24-3-19 NAAS NORMANDEL and Kevin Manning (far) beat Yulong Gold Fairy (near) to win The Lodge Park Stud Irish EBF Park Express Stakes. Healy Racing Photo. / racingfotos.com

Monday Musings: Opening Day Far From Flat

The joy of Flat racing on turf – it’s here again, Naas yesterday stepping in for the opening Curragh fixture delayed in the manner of Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground, writes Tony Stafford. Both will be with us, shiny and welcoming soon enough.

Amid all the new and newish names on parade at Naas, especially among the trainers, quite a few old staples were to the fore, none more so than Jim Bolger, who revisited his former reputation as a fast starter with a treble from his 11 runners on the card.

As if in recognition of the Coolcullen stable’s instant discovery of form, they won at declining odds as the day went on, but none of Western Dawn (20-1), Solar Wind (16-1) or Normandel (14-1) could be reasonably described as “expected”, at least by the punters if not the trainer. That’s 5,354-1 for the treble if you were on, Jim.

The first two winners were Bolger home-breds running in wife Jackie’s colours. Normandel, at five, a mare owned by long-time Bolger ally, Ballylinch stud’s Jock O’Connor, was a fitting winner of the Listed Lodge Park Stud Irish EBF Park Express Stakes. This event commemorates one of Bolger’s best female performers during his long illustrious career since switching from car sales company accountant to major owner/trainer/breeder 43 years ago.

Many racing immortals set off on their road to success with Bolger, and every list begins with Aidan O’Brien and A P McCoy. Less well known is Brendan W Duke, but he was a valued staff member there for many years before leaving to train in Lambourn, where he was always a popular figure on racecourses especially around London.

His time as a small-time trainer was constrained by the financial crisis of the mid-2000’s as he found there were not quite so many UK-based Irishmen with the bundles of ready spare cash as had previously been the case.

So he went home to Ireland, eventually taking out a licence and training for a few friends. The Bolgers soon started to send him a number of their lesser lights to train. For the past few seasons, he has picked up a small number of races each year, usually three for the most part, but 2018 was a fallow season. He managed only one win in 56 runs from ten horses, six for Jackie Bolger.

The signs yesterday were better. In the opening juvenile maiden won in good style by Michael O’Callaghan’s Red Epaulette, Brendan’s Value Chain, carrying the first Bolger colours and starting at 9/1 finished almost two lengths ahead of Jim’s third-placed Dawn Approach filly, Feminista, a 7-1 shot, in a race he’d won a year earlier. The runner-up, by Garswood, must give him high hopes of imminent success.

Then in the concluding seven-furlong maiden, Duke was again in opposition to Bolger, and will have been delighted when his 33-1 newcomer Vocal Duke finished a creditable eighth, only a short-head behind the boss’s Son of Beauty. Both are geldings by Bolger’s own stallion Vocalised, whose progeny have been regular inmates at Brendan’s Curragh yard.

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Through all his vicissitudes, Brendan Duke has never been short of either enthusiasm or confidence. I remember talking to him less than a month into my Raymond Tooth Racing Manager job, in the days when there were plenty to manage, before Punjabi’s first of four consecutive runs at the Punchestown Festival in April 2007.

We agreed that maybe Punjabi’s Triumph Hurdle fourth and Aintree second behind Katchit entitled him to start favourite. But then Brendan appeared on the stage - from which a family of Slovakian string musicians had been entertaining the crowd - and told the crowd why he thought his Katies Tuitor was a good thing.

I’ve never actually studied that Kayf Tara gelding’s form before this morning, but I now see why he was hopeful. Easy wins at Kempton under Noel Fehilly and Sandown (Graham Lee) were decent pre-Christmas efforts. No wonder he was so proud of the horse - he bred him!

Katies Tuitor was a good fourth as Punjabi collected his first Grade 1, and the next two, the Irish Champion at the same venue a year later, and the Champion Hurdle in 2009 were the highlights of a great career.

Katies Tuitor didn’t do so badly either. Transferred at the end of that season to Charlie Mann, he won four more hurdle races, each time ridden by Fehily, who conceded on the event of his retirement with a farewell winner at Newbury on Saturday, that Mann had been his mentor.

After the Punchestown run, Katies Tuitor went three weeks later to Aintree and finished second as the 4-1 favourite to the 20-1 shot Lord Baskerville, trained by Charles Pogson. This was the 11th run and fourth win since Pogson had claimed Lord Baskerville out of Wilf Storey’s yard for six grand after a Hexham second in a selling handicap.

That annoyed Wilf, who reckoned that following 39 unsuccessful runs for him after my good friend and the horse’s original owner, Peter Ashmore, moved him on from the Michael Quinlan yard, he was primed to win. So it proved, Pogson collecting three-in-a-row straight off the bat.

I’ve often said how so many of my past activities have drifted away from my memory. I’d certainly forgotten that between February and 25th March 2004, I was the registered owner of the horse. So if you’re reading this Wilf, it is 15 years to the day that Mr Hutchinson took charge of him from me, so we ought to have a birthday drink! In all, Charles Pogson won six of 31 races with Lord Baskerville. I remember watching his promising debut at Doncaster on Derby Day 2003 from a box in the Epsom grandstand 20 minutes after Kris Kin’s big race triumph for Sir Michael Stoute.

Peter and his girlfriend Lorraine Botbol are horse-lovers extraordinaire. Peter had a beautiful horse with the Quinlans called Flashgun, who suffered injury as a three-year-old and had to retire. The vets were ready to put him down but Peter and Lorraine had other ideas. They have kept the son of Lemon Drop Kid for ten years and last week he finished fourth of 16 in his first dressage competition near Newmarket.

Both Peter and Lorraine are learning dressage riding – Peter rode along with sister Jacqueline at a riding school in Mill Hill, North London, in their teens, where Andrew Reid trained with some success years later – and they are precisely the sort of people that racing and equestrian sport should embrace.

Fehily’s retirement and his all-round-good-guy persona were the highlights of the weekend, but I enjoyed watching that day and Sunday on the box, other responsibilities keeping me from the racecourse. I hope I can make it for Sod’s Law in the Spring Mile (Lincoln consolation) at Doncaster on Saturday. He could well win.

I bet Racing TV are dreading having to make the sort of commentary decisions that followed the late off-time of the Irish Lincolnshire yesterday, caused by the re-shoeing of Bolger’s well-fancied Theobald, winner of his previous three at Dundalk.

The Irish boys on duty on course, already having seen a treble from the Co Carlow maestro, opined “it should not be a problem”. Sorry boys it was, Theobald finishing last of 20 behind ex – Sir Michael Stoute/ Hamdan Al Maktoum trainee, Karawaan, an easy first-time winner for Ger Lyons. Problem too for Tom Stanley, having to cut in on the 4.20 from Exeter to say: “Naas will finish first”, about the 4.10-scheduled first major handicap of the Irish season. It did, maybe by five seconds.

As the season draws on, there will be multiple times when a similar eventuality arises. Meanwhile Sky Sports Racing (At the Races to you maybe?) had to be content with a solo from France – good job they secured those rights – while Racing TV (ex-UK)  had to splice in Carlisle and jumping from Downpatrick, pretty much all long distance races, with Naas and Exeter.

Sky Sports Racing is lucky to have the highly-competent and ever-watchable Alex Hammond as their lead presenter and was not too badly fixed for French jumping yesterday with Laurent Berberin, Mick Fitzgerald and Mike Cattermole. Berberin is more Sacha Distel than Claud Charlet’s Inspector Clouseau. They were lucky, too, to have France’s best hurdler, the six-year-old mare De Bon Coeur, on show as she came back from a ten-month absence to stroll home in a Grade 3 hurdle, bringing her career tally to 12 victories from 14 starts.

Never mind, Sky Sports Racing had Bangor for the first time on Saturday; look forward to getting sister-track Chester from May and next Saturday will be able to supplement their Lincoln coverage with the return of jewel-in-the-crown, Ascot. Confused, with the Irish on Racing TV and Ascot on the other side? So am I!

- Tony Stafford

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