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Monday Musings: A Controversial End

The jumps season 2020/21 ended with controversy when the heavily-backed favourite Enrilo finished first past the post in the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown Park, but was disqualified and placed third after hanging left and hampering the challenging Kitty’s Light up the run-in, writes Tony Stafford.

Meanwhile, as newly-crowned champion Harry Skelton struggled to keep his mount straight, up the inside steamed the Alan King-trained Potterman. His spurt under Tom Cannon got him into a narrow second place just before the line and, following a lengthy stewards’ inquiry, Paul Nicholls and owners Martin Broughton and friends were left with a £52k shortfall as Enrilo was put back to third.

Nobody, least of all Alan King, believes Potterman deserved to pick up the money and it was almost in the Nureyev mould of verdict. Back in 1980 that French-trained son of Northern Dancer interfered with Posse some way from home when a hot favourite for the 2,000 Guineas, beat Known Fact by a neck, but afterwards he was disqualified and placed last by the stewards.

Posse had recovered well enough to finish third and while I’m sure owner Stavros Niarchos would not have been any less unhappy had a similar outcome to Saturday’s left Nureyev in the minor position, it had real reverberations at the time. Nureyev was due to return for the Derby but missed the race, never appeared again and was retired to stud, where he was a great success.

In those far off days I loved an ante-post punt – any punt really! – and had quite a chunk at 20/1 about Nureyev after his six-length debut victory in Paris the previous autumn. My memory in the interim had played its usual tricks, the recollection being that he’d won by far more than the actual margin. For the outrage to last well into this century as it did, he needed to have done so!

If the stewards of the BHA do not overturn the verdict at the appeal Paul Nicholls plans to lodge, it will not take too much gloss off the stellar seasons of either trainer or rider. Nicholls for now ends with 176 wins, five more than his previous best achieved in 2016/7. Skelton finished with 152, ten ahead of last year’s champion, Brian Hughes. A late flurry of winners, 17 in the final fortnight compared to five by his rival, clinched the deal with much more comfort than could ever have been predicted.

What did alter the dynamic was the readiness for Harry to accept more rides for outside stables. Of the 152 wins – not his best, he got to 178 when Richard Johnson had 201, his second double-century, but this was a delayed start due to Covid last summer – 136 were for Dan. Of the 558 mounts during the season, only 68 were for other trainers, yet in that last fortnight, six wins were hewn from 16 outside rides.

When Nick Skelton sent his two sons to learn their trade with Nicholls 15 or so years ago, he will have had lofty ambitions for them. One day, walking past Raymond Tooth’s Mayfair office, Nick bumped into the lawyer who at the time had a powerful team and indeed had already won his Champion Hurdle with Punjabi. “When are you going to send a horse for Dan to train?” asked Nick.

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It was probably a couple of years on that Notnowsam, whose trainer Noel Quinlan was about to hand in his notice, arrived in the Skelton yard. A few days later, on May Bank Holiday Monday six years ago, he duly trotted up first time in a novice handicap chase, not a bad effort for a four-year-old.

Sadly Notnowsam proved much better at finishing second than winning after that bright start and when eventually he was sent to the sales, he was bought by Micky Hammond, for whom he was little short of a disaster.

At the time I hadn’t been aware of it, but later I learned that before Dan had arranged to collect Notnowsam he called Noel Quinlan to check that he was happy for the horse to leave and join him. “That’s a gentleman!” said a delighted former trainer, after the Warwick win.

This time of year always coincides with Punchestown and the conclusion of Ireland’s jump season. For four consecutive years I made the journey to Ireland and in 2009 drove via the ferry as Punjabi attempted a third successive win at the fixture.

As a juvenile in 2007 he was third in the Triumph Hurdle behind Katchit but won the Grade 1 juvenile race at Punchestown. The next year, he was again third to Katchit, this time in the Champion Hurdle before winning the Irish Champion at Punchestown.

After his win at Cheltenham in 2009 hopes obviously were high for the three-timer, but he missed the last hurdle when narrowly ahead and, in the testing ground, just failed to hold off the stayer Solwhit who got up on the line.

As I said, I’d driven over this time, and where I had to park the car, the ground was absolutely sodden. A few days later my ankle became very swollen and I ended up spending almost a week in hospital – my first since having my tonsils removed 56 years previously.

The diagnosis was that I’d probably been bitten by insects and the poison had got into my bloodstream so badly that I needed to be on a drip for the first few days of my stay. It was so frustrating because I’d wanted Nicky Henderson to try to win the Chester Cup. Punjabi had won the only two Flat races he ever contested since joining from previous trainer, Geraldine Rees. I’ve no idea if he’d have been good enough to win it but at the time my reasoning had been, we’ve already won twice over there, whereas winning the Chester Cup would always be special for an English owner.

Nicholls and the Skeltons will both be in action at Punchestown this week, but UK-trained raiders will hardly make a ripple, certainly nothing to compare with the steamrollering domination of the Irish at Cheltenham and Aintree.

Kim Bailey runs First Flow and Skelton Nube Negra in the William Hill Champion Chase tomorrow where the Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Put The Kettle On will be missing as she tried unsuccessfully to win at Sandown on Saturday. For once the raider was blown away as Nicholls’ new star, Greaneteen, a valiant Altior, and Sceau Royal all finished ahead of the mare.

In a seven-horse race, this still means the Queen Mother Chase’s beaten favourite, Chacun Pour Soi, will be out to repair his slightly-tarnished reputation on a day that Paul Townend’s title challenge enters a crucial stage.

Passed fit to ride after his recent injury, his absence has allowed Rachael Blackmore to get to within four as she seeks the first championship. Her list of achievements is already overwhelming, but a jockeys’ title would in terms of merit be the pinnacle.  Willie Mullins isn’t making it that easy for Townend as his mount is only one of three in the race for the trainer in a field of seven and Blackmore retains the ride on her easy Ryanair Chase winner, Allaho. I reckon that horse’s stamina will have the Cheveley Park colours to the fore at the line.

The first handicap of the day, a 0-145 hurdle is a typical full field of 25 with reserves. Mullins has seven in that, including three that came over for the Festival, running respectively in the 0-155 County Hurdle, the Coral Cup and Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ race. What chance Gentleman De Mee, the beaten favourite who set up the Martin Pipe for stablemate Galopin Des Champs when making the running, will have his day in the sun tomorrow dropping back to two miles?

With 19 runners on the opening day then 42, 23, 22 and 40 entered for the rest of the week it might look a foregone conclusion that Townend will hold on. The snag with Mullins though is that there’s multiple entries in so many of these races and they are all “off for their lives” – “up to a point” as William Boot, the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious novel “Scoop” might say. And that is as it should be.

Not everyone thought that a certain race at Lingfield the other day was totally kosher. Last Wednesday, seven horses lined up for a mile and a half novice race and Polling Day, trained by John and Thady Gosden and ridden by Frankie Dettori, was the 2-9 favourite following a smooth debut win over the course a month earlier.

Also in the line-up for the Gosdens was 16-1 shot Stowell, a Nat Rothschild-owned son of Zoffany making his debut under Rab Havlin. In an almost comic-cuts exhibition, Havlin managed to get his mount to finish a close second when it looked from the sidelines that he should have won comfortably.

The post-race interview by the local stewards provided lengthy ammunition for the Racing Post comments writer who reported Havlin’s saying that Stowell is a fragile colt with a high knee action. He said John Gosden had instructed him not to use his whip but that he should be ridden to get the best possible position.

I’ve spoken to plenty of trainers and they are all adamant. One said: “If those two horses had been trained by me, I’d have been looking at a lengthy ban!” Have a look yourselves. Seriously, it can seem in racing there’s often one rule for the chosen few and another for everyone else.