By Tony Stafford
Small fields for jump races have been the talking point in the racing press these past few weeks. It seems the bookie chaps don’t like them, but several contests of that variety spiced yesterday’s pre-Christmas card at Ascot and it seemed the punters minded not a jot.
Analysts of racing’s well-being would be best served by ignoring the Ascot model. Those purists (in other words trainers in middle-age inhabiting a smallish town on the borders of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire) still seem shocked that the Champion Stakes has been frog-marched 100 miles (Google says 99.9!) south-westerly to the Royal racecourse.
But the look almost of disbelief on the face of Nick Smith, Ascot’s unstinting pursuer of top overseas horses to run in the major Flat races run there through the year, as he tried to negotiate the throngs of humanity up on the fourth floor yesterday, spoke volumes.
I’ve referred at least once this year to Ascot’s appeal that transcends the racing. Why would otherwise sane people pay £30 a head to go into the Premier Enclosure, for that’s what you need to get past the men at the foot of the escalators on Concourse level, and then not stray more than the few yards between bar and betting point for the entire afternoon?
Yet they do, as did a couple of my pals, Steve and Kevin Howard, with their other halves, celebrating Steve’s birthday in what has become an annual ritual. They found a table, incredibly, to park their gently ageing limbs, with a nice telly in perfect view and then joined most of the crowd in wondering just how Zarkandar failed to hold the rally of hat-trick hero Reve de Sivola and Daryl Jacob in the JLT Long Walk Hurdle.
At ground level, it seemed the disbelief stretched as far as Paul Nicholls as he walked alongside Sam Twiston-Davies and the horse back to unsaddle. “He won’t last in that job”, opined Steve later on the way back to Billericay, probably echoing Jacob’s thoughts as he pondered the might-have-beens after his own short stint trying to fill Ruby Walsh’s boots.
You can understand why Ruby decided to abandon the regular commute from Ireland, leaving only Barry Geraghty as a two-country regular. Yesterday at Fairyhouse Ruby won three of the first four races (two steering jobs) for Willie Mullins and was home in time for tea.
The crowds in the stands were generally well dressed and well behaved, if a little seasonally over-excited in some instances, but the atmosphere was genial and the emphasis elsewhere was on family. Youngsters with smiley faces abounded and there was an after-racing session of Christmas carols, led by and sung with enthusiasm exceeding accuracy by someone, I believe, imitating the REAL Father Christmas.
There must have been a risk that food and drink might even have run out, strangely given Ascot’s experience of catering for huge attendances. Steve related on the way home that one man, buying a bottle of Laurent Perrier Pink champagne, had already stumped up the requisite £108 when told (A) that there was no ice bucket available, so he would need to consume it warm, and (B), “sorry we’ve run out of champagne glasses, so you’ll have to take wine glasses”. He did, hope he and his friends didn’t mind the warm fizz – they probably didn’t notice by that stage in the proceedings.
One race after Reve de Sivola/Zarkandar, we were treated to yet another of those brilliantly-efficient Geraghty rides as The Young Master dominated in the Mappin & Webb Silver Cup.
I tend to work from the three-monthly parts of the BHA’s programme book, and the page covering Ascot, sent out in the summer, revealed this as a 50 grand race with just over £28,000 to the winner. In the event it was doubled to 100k with £56,000 to the winner, who had been the unwitting victim of one of the crassest blunders in racing administration of recent times, being allowed to run in a race for which he was not qualified.
That Badger Ales Trophy on November 8 was worth £34,000, and having efficiently seen off 17 rivals on what was only his third chase start, the five-year-old not only lost the prize, but got the added “benefit” of a 14lb hike in his rating. Doubly jeopardy indeed!
Neil Mulholland and the horse’s owner made a few grizzly noises at first, but the trainer got on with it as he had to as while Weatherby’s should have spotted the ineligibility, it is ultimately the trainer’s responsibility.
The case of The Young Master is the latest example of why it is never impossible for the impossible to happen in racing. As recently as mid-November last year, the gelded son of Echo of Light had raced 12 times without success on the level and over hurdles.
Then at Fontwell, in a staying novice handicap off 94, he won for the first time, triggering a sequence of ten races in which only twice did he fail to pass the winning post in front. First at Exeter, a week after the Fontwell win, he fell when still in contention. Then, after successive victories, two each on the Flat (Southwell, Kempton) and over hurdles (Fakenham, Sedgefield) he trailed home 10th of 11 in another Kempton handicap.
That ended a hectic winter programme, but the young trainer was saving the best for later. Reappearing in September in a novice chase under A P McCoy he was impressive in running away from three rivals at Worcester, earning the same 121 mark over fences that his hurdling exploits had deserved. The following month he graduated to a Cheltenham amateur riders’ race, again winning convincingly, and the 130 rating was nowhere near enough to stop him at Wincanton, even if the regulations were.
So it was off to Ascot, 14lb higher, and despite a tendency to jump wildly left, unobtrusively corrected by Geraghty, The Young Master completed a rise of Hunt Ball proportions, eerily in the week that Hunt Ball’s one-time owner Anthony Knott collected a three-year ban from the sport.
I don’t know if we can hope Ray Tooth’s stylish Tuesday Catterick winner Notnowsam will ever grace such stages as Ascot and Cheltenham, but this likeable young stayer gave us a nice Christmas boost which we hope Warren Greatrex’s April Dusk might add to over the holiday period. He won his only Irish point in the spring and is shaping well, by all accounts.
Then it’ll be New Year’s Day at Musselburgh for Dan Skelton-trained Adrakhan, who showed much more when a good runner-up to Chatez at Warwick on only his second lifetime start. It might be a bit early to hope for another Punjabi to emerge, but as The Young Master’s connections will tell you, anything’s possible.