By Tony Stafford
As the field in the Sodexo Clarence House Stakes turned for home at Ascot on Saturday, there was a spontaneous surge of excitement within the crowd as the expectation of a winning return by the much-missed Sprinter Sacre seemed about to be completed. In the event Barry Geraghty’s skilful handling of Nicky Henderson’s star was foiled by the equally subtle Noel Fehily on the hitherto under-heralded Dodging Bullets.
Afterwards, the general view was that the horse with the dodgy ticker was back to full health, if a little rusty, and even the later news that a small bleed in his nose had been detected while he was submitted to a post-race dope test, has been dismissed as trivial.
The Clarence House date had been deemed so crucial in the timetable of Sprinter Sacre’s rehabilitation, that its satisfactory if eventually unsuccessful completion will have brought more cheer than dismay to Seven Barrows. That said, it was merely another staging post on what is destined to become a stellar season for Paul Nicholls.
Among major stables like Nicholls and Henderson, the perennial challengers for top jumps honours since Martin Pipe withdrew from the ordeal, winner production is pretty constant. They have been worthy adversaries and over the past few seasons, to take a meaningful sample, they have not been far apart in the winner department.
Since the start of 2011-12, they have each sent out more than 2,500 runners in bumpers, hurdles and chases. Nicholls, with a total of 2,521, has been slightly less busy than his adversary, with 2,554. Nicholls has generally had fewer bumper and hurdle runners, 193 and 1,239 to Henderson’s 348 and 1,502, but considerably more in chases, 1,189 compared with 704.
The disparity has been widening more recently for while Nicholls has been very efficient in turning his decent hurdlers into better chasers, Henderson’s success rate in that direction has diminished. Simple statistics show that the Lambourn maestro clocked up 51 chase wins with total prizes of £1.54million in 2011-2; 34 for a handsome £1.8 million in 2012-3; but a relatively modest 26 for £806,000 last season.
In the comparable period, Nicholls was much more consistent, with 63 wins and £1.47 million, which included a championship swinging half a million for Neptune Collonges’ Grand National in 2011-12; 63 again for £850,000 the following season and a drop to 52 last season but a handsome £1.36 million in chase prizes.
But it is in this year’s figures that Henderson must be having some anxiety about the immediate future. In the three previous seasons, he had 182, 146 and 130 chase runs. This season it is 70 so far, a figure that is unlikely in the last three months of the season to get anywhere near even 130.
But what is most surprising is that Henderson has sent out just 12 winners of chases this season. As we have seen from Nicholls’ contrastingly lucrative campaign, the big bucks (what does that remind me of, I wonder?) go to the chasers.
As I mentioned, Henderson has had 12 chase wins. I can quickly point out that Nicholls has had at least 13 individual winners of a major prize, either a big handicap, or Graded event. The group are in prize order Silvianico Conti, Saturday’s much-improved winner Dodging Bullets, Caid du Berlais, Sam Winner, Vibrato Valtat, Ptit Zig, Virak, Hawkes Point, Unioniste, Mr Mole, Southfield Theatre, Irish Saint and Al Ferof.
It is hard to imagine that Nicholls will not win a bunch more big races before mid-April with that talented team, especially as his trends have turned so comprehensively towards producing chasers, especially stayers. In terms of winners this season, Nicholls has won five bumpers, 23 hurdles, but 45 chases, whereas in the three previous seasons, the two disciplines yielded a more balanced total of 188 and 178 respectively.
Interestingly, both trainers have concentrated very much on acquiring potential talent from France, often with the assistance of the Anthony Bromley/David Minton agency. It seems that only a whiff of novice promise over there gets the Highflyer agency on the case. Henderson must be hoping that the renewed vigour with which Simon Munir and his partner Isaac Souede have come in will help bolster the gap seemingly left by Michael Buckley’s increased concentration on the Flat.
Nicholls already has £1.33m from chases alone this time round, offering promise that with his resources he could beat all his previous records. Nicky needs not only Sprinter Sacre at his best, and with Sire de Grugy reportedly coming back he’ll need to be, but also some compensatory conversion of promise to achievement from the smart juveniles which have always been such a focal point in the Henderson fortunes.
I’ve often indulged myself in this column talking about the boss’s horses, and this past week brought a trip up to Newmarket to run the eye (unpractised, or rather inexpert as it might be) over Ray’s three home-bred two-year-olds, who are all making their way in the town.
Colts by Cockney Rebel, Virtual and Dick Turpin are respectively with Hugo Palmer, Micky Quinn and Simon Crisford and the last-named has just been getting to know his trainer after his recent trip to Dubai where he probably ran into a few old friends and former colleagues.
Simon called last night to say he likes the horse we hope will eventually be officially named Highway Robber. He is a half-brother from his sire’s first crop, to Dutch Art Dealer, who has won three races for Richard Green and Paul Cole, and also Ray’s promising three-year-old maiden Dutch Law, whom Hughie Morrison thinks will do well this year.
The Robber arrived in Simon’s Calne Stables, off the Bury Road, while Simon was away, but when I visited I thought he had developed a great deal since I saw him at Kinsale Stud in Shropshire in the autumn. Certainly Simon’s son Edward and head lad, the experienced George Foster, both had nice things to say about him.
An April foal, he was entitled to grow and thrive with feeding and exercise. It is easy to forget that from the time of the autumn yearling sale to now, he had added three months to the 18 since being foaled in April 2013. Watching them blossom must be the biggest delight for a trainer and knowing how to harness that physical progression is the ultimate skill of the profession.
Then it was down to East Ilsley to catch up with Robber’s brother and also to see another Morrison stalwart, Cousin Khee, who will be aiming at the Stayers’ race at the All Weather Championships. It’s probably a bit beyond him to win it, but he always runs his race. The main purpose of the visit, though, was to see the latest workout of Cousin’s younger relative, his three-parts sibling, Brother Khee. Get it?
He went well enough to warrant a debut in a Wincanton bumper on Thursday week. Hughie is annoyed that there is no bumper restricted to four-year-olds until the end of February at Newbury, so I suppose we’ll have to take on Nicholls, Hendo, Harry Fry and the rest, in the west.