Supplemental Sunday articles by ex-Daily Telegraph correspondent and racing editor Tony Stafford. Stories, articles, tips, reports, information and more.

Monday Musings: Mullins Minus Mag

Monday musings

By Tony Stafford

Willie Mullins may not have won the main prize last weekend, failing by just over £100,000 to prise away the British trainers’ championship from now 10-time winner Paul Nicholls, but he did end one unhelpful statistic on the way to that ultimate and - unusual for him - disappointment.

From April 5 2005 when the Ruby Walsh-ridden Hedgehunter won the Grand National for Mullins and owner Trevor Hemmings, until last Friday at Perth, a track that had never previously been on the trainer’s agenda, he’d had 95 runners in handicap chases over here without a winner.

Step up Rolly Baby, an 11-year-old veteran of six seasons’ action but still a novice over fences after a total of eight races. Faced by three opponents, Rolly Baby won easily. Just as well he did as the two Mullins candidates for the following day’s Bet 365 Gold Cup (still the Whitbread for most old stagers) at Sandown were never at the races and a round ton would have been in the offing come next season.

The failure of unplaced Measureofmydreams and pulled up Sir Des Champs to add to the Mullins stable haul in that big race, where Nicholls collected the best part of 40k for second and fourth with short-head vanquished Just a Par and Southfield Theatre, was the final turning point in an epic struggle.

That prompted a final controversial act from Ireland’s finest – withdrawing Vroum Vroum Mag from what looked a penalty kick in the £28,000 Select Hurdle, allowing Nicholls to collect with P’tit Zig.

The stewards took umbrage, fining the trainer £1,000 for disregarding the interests of racegoers and punters almost certainly because of the lateness of the scratching, nine minutes before the advertised off time.

Mullins was reportedly angered at the sanction, but with a full crowd his action was tantamount to the richest boy in the park taking the (his) ball home because things haven’t gone to his liking.

It wouldn’t have stuck quite so sharply into the craw of those racegoers and punters but for the fact that Ascot and Cheltenham winner Vroum Vroum Mag, unbeaten in nine starts, six over fences and the last three hurdles for Mullins, had not been the second major attraction on the card after Sprinter Sacre.

He’d already done the business, as had champion (at the time –elect) Richard Johnson on Menorah, in their case for the third year in a row in the two-mile chase.

In the lead up to Cheltenham, nobody was more visible in his slightly silly suits and indefinable mid-Atlantic accent than Rich Ricci, husband of nominal owner Susannah. With 48 of the best of Mullins’ 231 listed in Horses in Training, the Ricci’s made their money from banking and now live in the Cotswolds.

It was seemingly rare for a Cheltenham Preview evening – apart of course from the Monday night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club – not to be graced by Ricci, and no doubt where he stated his belief that jump racing is a much more sporting environment than its money-grabbing relation on the Flat.

So in that context it is hard to sympathise with Mullins’ assertion that part of the reason Vroum Vroum Mag was withdrawn was the option of Punchestown, with one possible opportunity each day from Wednesday to Saturday.

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Three of those races, the Gold Cup Chase (wed), Champion Stayers’ Hurdle (thurs) and Champion Hurdle (fri) are worth €118,000 to the winner against the £28k ‘real money’ at Sandown. Saturday’s Mares Champion Hurdle is worth half the sum of the first three at just short of €60k.

But such is Mullins’, and to an extent Ricci’s, along with Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House – for the first time UK Champion owners - dominance, that “Mag” is merely one of six of twelve for her trainer on Wednesday. Mullins has six of twenty in Thursday’s race, five of thirteen in the Champion Hurdle and ten (!) of 21 in the Mares race. I reckon he might have been able to cope without her.

It would have been more satisfactory and easier for the stewards and the celebratory crowd that kept the atmosphere going all day at Sandown, if a little more emphasis had been made of the mare’s preference for easy going before the meeting. She’s never run for Mullins in any of her nine races since November 2014 on anything faster than good to soft.

But to delay the announcement until the punters were already swarming towards the pre-parade ring was guaranteed to take away a decent chunk of the goodwill and admiration connections built up during a wonderful winter season.

In the event it was all down to a couple of high-profile falls at the major festivals of Cheltenham and Aintree and the post-Aintree organisation and astonishing April form of the Nicholls brigade that prevented Mullins from being the first Irish trainer since Vincent O’Brien in his pre-Flat race days to win the trophy.

With little sign of diminution of dominance in Ireland, and the ability to produce raw and largely unsuspected talent such as 41-length Aintree Grade 1 juvenile winner Apple’s Jade, Mullins would probably be favourite to win next season unless the umbrage factor simmers for more than the few quiet months before autumn.

The problem with days like Saturday is that when you are caught up in the excitement of horses like Menorah, Sprinter Sacre and the like – great that Nicky saw fit to mention the absent Corky Brown (another knee operation) - you can miss what’s going on elsewhere.

So it was not until I got home that I saw Home of the Brave had sloshed in for Hugo Palmer at Leicester and much later that the stable earlier brought out a likely Ascot juvenile contender in Hyperfocus, five-length winner of the novice median auction.

Hyperfocus was bought at the Tatts Ireland sale by Amanda Skiffington, one of the best known and most respected talent spotters at the sales. She got the nod at €55,000, so considerably less than the 220,000gns it cost her to buy dual Guineas third Ivawood, now a first-season Coolmore stallion along with his conqueror Gleneagles.

Ivawood was the cause of one of the funniest moments of 2015 when Matt Chapman was desperate, in the true sense of that over-used word, to talk to someone about the horse. Richard Hannon had already moved away to confer with his jockey and the owners were less than keen, so it was left to Ms Skiffington to field the intrepid reporter’s questions.

“What’s your name?” said Matt. “Amanda,” said Amanda, who agreed with Chapman, who still had no clue who she was, that they hoped the horse would run well. Reporting of the highest order!

Hugo Palmer has 90 two-year-olds this year and I’ll be going up with the boss, Ray Tooth, and Steve Gilbey tomorrow morning to Newmarket to monitor the progress of two of them, a home-bred half-sister to Harry Champion called Jean Harlow, and a Delegator filly named Betty Grable – Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t come out to play!

Hugo’s ease of communication matches the skill level of his training so it is perhaps hard to believe he’s yet to make a career total of 100 wins. Last season’s 34 was his best so far, but Classic winner Covert Love and talented three-year-olds Galileo Gold and Gifted Master are evidence enough that his expanded string will leave that figure miles behind.

Monday Musings: Down to the Wire

Monday musings

By Tony Stafford

This weather has us all out of synch. Friday and Saturday should have been Newbury on nice spring ground, except that it was waterlogged. Jeremy Deedes, former high-powered Daily Telegraph executive and now just as high-powered man of leisure and resplendent in green trousers, offered an opinion as he walked up to the stables on Hughie Morrison’s open day yesterday.

“It’s all that house building”, he suggested. “There’s nowhere for the water to go.”

That made sense to me. I know that on Tuesday morning when I was anxiously looking at the early advance going forecast, the “stick” reading was 2.7, the lowest (therefore heaviest) I’ve ever remembered anywhere since that rather imprecise measure was introduced some years ago.

After a dry night it was up just below 4, but Thursday’s rain resulted In Friday’s abandonment – and Cousin Khee’s weekend heel-kicking – while Saturday’s loss was obviously inevitable as I drove around London to get a new tyre after a Thursday blow-out on the bottom bit of the M11.

It took the best part of four hours to complete the assignment, getting from home base in East London to Fulham, then on to the tyre man in the Uxbridge Road. The boss in that tiny shop tucked just around the corner close to QPR’s ground used to live in Exning where his brother runs the local supermarket. Yes, he’s heard of Gay Kelleway. It’s always the last bit getting home whatever the weather on a Friday afternoon, but when it’s coming down in straight lines as last week, you give up.

There would have been every reason to expect Paul Nicholls to give up on the 2015/16 jump trainers’ title after the excesses of Willie Mullins, first at Cheltenham and then Aintree where he collected more than £320,000 in win money alone. Ruby Walsh, twice denied almost certain victory with the late falls of Vautour and Blood Clotil (a total £180,000 down the drain) in Liverpool suffered an injury from the latter mishap and missed out on the Grand National.

Four Grand National hopes for the master Irish trainer were readied for action, but none got home with two fallers and two pulled up meaning he missed out on any of the £1 million total prizemoney on offer.

Mullins still held a six-figure lead over sole rival and nine-time British champion Nicholls as five horses were sent across to Ayr, the trainer’s first at the track, for the Scottish National two-day fixture. Two third places, a fourth, a fifth and a first-fence faller in the big race left Mullins stalled on 23 winners of £2,243,000. To attain that figure, Mullins has sent 84 individual horses across the water. True, in these times of massive strings, 84 doesn’t look outlandish – he’s run 181 at home, obviously most turn up in both lists – but it’s only when you consider Colin Tizzard’s heroics have come from only 58 horses, the Irishman’s “unfair” advantage is obvious for all to see.

No doubt Mullins is looking to the West Countryman as one of the biggest thorns in his side, as Cue Card has won four of five starts and Thistlecrack all five of his. In three races, the King George and Betfred Bowl, behind Cue Card, and the Liverpool Stayers Hurdle won by Thistlecrack, Mullins would otherwise have had the winner each time. The extent of the “lost” earnings was respectively £71k, £68k and £53k, a total of £212,000 which might have made Mullins’ still likely success a near-certainty.

In response to Willie’s apparently inexorable drive to the title, Nicholls had to act and nine wins over the two weeks leading to last weekend showed his horses’ vitality. Then on Saturday he took three major prizes, including the Scottish National with Vicente and one small one and followed up with a 100% four-timer nearer to home at Wincanton to celebrate his 54th birthday in style.

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So with 17 in a fortnight Nicholls was back in front, to the tune of £40-odd thousand. That figure is hardly secure as there is almost half a million to be competed for on Saturday at , but Nicholls goes there with a much sounder chance than a week ago.

Saturday was a wonderful day not just for Nicholls, but for his former assistant and protégé Dan Skelton, too, who within three seasons has collected a first century of winners after an Ayr double. His major aim over the final week of the season is to bring jockey brother Harry, who has 98 to his name, up to the same mark.

I was expecting that milestone to be reached at Wetherby on Sunday, but unusually Dan withdrew three fancied runners on the day. Like Nicholls, however, he has plenty entered for the final week of the season and is hopeful the joint ton will be achieved.

A few weeks back Dan had a double with his first two runners in France. As early as March 7, Skelton produced a three-year-old to make a winning debut over jumps, collecting a near €20k prize by 12 lengths on what must have been a trip into the unknown on many scores. The starting prices of Mont Lachaux, a full-brother to staying hurdler Whisper and stablemate Shelford, 20-length winner of a conditions hurdle a little later, combined at around 300-1.

Shelford, off since running well in last year’s Martin Pipe Hurdle at Cheltenham, would have been most people’s (and certainly my) idea for a potentially well-treated candidate in either that race or the Coral Cup at the Festival after that romp, but single-minded Dan had other ideas. Shelford is one of only seven left before the final declaration stage this morning for another hurdle race with almost identical conditions back at Enghien on Wednesday.

The main difference is that the winner gets €40k and it’s hard to imagine that this fresh hurdler will be beaten, or that he’ll go off at double figures.

Dan’s father Nick, Olympic Gold medal-winning show jumping legend, rightly proud of his sons’ achievements, told me soon after Mont Lachaux’s win that the gelding looked like a six-year-old when he came into the yard in the middle of his two-year-old career after being acquired privately in the summer. He’s going to be targeting the major French autumn three-year-old races rather than mess about for small money over here.

Chelmsford did wonderfully well to get the Greenham meeting transferred from Newbury at short notice, but there is one element which might be a negative, especially for extra-senior racegoers. Where once you could wait your chance and cross the track near the entrance and make for either the stands on the nearer finish side, or by-passing the paddock, go up to the owners’ and trainers room on the other side and partake of the always-palatable sandwiches and soup. Guess where I go!

But on a rotten day like Saturday, never minding the classy albeit skinny fields, the new tunnel with its winding downhill under the track and complementing rise back up the other side, will test a few over the summer. Thank goodness my normal weekend car sharers stayed home in the dry and watched Nicholls at Ayr rather than Ryan Moore’s domination of Essex’s only track.

 

Monday Musings: Aintree to Newmarket…

Monday Musings

By Tony Stafford

You analyse a race like the Grand National, you look to previous form over the track, recent well-being and all the other sub- and semi-conscious considerations and make your choice.

Then the jockey goes off in front. Anyone who cares to seek out my opinion will know l thought Saint Are had a great chance and listening to his trainer Tom George beforehand, it was obvious last year’s runner-up was going there with maximum confidence. So then, on ground which probably was softer than ideal, Paddy Brennan decides to go off in the front group and was dead in the water by halfway.

Not that there was any suggestion that Rule the World was anything other than a deserving winner especially for his trainer Mouse Morris. My friend Wendy Normile from Coolmore used to work for Mouse and maybe still rides out there occasionally, so it’s a bit embarrassing that when she asked me what I liked for Saturday I said Saint Are rather than: “Why don’t you back your man?” Hopefully she was on both of them.

Wendy’s had some tragedy in her family’s life so it would be easy for her to sympathise, as everyone in Ireland has with Mouse’s loss of his son, Tiffer, at the ridiculously young age of 30 last year to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mouse has been one of the top big-race trainers for many years. Michael O’Leary, owner of the winner, said after the race that Mouse doesn’t have many horses – unlike Gordon Elliott for example – but does so well with those he has. Maybe the boss of Ryanair should divert a few more of the drinks and snacks revenues on his planes Mouse’s way?

The Willie Mullins/ Paul Nicholls match-up is in danger of totally fizzling out, with Mullins more than £200k ahead, even though he had the odd reverse, for instance Vautour, last week.

My favourite winner – Douvan it’s true was spectacular – was Apple’s Jade in the top four-year-old race. I liked her for the Triumph at Cheltenham after her brave win first time after her importation from France when she won her only race at 21-1. She was 12’s at Leopardstown and the same price in the Triumph and it was noticeable then that she kept on just as well as Ivanovich Gorbatov after the last once the O’Brien horse had swept past.

The pair drew well clear, but this time on softer ground, Apple’s Jade sprinted away to win by 41 lengths. I’d be running in the Champion Hurdle if she was mine whatever anyone else thought or the claims of anything else, such was the metronomic nature of her galloping and jumping.

Her sire, Saddler Maker, has had literally no impact as a Flat sire, but extremely good results with his jumpers. This one to me is as exciting as Annie Power and more so than any of the other Mullins mares such as Vroum Vroum Mag.

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We’ve got Ayr coming up on Friday and Saturday and Sandown the following weekend to bring down the curtain until the new jump season starts on Sunday week, but today with the Craven Breeze-Up horses going through their galloping motions on Racecourse Side and the three days’ racing and two after-racing portions of sales, the new Flat season will finally be under way.

With the going on most tracks still resembling a ploughed field, it will be good to gain the benefit of Newmarket’s legendary drainage properties for the early Classic trials. The Nell Gwyn, Craven and to a lesser extent the Free Handicap and later in the week the Greenham and Dubai Duty Free (Fred Darling) at Newbury will get those horses which may not yet be at the required level on the track with a fortnight or so to the two Guineas races.

Meanwhile, the O’Brien stable seems to be a little more forward than hitherto and when it is considered they are labouring on very unfavourable ground at home in Ireland, the prognoses for Air Force Blue and Minding appear to be excellent.

Both won their end-of-season engagements in emphatic style over the same track, and Minding’s four-and-a-half length win in the Fillies’ Mile, nowadays run over the Guineas course and distance rather than Ascot, was exceptional.

She has stamina in abundance and will not mind it if the ground remains on the slower side, but Air Force Blue would probably prefer a faster surface. Buratino, the one horse to beat the “2,000” favourite in 2015 was warming up last week for his imminent assignment at Haydock as part of a Johnston reconnaissance team, and there might well be more of the same on the Rowley Mile.

The ground at Kingsley Park on the grass has been very testing and far from ideal for horses with Classic pretensions, but no doubt Johnston will test impressive debut juvenile winner Sutter County from his forward and already talented two-year-old team in Wednesday’s novice stakes. The first of them to run, Sutter County won by nine lengths at Wolverhampton and faces eight opponents at HQ on his first turf run.

The innovation, replacing many of the maiden races in 2016 by novice events in which winners under penalty can run, will be a big help in educating horses before they lock horns with the best early sorts from the other major stables at the Royal meeting.

In the past, very few races were suitable for good winners – Ascot’s Garter (now Ascot) Stakes and Sandown’s National Stakes were the most obvious routes to take – but now trainers can be selective and if they happen to win first time in lowly company, penalties for winners can be relatively light.

I’m hoping the ground dries out a little for Ayr on Friday when Notnowsam is being aimed at the novice handicap chase for which only nine horses have been entered. His chase record reads 12222, the last of them a nice effort at Kempton after a mid-season break. Still only five, he is doing well at Dan Skelton’s and hopefully can end that run of near- and not-so-near misses since his win at Warwick on debut for the stable back in May.

Ray Tooth, fresh from a nice week in Antigua, lucky devil, also has Adrakhan set up for Stratford on Sunday on what would be his last chance in a novice handicap hurdle, but the trainer is worried that the ground will be a bog! Who’d have thought it, midwinter ground on a summer-jumps track in mid-April?

Monday Musings: Of Bazza and the Boys in Blue

Monday matters

By Tony Stafford

Never mind what the bookmakers tell you, going racing is a highly acceptable pastime as far as its natural audience is concerned. You honestly can’t judge a sport’s popularity by the numbers that switch onto a certain television channel, be that terrestrial or one of the two excellent Racing-only pay channels, Racing UK and Attheraces.

Doncaster on Saturday was Lincoln Day and even though the BHA have compromised its uniqueness as it no longer starts the Flat, this year they even sanctioned a Redcar meeting at the beginning of last week. The ground there was desperate and the “product” was of a depressingly low standard.

Luckily the folks of South and indeed West and North Yorkshire love their Doncaster with its vast betting and drinking areas where the beautifully-attired lasses somehow keep pace with the lads. What’s great about it, you probably see more 20-plus gents wearing smart suits there than you would walking around a City Centre anywhere in the country.

It’s an event and the car parks and approaches shout it long before you get there. The ground here was pretty horrible, too, but for John Ferguson it was joy all the way as Secret Brief, in the Godolphin blue, saw off the brave effort of the Jeremy Noseda-trained Bravo Zolo and Ryan Moore.

Fergie remains stuck on 71 winners as his jumping trainer’s experiment winds down, but there’s no sign of anything but righteous confidence as the Charlie Appleby – Saeed bin Suroor squads keep the blue flag flying high.

The chief exec/ managing director/ head honcho/ supremo – choose your title – did not try to suppress the smile as he collected the trophy for what remains not just an historic old race but also a more than acceptable one in prizemoney terms.

Sadly, the number of written media in the press rooms of the country for anything but the Festivals, is down to a hardy few. Doyen locals Tom O’Ryan, Colin Russell and Joe Rowntree were there, as were commentator John Hunt and correspondent Cornelius Lysaght for BBC Radio 5, but the days of two and more for each newspaper are long gone.

I’ve written before about Ascot’s ability to pull in the fans and the Sunday meeting there successfully saw off the televised all-overpowering Premier League matches from Leicester and Old Trafford, as well as England’s epic World T20 final, settled by four towering sixes at the start of the last over by the West Indies’ Carlos Brathwaite off a crestfallen Ben Stokes.

Yet such is the one-eyed nature of the media, Monday morning’s Mail Online led off with the gathering of a few present and some past colleagues of out-of-action England and Man U captain Wayne Rooney at a Cheshire restaurant where Mrs Colleen Rooney celebrated her 30th birthday. Is it me? No it’s them.

Ascot, where 11,374 attended the corresponding meeting in 2015, attracted a whopping 18,009 crowd, almost 60% higher. It’s still special to go to the home of the Royal meeting and considering the length of time the younger element has to get a shade on the tottery side, there is relatively little of the bad behaviour and over-indulgence that used to happen a few years back once the football season ended.

Solving the problems posed to punters by Ascot’s all-jumps card was clearly easier than winner-finding at the two Flat-race Sunday fixtures at Doncaster and the Curragh when no favourite won at either venue.

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Found’s failure to cope with the conditions in her first race since beating Golden Horn at the Breeders’ Cup will not have worried Aiden O’Brien and the Coolmore team too much, but over at Limerick, the defeat of the J P McManus-owned Noble Emperor in a seven-runner handicap hurdle had much more immediate impact.

The race over two miles was typical of many jump races in Ireland where often a front-runner goes into a long early lead until its supporters watch it drift back into the pack before fading long before the finish.

The problem for Noble Emperor, the 7-4 favourite trained by Tony Martin and ridden by JP’s retained jockey Barry Geraghty, was that market rival Velocity Boy (2-1) was the horse fulfilling that role under Barry Cash.

Velocity Boy, a seven-year-old, had won a point-to-point two seasons ago. He also had two wins under rules from eight starts before yesterday. Coincidentally, both had been at Limerick, the latest when a rapidly-fading dead-heater in the two and a half mile novice event on the same card 12 months ago.

He’d run pretty well in two comeback runs last month after almost a year off, and trainer William Murphy clearly had him in good fettle as the starting price indicates. Velocity Boy was soon twenty lengths clear and the chasing pack could hardly be described as “chasing” so little attention did they seem to be taking of the leader.

Geraghty reported his instructions were to keep the horse covered up, but with so few runners and the propensity for many Irish races to be strung out over many lengths from the outset, that proved a task too difficult apparently for the jockey to achieve. Maybe, though, this always well-researched rider noted Velocity Boy in that race last year and believed he’d fade again.

Unfortunately for Barry, with Velocity Boy displaying admirable velocity and stamina, he had to go away from the two horses from which he’d tried unsuccessfully to get cover and go for home before he wanted to. By the line, he was still 11 lengths off the untroubled winner, with the rest beaten off 15 lengths and more behind.

All the jockeys, bar Cash, were interviewed afterwards, but Geraghty was singled out. He was banned for 30 days, which if confirmed at what is sure to be an appeal hearing, will keep him out of Punchestown and all those lovely JP winners. Tony Martin was fined €3,000 and the horse banned for 60 days.

The stewards clearly thought Bazza rode a “non-trier” race, but managed to do nothing about the remaining five riders. Anyone who regularly watches Irish jumping, especially novice events with their customary 20-plus runner fields will be wondering how those same stewards, who condone the unambitious attempts of many as the fields split into two or even three groups many lengths apart could act in the way they did yesterday.

There’s rather more scrutiny around novice hurdles in Britain but the feeling remains that many of the big stables, Flat and jumps, get somewhat less careful attention than their more lowly counterparts.

Meanwhile, I had a two-day trip north at the end of the week, preceding Doncaster with a lovely morning in Shropshire at Kinsale stud. Six foals have already arrived for the boss and the latest, a daughter of Nathaniel and I Say is simply a princess, so elegant, correct and aware of her place in the firmament. Tried Red Carpet, but that’s not available. Raymond cannot wait to see her or the six home-bred yearlings for that matter, so we’ll be going back before the Guineas.

Monday Moan: The Cheltenham Tetchfest

Monday moans

By Tony Stafford

What is it about the Cheltenham Festival that makes people tetchy? After three days there – we came back on Friday morning again - I had seen plenty of tetchiness around the place, enough to last me until next year.

It starts as you try to get into the main car park on the road coming in from the east. On Tuesday we – Harry and me – were there by 11.15, no chance. On Wednesday we made it 30 minutes earlier, are you joking? Once again we were half an hour earlier on Thursday with the same result. I’m tempted to go back again tomorrow, just for the reminder of how good it is in there.

The options we had were either lamely to follow the instructions of the car park jobsworths to “go down to the right”, thus ending at the foot of a hill and face the post-racing queue of queues, or swing back into the easy-getaway £15 a time private park in someone’s rather grand garden.

With each day the tetchy gene developed nicely. My day one highlight was always going to be getting to see Punjabi in the parade of ten former stars – Denman, Sizing Europe and Comply or Die among them. I did, but only just as after a succession of similar knock-backs for having the wrong ticket (Press Grade 3, no access anywhere, just through the doors), I caught a glimpse as he was about to pass from the bit where the unplaced horses are collected into the paddock.

An hour before the first race they thronged the parade ring, but I saw my chance to give him a pat. Just as I was about to land the affectionate touch, an old guy – yes even older than me but possessing the right armband – physically pushed me back, to Rachael Kempster’s obvious amazement.

After the ruling out in the days coming up to the race of Faugheen, no other Champion Hurdle winner was at the place until Annie Power’s victory a couple of hours later. For officialdom to prevent anyone connected to the horses to get near, so far before the first actual race, suggests  over-the-top and unnecessary unhelpfulness.

But then, it’s all about the money. It’s hard to find accurate figures for days two to four, but it’s unlikely they will differ much from the opening day’s record of 67,770, making for a week-long figure well in excess of 250,000. [260,579 total for the four days. Ed.]

At £85 for Club admission which now gets you into some of the very swish new facilities, including parts of the new stand, it’s not cheap and the £55 for Tattersalls, where you might wish to go down to the Guinness enclosure and be so packed in that you struggle to lift your arms from your sides to consume said beverage, looks a bit of a take-on.

One pal, who makes his money in part from the totally illegal and equally accepted by the authorities market in tickets, reported he had a sale on Thursday when running into a quartet of lady racegoers looking for an alternative to the Best Mate enclosure (as far as I recall £30) which they’d entered and seen enough of long before racing started.

The course’s need to keep matters under control is understandable, but Michel Buckley, long-standing owner of a good few Festival winners, was not too chuffed when he found that for his two runners, one each on Wednesday and Friday, he could only enter the paddock for those races.

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“I always like to go into the paddock every year to see my friends, but this time I had to make do with the races I was involved in”, he said. Buckley jointly owns horses with, among others, John Magnier, Mrs Susannah Ricci and Lord Vestey, former Cheltenham Chairman, who in Buckley’s opinion, with Johnny Henderson, Nicky’s late father, were the chief factors in the course’s rise from earlier darker financial times.

The effects of a new harsher regime even filtered down to impinge on the activities of two of the most prominent journalist/broadcasters of the last 30 years. Both John McCririck and Aussie Jim McGrath, neither doing actual broadcasts after the former’s demotion from Channel Four racing and Jim’s jettisoning out the Daily Telegraph door a couple of years back, were demoted from the real press box to the Media Centre. Would have sensed some degree of “tetchy” there, but Big Mac probably managed, with the help of the resourceful Boobie, his wife, to get into some desirable gigs and possibly earn some money.

Jim, happily, was OK, with his pal Steve Taylor getting him owner’s passes courtesy of John Ferguson. One day Steve was in the owners’ facility with its seafood counter, hot roast area and unlimited grub with three different badges all the same colour, entitling him to three goes in the paddock. I didn’t tell Buckers, he might have got a bit tetchy.

There was more than a little unpleasantness when Rich Ricci, the darling of the Cheltenham preview circuit, added to the Faugheen disappointment, by sanctioning the altered plans for Vautour from the Gold Cup to the Ryanair Chase because “he hasn’t been working at all well”. Having assured his admiring adherents from the previews that it was “Gold Cup or nothing for Vautour”, he looked a bit silly when Vautour paralysed a decent field in the shorter race.

All of a sudden the mid-Atlantic tones, the lengthy discourses on the prospects of the horses and the silly suits almost got on my nerves, God forbid, and made me a little bit tetchy – call me Titch Tetchy!

The football’s going well. In the way of the mainline sports, as against racing, media, all was as the big man intended. Many of the top names turned up for the annual once a year swill in the Cheltenham trough with the top accreditation and pontificated about racing as though they invented it. Nothing unusual there, and it gave them a few days’ break from slagging off Manchester City, Man U, Arsenal and their managers.

Meanwhile the racing fraternity was split over the Victoria Pendleton affair, although after she’d skilfully pointed the amazingly-accurate and willing Pacha de Polder around the course and finished a closing fifth, there was still condescension in the ranks.

I like Racing UK – you need to as they keep putting their prices up – but this was one time when some of the team might have been a little more generous with their compliments. Before the race, their collective view was that even an experienced rider would find it difficult as Pacha de Polder’s stamina was in question.

Afterwards, Jonathan Neesom described it as a great effort, but the normally shrewd Stuart Machin thought she’d given him a lot too much to do; but surely Stuart, if he’s a doubtful stayer that’s the way to get home. Another furlong and I’m sure they’d have won. McCririck on Attheraces’ Sunday Forum repeated his unwavering view that she shouldn’t have been allowed to ride, even after showing a degree of skill, amazing considering she’s only ever ridden one winner. The biggest thing for me, after she got within less than three lengths of the winner without ever once hitting the horse, was that she wasn’t even puffing, as befits an Olympic Gold medal winner.

Bet most of the other more practised but less talented amateurs in the race were blowing the house down after three miles, while the winner, Nina Carberry, on the favourite got home with the help of a very un-amateur like use of force, enough to win but also to earn her a seven-day ban. Maybe she’s a little tetchy, too. Wonder if you or anyone else you know had a tetchy moment during that momentous week?

Monday Meandre: To Cheltenham via Paris and Bedford!

Monday meander

By Tony Stafford

They say bad news comes in threes. Well I’ve already had my three. Firstly, yesterday we heard that Grass Green was NOT in foal to her cover at Coolmore; second Arsenal will NOT be winning a third FA Cup in a row, even if Spurs DO win the League, and lastly Howard Wright has bailed out from his chairman’s spot on the Bedfordshire Racing Club Cheltenham Preview tonight.

Old Mr Reliable – the man who made sure the DT racing page was OK even if I’d taken my break to watch my two dogs run at White City – has again buggered up his holiday dates. Reckon! More like another freebie to the ends of the world for that particular retired Yorkshireman.

So now I’ve got to get through a long day’s preparation for four days away, but lose from 5.30 p.m. to midnight to drive up the A1 in rush hour traffic and make my points on the final day of previews. At least we – I presume Corals’ Ian Wassell and BHA handicapper David Dickinson will show up to keep the members informed – always meet some very nice people.

I don’t know about you but I’m sick to death of previews even if I no longer go to any others. There was one after racing at Sandown on Saturday, but we high-tailed it home in time to hear England beat Wales at Twickers.

So over-bearing is Cheltenham from October each winter that events of great magnitude virtually disappear into thin air, albeit that everyone still loves bent trainer/ jockey exposes as we had last week.

Last Monday, one event that would normally have been fully recorded and indeed witnessed went the way of most things over the past few weeks, bowing ingratiatingly to yet another re-broadcasting of the Racing UK Festival preview.

Surely if they churn out the same stuff as many times as they do, there should be a rebate. Ha ha! With no live racing from any of their tracks, you’d have expected Mark Johnson and Claude Charlet to be paying attention to Enghien, which followed the opening of Auteuil the day before as nuit follows jour.

If it had, we’d have realised that Dan Skelton had sent over a couple of horses and we might even have taken note. Once I realised the enormity of my failure to keep in touch, it occurred to me that they were probably the first runners he’d sent over there.

That turned out to be the case, although I know last spring – indeed on the day when Notnowsam ran fourth back over hurdles at Southwell, Dan was off on a shopping spree in that country. When he called to go over the race, he said he’d been “here, there and everywhere”; seen plenty of nice horses and all that was now needed was for him to find “someone to buy them”.

Well it seems Patrick Anderson did just that. There is no record on the Racing Post site of his having had anything in training before, and no sign of him being owner of anything trained in France, but he sure has made a great start, being the proud proprieteur of the three-year-old French-bred, Mont Lachaux, the first of Dan’s two winners.

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With the gelding having never seen a sale ring, you have to presume this was one of those “in a field” merchants that caught Dan’s keen eye. Not only was this his first runner in France, but considering the date, March 7, it was almost inconceivable that Dan would know quite how to ready a raw horse to win over jumps before half the horses of that age trained in Newmarket are probably yet to do fast work.

A big field with horses by good sires and trained by some of the best jumps handlers faced Mont Lachaux, but he put them away by 12 lengths and at better than 18-1. Quite the most amazing overseas single debut by a trainer in my lifetime – that was until an hour or so later.

Then in a €60,000 conditions hurdle, Dan found what turned out the ideal race after almost a year off for the talented Shelford, last seen weakening into fifth in the Martin Pipe Conditionals race after looking the likely winner most of the way round.

Shelford was not at quite as generous odds faced by a decent field most of whom were better in than he on adjusted ratings, but 14-1 or so was looking pretty decent as he went 20 lengths clear to complete the 290 or so to 1 double. Hope someone was on, but if they were not, a total of nearly £40k prize money was not too dusty.

I suggested to Dan that he might like to test whether the apparent improvement on last season’s form might be sufficient for Shelford to defy a 5lb penalty in Wednesday’s Coral Cup. He was less than exultant saying the opposition had pretty much all had a good time off, but nothing like as much, Dan, as your impressive winner.  He’s my bet of the week and that’s all you’ll get from me.

Mont Lachaux has a number of talented relatives. A gelded son of Astarabad, he is the ninth produce (in an 11-year cycle – one gap year) of matings with the Mansonnien mare Belle Yepa. He is therefore a full-brother to the 2014 Coral Cup winner Whisper, who tries again in the World Hurdle this week after a spell in the doldrums.

Nicky Henderson’s normal service at Cheltenham might appear to be intact as on Sunday morning 55 of his meeting’s entries were quoted in the betting on their respective races. He starts with a bang with two of the best-fancied runners in the Supreme Novice Hurdle, Altior, a general 7-2 shot and Buveur d’Air (6-1) and has five, including the quietly-fancied (after two years off!) My Tent or Yours, 7-1 for the Champion Hurdle.

But it is with something of a shock that I realised only nine of the 55 quoted were at 10-1 or shorter and ten more were between 12-1 and 16-1. The rest are 20-1 or more, thus 36 of them, at up to 80-1, with an amazing 14 at 33-1.

You would be right to say, well hang on, it’s Cheltenham. True, but last year, when Hendo had 30 actual runners, using the same three bands, 11 started 10-1 or less, nine between 12-1 and 18-1 and the other ten 20-1 and up.

We know they’ve been hampered by the weather – his horses tend to have more speed than those of many of his rivals – and probably by some sort of mid-season training issue, but there’s not too much difference in terms of number of pre-Cheltenham races run.

Nicky, more than most, targets the race and then sorts out the preps with precision. This year the preps have been disrupted. I’m sure a couple of winners each here and at Aintree will get Seven Barrows singing again, but with an unlikely 31 more needed in six weeks to get up to the bare minimum requirement of 100 for the season, tension will be filling the air in the Valley as spring advances.

Monday Meander: A Walk In The Park

Monday meander

By Tony Stafford

This Monday lark ought to be a walk in the park – dictionary definition; something very easy to do and usually pleasant – with a whole weekend to fall back on rather than a Saturday cut-off each week.

Now before writing this stuff I can get to read Steve Palmer’s betting highs and lows on the back page of the Racing Post’s Sunday pull-out, at once envy-inducing and totally cringe-making. From his base in Weymouth his mixture of raw common sense and nonsensical wishful-thinking reminds me in some part of my earlier days. Hope he takes a little less time than me to grow out of it.

Steve, I’m sure, would have reckoned Rory McIlroy was about to embark on said walk in the park when taking a three-shot lead into last night’s final round of the Cadillac World Golf Championship at Trump Doral in Florida. He failed by two to match Adam Scott, sharing third place with the Englishman Danny Willett after hitting maybe one decent shot in 18 holes. Again, I trust Steve went with the Scott rather than the somnambulant Northern Irishman.

It was a bit parky yesterday to consider a walk in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, but we still had a spell in the garden with the boss supervising some rose bush thinning. I was, though, given licence to return to the sofa in time for the re-opening of racing at Auteuil, in the company of Mark Johnson and Claude Charlet.

Apart from an unexpected gaffe from Mark, doubling a French rating to convert to British, surely it should be x 2.2?, their partnership was as informative and entertaining as ever, making up for the more mundane domestic fare at Huntingdon and Sedgefield, along with Naas from Ireland.

We were still thorn avoiding when the opener took place, but it was impossible to miss the enthusiasm with which Mark greeted the next, a maiden hurdle for horses that had never previously run over jumps, but included a number of decent Flat horses.

My ears pricked – dictionary definition: listen carefully – at the mention of one of the pair’s selection, Montalbano. Wished I was in a café in France with PMU access at the mention of my favourite BBC4 Saturday night hero, not in any way supplanted in my affections by “Taken” and he ran a blinder, too, finishing second.

But for the winner, Park Light, it was indeed a Walk in the Park, for this triple Flat-race winner, by the eponymous stallion, came through with a devastating late run to win by daylight. It might seem a little late aged six for him to take high rank as a hurdler, but with such as Douvan and Min already representing the sire, I’m sure the bids would have been raining in all afternoon even if Cheltenham this month is out of the equation. As a half-brother to 20-race jump winner Cyrlight, the appeal is obvious enough.

Happily and indeed hastily ensconced at Grange Stud after spells in Haras du Val Raquet – fee €2,500 to €3,000 and then Haras du Granges, where it fell to €1,500 – Walk in the Park is sure to have more foals in the next stud season and a half under the Coolmore banner than the total 153 registered in the six years since 2009 in France.
Park Light and Douvan are among 39 registered from the 2010 crop, after an initial 37 with no real notables. There was a steady decline from the 27 including Min in 2011 to 18, then 12 and six in 2014 before presumably the Douvan factor brought the relative bumper harvest of 14 last year.

I can’t say I’ve ever noticed the phrase emanating from Michael Tabor’s lips, although I’m sure enough of his own or Coolmore’s winners, or merely his successful bets, might have induced such an exclamation. But the horse, runner-up to Motivator in the Derby and like him a son of the peerless Montjeu, was named by Mr T and raced for the John Hammond stable in his colours, as did Montjeu.

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It should indeed have been a walk in the park for Blue Dragon, almost immeasurably the best four-year-old hurdler at Auteuil last year and 1-5 to resume normal service in the Grade 3 for five-year-olds. But after a slightly precarious course, albeit miles ahead of the rest, he fell at the last leaving rider, David Cottin, not to mention Mark and Claude, in shock. After eight wins in a row this was a true coming down to earth.

Changing the subject with an almost incongruous clumsiness, did you hear the one about the Scotsman, the Manxman and the Belgian? Well if the Northern Irishman, who for all his accomplishments has only ever managed second in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, the other trio have all won it. Indeed, only a certain car driver from Stevenage has intervened over the past five years following Sir A P in 2010.

All three were in action: first the Scotsman – Andy Murray, at 28 the youngest of the trio –  laboured with skill and resource to win a five-hour battle with Kei Nishikori to clinch GB’s place in the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup, which almost entirely due to his efforts we presently own. Unfortunately it’s Serbia next, but he has beaten Novak Djokovic, if not for some time.

The other two were also on display, you’ve guessed it, in the Olympic Park velodrome – about a mile, so a short walk through the park – from my door. Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish teamed up in the Madison at the World Cycling Championships meeting. Sir Brad, now 35 and Dr Cav – he has an honorary science degree from Chester University for services to cycling - 30, thrilled the capacity crowd by repeating their 2008 victory in the same event.

I first got the taste for watching track cycling in the late 1960’s when I got a press freebie ticket to the Wembley six-day cycling championship. It was eye-opening to see the skills of the legendary Dutchman Peter Post, teaming up with Belgian Patrick Sercu to win one of 45 such events he collected around the world. The Madison was the thing I best remembered, with one partner waiting high on the banking before the other “handed him on” literally, with a degree of momentum.

Re-reading reports of the 2008 win for the Sir and the Doc show just how minutely they followed the pattern yesterday. Their collectively almost inhuman sprinting (Cav) and endurance (Wig) brought a series of points for intermediate sprints and then almost on cue from the previous time, they set about retrieving the gained lap that some of their opponents had contrived earlier.

But then we shouldn’t have been surprised, as along with Murray, they are among the all-time greats of their respective worlds. Wiggins, son of an Australian father and English mother, was born in Ghent but moved to London aged two. Cavendish was born in the Isle of Man which he still regards as home, but day-to-day lives in Essex with a pad in Tuscany.

Sir Bradley has seven World Championship gold medals, three Olympic golds and a Tour de France win on his palmarès. Cavendish pitches in with three World championships on the track, and 26 Tour de France stage wins, including four in a row in the final stage on the Champs-Elysees as well as a world championship win on the road in 2011. To see him bash through in the final 50 yards of a sprint stage in one of the Grand Tour events is among my favourite experiences watching sport.

Most of us rue the day when the BBC started the drip-drip loss of the major sports. For once yesterday pretty much everything I wanted to see was on the network and the Scot, the Manxman and the Belgian made it a great day for the Brits. It was pretty good for the heroes’ mums, too. Both Brad’s mum and Andy’s were in the audience in London and Birmingham respectively, fittingly for Mother’s Day.

When I tried to discover whether Mark’s mum was there, the main historic reference to her was when the Tour de France was going to go through Yorkshire and Harrogate where Adele, for that’s her name, lives. Unfortunately, if you look up Adele Cavendish you get merely copious references to Lady Adele Astaire Cavendish, elder sister to and original dance partner of Fred Astaire, who stopped dancing when she married a son of the Duke of Devonshire. Don’t blame her.

Monday Meander: A Triumph (at only €380,000)

Call it what you like, but I’ve been meandering through the past decade or rather the nine years since I’ve known the boss, writes Tony Stafford. I won’t go into the tortured path that first led me to meet Raymond Tooth on the day that Punjabi won the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton by 19 lengths for Mick Fitzgerald and Nicky Henderson. I think I’ve told it here before, but even if I have, you wouldn’t believe the full story.

Nine years on I wasn’t at Kempton at all for one of my favourite meetings but 300 miles away at Newcastle where Ray’s April Dusk put up a great show, reverting to hurdles and beaten only by the so far five-for-five Tomngerry in a hot novice contest.

April Dusk will be back over fences at Uttoxeter on Midlands Grand National, the day after what’s left of the seven-strong Adonis field tests the water in the JCB Triumph Hurdle. All seven that ran in this year’s renewal of an always informative event have the Triumph entry and the way that jumps debutant Zubayr, trained by Paul Nicholls for P J Vogt, shaped suggests he’ll be hard to beat.

I love the way commentators spoof such phrases as “proved he was worth the money” or even “that looks a bargain”. I can tell you of one or two proper bargains – fancy a filly for £50? no, not that type - but it would still be hard to brag that you’d been instrumental in buying something ‘senza tackle’ for Euro 380,000 without a tinge of embarrassment.

Good luck P J Vogt, and also good luck to Tom Malone in finding someone willing to stump up the thick end of 300k in real money for a maiden, albeit one bred by the Aga Khan, who must find it slightly amusing that so many of his choicely-bred animals end up jumping. Why doesn’t he have a crack at winning the Champion Hurdle? Sheikh Mohammed did many years ago, but now that he is winding up the Ferguson/Bloomfields project, he’ll be hard pushed to get another Festival win.

In Punjabi’s year there were two French-bred’s in the eight-runner Adonis and five from that country were in the 23-strong Triumph where fourth-placed Punjabi (ex-Geraldine Rees) followed some way behind Alan King-trained Katchit, sourced from Mick Channon.

On Saturday only two of the seven runners were not either French-bred or nurtured there as was fifth-placed Wolfcatcher, trained by Fergie, but a dual Flat winner for Andre Fabre until his transfer to Suffolk.

All seven from Saturday have the JCB entry – see I’m giving the [non-bookmaking, Ed.] sponsors a plug, maybe I’ll get a buckshee digger? – and probably five will run.

I’ve used the extra day to research so well that it was only 5 a.m. Monday – give a writer an extended deadline and he’ll give himself an extended time for non-preparation – that I knew what my subject would be. But intense scrutiny of the remaining 38 in the Triumph revealed that 27 were either French-bred or in one case raced there in their formative days.

I found a new reader last week. He wanted me to call this column the Monday Addendum – too many d-sounds probably – but I’ve landed on Meander, which accurately catches the halting momentum of my life. Steve Gilbey would probably prefer “Mooch”, but he should be content enough with Spurs’ prospects to expect anything more.

Philip, the itinerant chef – hopefully just about returned from a weekend assignment at what Google reveals as the somewhat decadent Osea Island in the Blackwater River in Essex – might not be delighted to be termed “pedantic”. I’m sure though he will note I’ve not slipped into the “as many as”, “no less than (sic)” or more correctly but still unacceptable “no fewer than” traps, all Daily Telegraph style book no-no’s and still firmly implanted in this consciousness.

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But 27 it is, and the declaration of the Euro 380k is a rarity, in terms of dealers and trainers recruiting from France. Of those I can find, the Nicky Henderson-trained filly Omessa Has, who is yet to run, but won one of eight in France, cost 150,000 Euro for the Simon Munir/Isaac Souede team. Pilansberg, who was last of seven behind Zubayr, went through Tatts’ ring in October from the Juddmonte string. He had smart form in stayers’ races in France, but a final well-beaten effort in a Grade 1 probably helped reduce his price to 100,000gns.

Pilansberg showed little promise here, but he was the choice - or maybe the selection was made for him - of stable jockey Sam Twiston-Davies.

Tom Malone can buy a “cheapie”, too. He was the agent concerned when the Dan Skelton stable acquired Kasakh Noir for Tim Radford, whose Timico sponsor the Gold Cup. They paid 26,000 Euro for a winner from two runs in France and he has gained two victories and a second here. That’s what you’d call a bargain, Tom.

A quick analysis shows a few constants. The first is that Willie Mullins, who has five of 130-plus Festival entries in this race, likes a filly. Three of his five are fillies and there are only six females in total in the field. His skill with such as Annie Power suggests that already-successful Apple’s Jade and the so-far unraced in Ireland Ria d’Elel, respectively owned by Gigginstown and Munir/Souede will be worth watching if we live that long.

I’ve been without binoculars for a while – the last pair fell off the flat bit at the bottom of the banister and broke open – inoperable as the rather iffy on-course binocular man told me. I left them with him, presumably for a decent burial – he assured me there was nothing that could be done with the parts of the rather nice pair of Zeiss. I say iffy because about eight years ago I had an earlier pair that he took for repair, and for all the time in between I was given a cock-and-bull story about “the man who had them to repair has disappeared”. The last time I saw Iffy, there remained no sign of that scurrilous repairer, and then with little ceremony, the binocular man himself was no more at Cheltenham, Ascot, Newmarket or anywhere.

Well on Friday, the delightful wife came back from ordering the birthday cake for a year ending in “0” in advance of this Friday and announced “Do you mind if I give you your present now as you’re racing tomorrow?”

Thanks, darkling, and there I was with my 12 x 50 new Nikkons, feeling as though I was a proper, old-style racecourse regular. For a while through the lovely lenses it looked like April Dusk would win, but it’s only delayed three weeks. Who knows, he could even win a future Grand National for Raymond? He’s lucky enough!

- TS

 

Monday is the New Sunday…

Monday - well what?

Did you miss me? (writes Tony Stafford) I missed myself yesterday morning. Instead of staying semi awake half the night framing the words that have augmented the Sunday supplement these past years, I’ve been given the ultimatum from the powers that be to “do it on Monday”.

“There’ll be more to write about. Think of all those things that happen on Sunday that you have tried to predict the outcome of, only to fall flat on your face. Oh, and you might try to write a bit about racing now and then!”

So there I was, with a 6.45 a.m. alarm call which duly rang – I rarely lasted as long as the old 5.30’s – with no option but to go to the café after getting the Racing Post from the shop next door.

Normally I’d have written my bit and then seen in the Post that several things had already been countermanded. Now, I looked forward to a relaxed Set 1 – the everyday bargain of the year – while perusing the news, but needless to say the Post (I buy the only one), the Telegraph and one other hadn’t made it.

Of the usual, but apparently now taboo, stuff, I would have been making only a very short update on last week’s Icelandic theme. It should be noted, apart from saying the next two episodes of Trapped were pretty good too, I noticed in the credits that as well as all the ..ssons, there are nearly as many ..dottirs. Sensible system.

So with the FA Cup 6th round draw safely made, I’m up and running maybe 12 hours later than usual. But the big decision has to be, not who’ll win the Cup or even win at Cheltenham, but what to call this stuff.

It remains something of a supplement, but tacking Monday on to the front would be tedious. Google helps in that synonyms of the noun version of supplement include a few that have a decent ring. Appendage is promising as long as you can divest your thoughts from obvious sin-o-nims, as are tailpiece and codicil – note, codpiece does not mean the same thing. Coda would apply at a stretch, but I’m plumping for appendage. Any comment? The last thing I featured here that was at all comment-raising or thought-provoking from you was the confession of my counting syndrome, something that quite a number of you share apparently.

**

Naming horses is fun. Team Tooth has a master-namer in the owner himself and he’d probably approve of appendage if he ever got to see this. His skill is such that last week alone he outclassed all previous attempts, hopefully securing “Climax” for an Acclamation filly, “Catskill” for Dutch Art- Catfish and “Circuit” for a daughter of Lady Circe. Can’t believe any of them are available, even though the BHA site says so, but we have to wait and see for confirmation. Micky Quinn, who has been holidaying away from his post on the weekend show on Talksport, did try Sam Fox for the last-named, a daughter of Foxwedge, but the Fox mob were looking for a 'contribution'. Some chance!

Muddy ground continues to prevail on most tracks, and there really must be some sympathy for trainers who feel they have to get a ore-Cheltenham run into their horses whether the ground is too testing or not. So horses start short and trail home miles behind and while trainers and owners hope that the going at the Festival will be nearer the customary good or good to soft, they will need to have the entire horse to take advantage of it.

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Many years ago, I think it was 1963, the year of the big freeze and virtually no racing in the UK, the Irish were expected to clean up as they had avoided the worst of the weather, but the home team did better than expected and that happened again in 1979 I think. I was at the Telegraph that year and the snow started around Christmas and didn’t leave the London streets for weeks, and it was obviously even worse around the country.

The news that Faugheen will not be lining up to collect the expected second Champion Hurdle shows the danger of ante-post betting as if it was ever anything else. The biggest certainties can go down for the slightest of reasons and the fact that the Ricci/Mullins/Walsh clan have several ready-made deputies is not much use to the man in the betting shop or on the 'net.

It’s not easy to win multiple Champion Hurdles, although Willie Mullins had the skill to bring back the 2011 winner Hurricane Fly for a second success two years later so the prospects for Faugheen in 2017 might be promising.

The previous multiple hero was Hardy Eustace, trained by the late Dessie Hughes in 2004 and 2005. He was in the field of 23 horses as a 12-year-old when Punjabi gave Ray Tooth his success in 2009. Brave Inca (2006), Sublimity (2007) and Katchit, successful the following year, made it the winners of the previous five championships behind Punjabi in that race, and Binocular, who scored the following year, was also there.

I hope when Punjabi turns up in the pre-racing parade on Champion Hurdle day, Tuesday March 15, to do his little dressage test under Rachael Kempster, the announcer will refer to that fact. We’re just delighted that at 13 he shows all the enthusiasm he did while racing and we’re still reminded how he was travelling coming down the hill in Binocular’s year before making a noise that convinced Barry Geraghty he couldn’t do it again.

If there’s anything to salvage from the paucity of acceptable ground, it’s the fact that most of the trainers can have a horse race-ready from the excellent facilities a large proportion of them have either in the major centres or in luckier, more privileged instances, at home. But the number of smaller trainers who manage to have horses primed after say 672 days – I always watch out for those – show “needing a run” may not be quite the condemning concept of old.

Even in the absence of such home comforts, trainers can send their horses for a work out on the all-weather tracks for a small fee. Not that this course of action is not in itself potentially dangerous. Just imagine how Emma Lavelle and owners the Hawksmoor Partnership felt the other day when they sent Claret Cloak to Lingfield for a 4yo and up Flat-race maiden, for which he started the 11-10 favourite.

Winner of six races and with a chase rating of 157, he was presumably having a pipe-opener prior to going back over fences for the first time since a good second back in September. Sadly, Timmy Murphy, now riding exclusively on the Flat, pulled him up and the nine-year-old, veteran of 22 races under National Hunt rules, had to be put down due to his injuries.

You might say that’s racing, as backers of Faugheen – those not having the run-guarantee insurance – probably would. But owning horses involves far more than just having something to take to the races. It goes deep into the emotions of the people that buy or breed and race them. Losing them can leave those involved almost inconsolable. Thankfully, despite everything, it is still a rare occurrence, at least relatively.

- TS

Monday Supplement: Tony’s Gone to Iceland

Sunday supplement

I know for a fact what I’ll be doing for the next four Saturday nights – missing the start of Match of the Day that’s what – as it’ll be yet another of the BBC4 9 p.m. kick-off dramas. This time it is for “Trapped”, an Icelandic show which started over the weekend with a double episode that already promises more twists and turns than any of the great International offerings that have entertained me over the past couple of years.

A ferry originating in Hirtshals in Denmark, is about to land at Seydisfjordur in Iceland when a local fisherman pulls a beheaded, de-limbed torso from the water. There’s so much going on, especially for the hero, an overworked local police chief, both in his business and private life, my only advice can be to power up BBC I-Player and catch up. I promise you’ll be entranced, not least with the scenery and the weather.

Many years ago, I was entranced by a girl friend who flitted out and very occasionally into my early 6th form life. After calling to say she still had some of my records, I was encouraged to have another crack, but after a single visit to watch me play cricket, it was out again.

I even plucked up the courage sometime after to knock on her door, when her younger brother informed me she’d gone (I think as an au pair) to Iceland, and later news somehow filtered through (Friends Reunited?) that she settled there and had a family.

My next Icelandic moment came when Erik (the Viking) Thorstvedt came to play football for Spurs and moved next door into the house previously inhabited by the Andersons, who took a bit off the end of our rather lengthy garden in Hoddesdon as well as theirs, and built a lavish bungalow for themselves at the bottom.

Roger Anderson was a great mate for many years, and Erik was a nice bloke who used to get us invitations to the box of a fellow Norwegian - “the shipping guy” - at White Hart Lane. Erik played for seven years for Spurs and got 97 Norwegian caps and is a well-known face back there on football TV shows, but he’s nowhere near as famous as his daughter Charlotte, who at 29 is a model, occasional singer and former MTV presenter. I believe she also took time to earn a master’s degree at London School of Economics. Look at the photos!

Charlotte was two or three when they came to live there, and like with myself, a lot of water has flown under the Thorstvedt bridge. The Icelandic connection came when his friend Gudni Bergsson joined Spurs soon after Erik’s arrival. Gudni had cheek-bones to rival any other gaunt Scandinavian model and the boys in the dressing room, always keen to encourage an outsider, dubbed him “Mask”.

Even now, on Wikepedia, and aged 50 and a practising lawyer back home in Reykjavic, Gudni looks the same. My claim to fame is that during one of his summer holidays back home, I was enticed (ordered probably) to mow his lawn in Broxbourne a time or two. Luckily, it wasn’t as extensive as ours. Lot of good that did me!

Now masks are all the rage, especially at Chelsea, where Diego Costa was so adorned as he continued his recent post-Mourinho revival with another good performance in the rout of Newcastle.

I make him the fifth at least of the Stamford Bridge fraudsters (JT excepted) – how else can you describe this team of reigning champions’ early-season efforts?  - following Matic, Fabregas, Cahill and Azpilicueta, to don the mask. I’m sure if Gudni ever needed one, you’d only notice it because he has such fair Nordic skin.

It’s nice when something like Trapped comes along, because it encourages a little education. The map shows the ferry route – the only one between Denmark and Iceland – passes right across the top of Scotland. Edinburgh to Denmark – as the crow flies – is around 500 miles. The ferry route to the land of the “ssons” is amazingly more like 1150 miles – so much for Erik and Gudni being near-neighbours.

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I’m sure my old girlfriend went there for the geezers rather than the geysers and the volcanic hot pools, but having not spoken to her for almost half a century, it would be unfair to make such a presumption.

If like me you (only after Trapped) might be tempted to try to get to Iceland, there are no ferries there from the UK, indeed none at all to Denmark, Norway or Sweden since the route from Harwich to Norway gave up for various reasons last year.

I was at Lingfield rather than Newbury yesterday – I can just imagine the continuing chaos in that building site with a big crowd – but watched almost with dropping jaw as events played out in Berkshire and also at Warwick.

OK, we did get a Mullins odds-on shot to win the opener at Warwick, but L’Ami Serge, directed to the latter track rather than Newbury’s Game Spirit  by Nicky, was beaten at 1-5 in a three-horse race by Violet Dancer, the 2015 Betfair Hurdle winner.

Sometimes the crack stables’ stars attain almost god-like reputations without too much evidence for so being, but here in awful ground the Munir-Souede gelding came with just such high regard despite having beaten a total of five opponents in his two previous chases. Violet Dancer, contrastingly, had won three of four over fences, so it is hard to understand the wide differential in their prices – he started 8-1.

Gary and Jamie Moore also collected in the listed mares’ hurdle, their Flute Bowl beating a Harry Fry favourite on a rubbish day for the young trainer. His Activial (8-13) was miles behind when last of three to Warren Greatrex’s promising stayer Out Sam in the novice chase back at Newbury and Harry has now had five beaten favourites and just one winner over the past fortnight.

Lizzie Kelly has made an appearance or two already in this slot and in yesterday’s big race the 5lb claimer once again showed that big fields and top riding opposition give her not the slightest of worries. Partnering her stepfather Nick Williams’ Agrapart ,a five-year-old by my favourite jumps sire Martaline, she stretched clear of a 22-strong field which housed five Willie Mullins horses, including the favourite Blazer, ridden by Barry Geraghty.

Turning for home, it was clear only four of the line-up had any chance and as soon as Lizzie pressed the button, the novice Agrapart stormed clear to an 11-length victory. The best of Mullins’ troupe, presumably here to sequester a chunk of the 145k on offer in his unlikely attempt to nick our trainers’ title as well as his own, trooped in sixth (earning 2k) while two more were ninth and sixteenth with the remaining pair miles behind when falling late on.

I made an even earlier-than-usual start on my weekly meanderings to be clear in time to go with Harry Taylor to the Emirates for the Sunday midday kick-off of Arsenal – Leicester. It was my belated first visit of the season, and for that I’m indebted to Harry’s son Mark, who couldn’t be there yesterday. I hope I was a worthy deputy. With Arsenal nicking a 95th minute winner, I also hope I might be asked again.

 - Tony Stafford

Sunday Supplement: The Everyday World by Numbers

Sunday supplement

Any regular reader of this weekly triviality will be aware that I am a man of many obsessions. Last week I did the age thing; in a slightly different way, I can also reveal a fixation with time and numbers, all types of them.

Thus whenever I climb the stairs at home, or have to cross a railway line via a bridge, I always count the number of steps, just as when I walked for any meaningful distance, I would count off the hundreds and be irritated when I lost track as any other less important matter slipped into my subconscious.

On one holiday in some Spanish resort or other, I use to take a solo morning, post breakfast stroll on a prescribed route and be shocked if the step-count varied by more than a dozen in 2,000 or so taken.

Another variation was the practice when I wasn’t the slowest walker on the racecourse - so in my late teens - that I would target someone walking ahead and aim a point where I intended to overtake.

I had a school friend who lived in Muswell Hill, just up the hill from Ally Pally racecourse, and it was quite a walk back to the bus stop from his house. I’d have races with horse names attributed to myself and the “adversary”, and I remember I was Stem Turn to my rival’s Corn Cockle in a Triumph Hurdle trial and Thames Trader against Operatic Society in the battle of the veteran Flat stayers.

If I ever failed to get up it would be a case of self-mortification and I’d sometimes even break into an illegal gallop, from which Prix d’Amerique trotters or Olympic walkers like Don ‘Mighty Mouse’ Thompson, would quickly earn disqualification.

Counting the steps is one thing. Twice every year I bore anyone within earshot that every day from the shortest gets three minutes longer before and after, until by June 20, we have 540 extra minutes (nine hours) of daylight. Then back the other way.

Already today, it won’t be dark until 5 p.m. and the week after Cheltenham, when the clocks go forward, it’ll be 7.30 p.m. The other part of the useless information thing is that whatever day it is, like Feb 7, I like to project back the same number of days before the darkest and say, for instance: “It’s as light today as it was on Firework Night!”

The back step procedure was also a vital part in my appreciation of history. I used to say (when I was 30) that going the other way we’d be in the middle of the First World War. Additionally, my great-grandmother who I knew up to 11 when she died aged 87, was born that number of years away from 1783.

In that year, the famed English landscape gardener Capability Brown died and the American writer Washington Irving and the Two Headed Boy of Bengal – he suffered from an affliction called Cranopagus parasiticus - were born. They say time flies and that we are here but for a flicker and then go. Too true.

One thing I do know, there’s only five weeks to go to Cheltenham, and just one more for the mixed turf/all-weather delights of Good Friday’s big opening to the 2016 Flat season proper at Musselburgh and Lingfield.

Yesterday was not just the day when Leicester and Tottenham yet again won to take the first two places in the table. It was also the day for Cheltenham trials especially at Leopardstown where Willie Mullins, naturally, won four races.

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I always reckon the punters in Ireland must be bored stiff to see a succession of short-priced winners, in order of likelihood carrying the colours of Gigginstown stud, Suzannah Ricci, J P McManus, Barry Connell, the Wylies and not much else.

The Giggs and JP show was in full flow and was attended by JP’s former rider Sir AP, but in actual fact the punters had something much worse than boredom to contend with as most of the Grade 1 action went to outsiders. Down the card the winners were priced at 14-1 (Mullins), 12-1, 11-1 (Mullins/McManus), 13-8 fav (Mullins again), 9-2 Mullins, 20-1 (McManus), 9-1 and 100-30. In most cases, the winners were second or even third choice for stables/owners.

Odds-on shot Ivanovich Gorbatov, the hot Triumph favourite handled by Joseph O’Brien in his role as his father’s assistant, disappeared without trace, like the ante-post vouchers in his name and there was also a costly defeat for one of England’s few alternatives to Mullins in the Champion Hurdle market.

Peace and Co, so impressive when leading home a Nicky Henderson 1-2-3 in last year’s juvenile championship, was almost uncontrollable when making a feeble comeback at Cheltenham. It would seem that the over-exuberance has been addressed, but sadly that has also resulted in what looked an unwillingness to try as he failed to quicken, finishing third in an ordinary four-horse race at Sandown.

We’ve had an eventful week. Ray Tooth’s April Dusk held every chance when coming to the last upsides the eventual winner of his novice chase at Leicester, where he came down. You lose one, you gain two, and we did with a colt by Mount Nelson and a filly by Mayson coming into being over the next two days at Kinsale stud.

Two more of the team, jumpers Notnowsam and Adrakhan, went back south to Dan Skelton in Warwickshire, buoyed by a break and some great outdoor air and grazing, while Ray’s Champion Hurdler Punjabi continued the early stages of his dressage retraining, with Rachael Kempster doing the day-to-day exercise. His next two appointments will be the Cheltenham parade at the Festival (with a nervy Rachael) and a first introductory competition a month later.

The sales season is up and running, and having recently mentioned the fact that I’d never met him, but liked his ideas, I bumped into Nick Rust of the BHA at Tattersalls on Thursday.

It was one of my principals of motion that brought about our collision. At Newmarket, I tend to stay close to the buffet- as against posh-dining room - counter in company with notably John Hancock, the insurance doyen, and a few other regulars in a constantly moving feast and cups of tea.

My theory is that if you keep going around the sale, you’ll meet more people, but generally they’ll either be talking to someone else and you need to loiter nearby, testing out their preparedness to break their conversations in favour of a word with yourself.

By sitting still, they can either see you, pretend they haven’t and go past, or stop for a while. It’s amazing how many do. That’s how we found Mark Johnston as one of our trainers at October sales, although it’s not infallible, as another of Ray’s new men, George Scott, was far too busy to stop or even acknowledge me on Wednesday.

As to Nick Rust, he was exactly the reverse and it was quite uncanny for this fully mature gentleman, 47, recalling that when he came home from school every day, he got to read his dad’s Daily Telegraph and read my column. From little acorns!

Sunday Supplement: Jack’s 100 (not out)

Sunday supplement

Slipper Satin, one of Jack's 100 winners, was for geegeez.co.uk

Slipper Satin, one of Jack's 100 winners, was for geegeez.co.uk

A couple of weeks ago, upon hearing that John Ferguson’s career as a jumps trainer was soon to be curtailed, I happened to be looking at some of the associated stats concerning his rapid rise in the role.

By mid-season, Fergie had already got to 70, but like a football manager that announces retirement at some point in the future, he has seemingly become becalmed, although that must be in equal measure because of the impossibly heavy going of recent weeks.

In the early days, Godolphin’s newly-rebranded supremo was content to employ the locally-based claimer Jack Quinlan, eligible to ride in all the bumpers and to take weight off the novice hurdlers. Many of the latter group were former middle- to high-class Flat Darley inhabitants of Mark Johnston, Andre Fabre, John Oxx or Godolphin.

Some would come to novice hurdling with historic Flat ratings of up to even 120-plus and it was amusing to read Racing Post previews on their debuts regularly saying that Ferguson “has a good record with horses of this type”. As Geoff Boycott says of some Test bowling: “My mother could have played that roobish with a stick of rhubarb”. I bet a few trainers, starved of success and access to decent stock, might well have a variation of that concept.

But if the idea was that horses struggling in Group class flat races would have a further use, it was a grand one and as it proved, prescient. Just how the suggestion that many of the present intake would revert to Flat careers with Charlie Appleby will work is more questionable.

Certain high-profile trainers have been canvassed whether they would be prepared to take sections of the about-to-be disbanded team with the caveat that Ferguson’s younger son Alex, a 7lb claiming amateur, would be taken along to ride them. Alex has four wins from 24 rides, all for Bloomfields this season, and is clearly taking this early stage of the career seriously, having also gone through the point-to-point preparation route.

While elder brother James is more frequently seen representing Godolphin on the tracks of the country, saving his father’s energies for more pressing duties in the ever-growing organisation, the younger sibling can expect a busy time in the saddle.

As to trainers who might be happy to participate in the young man’s development, I can think of a few who would be prepared to let Sir Alex Ferguson ride them, just to get animals of anything like the Bloomfields quality in their care!

Of course the name Jack Quinlan is never far from the issue where John Ferguson winners are concerned. Only present incumbent Aidan Coleman with 59 wins and former stable jockey Denis O’Regan (57) exceed Quinlan’s 40, and it was as a result of that latest appraisal of Fergie’s five meteoric seasons living out his early ambition as a trainer, that I realised Jack was on 99 wins.

I called him and found him to be totally unaware of the fact. In grey-haired (or, rather, no-haired) mentor mode, I advised him: “Make sure when you get the next one you tell the press and the TV crowd.”

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That winner came at Huntingdon, his local jumps track, on Friday and after he guided Sir Note to a stylish, all-the-way win first time over fences in the Novices’ Handicap Chase, Jack sought out the press corps.

Later he confirmed he’d seen “the French guy who does the racing on Racing UK” – Claude Charlet to you – and also managed to tell the Racing Post man while he was interviewing winning trainer James Eustace that he’d made the milestone.

That said, he added:  “Not that it’ll do much good, the Post never mentions me”, and rarely do the Racing UK lot, Jack if you’d really like to know. None of the: “O’Regan sitting like a statue” <on a 1-4 shot no doubt!>, or “Johnson with yet another brilliant winner”, as he guides one more hot favourite past the jamstick, for Jack.

Confident this time, that there’d at least be a secondary headline in the Talk of the Tracks feature on Huntingdon, bearing in mind this was not a late race that the Canary Wharf mob would have excluded as the writer wanted to beat the Friday night A1/A14 traffic, I looked carefully yesterday.

Yes, the Nicky Henderson winner and Cheltenham candidate Buveur D’Air rightly got top billing and Charlie Longsdon’s drought-ending win came second. Contrary to normal practice, the reporter stayed to watch a Harry Fry bumper win in the finale amid the gathering gloom, while a Colin Tizzard/ Tom Scudamore win was used to preview Thistlecrack’s Cheltenham win yesterday.

Not a sign of Jack or even the emerging development of James Eustace into a bit of a trainer for all seasons.  No reference in the 20 column inches at all, and it was left to a trainer’s quote at the bottom of the actual race report 82 pages further on before the jockey got a mention, even though the race commentary on track gave him several acknowledgments on the way round.

The Analysis gave all the credit to the horse saying “…hadn’t run in a while but he jumped like a pro on this chasing debut, soon opening up an advantage and never relenting.” At the bottom, in tiny print type under QUOTES, it was left to the trainer who generously said: “All credit to Jack Quinlan. Sir Note can be a bit keen if you try to hold him up, so we just let him make it. I thought he gave him a great ride”.

That would be the frequent type of private comment of the trainers of the 60 non-Ferguson winners he’s collected, 16 of them this season from just 103 rides. Only nine of the 54 individual horses he’s partnered this term emanate from outside his local area and friends of mine have long since said he needs to spread his sphere of activity further from his home base.

A connection has been established on a small scale with Robin Dickin, for whom he’s had a few mounts and rides work fairly regularly. Jack hopes that when the trainer’s horses have light weights to carry – he can do the minimum – he could be asked to deputise for stable jockey Charlie Poste, who prefers to operate at a few pounds heavier.

Still in his early 20’s, can Jack make it? Maybe, but as Fergie winds down, Jack still goes in there twice a week and will do so until the bitter end. “Just because I no longer ride the horses in races, no one can say I’m a quitter!”, he says. That’s the attitude that could get him higher up the scale - eventually.

Sunday Supplement: The Press Room, Wullie and the Foxes

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

“Don’t you ever wish you still had a proper job?” I’m sometimes asked, and as I loitered yesterday in the Ascot press room for the handsome slabs of carrot and chocolate cake to be released by the ever-efficient and ultra-friendly custodians of the food, I sort of did.

There they all were, the present and in some cases the previous generation of pressmen, intent on revealing to a Sunday morning readership the implications of another Willie Mullins Saturday smash-and-grab raid.

I had to say, it didn’t seem quite as cliquey as in the old days, the present-day crowd having to address the issue of immediacy. Not for them the luxury of taking their time, the words need to be out there for the on-line editions.

I wonder how such luminaries as the late John Oaksey, or the great Hugh McIlvanney, happily still in full flow, would have coped. The beloved Lord, who sadly missed seeing the Gold Cup triumph last year of his home-bred Coneygree by a couple of years, liked to fashion his copy if not at leisure, certainly with a degree of care.

I loved knocking out the first edition from Aintree every year for the Sunday Telegraph for Ireland and Scotland while John took a more considered view for the rest and the majority of the readership. He had maybe an hour and a half to do that. One year coming back on the sponsored train, possibly paid for by the Tote, I was across the aisle from McIlvanney as he checked with his office, still effectively re-writing to make sure the words were exactly as he intended. By then we were not too far from arriving back in London! Perfectionist indeed.

There was a bit of that about Lord Oaksey, despite the affable exterior, after all he’d watched his father, a great lawyer, in action as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals when at an impressionable age.

That affability was certainly tested when a certain gentleman, newly-arrived on the Telegraph racing desk, was given the task of “subbing” John’s report from one of the far-flung racecourses of the kingdom. This was the first big story he’d been entrusted with, and he apparently took exception at the sometimes flowery language, and when he finished it could easily have been written by you or Jamie Redknapp.

I won’t reveal his name, but suffice to say, he’ll probably be reading these lines and smiling at the recollection.

I settled on the carrot cake, delicious and it was a fine complement to the Cumberland sausage and mash consumed three hours earlier. Tough work in those press rooms you know.

None of that, though, got me any nearer to the subject of this piece and you’ll realise by now that many times in the middle of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning I’ve no idea what I’m going to ramble on about. But then today we’ve got the Test in South Africa and Arsenal – Chelsea, but without Mourinho, although the snarling former Chelsea manager will never be far away from the thoughts of his adherents.

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Now if Chelsea were to beat Arsenal, as they well could especially if Costa stays on the right side of the officials and Hazard comes back to life, the talk will be that as well as Costa-ing Arsenal the title they’d also be in with a chance of the Champions League. The former would be much more likely.

Also of greater probability is the apparently absurd thought that the aforesaid Mr Mullins might actually swoop past Nicholls and Hobbs, not to mention a reviving Skelton, and becalmed John Ferguson to win the jumps trainers’ title.

I think I saw even money as his earnings in the UK this season from nine winners ticked over the £400,000 mark thanks to bloodless triumphs for Ruby on Un de Sceaux and Vroum Vroum Mag. Unfortunately from the point of view of his customary Festival blow-swopper Nicky Henderson, that put Mullins barely £200,000 short of the master of Seven Barrows, who will have been irritated that as his string seems to be coming into form, lost meetings are conspiring against him.

The other day, Newbury succumbed to the elements on an afternoon when he had three obvious favourites. Stuck as he is on 51 for the season and with just 13 weeks to go, as of yesterday, time is running out, as it has for Chelsea.

In the seven previous campaigns, Henderson had 129 (last season), 124, 125, 167, 153, 136 and 115. Even to get anywhere near the lowest of those, he requires around five wins every week. That’s possible, with a little pot-hunting around the country, but probably unlikely. The prizemoney stats are even more worrying, as only last season of those seven, did his stable earnings drop below £2 million and then only by £100k.

The recent steady decline in chase wins may have been slightly addressed. Last time only 15 of the 129 winners came in chases, but this term chasers have provided 13 of 51 overall victories. No wonder he’s looking to Peace and Co and My Tent or Yours to challenge Mullins in the Champion Hurdle, but with the former showing such damaging over-exuberance on his Cheltenham comeback and My Tent confined to barracks for two years, the task for either will be extravagant.

So what about Mullins and the title? If he were to repeat last season’s first-day Festival exploits – four wins and even in the one race where his first string Annie Power fell at the last, saving bookmakers from that four-timer pay-out, he collected with Glens Melody – he would amass almost 600k in one daily swoop. That would put him close to a million and the repetition of 2015’s four later winners and a further £230,000 – never mind places - would take him past Nicholls’ present haul, though of course he’s still accumulating too.

In terms of probability, Nicholls should continue to click away and given even a reasonable Cheltenham, he and to a lesser extent Philip Hobbs should stave off the voracious Irishman. But with at least 10 ante-post Festival favourites and the likelihood of another Champion Hurdle 1-2-3 and the £350,000 that goes with that, the top two stables and the bookies who laid him at long odds, will be sweating.

The League title chase is just as compelling. While Manchester’s two gargantuan clubs struggle, it seems that the only time Leicester or Tottenham lose is when they play each other. Both are great to watch and in Leicester’s case, top position and with just the 15 remaining League games to be played, the Tinkerman can continue to use his resources in a sensible way.

Unlike them, Arsenal and Manchester City, along with out of touch Chelsea start their Champions League phase next month, while Manchester United, Spurs and Liverpool have the delights of the two-legged last 32 ties in the Europa League and debilitating Thursday-Sunday action. Add to that, Liverpool and City are in the semi-finals (second legs this week) of the Capital One Cup and the big teams’ FA Cup responsibilities – all six unlike Leicester are still in – and you can see why Leicester at around 11-1 might not be such a silly bet.

- Tony Stafford

Sunday Supplement: A Trio of Expiry Dates

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

As regular readers of these words will be well aware, the issue of mortality is ever-present. David Bowie and Alan Rickman had achieved the same age as me when they passed on last week, although Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart was four years older when he expired. Happily, the news pages were speaking in the present where another character of the last century was concerned.

Back in the 1990’s I spent quite a bit of time in the company and at the various establishments, equine and domestic, of Mrs Virginia Kraft Payson, owner among many others of St Jovite. Indeed it was my chance decision to ask one of her friends and fellow Lexington, Kentucky, breeders, Alice Chandler, if I could see Diesis, her recent acquisition to her Mill Ridge Farm that threw us in regular touch for several years.

Virginia had started life as a journalist, spending at least 30 years from its first issue working as a writer on Sports Illustrated, for which her specialist subject could be termed the great outdoors. Before revealing how I got to be there, one of my most indelible memories was of a highly lifelike tiger in full spring in the middle of her spacious office at her winter home on Jupiter Island in Florida.

“What’s the story about him”? I asked. “Well that’s the last thing I saw as he came towards me before I shot him”. So whether hunting with, among many, the old Shah of Persia – pre-Ayatollah Iran – big-game fishing and husky sled driving, she knew the outdoors all around the world. And she wrote about it all, too, in the magazine.

So it was after viewing and gushingly admiring Diesis, who was after all a brother to the even greater Kris – and you know how much I know about horses’ conformation! – I was invited to a party that was happening on the same evening during Keeneland sales.

Soon after arriving at Mill Ridge, Alice called me over to meet this very elegant lady. She said: I’m sure you’ll get on, since you are both journalists.” We did, and so I did with her son, Dean Grimm. Years after, he got more seriously into the bloodstock game in his own right as well as supporting his mother’s extensive interests and we became great mates.

Dean had this ability to secure the best looking young lady in the company, not an easy thing in Lexington, and among his business partners in mares and young stock was the actor Woody Harrelson.  I met Woody one day, via Dean’s arrangement, at a bar in Knightsbridge, and was disappointed on several fronts, not least his pallid skin and revelation that all the clothes he was wearing were made from hemp. I thought that was something those actor types smoked rather than wore. I suppose if he ever ran out, he could smoke his jacket.

Soon after our initial encounter, Virginia, who has a lovely farm, Payson Stud on the Paris Pike, met Jim Bolger and asked him to train among others her home-bred colt, St Jovite.

After a promising first season St Jovite just missed out in the Derby – second to Dr Devious, but gained his revenge when beating the Peter Chapple-Hyam colt 12 lengths in record time in the Irish Derby. His six length romp in the 1992 King George a month after Ireland, was wonderful but guaranteed to annoy me for ages as the BBC compilation, trotted out every year before the race, never included St Jovite, but always featured the 1993 victory of Opera House who was only third as a four-year-old behind Virginia’s star.

That night, we went along to San Lorenzo, Princess Diana’s favourite restaurant round the corner from Harrods, managing to get a last-minute table when we promised to bring the trophy along to be in full view throughout the meal.

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Virginia wanted to stand St Jovite at her stud, so moved him across to the US in the hope of making him into a top dirt performer, but he never ran in that country. Among his first foals was a colt called Indiscreet, trained by David Loder, but he never lived up to the promise of an impressive debut win at York as a juvenile.

His classiest runner in Europe was a Godolphin homebred called Equerry, but big-race winners were few and far between – the best being US-trained Amerique, winner of the San Juan Capistrano. Several years ago he moved to Ireland and has had a number of winners over jumps, Pull the Chord being the best, since standing at Greentree stud, where he died last week at the age of 27.

That demise was noted in the Racing Post a couple of days after a report on the first day of Keeneland’s  January Horses of all ages sale, which detailed how Virginia had been stocking up with some choicely-bred mares. She always had a high regard for the late Gerald Leigh’s breeding operation and bought three of the top four lots in Monday’s sale, all from the dispersal of Leigh’s daughter Sarah Jane, who died last year.

I’m delighted Virginia’s still going strong as she’s a “shade” senior to me. No doubt the Racing Post will reveal by how much the next time her birthday comes around. Suffice to say, this was the first time she had been active at the sales as a buyer over the past 30 years rather than a highly-successful vendor. I hope her new intake breeds something to recall St Jovite’s incredible highs.

The racing has been necessarily mundane since the big Christmas – New Year period, and with the cold snap coming, we can expect a few more abandonments. One BHA employee who will not mind the odd day off is Steve Taylor, former jump jockey and long-term starter.

He and his wife Carol are also the parents of England cricketer James Taylor, who at just 5ft 4in offers a sometimes comical counterpoint in the field to giant fast bowlers Stuart Broad and Steven Finn, both of whom are around 16in taller.

I always reckon only professional boxers need to be fitter and braver than jockeys. Bravery certainly comes big rather than small in the case of James Taylor, who collected two amazing short-leg catches, one off each of the big boys, in South Africa’s second innings capitulation in Johannesburg yesterday.

When I watch cricket on TV, I sometimes wonder why they bother to put a bat-pad man in short on the leg side as whenever a batsman shapes to hit to leg, the first impulse if to turn away. Not young James, who watches the ball right off the bat, and twice memorably yesterday, into his hands.

At his height, and with his strong but still trim frame, he could easily have been a jockey like dad, who revealed in an interview a few years back that James always rode ponies as a kid, but loved football, hence his education at Shrewsbury college, a noted soccer school.

The Taylors live in Leicestershire, where James made his first steps in county cricket before going on to Nottinghamshire, his present county. No doubt the prominence of the local football team this season will have the younger Taylor wondering whether like another notably versatile sportsman Philip Neville, a talented England under-19 cricketer before going on to Old Trafford and Man U, he might have made the wrong choice. After a day like yesterday, though, nothing could be further from James’s mind.

 

Sunday Supplement: Foxy and the Very Large Pianist

With the rain raining down incessantly on Britain’s racecourses, the football pundits are providing us with plenty of alternative entertainment in our time of need, with Talksport, Sky and Mail Online – often they seem totally homogeneous - offering some interesting food for thought.

I missed most of yesterday’s early-morning wisdom on the Micky Quinn – Georgie Bingham show, but just caught the last few contributors to their phone-in. The final caller, one of several Manchester City fans on the programme, sounded reasonable enough at first – not for him the Jamie Carragher opinion that Arsenal “have to win the title this year or they won’t for the next ten” – but ended with an interesting view.

He said; “City really ought to be 20 points clear”, a considered appreciation of the first 20 games in a 38-match season. I’m sure I heard Mr Quinn say “I agree”, but maybe it was Ms Bingham. I’ll tell you what, if they had actually got the 62 points they should have from the maximum 60 on offer, they would have been very hard for anyone to catch!

The FA Cup 3rd Round should have helped presenters and phone-in callers alike the chance to hone their arithmetical skills, and Sam Allerdyce, who reckoned Sunderland gave it away at the Emirates in losing 3-1 to the Cup holders of the last two seasons also needs to get out his maths primer if he ever had one.

Sunderland, struggling in the League, did well throughout, did even better to take the lead and in all had 11 shots of which three were on target. The hosts, meanwhile, had 25 shots, 13 of which were on target, so it was probably a decent game to watch.

It’s hard for me not to mention football, but if my article includes mention of Micky who trains what we all hope will turn out to be a nice two-year-old filly for the boss, I pretty much have to.

In earlier years, Raymond Tooth’s arrival at Tattersalls yearling sale had been the cause of excitement among some trainers and agents. Once a whiff of his entrance to the restaurant at Park Paddocks for a hearty breakfast was registered, the prospective developers of the raw talent that was about to go through the ring, swarmed around him.

His presence was never measured beyond a few hours, work demands ever paramount, but long enough for half a dozen or so happy practitioners to persuade him to try to get one or more of the choice offerings. He’s less of a Pied Piper these days, and last October’s visit which brought three Book 3 purchases was achieved in an almost anonymous manner.

The first two were acquired without earlier recourse to outside help. The third, chosen by him, after a little prior research and a chat to Chris Harper of Whitsbury Manor stud, was bought by the aforesaid Mr Quinn for 4,000gns, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she were the cheapest yearling Ray ever got through the ring.

She’s a daughter of Foxwedge, an Australian Group 1 winning sprinter and son of the amazing Fastnet Rock, who shuttles between his land of his birth and Whitsbury, where his fee of £7,500 compares favourably with the $40,000 back home.

In that context, 4,000gns looks derisory and when I had a look back at the pedigree on my midweek trip to an almost-waterlogged Kinsale stud, where no doubt she’ll go to produce her own foals later on, I could only marvel at what a bargain he might have.

The dam, Lady Circe, a daughter of Spinning World, won three races in Italy at two and three years of age. The sale catalogue revealed she’d had two runners so far, one winner Donosti, while the juvenile Baroja was unraced.

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Baroja, a son of Bushranger, had gone through the sale the previous October for just 1.000gns, and that looked insulting enough even before his first-time third in France a few days before the Foxwedge filly’s sales appearance.

Within a month, the first four from that race were all winners, including Baroja, who won a decent maiden (Euro 8K to the winner) next time before his good second to a Rouget hotpot at Pau last week.

That perusal of the pedigree reminded the Kempsters and me that Lady Circe is actually half-sister to a Japan Cup winner, from stakes-winning second dam Chesa Plana. If she can run, everyone will be in clover, so it’s over to you Micky and Karen Quinn.

Their Newmarket counterparts Luca and Sarah Cumani have been in Australia at the Magic Millions sale, along with daughter Francesca, helping son Matt fill up his Aussie training barn for his initial stage of following in father’s footsteps. Among his buys was a Foxwedge filly, which was, in reverse Dell Boy order, not 4k, not 40k, but 105k, even if it is only in Aussie money.

My Saturday was spent at Kempton where the highlight was Triolo D’Alene’s return to action in the Listed William Hill Chase. There were just three runners, one of which the veteran Wishfull Thinking was never travelling, but there was still sufficient excitement for the punters with the Nicky Henderson-trained and market-neglected winner and odds-on shot P’tit Zig going at it from the start.

The 2013 Hennessy winner Triolo D’Alene was a remote also-ran in Pineau de Re’s Grand National the following April, but the way he jumped in the Kempton mud offered a great deal of encouragement that next spring could be his big chance. He ran off 150 here and if the handicapper is kind – P’tit Zig departed when getting rid of Sam Twiston-Davies two out – and leaves him anything like unchanged, he’ll go to the top of my National list. Maybe he’ll give Seven Barrows that elusive first win in the great race.

Also at Kempton I bumped into the subject of my favourite occasional racecourse quiz question. It goes: “Guess what that very tall bespectacled gentleman does for a living? The clue, his profession was the name of a good horse he had something to do with years ago.”
Nobody’s ever got it, and until we went up to said tall gentleman, I had no recollection of his name, just that he was and still is a Concert Pianist. He was always around when the horse of that name, trained by Peter Winkworth, won three soft-ground novice hurdles in a row in the 2000-1 season at Warwick (11 lengths), Chepstow, 14, and Ascot, the last by six lengths from a decent Henderson novice to whom he conceded the double penalty.

Next time he was fourth to the mighty Baracouda in Fontwell’s National Spirit Hurdle, finishing well after tailing himself off in the early stages.

Usually, my greetings with the concert pianist are restricted to: “How are you?” but this time I thought I’d better put some flesh on the bones of my routine. I managed to find out that he’s called Ian and after further probing, Ian Fountain and yes he’s still working all around Europe combined with “some teaching at the Royal Academy of Music”.

In the old days that would have been that. But also logging in my ever-dwindling memory bank his mention that “my manager owned the horse”, I had a look at Google and there he was, with pictures aplenty.

It listed his accomplishments, which began with his being the youngest-ever winner of the Artur Rubenstein Piano Masters Competition in Tel Aviv at the age of 19. His “I do a bit of teaching at the RA” slightly underplays his status as Piano Professor there and now a judge at the same Competition. Looking at his profile, it seems me and my pal Pete spent some time in the company of one of the world’s leading pianists. You never know who you’ll meet. As John McCririck used to say, “Come racing!” He was dead right on that point.

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