Good Friday for racing fans historically meant there was no chance to watch any action. Instead for the last 20 years or so, the Lambourn and Middleham Open days gave enthusiasts the possibility to see the sport’s equine heroes at close hand. Lambourn has gone on serenely every Good Friday and there was again a massive attendance in the Valley last week. Middleham missed last year but another 7,500-plus is anticipated there today.
For the past four years, racing has finally been allowed and the winter all-weather season has ended with the crescendo of All-Weather Winter Championships Day at Lingfield Park. Musselburgh joined in, until this year when that track switched to Saturday.
The Arena Racing Company (ARC) this year bolstered its hold on the one-time sacrosanct Good Friday by adding two of their other tracks, Bath and Newcastle, in a monopolistic treble with enhanced prizemoney for both the latter along with the usual cash bonanza at Lingfield.
The crowds flocked in – certainly at my chosen venue in chilly Surrey – but I wonder just how many of them were happy with the continued absence of any on-course betting shop facilities at ARC tracks. Recently at the Raceform reunion, I met the manager of the Coral betting shop in Lingfield, promising to call in “the next time I’m there”. Of course, I didn’t stop – lay-by crowded, too much traffic et al – but I will one day if only to ask, how many people stood there all day listening to picture-free commentaries?
One friend, an owner with Highclere and member of four of their syndicates for this year, went through his fancies for the day and said which ones he intended backing on track. When I told him that he wouldn’t find an outlet there, he switched to the phone, as so many people must be doing these days.
Maybe that’s why Ladbroke-Coral and Betfred seemingly aren’t too worried about ending their dispute with ARC, at least not before the new Levy arrangement laws kick in later in the spring.
I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of sympathy for David Nicholls. Two horses in his care until February, when he handed in his licence, appeared on the card and each won prizemoney of £93k.
There is no question that Nicholls was for many years an excellent trainer, especially of sprinters. Last October at Doncaster, he ran both Sovereign Debt (winner of the Mile race for Ruth Carr on Friday) and Kimberella (Sprint for Richard Fahey) in a seven furlong conditions race. Sovereign Debt won impressively with a late run and Kimberella set a fast pace before weakening into fifth.
Meanwhile the boss’s Dutch Law toiled at the back under what could only be described as a pretty complacent ride by the already-crowned champion, Jim Crowley. My confidence before the race in this three-time 2016 winner was hardly improved when Jolly Jim came into the paddock declaring, “Basically, he’s a shit, isn’t he?” and their performance matched his lack of enthusiasm.
Unlike the Nicholls pair, who have continued to thrive, Dutch Law’s only public appearance since was in the sales ring at Tatts the following week when he was bought for 150,000gns. Where he is now is a thing of mystery.
Racing Post shows that Nicholls ran five individual horses in the opening six weeks of the season, none making an impact. His last winner at around the same time was Sovereign Debt, collecting another 90k plus in Doha, Qatar, when he beat Cougar Mountain and 14 others over a mile. I hope Dandy eased his disappointments with a little double on the pair – at 44-1!
Willie Mullins sent out 12 runners at the two Irish jumps meetings yesterday and with odds-on shots in the two most valuable races, could have been expected to narrow the deficit with Gordon Elliott (ran 22, two minor wins) in the Irish jump trainers’ championship.
He did to a degree, but neither Let’s Dance nor Yorkhill could land the odds. Let’s Dance got a fine ride from Ruby Walsh, but after leading going nicely turning in at Fairyhouse, could not withstand the late run of stablemate Augusta Kate and David Mullins close home.
Walsh had another unusual experience in the big novice chase, again being collared, this time after making almost all the running on headstrong Yorkhill, who jumped, as the commentator said, “alarmingly left” at most of the fences on the right-hand track. Cheltenham Festival winner, Road to Respect, trained by Noel Meade and ridden by Brian Cooper, steered a more conventional course and was rewarded with a neck victory, despite a brave rally from the runner-up.
The day’s action leaves Mullins £200,000 or so adrift of his rival and with a €290,000 first prize in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, in which Mullins has three representatives in the 30-horse field, he clearly has a chance of something like parity between the pair. Unfortunately, on a day where again Elliott has almost double Mullins’ 12 runners between Fairyhouse and Cork, ten of them are in the National alone. No wonder Tony Mullins among others is calling for a limitation on the number of runners trainers and owners can have in a single race.
It’s hard enough for small owners to match the big battalions, but when the luck goes as well, the game is hard to take. I had to make two unwelcome calls to Ray Tooth on Tuesday morning. First Mick Channon called to say that Ray’s unraced French-bred three-year-old Weekender, there for just two weeks, had been found dead in his box in the morning, presumably after a heart attack. “That’s the first one I’ve had in 30 years,” said a distraught Mick.
Then a couple of hours after Channon’s call, Mark Johnston’s vet called to say that the two-year-old filly, Tarnhelm, had been lame after galloping very well the previous Saturday and needed an operation to remove a chip in a joint. That went successfully during the week and hopefully all will be well, but with a late April debut in mind, this was a real frustration.
There was a bit of a setback, also in the early stages of what was to be Frankel’s first-season progeny’s assault on the Classics when Lady Frankel and Taulifaut could finish only third and fourth behind favourite Senga in the Prix de la Grotte at Chantilly yesterday. The winner was completing doubles for owners Flaxman Stables (Niarchos family), Pascal Bary and Stephane Pasquier, and it will be great if those shades of blue colours enjoy a revival in fortunes.
Three Frankel colts are among the declarations for Thursday’s Craven Stakes on Newmarket’s opening fixture. Frankuus, Eminent and Dream Castle are engaged and they are among six sons of the stallion entered to emulate dad in the 2,000 Guineas next month. The other trio are Cracksman, Seven Heavens and the David Elsworth-trained Swiss Storm, who continues to get glowing reports of his well-being. The Frankel three will do well to cope with Rivet and the chosen of the Aidan O’Brien pair, Peace Envoy and War Decree, in the Craven.
The happily-restored three-day meeting is wrapped around the two-day Craven Breeze-Up sale at Tatts, after racing tomorrow and Wednesday. The breeze-up gallops were shown this morning on Racing UK. Watch at home as it’ll be a bit parky on the Rowley Mile, but the bidding will be somewhere north of frenzied, no doubt, come tomorrow night.