too minor ever to appear on opposition screens.

Actually I’ve been to Le Lion d’Angers, near the other one, where French Fifteen won, and La Croise, where Nicolas Clement trained a lesser winner, My Boy Davis, also for Ray Tooth. If you care to jump on the Eurostar from St Pancras to Lille, not much more than 80 minutes and a short taxi ride gets you to a lovely track.

Claude’s deep knowledge and vast web of contacts which enabled him to source Sire de Grugy and many more under the noses of more financially-endowed agents and owners, comes with an accent somewhere between Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and Arthur Bostram’s depiction of Officer Crabtree in ‘Allo ‘Allo.

But Claude is great company and he always says “if you ‘ave a man with 300 Euro <thousands of course>, I will find ‘im a good ‘orse” and he will too. He said on Saturday that it is just unbelievable how much money English owners will pay for horses of potential from the land of his birth “to win a five grand race” and he even threw in a fair comic impression of some members of that grouping to complete the pantomime.

Early in Cyrname’s career in the UK it seems that not everyone, least of all Mr Nicholls, was convinced that the gelding needed running with conviction from the front and M. Charlet recalls a number of “heated conversations” with the trainer. There’s no question that’s the way it’s done now.

On Saturday, with an £85,000 first prize at stake and not just Waiting Patiently (rated 170), but Fox Norton (166) and stablemate Politologue (168) all theoretically the 165-rated Cyrname’s superiors, the packed Ascot stands must have been anticipating a changing of the guard as they turned for home with two to jump.

All three adversaries – the other pair Charbel (161) and Aso (163) was already dropped – moved closer and then Cyrname just stretched away as though on a piece of elastic. At the line it was 17 lengths to Waiting Patiently, and in a time only 2.50 seconds above the standard for two miles, five furlongs. Clan Des Obeaux was 16.70 seconds above the three miles standard time. The re-measured actual extra distance taken for the three-mile chases, of which there were three, over the Ascot Chase was two furlongs and 172 yards. Clan des Obeaux took an extra 49.46 seconds to complete his course.

My other highlight was the riding of Charlie Deutsch, so handsomely championed by Venetia Williams after his idiotic traffic and fleeing arrest offences which cost him a prison stretch last year. Recently on Luck on Sunday she waxed extravagantly about his talent and understanding as a rider and all that reverence was justified and repaid with the ride of the season to my mind (and in Venetia’s and owner Lady Bolton’s view too) on Calipto in the Listed Swinley Chase.

He told them beforehand he would drop Calipto right out at the start and the metronomic, unfussed way the partnership made their ground before driving away from the formidable Black Corton/ Bryony Frost team was steeplechasing poetry.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: UK Racing Reels from Point Blank Jab

Every autumn, while the days are still long and temperatures warm, the messages start, writes Tony Stafford. Either as SMS’s or calls from the surgery’s land line. “Don’t forget your ‘flu jab. It’s free!”

Boots the chemist also makes regular calls to one and all to take advantage of the offer for much of the pre-winter period. From my surgery the urgency increases with time. Obviously they have so many units of the stuff they simply do not want to be left with any. After all, who’s going to bother taking precautions once you get past Christmas?

A few years ago I succumbed to the onslaught, much as regular (possibly annual, although seemingly constant) demands to have one’s type 2 diabetes, blood pressure, eyesight, weight, feet and God knows what checked punctuate life for over 65’s in the Britain of the 21st Century.

So I have the flu jab each year and, while it does not guarantee immunity, I have never had what goes for “proper” flu when you are stuck in bed for a week and end up with agony in the bones and joints. Then again I’d never had more than a cold in any of the previous six-and-a-bit decades before Mr Flu Jab entered my senior life.

Every racehorse in Great Britain has to be fully inoculated against Equine Influenza before it ever races and each year has to have a booster injection. Just as my insurance against the worst potential effects of flu is no guarantee of escape from infection, so horses’ immunity is also not inevitable.

When Wednesday’s news of Donald McCain’s stable’s having three confirmed cases of EI was revealed it shocked and stopped racing in its tracks. These were revealed by the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket after swabs on the three horses were taken by vet Alasdair Topp on McCain’s instigation as those three horses had been exhibiting “worrying signs”.

All McCain’s runners since the previous Monday were monitored. Immediately the BHA ordered that every stable that might have had a horse possibly coming into contact with one of the McCain animals at those racecourses should go into “lockdown”. The race was on to test every horse in what amounted to 174 stables, and equally to get the swabs to carry out the tests. Soon after, three more McCain horses, including one of three from the stable to have raced in the days immediately before the revelation, were discovered to have the virus.

Those veterinary practices that were quick off the mark apparently bought up all available swab supplies, leaving some stables to have to wait in limbo for days before being tested. The vets have been to the forefront in this procedure as racing underwent an initial week-long hiatus, one that could well be prolonged further after Sunday night’s news that four Simon Crisford stable inmates have tested positive.

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So, most worryingly, especially for the sport’s top practitioners, Newmarket is not clear. Crisford, while at the moment concentrating more with his runners at Meydan, did have a beaten odds-on shot (Sajanjl) at Newcastle last Tuesday but not on a day that McCain had a runner there. Crisford is in an interesting, nay privileged, position, hardly surprising in view of his long previous career as Sheikh Mohammed’s racing manager at Godolphin.

Overseas trainers are allowed runners only on the days of the Carnival in Dubai, but alone, apart from Charlie Appleby and Saeed Bin Suroor, Godolphin’s main trainers in the UK, Crisford can also run horses at non-Carnival fixtures there. He is operating a satellite yard in the Emirate, so counts as a local trainer.

It did not take long for opinion to question the need for such stringent action. Nigel Twiston-Davies vociferously echoed the thoughts of many stablemen who believe that as all these horses have been immunised, the fact that a few cases have been revealed is little different from the run of the mill situation in all stables where runny noses and temperatures are a daily fact of life.

One trainer, not affected by the lockdown, said that for weeks around the country marts talk has been of rampant flu in non-racing animals in the UK and Ireland while he had heard that one of France’s leading trotting yards has voluntarily closed itself down.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, and clearly the BHA had to be seen to be acting to contain such a contagious disease, the costs for owners will as ever be considerable. Apart from missed opportunities at the track – who says the Betfair Hurdle prizemoney will ever be collected? – the blood tests must be paid for by somebody. My contact reckons the vets are the only winners in this costly exercise.

It was timely that Luck on Sunday chose this week for his principal guest to be Michael Dickinson, 36 years after his unique and much-celebrated Famous Five Gold Cup when Bregawn led home Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House that March day in Cheltenham.

Dickinson seems hardly changed in his appearance since those days, but more than 30 years on from his departure to train in the US after his sacking as Robert Sangster’s trainer at Manton, he is uniquely placed to assess such problems as the present veterinary crisis.

Luck asked how equine flu is dealt with in the US, to which Dickinson said that the system of training at racetracks makes it easier to handle any problems. With each stable and trainer having his own barn, any infected horse and therefore trainer’s barn can be quickly closed down and put effectively into isolation.

Just as when international runners go over for events such as the Breeders’ Cup, they have to go onto the track for training after the main body of domestic horses are exercised, so any barns with horses showing signs of infection have to exercise at separate times.

Newmarket stables identified as being in lockdown are similarly being required to exercise their horses in the afternoons, until clear returns for all those horses are established. As anybody that’s ever spoken to a trainer will tell you, horses have to be exercised every day once they have been brought to racing fitness, for their own and stable staff’s welfare. Monday morning traditionally, after a quiet Sunday, was always the day when lads expected a fiery first few minutes before the weekend “fizz” was extinguished.

Much of the 40 minutes of Luck and Dickinson devolved into a thrust and counter-thrust of the Mad Genius berating the Boy Wonder on his love of dirt racing. Dickinson, contrarily, while conceding the Triple Crown is safe, reckons dirt racing’s time may be coming almost to a conclusion.

As the developer of the Tapeta racing surface, as he revealed the result of 53 different elements – “we had them all in boxes” – his championing of turf and synthetic over dirt is hardly unexpected. But he backed his point of view with compelling statistics of the level of fatalities in dirt racing.

He said that the biggest complaints about racing in the United States were ”medication, facilities and dirt”, while agreeing that when Da Hoss won his two Breeders’ Cup Mile races two years apart, he did race with both Lasix and Bute.

Luck called that hypocritical, but Dickinson would not be shamed saying, “Lasix moves a horse up four lengths. If we’d not allowed him to use it, we wouldn’t have won and you wouldn’t be interviewing me now”. The “four lengths” theory explains why Frank Stronach, boss of Gulfstream Park in Florida wrote a condition in the two multi-million dollar Pegasus races recently allowing 7lb for horses not using any medication. Aidan O’Brien took the option and was rewarded with a highly-lucrative second place from Magic Wand in the Turf race.

Dickinson armed himself with a number of quotes. In one a New York racing secretary said that if he writes a maiden race on dirt, he’ll get two entries. The same conditions for a maiden on turf would attract 18. The writing it seems is on that particular wall, but then the fact that turf tracks are susceptible to wear and tear is a constant downside for US racecourses that may race every day for weeks on end.

Dickinson also offered a quote from Aidan O’Brien, perhaps understandable after the shocking experience of Mendelssohn in last year’s Kentucky Derby: “Dirt racing has an aggression approaching the level of savagery.” Point taken! As for racing here, let’s hope enough of the swabs come back clean so that it can resume before too much more damage is done.

Monday Musings: Klassical keeps the Dream alive

Last August, I had a brief drink before racing at York with Mark Smith when he told me about a horse his closest friend John Coleman had bought from France and sent to Willie Mullins, writes Tony Stafford. Sadly, since buying Klassical Dream, the name of the horse, John had died. “You must remember John, he always came racing with me, especially to Cheltenham,” said Mark. I did and do.

“It’s such a shame. He’s a really good horse and Willie loves him, but although he ran in some good hurdle races in France he didn’t win one. I don’t know if Joanne, John’s wife, will be able to keep him though,” Mark added.

The connection between that brief conversation and events yesterday in Ireland was lost on me until, post-race, Gary O’Brien mentioned the name Mark Smith, and blow me down it was that Mark Smith being interviewed by Nick Luck in the winner’s enclosure along with another pal.

I’d never had the retired-at- an- embarrassingly-early-age former City trader down as emotional, but in full view of the cameras it was as much as he could do to get out Joanne’s name and the fact of the “three boys watching at home”.  Clearly he was delighted at the turn of events, Joanne indeed keeping the horse and getting a Grade 1 prize, the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle, to help defray expenses.

Now Mark Smith will have a good reason, as if he ever needs one, to be at the Festival next month when the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle will be the target. Klassical Dream, who battled back under Ruby Walsh to hold stable-companion Aramon by a head, is 8-1 for that championship race.

I know whenever I refer back to horses that have run at Cheltenham or anywhere else in my old colours, I have to pinch myself at how long ago it all was. No doubt Mark will be amazed that next month will be the 25th anniversary of his greatest day as an owner, when Balasani was awarded the prize for the BonusPrint Stayers Hurdle after narrowly failing to catch Avro Anson, who was disqualified.

Like Klassical Dream, Balasani was a French import, in his case an Aga Khan-bred who won on the last of three races in his homeland, at Saint-Cloud in April 1989.He never went through a sales ring as far as my researches could reveal, and if Mark had phoned back yesterday – he said around an hour after the race: “I’m with some people, I’ll call later” - the mystery might have been cleared up.

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Suffice to say, Balasani eventually appeared from the John Jenkins stable from where he ran a total of 15 times on the Flat and over hurdles. Despite the best efforts of Messrs Piggott, Eddery, Asmussen and Dunwoody and several others, he never managed to win.

That took him to early 1991 and the switch to Martin Pipe. Second time out, at Worcester, Balasani won at 10-1 and was in a winner’s enclosure seven more times before Christmas. He ran off a modest 91 at Worcester and by the time of the last of five jumping victories that year, the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Sandown, he beat a field of 21 decent handicappers from 4lb out of the weights and a mark of 129, just 38lb higher! Some trainer, Pipey.

In between had come a Flat hat-trick, Lester contributing once and Darryl Holland the other two starting off in the 40’s.

Then, in the manner of Martin Pipe, Balasani was re-born from being a decent two-miler to a top staying hurdler, at the same time mirroring that progress on the level. In March 93, after a fallow 1992, he began with victory over one mile seven furlongs off 65 at Warwick before romping away with the Ascot Stakes (2m4f) from 10lb higher.

Now it was big races all the way. Next time he was runner-up, giving plenty of weight to the winner Highflying in the Northumberland Plate (off 83) and was jolted up to 91 when predictably stretched by the weight in the Cesarewitch. All that remained for that winter were three hurdle runs. He was fourth to Sweet Duke in the Long Walk at Ascot; and beat the smart Cab On Target easily in the Rendlesham Hurdle in its then home at Kempton before the Cheltenham win which showcased his ability to sprint up hills at the end of long-distance races. Post Cheltenham, he was the beaten favourite for the Queen Alexandra at Royal Ascot.

Presumably that was one test too far as he was off the track for more than 18 months, returning for a low-key five-race farewell tour for Pipe, who managed to fashion one last success as a 10-year-old in a long-distance claiming hurdle at Newton Abbot. Another break was the prelude to a final few runs for permit holder John O’Neill, also a one-time City man.

Mark has never lost his interest in racing, despite leaving ownership to others and is one of the shrewdest punters around, like his one-time City colleague and now Racing TV betting pundit Dave Nevison, who would have enjoyed yesterday’s win from his trackside pitch. One day Mark asked me whether I could arrange with the Daily Telegraph for his elder daughter to do her work experience there. She did, as also did her younger sister a few years later. Both have had long careers associated with newspapers and publishing. As Alan Newman might say: “It’s not what you know”!

I was delighted when Sir Erec made all the running in the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle to confirm the overwhelming strength of Joseph O’Brien’s Triumph Hurdle hand. Racing TV’s Irish team, O’Brien and Donn McClean, seemed surprised beforehand that Sir Erec was shaping to make the running, but having finished a close third to Stradivarius in Ascot’s Qipco Champions Long Distance Cup last October for Aidan and the Coolmore boys, he would hardly be lacking in stamina.

Then after he sprinted away, putting six lengths between himself and the equally well-fancied J P McManus-owned stablemate Gardens of Babylon, the suggestion from the team was, “he had the run of the race”.  I often find that a nonsensical concept, but surely the way for him to find out the other runners’ limitations was to press on from the start. The question for the Triumph will be whether he or Cheltenham winner Fakir d’Oudairies will be the one. Don’t ask me.

The very limited English challenge over the two days of the Dublin Racing Festival was pretty much limited to La Bague Au Roi in the Flogas Novice Chase over two miles, five furlongs. Richard Johnson had the Warren Greatrex-trained mare in front from the start, and she stayed on as bravely as ever to make it 14 wins in 19 career starts. She remains unbeaten in four chases and looks another banker for the Festival, presumably in the RSA Insurance Novice Chase.

I left Leopardstown to Harry Taylor – more air miles than Judith Chalmers – in favour of Sandown on Saturday, where the best clerk of the course in the business, Andrew Cooper, once again played the percentages to get the meeting on. No frost covers – “if we had it would have cost 30k and we couldn’t have lifted the snow off” – but temperatures were helpful over the previous two days so the judgment call paid off with a good crowd and competitive racing, headed up by Buveur d’Air.

Sandown remains the best viewing course in the country and, according to Peter Jensen, its chairman, racegoers can expect a number of easily-visible improvements before the end of 2019 as the track undergoes the first phase of a multi-million pound re-development.

In the near future some rather more spectacular re-structuring is promised and with Spelthorne Borough Council seemingly strongly against any closure of sister-track Kempton, prospects for racing and racegoers in the area are bright indeed. That’s just as well in a period of increasing gloom in the sport, especially if the news of Sheikh Mohammed’s questioning of the financial extent of his involvement goes much further.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Hearing is believing

Spectacular! Scintillating! Jaw-dropping! Eye-opening! All of the above, except for Paisley Park’s owner Andrew Gemmell who, of necessity, merely listened to the brilliant performance of his fast-improving hurdler as he romped to victory in Saturday’s Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, writes Tony Stafford. The Emma Lavelle-trained gelding is deservedly now favourite for the Sun Racing Stayers Hurdle back at the track in March.

Andrew, blind from birth, had his loyal friend Tony Hunt and some other regulars in Paisley Park’s fan club close at hand as he reacted with increasing optimism as the race unwound.

Before racing Gemmell admitted to being “Nervous, more nervous than Ascot”, presumably remembering the disappointment of his horse’s 13th place in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the Festival last March. Afterwards the soft ground was attributed principally to what was a below-expectations effort. In retrospect Paisley Park, a 33-1 chance, previously had only a small Hereford novice win among only three hurdle races on his record.

Now a seven-year-old, he has fully matured and Saturday was his fourth win of an unbeaten season. Starting in handicaps at Aintree and Haydock, he then polished off Ascot’s Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle before this emphatic victory.

I stood a yard or two away from Mr Gemmell in the paddock as, with back to the big screen, he strained to hear. When commentator Ian Bartlett observed soon after the fourth-last that Paisley Park had not immediately responded to his rider’s urgings, his face gave away inner doubts.

Until then, the jumping had been fast and accurate and the first few strides after each jump, fluent and constantly resulting in net gain. Bartlett’s attention had been drawn to the only occasion when a slight misjudgement altered the status quo, instant recovery translating to a few sluggish strides.

From the downhill third last, which he jumped in eighth, to the home turn, at which point he was still in that same grouping but a few lengths nearer, Aidan Coleman had him level with Unowhatimeanharry. He was on the outside, but as they turned for home the jockey manoeuvred him between horses at which point it was obvious he was going best, with just a slight worry of potential crowding.

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At Ascot, off level weights, he had needed to catch the Colin Tizzard-trained 40-1 shot West Approach, which he did to the tune of two lengths. Here, conceding 6lb for that Grade 1 win, he again had West Approach as the final horse to overtake. This he managed easily before the last this time. By the line, three lengths there had been stretched to a dozen with another two to Black Op in third and Sam Spinner a further ten away in fourth.

This field, which contained most of the home candidates for the Stayers Hurdle, had been blown away. Unowhatimeanharry, a multiple Grade 1 winner and, like Sam Spinner a Long Walk faller which caused many to question the worth of Paisley Park’s win there, was 30 lengths behind at the finish, all lost in the last quarter-mile.

A strict interpretation of the two runs through the runner-up, suggests an improvement of at least a stone in barely a month and with the ground riding softer than the official pre-race verdict, any going and course fears can be consigned to the rubbish bin.

Before and after the race Andrew, who has shares in 20 horses including in Australia, unsurprisingly was the target for interviewers and he clearly gets a large kick out of owning such a good horse. I remember when Tangognat won the corresponding opening race on the same card 33 years ago to set up his illusory Triumph Hurdle prospects – he was a very disappointing second favourite – I could think of nothing else for the next six weeks. Let’s hope Andrew has other matters to concentrate on. I know he’ll never tire of listening to the commentary of the last part of Saturday’s race.

A couple of weeks back Joseph O’Brien was quoted as saying he’d just taken charge of a number of  horses bought from France for J P McManus. One of them, Fine Brunello, made his debut for the stable with a very promising second in the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle which opened proceedings.

A 25-1 shot, he will have pleased connections but while comfortably beating off the seven home defenders, he was nowhere near good enough to cope with stable-companion Fakir d’Oudairies, a son of Kapgarde, who sluiced in by 13 lengths in the manner of a potential champion.

Five jump races between April and August of his three-year-old season for top trainer Guy Cherel did not provide a win, and he fell in the second of two chases – that’s right, they can run over fences there while our backward Flat racers are just getting going!

But since joining O’Brien he already had a win in a 22-runner juvenile race at Cork and now dominated stronger company going ahead of the field three from home and winning by 13 lengths. With five French and one German import in this nine-runner field, the domination in jumping at the top end for owners wealthy enough to buy these horses is ever more obvious. The winner here was owned by M L Bloodstock Ltd, interestingly the breeders of the runner-up!

In all, 25 French-breds helped swell the wonderful Cheltenham card and one of them, Frodon, provided another highlight when making all under an inspired Briony Frost to deny Elegant Escape in the Betbright Cotswold Chase. He’ll give it everything if he turns up for the Gold Cup and if he does, Frodon will be the darling of all the non-racing media at the meeting. They’ll love Briony for sure. Who doesn’t?

Three weeks back I gave a mention to the former Andrew Balding trainee, now called Ka Ying Star, after his lucrative first run and win at Sha Tin. He made a big step up in class there in Sunday’s Hong Kong Classic Mile worth £570,000 to the winner and after a brave front-running effort compromised by having to go very fast from a wide draw to get the lead, held on for a good third. He earned his new owners £115,000. Hong Kong Derby here they come!

The proper Derby, run at Epsom, is one of the 43 Classic or Group 1 races that have fallen to products of David and Diane Nagle’s Barronstown Stud in Co Wicklow. Their Epsom winner was Generous, but they will rarely if ever have had a better weekend than early last September when Kew Gardens won the St Leger at Doncaster and Flag of Honour the Irish St Leger at The Curragh the following day.

In that context it is hardly surprising that their achievement has been officially recognised by their being inducted into the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Hall of Fame. The slight surprise is that after more than 30 years’ excellence, and with horses of the calibre of Yeats which Diane owned with Sue Magnier, they were not already in it! Well done indeed!

Mrs Magnier, as part of the Coolmore team, had a nice pay day in the US on Saturday. Magic Wand, winner last year of the Ribblesdale, was shrewdly sent by Aidan O’Brien to run in the first Turf Pegasus Invitational race at Gulfstream, which hosted its third year of the main event won previously by Arrogate and Gun Runner, both earning more than £5million for their trouble.

Now track owner Frank Stronach has decided to split the overall money three to two in favour of the Dirt race, but that still left $6 million to be divvied up in the Turf race and $9 milllion against the previous $15 million for the dirt, won easily on Saturday by City of Light. Stronach also offered the incentive of a 7lb allowance for any horse not using Lasix. Originally Magic Wand was due to carry 8st 7lb and Ryan Moore, who had been preparing himself for his lightest weight with rides on the all-weather.

In the event, O’Brien, who usually uses Lasix for his US runners, decided to take advantage of it and with Wayne Lordan in the saddle at 8st, Magic Wand ran home well into second place behind easy winner Bricks and Mortar, who conceded 12lb. Without the 7lb kicker, she would probably have been no better than fourth – a difference of almost £250K in prize money. Smart work!

Monday Musings: The Four Doyennes

The virtual ink had no sooner metaphorically dried on last week’s article before I noticed an unlikely coincidence, writes Tony Stafford. It’s strange that I hadn’t registered it on any of the previous January 15th’s I’d bought the Racing Post, but last Monday morning I finally did.

In my rather random progress around the horseracing world I’ve met only four female owners of American stud farms. One, Penny Chenery, I encountered only a single time, at a party at Lands End, Sands Point, on Long Island, New York, the mansion which is generally accepted as Scott FitzGerald’s inspiration for his novel The Great Gatsby. It was my good fortune to be a house guest there on a few occasions.

On suggesting <and I’m sure you would have read this here before>: "Didn’t you own a good horse?”, Ms Chenery patiently replied: “Yes we bred and owned Secretariat”! That is still the most embarrassing faux pas in my life, considering I was supposed to know something about the game at that time.

Penny, the real-life heroine of the film Secretariat, in which she was played by the amazing Diane Lane, was a major figure in the US racing and breeding industries for many years until her death age 95 in 2017. The host of the Sands Point party was the one of the formidable quartet I knew best, Virginia Kraft Payson, younger than her three counterparts. All four have had remarkable careers.

I am indebted to one of the other two ladies, Alice Chandler, who was 93 last Monday, for meeting Virginia. I went on appointment to her Mill Ridge Stud in Lexington, Kentucky, with George Hill during the 1989 or 1990 Keeneland July sales to see Kris’s full-brother, Diesis. Having said farewell to the future sire of Halling and Ramruma, we were stopped on the way out by Mrs Chandler who invited us to a party that coincidentally she was giving at the farm that evening.

On arrival, I was taken across by Alice to a lady and the hostess said: “This is Virginia Payson. You two should get on, she’s a journalist, too!” We did and but for Alice, Jim Bolger, at the time a regular contact, would never have trained St Jovite, six-length winner of the King George and previously by twice that margin in the Irish Derby.

The Derby itself had narrowly evaded St Jovite, who was less precocious than hard-fought winner Dr Devious and that colt was his immediate victim in the Curragh rout. As for journalist and journalist, while I cosily enjoyed life in Fleet Street, Virginia was the “hunting, shooting and fishing” correspondent for Sports Illustrated for many years, capably partaking in all those disciplines herself.

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The fourth stud farm-owning lady was Josephine Abercrombie, and she too was 93 last Monday. Apart from five husbands, and top-class horses bred at her Pin Oak stud in Versailles, just outside Lexington, she was a noted boxing promoter. Unlike most others in that field, she even developed her own stable of boxers who were housed and provided for in an almost racing stable-like arrangement in Texas, where her father made his fortune in oil.

In the UK she won the 1994 Ebor at York with the giant Hasten To Add, trained by Sir Mark Prescott, beating two pals who are also still going strong, Alan Spence’s Admiral’s Well (by Sadler’s Wells) and Solartica (Bjorn Neilsen).

I first met her the following October at the Meadowlands, part of the complex that includes the home of the New York Mets baseball team (once owned by Mrs P’s husband Charles Shipman Payson) and Flushing Meadows, location for the US Open tennis championships. I was there to meet Michael Dickinson, who had a runner that night and with whom Dale McKeown, previously a decent jump jockey with Reg Akehurst in the UK, was part of the team.

Mrs Abercrombie’s  smart three-year-old Peaks and Valleys won the Grade 1 Meadowlands Cup under Julie Krone over nine furlongs on that Friday night. Three weeks later he was unplaced in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont behind the incomparable Cigar. Mrs Payson’s homebred L’Carriere was an honourable second in that Classic.

It must have been the following July that I went across to Pin Oak Stud accompanied by Donna Rion, a noted Kentucky pedigree expert, where Peaks and Valleys had just started stallion duties alongside Sky Classic. More recently, Josephine’s high-class homebred, Broken Vow, still active, has kept Pin Oak to the fore.

Alice Chandler has been married to Dr John Chandler, a South African-born vet, since 1970 and Dr John has long been a key element in Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte stud operation. Alice Headley, as she was, started Mill Ridge in 1962 with four foundation mares and from one of them, Attica, she sold a Sir Gaylord colt for $42,000 at Keeneland.

Bought by Raymond Guest, the former US Ambassador to Great Britain, he won the 1968 2,000 Guineas, Derby, Champion Stakes and Washington DC International. Guest also owned my favourite ever jumper, the double Gold Cup and Grand National hero (beating Red Rum), L’Escargot, the fastest and most enduring snail in racing history.

Sir Ivor was the first horse ever bought at auction in the US that won the Derby. Lester Piggott rode him with the utmost confidence at Epsom to pick off front-running Connaught, but his late-running victory in the Washington DC, then one of the most important international races in the world, caused the local press corps to call Piggott “a bum”. Some bum!

So many birthdays coincide around this time. When St Jovite first went to stud in Kentucky, hopes were high that he would be a top stallion. Mrs Payson sent Indiscreet, the yearling she liked the most from the first crop, to David Loder and his three-length victory on his sole juvenile start in York’s always-competitive Convivial Maiden Stakes entertained Classic hopes for him.

Frankie Dettori was especially impressed and in his A Year in the Life, which a certain Daily Telegraph writer “ghosted” he showed that enthusiasm. That book needed an extra chapter – not easy in those pre-high tech print days – when he had the effrontery to ride seven winners in a day at Ascot after the book was set to go!

Virginia’s son Dean Grimm, who sadly died at the tragically-early age of 53 in 2017, and David Loder shared a birthday on January 26, while George Hill had his 72nd – catching me up, but you’ll never get there mate – last week.

In a quiet spell for jumping recently, Altior seemed a shade disoriented when having to make the running in the three-horse Clarence House Chase race at Ascot on Saturday. Funny, when thinking back to that irritating experience with the recent Kempton “lengths fiasco”, I overheard two punters talking before the Ascot race. One said to the other: “It’s down to above eight lengths for the winning margin. If it goes to seven, I’ll back it”. I don’t know whether the line ever did move to seven and above, but even if it did, the man would have lost. You guessed it, seven lengths was the official verdict when going to the last it looked like it could be nearer 15.

Saturday at Cheltenham features the next stop on the road to the Festival for Andrew Gemmell and Paisley Park, trained so assuredly by Emma Lavelle. He takes in the Cleeve Hurdle and another win there would probably force him into favouritism for the Stayers' Hurdle.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Some Luck on Saturday

I sometimes tune into Luck on Sunday, Nick Luck’s show on Racing TV, and always enjoy at least some of it, writes Tony Stafford. The odd regular might not be quite so welcome around my Sunday breakfast table but it was great that this morning he devoted half an hour to the brilliant Colin McKenzie, best known as the man who found Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber.

Slightly older than me, since Oxford Colin has eased seamlessly into whichever area of journalism he arrived in: from his earliest days in the old William Hickey social column on the then pre-eminent Daily Express, through to the formative days of the Racing Post at Brough Scott’s invitation, and thence to 20 years as the Daily Mail’s correspondent he’s been a player.

McKenzie loved a scoop, none better than when he travelled out to Brazil, where Biggs had been living for a number of years, to interview him. The paper’s then Editor unceremoniously  ”shafted” him by reporting to Scotland Yard that the Wandsworth prison escapee was living in Brazil, quite openly doing carpentry work for various Americans in Rio.

That episode, the one that resounds still more than 40 years after the fact, characterises Colin’s career, but so does the late in his Mail tenure story when he revealed that Kieren Fallon would be getting a ban for a second failed drug test in France, soon after Dylan Thomas’s Arc win.

Everyone else who had been reporting on the Old Bailey race fixing trial in 2007 which collapsed leaving Fallon technically free to resume riding, took that route. McKenzie, soon to retire from the Mail, had some inside information that the French would step in if Fallon was cleared. He took the solo route and was proved correct.

In between, indeed soon after his Biggs triumph, McKenzie received hot information from someone in his social milieu that Lord Lucan, another <assumed> criminal on the run – in his case after the murder of his children’s nanny of which he was suspected – and thought to be protected by his society pals, was alive and well and living in South Africa.

Luck probed skilfully for a few minutes, trying to draw out some detail, but McKenzie, with a “memoirs” book probably still in the back of his mind, preferred to stay pretty schtum. Can’t wait for that one. I wonder if they’ll send me a copy?

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The other part of the show I enjoyed was the telephone interview with Sam Waley-Cohen, whose win on his father’s horse Impulsive Star in the Classic Chase at Warwick proved once again that he has few peers as a steeplechase rider.

Impulsive Star, lightly raced over the past two seasons, drew on all his rider’s skill as he took advantage of his light weight and the 3lb allowance he is still entitled to claim. Almost laughably so, one might say as the 36-year-old veteran of six wins around the Grand National fences – plus a second in the National itself on Oscar Time in 2011 – and the Gold Cup on another of his father’s great horses, Long Run, the first in the race by an amateur for 30 years, hardly needs any extra help.

Those of us tempted by Impulsive Star’s chance could hardly miss the frequent pre-race mentions of the fact that Sam would almost certainly be putting up overweight – it’s been years since he has even tried to do a weight as light as 9st 12lb. The biggest put-away merchant it seems was father Robert, Chairman of Cheltenham racecourse, another track where Sam historically has done well.

Well Sam did the weight, but even so when the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Calett Mad moved up to join and then pass Impulsive Star at the second last in the short Warwick straight after the three miles, five furlongs, the game seemed up. Here one might have anticipated Sam’s wasting-induced strength running out, but between the last two fences, Waley-Cohen galvanised Impulsive Star and by the line he had more than three lengths to spare. I had to take a second look at the film after seeing the result in print yesterday.

This was only the fourth Rules win and 14th ride for Waley-Cohen since the start of the 2018-19 season back in April. By contrast, young James Bowen, rider of the runner-up and who was not born as Sam recalled “when I had my first winner around Warwick” has won 51 from 338 this season.

Apart from his riding credentials, Sam Waley-Cohen, a prominent charity fund-raiser since the death of his younger brother Tom from cancer just before his 20th birthday in 2004, has multiple interests. He climbs mountains, runs marathons, pilots planes and helicopters, skis and boxes all for fun, which is precisely his approach to his riding.

In business he has developed the Portman Dentalcare brand into a company with – according to the record I saw yesterday – 15 centres. As long ago as 2011, as well as winning the delayed until January King George at Kempton, ending Kauto Star’s run of four and two months later the Gold Cup, both with Long Run, he received the Spears Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. Some jockey – some man!

Kempton was my stamping ground on Saturday and for the second year in succession Mercian Prince leapt his rivals silly from first to last in the two and a half mile handicap chase sponsored by Unibet. Amy Murphy considers this ebullient jumper the horse that first put her ever-developing stable on the map, and he certainly works well with Jack Quinlan who was in synch with him from start to finish.

One of the better ideas on big-race Saturdays is that William Hill usually picks out a featured race on which to offer spectacular place terms. It need not be a race of their sponsorship and Kempton’s special offer was the also Unibet-backed Lanzarote Handicap Hurdle. Usual terms for 14-runner handicaps are three places at one-quarter the odds. Here Hills were paying out on the first six, but at one-fifth the odds, which is more than a fair exchange.

What it does and did do was encourage us (me and Peter, still trying despite the judge-lengths fiasco there two weeks ago) to look for an outsider that might make the first six. We landed rather fortuitously on Big Time Dancer, ridden by the upwardly-mobile Jonjo O’Neill, Jr., for trainer Jennie Candlish, who stayed at home in Staffordshire.

Initially a massive – considering he’d won his previous handicap at Doncaster by ten lengths, but admittedly up 9lb for that – 20-1 he was shortened to 16’s and all the way round this big slab of a horse was jumping fast and coasting along untroubled in midfield.

From a long way out only the prospect of a fall threatened at worst the place part of the bet’s being landed, for an effective 6-4 all-round win, but once in the straight, success looked inevitable. The same goes for young Jonjo. His dad wasn’t too bad and the young man couldn’t have two nicer parents with mum Jacqui also playing a big part in the Jackdaws Castle story. They must be very proud and rightly so.

- Tony Stafford

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