It must be an optical illusion. Something to do with the placing of the cameras at Aintree, but I cannot work out what’s happened to Becher’s Brook, writes Tony Stafford. Obviously it isn’t anything like as spectacularly dangerous as it used to be with the big, sloping drop on the landing side almost guaranteed to catch out one or two in every circuit of the Grand National. Now there’s no sloping drop to draw fallen jockeys into the Brook – and maybe even no brook.
What I did notice, having flopped into Wilf Storey’s vacant guest armchair on Saturday afternoon too late for the Becher Chase but comfortably in time for the Sefton, was that they no longer seem to have to twist and turn left in mid-air to continue onto Valentine’s. In the Sefton, two miles five and a bit, they were, as commentator Mark Johnson announced, halfway at the latter fence, the 11th, and they seemed pretty much to have gone straight on at the fearsome fence at which Captain Becher of historic Aintree yore came to grief, leaving his name to adorn the obstacle in perpetuity.
The trip North was partly to renew my 35-year association with the Storey family – the old sausage is recovering from a painfully-injured left shoulder - and also to check in on Apres Le Deluge, on winter holidays at Hedgeholm stud in Co Durham.
I wonder whether the Captain would have approved of the safety measures that many old timers believe have “neutered” the course. I have no such harking after the good old days, but it looked that they went straight on rather than turn half-left. Skilful course management to limit the potential for interference and consequent grief that was always the accompaniment to races over the Grand National fences, especially at Becher’s, or an optical illusion by the latest television director?
We still got a fatality, at the first in the Sefton, and sadly for the France-based Louisa Carberry, wife of Philip and therefore daughter-in-law of L’Escargot’s brilliant jockey, the late Tommy, who rode out two epic finishes – one successful, one in vain – in the days when Red Rum ruled Aintree almost 50 years ago.
I loved L’Escargot and whenever the names of jumping greats come up, I have to point out that he’d won two Gold Cups at Cheltenham before Dan Moore turned his attentions in later life to the Grand National. He was a 12-year-old when he eventually won it under 11st3lb in 1974, two years Red Rum’s senior, and the wonderful story goes that Brian Fletcher, who’d won the previous twice on Red Rum, told Carberry at the last to “go on, it’s yours!” He did, and it was by a wide margin, the weights having turned around considerably from their previous encounters.
Philip Carberry’s elder brother Paul also won the race, on Bobbyjo in 1999, so it must have been an even more agonising moment for the Carberry family when It’s Jennifer, a triple winner in France, fell at the first fence with Felix de Giles and was fatally injured.
There was a similarly shocking incident at Sandown, which would normally be my choice of venue on that particular weekend, when the London National, over three miles and five furlongs – the course and distance of the old Whitbread Gold Cup every April – ended in confusion and tragedy.
The race commentary in the Racing Post talks of “stricken horses” in the plural and involved a yellow flag-waving official being apparently noted by jockeys who seemed to hesitate before continuing on to the finish rather than obeying the instruction.
Seven were interviewed and given ten-day bans, the timing of which means all seven will miss the valuable Christmas period. Whether the proposed appeals are successful or not, according to a friend, Scott Ellis, who had already set off for the station across the course, it was chaotic with hordes of punters gathered in front of every bookmaker’s pitch awaiting reimbursement. He’d had a “losing” bet using his phone and it wasn’t until he got to the station platform that he learnt the race had ben voided. Again there was a fatality, this time the epic old warrior Houblon Des Obeaux, and the pressure groups who would have jump racing abolished in this country will have tucked these two incidents 200-odd miles apart in their armoury.
One race I had been particularly keen to listen to on the William Hill Radio commentary in another friend’s car – the whole way north, Aintree, Chepstow, Wetherby and Sandown offered wall-to-wall coverage – was Sammy Bill’s second run over fences. Even with a 14lb raise for his debut chase win at Kempton, the Oliver Sherwood trainee still received a handy 11lb from Charlie Mann’s Fixed Rate, who had been off the track for 13 months.
Fixed Rate, a Juddmonte-bred son of Oasis Dream, won his first two races over fences last year, having run 17 times over hurdles. In 26 career starts, Fixed Rate won twice six from six on the Flat for David Smaga and Khalid Abdullah in France, three times over hurdles and two chases for cheerful Charlie.
It took the highly-promising Sammy Bill a long time to get past Fixed Rate on Saturday and I’m sure there are a few big races that will fall to these two talented six-year-olds in the rest of the season. Fixed Rate’s versatility reminded me of a conversation I had last week at December Sales with James Underwood, whose Bloodstock Review of the Year, is such a feature of the Tattersall’s December sale when he gives it out to all and sundry totally free and gratis. James said it would be his last. “I am 91!" he suggested, to which I offered: “So what!” I was showing him a picture in another free book I’d picked up, a directory of stallions for 2020, a two-page spread of the stallion Intrinsic, who stands at Hedgeholm Stud in Co Durham.
“Oh, Oasis Dream!” he exclaimed. <He’s Intrinsic’s sire> “That horse can do anything with any mare. Sprinters, stayers or middle-distance horses. He works with the lot!”
Five days later I could have added chasers to that list, but it was uncanny when yesterday, while looking out for Apres Le Deluge, a big grey gelding happily palled up with a quintet of barren mares quite close to the farmhouse, awaiting his return to action next year, the name Oasis Dream kept cropping up.
“That’s going to Oasis Dream; that’s by Oasis Dream,” said Andrew.
My point to James Underwood is that certain stallions get no help in the headlong search for potential mates for mares at the top end of the market. Intrinsic is a case in point. Owned by Malih Al Basti he boasts a top Cheveley Park Stud pedigree and a very active family yet has had only a handful of mares and consequently runners in his first crop. One or two have been placed at ridiculously-long odds, one at 150-1, one at 100-1, and a single UK winner was the Sir Mark Prescott-trained Najm in Mr Al Basti’s colours.
After that Najm was sold privately to race in France, and a glance at the Racing Post shows he won a 10k claimer at Chantilly almost immediately on arrival in his new home. As we went muddily around the farm on Sunday, Andrew Spalding said Najm has actually won three times over there and on looking at the France Galop site this morning I discovered he has indeed had three more races since Chantilly. Initially he finished second before winning twice since, all over 1500 metres at Marseille.
He has met the same horse, Pic Cel, in all three claimers, being beaten by a nose first time, gaining revenge over that horse by half a length on November 18th and then two weeks later giving 4lb and having two and a half lengths in hand over Pic Cel and a dozen others. Like his sire he’s improving with racing.
Intrinsic’s racing career, ten runs in all, featured wins in succession, the first for Sir Michael Stoute and Cheveley Park and the last three, culminating in the Stewards’ Cup for Mr Al Basti and sprint maestro Robert Cowell. Intrinsic, a very good-looking and impeccably-behaved horse deserves more support, as so many stallions do.
The trip was great, but when I got home I looked back at some old videos of races over the Grand National Course and still wonder what happened to the sharp left turn after Becher’s? Did I imagine it?