It was a fairly routine Sunday jumps day of racing in Ireland at Naas yesterday with just over six weeks to go before the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, writes Tony Stafford. What was routine about it? Three Willie Mullins odds-on shots for Paul Townend in the seven races and all three won with the trainer promptly declaring their definite participation at the Festival. Stormy Ireland and The Big Getaway go there with prospects enhanced.
Only one of three experienced any difficulty in landing the odds, Carefully Selected making hard work of giving weight away in the three-mile Grade 3 novice chase. He will still be taking up his place in the newly-shortened National Hunt Chase, now 3m6f rather than the traditional four miles after the sight of only four of the 18 runners last March completing the course, sufficiently unpalatable for the sport’s image custodians to make the change.
Two of the non-completions were in action in England on Saturday with starkly different outcomes. OK Corral, second-favourite that day behind Ballyward (9-4), whose fatal injury in the race undoubtedly contributed to the clamour for change, won the Skybet Chase at Doncaster in game fashion for Nicky Henderson. Back at Cheltenham, Warthog, only recently a course birthday winner for Prof Caroline Tisdall, got no further than the first fence of his return to the track when pulling up having gone badly wrong and had to be put down.
Therein is racing’s impossible dilemma. It’s dangerous to be a racehorse and they can “go wrong” as the catch-all phrase goes at any time during any activity, and it doesn’t need to be when hurtling across big fences at 35 mph.
Warthog’s recent history is precisely the all-or-nothing nature of the activity and no matter how well horses are looked after, the loss of a horse, for owner, trainer or, most emotionally, its lad or lass walking past its vacant box the morning after cannot truly be understood by outsiders.
To say anything can cause death, I will relate two incidents involving Raymond Tooth horses. A few years back, we had a nice novice chaser called April Dusk with Warren Greatrex who’d sourced the horse. He’d won successive two and a half mile races at Uttoxeter, a novice hurdle then first time over fences a handicap chase, showing all the signs of being a potential Grand National horse in time having already achieved a 133 rating.
Warren was disturbed when he started to show signs of growths on various parts of his anatomy, to the extent that they were becoming uncomfortable. He went into the veterinary hospital for their removal, and was recovering from the surgery when he fell and broke a shoulder, requiring immediate euthanasia.
A couple of years later, Raymond had a slow-maturing horse, unraced as a two-year-old with Nicolas Clement called Weekender (Fr), not to be confused with the John Gosden-trained stayer of the same name. We brought him over at the start of his three-year-old year to Mick Channon and from memory it could not have been much more than a week after his arrival at West Ilsley that he was discovered laid out dead in his box at 5.30 a.m. when the first rounds of the day were being carried out.
As Mick so indelicately said: “Where there’s livestock, there’s dead stock”, probably not the slogan to affix to advertisements for the sale of racehorses in the manner of Government Health Warnings on cigarette packets, but true none the less.
I digress. “You always digress!” I hear you say. I was going to talk about the sire of Carefully Selected and also of the last winner at Naas, another Mullins special, in this case a 9-2 shot in a hunter chase, ridden by Patrick Mullins. “Did we hear you right, Mullins 9-2 in a hunter chase?” You did and, like Carefully Selected, that winner was Billaway; and, coincidentally, like Carefully Selected, he is a son of Well Chosen.
This was a decent hunter chase. Runner-up (at eight lengths) was Stalker Wallace, returning in the J P McManus colours after a 1,078-day – so nearly three years’ – absence with form behind the smart Nambour and Jury Duty in a maiden hurdle and later third on his final start behind two brilliant hunter-chasers, Foxrock and On The Fringe, at Leopardstown.
Third for Joseph O’Brien and McManus again was Edwulf, one-time Irish Gold Cup winner on his way back and third behind 25-1 shot Dylrow (he was only fifth yesterday) and Billaway on the latter’s comeback at Down Royal on Boxing (St Stephen’s to him) Day.
With such as the evergreen former dual Foxhunters Cup winner Salsify, but now at 15 a shadow of his former self, also gracing the race this was, as I said, a decent contest. Interestingly, afterwards Mullins senior said Billaway was bought with the Cheltenham Foxhunters in mind and that’s where he’s going. Talk about planning, the actual purchase date was February 18 2018, soon after he won his maiden point in Ireland, and was picked up at the Cheltenham racecourse sale by Howard Kirk for £50k.
I mentioned the stallion, and also in passing in relation to Stalker Wallace, his run behind Nambour and Jury Duty. The latter is the highest-rated product of Well Chosen, achieving a mark of 156 after starting just a 10-1 shot among the massive Gordon Elliott back-up squad to Tiger Roll who gave him only 8lb, in last year’s Grand National. He was still in with a chance when coming down at the 18th fence. Six months earlier he’d won the Grand National Hurdle in America, itself worth £200k!
Well Chosen was bred to be a champion Flat-racer, a son of Galileo’s sire and previously pre-eminent of them all, the wonderful Sadler’s Wells, whose life-size sculpture adorns the Coolmore museum in uncannily-lifelike splendour. If you get a chance to visit, take it with both hands!
The dam of Well Chosen was Hawajiss, a Maktoum Al Maktoum-owned and bred filly (by Henry Cecil’s champion Kris) who was good enough with Sir Michael Stoute to finish third to Balanchine in the Oaks and second to Bolas in the Irish Oaks.
Despite those exalted relatives, Well Chosen won only a 13-furlong all-weather race at Lingfield at the end of his three-year-old career with Ed Dunlop, finishing on a rating of just 80. The blood told though and given a chance at stud - he’s based at Kedragh House in Ireland - he now commands, at the age of 21, a fee of €6k, having been listed as “private” previously, which often denotes a fair degree of flexibility for mare owners.
He clearly has earned the right to cash in for his owners. In the past two weeks alone, five wins have been recorded, two by Carefully Selected who was turned out again quickly after bolting up at Punchestown in order to gain qualification to the Festival. Two more in that period, Chosen Mate and Chosen Hunter, are additional evidence if any is needed that this stallion, who I must confess had pretty much passed me by, is a big player in producing staying chasers. Everyone’s had to wait but it’s been worth it.
It was also worth the wait for Paisley Park’s second run of the season in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday and the champion staying hurdler kept the winning sequence going with a workmanlike defeat of Summerville Boy.
The winning margin was just over a length and the runner-up (off level weights) is a very high-class performer, good enough to pick off Kalashnikov when that horse was probably in the best form of his career in the Supreme Novice Hurdle two years ago. That two-mile speed, stretched out to three miles, makes him a realistic contender to turn around the form at the Festival with Emma Lavelle/Andrew Gemmell’s star, and with the Irish waiting in the wings, 4-5 looks skinny indeed, especially if Benie Des Dieux finds her way into the line-up.
Saturday’s other big pointer came from Santini, and Nicky Henderson is wondering why all the scepticism about his chance. The way he saw off Bristol De Mai in the Cotswold Chase, Nicky’s view is hard to argue with.