The number 13 is supposed to have unlucky connotations, writes Tony Stafford. Events thirteen years ago next weekend were the reverse for me. As the tall, mid-European said having approached me with a yellowish-coloured ring between his fingers all those years ago: “It’s your lucky day!”
He could hardly have imagined that his theatrical display of stooping down a few yards in front of me as we progressed in opposite directions along Finchley Road near St John’s Wood Station and brandishing the item triumphantly would have such lasting repercussions.
Or indeed just how lucky it was to prove.
It led to my being introduced a few hours later at Kempton Park to Raymond Tooth by his friend Derek Hatter, who’d been asked to verify the authenticity of the ring as we bumped into each other at the track. Derek revealed a few days later that the jeweller tasked with that professional action declared the fact it went green very quickly was not encouraging.
Entirely encouraging was the meeting with Punjabi’s owner, after his Nicky Henderson-trained gelding had romped to a 19-length triumph in the Adonis Hurdle booking his place in the Triumph at the Cheltenham Festival the following month.
We hit it off and then another chance encounter with my good friend Tony Mullins, outside the Victor Chandler tent where we had all been based that Gold Cup day, led to a going-home 12-1 winner, Pedrobob, in the County Hurdle, which clearly sealed the deal as Raymond’s racing manager.
Now on Saturday, again a consequence of unlikely events, the Tooth colours of grey and pink will be in action in the same Kempton race with Waterproof. We had formulated a plan to try to get him qualified for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle next month. That needed him to have had three runs over jumps and the third was to be either at Haydock in last Saturday’s Victor Ludorum or the back-up race suggested by Shaun Keightley at Market Rasen yesterday.
We didn’t fancy the heavy ground at Haydock, or the likelihood of having to face Goshen, pencilled in by Gary Moore for that race. A hard race on heavy would probably have caused his 127 rating to be vulnerable had Goshen run riot, but in the end he didn’t run at all. Nor did we as Storm Dennis washed out Market Rasen and most of the countryside everywhere else.
It’s doubtful that running this weekend will constitute qualification. Entries for the Boodles close tomorrow and at that stage he does not have the necessary three runs. The handicap is fixed next week but I fear it is probably too late, so we’re going to check. David Dickinson gave Waterproof 127 after his wide-margin Fakenham win, but he probably wouldn’t have won at all had Bran, who’d just taken it up, not fallen heavily at the last flight.
It had been a plan for some time, immediately after his promising debut third at Huntingdon, to get two placed runs into him and then run against older handicappers, taking advantage of the big age allowance for juveniles. The number 127 certainly didn’t enter calculations at that stage. Now the best way of dealing with it is to get the third run in so that entry in future valuable handicaps can be made. If he’s not good enough for the Goshens of this world – and no doubt he’ll be in the line-up at Kempton – then so be it.
Goshen’s latest win, by 11 lengths in a small field at Ascot, had the experienced Nordano in a respectful second. That Neil King-trained gelding had run six times before Saturday with a couple of wins in acquiring the same rating as Waterproof. I remember writing in this column that I thought Goshen could give twice the 17lb he’s officially rated above Waterproof and still beat him half the track, so not much confidence there for Saturday!
But when Nordano turned out back at Ascot in the mud last Saturday off 127 which translated to 10st bottom weight against his elders, I think my opinion of Goshen’s rating was borne out. Nordano and Aidan Coleman set off in front and, jumping fluently, strolled away in the straight to win the near two and a half miler by 16 lengths. Mr Dickinson will exact his revenge: I wonder if he might act retrospectively on Goshen’s mark?
A couple of the sport’s icons returned to action over the weekend. First Cyrname, reappearing after his King George blow-out and back on the scene of his earlier explosion of Altior’s unbeaten record, looked a much less formidable chaser than hitherto, already consigned to last of four in the attempt at a repeat in the Ascot Chase. Riders Onthe Storm also looked sure to be denied as long-absent Traffic Fluide loomed up dangerously.
His capsize, which was spectacular enough, did not carry anything like as much public concern as Cyrname’s and when the latter eventually rose, it was to a massive cheer of relief.
Even though Cyrname was a 4-11 shot, I didn’t fancy him one jot, unlike Nordano earlier. His defeat of Altior over a trip beyond anything previously attempted by the champ, would have taken a toll on both horses. While Nicky Henderson gave Altior until Newbury nine days ago for his comeback, Cyrname was asked to battle with stable-mate Clan Des Obeaux, again over a longer distance than he’d ever previously attempted.
I was told that Nicholls excused the defeat saying that Kempton was a stiff track, exactly contradicting anything he and many others including Nicky Henderson always say about it being “sharp”. The way Cyrname stopped almost to a walk in the King George could hardly have been encouragement for his winning a top-class race only five weeks later and so it proved, hopefully with no lasting after-effects.
A similar situation occurred two decades earlier when I was involved with the Thoroughbred Corporation whose Royal Anthem had just won the Group 1 Juddmonte International by eight lengths from a top-class field of 12. Just over three weeks later he went on to the Irish Champion Stakes, with the general in-house attitude: “He never had a race at York!” Winning a Group 1 race of that quality? Not much he did, and it showed with a 13-length fifth to Daylami at Leopardstown. Neither trainer, owner, US racing manager and UK manager were there. Just me, and it befell me on Dick Mulhall’s irate say-so from California to check with the racecourse vet whether he’d been got at! The answer was easy enough. He was knackered. It cost him Horse of the Year honours, too.
The second icon to appear this weekend was dual Grand National hero Tiger Roll, only fifth but far from disgraced in a Boyne Hurdle run in appalling ground at Navan. He’d won the race the previous year as a 25-1 shot building up to the Cheltenham Cross-Country and second Aintree triumph. He’d run the previous November but this time after much-publicised training issues and even more public attempts to intimidate handicapper Martin Greenwood into handing him a penalty kick of a handicap mark for the hat-trick attempt, it’s now down to business.
Fifth place here in a very strong race, won by stable and owner-mate Cracking Smart at 16-1, was creditable, especially as Magic of Light, last year’s Grand National second and already a winner over both hurdles and fences this term, was last home. The fear for the Tiger Roll team, more than the weight itself, would be if this extreme wet weather should result in testing ground at Aintree. Then, I fear, something, probably a light-weight, will come along to deny the hat-trick attempt.