Yes, it was brilliant stuff for the first two days of Christmas at Kempton, Wetherby and Leopardstown, not to mention the other venues that none of us could go to, writes Tony Stafford. Shock results abounded in the big races and over two days at Kempton, Dan and Harry Skelton had the type of magical 48 hours that professional racing people can normally only dream about.
Five big wins from only nine runners including the convincing Nube Negra, who started out life as a non-achieving Spanish-bred (nought from seven) at Madrid’s La Zarzuela racecourse and now easily humbled an admittedly sluggish Altior in the Desert Orchid Chase.
What with Nicky Henderson also left to try to explain to himself and presumably owner JP McManus (and for that matter me!) how Epatante could be beaten so emphatically in the Christmas Hurdle, not this time by a Skelton runner but Evan Williams’ Silver Streak, a hard-working seven-year-old, it was a rum old do for Team Seven Barrows.
Epatante, in winning this race a year ago, had Silver Streak five lengths behind and that margin had swelled to a dozen lengths in the Champion Hurdle in which Silver Streak was only sixth.
Williams’ runner met another classy Henderson mare in Verdana Blue on his reappearance over Saturday’s track back in October and was not troubled to overturn that odds-on chance. Then his third meeting with Epatante, in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, ended abruptly when Not So Sleepy jinked himself out of the race at the first flight and carried out Silver Streak at the next.
Evan quickly salved his frustration at a wasted 655-mile round trip from his stables in the Vale Of Glamorgan by taking him to Cheltenham a fortnight later when he was only a neck behind another improver, Song For Someone.
Then it was Kempton and another big step forward although whether he can win a Champion Hurdle will depend on further progress from the son of Dark Angel.
Obviously the biggest excitement was Bryony Frost doing over Kempton’s fences what Hollie Doyle has been achieving on racecourses everywhere throughout 2020 by becoming the first female rider to win the King George Chase on her inseparable partner, Frodon.
She already has a Cheltenham Festival win – a fair exchange for Hollie’s Royal Ascot success in the summer - and now on yet another rag, not just a 20-1 shot but Paul Nicholls’ third string, she humbled his dual previous winner Clan Des Obeaux into third, while much-vaunted Cyrname (my fancy) was out of petrol by halfway and pulled up a long way out.
It was left to Waiting Patiently to finish second but Bryony controlled the pace from the start on Frodon and the tried and trusted partnership never looked remotely in trouble.
Who’s to say that Frodon, always a great jumper, could not stretch out to the full distance of the Gold Cup? Many of its winners have gone there with the question of stamina unresolved. It usually comes down to the quality of the jumping and Frodon has few peers in that regard. The only difference from the Thursday two years ago is that if he goes there, it will not be a repeat same-day dream double with Paisley Park.
Looking further afield, I would not be surprised if another Skelton horse, Shan Blue, who saw off The Big Breakaway in the Kauto Star Novices Chase, didn’t one day win a Gold Cup. He had been very impressive in his first two chases, both at Wetherby, in the second of them outclassing the very tough and talented staying mare Snow Leopardess by 16 easy lengths.
Again on Saturday he was always in control against main market rival The Big Breakaway whose jumping of fences was far less secure. The pair had met before when in fourth and sixth respectively behind the still-unbeaten Envoi Allen in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham in March when Shan Blue was the loser of their private battle.
It’s great to see the Skeltons doing what Dan, and for that matter Harry and their extraordinary father Nick, had always planned. The dozens of summer jumping winners have been sacrificed for the development of horses that can challenge for the top prizes from a showpiece training facility. It’s just a pity we couldn’t all be there to enjoy their move into the very top echelon of the profession.
As ever, Christmas racing in Ireland provided some brilliant sport and high-class winners, again with the top names to the fore. Willie Mullins is far more accustomed to multiple wins at major fixtures and he matched Skelton’s feat with his own quintet over the first two days of the Leopardstown meeting, but from many more runners – he needed 21 to reach the landmark.
If everything had been as intended, the score would have been six as the Irish Racing TV producers emphasised before the finale. “Imagine what the other trainers must be thinking. Willie’s had three winners already today and he says his one on the bumper is the banker”. And so it looked when son Patrick sent 4/11 shot Reality Cheque clear in the short straight.
But there are no certainties in racing and Patrick, Willie and the horse’s connections were left to mourn the loss of their exciting prospect who broke down a furlong from home.
Before I go on to my final offering, and as you can guess, yes there is a Raymond Tooth element to it, I must return to the Desert Orchid Chase and Nube Negra. The race was delayed for several minutes when Sceau Royal, the majority choice beforehand to challenge the favourite, needed to have some remedial work by the farrier and then made a summarily early exit from the race itself, falling at the fifth.
If you get a chance, try to watch the video of the race. If you scan back a long way behind the surviving runners as they enter the last half-mile of the race, you will pick out the riderless Sceau Royal miles behind.
Astonishingly, by the line he was bombing up the outside, powering past Altior and almost catching the winner – and Alan King’s superstar will have gone back to Barbary Castle thinking how unlucky he was to get up. As he goes onto the gallop in the morning he’ll be telling his equine companions: “I was at least a furlong behind and would have got them in another stride. I’ll be a certainty wherever the boss takes me next time!” He probably will.
And, finally, to the opening race on yesterday’s Leopardstown card, an 18-runner juvenile hurdle. There were contenders from some of the best stables and, of those that finished in places from second to eighth inclusive, all bar two were at no longer odds than 6/1. As they say, all the right ones were there.
Coltor, 6-1 and rated 86 on the Flat and trained by Dermot Weld, who only ever bothers with nice horses over jumps, was second. Third was the Jessica Harrington-trained 9-2 shot Ilmig, a Galileo gelding who won his maiden second time out at Navan in late October for Aidan O’Brien. This was his third jumps run after a good debut second but an odds-on flop next time.
Henry De Bromhead introduced a well-regarded Golden Horn gelding they’d picked up from the summer sales for £34k, a little more than 10% of the 300 grand the Highclere Stud product fetched in Tattersalls Book 1 sale in October 2018. He was sufficiently well-fancied to go off at 5/1.
Joseph O’Brien usually has serious contenders in juvenile hurdles and he supplied the fifth, Flying Scotsman, the McManus-owned dual Galway winner from this summer. Rated 87, he’s another Galileo and was an 11/2 shot after a couple of okay tries over jumps.
Charlie Bassett, Noel Meade’s Lawman gelding, finished sixth. He is a non-winner in ten Flat races, but with four seconds and three thirds good enough to acquire a rating of 80. He was a 16-1 shot on his third jumps start having been fourth at Fairyhouse two weeks earlier. Seventh came the only true interloper, Denise Foster’s 125-1 chance Ahaziah who made the most of the experience gained from two previous runs.
He was ahead of the Willie Mullins-trained and 77-rated Dark Voyager, another 5/1 shot. The highest-rated of them all was a second Aidan O’Brien graduate, Iberia. This horse was still rated in the low 100’s by the time he left to join Coolmore’s main vet John Halley’s small but shrewd team. He ran in the Irish Derby this year and competed in high-class juvenile races in 2019. Naturally he is another son of Galileo.
Are you bored yet? Well I think if you make time for another look at the videos from yesterday, take note of another newcomer, French Aseel, a son of Raymond’s smart Group 1 winner, French Fifteen. Sold after his Group 1 success to Qatari interests but remaining in Nicolas Clement’s stable, he finished a close second to Camelot in the 2012 2000 Guineas.
French Aseel won once in nine starts in France for a minor stable, never racing beyond a mile and even concluding his career in a six and a half furlong race after which Paul Holden bought him for €62,000 at Arqana’s July horses in training sale in Deauville.
A 22-1 chance in yesterday’s Racing Post betting, word clearly got around and the Ellemarie Holden-trained gelding was down to 7-2 favourite by the off.
French Aseel set off behind a 150-1 outsider, racing easily in second until moving smoothly ahead coming to the end of the back straight. Denis O’Regan kept him to his narrow advantage all around the long bend and approaching the straight he started to edge further clear.
O’Regan gradually allowed his mount to stretch the margin as they approached the normal final hurdle which, owing to the low sun, would not be jumped on either circuit.
As they passed it, O’Regan still had a firm grip on the son of French Fifteen – there I said it again! – and soon after they went past the flight, still needing only minimal encouragement, he had a look behind and could hardly have believed the gap. This had stretched to 22 lengths by the finish! Honestly you have to look to see it. I have a few times and still can’t believe it.
I wonder how long it will take before black and white hoops become green and yellow? For information purposes only, the extended distances were 22 lengths, 6, 3.5 and 5.5 (to Mr McManus’s Flying Scotsman). If JP hasn’t bought French Aseel yet - he should!