Last August, I had a brief drink before racing at York with Mark Smith when he told me about a horse his closest friend John Coleman had bought from France and sent to Willie Mullins, writes Tony Stafford. Sadly, since buying Klassical Dream, the name of the horse, John had died. “You must remember John, he always came racing with me, especially to Cheltenham,” said Mark. I did and do.
“It’s such a shame. He’s a really good horse and Willie loves him, but although he ran in some good hurdle races in France he didn’t win one. I don’t know if Joanne, John’s wife, will be able to keep him though,” Mark added.
The connection between that brief conversation and events yesterday in Ireland was lost on me until, post-race, Gary O’Brien mentioned the name Mark Smith, and blow me down it was that Mark Smith being interviewed by Nick Luck in the winner’s enclosure along with another pal.
I’d never had the retired-at- an- embarrassingly-early-age former City trader down as emotional, but in full view of the cameras it was as much as he could do to get out Joanne’s name and the fact of the “three boys watching at home”. Clearly he was delighted at the turn of events, Joanne indeed keeping the horse and getting a Grade 1 prize, the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle, to help defray expenses.
Now Mark Smith will have a good reason, as if he ever needs one, to be at the Festival next month when the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle will be the target. Klassical Dream, who battled back under Ruby Walsh to hold stable-companion Aramon by a head, is 8-1 for that championship race.
I know whenever I refer back to horses that have run at Cheltenham or anywhere else in my old colours, I have to pinch myself at how long ago it all was. No doubt Mark will be amazed that next month will be the 25th anniversary of his greatest day as an owner, when Balasani was awarded the prize for the BonusPrint Stayers Hurdle after narrowly failing to catch Avro Anson, who was disqualified.
Like Klassical Dream, Balasani was a French import, in his case an Aga Khan-bred who won on the last of three races in his homeland, at Saint-Cloud in April 1989.He never went through a sales ring as far as my researches could reveal, and if Mark had phoned back yesterday – he said around an hour after the race: “I’m with some people, I’ll call later” - the mystery might have been cleared up.
Suffice to say, Balasani eventually appeared from the John Jenkins stable from where he ran a total of 15 times on the Flat and over hurdles. Despite the best efforts of Messrs Piggott, Eddery, Asmussen and Dunwoody and several others, he never managed to win.
That took him to early 1991 and the switch to Martin Pipe. Second time out, at Worcester, Balasani won at 10-1 and was in a winner’s enclosure seven more times before Christmas. He ran off a modest 91 at Worcester and by the time of the last of five jumping victories that year, the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Sandown, he beat a field of 21 decent handicappers from 4lb out of the weights and a mark of 129, just 38lb higher! Some trainer, Pipey.
In between had come a Flat hat-trick, Lester contributing once and Darryl Holland the other two starting off in the 40’s.
Then, in the manner of Martin Pipe, Balasani was re-born from being a decent two-miler to a top staying hurdler, at the same time mirroring that progress on the level. In March 93, after a fallow 1992, he began with victory over one mile seven furlongs off 65 at Warwick before romping away with the Ascot Stakes (2m4f) from 10lb higher.
Now it was big races all the way. Next time he was runner-up, giving plenty of weight to the winner Highflying in the Northumberland Plate (off 83) and was jolted up to 91 when predictably stretched by the weight in the Cesarewitch. All that remained for that winter were three hurdle runs. He was fourth to Sweet Duke in the Long Walk at Ascot; and beat the smart Cab On Target easily in the Rendlesham Hurdle in its then home at Kempton before the Cheltenham win which showcased his ability to sprint up hills at the end of long-distance races. Post Cheltenham, he was the beaten favourite for the Queen Alexandra at Royal Ascot.
Presumably that was one test too far as he was off the track for more than 18 months, returning for a low-key five-race farewell tour for Pipe, who managed to fashion one last success as a 10-year-old in a long-distance claiming hurdle at Newton Abbot. Another break was the prelude to a final few runs for permit holder John O’Neill, also a one-time City man.
Mark has never lost his interest in racing, despite leaving ownership to others and is one of the shrewdest punters around, like his one-time City colleague and now Racing TV betting pundit Dave Nevison, who would have enjoyed yesterday’s win from his trackside pitch. One day Mark asked me whether I could arrange with the Daily Telegraph for his elder daughter to do her work experience there. She did, as also did her younger sister a few years later. Both have had long careers associated with newspapers and publishing. As Alan Newman might say: “It’s not what you know”!
I was delighted when Sir Erec made all the running in the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle to confirm the overwhelming strength of Joseph O’Brien’s Triumph Hurdle hand. Racing TV’s Irish team, O’Brien and Donn McClean, seemed surprised beforehand that Sir Erec was shaping to make the running, but having finished a close third to Stradivarius in Ascot’s Qipco Champions Long Distance Cup last October for Aidan and the Coolmore boys, he would hardly be lacking in stamina.
Then after he sprinted away, putting six lengths between himself and the equally well-fancied J P McManus-owned stablemate Gardens of Babylon, the suggestion from the team was, “he had the run of the race”. I often find that a nonsensical concept, but surely the way for him to find out the other runners’ limitations was to press on from the start. The question for the Triumph will be whether he or Cheltenham winner Fakir d’Oudairies will be the one. Don’t ask me.
The very limited English challenge over the two days of the Dublin Racing Festival was pretty much limited to La Bague Au Roi in the Flogas Novice Chase over two miles, five furlongs. Richard Johnson had the Warren Greatrex-trained mare in front from the start, and she stayed on as bravely as ever to make it 14 wins in 19 career starts. She remains unbeaten in four chases and looks another banker for the Festival, presumably in the RSA Insurance Novice Chase.
I left Leopardstown to Harry Taylor – more air miles than Judith Chalmers – in favour of Sandown on Saturday, where the best clerk of the course in the business, Andrew Cooper, once again played the percentages to get the meeting on. No frost covers – “if we had it would have cost 30k and we couldn’t have lifted the snow off” – but temperatures were helpful over the previous two days so the judgment call paid off with a good crowd and competitive racing, headed up by Buveur d’Air.
Sandown remains the best viewing course in the country and, according to Peter Jensen, its chairman, racegoers can expect a number of easily-visible improvements before the end of 2019 as the track undergoes the first phase of a multi-million pound re-development.
In the near future some rather more spectacular re-structuring is promised and with Spelthorne Borough Council seemingly strongly against any closure of sister-track Kempton, prospects for racing and racegoers in the area are bright indeed. That’s just as well in a period of increasing gloom in the sport, especially if the news of Sheikh Mohammed’s questioning of the financial extent of his involvement goes much further.
- Tony Stafford