By Tony Stafford
I stayed in the far north of England on Friday night, a trip organised in midweek because my boss Raymond Tooth was going to have runners at Pontefract on Friday night (Freeport ran fifth) and Market Rasen (Fair Trade, didn’t run in the Summer Hurdle) on Saturday afternoon.
Anyway, there I was at 8.30 a.m. at Wetherby services, looking for breakfast. I settled on a tuna baguette and a coffee and when asked for almost £7, queried the price of the coffee. It was £3.09! So exhausted am I by the pernicious onslaught that is Rip-off Britain, I didn’t even tell the nice lady to stick it – it was hardly her fault. I could have bought a jar of Nescafe for less - and a real cup.
Suitably refreshed, I continued my journey south, in anticipation of Lee Westwood’s becoming the first English winner of the Open championship since Nick Faldo when he won his third title in 1992. Apart from Sir Nick, only three other Englishmen – Tony Jacklin (1969), Max Faulkner (1951) and Henry Cotton, the third of his wins in 1948 – have won it since World War Two. Other British winners have come from Northern Ireland - Darren Clarke in 2011 and Fred Daly in 1947 - a year after I was born and Scotland’s Paul Lawrie in 1999 and Sandy Lyle in 1985.
If there’s not been quite the dearth of British winners of the Open as was the case since 1936 in the Wimbledon Tennis championships, put right by Andy Murray earlier this month, it’s still pretty rare. I just hope Lee takes advantage of playing in the final pair with Hunter Mahan rather than Tiger, who never wins majors when not leading entering the last round.
If Westwood’s new-found assured putting holds up, he should win, but an even more amazing sporting story is being played out at Lord’s where I hope Alastair Cook allows his England team properly to grind the Aussies into the hallowed turf.
Cook is of the generation that became accustomed to watching the Aussies do just that to us. From 1989 in England to the 2002/3 series Down Under, Australia won 28 tests to England’s 7, and collected a string of series wins. A 2-1 England home win, amid a general frenzy of excitement briefly ended the pain in 2005, but normal service was resumed with the humiliating 5-0 whitewash of 2006/7.
Gradually since then, Australia’s pre-eminence has been eroded and Friday’s slapdash batting performance following a narrow defeat in Nottingham, set up England’s chance of winning more than three tests in a home Ashes series for the first time ever.
That eventuality will become more likely if Cook allows Root to get his double century, for Bairstow, Prior and the tail to fill their boots and he will still have five sessions to go through a hapless team needing almost 700 to win, and with Anderson and Swann to fear. Paradise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Do you think the Aussies with McGrath and Warne in the team would have been thinking of a declaration in similar circumstances?
The one disappointment from my side was the fact that Fair Trade could not take his place at Market Rasen. He was a bit stale when he schooled on Thursday, following his only bad run for Alan King, on the Flat at Salisbury. I’d been very optimistic, referring back to his run at Wetherby in the spring when he was cantering going up to Life and Soul and already clear of Sea Lord when coming down three out.
That day he was giving the pair of them 7lb. This time, having won his only subsequent hurdle race at Kempton in May from a strong, albeit smallish field, he was to receive 1lb from Life and Soul and 4lb from Sea Lord. Since then Sea Lord had won three in a row, including an emphatic defeat of Man of Leisure, ending that horse’s winning sequence since joining Anthony Honeyball. Life and Soul, a winner twice more since before going under to a classy Paul Nicholls hurdler, also added lustre to the form.
Donald McCain preferred to avoid Market Rasen, settling instead for a ladies’ race at Cartmel and once Man of Leisure (9-2) strolled home, at his and Rachael Green’s leisure, one might say, in the previous race, you know what happened. Sea Lord was a stylish winner of the near £20,000 first prize also at 9-2 for John Ferguson, and Life and Soul collected at 15-8, having out-battled Sidney Melbourne. It’s all Fair Trade form and an 85-1 treble was there for the taking.
There was a much sadder event than just missing a winner though. It was quite a shock to hear that Mel Smith, owner with Anthony Pye-Jeary in a number of horses, principally smart sprinter The Cheka, had died at the age of 60.
I’d met him years ago in a racecourse paddock, probably at Ascot or Newbury, and whenever we bumped into each other at the races afterwards, we always had a few words. I didn’t really know him at all, but there was a friendliness about him that totally clashed with the general aggression of his television persona, especially in Not the Nine O’Clock News.
I spent maybe ten minutes scrolling through the results from the recent July sales at Newmarket before writing this, because I was sure I’d seen his name down among the purchasers at the sale, but to no avail. He will be much missed by many who value humour and intelligence and also loyalty, ask the Johnson Houghton family who trained his horses so well for so many years.