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.
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?