Seven weeks seems a fair amount of time, writes Tony Stafford. After all, it’s almost one seventh of a year and one-five hundred and forty-ninth of a lifetime if you judged lifetimes by my earthly experience. Actually, to me it seems like a couple of weeks.
When I sat down to pen my article for the week before the Cheltenham Festival on the night of March 5/6, fresh in my mind was the rather chaotic Cheltenham preview night, enacted behind a small, sort-of select gathering in the Horse and Wig public house along and up from Chancery Lane Station in Central London the previous Wednesday evening.
Two years earlier I had been one of the leading lights (chief guest securer) in a similar, albeit slightly grander and better organised, affair in the same venue. This time, as a last-minute thing, I got a late invitation along with a plea to secure someone significant to star on the panel hosted by Charlie Methven and dominated by Scott (Mr Cheltenham) Ellis.
I thought I had a great idea – and so it proved. “Leave it to me,” I said and worked away at asking Tom Scudamore, in the knowledge he’d just retired from riding and knew his stuff as well as anyone, whether he would come.
Scott and the event organiser, Les Straszewski, were all for him and, with the assurance that with the help of his long-time driver, Tom would aim to be there as soon after 6 p.m. as road conditions allowed.
The rest of the panel was all in place, mikes nicely balanced, Charlie ready to hold forth and Scott armed with ante-post vouchers from the front door to the tube station as I reported seven weeks ago. They probably stretched in truth back halfway to Brentwood in Essex!
Anxious at the lack of arrival and then, more pointedly, paucity of communication, we set the latter in play with a call or two. In the way of such things, like waiting for a kettle to boil, anticipating Tom’s arrival was an unrewarding activity – that is until he finally appeared.
Suggestions that they start without him were considered and only just resisted. Finally, though, after a few frustrating calls which revealed passing various points in West London, gradually edging to Knightsbridge and Piccadilly, the final bulletin came in on my phone’s text. Timed at 19.18 it read: Hi Tony, moving slowly, getting to you as quickly as we can.
Quickly as we can was another half an hour, but thank goodness (says Scott), we waited.
Settling into some rather nice wine, Tom adjusted to the pace of enlightened opinion and was quickly adding his professionalism to gems offered by our two main experts and Joe Hill, son of Alan and Lawney and their co-partner in the family pointing and Rules operation. Tom had ridden regularly for the Hill family, and his retirement had come just a day before he would otherwise have ridden a winner for them.
The one big message he had to offer though, as son of Peter Scudamore, partner to Grand National-winning trainer Lucinda Russell, was that they fully expected to have a Cheltenham winner in the shape of Ultima Handicap Chase candidate, Corach Rambler. The horse had won the race the year before.
Tom revealed that not only were they expecting a repeat in that always-competitive Festival three-miler but were equally hopeful that the nine-year-old would go on to success in the Grand National five weeks later.
Having been in the Charlie Methven role two years earlier – his big contribution was to suggest 16/1 winner You Wear It Well for Jamie Snowden in the Jack de Bromhead Mares’ Novices Hurdle – I was just an observer this time. When challenged by the panel for a bet in the week, I put up Langer Dan and repeated it in the article of March 5/6. I’d forgotten all about it until watching horrified as Harry Skelton drove him home in front of 25 others nine days later!
Scott, however, doesn’t forget - anything! Every snippet of Cheltenham Festival relevance uttered, printed, whispered, rumoured, or overheard is filed away. You can see from the accompanying betting slip, what Mr Ellis did with Tom’s timely bit of info, 4,500 quids-worth, is what he did! Goes to paying towards his trip to the Masters Golf the week before, or at least it should just about reimburse him for the suitcase full of Masters regalia he brought home.
After the fact, Corach Rambler was the obvious winner! [Aren't they always? - Ed.] I had strongly expected Noble Yeats to dominate the race in the way the Lucinda Russell-trained Derek Fox-ridden winner emphatically did. Last year’s winner took an entire circuit and a half to warm up after some surprisingly hesitant jumping quickly had him among the tailenders. They say in racing you can give away weight and distance but never both.
And so it proved, and the much bigger weight compared with last year obviously told. Yet for him to finish a closing fourth, just over eight lengths behind the winner (albeit a winner that could easily have stretched further away if necessary), was admirable, with 17 finishers in the race.
The Irish must have found it hard to believe they couldn’t continue their recent winning sequence, a run of four since One For Arthur in 2017 (one year missed by Covid) also won for Ms Russell.
Although having 26 (two-thirds) of the 39 runners in the final field, and filling second to seventh, six more UK-trained horses finished after them, one better than last year when 18 started for the home team. Best placed then was one-time Nicky Henderson Gold Cup candidate Santini in fourth for Polly Gundry.
For much of Saturday’s race Henderson, having struck on the opening day with Constitution Hill and Shishkin, and prefacing the big race with a bloodless triumph for the superb two-mile novice chaser Jonbon, looked likely finally to collect the great prize after half a century of trying.
His Mister Coffey jumped the Aintree fences with a rare alacrity from the off and was still several lengths clear at the second-last fence but, by then, his stamina reserves had run out. Joined at the last by Corach Rambler, who quickly strode clear up the run-in, Mister Coffey expired to finish only eighth. Gavin Crowell’s Vanillier ran a great race in second.
If we had thought Noble Yeats had made up a lot of ground in the Gold Cup in his previous race, he had even further to retrieve this time and to get as near as he did, reflects greatly on his stamina and resolution. He’ll be back again.
Corach Rambler only usurped him as favourite in the final minutes, despite Noble Yeats drifting to almost double his SP earlier in the day, as the Merseyside police, aided it seems by members of the public, were carting demonstrators away. More than 100 were arrested. As I said, it was obvious really. Corach Rambler had won only narrowly at Cheltenham, but his idling half-length margin was not fooling the chase handicapper who put him up 10lb. That much well in - no penalties after the weights are published - but he’ll be wearing Noble Yeats’ heavy boots in 2024!
Last year, Emmet Mullins worked the system to get his horse in, sold and triumphant. This time it was repeat "offenders", Russell/Scudamore senior and Fox (he needed to pass a late fitness to take the ride having been ruled out of Ahoy Senor’s near miss behind Shishkin, Brian Hughes taking over).
How the champion would have loved to have been asked to deputise in the big one! In the event he sat (I would imagine) disconsolately in the well-appointed jockeys’ room, waiting an hour for his unplaced ride on a 40/1 shot in the bumper. Maybe it’s time for the champion to ride in more of the big races rather than clock up title-winning numbers around the northern gaffs.
One footnote: my good friend Siobhan Doolan, nowadays adding spice to the training regime at her grandfather Wilf Storey’s Co Durham yard, took three days off from her busy multi-stranded life to be the face of Aintree’s owners’ dining room.
I am sad to report that over the entire stretch of the meeting, her efforts to placate owners waiting to be seated for lunch brought a very disappointing response from people who should have known better. If the racecourse executive provides a facility for owners, who after all provide the very expensive horses that put on this greatest of all horse racing shows, that facility should be big enough and have sufficient palatable food to last through a day’s racing. Three days in fact.
Neither consideration was successfully achieved by Aintree. But while the people that organised and prepared the food and accommodation came up short, just one front of house face bore the brunt of what she described often as “owners and their friends taking the piss!”. What do they say, don’t blame the messenger. Aintree’s course executive should offer a serious apology to a very popular young member of the racing fraternity.