When you watch racing on television, it is not unusual to disagree with the comments of some presenters, writes Tony Stafford. On Saturday afternoon, a few minutes after 5.15 p.m., the always contentious James Willoughby came out with to my mind the most preposterous statement of his televisual career in company with Nick Luck on Racing UK.
Leading up to the lady riders’ Flat handicap which concluded matters at the end of Newbury’s Hungerford Stakes and Ladies Day card, he extolled the claims of the David Pipe-trained Dell’Arca, at the same time disbelieving that he started at 7-1, having drifted alarmingly in the betting from an opening 4-1.
The nine-year-old, successful in his previous hurdle race by half a dozen lengths off 142 at Uttoxeter and now rated 149, lined up in the mile and a half contest off 76, 73lb less than the hurdles figure when the normally-accepted difference is between 40lb and 50lb.
Like me, Willoughby believed that to be a winning mark and so it proved. The difference between us, though, was that while I judged that rider Siobhan Doolan had done well to bring the gelding through in the closing stages for a length and a bit win, Willoughby thought otherwise.
His judgment was that had Ms Doolan been a “little more experienced”, Dell’Arca “would have won by 20 lengths”. Certainly if she had been a little better-known, the market might have been less pessimistic. In between the acknowledged Willoughby analytical expertise of many racing matters over the years, there’s also been an occasional hint of controversy in his utterings, but this was one of the more ridiculous statements I’ve heard.
The ten-strong field had gone off at a fast pace, with half the line-up pushing towards the front and Siobhan taking her time two from the back. The field tightened up around the three furlong pole, and as the back pair moved up towards his outside, Dell’Arca could easily have found it difficult to get a clear run.
First his rider made a quick, diagonal move through an initial space to tag onto the front half of the field, and then, coming to the last furlong, switched him through another narrow gap in between the three leaders before clinching victory under a strong ride.
Willoughby’s assertion that Ms Doolan is inexperienced implies her to be incompetent, but this obscures the fact that she has been around and ridden racehorses all her life. Admittedly, in terms of race riding on the flat and over jumps she has found it difficult to get mounts and indeed was surprised when her call to David Pipe last week resulted in this fortuitous engagement. Over the years she has ridden out for many trainers but does not have the luxury of full-time stable work and available race-action unlike some of Saturday’s opponents.
Apparently on her enquiry, the trainer called the Mick Channon stable, where she has been a frequent work rider over the past couple of years since completing her degree course at Oxford Brooks University, and they were happy to recommend her.
Now she works in the bloodstock insurance business, but in her late teens Siobhan was the leading novice female point-to-point rider in the north. In the interim, rides under both codes and also in points have been elusive, but Saturday’s success in the race was not her first. She won the corresponding race on the Sheena West-trained Hi Note with an all-the-way success five years ago. As she told me with a hint of embarrassment yesterday: “That was my last winner!”
Dell’Arca certainly has been a talented performer over the years and some of his best runs have been at Newbury. Following a three-race Flat career in France, and three more outings over hurdles there as a young horse, he joined the Pipe stable for the small matter of €280,000. Dell’Arca was successful in his first British run, winning the valuable Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham before finishing runner-up to Splash of Ginge in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. Later in his career, he was a creditable runner-up to subsequent Gold Cup hero Coneygree in a novice chase there and last winter ran home a six-length hurdle winner over Newbury’s three miles.
The snag with the Willoughby (and indeed my) expectation of victory was that on his only previous Flat-race run in the UK, assessed on those embryonic French runs three years earlier, Dell’Arca ran in a 14-furlong Salisbury handicap off 78 under Ryan Moore. He started 6-4 favourite and finished a 15-length sixth of seven, so 76 might not in retrospect have been such an obvious bargain.
Three years earlier, Ray Tooth’s Fair Trade, formerly tenth in the 2,000 Guineas behind Makfi (just behind St Nicholas Abbey!) and then winner of a jumpers’ bumper for Alan King and two novice hurdle races, also ran off 78 in the same Salisbury race and finished miles behind.
The coincidence is that Fair Trade ended up in the ownership of Ms Doolan when trained by her grandfather Wilf Storey. Her father, Kevin Doolan, was based with Storey for much of the 1990’s. She rode Fair Trade on the Flat and over jumps as well as in point-to-points, but with no success. Since 2013 when Hi Note won, Siobhan had only seven Flat rides before Saturday, none in either 2014/15 and 15/16 and five the following season, including two on Fair Trade. Last year, the gelding found a new life as a riding horse in the Midlands.
Whatever Willoughby’s opinion, I reckon Ms Doolan should be proud of her efforts on Saturday. It took opportunism both to secure the mount and then to squeeze through two gaps without inconveniencing any of her rivals. It will be interesting to see what happens when Dell’Arca turns out again on the Flat because there is no doubt that a mile and a half should be nowhere near the limit of his stamina.
After a year of utter frustration for the Ray Tooth team, long-overdue rain at Newmarket enabled the Hughie Morison-trained Sod’s Law to make only his second run on turf on Friday night. He competed in a 0-75 all-aged handicap off the top figure, so conceded 11lb (less weight for age) to the twice previously winning favourite Little Jo and 19lb (again less wfa) to runner-up Gala Celebration.
He ran a good third, tiring late on after looking a possible winner at the furlong pole, with the rest of the 15-strong line-up strung out behind him. Before Friday, three of his four runs – one as a juvenile – had been at Kempton and the other at Windsor, where the track and fast ground were unsuitable. Fran Berry reported him as “not the finished article”.
His older half-brother Dutch Law secured his first career win as a three-year-old on the July Course and followed up with two more and some other good runs there the following summer. He also won a £50k handicap over Ascot’s straight mile. Sod’s Law has been entered for this Friday in a three-year-old race over course and distance, but it will probably be a case of his name having the last say as the ground may well dry out again. That said, he’ll probably be better next year anyway if his brother’s example means anything
At Newbury, I bumped into Best Mate’s trainer Henrietta Knight and asked her for the first time about Ray’s home-bred Apres Le Deluge, an easy bumper winner last December at Hereford for Morrison. Henrietta had him for his initial schooling over jumps before the gelding went off for his summer break, and hopes to welcome him back before Hughie launches him on a jumping career in the autumn.
“I absolutely loved him. He was such a natural and we called him Apple!” she said. What with him and Telltale, switched to Dan Skelton from Channon where Siobhan Doolan rode him quite often in the mornings, we’ll be hoping for some winter success. That’s not to suggest there’s another Punjabi waiting to appear, but you never know! Watch out Dan, Siobhan might be on the phone offering her services!
- Tony Stafford