By Tony Stafford
What’s the biggest certainty of Easter Monday morning? It’s that when that select little club of Newmarket trainers convene at the Severals trotting grounds, their equivalent of the office water cooler, the question on all their lips will be: “Do you have a Helmet?”
No, it’s not a variation of the old schoolboy game of Roundheads and Cavaliers, indeed nothing at all to do with the male genitalia. It’s the immediate response to the annual guessing game that attempts to reveal which first-season sire will be most successful.
Helmet, with Sepoy one of two Australian-bred stars of the 2010-11 season for Darley Stud and trainer Peter Snowden, stands at Dalham Hall for £8,000, just short of half the fee (£15,000) commanded by his compatriot at the same Newmarket stud.
He’s by Exceed and Excel and in Darley’s advertising literature, is the “best juvenile by the best sire of juveniles in the world”. From the 250,000gns paid by Shadwell (Hamdan Al Maktoum) to the paltry 600gns it cost a certain Robert Cooper to buy one last year, around 66 horses went through the ring. Of the 66, 11 failed to attract a buyer at point of sale, but could well be in stables by now.
Anyone who missed yesterday’s racing from Kempton, or unlike me, who had the luck to be there, will be wondering what I’m going on about. Well, one day after a Mark Johnston colt tore away to win the first juvenile race to be run in England this year by nine lengths, two daughters of Helmet, from that Middleham stable, flexed their muscles to similar effect.
On the opening day of the 2015 Flat turf season, Johnston had a runner each at Doncaster, Chelmsford and Kempton, collecting all three with Ravenhoe (Brocklesby), Buratino, the future Coventry winner, and Rah Rah respectively. Ravenhoe got home only narrowly but Buratino had more than three lengths to spare at Chelmsford, hardly surprising as he beat the 2,000 Guineas favourite Air Force Blue at Ascot, and Rah Rah was equally convincing at Kempton.
The complication of Easter means the Brocklesby will be on a week later in 2016. Once a race which carried large sanctions for winners, the race’s penalties now only begin with wins in Class 3 races (4lb). Sutter County, a home-bred son of Invincible Spirit would be required to carry such a penalty should he be turned out eight days after his romp.
The Johnston stable has fellow early-start trainer David Evans to thank that the Kempton maiden fillies’ race was split as he declared ten of the 19 final entries for the race. Boater was backed down to odds on, unsurprisingly; took off from the outside and galloped relentlessly away through the straight to win by seven lengths. Thirty minutes later Chupalla did likewise, by a miserly six lengths, albeit in half a second faster time. With fancied runners from both Richard Hannon and Evans, this was probably the stronger heat, but Chupallo looked a size bigger and a class apart.
With Wesley Ward reportedly preparing a clutch of juveniles at Manton with a view to gaining experience for them before their annual Royal Ascot venture, and with the Brocklesby in mind for one of them, he might be a little perturbed that if either Boater or Chupalla roll up there next Saturday, they’ll be unpenalised as Kempton was a Class 4. Charlie Johnston said after watching the two winning fillies: “Good luck to him if he runs there!”
So how do we get a Helmet? Well there are three sales breeze-up catalogues on the stocks with a single each on offer at the re-vamped Ascot and Goff’s (Doncaster), with eight at the classier Craven breeze at Tatts Newmarket during the first meeting of the year at HQ, happily restored to three days.
It’s not always easy to find out what horses might be in various yards, but if you want to know about the Johnston yard, they are all listed with pedigrees and owners on his informative website, unlike many of their less savvy and consumer-friendly rivals. Surprisingly, with 124 juveniles listed, only one other, at present unnamed, backs up the two Helmet winners.
Ray Tooth has a couple there – no I can’t say they’ve both been galloping all over Boater and Chupalla – but the only juvenile he has by one of the outstanding class of 2010/11 Australian juveniles, is a filly by Foxwedge with Micky Quinn.
This son of Fastnet Rock was also pretty good and while Helmet was comfortably the better overall, the pair did meet twice after Helmet’s precocity was wearing off the following winter. Each time Foxwedge finished ahead while not winning either race, although Helmet did get promoted into third above him after they passed the post in the opposite order in their second encounter.
There’s little in the Foxwedge/Helmet sales price, our boy is a touch cheaper at Whitsbury, but the four grand we paid for Circuit looks fair enough since her year-older brother Baroja showed winning juvenile form late last year in France.
So anyway, as John Ferguson settles into his new Managing Director job at Godolphin, he will end his interesting time as a jumps trainer with plenty of happy memories and have some nice new sources of high-quality blood to anticipate coming through. Helmet’s amazing start will have had them buzzing up at Dalham Hall, make no mistake.
Fergie himself might be thinking that like Manuel Pellegrini, the premature announcement that he would be drawing stumps at the end of the season might have had a negative internal effect, even if on the face of things, everything was going along as usual.
Pellegrini pre-empted the always-expected news that Pep Guardiola would take over in a statement on February 1 and his team have since been less than convincing.
Ferguson spoke out much earlier on December 22, at which point he’d sent out 70 winners for the season, many in the May to October part when the faster ground suited the sort of former high-class Flat-race stayers he has to train much better than winter mud.
Since December 22, only Jaleo, a late entry into the team from Jim Bolger, and one of five Ferguson winners in that month, has hit the mark, on February 5 at Catterick. Ferguson continues to make entries, but the dozen horses retained for the Cheltenham Festival in the hope of getting a first winner there at his swansong meeting failed to measure up.
Jaleo was tenth in the Fred Winter and only three of the others made it into single figures, admittedly in universally big fields, with one fifth and two six places collecting a few bob for Bloomfields.
World Cup night wasn’t great for Godolphin either, with no wins and they were also to be disappointed on Lingfield’s big Good Friday meeting, where they were the prime force 12 months ago.
I missed that scrum of 10,000 in the Surrey sunshine for a quick visit to Lambourn and was witness to a remarkable feat of temperament and patience from the great Sprinter Sacre. For all his well-published ailments and return to a measure of his former brilliance by gloriously re-gaining his Champion Chase crown just nine days earlier, he stood patiently, apparently for hours in all and 30 minutes to my certain witness as fans at the Lambourn Open Day clustered round to get pictures and no doubt pat his flank and neck.
By 12 o’clock his proud trainer Nicky Henderson and Nicky’s long-time lieutenant Corky Brown were thinking maybe for his final stint later on he might need ear plugs, but it’s so wonderful when one’s heroes are also the nicest of individuals. That alone made my weekend, never mind England – Sri Lanka and England – Germany!
The Flat’s started. Go get a Helmet!