So much happens in a week in racing. Last Monday morning I sat in front of the computer screen anticipating the Melbourne Cup and, a few days further along, the conclusion of the 2019 turf Flat season, writes Tony Stafford. The Cup did indeed stop the nation and I was up at 4 a.m. to watch it, and the Flat season did indeed conclude but without Doncaster, flooded in common with so much of much of the Don Valley in the worst conditions in living memory.
It is in no way meant to trivialise such a harrowing experience for so many people around the country and particularly in South Yorkshire and surrounding counties, but the weather, so different from the autumn of last year, has enabled jumping stables to get their horses onto grass with the result that fields for National Hunt racing are already looking healthier than in several recent late autumns.
Armistice Day, today being the 100th anniversary of the first one following World War 1, is a significant watershed between the racing seasons. This year, there is an actual week’s break in all-weather Flat racing and as long as not too many jump courses are unraceable, it should be competitive stuff starting at Kempton and Carlisle this afternoon. The ceremonial part of Armistice Day of course was yesterday, and as I’d decided to enjoy the rare glimpse of sunshine and travel to Sandown Park for the Sunday fixture, the usual sequence of military marches from the Cenotaph had to be experienced on the car radio.
One interested onlooker at both was the Queen, nowadays observing from the Foreign Office building alongside as Prince Charles leads her more youthful wreath-laying male relatives at ground level. I bet she wished she could have taken the car for the 15-mile hop down to Esher where her Kayf Tara gelding Keen On came with a thrilling run to deny the favourite Protektorat up the hill in a very hot novice hurdle. Nicky Henderson, who trains this prospect for eventual honours, also sent out Santini to win the following Intermediate Chase.
The official going for Sandown before Saturday had already been “heavy” so it was with severe misgivings that afternoon that I set off on a near reconnaissance of yesterday’s ride around the M25. The whole way to my destination for a brief meeting close to Kempton Park I travelled in near torrential rain and it only began to ease halfway home three hours or so later. Sandown can’t be on, I thought, but it was. Andrew Cooper certainly has something when it comes to course clerkmanship, or maybe he’s just lucky when he and his courses need to be.
A feature of yesterday’s racing was a hurdles double by the in-form Fergal O’Brien team with proven mudlarks Lord of the Island in the two-and-a-half- mile handicap, and Totterdown, who repeated last year’s all-the-way victory in the two-mile handicap. Totterdown had been in the Richard Phillips stable a year ago and it was some surprise on looking up that day’s results that I noted the ground had also been described as heavy on the hurdles course.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, both O’Brien winners clocked faster times, in the case of Lord of the Island significantly so, than a year ago. Tottterdown made all on both occasions, in the earlier race as a 25-1 shot in a 20-runner field, going clear on the bridle two hurdles out and lasting home well by six lengths. Yesterday, at even money, he was sent into an immediate long lead by Paddy Brennan and none of his seven rivals ever got nearer than the ten lengths by which he passed the post in front, 0.40sec faster than in his initial victory.
With Doncaster abandoned on Saturday, Southwell’s early evening card which wound up Flat racing for a week until Wolverhampton next Saturday evening, took my notice. I mentioned here recently about my belated return to the world of horse race tipping competitions and the fact that along with a little job for Fromthestables.com, secured in a time of need with the help of the owner/editor of this publication, came a place in the William Hill Radio Naps table.
Fergal O’Brien is one of 16 trainers whose thoughts have gone towards my daily nap selections since I joined the team in February and for the first few months I was genuinely and blissfully unaware that the naps appeared anywhere. Then in late May it was mentioned that I was close to the leaders in the said event. By late summer I had taken the lead and it was one that was still in place on Saturday morning, the final day of the competition.
Doncaster’s cancellation denied me a much-fancied candidate in the big race, but also prevented the two closest rivals from having a decent chance of finding a feasible outsider to bridge the gap. My Saturday tip faded away in the Wincanton gloom just after 1 p.m. leaving me to make the drive to South West London fearing the 16-1 morning-price shot selected by the main challenger in a 0-50 classified race at Southwell would unseat me at the last. Opening at 10-1, the horse drifted out to 14’s causing a few quakes before settling at her SP of 12-1. The fact she was never in contention behind a Mick Appleby steering job was academic but pleasing in the extreme.
I’d won, but I couldn’t tell anyone. Suddenly on Friday, in between calls, my phone suddenly stopped working. Calls stopped coming in, as did texts and Whats Apps but I was stuck in such a ridiculous traffic jam after a major accident having dropped Mrs Stafford at a nearby Underground station, that it took me until after 4 p.m., two hours after setting off on the five-minute trip, to get home.
If there’s a telecoms expert in this house, there’s only one qualifier but she wasn’t due home until 9 pm and all my fiddling with the phone’s various menus had no effect. When she finally returned she concluded it was probably the Sim card, but in practical terms it wasn’t possible for that to be attended to until Monday morning from the Ray Tooth office.
So I decided – well one of us did – to get a pay as you go Sim to see if it worked in my phone, and fortunately it did but with hardly any of the numbers on its memory. It wasn’t until 9 pm on Saturday evening that part of the mystery was solved. Harry Taylor called round on his way to work asking “What’s happened to your phone?”
He said: “I called early yesterday afternoon and a woman answered saying her name was Anita. I rang off and dialled again and the same woman answered. I asked her to tell me the number and it was yours.
“I thought I’d ring again, but not just repeating the last call on the menu but dialling out the numbers and this time there was just a message. I thought ‘she knows it’s me and isn’t answering’ so I got Alan Newman to call and he had the same result.” So too, later did Steve Gilbey, Ray Tooth’s right-hand man and Mrs S. Seems someone got my number almost in mid-conversation. Strange. I’ve no idea at time of writing whether I’ll ever get the old number back.
Rekindling just a scintilla of the type of lifestyle that accompanied tipping horses every day for all those years became remarkably comfortable, indeed almost routine, even after 17 years of not living that way. It’s sharpened me up, not just in trying to find what might be winning each day, and tells me maybe I should never have left the Daily Telegraph. But then, they wouldn’t have waited much longer to get rid of me anyway!