PUNCHESTOWN 29-4-2017. "It's all over"... WILLIE MULLINS is congratulated by GORDON ELLIOTT after Willie won the Trainer's Championship. Photo Healy Racing / Racingfotos.com

Monday Musings: Gordon’s Cunning Plan?

Six months is a long time in politics, writes Tony Stafford: ask all the Tory ministers who either got sacked, demoted, moved sideways or occasionally up in the latest reshuffle. It’s a long time in the Covid19 story too, ask John Gosden’s mate, former Health Minister Matt Hancock, but it seems it is but a blink of an eye in Irish horseracing.

Gordon Elliott and Charles Byrnes came back from their independent six-month bans for breaches of Rules and in the former case basic decency. Each within days has shown that nothing has changed in their absence.
Immediately after THAT picture of him sitting on a dead horse on his gallops, Elliott was briefly the most hated man who had anything to do with caring for animals. Never mind that all his friends and co-workers insisted he was a true animal-lover, as well he may be and probably is.

But the six months’ absence, conveniently salved by the fact that another local trainer, the little-known Denise Foster, was allowed to be shoe-horned in and keep the show on the road, has been probably a nice summer break for the man.

Denise did her required task to the tune of 30 jumps wins from 275 runners at around an 11% strike-rate. In the latest two-week analysis whereby Racing Post statistics convey whether trainers are hot, cold or lukewarm, she had five runners, all on the Flat, each starting at least 14/1 and with two places before being shown the door – I trust with a nice bouquet of flowers for her trouble.

Elliott, whose last ban-shortened jumps tally was 155 wins from 1,003 thus 15%, started back in the middle of the week before last and already has six wins on the board from 21 jump representatives, at a rate of 29%.

What occurred to my suspicious mind is that the recruitment of Mrs Foster offered a real opportunity for Gordon. Once it became clear that he would be coming back, if not to all the owners – some like Cheveley Park Stud with Cheltenham on the horizon were swept away in all the emotion and opprobrium that descended on the trainer - he could plan for the future.

His biggest supporter, Gigginstown House Stud of the O’Leary brothers, stayed firm, albeit with the well-chronicled promised reductions in the size of their operation beginning to take effect – more than 40 of their horses were in the recent Doncaster sale.

One oddity has already suggested more than a minor reduction. None of the 21 initial Elliott horses wore the maroon livery of Gigginstown – maybe the easing in the holiday Covid regulations will cheer up the always-combative boss of Ryanair?

Having another name on the licence even if Gordie was allowed to keep his nose on the place, was an invitation to get a few horses down the handicap, not that I’m suggesting Denise was breaking any rules. But it’s simple enough to run horses over the wrong trip, on unsuitable ground or even when they are either unfit or out of sorts. The excuses are well-enough noted in the trainers’ lexicon. Expect a constant flood of winners from this undeniably talented trainer.

While Elliott did have some restrictions, the six-month ban on Charles Byrnes, long known as the shrewdest of Irish shrewd trainers, was a ban pretty much only in name.

Even the initial and name on the licence after his misdemeanour was unchanged with Cathal Byrnes holding the fort. Charles was allowed to go into the yard and even take the horses around the parade ring before their races.

Since regaining his credentials Byrnes has had the grand total of two runners, one unplaced jumper and one on the Flat.

UK trainers quite rightly have been moaning for ages about the favourable treatment of Irish horses in our valuable handicaps and I have been right up there in pleading their case. What happened at Cheltenham was a joke and belatedly Dominic Gardner-Hill, head of handicapping has promised a review.

Saturday’s Cesarewitch Trial at Newmarket – the winners of which never seem to get anywhere near in the main event the following month – still carried a highly-desirable £20k first prize. Byrnes selected the race for his 79-rated seven-year-old Turnpike Trip who on his last run for Cathal Byrnes had been a close second in a race over a similar trip but worth only €6k at Down Royal.

Back in the Charles Byrnes fold, virtually untouched for a good run and with the incentive of a valuable winner’s prize and some ordinary opposition, here was an opportunity for Clever Charlie to fill his boots.

As the Racing Post joyfully crowed, the gamble was landed by two lengths from Live Your Dream, trying in vain to concede an improbable 22lb to the invader over the marathon trip. The other seven were eight lengths and more behind.

The last time Charles bothered to bring Turnpike Trip across to the UK, he ran in a handicap hurdle at Ascot at the Christmas meeting in 2019, three months after winning a Grade 3 novice hurdle at Tipperary and three weeks after he ran the brilliant Envoi Allen to eight lengths off  levels in a Grade 1.

Starting only 6/1 from a mark of 146 he finished fourth to Hughie Morrison’s smart dual-purpose horse Not So Sleepy, who at the time was rated 16lb Turnpike Trip’s inferior. The Irish horse was 14 lengths behind the winner, but that horse, who was fifth to Honeysuckle in this year’s Champion Hurdle, is now rated 153 hurdles and 99 on the Flat. All Byrnes had to do once the mark was fixed – and with no sense that maybe he was a blot of Burning Victory proportions at Deauville the other week – he just had to wait for the right valuable race. Job done!

And here was a horse running off 79. Help yourself - Charlie and his pals did.

The new system once it comes into force needs addressing at many levels, not least the ease with which low-grade or rather lowly-rated Irish horses can come and pick off as they like 0-55 races over here.

Handicapping and its potential for unfairness has long been an issue for Hughie Morrison and as he watched his nice three-year-old King Of Clubs toil home behind the placed horses at Newbury on Saturday he must have been screaming with rage.

King Of Clubs has won twice in handicaps, the second off a mark of 86 at Sandown when he finished well and got up on the line to win by a nose. Now there are trainers who would be shocked if such a win entailed more than a 2lb or 3lb extra impost but King Of Clubs got 5lb!
Then when the latest ratings came out on Tuesday, that most hated of concepts in the Revised Handicap ratings feature – collateral form – was brought to bear.

Here horses standing in the box on Tuesday morning can be given more weight because of something a close rival has done since his own last performance. In this case Sandown runner-up Victory Chime won next time at Chester, albeit only by three-quarters of a length, but the BHA handicapper added another 2lb to King Of Clubs’ mark.

Now raised 7lb for a nose, Hughie must have feared the worst for his 93-rated three-year-old. By that single action King Of Clubs can no longer run in 0-90 handicaps whereas without the extra 2lb he still could have.

Faced with horses of a different calibre and with far more experience he predictably found it all too much. Not only is the horse being forced into too strong company too early in his career, with the potential for halting his progress, his owners are now much more likely to succumb to offers to buy him from abroad. These are the sort of horses that should be encouraged to race in this country.

Elsewhere Charlie Appleby continued his world-wide sweep of the big races with two Saturday major pay-days in North America.

Recruiting an available Frankie Dettori for the Canadian International at Woodbine racecourse, Toronto, he collected £206,000 for Godolphin when hard-knocking Walton Street wiped away the opposition by more than five lengths.

Desert Encounter, trained by David Simcock to win the two previous editions in 2018 and 2019, had to be content with second on Saturday.

Then in New York, Yibir, winner last time of the Great Voltigeur at York but side-stepping the St Leger, was found a choice alternative in the Jockey Club Invitational for three-year-olds. Third favourite behind Bolshoi Ballet, already a winner at Belmont in the summer, Yibir came from last to first under guest rider Jamie Spencer, collecting £390,000 for the Appleby yard. That made it an (in the words of Lou Reed) Oh what a perfect day in North America coming home with almost £600,000! For the record Bolshoi Ballet, the favourite, was fourth.

Finally I have to mention my friend Jamie Reid’s (same sound, different spelling!) authorised biography of Victor Chandler which takes us to Longchamp 2007 and his (and three associates’) arrest for unlawful bookmaking at the Arc meeting. I was around in those days and have read this last chapter. Reid is a wonderful writer and was also very close to the subject for the period the book covers, I can’t wait to read the rest of it.

* Victor Chandler, Put Your Life On it. Reach Sport £20.

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