By Tony Stafford
I’ve never been much of a grandstand critic of jockeys. Horses win, horses lose and sometimes jockeys get it wrong, but unlike John McCririck “if they drop their hands, ban them for life!” and Matt Chapman, the twin sirens of jockey judgment I’ve found the best policy over many years is to shrug one’s shoulders and move on.
Those two strident voices have made a living out of gob-opening more on Attheraces than on mainstream television in recent years, Chapman’s offerings eventually drawing a comment from Kieren Fallon that he would like to see Mouthy Matt drive a tired horse for two miles around Southwell.
Some of their fellow presenters, notably Jason Weaver and his sparring partner Luke Harvey have rather more specialist knowledge of what’s needed from the saddle and the same goes for ATR’s North American expert Steve Millar, who sometimes gets to comment on matters on this side of the pond, notably when the twilight period sets in.
On Thursday night he was on double duty and happened to be in charge when Bellewstown’s lady riders’ bumper was about to take place. Canadian Steve was a rider, principally in Toronto on Woodbine’s backstretch before taking his agreeably different place in ATR’s stable. His sympathy with jockeys and all stable employees shines through every offering.
As the runners prepared for Thursday night’s race, Steve noticed that one of the runners, Premier Style, a six-year-old mare trained by Tom Hogan, had bolted before the start. She had one previous run on her record, three weeks earlier at Sligo, when she made the running under a male rider for much of the race, weakening into third after being headed two furlongs out.
As she went off at a rate of knots on Thursday, Steve pointed out it was Sarah O’Brien, sister to dual champion Joseph, and apprentices Ana and Donnacha, who held the poisoned chalice. The camera settled on young Sarah, a highly-experienced eventer as well as 10-race winning jockey, as she was carted around the sharp circuit, not once, not twice but three times.
Steve, knowing what can happen in such circumstances, predicted a dangerous outcome. As two circuits turned into three he said: “If somebody doesn’t come to help her to get the horse to slow down, as her arm and leg muscles tire, all she will be able to do is bale out.” Happily that prediction was incorrect, as, well into the fourth mile, according to Steve’s calculations, Premier Style finally slowed, Sarah still retaining a firm grip on the reins.
“She must be as fit as a butcher’s dog”, said Steve, possibly giving young Sarah a potentially unflattering nickname, but it was said with utter admiration. Then, after allowing the mare some time to collect herself, Sarah turned her into a walk, standing tall in the saddle like Lester going to the start on one of Ballydoyle’s Classic horses of yesteryear, before slipping off and giving the mare an encouraging pat on the neck.
If ever anyone doubted the professionalism of Aidan and Anne-Marie O’Brien, this single incident should have shown the world that their children are fully qualified before going into racecourse competition.
Sarah O’Brien has a distinction that none of her siblings share. All four have ridden the five-year-old El Salvadore during his 11 races in 2014. Joseph has won once in five starts, but Sarah has won both times she has partnered him in qualified riders’ races. She gets my vote for ride of the month for her performance on a non-runner!
While passing judgment on presenters, I have to offer congratulations to Racing UK’s effortless presenter Oli Bell, son of hard-working Rupert and nephew of trainer Michael. If anything he out-Nick Luck’s Nick Luck in his assurance and ease behind the mic, and twice in recent weeks I’ve seen him take over commentaries – from Cartmel and Hamilton – when the course feed failed, before going straight back into his normal role having flawlessly called each race. Now that’s a presenter!
After four years and 45 wins, it’s clear than Hugo Palmer is going to be a proper trainer – don’t tell anyone, my boss Ray Tooth is sending him what we hope is a nice homebred for next year – and Aktabantay kept his star in the ascendant when winning the Solario at Sandown under Ryan Moore. Like Oli Bell, Hugo exudes a confidence born of competence and talk of the Dewhurst and Breeders’ Cup will be based on sensible appraisal rather than blind optimism.
Blind will be the watchword for much of the chat on Sky for the next day and a bit. Why anyone (Man U, of course) would want to buy someone called Daley Blind for £14m, beats me, but the experts seem to think all the transfer numbers make sense.
I’ve heard at least a dozen former players and present-day pundits refer to the £60 million paid for Angel de Maria by Manchester United as “value for money”. At the same time, they say “Manchester United must spend money if they want to halt their slump.” Who says it will halt the slump? Ever? Did it help when they chose to pay Wayne Rooney £300k a week? It helped him, maybe.
My favourite comment though almost of all time comes from Paul Merson. Now he was a very classy player, but one, who like most of us, did not show the dedication that his talent deserved and therefore did not reach the playing pinnacle he could have achieved.
As a pundit, though, he’s everyone’s favourite- on Sky he’s wall to wall. Apparently, though, he couldn’t have spent too much time on economic theory. How else would he have come to the conclusion that as Arsenal’s main striker will be out of action until the New Year, M. Wenger should jump at the chance to take Radamel Falcao on a year’s loan from Monaco.
As Mers says: “OK, it’ll cost Arsenal £20m <yes folks, for a year>, but they got £25m for qualifying for the Champions League this week. They should spend it!” Makes sense.
Just a thought, when you send a mare to a stallion and he fails to get her in foal, you usually get a free return the following year. If Falcao were to come and sustain a hamstring strain in the first few weeks, there’ll be no discount on the £20m. Doesn’t seem like a Wenger idea to me.
Meanwhile Diego Costa scored two more goals in Chelsea’s 6-3 win at Everton. His £32m purchase price will be referred to in the media as “the bargain of the century”, as it will be until he gets an injury, or someone takes exception to his over-aggressive attitude and clocks him one. He’s got that sort of face. Or is that something you can’t say nowadays? It’s up to you Mr Editor.
Enjoy the window, it’s all done for the benefit of Sky.