I enjoyed Sandown on Saturday, not least because with my pal Peter Ashmore I had a nice chat in the new and much-improved owners’ room with Mrs Heather Silk, friend of the famed former British Airways Cabin Services Director, Mike “Chunky” Allen, writes Tony Stafford.
Chunky was the man to know in the years between the 1980’s and his retirement coming up to a decade ago, as he would habitually “magic” a trainer’s Economy ticket into First Class. It was a poor show when his chum had to slum it in Club. Unfortunately, by the time we were bumping into each other fairly regularly at the races, his trips to the US seemed never to coincide with my assignments.
Before one visit, when I was to be travelling with the then Mrs Stafford, he said: “Don’t worry, when you’re going onto the plane, just ask for the Cabin Services Director and say: “Chunky Allen says would you look after us?” After a long, sceptical look, that gentleman replied: “Never heard of him, turn right sir.”
Chunky still retains his links – and often access to all racecourse areas – and above all enthusiasm, a trait he shares with Heather. It is purely a coincidence that on Saturday she wa s ruing some of the changes in present-day racing, complaining that owners nowadays have a totally different view of the sport than in her day.
It was in my research leading up to a couple of pre-Cheltenham articles – one on this site – that I made an in-depth look at Kalashnikov’s chance in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the opening race tomorrow. Before even looking back into the history, it seemed obviously a rarity that a horse having only his fourth hurdle race, and that after a single bumper, could win the race that started as the Schweppes and morphed into the Tote Gold Trophy, before taking on its present identity.
The fact he is trained for her father by Amy Murphy, generally accepted at 25 as the youngest trainer in the UK, is distinction enough. That only four horses in the history of the race, run 46 times with ten abandonments since its inception in 1963, carried more weight than the 11st 5lb he humped to that easy victory at Newbury, adds to the merit.
It’s when you look at the identity of that quartet that the quality of performance really strikes home. The first two were Persian War in 1968 and Make a Stand in 1997. Both went on to win the Champion Hurdle that same year. Persian War was running for the 14th time over hurdles when he won the Schweppes from 31 opponents, as far as I can tell from my incomplete records. He managed to gain that level of experience at age five having run a few times, with a couple of wins, on the Flat for trainer Tom Masson before that. With three Champion Hurdles, he was truly one of the greats.
Make a Stand won as a juvenile on the level for Henry Candy and again at three before the switch to Martin Pipe. By the time he pitched up to make all in the Tote Gold Trophy he was making his 12th jumps start and collecting an eighth win. His rating, including a 4lb penalty for victory at Kempton the previous month, was still only 140. Next time he again made all, winning the Champion Hurdle unchallenged by five lengths from Theatreworld.
Pipe again was the trainer when Copeland won in 2002 under 11st 7lb. He was already a seasoned performer on the Flat, running at least 18 times – incomplete records – for Henry-Alex Pantall and Sheikh Mohammed, often at Group level against the likes of Kayf Tara.
He made an immediate impact as a novice, indeed matching Kalashnikov’s record of two wins in three before tackling the Gold Trophy for the first time, again as a five-year-old. He was a highly-creditable second from a rating of 133 when a ten-length runner up to Geos. It was two years later as a seven-year-old that he won under 11st 7lb, giving 11lb and a four-length beating to subsequent Champion Hurdle winner, Rooster Booster. And his owners: none other than Professor DB and Mrs Heather Silk. Wish I’d remembered that on Saturday.
The last of the quartet came three years later when Essex, trained by Michael O’Brien, carrying 11st 6lb, gave 17lb and a comfortable beating to Bongo Fury off his mark of 144. The 4-1 favourite, he was also a former Flat racer – originally owned by Messrs Magnier and Tabor and trained by Michael Stoute – but one who subsequently spent several seasons in top jumps company.
I’ve looked back at last month’s race many times, marvelling at the fact that only two other horses finished within 20 lengths of Kalashnikov in that 24-runner affair. The rapidity with which he stretched away from them suggests that maybe he should be running in the Champion Hurdle rather than the novice. He has to be my bet of the week. Heather Silk says she’ll be there and I hope to bump into her to remind her of her brilliant jumper.
It’s a long couple of days for me, starting this morning as I always do at 4.30 a.m. so I can write this as late as possible and also in the quiet. Tonight it’s the Bedfordshire Racing Club preview night. I bet we’re the only one left after everyone else has had their say.
Thanks in part to the efforts of the Horseracing Bettors Forum – I know the Chairman! – we will have 48-hour declarations for Wednesday’s cards, and the said Chairman will be hoping that Oxford Blu, which carries his syndicate’s colours, will get up the hill at the head of his field in the Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.
By 10.30 today I’ll know whether he’ll have to worry about the Noel Meade-trained Vision D’Ete, five-length winner of his third hurdles start by five lengths from 19 opponents at Cork in December. In the interim three months, Meade has sold his former charge to Modebest Equine Ltd, a move that suggests he’ll take his place, and further that he’s carefully protected his very reasonable mark of 122.
Memories of Persian War’s 1968 Champion Hurdle remind me that it was that day 50 years ago when I made my first Cheltenham Festival visit in my father’s Morris Marina – I didn’t drive until almost a decade later. The last race that day was the Gloucestershire Hurdle (Div 2) won by my all-time favourite jumper L’Escargot, then a five-year-old.
By the time he won the Grand National – at the fourth attempt, easily reversing earlier form with Red Rum in 1975 - he also was the proud winner of two Gold Cups. I think it is fair to say that even if the rains come down as expected, his record slow time for the second of them in 1971 of just a shade over eight minutes is safe. His first win, when I backed him at all odds out from 14-1 to the on-the-day 33-1, was achieved in 73 seconds faster time!