Down Royal 11-11-23 Gerri Colombe and Jack Kennedy win the Ladbrokes Champion Steeplechase (Grade 1) Photo: Healy Racing / Racingfotos

Monday Musings: Crossing Borders

You might not have noticed, but the British flat turf season ended with a whimper, as they say, on Saturday – on the Tapeta surface at Newcastle rather than on the swamp that was Doncaster, writes Tony Stafford. The end-of-season highlight, the November Handicap, sponsored by whoever they can drum up these days, was a denuded affair of half a field compared with its heyday, not that Brian Ellison or the owners of Onesmoothoperator minded as they picked up 36k of Virgin Bet money.

The last actual turf meeting to be completed had been Newmarket a week earlier and it wouldn’t have needed much creativity to suggest to trainers and owners that a decent turf surface there would still have been more likely than anywhere else in the country and could accommodate 20 runners with ease. The horses that turned up had presumably been geared up for a big race opportunity on autumn (or worse) grass and that’s what they could have got at HQ.

Instead, in addition to Newcastle, we had Aintree in the north-west and Kelso in Scotland over jumps, with Wincanton in the West Country and an all-weather card at Chelmsford in deepest Essex. There was again a mystifyingly small field for the first go over the Grand National fences this season in the not-so-Grand Sefton which attracted just eleven.

Meanwhile down at Wincanton, Paul Nicholls had a field day, sending out the first four winners before Anthony Honeyball spiked his guns winning the main race, the Badger Beer, with Blackjack Magic and then going on to complete a double, both with Rex Dingle in the saddle, this time on Good Look Charm.

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Nicholls was still happy enough having swept up the other two main prizes, the Elite Hurdle, for the umpteenth time, with Rubaud, and the Rising Stars Chase with Knappers Hill.

I’d been wondering about the definitions of the United Kingdom, Great Britain and the British Isles before offering today’s quiz question. Bearing in mind Nicholls and his Wincanton four-timer, I ask, which trainer sent out most winners in the UK on the Friday and Saturday of last week?

The answer: Gordon Elliott, who provided 11 of the 14 winners at the two-day Down Royal meeting. Benefiting from a minimal representation from Willie Mullins, he had the first four on Friday and the last two after missing the fifth. Then on Saturday, he could not improve on his first five, despite having an odds-on chance in the last of seven races that day.

His tally there equalled his entire score of 11 more on Irish (non-UK) tracks over the previous 14-day period. Down Royal is close to the town of Lisburn, in the Six Counties, and situated around 40 miles from the border with the Republic whether you are travelling south or south-west as the border meanders its way across to the sea.

Of course, all the Down Royal stats apply to Irish racing. Its meetings, and those of Downpatrick, the other (and jumps only) Irish racecourse are staged under the Rules of Irish racing and all their statistics are included in the Irish returns. Many of the top domestic English, Scottish and Welsh jumps stables get a decent portion of their better imports though from the flourishing Northern Irish point-to-point field.

If the successes of Elliott and Nicholls tell you anything, the top stables have been stocking up avidly over the past 12-18 months and are going to be more formidable than ever. £300,000 plus is not unknown for a smart point-to-point prospect and, even then, success is not assured.

To illustrate that observation, three former Irish point winners lined up for yesterday’s finale at Ffos Las. Two that cost 100 grand and 85k respectively finished miles behind the Isabel Williams-ridden (and sourced at the sales) Followango. She paid 8k for the Evan Williams-trained five-year-old and owners W J Evans Racing could increase that probably by at least ten-fold if they wanted to leave the risk to someone else!

Gordon Elliott’s rehabilitation seems to have been largely achieved following the embarrassment of that infamous picture on his gallops. Talent will out as they say, though whether the major owners who decided to leave will ever return is another matter. But training is never plain sailing as he will be quick to admit. Yesterday’s nine runners at Naas, so back home in Ireland, produced no wins and just a couple of consolation second places.

The flat season may be over, the awards having been handed out a while ago at Ascot, but several trainers and jockeys have still been aiming at some of the major prizes available elsewhere. I’m not sure how Hollie Doyle is after unseating from her mount at Fukushima racecourse in Japan yesterday, while Ryan Moore would have been happier if the mare Geraldine, second choice for the Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Kyoto, had done better than finish in 5th place.

He has the consolation of the rider’s share of 85k, one tenth of the winner’s prize won by Christophe Lemaire on the favourite Brede Weg in this race for 3yo and up fillies and mares.

And the Melbourne Cup last Tuesday week had been a frustration for Simon and Ed Crisford as their former inmate Without A Fight collected the multi-million first prize having previously narrowly denied their present high-class performer West Wind Blows in the Caulfield Cup.

West Wind Blows, again ridden by Jamie Spencer, turned out on Saturday in the TAB Champion Stakes at Flemington but despite starting favourite for the £1 million plus first prize, could fare no better than 9th of 11. Prizemoney went almost all the way down but stopped at £33k for eighth!

There was a trio of UK jockeys riding in yesterday’s Group 2 at San Siro in Milan. The Crisfords targeted the race with hat-trick scorer Poker Face, ridden by James Doyle, while Archie Watson had two representatives with Oisin Murphy and Luke Morris doing the steering on Roman Mist and Brave Emperor respectively.

Once again, the Crisfords were disappointed, Poker Face started odds-on but the honours and the £100k pot went to Watson and Morris, with Brave Emperor striding to a four-length success over the favourite. The second Watson runner Roman Mist was denied third by a short head.

The Paddy Power Gold Cup and Greatwood Hurdle are the big races to anticipate next weekend as the jumps season now gets into full flow. The Paddy Power looks too complicated at this stage, and I’d like to see the first lot of acceptances later today before starting to formulate an opinion.

But I’m more than happy to put forward a tip for next Sunday’s Greatwood Hurdle. I always have a great respect for anything that Dan Skelton shows up with and can understand why his Knickerbockerglory is prominent in the market.

However, I was so impressed with the way Punctuation won going back on the flat at Doncaster, after a long layoff for Fergal O’Brien. That powerful win suggested he’d improved since his highly successful jumping stint last winter. Punctuation for me.

- TS

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