By Tony Stafford
Some time just after Christmas, I bumped into Joe Fanning at one of the all-weather tracks and asked him whether he’d sorted out Mark Johnston’s then at least 100-long string of losers. Sorry not to be more precise about the timing. Joe, always affable, replied: “Doesn’t matter, we’ve just had 120 two-year-olds arrive!”
In 2014 Johnston’s two-year-olds, for all that the stable hit the buffers at the end of the Flat season, managed 43 wins from 303 runs. Performances were broadly similar for the three previous years, 45 from 415 in 2013, and 41 from 299 and 37 from 331 in the two previous campaigns.
I hadn’t remembered him ever being over busy early on with that division. By 3 p.m. on Saturday, the first day with juvenile races programmed, he stood on three for three after wins in the Brocklesby at Doncaster and the maidens at Kempton and then Chelmsford. No-one else, not Bill Turner, not Richard Hannon, got a look in.
It wouldn’t be racing if there weren’t the usual stories. Minutes after Buratino, an Exceed and Excel Darley home-bred won at Chelmsford Simon Whitworth, now an important cog in the Barry and Charlie Hills teams said: “They told me before the race that the one at Chelmsford was better than the other two.” They didn’t tell me, whoever they were.
On the gallops at Newmarket the day before, connections of one of the soon-to-be Chelmsford victims, going through the five runners said: “Johnston’s is very bad at the gate – he’s been through twice and was slowly away each time.” Gallops tittle-tattle is vital. What happened? Johnston’s flew out and made all, amazingly starting 9-4 in a five-horse field with two stable mates having already run and won.
Now of course all the media experts will have latched onto a great system. They’ll tell you Johnston’s two-year-olds are in form and it’s the more irritating that not only does he not run anything at all today, but that a big number of entries for All Fool’s Day does not include a single juvenile.
A more serious factor lies behind the sudden change (for that surely is what it was) for Johnston, and the key must be the altered activity especially in Charlie Appleby’s section of the sprawling Godolphin operation.
Time was, long ago, when the Maktoum family steadfastly avoided all-weather racing, clearly believing it was unfair to mop up the crumbs that the biggest boys left for the smaller stables.
Those days are no more. Appleby’s 70-plus wins on the all-weather part of the year have pretty much come with horses that in previous years would have devolved down to Johnston while Appleby (or as was Al Zarooni, whose name we must never utter in public) prepared for the new intake of two-year-olds.
I love my Horses in Training, the best £19.99 on the market, although this year it has set me back double that. The first glimpse, having generally bought it at Cheltenham on the first day of the Festival, was brief and my mistake, going to the gents and leaving it on a chair in an unnamed box – shame on you lot – meant I needed to buy the replacement in Tindalls in Newmarket High Street on Friday morning.
As Joe said, Johnston has 122 two-year-olds, considerably fewer than Richard Hannon, listed with 152 but probably with half as many again being readied to join them in assorted yards around the Berkshire/Wiltshire borders.
I’ve been up a few times recently watching Ray Tooth’s three home-bred colts going through their paces. Ray’s also in the middle of a change in policy, not quite like Godolphin’s, but he’s come to the realisation that even mid-range spending on one or two yearlings each autumn is no guarantee to success, or even being competitive.
The hope is that by using as-yet unproven and therefore inexpensive stallions that themselves were well-bred and performed to a high level on the track, with mares with a similar background, you might break the mould. Ray reasons that the extra layer of big-money buyers from Qatar coupled with a renewed energy from Dubai to keep ahead of their near neighbours has brought yearlings far outside the reach of most domestic owners at any rate.
William Haggas, who trained three fillies for Ray which are now starting out as broodmares – they are respectively by Dubawi, Dutch Art and Oratorio – said he agreed with his former client’s analysis.
Haggas, one of the most upwardly-mobile trainers, is also one of the fairest, and if your horse does not warrant expending as he says: “My expensive fees”, he soon recommends that the owner finds a cheaper option, although our trio were allowed to stay the full course.
With 172 horses, 81 of them juveniles, he has 22 (if my dodgy eyes deciphered the numbers correctly) that cost £100,000 or more, along with some choicely-related home-breds. The Queen has four juveniles, three home-breds, but one filly Oriental Cross, by Cape Cross cost £174,000!
Analysis of any of the big yards will throw up a similar profile, with loads more horses at Haggas’s coming in the £60,000 to £90,000 bracket. As the people who’ve spotted that Johnston’s juveniles are in form, give them a Horses in Training and they’ll tell you: “Racing’s a rich man’s sport.”
Johnston is one very few trainers who still tries to fill lesser-endowed orders from his long-standing clients and one of the Saturday three, David Abell’s narrow Brocklesby winner Ravenhoe (by Bahamian Bounty) cost Mark £16,000 at Doncaster’s August sale. The other pair ran in the more regulation green and red of Sheikh Mo’s son Hamdan and were home-breds from Darley.
The Abell 16-grand winner gives us hope that Highway Robber, by Dick Turpin, at Simon Crisford’s – bought back for 15,000gns at Newmarket - and Harry Champion, a Cockney Rebel colt thought unlikely to be commercial at the sales, and now with Hugo Palmer, might punch above their weight, much as their owner has over the past near 30 years.
Being told that one of them was going along with a Kodiac and an Oasis Dream , and the second on Saturday, with another Kodiac and a Showcasing, keeps the faith going.
I’ve broken away to look at the Cricket World Cup score and it looks like Australia will not have much of a target to chase against New Zealand. Instead, reckon I’ll watch the first two laps of the Grand Prix to make sure Hamilton will have another boring all the way win.
Returning to horses, Lingfield stages its well-endowed Good Friday card for the second year and it has attracted nine Charlie Appleby’s and a couple of Saeed bin Suroor entries. Saeed took Charlie’s thunder on Dubai World Cup day yesterday, winning the World Cup with old-timer Prince Bishop from the American pair California Chrome and Lea. Apart from the opener won by the local favourite, whose “luck” in getting a good draw in each of four runs this Carnival hardly amused Jeremy Noseda. His Sloane Avenue started from 15 of 16, got an early bump and failed by a short head to get up.
Otherwise it was all Europe and Mike de Kock, with pride of place going to Michael Owen and the admirable Brown Panther in the Marathon and Sole Power for Ireland in the Sprint. Add in the usual French excellence and you have a normal World Cup day. So what, unless you’re the ones picking up the big bucks, nowadays it’s a bit of an irrelevance.
Cousin Khee is guaranteed a run in Friday’s marathon as only 12 were confirmed. His 40-1 odds reveal him as a major outsider, but if gets in the first six, which he could, it’ll be a nice follow on to Two Jabs’ highly-promising second at Wolverhampton the other day. We’re still in the game, rich man’s or not.