Sunday Supplement: High ‘Voltige’ Memories

Tony Stafford in his Telegaph days...

Tony Stafford in his Hitman days...

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

I don’t have an iPad or iPhone, don’t do twitter or Facebook and when I’m on the tube get unnecessarily irritated by all those people opposite who sit riven with interest by their screens of varying sizes.

In mitigation to all those folks, though – see, the Telegraph style book still holds all those years on, don’t use “however”, it’s “though” – I must confess when mobile phones first came out I got one and ran up bills in the high hundreds every month.

If I were 50 years younger, no doubt I’d be at the forefront of all the innovations, but I still prefer to wade through information when I need to compile anything that someone else might want to read.

After a latish night watching most of round three of the USA PGA golf – Day leads Spieth by two with Rose third going into today – interrupted by the realisation that BBC4’s 9 pm offering The Young Montalbano was something I should be watching, but did not have the wit to do so until an hour after the start of part three of six – I set the alarm for 5.45 a.m., so I could be with you all this morning.

As usual, that innate sense which beats the alarm whatever time it’s set for, kicked in at 5.40 and I was up. Usually I’ve a clue or two what to write about, but the Aussies being tonked for almost 400 in a day by Northants, Man U’s second win in a row and the preparations for the Rugby World Cup seemed individually and jointly too lightweight.

No, in the otherwise desert or tundra wastes of August – we used to call it the silly season in my day, now life and sport are silly all the time – the oasis of York stands out.

We might and probably will get Golden Horn versus Gleneagles on Wednesday and I’ll be with the speed of the latter rather than the Derby winner’s all-round excellence. But the opening day also features one race where there’s a little personal history as well as this year a most unlikely statistic.

Thirteen horses were confirmed at the six-day stage for the renowned St Leger trial, the Great Voltigeur Stakes, nine by Aidan O’Brien. So there are five individual trainers represented and none of them has won the race in the past ten years.

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Last year Luca Cumani won it with Postponed who made the big time11 months later in the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. The other winning trainers in that period were Sir Michael Stoute (three); John Gosden, also three; Mohammed Al Zarooni, of whom we no longer refer, lost to the world like Betamax videos; Peter Chapple-Hyam; and, Mick Channon, the sole non-Newmarket handler.

In the old, and to some of us, not so old days, real stars would win it, like in 1987 when Reference Point, already winner of the Dante, the Derby and the King George, warmed up for his St Leger victory by collecting the race. He was the first of the late Henry (later Sir Henry) Cecil’s four Voltigeur successes.

Outside the last decade, Aidan O’Brien is the only trainer of Wednesday’s five contestants to win the race, with Milan in 2001 and Powerscourt two years later. Three weeks after the 2001 race, in the traumatic aftermath of 9/11 owner Michael Tabor managed to charter a plane from Lexington which also accommodated a number of trainers – I asked him too late to get on – just in time to witness Milan’s St Leger triumph.

Aidan came again in 2003, with Powerscourt, narrowly outpointing stable-companion Brian Boru. The winner was sent to the Curragh for the Irish St Leger and finished third in the third of Vinnie Roe’s four wins in the Irish Classic. Brian Boru travelled over again and duly won at Doncaster.

Some of racing’s greats or nearly greats have won the York race in the 60-odd years of its existence (it became the “Great” Voltigeur in its eighth renewal in 1957). They include Connaught, Bustino, Alleged and Rainbow Quest.

The race has a resonance for me. In 1998, I had a share in Hitman, a horse I’d bought at Tatts as a yearling then got a few soon-to-be pals involved. They liked the idea that Henry Cecil wanted to train him having seen him in his post-sale temporary home with Giles Bravery, who would have liked him too. He ran in the ownership name of the Paper Boys.

Hitman had been a reasonable third when favourite for the Gordon Stakes, but would have preferred the ground appreciably softer than the actual going when Sea Wave won the Dante in the fastest-ever time for the race. He was found to be lame afterwards and that was it for Henry – and me, I declined to stay in the horse when the other partners wanted Jenny Pitman to train him over jumps.

Hitman provided me with one of my best and worst days in racing. He set a track record for Newmarket’s July Course 10 furlongs in one of the valuable handicaps on the card. It was with some misgiving that I agreed to Brough Scott’s request for a post-race interview. Among the many watching, there was a work colleague of the then Mrs Stafford, a copper who was off duty that day. He was a regular at the races in those days and back at the cop shop, Mrs S, a civilian employee, heard the news that “Tony’s just been interviewed on the telly, his horse won a big race”. “What horse?””, she replied, “he hasn’t got any!”

A bit like 13 years before when the surging talent of Tangognat, 20-length maiden winner at Kempton second-time out and 15 length winner there of a nice conditions race four days later, was to run in the Chester Vase in my colours. Weighing up the options, it was “should I say I own this horse?” I did, we all (wife and father, in on it all along) trooped up to Chester and on newly-firm ground rather than the heavy of Kempton, he trailed home last and was out until the winter.

I related here a week ago that I had a nice time in 1962, playing for the first time at Lord’s. I was also well into the racing by then and in the August we went, mum and dad, with Auntie Elsie and Uncle Alf down to Bournemouth for a week, which included one visit to Salisbury.

On another afternoon, they all went off somewhere and I followed up my plan to play nine holes of pitch and putt at Tuckton Bridge in Christchurch, just along the coast. I didn’t look any older than 16, but I did manage to get into a betting shop in Bournemouth town centre where York was on the agenda. The 1962 Derby, won by Vincent O’Brien with Larkspur will be remembered for the fall among others of the Lionel Holliday-owned and -bred Hethersett.

Now quite why he had already bored into my consciousness so that he was already potentially an element of the long-term memory I cannot tell. One other factor from that race was that the future star jumper Spartan General, runner-up in the 1965 Champion Hurdle, and trained locally by Ron Smyth actually jumped over the prone Hethersett.

The Ebor was also on Voltigeur day and was won by Phil Bull’s Sostenuto, whom I fancied, while the race after St Leger hero Hethersett’s race was won by Persian Wonder, who would be trained by Dick Hern the following year when he deserted Major Holiday for Berkshire. I think they were 9-1, 15-2 (or was it 13-2?) and 4-1.

I still remember the look on my mother’s face when I pulled out the roll of notes I’d won when we convened for an evening meal in a café somewhere in Poole. Nothing in her expression suggested I should reveal my good fortune to my other much-loved relatives! The shape of things to come, maybe, but hardly character-forming!

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