In previous years – the last 50 of them anyway – I would have been spending the last couple of weeks building up for Cheltenham, not always to attend every day as for the first half of that time anyway I was required in the Telegraph office in Fleet Street, writes Tony Stafford.
This time round, after 365 days without visiting any track, I’ve been engrossed in solving a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle and last night I counted exactly 100 almost identical remaining pieces to be placed. Instead of heralding the imminent Spring Equinox and the pushing forward of the clocks I’ve remained in my pre-second Covid-19 jab no man’s land. The target of Newmarket’s Craven meeting is the possible time for my return to the real world.
I wonder if it’s any different for pensioners in Ireland, as in the case of 67-year-old Mrs Denise Foster as she’s officially referred to, the new holder of the trainer’s licence at Cullentra House Stables.
During last week, the BHA was reportedly requesting further clarification about how that stable’s operations would be conducted subsequent to Gordon Elliott’s six-month suspension. No doubt those questions have been answered satisfactorily by the Irish authorities as her six declared runners were duly accepted at Sunday’s 48-hour stage.
There seems to have been little discernible change in the domestic operation. Elliott had seven wins (including a last-day four-timer) from 31 runners in his final week and Foster won five of 25 in her first. Each licence holder’s wins came predominately with favourites (of which there are always plenty) with the odd double-figure winner for good measure.
Denise won’t be anywhere near Cheltenham this week with the short time available to make the necessary Covid-related arrangements being cited as the reason. Elliott will not be there either, nor (voluntarily) will he attend race meetings or points in his home country for the period of the ban.
He’s not the only banned trainer with a new man holding the licence. Charles Byrnes, whose own six-month sabbatical has started after one of his horses was found to have had a non-permitted drug in his post-race sample in Ireland - also twice in the UK, has found a new man in William O’Doherty to take over.
They instantly clicked when Thosedaysaregone won a qualified riders’ Flat handicap at Dundalk on March 5. The winning rider was a certain Mr P Byrnes, no doubt a relative of the “resting” trainer and a sibling of Cathal, the assistant trainer implicated in the team’s dereliction of duty – viz leaving the horse unattended while having lunch with his dad before the race in question at Tramore.
Interestingly, that was O’Donoghue’s only Flat-race runner in Ireland for at least five years and he has hardly been keeping the Irish racing secretariat too busy with his jumpers either. This season he has been unsuccessful with any of his four runners and it was a similar case with his 13 contenders the previous season.
He took the previous year off, runners-wise, possibly too busy celebrating after the heady heights of a winner from only two starters in 2017-18, but that was his sole success from a total 68 jumps runs in the last ten years.
His time with the Byrnes licence is already ending and a new man is on the block in the shape of Robbie (R P) Burns, whom Charles Byrnes relates had ridden for him in the past.
Auld acquaintance clearly has not been forgotten then in the case of the latter-day Rabbie who has been just as sparing with runners as O’Doherty. Over jumps his latest came in the 2018-19 season with six non-winners, repeating the results from seven and two starters the previous two seasons.
In all, three winners have come from 53 jumps runs in the past decade. On the Flat in Ireland between 2007 and 2018 he has had a total of 95 runs – none for the past three years to date - with no wins.
Three runners in the UK, once each in 2009, 2016 and the following year brought a winner at Wolverhampton on the middle occasion. Burns sent over the modest handicapper Abrahams Blessing, an eight-year-old owned by Mrs Dianne Burns and ridden by Silvestre De Sousa for a two-mile handicap but it proved a bitter-sweet occasion as he collapsed and died after the race.
Wolverhampton’s management might have felt, in the words of one of the Scottish Bard’s contemporaries and fellow poet and songwriter “Will Ye No Come back again”. I thought that was another Burns song but it was penned by Caroline Oliphant, Lady Nairne, whose family were noted supporters of Bonny Prince Charlie.
This R P Burns takes over the operation of his near-namesake, and son Cathal Byrnes has been confirmed in his existing role as the assistant. Meanwhile Charles Byrnes is allowed to go to the races and even lead up his horses. You might think, given the limited experience and scant success of the initial and present incumbent that Charles Byrnes is probably still very much the governor as must be Gordon Elliott.
The old “saddled the winner” cliché has long been a factual rarity with trainers only going racing nowadays when it suits with television coverage as it is. In the case of Denise Foster at Cheltenham anyway such a phrase will not be valid but don’t be surprised should it still be trundled out in customary lazy hack fashion.
Training by zoom has to be the next step on from these post-suspension fudges and in homage, not to the far from lovable The Three Stooges of pre-war film fame, but the Seven Dwarfs, I will attempt to try to find out how Gordon Elliott came to settle on Mrs Sneezy Foster.
Clearly previous training experience might be seen as an advantage but who’s to say that when it came to “Bashful”, had Matt Chapman made the cut, I’m sure he could have persuasively argued the toss even with the crusty old gentlemen that run Irish racing.
“Doc”, in the Disney film the boss of the vertically-challenged septet and the man who kept all the others up to the mark, could only be Dr Richard Newland. On further consideration, though, in the midst of the pandemic, the former GP and, like Elliott, a Grand National-winning trainer, was probably needed elsewhere and over-qualified anyway.
Two candidates for “Dopey” but unfortunately nobody seems to know the whereabouts of first choice Mahmood Al Zarooni. A more up-to-date candidate, French-based Andrea Marcialis, is unavailable as he is in the midst of an ever-lengthening ban as the 30-odd instances of doping his horses continue to be worked through by the French turf authorities.
“Grumpy” has to be Sir Michael Stoute. He certainly was that day when I tried to interview him after a winner, saying on our first encounter that I was Tony Stafford of the Daily Telegraph. “Tony Stafford of The Racehorse you mean. And Greville Starkey was NOT playing statues on that horse <from memory I think Greenhill God> - you have to ride him like that!” I think he still regards me with a funny look more than 45 years later and almost as long since that publication went to the wall. Not my fault – the latter anyway!
“Happy” is the ever-smiling except when thinking John Berry as long as he can wear shorts in midwinter and wellington boots. The latter appendage would fit well in Ireland in winter but the shorts might be less welcome in an 80-strong yard. Maybe some of the staff might not be able to concentrate seeing those knees at that time of the morning. Head shots only if he’s training remotely!
There were many more candidates for “Sleepy” on either side of the Irish Sea – viz any jockey fortunate enough to afford a driver on their many miles (especially over here) up and down the country. But then most of them know too much so watch out!
So it came to number seven and that was “Sneezy”. For Gordon and presumably the authority, it was the perfect match as she was already a trainer and was called Sneezy – perfect, so job done! I hope she enjoys remotely “saddling” her runners and it would be surprising if she didn’t end the week with at least one Cheltenham winner on her CV. It’s not very likely that she will have one next year, but if she wants something to fill any spare time she has when she stops training 300 horses I can send her my jigsaw as long as I complete it before the Craven meeting.
As I agonised all Sunday night – a short one admittedly – I had planned to go into old-school Telegraph mode and trot out my idea of the winners of the 28 races. I did that on a zoom call for a friend and one of his pals the other night but I’ve thrown away the notes.
I am pleased that Royale Pagaille goes for Gold Cup on Friday and stay with him and Venetia Williams. I’ve fancied each of the three main contenders in turn for the Champion Hurdle but as Honeysuckle was limited to the sole entry at a relatively early stage I take her to dominate the race and be a landmark victory for Rachael Blackmore.
But my bet of the week – one I’m irritated to see has been backed down to 12-1 – is the Olly Greenall-trained Homme Public in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle tomorrow. Young Greenall has had a great season, while Olly’s father Peter, Lord Daresbury, was a brilliant amateur rider in his day and he part-owns the French import.
He was a neck behind the favourite on his second and final run in France for Francois Nicolle and having bolted up at Market Rasen last time, would be an important winner for his up-and-coming trainer.