I’ve always had a soft spot for Brendan Duke, writes Tony Stafford. In the days that he trained in Lambourn he always had quite an entourage at the races, usually but not exclusively of a certain type of middle-aged, hard-punting Irishman who clearly enjoyed his company. In those days I well remember the time at Punchestown when before the Grade I Juvenile Hurdle that Ray Tooth won with Punjabi, Brendan took to the stage to offer the reasons why his horse Katies Tuitor, already a dual winner over jumps in England, would collect the prize.
In the event the company, and especially Punjabi, proved too good but Katies Tuitor had plenty of success with Brendan and later with Charlie Mann, for whom he reached a 152 rating over jumps. Brendan always enjoyed switching the right article from Flat to jumps and back again, so it will not have surprised him from his present base in Ireland that his former inmate Chica Buena has made such a splash in the UK.
Three times unplaced late in 2017 for Duke, Chica Buena, a daughter of Thewayyouare had cost €5k as a yearling and raced three times in his ownership as a juvenile. A 49 rating ensued. Switched to hurdles, the filly showed much more promise, on her third start finishing second at 50-1 to the smart Cheveley Park-owned Gordon Elliott-trained Chief Justice at Listowel, four lengths clear of the one-time Tim Easterby-trained Lever Du Soleil.
The pair met again on what was to be Chica Buena’s final run in Ireland at Ballinrobe, Duke’s filly stretching her advantage to six lengths this time. Now re-housed with Keith Dalgleish and in the ownership of Straightline Bloodstock – hope Brendan got a nice touch, he probably needed one as Chica Buena was his only hurdles winner since 2016 - she won her next three at Sedgefield, Musselburgh and Aintree in the autumn before two places in better company. Those runs took her into her summer break rated 136.
Meanwhile, Lever Du Soleil also kept busy. Previously rated 54 after his early career with Easterby, the gelding was confined to hurdling by Cromwell after those two meetings with Chica Buena, running another eight times and ending with a rating of 125. I like to pitch the differential between hurdles and Flat ratings to around 50lb, so it was hardly surprising that in July this year, reverting to the level for Cromwell, that 54 rating proved more than vulnerable.
The summer of 2019 was one of unprecedented success for the Irish trainer, apart obviously from the misfortune to lose J P McManus’s Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D’Allen to injury in the close season. During that golden spell Cromwell planned and duly executed a 15-day romp around Scotland, with one foray into England at Catterick, for four odds-on handicap wins. The last was off 68 and now he has 83 to contend with if he wants to come back again!
Meanwhile Dalgleish waited until yesterday, more than seven months after her last jumps outing for Chica Buena’s return to the level. Like her two-time hurdling victim, she was targeted on a low-level Scottish handicap – in her case over a mile and a half at Hamilton Park. A big field lined up but, predictably from a mark of 49, a mammoth 77lb lower than her jumps rating, she coasted home under Graham Lee after briefly looking as though she might struggle.
Dave Nevison, on yet another of his trips to Scotland, and Gordon Brown, who lives up there, both speculated on Racing TV that the handicappers are pretty much lumbered with working from the handicap mark she started with. They suggested the officials could really only react to how she won under that rating even though everyone, including the public that forced her to 1-2 knows that figure was a total fiction based on her hurdling ability.
If I were a handicapper I would, as Nevison said he would, raise her 20lb without messing about leaving Straightline Racing to take the bones out of 70, which probably would still be lenient enough.
There are two chances at Newcastle this week to exploit the rating and no doubt Dalgleish will take up at least one of them. Any new mark will not kick in until Saturday week, with amendments coming out on Tuesday morning next week. I can’t wait.
The whole issue of handicaps came to mind after a pre-race chat at Newmarket with William Butler, long-standing assistant to Sir Mark Prescott, whose Land Of Oz was about to win the Cesarewitch trial over the full distance of next month’s big stamina test.
Land Of Oz was bottom-weight on Saturday by virtue of the weight-for-age scale which still allows three-year-olds to receive 10lb from their elders at the race distance of two and a quarter miles in the first half of October. Even after Saturday’s win, his fifth in his last six starts, he is only 72nd in the list and most unlikely to make the final cut of 34 plus two reserves. If he did, a rating of 91 (87, plus a 4lb penalty) would look comfortable enough given the ease of Saturday’s win. He started the run in typical Prescott style off 58!
While talking to William Butler, we asked him whether we should have a bet and Peter Ashmore totally ignored his advice of not to – too short - by having a few bob on, triumphantly brandishing the voucher after the race. When I suggested he’d be finished for the season after Saturday; be left off until next August; have one winning run in time for the weights and win next year’s race, Butler said: “I hope there’ll be something better than that!” They obviously think the son of Australia is pretty good!
Looking back at a list of previous Cesarewitch winners – still not believing Prescott’s lament that: “I don’t win the Cesarewitch”, it is scarcely credible that it was as long as 45 years ago that Ocean King won the race. Writing almost my first front-page piece as part-time Editor of The Racehorse, I tipped the 25-1 winner of one of my favourite races. That renewal was forever branded on my memory when a few days later <Sir> Peter O’Sullevan, generous as ever to his younger journalistic colleagues, wrote a letter to Roger Jackson, then Editor of The Winner, the other paper in Raceform’s stable at the time, congratulating him on the success and wishing him good fortune in his career! Roger did ok.
If Sir Mark is finally going to win the race this year it will have to be either with Distant Chimes, four wins in a row before a Chepstow last of three on his most recent start, or more probably Timoshenko. That gelding, unbeaten in five races as a three-year-old, was primed to win the two and a half mile handicap at Glorious Goodwood on his only start so far in 2019 and is nicely placed off his mark of 86 if he makes the cut from 53. I’m confident he will and with his stamina proven beyond the Cesarewitch distance, he must be on any short list.
The type of horse I particularly favour for this race is the unexposed three-year-old which shows improved form after the weights come out. Ten years ago talking to David Simcock, I suggested his Darley Sun was a certainty for the race. He’d won by ten lengths off 83 at Ascot before running second, beaten a neck, in the Doncaster Cup when his rating had been increased to 93. Starting 9-2 favourite he won by five lengths in the big race and was instantly carted off to Godolphin. I hate to think how many times Simcock has mentally rebuked the owners for what was probably one of their more ill-conceived ideas. With Simcock I’m certain he would have become champion stayer the following year.