After two weeks’ adjustment to Sundays in deference to the holidays, we’re back in the Monday swing, writes Tony Stafford. The past few days have been dominated by heavy ground, veteran horses and one extremely talented and youthful jockey. It seems James Bowen is as rapidly-maturing as was a certain Mr O’Brien, who at age 24 has long gone past winning Classic races in the UK and Ireland and setting record riding championship tallies in his home country in favour of training at a high level.
James Bowen is eight years younger and for the foreseeable future will have none of the weight constraints that curtailed Joseph’s riding career at 22. He’s done as little as 9st6lb when allowed to and since his 16th birthday in April has ridden 214 times, three times without reward during the last days of the previous season. All 35 of Bowen’s winners, culminating in the record-breaking ride on the veteran Raz De Maree in the Coral Welsh Grand National at Chepstow on Saturday, are therefore included in the present season’s stats.
As Joseph will testify, it helps when the old man has a few around the place on which to get you some initial practice. Peter Bowen, even though having his middle (of three) son Sean to consider – Mickey, the eldest, is a point-to-point trainer - has utilised James 71 times for 13 wins.
That was the starting point but, including Gavin Cromwell, the Irish farrier who attends to Gordon Elliott’s horses and doubles as a rapidly-emerging trainer in his own right, Bowen has been employed by 64 outside trainers. His connection with Nicky Henderson’s stable has been a bit of a slow-burner, if anything about this child prodigy can be so described, but you can imagine some big-race handicap opportunities at the Festivals coming his way from Seven Barrows.
Talk of the Festival – that’s all there ever is once the turn of the year arrives – reminds me that the opening day is only nine weeks tomorrow. Just 64 days of hopes being lit and then extinguished almost before the thought has appeared on web sites and social media. Newspapers were always prone to “chip-paper syndrome”; now their print versions, sad to relate, are in danger of imminent oblivion.
We have the odd anomaly of reluctant early-morning daylight – it’s still as dark today as on the shortest day, December 21 – thanks to the non-uniformity of the earth’s curvature, or something like that, but it’s getting lighter at night. A ballpark figure is ten minutes extra daylight both morning and night every week. Cheltenham arrives a week and a half before the clocks go forward just in time for proper Flat racing.
I like the new programme book, which now actually is a book and not a bunch of loose leaves you have to slot into some reluctant metallic clips. All trainers and other interested parties apparently find the programme irritating in the extreme in that there never seems to be enough races of a certain category to suit their horses.
Since my boss Raymond Tooth’s now four-year-old Apres Le Deluge made a winning debut at Hereford just before Christmas, barely in daylight, my thoughts have turned to seeking out a potential follow up race once Hughie Morrison signifies an imminent resumption in hostilities.
I love the At The Races feature on my phone that allows me to have endless repeat showings of the race, and every time I watch it, I marvel at the acceleration the son of Stormy River shows. I badgered my mate Noel Quinlan to have a look to see if he agreed with me about the merit of the performance and when he eventually watched it he said: “……g …l, haven’t you had anyone asking about it? If it had been a four-horse slow-motion Irish point-to-point or some nothing race at Nowhere-sur-seine in France, the agents will have been driving you mad!”
Having won a race, Apres’ next appearance needs to be carefully selected. In the time up to Christmas there were 14 junior bumpers, the Hereford one being the only full-length affair, with the remainder beginning at a mile and a half. The one Acey Milan won at Wincanton was the next longest at a mile and seven furlongs.
Acey Milan came out again to win the Cheltenham 4yo bumper (1m6f) on New Year’s Day impressively for Anthony Honeyball’s stable and he stands top of the four-year-old group. His obvious possibilities as a dual winner are the Listed race on Betfair Hurdle day at Newbury (February 10), when he’ll carry a Class 1 4lb penalty before the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham on day two of the Festival where he would receive 8lb from the older horses.
While Acey Milan has that option, of the 90-odd remaining bumper races available before the end of March, none is restricted to four-year-olds, save one for fillies at Wetherby this Saturday, entries for which close at noon today. Two other races are designed for four- and five-year-olds, but one is a maiden and the other at Newbury is confined to graduates of Goff’s sales and run the week after Cheltenham.
So for Apres Le Deluge, the choice is stark. Either take on older horses while carrying a 7lb penalty in one of the standard-issue £2,274 to the winner products that so many of the six-figure buys are forced to contest, or go for broke and run next month at Newbury and/or in the race at the Festival.
Cousin Khee went that way as a four-year-old, finishing eighth in the hot race won by Cheltenian before joining the Tooth team. A nine-time winner for the boss, he’s now back owned by Mary Morrison and ran a good race in second at Southwell the other day. Hughie’s touch with older horses should ensure further gainful employment for this admirable veteran.
Four-year-olds won two of the Champion Bumper’s first four runnings after its inception in 1992 but since the top-class Dato Star won in 1995 for Malcolm Jefferson and Mark Dwyer only Cue Card in 2010 has been successful for the age group. When he won, striding well clear of 23 opponents, there was only one other juvenile in the line-up.
Returning, though, to the earlier theme, it is odd that nobody in race planning has seemingly ever thought about having at least a few races confined to four-year-old bumper horses. True, like Apres Le Deluge they are often Flat-race bred, but in his case his mother, Ms Cordelia, ran twice over jumps, finishing second on debut at Catterick for the David Pipe stable. Apres Le Deluge was too big and backward to do anything much before now.
With so little going on apart from those long-distance mud-fests – Sandown Saturday and Plumpton yesterday also featured lung-bursting marathons – I also seize the opportunity to offer some self-centred optimism about Ray’s other recent runner Sod’s Law. Just foiled at 50-1 in the last stride of his Kempton debut a month ago by Jamie Osborne’s Rusper, Sod’s Law got a boost at the first time of asking when Rusper won a 0-85 handicap at Lingfield off 84 on Saturday.
Rusper had already won around Lingfield before following up at Kempton where Sod’s Law must have given jockey Dougie Costello the fright of his life. The Osborne gelding will go up to close to 90 after this and four of those that finished behind us at Kempton are entered for a sure-to-be-divided similar affair back at Kempton on Wednesday. There might be even more encouragement to come?