By Tony Stafford
This weather has us all out of synch. Friday and Saturday should have been Newbury on nice spring ground, except that it was waterlogged. Jeremy Deedes, former high-powered Daily Telegraph executive and now just as high-powered man of leisure and resplendent in green trousers, offered an opinion as he walked up to the stables on Hughie Morrison’s open day yesterday.
“It’s all that house building”, he suggested. “There’s nowhere for the water to go.”
That made sense to me. I know that on Tuesday morning when I was anxiously looking at the early advance going forecast, the “stick” reading was 2.7, the lowest (therefore heaviest) I’ve ever remembered anywhere since that rather imprecise measure was introduced some years ago.
After a dry night it was up just below 4, but Thursday’s rain resulted In Friday’s abandonment – and Cousin Khee’s weekend heel-kicking – while Saturday’s loss was obviously inevitable as I drove around London to get a new tyre after a Thursday blow-out on the bottom bit of the M11.
It took the best part of four hours to complete the assignment, getting from home base in East London to Fulham, then on to the tyre man in the Uxbridge Road. The boss in that tiny shop tucked just around the corner close to QPR’s ground used to live in Exning where his brother runs the local supermarket. Yes, he’s heard of Gay Kelleway. It’s always the last bit getting home whatever the weather on a Friday afternoon, but when it’s coming down in straight lines as last week, you give up.
There would have been every reason to expect Paul Nicholls to give up on the 2015/16 jump trainers’ title after the excesses of Willie Mullins, first at Cheltenham and then Aintree where he collected more than £320,000 in win money alone. Ruby Walsh, twice denied almost certain victory with the late falls of Vautour and Blood Clotil (a total £180,000 down the drain) in Liverpool suffered an injury from the latter mishap and missed out on the Grand National.
Four Grand National hopes for the master Irish trainer were readied for action, but none got home with two fallers and two pulled up meaning he missed out on any of the £1 million total prizemoney on offer.
Mullins still held a six-figure lead over sole rival and nine-time British champion Nicholls as five horses were sent across to Ayr, the trainer’s first at the track, for the Scottish National two-day fixture. Two third places, a fourth, a fifth and a first-fence faller in the big race left Mullins stalled on 23 winners of £2,243,000. To attain that figure, Mullins has sent 84 individual horses across the water. True, in these times of massive strings, 84 doesn’t look outlandish – he’s run 181 at home, obviously most turn up in both lists – but it’s only when you consider Colin Tizzard’s heroics have come from only 58 horses, the Irishman’s “unfair” advantage is obvious for all to see.
No doubt Mullins is looking to the West Countryman as one of the biggest thorns in his side, as Cue Card has won four of five starts and Thistlecrack all five of his. In three races, the King George and Betfred Bowl, behind Cue Card, and the Liverpool Stayers Hurdle won by Thistlecrack, Mullins would otherwise have had the winner each time. The extent of the “lost” earnings was respectively £71k, £68k and £53k, a total of £212,000 which might have made Mullins’ still likely success a near-certainty.
In response to Willie’s apparently inexorable drive to the title, Nicholls had to act and nine wins over the two weeks leading to last weekend showed his horses’ vitality. Then on Saturday he took three major prizes, including the Scottish National with Vicente and one small one and followed up with a 100% four-timer nearer to home at Wincanton to celebrate his 54th birthday in style.
So with 17 in a fortnight Nicholls was back in front, to the tune of £40-odd thousand. That figure is hardly secure as there is almost half a million to be competed for on Saturday at , but Nicholls goes there with a much sounder chance than a week ago.
Saturday was a wonderful day not just for Nicholls, but for his former assistant and protégé Dan Skelton, too, who within three seasons has collected a first century of winners after an Ayr double. His major aim over the final week of the season is to bring jockey brother Harry, who has 98 to his name, up to the same mark.
I was expecting that milestone to be reached at Wetherby on Sunday, but unusually Dan withdrew three fancied runners on the day. Like Nicholls, however, he has plenty entered for the final week of the season and is hopeful the joint ton will be achieved.
A few weeks back Dan had a double with his first two runners in France. As early as March 7, Skelton produced a three-year-old to make a winning debut over jumps, collecting a near €20k prize by 12 lengths on what must have been a trip into the unknown on many scores. The starting prices of Mont Lachaux, a full-brother to staying hurdler Whisper and stablemate Shelford, 20-length winner of a conditions hurdle a little later, combined at around 300-1.
Shelford, off since running well in last year’s Martin Pipe Hurdle at Cheltenham, would have been most people’s (and certainly my) idea for a potentially well-treated candidate in either that race or the Coral Cup at the Festival after that romp, but single-minded Dan had other ideas. Shelford is one of only seven left before the final declaration stage this morning for another hurdle race with almost identical conditions back at Enghien on Wednesday.
The main difference is that the winner gets €40k and it’s hard to imagine that this fresh hurdler will be beaten, or that he’ll go off at double figures.
Dan’s father Nick, Olympic Gold medal-winning show jumping legend, rightly proud of his sons’ achievements, told me soon after Mont Lachaux’s win that the gelding looked like a six-year-old when he came into the yard in the middle of his two-year-old career after being acquired privately in the summer. He’s going to be targeting the major French autumn three-year-old races rather than mess about for small money over here.
Chelmsford did wonderfully well to get the Greenham meeting transferred from Newbury at short notice, but there is one element which might be a negative, especially for extra-senior racegoers. Where once you could wait your chance and cross the track near the entrance and make for either the stands on the nearer finish side, or by-passing the paddock, go up to the owners’ and trainers room on the other side and partake of the always-palatable sandwiches and soup. Guess where I go!
But on a rotten day like Saturday, never minding the classy albeit skinny fields, the new tunnel with its winding downhill under the track and complementing rise back up the other side, will test a few over the summer. Thank goodness my normal weekend car sharers stayed home in the dry and watched Nicholls at Ayr rather than Ryan Moore’s domination of Essex’s only track.