By Tony Stafford
Jumping’s great at the minute, with such as Vautour edging home from a determined P’tit Zig at Ascot; and Cue Card, Silviniano Conti and Dynaste battling out the Betfair Chase at Haydock yesterday.
For good measure we also had a Harry Fry treble at Ascot featuring a 12th career victory for the 10-year-old former Champion Hurdler Rock on Ruby. His tale is a remarkable one, winning his title under the banner of Paul Nicholls even though the actual training was carried out more than a few miles from Ditcheat by Fry, who was designated only as assistant. He took out a licence for the following 2012-13 season.
For me and the boss it will quicken up again tomorrow at Kempton when Cousin Khee, aged eight rising nine and with 10 career wins from 43 appearances in a range of disciplines behind him, breaks new ground in a novice chase at Kempton.
It was just over four years ago now that Hughie Morrison called to ask if Raymond Tooth might be interested in buying him. He’d run three times in bumpers, winning first time at Exeter in Hughie’s junior “benefit” and then twice unplaced at Cheltenham, although eighth of 24 in the Festival bumper represented a good effort for a four-year-old.
A deal was quickly struck and since then he has won further races over hurdles (three), jumpers’ bumpers (two), all-weather Flat (two) and Turf Flat, also two.
Of his 23 rivals in that Cheltenham bumper, only 21st home Felix Yonger has done markedly better. A 66-1 shot that day for the Wylies and previous trainer Howard Johnson, he has since moved to Willie Mullins and has a tally of ten wins in 21 starts with a rating of 160. Six of the wins have come in 12 chases.
All the contestants in that Festival bumper won at least one race and the next best tally is the eight from 34 of Dark Glacier. He was 11th of the 24 that day and is the winner of four races each for original trainer Chris Grant and present handler Peter Bowen.
It’s fair to say that Cousin Khee enjoyed the good fortune of winning a couple of jumpers’ bumpers when bad winter weather caused multiple abandonments of jumps cards a couple of seasons ago. Equally Morrison was sharp enough to take advantage where others didn’t. Critics, especially among the media, regard him as inconsistent and Mark Winstanley offered that opinion when I bumped into him at Ascot yesterday.
On consideration, I think it’s a fair assessment. Over time Hughie and the jockeys have worked out that he doesn’t like being crowded and that tendency contributed to his poor position turning for home in the November Handicap at Doncaster last time. When he got clear, miles behind, on the wide outside turning for home, he rallied past 12 horses. If he’d had another furlong to go, he’d have been close to the frame, although nowhere near brilliant winner Litigant.
It’s interesting to look at the figures for the Betfair Chase, in which four of the five runners were aged nine and Holywell a year younger. Cue Card, who also announced his arrival in a Festival Bumper – he won it as a four-year-old the year before Cousin Khee’s run - is now winner of 12 of his 27 starts, eight of 20 since going chasing. Silviniano Conti has been even more productive with 15 wins from 28 – ten of 20 in chases. Five of Dynaste’s seven victories have come over fences in a career spanning 26 starts, while Holywell has seven from 23 (five chases) and Ballynagour, badly outrun yesterday, has three chase wins in his tally of five wins in 23.
Nicholls went close with P’tit Zig – overall eight from 20 – behind Vautour, won collected his ninth win from 12 runs and these highly-progressive six-year-olds have time to get near the Silviniano Conti and Cue Card heights.
But if Cousin Khee shows the same liking for fences as he has schooling under Tom O’Brien at home, who’s to say what he can eventually do? At time of writing the declarations for Kempton are unknown, but lurking among the 14 entries lie a number of dangerous-looking opponents with Dan Skelton particularly liking the chance of his mare Stephanie Frances.
When Cousin Khee ran in the November, Emily Weber, one of the most experienced of their form experts pointed out he had recorded his best Racing Post Rating (RPR) for each of all-weather Flat (sixth, beaten less than three lengths) in Lingfield’s All-Weather Marathon Championship race, Flat turf and Hurdles this year. Hughie, whose Alcazar won a French Group 1 aged ten, thinks he might have a squeak in next year’s Cesarewitch!
We had a great trip up to Shropshire on Monday, principally for Ray to see his three home-bred yearlings before they departed to their trainers later in the week. Rachael and Richard Kempster and all at Kinsale Farm got full marks for preparation when Hughie, Hugo Palmer and our new man George Scott (until now Lady Cecil’s assistant) took charge of yearlings respectively by Stormy River, Mount Nelson (filly) and Equiano.
Quite a few of Ray’s under-performers have found new owners with my long-time friend Wilf Storey in darkest Co. Durham. Two of his home-breds, Nelson’s Bay and Nonagon, have been among Wilf’s seven winners in 2015.
Sadly, Wilf recently slipped on a wet concrete slope collecting two footballers’ injuries in one go, rupturing the tendons behind each knee. He’s been on his back since but with daughter Stella now doing the work of six men instead of five, the show goes on as Wilf recovers in hospital.
[Get well soon, Wilf – Ed.]
Their best season since 2000 in number of winners and 1997 for prizemoney has come from just seven horses and 203rd in the trainers’ table – 499 listed – represented dizzy heights for the old boy. He’ll have three more to work on (well Stella will anyway) next year and he’s hoping that his daughter’s super-human efforts over many years – riding, box-driving, feeding, mucking out and leading up at the races – might get her one of the Godolphin awards this winter. I hope so, too.