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Monday Musings: Opening Day Far From Flat

The joy of Flat racing on turf – it’s here again, Naas yesterday stepping in for the opening Curragh fixture delayed in the manner of Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground, writes Tony Stafford. Both will be with us, shiny and welcoming soon enough.

Amid all the new and newish names on parade at Naas, especially among the trainers, quite a few old staples were to the fore, none more so than Jim Bolger, who revisited his former reputation as a fast starter with a treble from his 11 runners on the card.

As if in recognition of the Coolcullen stable’s instant discovery of form, they won at declining odds as the day went on, but none of Western Dawn (20-1), Solar Wind (16-1) or Normandel (14-1) could be reasonably described as “expected”, at least by the punters if not the trainer. That’s 5,354-1 for the treble if you were on, Jim.

The first two winners were Bolger home-breds running in wife Jackie’s colours. Normandel, at five, a mare owned by long-time Bolger ally, Ballylinch stud’s Jock O’Connor, was a fitting winner of the Listed Lodge Park Stud Irish EBF Park Express Stakes. This event commemorates one of Bolger’s best female performers during his long illustrious career since switching from car sales company accountant to major owner/trainer/breeder 43 years ago.

Many racing immortals set off on their road to success with Bolger, and every list begins with Aidan O’Brien and A P McCoy. Less well known is Brendan W Duke, but he was a valued staff member there for many years before leaving to train in Lambourn, where he was always a popular figure on racecourses especially around London.

His time as a small-time trainer was constrained by the financial crisis of the mid-2000’s as he found there were not quite so many UK-based Irishmen with the bundles of ready spare cash as had previously been the case.

So he went home to Ireland, eventually taking out a licence and training for a few friends. The Bolgers soon started to send him a number of their lesser lights to train. For the past few seasons, he has picked up a small number of races each year, usually three for the most part, but 2018 was a fallow season. He managed only one win in 56 runs from ten horses, six for Jackie Bolger.

The signs yesterday were better. In the opening juvenile maiden won in good style by Michael O’Callaghan’s Red Epaulette, Brendan’s Value Chain, carrying the first Bolger colours and starting at 9/1 finished almost two lengths ahead of Jim’s third-placed Dawn Approach filly, Feminista, a 7-1 shot, in a race he’d won a year earlier. The runner-up, by Garswood, must give him high hopes of imminent success.

Then in the concluding seven-furlong maiden, Duke was again in opposition to Bolger, and will have been delighted when his 33-1 newcomer Vocal Duke finished a creditable eighth, only a short-head behind the boss’s Son of Beauty. Both are geldings by Bolger’s own stallion Vocalised, whose progeny have been regular inmates at Brendan’s Curragh yard.

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Through all his vicissitudes, Brendan Duke has never been short of either enthusiasm or confidence. I remember talking to him less than a month into my Raymond Tooth Racing Manager job, in the days when there were plenty to manage, before Punjabi’s first of four consecutive runs at the Punchestown Festival in April 2007.

We agreed that maybe Punjabi’s Triumph Hurdle fourth and Aintree second behind Katchit entitled him to start favourite. But then Brendan appeared on the stage - from which a family of Slovakian string musicians had been entertaining the crowd - and told the crowd why he thought his Katies Tuitor was a good thing.

I’ve never actually studied that Kayf Tara gelding’s form before this morning, but I now see why he was hopeful. Easy wins at Kempton under Noel Fehilly and Sandown (Graham Lee) were decent pre-Christmas efforts. No wonder he was so proud of the horse - he bred him!

Katies Tuitor was a good fourth as Punjabi collected his first Grade 1, and the next two, the Irish Champion at the same venue a year later, and the Champion Hurdle in 2009 were the highlights of a great career.

Katies Tuitor didn’t do so badly either. Transferred at the end of that season to Charlie Mann, he won four more hurdle races, each time ridden by Fehily, who conceded on the event of his retirement with a farewell winner at Newbury on Saturday, that Mann had been his mentor.

After the Punchestown run, Katies Tuitor went three weeks later to Aintree and finished second as the 4-1 favourite to the 20-1 shot Lord Baskerville, trained by Charles Pogson. This was the 11th run and fourth win since Pogson had claimed Lord Baskerville out of Wilf Storey’s yard for six grand after a Hexham second in a selling handicap.

That annoyed Wilf, who reckoned that following 39 unsuccessful runs for him after my good friend and the horse’s original owner, Peter Ashmore, moved him on from the Michael Quinlan yard, he was primed to win. So it proved, Pogson collecting three-in-a-row straight off the bat.

I’ve often said how so many of my past activities have drifted away from my memory. I’d certainly forgotten that between February and 25th March 2004, I was the registered owner of the horse. So if you’re reading this Wilf, it is 15 years to the day that Mr Hutchinson took charge of him from me, so we ought to have a birthday drink! In all, Charles Pogson won six of 31 races with Lord Baskerville. I remember watching his promising debut at Doncaster on Derby Day 2003 from a box in the Epsom grandstand 20 minutes after Kris Kin’s big race triumph for Sir Michael Stoute.

Peter and his girlfriend Lorraine Botbol are horse-lovers extraordinaire. Peter had a beautiful horse with the Quinlans called Flashgun, who suffered injury as a three-year-old and had to retire. The vets were ready to put him down but Peter and Lorraine had other ideas. They have kept the son of Lemon Drop Kid for ten years and last week he finished fourth of 16 in his first dressage competition near Newmarket.

Both Peter and Lorraine are learning dressage riding – Peter rode along with sister Jacqueline at a riding school in Mill Hill, North London, in their teens, where Andrew Reid trained with some success years later – and they are precisely the sort of people that racing and equestrian sport should embrace.

Fehily’s retirement and his all-round-good-guy persona were the highlights of the weekend, but I enjoyed watching that day and Sunday on the box, other responsibilities keeping me from the racecourse. I hope I can make it for Sod’s Law in the Spring Mile (Lincoln consolation) at Doncaster on Saturday. He could well win.

I bet Racing TV are dreading having to make the sort of commentary decisions that followed the late off-time of the Irish Lincolnshire yesterday, caused by the re-shoeing of Bolger’s well-fancied Theobald, winner of his previous three at Dundalk.

The Irish boys on duty on course, already having seen a treble from the Co Carlow maestro, opined “it should not be a problem”. Sorry boys it was, Theobald finishing last of 20 behind ex – Sir Michael Stoute/ Hamdan Al Maktoum trainee, Karawaan, an easy first-time winner for Ger Lyons. Problem too for Tom Stanley, having to cut in on the 4.20 from Exeter to say: “Naas will finish first”, about the 4.10-scheduled first major handicap of the Irish season. It did, maybe by five seconds.

As the season draws on, there will be multiple times when a similar eventuality arises. Meanwhile Sky Sports Racing (At the Races to you maybe?) had to be content with a solo from France – good job they secured those rights – while Racing TV (ex-UK)  had to splice in Carlisle and jumping from Downpatrick, pretty much all long distance races, with Naas and Exeter.

Sky Sports Racing is lucky to have the highly-competent and ever-watchable Alex Hammond as their lead presenter and was not too badly fixed for French jumping yesterday with Laurent Berberin, Mick Fitzgerald and Mike Cattermole. Berberin is more Sacha Distel than Claud Charlet’s Inspector Clouseau. They were lucky, too, to have France’s best hurdler, the six-year-old mare De Bon Coeur, on show as she came back from a ten-month absence to stroll home in a Grade 3 hurdle, bringing her career tally to 12 victories from 14 starts.

Never mind, Sky Sports Racing had Bangor for the first time on Saturday; look forward to getting sister-track Chester from May and next Saturday will be able to supplement their Lincoln coverage with the return of jewel-in-the-crown, Ascot. Confused, with the Irish on Racing TV and Ascot on the other side? So am I!

- Tony Stafford

Irish Flat Season 2017: Winners and Losers

Champions Day and the Breeders’ Cup are to come but the domestic turf season in Ireland is effectively over with only five meetings left. so now is a good time to take stock before we go full bore into national hunt mode. 2017 will go down as a good year with Enable, Aidan O’Brien’s drive for 25 and Keane versus Smullen among the memorable stories, though we probably could have done without rain spoiling play on many of the major race days. Rather than grade the trainers again this year I’ve decided to go with a winners and losers approach, a change being as good as a rest and all that.

 

Winner: Aidan O’Brien

Breaking Bobby Frankel’s record of 25 Group 1 winners in a season has been coming for a while with O’Brien but there was the suspicion that it would take a perfect storm of circumstances to finally get over the line. In reality, that unique set of conditions didn’t unfold as the trainer had plenty go wrong this season; his best horse from 2016 (Minding) had to retire early on, his dual Guineas winner Churchill failed to build on early successes while the pick of his juvenile colts (Gustav Klimt) never got to compete at the top level.

Yet it is almost inevitable that O’Brien will break the record anyway and even in an age of Group 1 inflation it rates a sizeable achievement. The trainer himself is apparently nonplussed by the whole situation and has always struck me as having a keen sense of living in the present; he always seems to think one of his current crop is his best ever! But racing is a sport with an especially rich history attached and it is worth celebrating.

As a side-note, one also has to admire his appreciation for each and every one of his big winners and it seems the feeling of winning has not gotten old for him despite its frequency. Perhaps that simply comes with the territory of dealing with horses and the manifold disappointments they provide but I would certainly have his attitude over the stony-faced ‘celebrations’ of Jim Gavin after Dublin’s All-Ireland win.

 

Loser: Dermot Weld

With 40 winners at the time of writing, Weld is in line for his lowest total since at least 1988 and probably before that; 1988 is as far back as the Racing Post database for season totals goes back. Not only is it his worst tally in nearly 30 years but it is significantly below his next lowest tally of 61 winners in 2004. Zhukova’s win in the Man o’ War at Belmont back in May will likely rate the high-point but even that was a lacklustre affair as she beat a motley crew of four opponents in a race that was run early due to a thunderstorm.

Galway was clearly disappointing with just two winners for the yard though a pair of successes over Irish Champions Weekend for Eziyra and Shamreen were warmly received. To be fair to the trainer, he flagged things up from an early stage, stating that his string were suffering with a virus back in May and indeed his number of runners has been well down on previous years. Pat Smullen was an obvious victim of the down campaign but it is to his credit that he has still managed to make the jockeys’ championship such a tight race given the relative lack of firepower from a yard that is typically his strongest supporter.

 

Winner: Johnny Murtagh

Murtagh will likely finish 2017 with fewer winners than in 2016 but overall he’s been a much improved trainer in recent seasons after a rocky start to his new career; none of this comes as the greatest surprise given the resilience he has shown in both personal and professional spheres throughout his life. What is most impressive about his operation is that there is a plan in place and for him it is all about the two-year-olds; far too many trainers seem to approach the campaign piecemeal with no sense of overall objectives.

But in 2017 Murtagh has sought to exploit an opening in the programme book and the trainer had every right to recently tweet out that his 57% winner to runner ratio with juveniles paces the field in 2017, ahead of Aidan O’Brien on 48% and Ger Lyons on 45% with the next best on 33%. I’ve been critical of Murtagh’s placing of horses here in the past but his methods with juveniles this season are beyond reproach; he managed to win Plus Ten races (races where there is an extra £10,000 to winner along with the usual prizemoney) with all eight of his juvenile winners with three – Golden Spell, Guessthebill and Too Familiar – winning two such races. None of his two-year-olds are stars, far from it in fact, but to basically double their prizemoney on 11 separate occasions is exemplary race planning.

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Loser: David Wachman

David Wachman might well be enjoying life to the full now and good luck to him if so but the racing professional in him may regret the timing of his decision to retire at the end of 2016. The likes of Rain Goddess and White Satin Dancer were good prospects for this season but the campaign would likely have been all about Winter, already a four-time Group 1 winner for Aidan O’Brien with the potential of more to come this Saturday.

Some might argue that her success is simply a by-product of her move to Ballydoyle but while O’Brien is clearly the superior trainer of the two, that is to do Wachman down a little as he showed he could skilfully manage a similar type when he had Legatissimo in her classic season of 2014. It is also likely that he would have had some of the excellent juvenile fillies that currently reside in Ballydoyle under his care and it is hardly a ridiculous suggestion that Clemmie may have been one of those given he trained both her dam Meow and sister Curlylocks before the brother Churchill ever came along.

 

Winner: Brendan Duke

Despite making no meaningful impact on the trainers’ championship, Duke will go down as one of the stars of 2017 for his campaigning of Warm The Voice... and I mean his media campaign as much as anything! The horse has been a good juvenile, winning three times including a premier nursery at Listowel and getting black-type when third in the Beresford, but the real story has been Duke’s interviews both in print and on TV.

His raw enthusiasm for horses and the sport have engaged many and his openness is a lesson to other trainers. There’s a wonderful sense of humour in there too and a sharp knack for the one-liners from comparing Warm To Voice to an ice-cream (‘he loves himself so much he’d lick himself’) to commenting on the difficult choice Kevin Manning would face at Newmarket next May when he had to pick between Duke’s stable star and Verbal Dexterity.

 

Loser: Camelot

One of the most overrated horses of this century, Camelot seems likely to prove little better as a sire with the his best progeny topping out at a Racing Post Rating of just 100 and a single Listed race being the most high-profile success to date. It is early days for a horse that stayed 14 furlongs as a three-year-old and perhaps his stock will do better in time but it does seem significant that Aidan O’Brien has yet to train a winner sired by his one-time star.

His three Irish winners have instead been trained by Patrick Prendergast, Jessica Harrington and Gavin Cromwell with the pick of his Ballydoyle-based runners thus far being the limited Lucius Tiberius; after I backed said horse recently, a fellow punter remarked that he could not be any good with a name like that! Camelot has however sired winners in Russia and Italy and that might be where he finishes up for all the brilliant naming possibilities offered by Arthurian legend.

 

Winner: Galway

It rained plenty in Galway during race week with racing taking place on varying degrees of soft across the seven days but that did little to quell enthusiasm for all that crowd numbers and bookmaker turnover were slightly down. The big players may have won the Plate and Hurdle with Willie Mullins also taking home the top trainer prize but a greatly reduced Weld factor led to a number of winners on the flat from unexpected sources, most of which came with their own stories.

Among them were Bubbly Bellini hitting another marker on the way to 20 career wins, Cascavelle providing Robbie McNamara with a first Galway winner, Remarkable Lady winning for Team Rogers and Browne on Hurdle Day, Perfect Soldier bringing the house down for Michael O’Callaghan and his Racing Club and of course Warm The Voice and Brendan Duke. The Fahey brothers too had an excellent week and it is winners like this that breathe life into the grassroots of the sport and encourage potential owners to get involved.

 

Loser: The Curragh

The decision to race on at the Curragh amidst building works was a debacle from the outset and became all the more unsatisfactory as we had to listen to mealy-mouthed justifications about maintaining the integrity of the racing programme. Leopardstown was the obvious alternative and arguments about the proximity of 12-furlong start to a bend and lack of a straight sprint course rang hollow when we consider some of the compromises that have been made elsewhere. A decision to hold the Curragh’s programme at another track would have created a welcome novelty factor akin to Royal Ascot at York in 2005 but instead we got a lot of bad will towards the course.

By the end of the season it was difficult to find anyone outside of the decision-makers who were in support of the Curragh continuing to race. The weather certainly didn’t help with feature days like the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and second day of Irish Champions Weekend blighted by rain but the fact that the track failed to reach capacity for the last two meetings said plenty. In any case, the Curragh’s susceptibility to bad weather was hardly news to anyone who regularly attends the track and we have to endure more of the same in 2018. A bad situation, made all the worst by the unnecessary nature of it all.

 

Winner: Colin Keane

Regardless of the outcome of the jockeys’ championship, Colin Keane has been a big winner in 2017, rising from champion apprentice just three seasons ago to be one of the biggest players in the weigh-room at just 23. His record in the saddle has been one of continual progression, his winner totals rising from 1 in 2010, to 9, 12, 42, 66, 75 and 90 in the succeeding seasons with 90 his current total. 2017 may have been a down year for the Weld/Smullen connection but that shouldn’t take away from Keane’s achievement and top-level sport is all about grasping opportunity when it presents itself.

Central to that achievement is that he is competing without the support of either Ballydoyle or Rosewell and is bidding to become the first champion jockey since Declan McDonogh in 2005 to reach the top when based with a stable other than the big two. It points not only to Keane’s ambition but also to Ger Lyons, who has to be commended for taking on a prospective champion so early and putting him in a position of responsibility.

- Tony Keenan