By Tony Stafford
Who was Silviniaco Conti? We know who HE is, but who was he named after? For a start he’s a French-bred, yet it sounds as though he’s an Italian of some description.
I think it’s an important question. I know I used to struggle with his name – I’m sure I’ve spelt it wrongly in articles and pronounced the name incorrectly with either more or fewer syllables than required.
But this is a name that gets no easier in the repetition – and he did indeed repeat his 2013 King George win at Kempton with a flawless, front-running effort in Friday’s renewal in front of a massive crowd.
Commentator Ian Bartlett, normally the surest of declaimers – hence his frequent recruitment for obscure days on the Parisian circuit for Racing UK - got it about 50-50 during the three miles, with Silvianano vying with the proper version, and I think it was Steve Mellish who also stumbled over the name of Britain’s best staying chaser as he joined in the general praise of the big winner.
Watching Wolverhampton briefly on Saturday evening, I had a Damascan enlightenment, albeit one of minimal interest outside the confines of this particular sentence, when I realised that Swendab was not the name of a famous actor or mathematician, but simply Bad News backwards. So Silvianaco will bug me until I manage to ask his breeders, as Google has been absolutely no help.
Christmas is often a time when Cheltenham perspectives become clearer and Kempton was also just as emphatic as a potential Champion Hurdle puzzle solver as Faugheen strolled home in the Christmas Hurdle, one bright spot on an otherwise poor holiday for the Willie Mullins team.
He must have gone into the two big fixtures at Kempton and Leopardstown with the highest of hopes, in much the way that the Hannons seemingly assumed that most of the big domestic prizes in late 2014 and Toronado at the Breeders’ Cup were almost guaranteed. Several of the Mullins stars failed to win, but Faugheen’s authority, admittedly in a sub-standard Christmas Hurdle, will have kept the team’s spirits high.
But, as with the Hannon team, Mullins has a seemingly endless production line to help stave off any single disappointments, even more plentiful than the Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson and Philip Hobbs squads, which are also dominant on this side of the water.
I’ve given up convincing anyone else that my solo argument that disagrees with the common view that Kempton is a sharp track will ever be accepted. On soft ground and with good horses in opposition, particularly over the longer trips like the King George, it’s a matter of survival of the fittest almost as much as anywhere else.
On Friday the respective winning distances were race 1, 4.5l, 5l, 18l; race 2, 1.5l, 2.5l; race 3 40l, 0.5l; race 4 8l, 9l, 14l; race 5 (King George) 4.5l, 5l, 0.75l and race 6, nk, 12l, 1.75l. On Saturday it was race 1 0.5l, 12l, 3.25l; race 2 0.5l, 10l, 53l; race 3 2.25l, 19l, 9l; race 4 sh hd, 17l, 7l; race 5 3.75l, 8l, 55l and race 6 sh hd, 10l, 5l.
The mares’ handicap hurdle over three miles on Saturday was an unwatchable war of attrition. The Emma Lavalle leader came to two out still seemingly with a chance. Halfway between the last two she had stopped to such a degree that her rider had no alternative but to pull her up. Sharp track, Nicky!
Talking of Henderson, with £600k to make up on leader Paul Nicholls, it seems there’s little chance of his retaining his trainer’s title while those serious pundits who predicted this would be Jonjo O’Neill’s year must be sharing in the present gloom that must be enveloping the always cheerful master of Jackdaws Castle as he endures a losing run on the way to matching Mark Johnston’s late-season fruitless end to the 2014 Flat campaign.
My boss may not have had many runners in the second half of 2014, but the Ray Tooth colours, happily successful with Notnowsam at Catterick recently, will be out again at Lingfield this afternoon where Cousin Khee will have his third run of the winter all-weather campaign, thus qualifying him for the big Good Friday card there.
Of course it remains to be seen whether a mark in the high 80’s, or possibly higher should he win today’s joint feature, will be good enough to make the cut next April, but Hughie Morrison seems optimistic, although is as usual less so about today’s chance of beating Ted Spread.
The first week of 2015 is likely to resume the pattern of longer trips for your correspondent, with a flight to Scotland on New Year’s Day for Adrakhan at Musselburgh, although the eclipse of his Warwick conqueror Chatez at Kempton yesterday might put a dampener on his chance. You can trust Dan Skelton to keep the faith, though.
Then hopefully the Warren Greatrex newcomer April Dusk could be at Ffos Las the next afternoon, before Notnowsam follows his well-trod steps north to Catterick for the race that will determine whether he will get a sufficiently high mark to get into the Fred Winter. Don’t forget, the Quinlans know how to win this.
You can have a poor run with horses, but it only takes a little encouragement and the odd winner to remind you that horse racing is the greatest game in the world. If I can still retain my enthusiasm for the great irrelevance, what excuse can you have?