SHISHKIN (right, Nico de Boinville) beats ENERGUMENE (left) in The SBK Clarence House Chase Ascot 22 Jan 2022 - Pic Steven Cargill /

Monday Musings: A Rare Weekend Indeed

Rather more than fifty years ago, when I was serving my mercurial time at the Press Association in Fleet Street, if you had suggested staging a big-money jumps card at Lingfield in late January, they would have been sending the idea’s originators to the nearest psychiatric ward, writes Tony Stafford.

In those days the PA was the principal provider of all the information on racecourse going reports, jockey and trainers’ plans and the technological developments we all take for granted were still decades away. So we dozen or so on the in-house team, bolstered by at least as many outside reporters, would get all the information first.

It was quite handy in the days of Jockey Pools when some of the more unscrupulous members would withhold jockey changes to the newspapers, their principal clients, on a Friday night until James Lambie could get the teams’  last-minute coupons down to Euston station in time for the final permitted mail delivery for Liverpool.

We used to collect almost every week and sometimes for a nice few bob. In those days the office was split between journalists (so-called) and clerical staff, but it was we journos who master-minded the selections while generally the much bigger clerical team would simply spy and feast on them.

After seven or eight winning weeks in a row, one Sunday morning, one of their contingent came over to our desk and said: “How did we miss Edward Hide?” Cheeky bugger!

I just recalled that portion of those days when the biggest joke was about Lingfield. In the era either side of World War 2, and presumably before that, the minimum requirement for a clerk of the course was an army commission and Major was the most common.

Peter Beckwith-Smith at Lingfield had carried that rank during the war years and, as was also the tradition, into his civvy street activities for ever afterwards. He was one of the more optimistic of clerks.

The joke was that when going out on a boat to assess the prospects of racing a couple of days ahead of a Lingfield fixture, he took out his stick, leant precariously over the edge and searched for the bottom. Later in his bulletin to our office he pronounced without a hint of irony: “Underneath the water the going is good to soft”!

That’s just a flavour of how absurd it would have been in those days to schedule any meaningful meeting in January. They sometimes used to get away with the late December meeting which included one of the first informative juvenile tests of the year, but January was usually a write-off or, rather, a wash-out.

Drainage improvements have meant the abandonments are much fewer, but to say the course has been fortunate to go unscathed through their inaugural three-day (one all-weather) Winter Million bonanza is an understatement.

After about ten dry days the ground was still heavy with soft patches. Just one or two wet days would have been enough to scupper their ambitious, perhaps foolhardy, plan. I wouldn’t mind betting they might not be so lucky if they persevere with the deal next January. I hasten to add their bravery deserves to have paid off and friends who have been there all weekend have enjoyed the innovation.

It helped that ITV 4 were there as they were at Ascot on Saturday, otherwise I would have missed the best of the two tracks but most importantly the fantastic preliminary skirmish between the two Queen Mother Champion Chase contenders, Shishkin and Energumene, in Saturday’s Clarence House Chase at Ascot.

That Willie Mullins is a clever chap, sending over Energumene and asking Paul Townend to send him on from the start. That tactic surprised a few, expecting the only other serious opponent First Flow to set the pace. Rather shrewdly Luke Harvey suggested First Flow would not be quick enough and was entirely correct. But last year’s winner did figure for much of the middle part of the two miles when all three horses were in close formation.

Turning for home, though, it became a match and, with Energumene making no semblance of an error, racing close to the rails and not losing a millimetre, he was almost metronomic from start to finish.

It would clearly require a champion to beat him and with Shishkin not as fluent as his Irish rival and the occasional jump to the left losing a little ground, surely he had met his Waterloo (or at least Clapham Junction, as the final destination will not occur for another seven weeks). But Nico De Boinville still had time coming to the last to change his whip, settle the horse momentarily and then drive him to pick up and pass his rival with the characteristic flying finish he always contrives.

Meanwhile, the doughty First Flow was picking up the far from negligible third prize of sixteen grand which would have satisfied Kim Bailey even if 18 lengths adrift of the second and 19 from the winner. Amoola Gold, never mentioned before here or in the race either except as an onlooker from the rear as an 80-1 shot for the Skeltons, plotted his way home safely.

It made for a remunerative schooling round and his owners, the Pinks, had the excitement of sharing the paddock with, as Kim said beforehand, “Two of the racing Gods” and hopefully took advantage of the wonderful lunch available in the Ascot Owners’ Suite. After their race it would have been the ideal time for afternoon tea before going home.

I would not be shocked if that old shrewdie Dan hasn’t already sorted out a Festival target for Amoola Gold and his respectful distance adrift the top two and equally First Flow should not lead to a significant alteration to his tasty 151 rating. He’s the first contender on my list for one of the valuable handicaps.

The Clarence House, as befits a Grade 1, was worth £85,000 to the brilliant winner. Nicky Henderson is entitled to believe he has the boxes ticked for the big day but equally Willie Mullins will know more about how possibly to attack Shishkin. If Shishkin’s less secure or, rather, less accurate jumping is ironed out, there is probably no way back for the Irish but maybe a few more jumps upside him might make him uneasy. They need to try something, but whatever they come up with, the re-match promises to be the race of the week.

Yesterday’s Fleur De Lys Chase over two and three-quarter miles and worth £78,000 to the winner despite being ungraded, was another thriller, if one laced with regret as Master Tommytucker, having been smuggled into the race from a long way back by Harry Cobden, suffered a fatal injury when falling heavily at the third-last fence.

At this point Dashel Drasher, having been hounded for the lead by Lieutenant Rocco, now had to contend with Kim Bailey’s Two For Gold and old-timer Bristol De Mai, away from his Haydock comfort zone.

In a finish of swaying fortunes, the last thrust came from Two For Gold and David Bass just edging out the gallant but unfortunate Dashel Drasher and Rex Dingle, with Bristol De Mai just behind. A thriller indeed.

My favourite moment of the weekend was the opening bumper win yesterday of Hughie Morrison’s Our Jester, now a six-year-old, who followed his impressive Ascot bumper win last October with a spectacular eased-down success on the all-weather.

Hughie confessed beforehand that the owners have been keeping this excessive prize as far as bumpers are concerned in mind to brighten their January and he obliged in style under Tom O’Brien. They got £2,700 or so for Ascot but eight times as much – £21k yesterday!

Although a half-brother to the smart bumper but then Flat-race winner Urban Artist and out of bumper winning but then Royal Ascot heroine Cill Rialaig, there is one unique element to his career to date and one that strikes pertinently at my heart.

I was a great proponent of Our Jester’s sire, Garswood, in his early years at stud. Unfortunately, the former high-class sprinter-miler for Richard Fahey has long been disregarded by the never-forgiving breeding industry, consigning him to exile from Cheveley Park to a little-known nursery in France.

Trainers loved his first crop, almost to a man (or woman) big and strong, but they did not carry their physique meaningfully into battle. I mentioned a rarity with Our Jester and indeed it is. He is the only winning bumper horse (of six to try) by Garswood. I suggested to Hughie recently that maybe everyone got it wrong and despite his own speed, he should have been treated as a jumps stallion.

Knowing what his relatives have done, it could easily be that Our Jester might ply his trade later as a flat-racer; his two bumper wins will count as jumps successes but none of the other 15 Garswoods to go jumping, including those five bumper non-winners, have yet to pick up a single National Hunt race. Brave Hughie, as I’ve said before, is some trainer! He trains what he sees, not what people tell him to expect.

 - TS

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