By Tony Stafford
There are trainers and then there are trainers. My second encounter with Hugo Palmer could have been rather less embarrassing. I was with Sam Sangster, I think, when he asked me: “Do you know Hugo Palmer?” “No, we’ve never met,” I replied as I went to shake the hand of the tall, friendly-looking, dark-haired chap.
“Yes we have”, said Hugo, adding: “You came to see Nom Dom at Hughie’s when I was working as assistant there and I showed him to you”. It should have been embarrassing, but young Mr Palmer probably found it slightly amusing.
Sam’s Sirecam business was an early supporter of the Newmarket-based trainer and his firm’s logo was on the saddle-cloths of the first two winners at Wolverhampton on last Friday’s day-night card. Sam is still closely allied with Brian Meehan, many of whose yearling purchases are knocked down to Sangster these days, and the stable’s Take the Helm was a ready winner of the second division of the median auction maiden.
Time was when the fortunes of the Manton yard were uppermost in my thoughts, but it was the race 35 minutes earlier, the target for Ray Tooth’s home-bred Harry Champion, that was my focus for the day, indeed for all the previous week.
That started with a couple of days at Tattersall’s mare sale, the epitome of the feast-famine affair that is thoroughbred racing and breeding, especially in the UK. Multi-million pound deals featured in days one and two, but the 200-odd lots condemned to day four – top price 33,000gns – in many cases could have been left out in the road with a tag around the neck saying: “Help yourself”.
We had one in, but decided to take her out on tactical grounds. Both Harry Champion and I had to endure a fair bit to get to the track on Friday, my own transport difficulties on the day seeming to echo the “you win some, you lose some” or “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away” nature of the racing business.
I began with the thought that there are trainers and then there are trainers. Harry Champion needed to be in the care of someone with originality as within days an apparent nervousness around other horses out on the Heath required the fitting of a hood. So every day, you’ll see his plain, big, old head adorned with that appendage.
Naturally it was there for his first race, and the second, and still on Friday. The writers on the Racing Post and the pundits on the TV stations are never shy when trying to dig out negatives about candidates for races, so his hood first time out status was duly noted, with expectations commensurately low.
But Harry had shown a fair bit in his early work, so went to Newbury for a decent May maiden with some optimism, and a fifth place despite some late interference from the Meehan-trained Fang represented a good start.
Had Hugo not identified a hood for home consumption from an early stage, Harry Champion may have disappeared like so many horses that start on the wrong foot and never achieve their potential.
Then came stage two in the Palmer master-class. Harry went to Windsor for what ended up being a strong-enough maiden for the track in late June, started favourite and finished fourth of 15. It struck us that he’d seemed to find it hard work, uncharacteristically being on and off the bridle for Harry Bentley from the outset. Even so, with a winner who ended up rated in the 90’s and a third, Stormy Antarctic, who was later runner-up in a Saint-Cloud Group 1 race to an Aidan O’Brien winner, in retrospect it was reasonable enough.
After the race, Raymond, Steve Gilbey and I settled down to dinner in the Windsor restaurant, and there was soon an anxious and alarming call from Hugo. “Harry’s very lame and we might have to leave him here overnight.”
In the event he improved and was able to travel home and in the morning, amazingly, he was sound. This was where the trainer’s instinct came in. A couple of days later he called to say he wanted to give the colt a bone scan because there had to be something that caused such chronic if temporary lameness. The fact that the verdict was a depressed fracture of a vertebra might have been shocking initially, but as Hugo said at the time: “Bone grows, so can heal. It would have been much worse if it was a tendon or muscle problem.”
Prophetic words indeed, even if in the cold light of the next day, he’d run with effectively a broken back. Soon, after a few days’ light leading-out walking exercise, Harry was off to a stud where he could trot on a treadmill and six weeks later he came back home. Immediately on his return, it was obvious how well he’d done physically and when I went to the yard in the early days after that, Angie, the trainer’s right hand lass, said: “His body’s grown, so now his head is in proportion, almost!”
The training after that went well, and a maiden race was mooted, obviously on the all-weather. Hugo was adamant he wanted him to win at two and again the trainer’s all-round awareness came through. “We could run in an ordinary maiden, but I’d rather wait a week for the median auction”. As he added: “If the fruit hangs from the tree, you have to pick it!”
It still looked challenging enough when 34 were entered, and a round two dozen stayed in neatly to provide two full 12-runner divisions on Wednesday morning. There were anxious moments while we waited for the split but it fell our way as we avoided not just Meehan, but also a Gosden-trained debutant that cost 140,000gns, but by a sire Fast Company whose median figure enabled him to get in, and a Noseda contender who’d already shown promise. That trio were 1-2-3.
My own day getting there was troubled, too. The car had been in for a repair and I’d been encouraged to think it would be ready, but when I got to Fulham it was on the ramp with oil dripping down. Half an hour later, armed with train times from Euston I set off to Parsons Green, changed at Victoria and thanks to the unexpectedly-rapid ticketing system with so many automatic machines, was on the 12.43 with time to spare.
The race was uneventful, Harry running throughout as though one day he might live up to that name, going clear in the straight and winning by two lengths from a more experienced filly from the David Evans yard. A two-length win was excellent and provided his dam Nine Red with a second winner from only her third runner. The satisfaction of a home-bred winner cannot be under-estimated.
That made it four individual winners for Ray from only five Flat runners in the year, and the four jumpers have also all won this year, although Cousin Khee counts in both disciplines. This week April Dusk (Uttoxeter, Tuesday or Carlisle, Sunday, floods permitting) and Notnowsam (Warwick, Thursday) may improve that figure further.
I mentioned the tendency of pundits to offer negative thoughts. One day recently, Manson, hot favourite for a Kempton maiden, was condemned by the night’s pundit – probably one of the Hull/Timeform brigade – on the grounds that he’d been beaten three times and was by Equiano.
He said he’d noticed the Equiano’s could be tricky, and suggested he didn’t fancy Manson for that reason. Needless to say Dominic Frrench Davis’ youngster showed plenty of toughness- as befits a half-brother to Jack Hobbs – and won well, like many Equiano’s. As Gary Coffee of Newsells Park, where he stands, pointed out, he’s one of the leading second-season stallions on races won and individual winners.
It doesn’t stop there. Races confined to horses 0-60 are habitually called “moderate” in Racing Post and TV analysis, and of course they are by definition; but they can be competitive and still hard enough to win. Imagine being an owner of a horse well beaten at that level. It’s your pride and joy on which you’ve bestowed cash and emotional attachment and they brutally condemn him and many of the others in most races.
The pundits having done their negative work can go off and talk about whatever else they want at no cost to themselves, while owners, committed to big and ever growing bills and static prizemoney wonder whether they should stay in the game. They and many of the mare owners that supply the raw material for the sport deserve rather more sensitive treatment.
I know when Ray won that race – think that was defined as ordinary, too – all the joy of breeding and owning a nice winner enabled him to suspend for a time the notion that he really should be doing something else with his money. Thank the Almighty that enough people still love to try to take on the big battalions for the sake of their passion.