Monday Musings: Wishing to be elsewhere…

I’m getting onto my travel agent (actually I don’t have one any more as I’ve been nowhere for ages) this morning, writes Tony Stafford. I’ll be trying to find the best (and obviously cheapest) way of getting to my new favourite place, Mata’utu, capital of the little-known Wallis and Fortuna Islands.

You didn’t know it was a country? Nor did I till yesterday when hard on the latest lockdown news, I thought it was time to rekindle my spring and summer obsession with Covid-19 and the statistics thereof.

When, two months ago, August in the UK ended with two deaths and September began with three, we all knew that racing’s apparently idiotic continuation with strict separation of limited-allowed owners from their trainers and jockeys had been way over the top. As I’ve said before, I’ve not gone racing since Cheltenham, but why couldn’t you talk in close company to trainers and jockeys when you could meet them in the pub freely before or after the races?

Now we learn that it was precisely because of how draconian it had all seemed that racing now can continue. The situation with owners has yet to be determined but if we don’t want the rest of society to get the hump, maybe it’s best to give that concession. Well done BHA.

Where so recently there were two and three fatalities, two months on it was 274 and 326, a neat average of 300 which is what it has been for the past five alarming days. Pubs, bars and restaurants will be packed until Wednesday and on Saturday the first sightings of the re-emerging toilet-roll hoarders supplanted the usual non-stop flow of trick-or-treaters on Hallowe’en. When I didn’t hear the one knock by would-be recipients of the goodies Mrs S as usual dutifully provided, we were treated with a raw egg thrown on the newly-cleaned front kitchen window for our pains! Messy to clean eggs are [as Yoda might say].

I thought it would be timely, now total cases in the UK have topped the million, so 14,000 per million of population, which is the ninth highest globally, to return to the subject. Deaths have risen above 46,000, fifth behind the US, France, Russia and Mexico.

Propping up the entire table at 218th – although a couple of cruise liners are included – is the above-mentioned Wallis and Fortuna Islands, which between them have recorded one case, the victim of which has happily recovered.

The islands are in the South Pacific, in between such better-known tourist spots as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, rugby nations whose influence on the game far exceeds the size of their population. Fiji has a team over in Europe at the moment. With only 34 recorded cases in the country it must have been a shock for the tour management to discover that “between five and seven” of their squad due to play an international in Paris with France next week have contracted the virus, so the match is off. Lesson for South Sea islanders: stay home!

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I love statistics. With only one now recovered case, Wallis and Gromit – sorry Fortuna – are listed on that same Worldmeters league table as having 90 cases per million of population. I’d be willing to take my chance, as long as they tell me which of the 15,289 souls from the latest census it was that copped it. Maybe he should be required to wear a badge? Not that they are a total island paradise. Even-handed Wikipedia reports that the “main health risks are mosquitos and sunburn, while drunk driving and intoxicated locals can also be a problem”. Thinking twice now, what with my skin cancer!

**

It would be tragic if racing stopped again not least because it would deny us another sighting of Saturday’s marvellous Charlie Hall Chase winner Cyrname, who put together the complete three-mile performance when cantering home a couple of lengths ahead of the doughty Vinndication.

Sometimes apparent ease can be deceptive but surely not here as Harry Cobden always looked to be in first gear all the way round two circuits of Wetherby as the rest of them huffed and puffed behind front-running Aye Right. Cobden kept Cyrname wide, possibly giving lip-service to the fact the country’s highest-rated chaser hadn’t previously won going left-handed. As the 1966 World Cup commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme would have said: “He has now!”

Stamina didn’t look a problem around a galloping track and the fences, never the easiest, were treated like the most welcoming of hurdles as he soared over them in perfect union with his jockey. Paul Nicholls ought never again to have to justify Cyrname’s being rated 4lb higher than Altior, and all of a sudden the great recent domination of Irish stables in the staying chaser ranks might well be getting properly challenged. Certainly even if he wasn’t able to stretch himself to three and a quarter miles around Cheltenham in March – and how do they bet whether we can go to see it or not? – Kempton’s King George looks a Christmas gift for Cyrname.

Meanwhile here we are at the start of November and within the next six days we will have got the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday and two days of the Breeders’ Cup in Keeneland, Lexington, Kentucky, out of the way. In other words, all the worthwhile Flat racing of 2020 will have been and gone.

The O’Briens, father and elder son are back down under again, Aidan yet to win it, with 2019 Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck who heads the weights for the 24-runner two-mile handicap, and Tiger Moth, second in the Irish Derby this year and then an easy Group 3 winner thereafter. Joseph, who has won it before, also has two chances with proven stayers Master Of Reality and Twilight Payment.

Anthony Van Dyck will have his supporters after his recent close second to Verry Elleegant in the Caulfield Cup, for which the winner has incurred a 1lb penalty. Considering the first prize was £1,666,667 and the runner-up got £476,190, you could say that was hardly harsh treatment. Incidentally, Prince Of Arran, Charlie Fellows’ regular challenger for Australia’s biggest race, third and then second the last two years, got £114,000 for his fourth in the Caulfield Cup.

Verry Elleegant is some handicapper. This year the five-year-old mare, trained by Chris Waller, has gone to the races nine times, five before the actual end of the season in the Australian autumn. Her two best efforts before the break also earned her big money, each time running second behind William Haggas’s Addeybb and Tom Marquand as they picked up £1million plus prizes each time, at the start of his memorable year, while racing was in its lockdown phase back home.

After Verry Elleegant’s break, four more runs have followed bringing three wins including the Caulfield Cup.  All in Group 1 races, she started with a win over 7f, was then fourth over a mile, before further victories at 10f and a mile and a half. The three wins all came in photo-finishes. There must be a big chance that her toughness will be rewarded by victory in the biggest race of them all for Australians, and it comes at a time when Melbourne, so badly affected by Covid-19 earlier in the year, is celebrating as there have been no new cases anywhere in Australia on Friday and Saturday.

Presumably only insiders will be there rather than the six-figures that usually flock to Flemington  but the magic of getting up at all hours tomorrow morning to see John Berry give his usual virtuoso performance, not just on the big race, but all the supporting contests on the day, is an annual treat I don’t intend missing.

So the main tip is going to be Verry Elleegant and it will be a proper Aussie fairy story if she can do it. It’s always good though to see European trainers taking on the locals by using their training methods.

For years I’ve noticed more than a few horses run just before the big race. In the case of the Andreas Wohler four-year-old Ashrun, a son of Authorized – purchase authorized by Tony Nerses, of course! – he has run twice in the last fortnight, finishing a solid fourth to Steel Prince and ex-Hughie Morrison inmate, Le Don De Vie, in the Geelong Cup (Group 3) before as recently as Saturday coming home on top in another Group 3 at Flemington.

Unlike the brilliant home-trained mare and Anthony Van Dyck, Ashrun has no stamina worries for lasting out the two miles. In August he ran in the 1m7f Prix Kergorlay at Deauville and was a very good second, staying all the way to the line, behind Call The Wind. He gets 2lb extra for his win the other day, but again it will be a lovely story if the local pro-forma works for an invader.

Over the years, it seems, fewer Europeans attempt the costly trip across to the US to challenge for the Breeders’ Cup races and nowadays the dirt has become almost a total no-go. With five juvenile contests on Friday, the likeliest win for the invaders might be the Ballydoyle runner, Battleground, who has been reserved for the Juvenile Turf.

Royal Ascot winner Campanelle will be all the rage for Wesley Ward in either the Juvenile Turf Sprint, where she might meet Lippizanner for Aidan and the team, or the possibly easier-looking Juvenile Fillies’ Turf in which the Roger Varian-trained Nazuna might also be dangerous.

Three of the Saturday races that stick out as possible obvious chances for the travellers are the Mile, the Filly and Mare Turf, and the Turf. They could give us (yes it’s still ‘us’ even if we can’t be there!) three wins. In the F & M T Cayenne Pepper, Peaceful (my pick), and recent rivals Tarnawa and Audarya are a likely team for exotic wagering. In the Mile it’s One Master, Circus Maximus, 2,000 Guineas winner Kameko, and Irish 2,000 hero Siskin for the same bet. O’Brien (AP) and Gosden will line up with two runners each for the Turf, but this time it looks a straight match between Lord North (Gosden) and Aidan’s Magical. It has to be Magical for me and how I wish she could have had another shot at Addeybb after her luckless run at Ascot.

- TS

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