A New Year – A New Dawn? Maybe. What Sod’s Law, Say Nothing and co couldn’t deliver in any race for Raymond Tooth in 2019, Waterproof tested my “Pour Moi’s are better jumpers than Flat-racers” theory at Fakenham on January 1, writes Tony Stafford. He duly confirmed it, and by 15 lengths.
True, it needed a last-flight capitulation by Bran - a length up with only a short run-in to survive – but he was miles ahead of the rest after a nimble exhibition of jumping and enthusiastic galloping.
One swallow might not make a summer, but one winning jumper certainly invigorated the Raymond Tooth team. The boss has been saying for ages that it’s getting almost impossible to compete with the big battalions of both codes, but one “1” beside a horse’s name certainly brings optimism to aim at greater targets.
One more novice or handicap win – and as a four-year-old he’ll still get a hefty allowance against his elders – could get him into the Fred Winter (Boodles Juvenile) at the Festival. The Tooth colours of pink and grey, which collected the top hurdling prize 11 years ago when Punjabi won an epic Champion Hurdle tussle with Celestial Halo and Binocular, might just be dusted off in eight weeks’ time.
Shaun Keightley has done well to turn a 51-rated middle-distance horse to a winning jumper at only the second attempt. Jack Quinlan, who’d ridden him on debut and schooled him on the morning before the race but had to be at Cheltenham on Wednesday for a very disappointing Kalashnikov, reported immediately on first acquaintance that Waterproof was a natural.
The initial steps were actually undertaken by Josephine Gordon, his regular partner in recent Flat runs, and she accompanied the party to Fakenham on Wednesday. Now we’re scouring the entry pages to try to find a suitable follow-up, preferably where we won’t be meeting any stars.
The problem with any win is that instinctively you project forward. It’s the same when people are thinking of selling their improving horses, or in fact not, but are being pestered to do so. The tendency is to ask too much – the new figure more usually what the horse would be worth if he did win that next target. Yet if you keep him and win that race, the new people will think that’s one less opportunity for them if they did manage to buy. I can report that to date J P McManus has not put in a bid, so we’ll be soldiering on!
After the flurry of big meetings in Ireland, the pace will be much slower over there this week with only Clonmel on Thursday and Fairyhouse on Saturday to offer opportunities for the major stables. Not even a Sunday this week.
It is almost uncanny how closely matched the two big Irish jumping entities have been over Christmas and New Year. Willie Mullins won with 17 of his 99 runners: Gordon Elliott with 16 of 98. So far this jumps season (May to May) their scores are Mullins 117 from 493 and Elliott 120 from 812. Elliott’s numerical advantage also extends to individual horses raced – 267 to 206.
It would have been impossible for the old-time trainers to get their heads around such numbers. When Nicky Henderson started out with Fred Winter, normal stable strength for the top teams was in the 40-50 range. Now Henderson controls an operation which has sent out 145 individual animals for 77 wins from 292 runs, only exceeded by the 193 horses that have combined to get Dan Skelton up to 97 for the season.
Elliott has once or twice come to the business part of the Irish jumping season challenging long-standing champion Mullins but his ambitions of a first title, decided of course on prizemoney, have been thwarted usually by the big guns from Closutton cleaning up at the season’s conclusion at Punchestown.
In 2016-7 it seemed an inevitability that Elliott would prevail, but his financial advantage was whittled down and then exceeded at Punchestown even though he had 13 more winners than his rival. This season he is around €340k ahead but, with many big prizes to be contested and among potential game-changers, the arrival of Cheveley Park Stud as major jumps owners can give Elliott hope that he can stay at the helm.
Yesterday Cheveley Park’s Envoi Allen made it seven out of seven with a convincing defeat of Mullins’ front-running Elixir D’Ainay in the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle over two and a half miles. I’m not sure that he is ready for the Champion Hurdle on what I saw once he headed the runner-up. Maybe he can follow Istabraq’s example by winning the two and a half mile novice at Cheltenham before returning to dominate the next three Champions.
The embryo stars are lining up for the three Cheltenham novice races. Abacadabras, so impressive over Christmas, had been a length and a half behind Envoi Allen, his fellow Elliott inmate, over the minimum at Fairyhouse on December 1 and is the nearest to him in the betting for the Skybet Supreme Novice Hurdle. Envoi Allen is favourite both for that Festival opener and also the longer Ballymore Properties Novice, and is a shorter price (7-4) for the latter.
Here Thyme Hill, at the moment the leader from among the home contingent, is 7-1 second best. The form of his wins keep working out well, as with his Chepstow October victim Fiddlerontheroof, much too good for Saturday’s Tolworth Hurdle rivals, and still tempting at around 20-1 for whichever Cheltenham option Colin Tizzard selects.
This writer has – as do many in racing – a high regard for the talents of Ian Williams and one of his all-weather performers has all the signs of becoming a winter star. Noble Behest is a six-year-old that joined Williams last year following a 541-day absence, having previously enjoyed rewarding initial spells with Marcus Tregoning (three wins) and Robert Stephens (two out of two).
Four of the five wins had been in all-weather races of two miles and more. Once he got racing with his new handler it took a few runs (and a good few pounds off!) for Williams to get the cobwebs fully blown away. A running-on second at Wolverhampton over 1m6f was the signal that normal service was imminent and so it has proved.
Victories since on the Chelmsford Polytrack (his third there) and Wolverhampton Tapeta (second) were the prelude to a first try on Fibresand at Southwell. I made the mistake of contacting Williams yesterday morning when wondering whether the son of Sir Percy would cope with the surface. “The Sir Percy’s have a horrendous record at Southwell” reported Williams, a few hours before Noble Behest went off in front and came home in splendid isolation five lengths clear. That’s one way of avoiding the kick-back!
His rating yesterday was 73, still 3lb below his last winning mark of the pre-Williams era, achieved almost two years to the day at Chelmsford so that’s due a hike.
As the reports stated, this was a seventh win in nine all-weather starts when racing at two miles plus – he lost the other twice at shorter – but what they do not reveal is what a look at all his race videos told me. He’s one of the gamest horses I’ve ever seen. Low level or not, there’s the potential for him to go a lot further up the rankings if the shrewd Williams can keep him sound.