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Monday Musings: Cut it out!

The clock was ticking on towards 3 p.m. last Wednesday, and the staff in Theatre 1 of Homerton University Hospital’s Day Stay Unit – I think that’s its correct description – prepared yet another patient for surgery, writes Tony Stafford.

Actually surgery is rather stretching the point for what was a minor procedure to excise a tumour from said patient’s forehead, except that the patient was your correspondent. An atmosphere of good-humoured professionalism pervaded, but then one of the female assistants to the surgeon confessed to being a little worse-for-wear after a long day at the battlefront between the NHS and the hordes of patients that make never-ending demands on its resources.

“I can’t wait to go home”, she said plaintively, to which her boss replied: “You’ve still got three hours to go.” “I know”, she sighed, adding: “But when I do get home, I’ll have a massage. I have a man to do that, just for the back”.

Already shrouded, in advance of anticipating the various agents of the surgeon’s trade, I couldn’t help but ask, to somebody I’d never actually seen: “Do you have another man for the front?” a question that got general mirth from the other female attendees, and an admission from the surgeon: “I was thinking that too, but didn’t dare say it!”

Having promised to show me the offending cancerous intruder, it was with a little disappointment when 45 minutes later, after the endless number of stitches was finally applied, I was advised to wait a while before swinging my legs off the bed. My first sight was of the surgeon, scrupulously honest with all my questions during the procedure, already walking away to his next appointment.

It could have been anything or anyone. In the initial stages after my 12.30 p.m. arrival at reception, with around nine others I was settled in a small, private cubicle awaiting the initial consultation. It was more than an hour later that one much younger man – in for a vasectomy, poor lad – was getting quite irritated that he might not be out in time to collect his car, as the parking time was up at 2.20 p.m. He was pushed forward a little, but was probably in for pain on more than one front.

The chap next to me, who I did see beforehand, was told by his surgeon – not mine – he would have the one on his (BCC like mine I assume) cheek removed, but he would have to wait until another time for them to do the one on his nose. “And hang on,” the doctor said, “You have others on your front. Could I look at your back? Wow, they’re all over. You’ll have to have them all biopsied!” In that moment I resolved to stay covered up for the rest of my life, just imagining what horrors awaited the poor man over the coming months.

After discharge, I was expected to wait two days for the dressing to come off, which it finally did on Friday night. My wife reminded me that the previous time, four years ago when a more substantial intruder was removed, it had been bleeding profusely as soon as I got home, and by 9 p.m. my head seemed to have swelled to almost one and a half times its normal size, requiring a drive back to the hospital and a night-long wait for attention.

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This time there was no bleed, but on exposing the wound, I saw that there is a three-inch line, not too straight either, above the right eyebrow. Cosmetically the last one can hardly be noticed, even by the doctors, but this time I’m going to look more like a victim of the 1950’s gang wars of the West/East End of London.

Before signing off last week I did offer some racing intelligence, suggesting that Laxmi, owned in partnership by Raymond Tooth and his Star Sports Mayfair betting shop pals Shahpur Siddiqui and Dilip Sharma, would run a good first race at Windsor last Monday night. The filly, from the first crop of Coventry/ Dewhurst winner War Command, has Saturday’s Irish 2,000 Guineas runner-up US Navy Flag in the dam’s side of her pedigree.

The prediction proved well-founded, as after a slow exit and at least half a furlong to get organised, Laxmi came through fast and late and just failed on the line to get second behind impressive fellow-debutant Main Edition who is destined for the Albany Stakes. Despite being substantial punters, Messrs Siddiqui and Sharma had never previously tried ownership in the UK, but they have certainly entered into the spirit of their new pastime.

“Sharps” as Bobby (the Taxi) Gray, his constant companion when in the UK from his business base in Dubai, calls him, came alone (with Bobby). Dilip though had half a dozen friends and family with him. To say Dilip’s first contact with ownership was exciting was an under-statement. Both new owners posed for pictures in the winner’s enclosure afterwards and then the rest of Dilip’s entourage stepped in to record the moment, and were still there with the patient filly long after the “horses away” call.

That was probably the most encouraging aspect for a debutant. Calm before the race – her groom almost had to drag her around the paddock – she was equally relaxed after the exertions, never showing any sign of irritation at the succession of human celebrants. Bobby, whose brother Johnny, a one-time jockey with Brian Swift was also there to offer professional insight, reckoned when the filly runs again, Dilip will need 40 owners’ badges not six! My thought was if that’s how much they all enjoyed her finishing third imagine how they’ll be if and when she wins?

You always know from trainers’ entry patterns what they think of their horses, and the fact that Brian Meehan suggested Haydock on Wednesday fortnight as her next objective certainly filled me with excitement. He often runs his decent animals there, and won the corresponding Haydock race with Blue Bayou two years ago.

Talking of Bobby the Taxi, he was destined to meet for the first time at Windsor, Harry the Cab (Taylor to regular readers) and as ever prominent on the box as the coterie of Aiden O’Brien jockeys was instructed before yesterday’s Irish 1,000 Guineas.
Both are black cab drivers of long vintage, Harry being far senior, and they both live in Chigwell, on the north-east borders of Metropolitan Essex, just off the M11. It was strange that they had never met before as they have numerous mutual friends and acquaintances, most notably Maurice Manasseh, former County cricketer, businessman, racehorse owner and close friend of Michael Tabor for most of their adult lives.

I’ve no idea whether Maurice, back at base in Star Sports, joined in the each-way support of Laxmi, but I do know that nobody in the world would have cheered more loudly when Gareth Bale, a client of Maurice’s son David and partner Jonathan Barnett, bosses of the Stellar Group, smashed in the overhead kick to kill off Liverpool in the Champions League Final on Saturday night.

I did intend making my racecourse comeback at Lingfield tomorrow when Brian initially pencilled in Ray’s home-bred juvenile My Law for the maiden fillies’ race, but on second thoughts he has decided to wait for a race on turf.

My Law, a full-sister to the promising but as yet non-winning Sod’s Law, and half-sister to the useful handicappers Dutch Art Dealer and Dutch Law came into Manton several months after the sales intake last year. According to Meehan and especially assistant trainer James Ferguson, she is catching up fast.

Ferguson, son of John and until last year’s Godolphin upheaval, filling a similar position with Charlie Appleby, singled out Steve Gilbey, Ray’s right-hand man in the restaurant after Monday’s race and said: “My Law is going to surprise a lot of people.” I hope he’s right. Certainly, so far, our return to Manton where Ray had plenty of success in the past, has rekindled the boss’s enthusiasm. It helps greatly that he has two new partners who also happen to be friends, to keep up the optimism.

Monday Musings: News of old friends

Until yesterday I hadn’t been to Manton for four years, writes Tony Stafford, but a kind invitation from Brian Meehan to see a parade of yearlings for sale and then lunch at Rick Stein’s in Marlborough High Street, ended that largely self-imposed absence.

Inevitably there was a strange sensation as I negotiated the two-mile-long drive up to the Racing Office. There I was confronted by some new faces, notably James Ferguson, who takes over as assistant trainer this morning, along with some more expected ones.

Previously in a similar role with Charlie Appleby, Ferguson, through no fault of his own, was part of the collateral damage when his father John’s long tenure at the head of Godolphin ended this summer.

Meehan, soon to re-marry, looks fully revived, back to the big-race winning confidence of the first decade of the millennium – hardly surprising after £30,000 Sam Sangster purchase, Barraquero, won the Richmond Stakes at Goodwood in the summer.

Sam, now fully entrenched as the co-talent spotter with the trainer at the sales, was on hand with fleeting visits from elder brothers Guy and Ben, although the latter pair missed out on lunch, which I can reveal was highly palatable.

Guy was immaculate as usual. Ben, contrastingly, was a little hot and bothered, still showing the effects of a demanding run a little earlier. It was good to hear that he remains resident in Manton House despite the overall sale of the Estate by the family a few years back, and has a good proportion of his Swettenham Stud mares and young stock in the paddocks and in the old yard next to the house.

Brian, meanwhile, is close to buying the legendary Manton gallops, developed in the 1970’s by Michael Dickinson for the brothers’ late father Robert, along with Manton Lodge, in a further sign of confidence.

We talked about the previous day’s amazing Aidan O’Brien 1-2-3-4 in the Dewhurst headed by US Navy Flag, and Ben noted that the winner was the first juvenile since Diesis in 1982 to complete the Middle Park – Dewhurst double.

It was when I related the tale of myself and George Hill’s visiting Mill Ridge Farm in Lexington during one of the old Keeneland July sales to see newly-ensconced stallion Diesis and the ensuing train of events – one of more than several unlikely turns in my life – that I learned about the death of a good friend more than a year ago that had somehow escaped my notice.

When we went to Mill Ridge, Alice Chandler, from the famed Headley family, showed us the stallions and then invited us to a party she was holding at the farm that evening. There she introduced me to Virginia Kraft Payson: “You’ll get on, you are both writers,” she said. That chance meeting led to Virginia’s sending future Irish Derby and King George winner, St Jovite, to Ireland to be trained by Jim Bolger.

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Ben said: “Wasn’t it terrible what happened to Virginia’s son Dean”. I’d seen a lot of Robert Dean Grimm, Jr., over the years, and he was always accompanied by imaginative original schemes which often ended being taken up and profited from by others.

Some people are lucky enough to be handsome. Dean was beyond that, and wonderful company and highly intelligent to boot. He attended the 1992 Derby – St Jovite was runner-up to Dr Devious - escorting the British Dynasty actress, Stephanie Beacham, and then relished the night of the King George win at San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge, only allowed the last-minute reservation: “As long as the trophy comes with you!”.

Anyway, in February of last year, as Ben told me, Dean had the misfortune to hear of the death of his only son Payson in a car accident on Lexington’s Paris Pike, the road where the family’s Payson Stud is located.  A few days later, an inconsolable Dean Grimm, 54, was found dead.

I’ve found it hard to concentrate since hearing the belated news. I asked Harry Taylor if he’d met Dean and he said that I introduced them at the Breeders’ Cup one year. “Didn’t he have a project that he was telling us about?” I’m sure he did.

Dean shared a birthday in January with trainer David Loder and they got to know each other when St Jovite’s first-crop son, Indiscreet, was sent to Newmarket for David to train. He won the Convivial Maiden at York in great style, offering hopes for Classic success the following year, but sadly that was to be the high point of his career.

In the uncanny way of coincidence, I was looking at the pedigrees of the horses about to be paraded, and the first on the list was a filly by first-crop stallion, War Command. She is the first foal of Princess Patsky, a daughter of the smart US stallion, Mr Greeley.

War Command, like Diesis and US Navy Flag, won the Dewhurst, the last of four juvenile wins in five starts. Also like Diesis he failed to win at three, but Diesis was to go on to breed three outstanding Oaks winners – Diminuendo, Love Divine and Ramruma – and multiple Group 1 winner and successful stallion, Halling.

So there must be a fair chance that at £42,000 this filly, consigned by Bumble Mitchell, was cheaply bought – she certainly looks the part. Looking down the pedigree, the third dam was Mrs P’s Princess, an unraced daughter of the great Mr Prospector, bred from another unraced mare in Butterfly Cove.

She in turn is responsible for two champions on the track, multiple Group 1 heroine Misty For Me and Marcel Boussac winner, Ballydoyle. In the sales page, Misty For Me is credited as dam of Roly Poly and as it relates “four times placed US Navy Flag”. To show just how quickly the amazing Aidan can upgrade his horses, US Navy Flag has added four wins since publication, with the Middle Park and Dewhurst providing a two-week Newmarket Group 1 treble for the dam along with Roly Poly’s Sun Chariot triumph in between. Both of course are by War Command’s sire, War Front.

Ryan Moore likened the now 10-times-raced US Navy Flag to his full-sister, remarking that they seem to get better with each additional furlong they are asked to travel. US Navy Flag won emphatically, and his trainer is within one of the Bobby Frankel 25 Group 1 wins target.

But for a luckless run, September would have brought him level rather than go down by a nose to Karl Burke’s Laurens in the Fillies’ Mile and a similar near miss by Johannes Vermeer in the Ladbrokes at Caulfield in Australia early on Saturday helps keep him tantalisingly one behind.

Two disappointing runs, including a fourth for Idaho, at Woodbine over the weekend, made it a fruitless trip to Canada for Moore, but the big-race rides will keep on coming. As to Aidan, he’s well past the £7million mark here this year after that unique Dewhurst monopoly, and success in one of the two big ones on Saturday at Ascot will enable him to set an improved record, in the year of Enable, too!

A scheduling clash means that the Sangsters will miss Ascot in favour of the Ibiza wedding of their youngest brother Max, which brothers MV and JP Magnier will also attend. In the 1970’s and 1980’s it was the alliance of Vincent O’Brien, John Magnier and Robert Sangster that created Coolmore. The links (with the younger, non-related O’Brien) and the next generation of Magniers and Sangsters, remains just as solid. Best wishes to the newly-weds.

- TS

Competitive look to Doncaster Classic

The World’s oldest Classic, the St Leger, takes place at Doncaster on Saturday, and may well prove to be one of the most competitive for many a year.

As ever, Aidan O’Brien is set to send a battalion across the Irish Sea, with Irish Derby winner Capri the leading hope. With the ground likely to stay on the soft side of good, conditions look to be ideal for the Ballydoyle hopeful.

It seems likely that he will be ridden by Ryan Moore, and speaking earlier in the week, the trainer appeared hopeful of a strong performance, saying: “Capri missed his intended run in the Great Voltigeur at York, but he seems fine now and I am happy with him. His work has been good at home. He won the Beresford last year on heavy and he has plenty of form with cut in the ground so I would say that the going at Doncaster, if there is some ease in it, will not be a problem to him.”

Venice Beach was thrashed by Cracksman in the Voltigeur, but O’Brien has said that the horse would ‘come-on’ for the run. He appeared confident that the Chester Vase winner would see out the extended trip well. Nevertheless, his form looks a fair bit shy of that of his stable companion.

As the rains came earlier in the week, so did the money for Roger Varian’s Geoffrey Freer winner Defoe. He was impressive that day, travelling powerfully through the testing ground and finishing off the race strongly. With a pair of winners on the opening day of the Leger Meeting, stable confidence will be high leading into the weekend showpiece.

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Andrea Atzeni has won the Donny Classic on two of the last three occasions, and sounded confident when speaking to At The Races yesterday: “He's in great form, I'm looking forward to riding him. He needs to improve, which I think he has. The ground should suit him, and we'd be very hopeful.”

Roger Varian is convinced that conditions will favour his horse, saying: “Testing ground should suit our guy and I’ve been very happy with him since Newbury. I love how he’s come up through the ranks and he’s been very straightforward to train all year. He’s got good stamina, he’s got a great mind and he can quicken – he’s not just a galloper. We’ll find out on the day whether he is good enough, but I think that’s really the only question. Everything else ought to be in his favour.”

Sir Michael Stoute last won the race in 2008 and his Crystal Ocean is jostling for favouritism. He impressed on soft ground in the Gordon Stakes last time, yet the team believe better ground would aid his chances. Stoute's assistant James Horton said: “We were very pleased with Goodwood and we're very pleased with where he is now. He's still a big, weak, frame of a horse who we think is going to be a better horse next year. He won on soft ground at Goodwood, but stepping up against a better class of opposition, the better the ground the better for him.”

The bare form suggests Raheen House has a little to find with Crystal Ocean, yet Brian Meehan remains confident of a strong showing from the son of Sea The Stars. He looked impressive when winning the Bahrain Trophy last time at Newmarket, and the trainer said of his challenger: “He’s a very generous price. I thought he’d be shorter. He’s in great form at home, his preparation has been good and everything has gone to plan.”

Meehan added: “Raheen House doesn’t mind a bit of cut. Soft ground is fine for him but some of the others would want it better. Capri and Stradivarius stand out on form but my horse has a huge chance. Confidence is definitely high. We’ve been careful with him with this in mind. He has the pedigree for it and 12-1 is big.”

John Gosden has won three of the last 10 renewals, and looks set to fire two shots at the target. Stradivarius won the Goodwood Cup, though Gosden has voiced his concern over conditions should Town Moor get further rain. Coronet is the only filly in the race, and booked her place in this with a decent performance behind Enable in the Yorkshire Oaks. Speaking at a St Leger press event, Gosden's wife Rachel Hood said: “The plan is to run both Stradivarius and Coronet. We're not worried about the ground for her (Coronet). I think she's very ready for the race.”

Monday Musings: Emerging into the uplands once more

Until three years ago, a fundamental part of my life involved getting up at 4 a.m. on a Thursday morning and driving the near-100 miles down to Manton for work morning at Brian Meehan’s stable, writes Tony Stafford. This evolved from wanting to be there principally to monitor the progress of the handful of Raymond Tooth’s horses stabled there in those days.

Over time, I had a more specialised involvement as work watcher and owner liaison, keeping a record of the work which gave a rare insight into the progress of all the horses in Brian’s care. It quickly became the favourite part of my week, the early start having its own reward.

Nowadays, it’s Monday and the writing of this column that revives that discipline and it’s with a degree of pleasure that I can record a revival in the Meehan fortunes this year.

For many years Brian worked with the agent Johnny McKeever in the recruitment particularly of yearlings, but that connection has diminished significantly as Sam Sangster has become the main buyer for the stable.

Sam, son of the late Robert Sangster, fundamental in the establishment of Coolmore Stud with John Magnier and the late Vincent O’Brien, Magnier’s father-in-law, signed the ticket on the majority of the sales purchases over the past few seasons, including recent winners Raheen House, wide-margin juvenile scorer Barraquero, and progressive three-year-old I’vegotthepower.

Barraquero runs under the Manton Thoroughbreds banner and carries the same blue, green and white colours that adorned Robert Sangster stars like Derby winners Golden Fleece and Dr Devious, and also among many others, Storm Bird and Sadler’s Wells, sire of Galileo.

There are five Sangster sons, Ben, Guy and Adam before Sam, and Max, the youngest. Of the quintet, many people believe Sam might end up the closest approximation to his father. It’s not a bad start that he knows which end of a horse kicks and which eats if he’s going to make a success of the always-precarious racing game.

Meehan’s recent flurry of form includes two big-race wins for one of his least well-known owners, Lew Day, whose horses run under the ownership handle of J L Day. Spark Plug was his first entry into the yard, prompted by an enquiry to me from a mutual acquaintance in the summer of 2013 that “someone would like to buy a two-year-old”.

Midsummer is hardly the time to be getting anything any good that wasn’t already snapped up, but Brian did have a number of horses, speculatively bought at the sales and at that stage without an owner. They included a son of Arc winner Dylan Thomas, at that stage an under-performing stallion for Coolmore.

I’d been watching this unnamed youngster progress week on week, gradually creeping up the juvenile pecking order, and Brian confirmed that “yes, he can be bought”. I met the would-be purchaser in a pub near the Carlton Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge, but he hesitated about the asking price, even though his careful research of Meehan with veteran trainer Eric Wheeler got a strong affirmative.

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Wheeler at the time was still training Lew Day’s sole horse, a modest handicapper called El Libertador, once owned by Katie Wachman, but running under Lew’s dark green livery for 79 of his 80 starts, four of them winning ones.

With no deal forthcoming, the Dylan Thomas colt, who was out of the Group 1-winning South African mare Kornikova, was named Spark Plug and duly won on his Bath debut, minutes before Raymond’s Great Hall ran unplaced in the St Leger.

Lew renewed his interest on the Monday morning: “Can he still be bought?” he asked and the delayed deal was eventually done. Four years on, and a spectacular Cambridgeshire success and last time out’s Sandown Group 3 win behind him, Spark Plug, at six, remains at the top of the Meehan stable hierarchy, a position challenged only by Raheen House.

The latter’s purchase, at 35,000gns, was a notable bargain for Sam Sangster, as he was a handsome son of Sea the Stars and Meehan did well to convince the owner to double his involvement. Raheen House would have been the name for Spark Plug had Mr Day acted with more alacrity back four years ago, as that is the identity of the family hotel in Clonmel, not far from Coolmore, which has staged occasional events there.

Meehan has long regarded Raheen House as a potentially high-class stayer and the care with which he has planned his three-year-old career is reaping its reward. A fast-finishing fourth to Permian in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot, he stepped up to win Thursday’s Bahrain Trophy at Newmarket, coming home strongly enough to convince trainer – and jockey Jamie Spencer – that he’ll be a major player in the St Leger in two months’ time. With no Ebor Handicap entry on the stocks, it could be we’ll see him next in the Great Voltigeur, the accepted St Leger trial, at that York meeting.

Permian added lustre to the form when failing by a nose to win the Grand Prix de Paris on Friday, so Lew Day, the man with two horses, can dream he might have a Classic winner to add to a Cambridgeshire hero. I’m delighted for Brian, who is no novice in winning big international races, but who had gone through the mill in recent years. It’s always a long way back, but he’s starting to emerge into the uplands again.

Rarely does a champion go through a career unbeaten, so while it was a disappointment that Caravaggio could not maintain his unblemished record in the July Cup on Saturday, the victory of Harry Angel, from the classy older sprinters Limato and Brando, was well merited.

Harry Angel had chased home Caravaggio in the Commonwealth Cup after helping set a strong pace, but here he lasted longer. The favourite’s pacemaker Intelligence Cross, a 100-1 shot, was only a neck behind Caravaggio at the line in fifth place, so there was clearly a disparity in the pace compared with Ascot. Equally, though, Clive Cox was confident that Harry Angel was in prime shape to have a good chance of revenge.

As is the way with Aidan O’Brien, others moved forward from the Royal meeting, Clemmie overturning the smart Nyaleti in the Duchess of Cambridge Stakes; and perennial bridesmaid, Roly Poly, appreciating Winter’s absence to win the Falmouth Stakes with an all-the-way romp that had Breeders’ Cup written all over it.

O’Brien had another notable success at the Curragh on Sunday when Spirit of Valor stepped up from his 66-1 Jersey Stakes neck second to the smart French colt Le Brivido, to win the Minstrel Stakes (Group 2) in a canter under Ryan Moore. That race’s under-estimated merit had been underlined the previous day at HQ when Parfait, fourth at Ascot, strolled home in a valuable handicap.

Much the most significant result over two days on the Curragh concerned Oaks winner Enable. John Gosden’s Nathaniel filly, under Frankie Dettori, followed up in the Irish Oaks, beating the Pretty Polly runner-up Rain Goddess by five and a half lengths. Talk afterwards of the King George or the Arc was certainly not fanciful, given trainer John Gosden’s excellent record in those championship races.

 

 

 

Monday Musings: Sometimes it’s pre-ordained

Sometimes, you have to think it’s all pre-ordained. We behave as we do, in the most ethical way we can, but despite our best efforts, events seem to arrange themselves around us, writes Tony Stafford. For instance, one phone call in the early summer of 2013 from an occasional racing acquaintance has had lasting, and not unhappy consequences.

The caller was Ian Dalgleish, a regular at the track, who’d got to know many racing people over the years in his role working in catering at hotels in the West End of London.

The call went something like this. “Hello, Tone, I’ve got a friend who wants to buy a two-year-old. He isn’t an expert, and I think you should meet him.”

Meet him I did, in a watering hole in Sloane Street around the corner from the Sheikh Mohammed-owned Carlton Tower Hotel. A fit-looking, medium-sized man, he was a good few years older than me, but clearly well-preserved. He revealed he’d had a horse, El Libertador for several years, but wanted something better “to run at the good courses, where I wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell my friends about him”.

Considering this was well into the season and anything any good would normally have doting owners already with designs on Royal Ascot and the like, it might have made this mission impossible. But as (his) luck would have it, at the time I was firmly into my regular weekly visits to Manton. These started with the idea of monitoring the progress of Ray Tooth’s horses in Brian Meehan’s stable, but developed into something more formal.

Over a few years it became just about my favourite activity and I particularly enjoyed watching the cyclic development of one unlikely candidate over other more heralded horses as their gallops programmes intensified.

That spring I’d come to love a colt by Dylan Thomas, Kieren Fallon’s Arc winner who even Michael Tabor reckoned was probably lucky to avoid disqualification in the big race. Every week he did a little better. He was one of the previous autumn’s sales buys that hadn’t attracted an owner and after the call from Ian, I got a rough idea of what would be needed to secure him.

By the time of the meeting I had a price to tell the would-be purchaser and when he heard of the colt’s pedigree – his dam was a South African Group 1 winner called Kournikova, who was the only horse ever to beat that country’s champion filly Ipi Tombi - he wanted him.

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That factor was probably the scintilla that secured the deal – eventually. Lew Day, a businessman whose wife runs their Raheen House Hotel in a location not far from Ballydoyle and Coolmore reckoned: “The mother is just as important as the sire.” I thought we were there but Lew takes his time and initially the price wasn’t quite right.

So moving on a few weeks, the horse got named - Spark Plug - and ran in the anonymous ownership of The Pony Club, making its debut at Bath under Jimmy Fortune. At that time, I was in the pre-parade for the 2013 St Leger in which Great Hall was running for Ray. He’d won at Newmarket and Haydock and Fallon thought he was sure to run a good race. As we waited, one of my pals, Steve Howard, who travelled to Doncaster with me, came up and said: “Spark Plug’s just won, easily and at 12-1 and we backed him!” I didn’t.

What did I say about pre-ordination? You can’t be in two places at once and I seem to remember he’d been about half those odds in the morning. Then Great Hall, looking a picture of health, came into the straight at Doncaster with a double-handful. At one time he was barely even-money in Betfair’s in-running market, but fell away to finish unplaced.

The following day, Mr Day called and said: “Can Spark Plug still be bought?” He could and Mr Day did indeed buy him, eventually. He seemed an ideal owner for a horse like this as he’d had around five years and four wins from 77 starts with a single horse, the 64-rated El Libertador, mainly with Eric Wheeler.

But Lew is careful and he revealed later he’d had everyone checked out, happily with Eric giving Brian a strong recommendation. When the horse won his first race in the new colours, impressively at Doncaster the following spring, a path was set which was to lead to Newmarket last Saturday. It involved a few false starts and, for both me and Jimmy Fortune, an element of fracture, in my case having my visits to Manton curtailed when the estate changed hands and for Jimmy, a period when he was replaced by Sean Levey.

I bumped into Brian before the race on Saturday and he said: “Come into the paddock, nobody’s here”. Spark Plug bolted up by two and a quarter lengths from 30 opponents, naturally at 12-1 under a great ride by the restored Fortune. This ended a 17-month losing sequence largely influenced by a heavy fall when contesting the finish of last year’s Royal Hunt Cup. Meehan said: “You’d better collect the trophy”.

When Lew Day first approached Ian aiming to buy a two-year-old, the idea was to publicise the hotel. Unfortunately Spark Plug had run before he could name him after the place, but now he has another horse, a son of Sea The Stars, whose two second places, both at Newbury, include the Hayes, Hanson and Clark Stakes. Brian Meehan thinks he’s one for the future.

So that call from Ian Dalgleish resulted in a small owner collecting almost £100k for winning one of the most coveted (and my favourite of all) handicaps in the Calendar. There’s an element of Dutch Law in the way Spark Plug accelerates at the end of his races. Hopefully the Law will get into the big race at Ascot on Saturday and have the chance to keep his end of the bargain.

And what happened to Great Hall? Also bought from Meehan after a stable visit when he took Ray Tooth’s and especially Steve Gilbey’s eye, he was sold in July 2014 for 140,000gns, to Carl Hinchey. He went to John Quinn and eventually to Kevin Frost in Wales before one of Mr Hinchey’s friends bought him privately (and much more cheaply) and sent him to Mick Quinn. His only success in the intervening two years came when winning a novice hurdle.

After a couple of runs at staying distances, Mick dropped him back to ten furlongs with an excellent second place at Yarmouth. Yesterday at Epsom, Great Hall had his first proper pay day for three years, winning £11,000 with a dominant display under Jim Crowley.

Mick trains a couple for Ray, notably Stanhope who deserves a win after tackling good company in five placed runs. He’ll get his chance next week, but Mick and wife Karen’s handling of what the presenters called the “Timeform squiggle horse” has been exemplary so far. As to the squiggle, you show me a horse that finishes well when the petrol runs out. Here he looked like a bit of a machine. By the way, Ray had a few quid on, as he usually does with his former favourites. Guess who didn’t?

Focus on the Flat – It’s Lincoln Day

The Flat season curtain-raiser is upon us. Tomorrow Doncaster stage the Betway Lincoln Heritage Handicap, a race that dates back to the 1850s.

The event was originally staged at Lincoln’s racetrack until its closure in 1964, when it was then transferred to Donny.

This historic race has been dominated by four, five and six-year-olds, indeed only two horses from outside that age group have won the race in the last half a century. That particular stat suggests improving types rather than old campaigners have the upper-hand. That trend looks likely to continue tomorrow with 16 of the 22 runners’ falling into the age group.

Weight carrying has proven just as telling a trend with only two winners carrying more than 9st 4lbs to victory in the last 30 years. That tendency is sure to be tested this year with all but seven contenders set to carry 9st 5lbs or more. The quality of this event continues on an upward curve and it would come as no surprise to see several of these making their mark in pattern events as the season progresses.

That certainly proved the case last year with Gabrial, having won this in March, going on to finish third in the Group 1 Sussex Stakes before a runner-up spot in the Group 2 Celebration Mile. He then arguably topped that with a third place finish in the QEII on Champions Day at Ascot getting within a couple of lengths of Solow.

Mondialiste chased home Gabrial 12 months ago and he also went on to greater things. David O’Meara’s French import took a Group 3 at York in August before winning at Grade 1 level in Canada and then running an absolute stunner to finish runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland.

O’Meara has another French import at the head of the betting for Saturday’s renewal. Lord Of The Land was trained by Andre Fabre and will attempt to go one better than last year's runner-up, who was also having his first start for the yard. His French form is nothing to write home about, though O’Meara has proved a master at improving his newcomers.

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Richard Fahey is often worth following in these valuable handicaps and he has won two of the last four Lincoln’s. Heaven's Guest is a standing dish in these events though he rarely runs over at a mile. His record first time out is poor and sitting at the top of the handicap he is hard to fancy.

Rene Mathis and Farlow also represent Fahey. The former had a successful 2015 winning valuable handicaps at Newmarket and Goodwood, but he has to carry 9st 8lbs, and that could prove a tall order. Farlow is now an eight-year-old and though he came fourth in this in 2014 he’s now much higher in the handicap and difficult to fancy.

Godolphin run a progressive four-year-old Udododontu, having given him a couple of outings at Meydan over the winter. He has valuable handicap experience, something that has also proved important in the Lincoln over the years. He only just failed to win the Britannia Stakes at Royal Ascot last June and looks to have the right kind of profile for this. He’s by Lope De Vega, and therefore ought to cope with softer ground conditions.

Mutarakez was down the field behind Udododontu at Ascot but was carrying a stone more that day. Owned by Hamdan Al Maktoum, the son of Fast Company also has that valuable handicap experience and was expected to run a huge race at Royal Ascot. Trainer Brian Meehan will be hoping that he has strengthened over the winter and can bounce back to form. He is a course and distance winner having won at the track as a two-year-old.

Ryan Moore rides Jeremy Noseda’s Bravo Zolo, and he is currently second in the market. The four-year-old has been progressive on the all-weather though somewhat disappointing in his three runs on turf. He won a seven runner handicap at Wolverhampton last time, and though the jockey booking is eye-catching I struggle to see how his form stacks up. He’s not for me.

Secret Brief also represents Godolphin and is trained by Charlie Appleby. His Meydan form gives him an each-way chance in this, and his odds of 25/1 seem generous. He’s bred to stay further, and that should prove a plus in the testing conditions. He may not be quite good enough to win, but he could go close.

Another at a price worth a second look is Fire Ship. On trends he’s too old to win this, but his form especially on a soft ground gives him a huge chance. He’s on his lowest handicap mark since 2012, yet still retained enough ability to come third in a Group 3 last May. He was poor in this race last year but that was off a 9lb higher mark. At 33/1 he has to be worth a small wager.

These valuable handicaps always take some fathoming and tomorrow’s Betway Lincoln is no exception. I’ll be throwing a few quid at three of the runners, with Mutarakez my main fancy. Secret Brief and Fire Ship are my each-way selections.

Sunday Supplement: Christmas parties, and other engagements

Colin Brown was in attendance

Colin Brown was in attendance

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

You never realise it, but when you undertake to do something on a regular basis, if you do not then stick to the programme, there is always someone who notices.

There I was last night, barely after 10 p.m. coming out of the pub in Marlborough High Street to make the 85-mile drive home to London East when a gentleman I sort of recognised dressed slightly more decorously than when I’ve normally seen him, asked: “Do you still do that blog?”

My attention as I left Brian Meehan’s staff Christmas Party, relocated from the Outside Chance in Manton village but still with a full complement of Sangsters is attendance, was much more centred at that moment on his smoking companion, a shivering Rachel.

When I first saw the stable’s acknowledged beauty – she it was who was featured in a Morning Line episode earlier in the year – last night, I was shocked to notice she seemed to have grown, I thought a foot and remarked thereupon!  Laughing, she pointed to her footwear – six-inch heels, hence a foot altogether. Still a great judge after all these years!

But Jim - for that’s who had the pleasure of sharing a conspiratorial smoke with the lovely and now really, really, tall Rachel - is a member of the Swettenham Stud workforce. How come he gets to see these self-centred ramblings? Thought it was me, the editor and well, just you.

The bad thing about computers is that if you keep stuff, you can’t hide it. The good thing is that if a Jim comes along and asks: “Do you still do…?” you can call up the memory and see this is the 61st such offering, which it is. How many of them have you read, Jim? You were certainly compos mentis enough but the music was just getting going inside as the cheese board started to diminish.

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So Jim, I haven’t missed many and no, it wasn’t that 6-3 defeat at Manchester City – referee and linesmen decisions worst I’ve ever seen [recency bias! – Ed.] – that caused the one-week absence. I was just plain knackered with very little to write about. “Well” as Jim might say, “you’re managing all right with fairly flimsy material so far!”

Christmas parties can be enjoyable for seeing old friends in slightly different surroundings. One of the cheeriest people I’ve known over many years is Colin Brown, long-time rider of Desert Orchid, and as a result eminently qualified to hoover up the brown envelopes as he talks to the habitués of the various boxes on the major racecourses.

Col, as everyone knows him, was celebrating a first wedding anniversary (today) with his new wife. Save smiling at her and sitting down eating the delicious buffet at the table with her husband while she stood up – limited seating – I did not have the wherewithal to ask her name, a function of my state of life.

Colin, though, contributed to that lack of attention on my part because in guessing my age, he was so far on the side of inaccuracy that I loved him all the more. I’m happy to say (for him) he has quite a few years to catch up.

The main catch-up thing for me last night was to ascertain the well-being or otherwise of my boss Raymond Tooth’s stable star Great Hall. He is set to leave for Dubai’s carnival on December 28, so next Saturday, two days after the departure of Stuart, who will supervise the Meehan trio. This is completed by regular traveller Burano, and the juvenile Man Amongst Men. Brian had already given a positive report of his last gallop and all the important people in the yard endorsed it. The usual comment was: “Are you going out there? Wish I could.” Raymond seems to be suggesting we will.

Our team is in a bit of a holding mode, with the two oldest members Punjabi and Fair Trade in line for runs in the coming weeks. David Pipe is looking for an easier option for Punjabi – at one of the “lost” meetings of midweek – while Fair Trade, pretty disgraced on his last two runs over jumps, is now with Alan Swinbank and has the delights of Southwell’s Fibresand in the New Year on his agenda.

Swinbank is persona extremely grata with one member of the Manton establishment. The Co Durham trainer, always a man with an eye for the main chance, spotted the potential in young Olly Sangster before pretty much anyone outside Manton, and gave him a ride around Carlisle.

That one won, with Olly, unseated after the winning line, hanging onto the reins with astonishing determination for a 16-year-old as his mount dragged him along the turf. “We were always told to do that at Pony Club,” he said. Every other jockey in the weighing room would probably have let go, but Olly’s obvious bravery was as much a positive as his exceptionally tidy and effective riding style.

Three more rides followed for Alan and three more wins, enough to bring him at least two awards for the 2013 season. The pride it brings his father Ben and mum Lucy as well as the rest of the family is obvious and lovely to see. I hear that Olly might well be in the saddle for a Swinbank bumper prospect in the coming weeks and that’s the man who started out the great world traveller Collier Hill in a bumper a decade ago.

Raymond’s 2013 Flat runners were completed at Angers racecourse in what the French call the West of France, and the filly Laughing Water put up an astonishing performance. Trained by Nicolas Clement who master-minded French Fifteen’s juvenile campaign two years ago with such skill, he brought her out in one of the last turf maidens of the year to win in spectacular style.

I’ve seen a lot of races, but very few over a mile and a quarter for juveniles. The filly, coming on from a  close fourth in a large-field newcomers’ race at Deauville, turned for home in sixth, but sprinted past her rivals to win going away by two lengths.

A daughter of Duke of Marmalade, she looks a good prospect for a middle-distance career.  I’m looking forward to seeing her next year and indeed three Dutch Art home-breds that have gone into training. We have yearlings by him with Messrs Morrison and Beckett and a two-year-old with Lady Cecil.

Looking further ahead and bearing in mind the astonishing commercial success of that sire (now standing at £35,000 a pop at Cheveley Park) we await with excitement the first foal of Ray’s smart sprinter Catfish. At the recent December sales, several of Dutch Art’s foals were sold for 100,000gns plus and one went for 160,000gns. Come on Catfish, breed us a champion sprinter.

Sunday Supplement: York’s Great Hall

tony_stafford

tony_stafford

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

Have you enjoyed the summer? After all, we (the Lions) have beaten the Aussies at rugby, their cricketers in the Ashes (without playing that well), Andy won Wimbledon, Chris Froome the Tour de France and Mo won everything, except his team’s opener at the Emirates, and the days are getting shorter. The last bit sums it up for me.

Once you’ve accepted every year that we’re getting close to six months of relatively little daylight, September can be nice, and for those of us for whom horseracing of the Flat variety is a way of life, there’s still plenty to get your teeth into.

The last couple of days have been hectic for me, fitting in a Saturday morning on the gallops in Wiltshire between duty at Newcastle (fast train) on Friday and car to Ripon on Saturday. Neither track can claim to be one of my favourites and with well-supported (happily not by me) losers each day, the forays north were irritating.

Car radio can be fun, but as the Saturday trip included commentaries on Liverpool – last-minute penalty save meant three points- and Arsenal (two penalties conceded, possibly one incorrectly), therefore two more than Man Utd’s visitors routinely get awarded in a season, I was left content that I don’t have the facility for watching BT sport.

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It was a clever ploy for the telecommunications giant to marry their internet business with the Premier League coverage. Well, sorry boys, I won’t be biting. Seven or eight years ago I called BT for at least a week trying to get them to get me started on the Internet and they simply didn’t answer. Thus Sky got the gig, and it’s probably much slower, but anyway, the devil you know and all that.

Needless to say, the Sky- (and therefore Liverpool/Manchester) –biased media will be after the opposition, and already viewing new pundit Michael Owen is being likened to watching paint dry. Well what a shock. He was always a little tortuous on the box, but he’s a nice bloke who likes his racing, so he’ll do for me, especially as I won’t be watching.

Next weekend, I think I’m going to be in for another Newcastle (Friday night this time) – Manton (Saturday a.m.) and Yorkshire ordeal, this time switching York for Ripon. York is one of my favourites and I can’t wait for Raymond Tooth’s Great Hall to take his chance in the Melrose on the final day of York’s Ebor meeting.

After his wins at Newmarket and Haydock he’s up to 98, seemingly a fair way short of St Leger consideration, but the form of especially the Haydock win, with the next three home all advertising his merit, suggests the gap might not be so great. Argent Knight, as noted here last week, had been fourth almost four lengths behind when receiving 14lb. He’s now up to 89 after a big win over older handicappers at Newmarket.

I expect William Jarvis’s likeable stayer, the runner-up Debdebdeb and third home Hawk High will all take their chance again, with £46k up for grabs, there’s few options worth so much, but compared with Haydock albeit now 10lb higher Great Hall’s still pretty well in with that trio.

Visiting Brian Meehan’s stable each week gives me the chance to watch his obvious (even to my less than trained eye) physical development and marvel at his beauty and apparent bombproof nature (Great Hall’s not Brian’s). He’s filled out since the spring when those who knew him best always maintained he would continue to progress from the narrow-looking individual of his early days.

For years I’ve always hankered after the traditional racing dates. York was always three days, Tuesday to Thursday, before an interim addition of Friday and then a fourth day and a final Wednesday- Saturday format took away much of the lustre of Goodwood and Newmarket’s weekend fixtures.

York themselves had Newmarket move into an area of their historic pre-eminence when the July meeting at HQ spread to the weekend, the July Cup encroaching into the space that the John Smith’s (formerly Magnet) Cup had made its own over half a century.

You just have to grin and bear the clashes. For trainers and owners, the nightmare is to be able to get the jockey you want for your horse. I’m pretty sure Kieren Fallon will do everything he can to be there to continue his own love affair with Great Hall, forged on the gallops and secured when he rode him at Haydock.

As to anything else worth noting for York, I’ll be content with a word for the unbeaten filly J Wonder in the Lowther. Impressive both on debut at Newbury and in a valuable nursery at Newmarket, Chachamaidee’s full sister is definitely on the upgrade and I expect her to beat Lucky Kristale and Sandiva on Thursday.

Trainer Stats: 12th June 2013:

Brian-Meehan-002

Brian Meehan In Decent Form....

Andy Newton’s got six more flat handlers that have their strings in flying form to look for this week…….. Read more

Sunday Supplement: A Funny Old Week…

tony_stafford

tony_stafford

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

A week that started off with a loss for my boss in a small court in Central London got better and better as it went on. The loss, trumpeted by the winner as a total vindication, looked anything but that in the face of some hasty rewriting of his court evidence at the end of the Racing Post report of the affair. I felt very satisfied that the judge’s summing up described me as a truthful witness. As I disagreed with virtually everything the other side put forward, what did it make them?

Thursday mornings at Manton always put me in optimistic fettle. After a slow start, Brian Meehan has really got things going and by Wednesday night, a score that only started after a string of near misses with Sir Bedivere on April 27, had stretched to 13 with Testudo by Wednesday night at Sandown.

The flurry of winners has obviously come to the attention of some serious jockeys and Thursday was a sight to behold. With my own car neglecting to have a pre-dawn petrol pump catastrophe this time, I arrived sharp at six, to be followed into the office by the unexpected sight of Tom Queally. There was only time to offer Tom a coffee before Kieren Fallon arrived, shortly to be followed by Frankie Dettori.

Sam Sangster then came in with the top Australian jockey Jamie McDonald, who is spending a working sabbatical with Charlie Hills over at Lambourn before the Hamdan duo of Paul Hanagan and Saturday’s Beverley five-timer hero Dane O’Neill completed the set.

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With a number of owners on site too, it was pretty hectic and possibly some of the regular work riders might have been a little disappointed to be on reduced action, but the feeling of team spirit was simply fantastic.

I couldn’t wait for Raymond Tooth’s two three-year-olds to get into action. Freeport, a winner on his comeback just nine weeks after a gelding operation following a naughty incident was rewarded for his improved demeanour with the services of Frankie who declared him “very nice and fit as a flea”. Brian’s looking for a race next weekend, and it was good that Consign, who finished third to him and fellow dead-heater Aussie Reigns at Windsor, went on to win Friday’s 0-75 Classified in which we would have had to concede him 6lb. He’s up only 3lb to 76 when he goes next.

Second lot featured Ray’s promising horse Great Hall, and this time it was Kieren in the saddle. He’d loved him when riding him on the Rowley Mile last month, when he still needed what was only his second career start. The work went well so it was all systems go for Newmarket the next day, Brian’s choice of three entries in the week. Kieren was claimed to ride for Luca Cumani but we were lucky that Richard Hughes was free and he gave him a lovely ride to win what might prove a decent maiden.

They say people don’t go racing any more but proper Fridays on the July Course still get out the real racing people. One oddity about all the relatively small group of racing regulars who’ve been around for years, decades or in the case of Tony Morris, half centuries, is that they are always pleased to see you.

The faces are not always remembered by us older-timers, and the names even less so. So first I’d like to apologise to the fair-haired “lad” from the Midlands who I first met at the Ryder Cup at the Belfry and who always calls out. In his case it was before Great Hall’s race on Friday. With Raymond back at the office, I get to be the de facto “owner” and he was one of a string of “good luck” callers along with the nice guy from the Bedfordshire Racing Club and on Friday many more.

I don’t know why but over the years I’ve wanted to view Raymond’s horses on my own where possible – unless he’s there, of course – and I found an anonymous spot in the stands from where I watched Great Hall and an unflurried champion jockey get home half a length to the good despite some exaggerated signs of inexperience.

After the “good luck”s, it was a triumphal walk back with “well done”s raining in on all sides. The only well done I felt I’d earned was to be a fringe participant in the Meehan tally’s getting off 13. I’d done nothing, not even cheered him home. I’ve steeled myself never to make a noise as Ray’s horses approach the line. It was well done, though, to the horse, to the trainer, to the jockey, and to the staff at Manton, and to Kieren who is a true horseman.

Well done above to all to Ray, who has had a total of nine wins this year, hopefully with a good few more to come. To win, he had to beat two Khalid Abdullah horses and a stable-mate owned by Hamdan Al Maktoum. It seems that Prince Khalid’s team will be getting a thorough trim – even the richest find the battle between the racing dream and ever-increasing costs a constant drain.

Saturday at Newmarket – no managerial responsibilities this time, just a gentle wander – and a walk across to the Animal Health Trust marquee for a late scrounged lunch thanks to my pal George Hill who was dining with wife Liz (not partner George, for God’s sake) on the top table with host Anthony Bevan. Here was another group of never-forgotten faces, among them Christine St George who would be high on the list of BHA inspectors searching for non-permitted substances such is her unchanging beauty. Johnny Holmes was there, backing winners and hoping for the best for the return of Great Leighs, and Sam Sheppard of the EBF, one of a dozen wanting to hear about that case last Monday. I said my piece and vowed thereafter not to speak or think any more on that trifling affair.

Sat TV Trends: 1st June 2013

Derby Day

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Jump trainers find £90k more reasons to target Cesarewitch

Aaim To Prosper -  in third Cesarewitch ?

Aaim To Prosper - in third Cesarewitch?

The Betfred Cesarewitch doesn’t come round until October, but it is a race that is already clearly in the mind of several of the leading National Hunt trainers. More way think it a race to consider following the announcement earlier this month that the prize money for the race will rise from £160,000 to £250,000. Read more

Baker steps on to Manton training ladder

George Baker is definitely a trainer on the up. The former racing journalist learned the art of his second career as assistant to Paul Webber, and though he’s yet to become a prolific trainer of winners, there are plenty around who would be pleased with his total of 20 this flat season. Read more

Sat TV Trends: 28th July 2012


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Bonfire out to Eclipse his elders

British trained three year olds are having a tough time of it this season when it comes to the top races. The winners of the four Classics run so far have all come from Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stable, and that’s left the stables here empty of any star names in that group. Read more