You can blame it all on novichok and Brexit, writes Tony Stafford. But for the political reaction to the first Salisbury poisonings back in the spring of a former Russian spy who years ago sold secrets to the British, and his daughter, many more England supporters would have dared to travel to Russia for the World Cup.
It was suggested around 3,000 England fans were in the stadium in Samara on Saturday as they beat Sweden 2-0. By my reckoning, not far short of 3,000 more blocked the traffic going down from Regents Park towards Camden Town at around 5.30 on Saturday afternoon. Luckily I was able to take a right turn and escape with a clean car unlike the Emergency Ambulance, jumped upon and as good as wrecked in Borough High Street, Central London, that evening.
As England’s path to a second World Cup win moves ever closer, confusion over Brexit and indeed novichok, following another dual exposure in the Salisbury area late last week, deepens.
David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, resigned over the weekend. Governments like to issue bad news when there are other distractions, so Mrs May might well be grateful of the progress in the World Cup by the home country’s footballers.
She will probably also be relieved that it was Croatia rather than the hosts that won Saturday’s other quarter-final after a penalty shoot-out in Sochi. Croatia’s female president showed her dancing skills when her team opened the scoring, while Russia’s PM Medvedev looked away. Considering the extreme cool in the Putin – May relations since Salisbury, it might be worth Betfair’s opening a market on whether Theresa will find time to travel to the Final next Saturday should we be there, with so much turmoil around Westminster.
My Internet-minded wife did show me one video image late yesterday, on the reaction of the Russian police when one misguided England fan, mirroring the ambulance abuse back home, jumped on a vehicle over there. Within seconds he was hauled off and got an instant “correction” from a policeman’s baton.
I played cricket the only time we won the World Cup when probably a good few of Eton Manor’s team preferred to watch the football. On Saturday I was at Sandown for the Coral-Eclipse Stakes which suffered a last-minute absentee when Masar, the Investec Derby winner had to miss the race through a minor setback.
Many thought Sheikh Mohammed and his Godolphin entourage might also avoid the engagement, but such is the renewed confidence especially with the Charlie Appleby end of the team, that there was a full contingent to see Hawkbill finish fourth. While not collecting the major prize, Sheikh Mo will have been gratified to see the Derby form upheld, with Roaring Lion, third at Epsom, maintaining his superiority over Saxon Warrior, fourth in the big one, in a tight finish.
Had the pair been competing in France or the US then the slightly errant late course of Roaring Lion, which caused Saxon Warrior to be tightened up might well have been reversed. But with the Sandown crowd building up the excitement with those other Lions about to take to the pitch in Samara, the result, a popular one with the favourite winning, was allowed to stand. The four-day ban that Oisin Murphy, 22, received for the move on Donnacha O’Brien, 19, was enough to salve any protests.
It has been widely assumed that Donnacha , already the possessor of three Classic wins this year to Ryan Moore’s zero, will not wish or be able to continue riding for much longer. Elder brother Joseph at 25 is already an established top-level trainer a couple of years in after his precipitous retirement, but the incentive for the younger O’Brien to remain in the jockey arena could hardly be more attractive.
Well used to reading in the footnotes to ordinary races in Ireland that his mounts would be liable to carrying overweight – 9st was supposed to be his absolute limit – it certainly surprised me that he was allowed to resume his 2,000 Guineas winning partnership with Saxon Warrior. Moore, absent on Kentucky Derby duties with Mendelssohn on that first Saturday in May, was back on the favourite both at Epsom and The Curragh, but again in the US for the very disappointing Mendelssohn at Belmont Park on Saturday night. Luckily Athena – my late mum’s name – picked up just short of 400k when winning the Belmont Oaks, so the trip did have some minor financial recompense for his troubles.
Saxon Warrior, along with the other three-year-olds in the Group 1 Coral-Eclipse, had 8st11lb, but when I asked Aidan O’Brien after the race whether Donnacha had “done” the weight, there was a hint of surprise that I’d even asked. He did. As with Lester Piggott in an earlier age, and until recently George Baker, the lofty Donnacha is showing the amazing will-power that jockeys can employ to manage their weight and of course their appetite.
My appetite was given a bit of a test in the Coral tent – no doubt the early start, England’s match and above all a blockade on the M25 contributed to a host of non-runners among the guest list– after I got a late call from Matt Yates, to partake of some excellent victuals.
Matt was an Olympian 1500-metre runner and if you could believe it actually beat Messrs Coe and Ovett back in the day. He walks pretty quickly too, and his athletic prowess didn’t hurt as he shepherded Coral and Ladbrokes customers from table to bar, and of course to the betting point while Colin Brown (without Desert Orchid) mastered the ceremonies in his usual effortless style.
The food was good, the company even better and until attention switched from horse racing to England on the big screen it was all serene. The initial stages of the match were fairly sterile, and the decision was made to drive back with Peter Ashmore and family to St John’s Wood and watch the second half and the inevitable shoot-out after the probable 0-0 draw in comfort and quiet.
Harry Maguire’s missile-guided head had already altered calculations by the time we got there and the second goal by Dele Alli offered security. It was left to some excellent saves by Jordan Pickford – “that’s what he’s there for” – to retain the victory margin and disguise the actual superiority. With two games to go, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a win. Champions of the World!
Will Mrs May dare to go, though, and sit alongside President Putin at the Final in Moscow? Or even more intriguingly will it be Boris, as Foreign Secretary, or will he have resigned by then, too, in an attempt to unseat the PM and nick the top job for himself amid the inevitable fall-out? When I used occasionally to be in close proximity to Boris (and others of course) going up in the the lift at the old Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street all those years ago, I’d never have believed where he and all of us would be now.
While there may be distractions, the top trainers do not allow themselves to be diverted. On Saturday there were notable multiple wins, not the least impressive being Ian Williams’ four-timer – one at Haydock and three-out-of-three for a 143-1 treble from his only runners at Nottingham.
The horseboxes rolled out early from Kingsley House on Saturday morning, no doubt waking the owners in the guest apartments, aiming for six of the seven Flat meetings on the day- avoiding perhaps fortuitously Sandown and those motorway frustrations.
Mark Johnston’s sole Nottingham runner finished only fourth, but his other 23 contenders fared far more impressively. I wonder whether expectations were particularly high, as of the 24, only two started favourite and neither Austrian School, runner-up as 4-1 market leader at Haydock or the odds-on Winger Spur also second at Beverley, could quite justify the position.
Otherwise it was success everywhere else, with wins at Chelmsford (two), Carlisle, Leicester, Beverley and another double at Haydock. In price order, the winners started at 20-1, 12-1, 8-1, 6-1, 9-2, and 5-2 twice. Johnston had sent out 28 winners in the previous 14 days, so with another at Ayr yesterday, that makes it 36 wins in 16 days. Man in form? He’s almost in the Gareth Southgate class.