Runners head up the straight in the Bangor On Dee Handicap Chase at Bangor-on-Dee. 26/10/2021 Pic Steve Davies/

Monday Musings: Nothing To Say

There’s just over a week to Royal Ascot, therefore we’ve an extra few days to fill this year because of the vagaries of Easter, writes Tony Stafford. Not much happened in the last week, and I doubt too much more of any great moment will occur in the coming one, so we can concentrate of some of the more obvious ills (or rather frustrations, to me) of the sport.

Without too much investigation I’ve got a gripe about a few things. Sunday racing, Race Planning, handicap marks and unfathomable stewards’ decisions are all fertile places to start. Then maybe after examining an example of each over recent days, we can see whether that constitutes an article. I hope so because otherwise I’ve Nothing To Say.

Let’s start with Sunday racing. The experiment with Sunday evening cards was abruptly dropped over the past couple of weeks. High summer is here – at least the sun shone yesterday where I am – and Saturday proved an attraction around the country.

The stands were, as one Racing TV presenter in the north, so either Catterick or Beverley, “heaving”, and the gogglebox pictures confirmed the same at both tracks and at Goodwood.

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Mick Fitzgerald reminded Sky Racing viewers on Saturday, that there are no stands at Bangor to be “heaving”, but the bank was extremely well populated. That brought to me a time when Bangor, as the last UK track I had still to visit two decades ago, was the scene of a runner in which I had an interest.

Noted stud owner and youngstock producer Richard Kent kindly told me he had saved me two badges “for my box in the main stand. I can’t get there, but I’ll make sure they look after you royally.”

They do that anyway there, in a ground-floor building next to the paddock. Richard was there actually, to bask in my embarrassment. Anyway, with the first sight of sun around the country, the punters, for all the extravagant cost of going racing, were out in force.

As I mentioned when I started, the BHA promise had been for enhanced Sundays. Goodwood yesterday lived up to that with a card that should have ensured another good attendance, but anyone else other than in the south of the country who wanted to watch live racing would have been stymied.

According to Google maps, Perth, the nearest and only other horse racing – point-to-points apart – being staged, is 511 miles away. Even from Scotland’s two biggest cities, Edinburgh (47 miles away) and Glasgow (62 miles) the one-way drive takes around an hour and a half. Better than nothing I suppose, that is unless you don’t like summer jumping.

Goodwood offered just over a quarter of a million pounds on a strong card, designated a Premium Raceday and I was gratified to see a selling race for juveniles offering a £10k first prize. The disappearance of so many selling races down the years has been a major negative.

What was the problem of owners having a win and getting a nice few quid on then having the option of getting rid of an unwanted horse or trying to buy him back in the auction? My dad – I was stuck in the DT office - once got bid up to a record 14 grand to buy back my horse Bachagha after he easily won a selling hurdle by a distance at Fontwell. Isidore Kerman, then owner of Fontwell and the Kybo horses – as a boy he was always advised “Keep Your Bowels Open” – didn’t flinch from telling Dad, about the record not his ablutions, so afterwards.

My first ever winner was at Beverley, one of my favourite tracks. Charlie Kilgour was a moderate animal I’d bought via a friend of a friend from Alan Spence, probably then still at primary school it was so long ago. I always wondered who Charlie was, but Alan told me years later he didn’t have a clue: “He was already named when I got him,” he said.

Ridden by 7lb claimer Simon Whitworth and trained by Rod Simpson, Charlie won. I backed him, got the prize money and the selling price. A day of days. Not being one to wish ill of anyone I was delighted when, for the new connections, a very truncated career ended without a win. I’d like to think I’d be more charitable nowadays. What I do believe, though, is that often the action in the ring after a seller enlivens proceedings and I’d love to see a lot more tracks including sellers in their cards.

Goodwood have made a big effort and there’s nothing better than a day on the downs close to the Solent which can be seen on a bright day high up from the back of the stands – albeit away from the action.

I mentioned Race Planning. I’m involved with a so-far maiden three-year-old rated 74 after three runs at two but, for one reason or another, he hasn’t managed to get back on the track in 2024.

His trainer seems happy that at last we’re enjoying a clear run towards a race, and he has been looking for one for three-year-olds only at around 1m2f. On the Monday after Royal Ascot – Eureka, there’s a 0-75 three-year-olds only over ten furlongs at Windsor. Wait a minute, there’s also a 0-75 three-year-olds only half an hour later over 1m3f and a few yards! Take Your Pick. At a time when it’s very difficult to find any race that suits, here’s two within half an hour with the same conditions.

Depending on field size, couldn’t they bring the two fields together, move the stalls to a position midway between and run for double the money?

A senior trainer said recently in a conversation with me that the RCA holds all the cards and the BHA is helpless to argue with them. Maybe that’s the problem.

Now to handicapping. It’s always been a subjective thing and some trainers seem to be more skilled at keeping their horses’ true and potential ability under wraps as they move them through the grades.

Sir Mark Prescott was always the master at getting favourable initial marks for his younger horses, then when putting them up in distance. Sometimes, he would win four or five in midsummer when the fields started to thin out, before challenging for important handicaps or even Pattern races in the autumn.

One trainer has recently been enjoying Prescott-like spectacular achievements but with an animal of a markedly different profile. Phil McEntee’s five-year-old mare Jacquelina had already raced 26 times (two wins) before her sequence started, that after amazingly having run 14 times for one win between late October and early March.

Jacquelina’s mark had been largely unchanged throughout the period, remaining in the mid-50’s, and two narrow wins in her first two runs back on turf early in May gave little indication of the explosion that was to follow. Also, the implications for at least one horse that had never raced within 150 miles of her would prove irritating at least.

In the second of her recent wins, she beat Anglesey Lad, who was receiving 10lb (8lb of that weight for age), by a neck. Her mark went up by 2lb, his by 1lb. Then Jacquelina took off. Thirteen days ago at Brighton, she carried a 5lb penalty to an easy two-length success. Three days later, this time under a double penalty, her weight of 10st 6lb (less daughter Grace’s 3lb allowance) made no difference, the mare winning this time by more than three lengths.

Now running off another new mark of 70, three days ago at Thirsk, she probably would have made it five in a row but for Grace’s dropping the reins at a crucial stage and she was caught close home. Not to be deflected by her latest rating of 75 coming into play, McEntee took her on to Chepstow. There, Jacquelina had no trouble in easily winning an apprentice race, Grace’s claim keeping her weight below 10st 10lb!

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Her progress makes Phil McEntee an early challenger for some kind of trainer’s award and no doubt owner Trevor Johnson and breeder Nicola Kent, Richard’s sister, know where their votes would go if they had one!

I had to look to see how many more races Phil had in mind for this amazing mare who no doubt will go up a further 10lb tomorrow. With no penalty to be incurred for the latest apprentice success, surprisingly, McEntee hasn’t made any. Slipping there, Phil.

But if you like the look of Jacquelina’s form, you can instead wait until Thursday at Yarmouth and Anglesey Lad. As I said earlier, just 1lb higher than when beaten by the mare at Brighton on May 21, he runs in a modest handicap. Anglesey Lad has appeared once since, when beaten by 1.75 lengths by Edgewater Drive at Carlisle. That margin should equate to 5lb at the time-honoured equation of 3lb to a length in sprints.

Edgewater Drive was instead raised 7lb without any action deemed necessary for Anglesey Lad. When Wilf Storey questioned the handicapper, she cited the Jacquelina element, even though she hadn’t done anything with Anglesey Lad’s mark, while the mare he had got so close to kept winning.

My last gripe is on behalf of Laura Muir, Edgewater Drive’s jockey. She came home a nose in front after a straight-long duel with the runner up in a race last week at Wolverhampton.

Even though her mount Prince Hector never touched the runner-up High Court Judge (maybe an omen?) and only deviated marginally in the closing stages, the result was overturned, much to the amazement of all the media and television pundits on the day. To add to what seems an unfair verdict, Paula also got a two-day ban, an appeal about which is being funded by the Professional Jockeys’ Association.

How many times have you seen big race finishes where one horse carries the other across the track and the verdict is left alone. Having watched it a few times, and all the other matters I’ve touched upon, I wonder why this great sport wants to shoot itself in the foot in so many ways. Apart from that I’ve Nothing To Say!

- TS

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