By Tony Stafford
Eight years on from Punjabi’s Adonis Hurdle – that was the day I first met my boss Raymond Tooth – I am almost embarrassed to say I wasn’t at the track which happily accommodated a packed house, engineered to a large degree by a tranche of free tickets.
Instead I was at Lingfield, which was also pretty busy, on a day when their concept of an all-weather championship has also caught the racegoers’ attention. Kate Hills, a constant presence at Lingfield ever since the days, now long ago when I had a little involvement with Arena’s race planning, soon after I left the Daily Telegraph was again in attendance.
One of my pet ideas in those times was to suggest free entry for all the midweek winter meetings, aimed solely to get bums on seats. It had been bored into the consciousness after a visit to Woodbine racecourse in Toronto, Canada, where they told me that ending the former $2 general admission charge had generated $13 extra business just in betting terms for every racegoer, never mind bars and restaurants.
I’ve no doubt that cheaper admission would be a big help here. True tracks cannot be quite so cavalier in this country as they do not have the same sort of hold on the purse-strings as in Tote-only (at the track) USA, nor indeed the casino revenue on some racecourses there.
On the topic of free admission, Kempton clearly are putting plenty of weight behind that plan and only on Friday an envelope came through the letter box with two free admission tickets for the fixture there on Saturday March 28. If anyone would like them, contact geegeez.co.uk and I’ll be sure to pass them on.
I’ll return to events at Kempton, but first I must report an interesting follow up to last week’s offering where I reported the AVC scheme for enhanced prize money down to eighth place in class 2 races and to sixth for races in class 3 to 6.
I happened to be sitting with one of the most switched-on and upwardly-mobile trainers, who has won races in North America and Dubai and will almost certainly continue to do so, given that he reported he was very happy with the number of horses in his 2015 string.
I asked him, after his horse had already run, whether he was aware of the AVC scheme but neither he nor his equally-astute owner had the slightest idea. It might be time for the BHA to take an advertisement in the Racing Post to fast-track trainers on something they would find easily if they read more closely the entries section on the BHA web site.
Perhaps unwisely, I went to Lingfield without a hat. For the couple of years or so after this column began, I was depicted in a photo taken a decade earlier – the one on my racecourse pass is at least 25 years old – but recently a more up-to-date image has been current.
But since the turn of the year, that too has been redundant, as the redoubtable Mrs S suggested that as only the front part of the hair – that which confronted its owner on the rare occasions when the mirror was consulted - was in view. For everyone else, behind or above, there was just a great big zero. A bald pate, so she suggested it came off. The bits down the sides at the back have grown quite quickly but are best described as white stubble and the mid-section is a fair imitation of an acorn – justifying the nickname given by an early work colleague when I was still not into my 20’s, namely Acorn Head.
Almost half a century on, it’s uncanny just how right he was. It looks just like an acorn. In fact if I were to put on one of those skull caps that my and everyone else’s Jewish friends wear when their religion dictates, it would be even more accurate.
Despite the pretty cold day yesterday, I resolved to come out. That’s right, old Baldy came out of the closet and did not even wear a cap. It was the first time, and I’m delighted to say that apart from cranial frost-bite, I survived the experience and got barely a ribald comment. Still, I suppose as a society, we’re well past such things as prejudice on grounds of colour, age, religion, size and the rest. Or maybe not!
Returning to Kempton, it was great to see second-season trainer Robert Stephens, who has a small yard over the Welsh border in Gwent, collect Punjabi’s race with Beltor, who made it two out of two over jumps with a fluent success under Tom O’Brien.
Beltor was formerly with Sir Mark Prescott, as was Stephens, who was making a second successive trip to the London area having won a maiden with a 14-1 shot on Lingfield’s Polytrack on Friday. In the event he got the better of Punjabi’s handler Nicky Henderson and favourite Bivouac (only third) and will go to Cheltenham with a big chance for the son of Authorized who cost 30,000gns out of Sir Mark’s Heath House stables.
Were Beltor to win, I doubt if Stephens will be urging the authorities to double the first prize as Willie Mullins did in relation to the major races at the Festival. Obviously, some sort of incremental rise would be welcome. When Punjabi won the Champion Hurdle in 2009, the first prize was £210,000. This year it will be £227,800, not even 10% for the six years, so barely 1.5% per year. My trainer friends would be happy if Weatherbys kept their costs in check in a similar fashion. As to Mullins’ reason for his demand – that the big owners have to pay massive amounts to buy horses good enough to win those prizes – it’s clearly piffle.
Who says that the big guys need to pay the big bucks so they have ALL the best horses? That’s why if Robert Stephens wins the Triumph, after a short time as a licence-holder with a total of 12 wins (three on the Flat) to his credit, it would be a great result, proving once again that relatively cheap horses can go a long way in the sport.
I have delayed my update on the Tooth breeding operation until last. Over the past week the ex-French mare Ms Cordelia (by Anaaba) has foaled a colt by French Fifteen, a Group 1 winner for Ray just a few years ago, and I Say (Oratorio) has had her first foal, also a colt by Mount Nelson. That makes it three colts out of three, with three more to come.
With three entries over the two days of Newbury at the weekend, we hope that the grey and pink colours worn to such distinction by Punjabi, will soon be up and running. Punjabi is handily placed to survey events at Kinsale stud in Shropshire where he is happily spending his retirement with Rachael and Richard Kempster.