Thirty-six Mondays ago, I was thinking about giving Dan Skelton a call, writes Tony Stafford. At the time, Raymond Tooth had a couple of pretty ordinary jumpers in the yard and they were both being prepared for a return after a midwinter break. In the end I decided not to.
Later that afternoon I was looking through the results and noticed that he’d sent two horses totally unheralded to Enghien – his first runners as a trainer in France – and they had both won. A case of lightning striking twice, you might say. The fact that one, a three-year-old debutante called Mont Lachaud could start at almost 19-1 and win a €24k first prize by 14 lengths was extraordinary.
But then the more experienced Shelford, having his first run almost a year on from his fifth place in the 2015 County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, also collected a big pot – in his case €28,800. To do so, and by 20 lengths at more than 14-1, defied belief.
A fiver double would have been nice – around £1,500 – but the fact that Dan, Harry and everyone at Lodge Farm could even countenance such a spectacularly successful raid, was the most impressive element to my mind. It ranks up there with Gordon Elliott’s first Grand National winner when he’d hardly even had a runner in his native Ireland. That was before dad Nick Skelton’s Rio gold medal, too.
Shelford might have been sent on to a second County Hurdle attempt carrying the penalty if he’d had the misfortune of being in a different yard, but instead he went back to Enghien 44 days later and won again, this time less extravagantly in terms of distance and odds, but with €40,800 in the bank. It came almost as a shock when in a third French foray, he and Harry Skelton were foiled by a nose at Auteuil in late June, €20,400 providing reasonable consolation.
Mont Lachaux has also undergone a return trip, again to Auteuil, where he met some of the better early domestic juveniles, finishing a close third in a well-contested affair.
Why, you ask, do I choose today to rehash all that rigmarole? Well, if you believe in lightning striking twice, twice, then go along to your local betting shop – or maybe Racing UK or Attheraces will be up to speed - and watch the 1.25 (local 2.25) and 2.25 (local 3.25) races from Enghien. I’ll be taking close attention at Newmarket sales.
Dan Skelton has sent back both March’s winners for today’s fixture. Their three aggregate victories all came on officially “very soft” ground. Today, they will encounter “collant a lourd” – holding to heavy, which should be right up their boulevard.
Each is aiming at a Grade 3 prize of €60k to the winner and runs again over the identical distance, just under two miles for the juvenile; two miles, three furlongs for Shelford. Expectations for the latter will not have been diminished by the excellent fettle of the stable’s other high-class hurdlers, North Hill Harvey collecting £56k in Cheltenham’s Greatwood Hurdle on Sunday last week and Ch’Tibello earning £61k in Haydock’s Betfair Price Rush Hurdle on Saturday.
Saturday’s big prize at Haydock, run on much heavier ground than might have been expected a couple of weeks back when trainers were crying out for rain, provided an ideal comeback opportunity for 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Coneygree. Coincidentally, because of his helpful pacemaking under Richard Johnson, it brought an equally satisfactory third Betfair Chase success for the seemingly evergreen and ever-improving Cue Card for the unstoppable Tizzards.
While not quite in the Gordon Elliott or Willie Mullins situation of having multiple options for almost every major race, especially in Ireland, Colin Tizzard could have one impossible choice to make, almost in the “which is your favourite child” degree of difficulty.
Cue Card’s winning at Haydock means all he’ll need to do to qualify for the available £1 million bonus is to add Kempton’s King George VI Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. As trainer’s son, Joe, said at Ascot on Saturday, “no one else can win it!” The snag is that if the bonus is still on come March, one of the bigger obstacles for Cue Card’s winning it is the stable’s own Thistlecrack, more likely to go there than challenge for a second World Hurdle, but possibly more likely to run in the RSA than either of those.
A few years back, one now defunct betting exchange formulated a similar bonus for three equivalent major hurdle races, the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and the Champion Hurdle. Punjabi won the first of them – rerouted to Wetherby – but fell when looking the probable winner two out at Kempton. Had he stood up, his Champion Hurdle chance, when clearly less fancied than stablemate Binocular, might have been taken more seriously.
Of course, had he won at Kempton, would he then have gone on to Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle, when frankly he disappointed and possibly been less fit and prepared for the big day? When I saw Punjabi in his paddock in Shropshire the other week, he was still reminding us that it was he that won the big one almost eight years ago.
They don’t often come back, so it was great to see Sire De Grugy collect another big prize off top weight at Ascot. It was almost as though Gary Moore had whispered into his ear that Sprinter Sacre was out of the way, so maybe it was time for him to come to the fore again.
Cue Card, Sire De Grugy and to a lesser extent Coneygree, served notice last weekend that the enthusiasts who follow jumping in preference to the comparatively ephemeral Flat racing code of the sport, have more familiar names to latch on to every winter than their counterparts.
All three senior pros, interestingly, are with connections and indeed stables not totally in the top bracket, although Gary Moore could hardly have more influence on the sport than through his family with Ryan, Jamie, Josh and their media-involved sister Hayley, while Tizzard is rapidly moving towards the top six jumping stables in the UK, helped by some new bigger investors.
Some of the big Irish cards are worth watching, often on Sundays, but with smallish fields at Punchestown yesterday when there were three Gigginstown horses in each of the first two Graded races (five and then six runners) and three more for Mullins in the five-runner Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle, it’s sometimes hard to match the enthusiasm of the Attheraces presenters. Yesterday’s fog at the track which blotted out much of the action, didn’t help the entertainment value either.
Meanwhile at Cork, the other Irish meeting yesterday, the weather was contrastingly lovely but everyone else had to scrap for the left-overs with fields of 24, 15, 14, 12 and 18 lining up for the first five events. If they think it is hard now competing against Mullins, Elliott, Meade and the rest, imagine how tough it will become when Joseph Patrick O’Brien fully gets his feet under the jumping table.