Sunday Supplement: To Scotland, with the Skeltons

The Skelton boys...

The Skelton boys...

Sunday supplement

by Tony Stafford

Where were you on New Year’s Day? The magical (for many) moment when the year turns has never meant much to me I’m afraid, but this time we enjoyed a nice domestic glass of Prosecco before I tucked in around one leaving Mrs S to continue her customary more lavish celebration alone.

That rather Spartan approach was necessary as I needed to be at Heathrow for the flight to Edinburgh. That’s right, Adrakhan was in the first at Musselburgh, kick off 12.25 and apart from getting to the Scottish capital, there was the matter of making it from there to the track on the other (east) side of the city.

It was rainy and windy, but I was primed to take a taxi after arriving soon after nine and relax away the hours before the run.

Having had the luxury of a free seat next to me and a full(ish) English breakfast – bacon, sausage, the usual tasteless scrambled egg and tomato, along with two slices of white bread with butter and jam to adorn them.

Some turbulence early in the piece meant the tea or coffee had to wait, but they did arrive a little later. Good start on balance.

The post flight portion was surprisingly successful, too. Outside the terminal, the first vision was of a bus suggesting it was an express service to the town centre. The man in the kiosk situated obligingly adjacent to the bus stand confirmed its status saying “it’s just about the only thing running at the moment”. So I bought the ticket – silly not to - and within minutes we were off and running.

The early morning precipitation precluded any view of the outside, but a screen displaying a line of forthcoming stops, including Edinburgh Zoo and Murrayfield Stadium kept us slightly better informed.

Within half an hour, not only had we got to the centre, but the driver even had the kindness to impart the vital information “if you go down there, turn right and go to the bus stop on the left, there’s a 26 not far behind me and it’ll take you to Musselburgh”. It was and quite promptly it did.

Good place, Scotland, and nice people, or “canny folks” I think you have to say, or maybe better think to yourself, when you’re up there.

It was soon time to admire the handsome beast in the paddock and I must say I expected the Dan Skelton four-year-old to make the frame. He looked great beforehand and until the home turn, my ambitions for Ray Tooth’s French import were intact. Disappointingly, as the leading quartet quickened as they do at Musselburgh on the home bend, he got a little bit becalmed towards the outside, but stayed on again into fifth.

Dan didn’t seem to mind too much – “he’s handicapped now and we’ll see what he gets next week”. At this point I must impart some news. Dan is certainly among the new breed of trainers. He is great with publicity and very decisive in his running plans. Not for him the practice of keeping owners waiting. Plans are made and usually adhered to and jockey arrangements are also set well ahead of time.

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His other area of innovation arrived on my screen last night. It was, I believe, a first issue of what they call the Shelford Echo, Lodge Hill’s extravagant newsletter displayed in the form of seven pages of type with pictures, features, information about the stable’s horses and some of its personalities – this week’s featured staff member likes Arsenal FC – and this month, a detailed article (with illustrations) of some of the wind issues that afflict racehorses.

The standard will be hard to maintain, but as I said before, this is a stable that is seriously going places. Dan and brother Harry, who had a nasty old fall on Shelford at Sandown yesterday possibly aggravating his ongoing collarbone travails, have had a thorough equestrian grounding from their dad Nick, the great show jumping champion over many years. They’re very nice people, too.

The journey home was less of a picnic. The cab that the lady in the office dutifully arranged as requested was there as I left the track, but the driver asked me to wait as he was “collecting” a jockey. He told me “they said you didn’t mind sharing”. It wasn’t until that point that I thought of saying the magic words, “how much?” to which he replied, “double fare today, £90!”

My response was a face-losing “---- that” and with the rain coming down with renewed vigour, I trudged off towards the haven of the bus stop. It wasn’t until I got to the stage of re-telling the tale to friends the following day that I pretended to have had the wit and savoir faire to tell him, “no, not to Heathrow, to Edinburgh”. They laughed, but they will be reading this and see I’ve already broken my resolution in 2015 not to tell lies to make me seem less reprehensible a person.

I won’t fully detail the contrasting anxiety of the trip home, dozens of people getting on to the express on Waverly Bridge, all with massive bags, then on arrival at the airport and the chaos of a new system in security where it seems it’s not much more than even money that as you go through the “ping” doorway, your tray of belongings to be scanned disappears into the “random search” line and out of your sight. Considering mine contained just a raincoat, belt and phone it seemed an odd choice. Luckily in the ten minutes it took to locate and reclaim it, my trousers did not fall down.

Of course, I got to the gate after the cut-off point, but was relieved that everyone was still there, laughingly joined a few minutes later by the crew, let down by their driver (presumably negotiating double fare?) as they waited in vain at the hotel,. That’s the real Hogmanay. No hot food on the trip home, nobody had been there to turn on the oven, just crisps and a million people all crammed together.

The Heathrow mid-air queue, 30 minutes after the pilot told the crew “ten minutes to landing” and we were down, or in the case of Arsenal, out, and also as I was soon to learn Chelsea. “Good old Spurs and Harry Kane”, am I really saying that?

All of which explains why I didn’t fancy the drive to Ffos Las the next day, even though April Dusk was due to make his debut in the two and a half mile hurdle. Well if you didn’t see it, I have to say I have never been more delighted when a horse whose well-being is partly my business, was beaten on debut.

This was a defeat in name only. Confronted by an experienced Tony McCoy-ridden favourite from the brilliant Rebecca Curtis stable, as well as two wide-margin Welsh-trained bumper winners and fellow hurdles newcomers, April Dusk finished so well that as Timeform avers, he would have won in another 20 yards.

Recommended by Guy Anstey, Warren Greatrex’s travelling head lad whom I got to know when he was at Manton, Ray was offered the once-raced Irish point winner in the summer. So he’s already a winner over fences (fastest time of the day) over three miles in the mud and on this evidence, he looks equally adept at the smaller obstacles – can I see an Albert Bartlett Hurdle on the horizon?

Timeform have given him 123p for the run, yet all the Racing Post could find to say about the race was that that this was a “novice hurdle lacking depth”, presumably because the extended distances were 14 lengths, 12 and 13.

The day before, the experienced Emily Weber, analysing the race, described the winner, second and the two bumper horses as a promising quartet that the other trio would struggle to match, indeed the third home had been rated an “exciting prospect” when he won his bumper for Peter Bowen’s stable.  I know which of the two, April Dusk or the “highly-progressive” winner I would want to back next time. Go team Tooth!

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