By Tony Stafford
Back in 1986, I reckoned my red colours were going to collect the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham. Tangognat, a horse bought for me by Zara Pratt (sister to Plumpton luminary Adrian and wife to John Johnstone) was the one. Zara had gone to Newmarket sales with a three grand order for me and came back with a nice yearling which was sent to be trained by Rod Simpson.
I sold a quarter share at point of sale and we waited until the spring of his three-year-old season before letting him loose in a Leicester claimer in which he finished third.
Next up came a maiden on Easter Monday at Kempton, run in the mud, and Tangognat (Dance of Time – Aracara) – notice, like his mum, his name was a palindrome, I was quite pleased with myself over that - strolled home by 20 lengths at 20-1. Another chunk in him was passed on – to Terry Ramsden – but he continued to race in the colours, now exhibited more successfully by David Armstrong of Mayson fame.
Four days after that surprise we went back to Kempton for a conditions race, and he won that too, by 15 lengths. The Chester Vase on much faster ground proved too much for him, unsurprisingly as the first two were Law Society and subsequent King George winner Petoski, but in any case he came back lame.
The point here is not to brag how clever we all were to get a good horse. He had an obvious physical downside in that his long pasterns caused him to scorch his heels on fast ground. But in the mud he was pretty special. It’s to illustrate a point.
Freshened up to go jumping, his first season was confined to four runs all at Cheltenham. In December he was a promising fifth ridden by Ben De Haan. Then he went back and won impressively under Peter Scudamore at the New Year meeting (soft ground). At that point he was favourite ante post and I have no doubt that if the weather had stayed wet he would have collected at the Festival.
But then during January, the winds turned from the west to the east and for the next six weeks it was cold and frosty. I remember walking the dog around our regular mile circuit every morning and noticing that the little walls in front of the houses gradually left a discharge of eroded brickwork all over the pavements.
The ground was barely raceable for his last win, again at Cheltenham in late January, also under Scu, with a frozen track only getting the go-ahead late in the morning. He won again, less convincingly, and by the time of the big race, it was pretty fast ground, the weather remaining the same.
Scudamore tried hard to talk his boss David Nicholson into letting him off for the ride on the now second-favourite, but the Duke insisted he should keep to the retainer and Solar Cloud came through to win at long odds to give trainer and jockey their joint first-ever Festival winner. Tangognat trailed the field, while Brunico and Santopadre, two other horses I’d bought and passed on to Terry were second and fifth respectively.
Funnily enough, those two occasions were the only times Peter rode for me, and again at Wetherby last weekend – when I also met his partner Lucinda Russell (nice lady) for the first time – we (well me) talked about that unusual fact.
That fast ground pretty much finished Tangognat, but Brunico went on to win a Chester Group race two months later and umpteen points in Wales. Santopadre won big races returned from Wilf Storey to Rod, who originally trained him when he and Brunico were part of a 10-horse package bought from Malcolm Parrish, their original owner in France.
There is always speculation about the ground at Cheltenham. Compared with those days in the mid-1980’s Cheltenham drains much more efficiently, indeed I’ve often thought it drained too well. But I promise you, it doesn’t matter how efficient drains are if there’s nowhere for the water to go. Those poor folk on the Somerset Levels can tell you all about that and so, belatedly, can those “lucky” enough to live on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire. They’re not feeling quite so fortunate in this most extraordinary of winters.
I looked this morning at the BBC Weather monthly forecast and while suggesting looking that far ahead is always problematical, they used the phrase “Groundhog Day” to quantify the first part of that month.
While suggesting there will be some drier, colder spells “but no snow”, they said the trend will continue to be governed by low pressure Atlantic systems. My bet of the winter is that it will be heavy ground at Cheltenham early next month.
I’m starting to feel sorry for the water companies. You can bet your life that a large chunk of the natural resource that they (probably French-owned) grab from the skies as their property will disappear down the inefficient ancient drains that the historic lack of investment has left behind.
The bookmakers got their usual freebie on the snow at Christmas market, although take up was probably lower than usual. Not even the betting shop machine lemmings could have been induced to back that old chestnut this winter, but they’ll probably be game if offered a decent price about the first hosepipe ban of 2014.
What’s my point? Pretty obvious, really. Forget the fast/good ground horses for this Festival. A few nice days at the start of March should not be enough to put right the excess water of the past weeks. I’ll leave you to fill in the spaces.
I’ll be back at Billericay on March 9 for their second Cheltenham Preview along with those old (maybe even older than me) TV protagonists, Barry Dennis and John McCririck and trainer/jockey duo Noel and Jack Quinlan.
Last year Barry brought along local boy David Johnson, whose brave fight against cancer was soon to be concluded. This time, David’s son Stephen will be coming with Barry and proceeds from the evening will go to the David Johnson Trust.
The evening last year was preceded by Tottenham’s defeat of Arsenal. Yesterday I swerved Newbury in favour of a trip to a mate’s house to watch the BT Sport offering from Anfield.
It took just 30 seconds to regret that decision. A brief moan about offside for that first goal soon disappeared under the avalanche of Liverpool goals, Arsenal mistakes and Ozil’s pathetic indifference. After that performance, I wouldn’t in the slightest be surprised if Liverpool won the League and Arsenal just held on to gain a Europa Cup slot.