Four years ago, the London Olympics were going on around the corner. Now, writes Tony Stafford, the stadium that just avoids being in view from my first floor office stands silent – except for West Ham matches – as on the other side of the world, athletes gather amid much controversy aiming to prove the best in the world.
The Rio Olympics already lays claim to becoming the so-what Games in this house. Adam Peaty has just won Britain’s first gold medal in world record time in the 100 metres breast stroke, and you would have had to stay up to 3 a.m. to see it live. I didn’t and I will not on any other day.
Racing, though, that’s a different matter. I’ll go anywhere, any time. They were expecting 30,000 for the Shergar Cup at Ascot on Saturday and probably got them as no track outdoes the Queen’s racecourse for attracting the customers.
Frankie Dettori was there, en route to Dusseldorf for the ride on the Hugo Palmer-trained Architecture in yesterday’s German Oaks, in which they finished third. Frankie is the perfect man for the Shergar Cup, at least for the bookies. After sheepishly admitting he hadn’t won a race in the series for nine years, he failed so handsomely to get among the points for his team that he finished stone bonkers last of the 12 riders.
Now in his 40’s, Frankie can still claim a few years on 49-year-old Thierry Jarnet, whose mid-20ish daughter was on hand to interpret for the Frenchman after his two wins. That left just four more races to be won, and two of those went to a virtual unknown as far as the Ascot devotees were concerned.
I had an edge, 100 miles away to the north-east, as I was told, authoritatively, by well-informed Maurice Mannaseh, that Gavin Lerena, who rode a double on 25-1 shot Arch Villain (Amanda Perrett) and 10-1 chance Danehill Kodiac (Richard Hannon), is a top rider. “I see him every winter in South Africa. He’s good”, said Mo, and that’s good enough for me, although too late to be on Arch Villain.
I wonder if that sentiment had somehow been transmitted before the race to Fred Cotton, part-owner of Arch Villain. At Newcastle, when Cousin Khee was a severe disappointment in the overflow Northumberland Plate, I saw Fred in the owners’ tent before the first Tapeta Plate proper and told him, “You’ll win”.
There was a time when my pronouncements on such matters were given at least a shred of attention. When Arch Villain, 12-1 for the big race - Amanda had shrewdly refrained from running following two smart mid-winter wins to maintain his mark of 100 - trailed home 18th of 20, I was fast out the door and ready for the long trek home.
You’d think the remark would have slipped out of Fred’s mind, but at Goodwood before Arch Villain’s next race, I bumped into the Cottons and blow me if he didn’t come out with the “You got that wrong” routine. “Never mind”, I replied, “he’ll run well today.”
I might have entertained that thought, but clearly the bookmakers saw little enough merit in his chance in the 14-furlong Summer Handicap to allow him to start at 25-1. A stumble on the bend contributed to a total wipe-out, Arch Villain coming home 44 lengths behind the penultimate finisher in the race won by Mick Channon’s Elidor.
On Saturday, though, given the same sort of chance by the bookies, Arch Villain was transformed back into the horse I knew he was. That Gavin Larena’s good and there Fred, I told you he’d win, though not necessarily when!
Hayley Turner came out of retirement to get one for the girls, an emotional success for Harry Dunlop on Early Morning, but it seems it’s that part of the day-to-day jockey grind that has taken Hayley out of love with race riding. That she could be fit enough to last home with the rest of the field snapping at her heels was highly creditable, and also a big positive for the day itself.
As its promoters always say, it’s a different crowd for this meeting, and with so many non-racing and equally non-boozing attendees, never an uncomfortable one. But after the best part of two decades, with even Ascot’s ability to get the world’s best jockeys seriously challenged, Peter Savill’s original concept is looking a little tired.
Unlike Ascot, Newmarket’s summer meetings have a spectator imbalance, crowds swarming in for some Friday nights with music and drinking to the fore, but ill-attended Saturdays. Well for once Amy Starkey was able to report a crowd above 10,000 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and once again, for the second time in four Saturdays, Dutch Law kept favourite backers happy.
Apparently it was the best non-July Meeting Saturday attendance for years and it was great that the Hughie Morrison-trained four-year-old could build on his nose victory over course and distance for a much more emphatic one against the best-class field he’s encountered so far.
Before the earlier win, Dutch Law had been a serial runner-up, with six against a single success, also over course and distance last summer. But the trainer has always said Ray Tooth’s homebred had “unbelievable acceleration, it’s just he hasn’t employed it at the right time”.
When does a horse stop being unlucky and turn into downright unreliable? Everyone was getting frustrated, and after one of those near-misses, Hughie, usually so amenable, snapped. “I just hate training horses like him,” he said. “They finish second and go up a few pounds. What’s the point?”
It was only by a nose that he got there last time, and here again, with stable apprentice, the clearly useful and improving Charlie Bennett taking off 5lb as Oisin Murphy, the latest partner, was otherwise engaged at Ascot, he came from way back to win, this time by two clear lengths.
Mark Johnson, commentating, was still remarking that Dutch Law was making heavy weather of it as they prepared to begin the stiff uphill run home just over a furlong out when he was eighth of the ten on the wide outside.
Within a single run-through of the field, Mark was saying, “Dutch Law still has a chance” and then “He’s gone into the lead, it’s a remarkable performance”. It was, too, as he took a conservative five lengths out of a rock-solid Bunbury Cup-type field of 0-100 handicappers in maybe half a furlong.
So now, having won three and lost in a photo in a fourth race over course and distance, the races have run out at HQ. Still, in three runs at Ascot, he’s been second each time, including when Charlie rode him in a hot boys’ race back in the spring.
Now we’ve bigger fish in mind, the £49k to the winner Ascot Handicap over seven furlongs on September 3, while Saturday’s win off 87 should enable enough of a handicap hike to get him into the Ayr Silver Cup, a race which would test Hughie’s opinion of the horse’s speed, even more precisely.
There was a third near-miss for the Mick Quinn-trained juvenile, Stanhope, at Yarmouth last week, this time Martyn Meade unleashing highly-regarded newcomer, Ernststavroblofeld, to follow two smart Godolphin colts in spoiling Stan’s day. A win, as they say, is only delayed. Hope they are right. As far as Newmarket goes, we’ve got high hopes that Hugo’s Harry Champion can build on a recent promising course run by winning a 0-80 next Saturday. It doesn’t take much to get the optimism going in Team Tooth.