The frost relented at three of Paul Nicholls’ most productive racecourses on Saturday morning and the 11-times champion National Hunt trainer took heavy toll with a remarkable seven winners, writes Tony Stafford. Kempton, Chepstow and above all Wincanton are the three.
At the same time he was emphatically (albeit inwardly) announcing that his re-building of stable strength back to that of its heyday when Kauto Star and Denman were in their pomp, has been fully achieved.
I was half aware of somebody being quoted on the television last night – definitely not in my favourite French-language and subtitled detective show Spiral on BBC4. It was: “Men can lie, women can lie, but numbers can’t!” The numbers are there for all to see in the 2020-21 jump trainers’ championship.
The Nicholls decline, if you could call it that, was characterised last season by a first failure in 19 to reach 100 wins, when 96 victories from 445 runs brought total UK prizemoney of £2.34million. Nicky Henderson, his sole realistic challenger over the past decade, won his fifth title and third of the last four with 118 winners and £2.54million in prizemoney.
That said, the normal post-Cheltenham section of the campaign with its handsome prizemoney levels especially at Aintree, Sandown’s finals day, and the Ayr Scottish Grand National meeting distorted the figures. Nicholls’ routine century would have been assured and the relatively close money margin for Henderson could easily have been bridged.
Henderson’s first interruption of a near-Martin Pipe-like monopoly for Nicholls since his first title in 2005-6 came in 2012-13, 27 years after his own first Trainers’ Championship in 1985-6. Henderson, now 70, lacks nothing in energy and horse-power but the die is already cast for 2020-21.
While Nicholls has been serenely proceeding towards title number 12 with already 107 victories and £1.46m in money won, Henderson is languishing on less than half the monetary rewards with £673K and just over half the winners, 57 from 268 runs, both well down on his normal schedule.
Considering the jumps season didn’t begin until July 1, Nicholls’s pace has been remarkable but so too has Dan Skelton’s 74 wins and £823k from 408 runs even allowing for the fact that his customary summer starting splurge has been abandoned – for the better – with some potential stars in the pot.
Lower down, some interesting names follow and Evan Williams, after his emotional capturing of the re-scheduled Coral Welsh Grand National with the heavily-backed and well-named in the circumstances favourite, Secret Reprieve, just edged over the half-million mark from only 30 wins.
Williams was talking up the prospects of Secret Reprieve’s tackling a Grand National at Aintree and he will be hoping on Tuesday morning to see the Ruckers’ seven-year-old getting a few pounds more than his present mark of 142 – he was able to run on Saturday off 8lb lower after his previous win. Secret Reprieve would probably make it into the top 40 with 142 but 145 makes it a certainty - if Covid doesn’t intervene again.
The next three trainers in the list, all within a winner or two of getting over the half-million are Messrs O’Neill, Fergal O’Brien and Twiston-Davies. Fergal’s consistent form has brought him to 70 compared to a previous best of 63 and with expansion firmly in place, a first century is the aim and seemingly a realistic one with three months to go, subject to acts of God, God forbid!
Nicholls’ Saturday seven-timer was also a contributor to another multi-winning performance on the day. Daryl Jacob must have gone to Wincanton confident of winning the opener on Ben Pauling’s highly-regarded Malinello but found Nicholls’ Flash Collonges, one of two Harry Skelton winners for his former boss, much too good.
I’ve no doubt that when that one lost he didn’t expect to win on five of his remaining six mounts.
The Nicholls winner for Jacob was Capeland, a 6-1 shot in the second most valuable race of the day there, the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase and the jockey also won races for Robert Walford, Alan King, Pauling and Milton Harris.
Within that quintet, he collected the big race, the re-staged Dipper Novices Chase, just a three-runner affair, on Messire Des Obeaux, where Alan King’s gelding shocked odds-on Protektorat in a rare reverse for the Skeltons in recent times. Both Flash Collonges and Messire Des Obeaux are sons of the late-lamented Saddler Maker.
Jacob’s five-timer worked out at a massive 3275-1. Nicholls’ septet, while not quite his best - he’s had an eight-in-a-day before now – amounts to more than treble that at 10,418-1. Of course to get the latter up, you’d need to navigate the 11 losers that besmirched his record. Jacob has surged onto 39 wins for the season but the title-holder Brian Hughes, with 90, looks to have a strong grip on his trophy, currently having 15 and 19 in hand of the two Harrys, Cobden and Skelton.
It’s very unusual in the depths of winter that Ireland suffers more than the UK, but there has been a flurry of abandonments across the Irish Sea with frost as the principal factor. Whatever happened to the milder west winds picking up moisture as they sweep across the Atlantic?
The perennial struggle at the top of the table there between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott is as compelling as ever. Usually at this point in the season Elliott has been ahead but this time it’s the other way round.
Mullins has already gone past the century with 104 wins from only 326 runs to earn €2.18m at a spectacular 32% strike rate. An impressive 76 of the 162 individual horses he’s run since racing resumed have won.
Elliott is only around €70k behind Mullins in winnings but it has taken 125 wins from a bumper exactly 800 runs – almost double both Nicholls’ and Skelton’s number and treble Henderson’s – to get that close. Equally he has needed 292 horses, 90 of which have won, to make it that far.
Mullins is having his normal effect on the jockeys’ title race. Since Ruby Walsh’s retirement Paul Townend has been in pole position, but third-placed Henry de Bromhead’s 69 victories have given a big boost to Rachael Blackmore, his stable jockey.
Townend leads on 69, all but five for the Closutton trainer, but is far from secure for another title as Blackmore’s 46 wins for her boss have been supplemented by another 19 from outside rides making the deficit only four.
Talking of jockeys, the 2021 Flat championship will be very interesting given Oisin Murphy starts the year under a three-month ban imposed by the French authorities. He managed to get it reduced from the original six months on appeal and while it doesn’t interfere with the championship which starts in May, or the first phase of turf racing or indeed anything after March 11, it could still have an effect on his confidence.
No need to go into how he got the trace of drugs in his system. In these perilous times I wonder how many people contracting Covid, like my mate Steve Gilbey who said it was the most frightening experience of his life, know where they caught it. He says maybe it was Christmas shopping in Sainsburys.
Steve, a one-time repo man and night club bouncer before his more acceptable roles as a bodyguard and then Ray Tooth’s much-valued right-hand man, has seen and heard of many friends and some family members who haven’t managed to stave off the effects of the virus. I pray – as does Ray – that he’ll get through, just as I do that my son, his wife and their son, whose symptoms are less severe, will all recover soon.
Back to Flat jockeys, though, and as I said it could be a pivotal year. One Whatsapp I received just the other day made very interesting reading. It claimed that Ben Curtis would be joining Mark Johnston as stable jockey. Now confirmed as true, his odds of 10/1 for the title have plummeted to 3/1.
Mark’s most active jockeys, Joe Fanning and Franny Norton, both celebrated their 50th birthdays last year. Norton is the older by eight weeks, his birthday coming on July 27 to Fanning’s on September 24th (the same as my son incidentally!).
Between them they rode 56% of Johnston’s winners and 55% of the stable’s runners. Fanning was the busier – well, he’s younger, it makes sense! – with 50 wins from exactly 400 rides in 2020. Old-man Franny was only 75% as busy but just as tidy with his 45 from 300 rides. No other jockey achieved more than the 15 wins of P J McDonald. Then came William Buick and Silvestre De Sousa with ten each. Curtis had six wins from 35 rides for the stable.
Their longevity says much for their iron constitutions but even more for the amazing loyalty of the trainer. Had he not kept them on, riding many of the yard’s best horses as well as the majority of the lesser performers, they would probably have retired a while ago.
A second compelling item on the same Whatsapp message concerned Paul Mulrennan who it seems might be getting closer to a connection with Karl Burke. Interesting? Not many!