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Monday Musings: Confusion Reigns

All this Cheltenham stuff seems to be getting to a lot of people, writes Tony Stafford. Take Eddie O’Leary, brother to Michael and Racing Manager to his brother’s Gigginstown Stud. In yesterday’s Racing Post, Fast Eddie is quoted as insisting that a decision on whether their Empire of Dirt will run in either the Ryanair Chase or the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup will be delayed until next week.

In view of the litany of absentees from the meeting due to late injury, among them a handful of fellow Gordon Elliott inmates, such insistence – the word in one or other of its forms, got a couple of airings in Brian Sheerin’s page four piece – on pragmatism might be understandable, but next week, really?

It’s always tough to get weeks and years right. We talk about events in a jumps season as this year, when as with Moor Racer, now definite for the Champion Hurdle rather than a novice target, he might not have run since November 2016.

I’m finding it hard to distinguish this week from last, having set off at 4 a.m. on Saturday for Mark Johnston’s breeze morning where the most precocious batch of his juveniles set out on the road which might take one of them to the Brocklesby at Doncaster in three weeks’ time.

If that might seem too much time to allow for a 10 a.m. appointment you’re right, but Wetherby services offers an ideal opportunity for a Greggs breakfast special, bacon (three rashers) in a roll and a tea (my option) or coffee for £2.70. Anywhere else in that locale costs an arm or a leg. Thereafter, a wash and brush up, refuelling and an hour’s shut-eye were the perfect preparation for seeing third lot at Park Farm, Middleham.

Thirty or so of us were there to watch our particular interest, some intent on possible new acquisitions, others like me to appraise a possible early runner, as in Ray Tooth’s Tarnhelm. She has the distinction of being a regular partner for Deirdre Johnston and they were towards the back of a line of youngsters, some galloping, others like her doing a couple of canters – “maybe two weeks”, according to Mark, before joining them.

Anyway as they neared the onlookers, provided with a platform of rubber maps a fair distance away from the all-weather gallop, one distracted youngster veered left, hit the rail and ended on the other side. Luckily the rider took timely evasive action, and both she and her mount were unhurt.

Apparently, down at Richard Hannon’s last week, leading apprentice Hollie Doyle also came off, her mount spooking when several motor bikes sped past the string along a small road. She expects to be back race riding in a day or so.

Tarnhelm had to stop – she was the next one along – and if she can react with the same alacrity when asked to go faster, she could be all right. Time will tell, but Deirdre likes her.

Yesterday was the lull in the madness of Cheltenham week. Tonight I’ll have my usual pre-Festival night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club with Ian Wassell of Corals, BHA two mile hurdles handicapper, David Dickinson, and MC, Howard Wright – if he’s not in Bhutan or somewhere at the last minute – to run the final preview gathering of the year.

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We might not be the best, but we are the last. Then after getting home at say 1 a.m. it’s up at 5 a.m. in order to collect Harry Taylor at Chigwell at 6.30, praying that the M25 will be kind to us for the first third of the trip west.

Howard has been an absentee a couple of times recently, I seem to remember Qatar as one lucrative alternative to his nice bottle of Bedfordshire RC wine, and Bhutan was a purely contrived possible destination. I knew Lennie Dorji, a great friend of Edward St George, and the pair spent every summer in England, betting in partnership and sometimes making money.

One year Edward had a successful time with David Loder horses, when I was a sort of advisor to the then young trainer, and even got a trip to Grand Bahama, which Edward basically owned with Sir (Union) Jack Hayward, that winter as a reward. He was totally disciplined. On hearing that Pat Eddery would be unable to ride the object of one potential 10 grand bet, he asked the trainer: “Who rides?” Upon hearing, “Paul Eddery”, he snapped back: “No bet!” It lost.

According to a comment made in the movie “The Lunchbox”, filmed a couple of years ago in Mumbai, Bhutan is the best place in the world to live: “you get five rupees there for one rupee here” one of the main characters says at one point.

Dorji was from that mountain nation’s Royal family and took important political roles, including I believe Prime Minister in his earlier days. If you saw the film on BBC2 last night, I bet you are still thinking about it and maybe like me quite affected. Try to see it.

Sorry Mr Editor, no more distractions. I started out talking about confusion for the Racing Post writer yesterday and in the same issue four pages later, my experiences on Champion Hurdle day eight years ago, when I was not there to see Punjabi win the big race, are recalled.

As with Chinese Whispers, even collaboration with the best of writers can be open to the odd confusion. If it seemed to read, therefore, that I drove there and back to Moorfields, “battling the London traffic”, I hasten to reassure that the 35 bus was my only conveyance option while recovering from a detached retina operation.

We’re not missing it this year, though, staying at a place called Highworth, between Swindon and Cirencester, and if 2016 is anything to go by, a better way into Cheltenham than from either A40 or M5. Starting as early as we do, there should be bags of time to see Punjabi and Rachael Kempster in the parade, unless like last year I’m forcibly prevented from the paddock by the security men.

Around New Year, I had a frustrating few days, wrestling with the apparent disappearance of the RCA despatched envelope which contained my new press badge for this year. I keep the robust, ideally-sized envelopes to contain such as driving insurance and car park documents and the like in the kitchen drawer.

When it came to taking it out possibly to go to Cheltenham on New Year’s day, I found to my consternation it wasn’t there and after a couple of lengthy searches, came to the conclusion I had erroneously thrown it out with the Christmas rubbish.

After a short correspondence with the RCA, I had no option but to part with £150 (£120 plus VAT) for a replacement. On Saturday night, returning at 10 p.m. after a stop-off at Chelmsford after the A1, I was met by a less-than-amused wife who said: “Did you lose this?” It was not the badge, but another RCA envelope with motoring documents. “That fell down behind the drawer”, she announced. “But I looked there a couple of times”, I whined. “Maybe there’s the one I wanted two months ago?” Two minutes later she retrieved another envelope, this one containing the missing press badge.

Saturday March 11. Hackney Wick, London. Dear RCA, I enclose the original 2017 press badge, issued to me, with car park label and use of badge instructions. Please send me the £150 so I can have a bet on Gordon Eliiott’s horses at Cheltenham next week.

Hope you all back plenty of winners, and maybe I’ll find one or two for the nice people of Bedfordshire tonight.

 

Hurricane flies into the record books

Hurricane Fly - 17 Grade 1 wins

Hurricane Fly - 17 Grade 1 wins

Hurricane Fly ran into racing’s records books yesterday at Punchestown as he notched up a 17th Grade 1 success. That took him past the total achieved by the legendary Kauto Star and top American flat horse of the 1970s and 1980s, John Henry. Read more

Rock On Sunday as Ruby and The New One clash

Rock On Ruby - out early this season

Rock On Ruby - out early this season

The first big names of the jumps season are out on Sunday, when Rock On Ruby and The New One are set to take each other on at Kempton. Harry Fry and Nigel Twiston-Davies, the respective trainers, had rather different ideas about the clash. Read more

Sat TV Trends: 16th Feb 2013

Silver by Nature

Can Silver By Nature Win Another GN Trial?

Another busy Saturday with LIVE C4 action from Haydock, Wincanton and Ascot - Andy Newton's on hand with all the trends and stats that matter...... Read more

Sat TV Trends: 19th Jan 2013

Sprinter Sacre

Sprinter Sacre runs at Ascot on Saturday

Weather permitting we'll have LIVE C4 action at Ascot, where Sprinter Sacre is on show in the Victor Chandler Chase....... Read more

Sat TV Trends: 5th Jan 2013

Welsh National

The Welsh National Takes Centre Stage

A huge day of LIVE C4 action this Saturday from Sandown, Wincanton and Chepstow, that includes the Welsh National...... Read more

Sat TV Trends: 15th Dec 2012

Cheltenham

A great card at Cheltenham this Saturday

We've got all this Saturday's LIVE C4 action from Cheltenham and Doncaster covered from a trends and stats angle..... Read more

Sat TV Trends 1st Dec 2012

Can Carruthers win back-to-back Hennessys?

It's Hennessy Gold Cup day at Newbury this Saturday, while there's also LIVE C4 action up at Newcastle... Read more

Race Histories 9 – The Fighting Fifth Hurdle

Bird's Nest

It was Christmas Day in the trenches
In Spain int' Peninsular War,
And Sam Small was cleaning his musket,
A thing that he’d ne’er done before. Read more

Cheltenham TV Trends: Friday

The Cheltenham Open Meeting Starts On Friday

We take a look at the four LIVE C4 races on the first day of the Cheltenham Open Meeting from a trends angle...... Read more

Henderson says Cheltenham course is better than ever

Nicky Henderson yesterday expressed delight at the state of the track at Cheltenham, which I’m rather glad about. As I looked through today’s card again last night, I kept coming to his horses: Tetlami in the opener; Mossley in the first handicap, the JLT Speciality Chase; and Binocular in the Champion Hurdle. Though absolutely not Sprinter Sacre. Read more

Cheltenham Festival Trainer Stats

Andy Newton gives you all the trainer stats that matter ahead of the 2012 Cheltenham Festival........ Read more

Hobbs calls on Breisner to sort out his errant jumpers

Captain Chris (left) jumps out to right

Philip Hobbs has become so concerned about the poor jumping of his stable stars Captain Chris and Menorah that he has enrolled them in school with Swedish ace Yogi Breisner before they head to Cheltenham. Read more

At ease, Corporal

1980s stalwart Corporal Clinger has died

With medical science regularly helping to extend the human lifespan we can expect similar benefits for many of the racehorses that currently bring us entertainment, excitement and a run for our money. That's happening too late for many of the horses I remember from my younger days. One of the last of those, Corporal Clinger, was quietly put down on Monday this week. Read more

Monday Mish Mash: From Ascot to Cheltenham

Al Ferof bids for Arkle Trophy 2012 glory

Al Ferof bids for Arkle Trophy 2012 glory

Another weekend passes in the run up to Cheltenham, and below are my thoughts on those who pressed their Prestbury Park claims, as well as news on a sartorial storm in a teacup at Ascot...

But let's start with the racing.

Ascot staged the Victor Chandler Chase, a two mile one furlong Grade One, as the feature on their card. Finian's Rainbow had been favoured all week, but had to share market leadership with classy novice, Al Ferof, come post time.

In the event, the two joint favourites both ran creditably but gave best to a horse who has been called a few names (by me!) over the years, Somersby. There was no fluke about the result, Somersby traveling best and mostly flawless with his jumping (aside from one error a couple of fences from home).

A horse who has hitherto not seemed to have an optimum trip, Somersby battled on well to pass Finian's Rainbow on the run in and score by a length and a quarter. Just five lengths back from the winner was Al Ferof, having only his third start over fences, and coming under pressure before the other two.

The rest came in at fits and starts, with the regressive Forpadydeplasterer six lengths further back, and then I'm So Lucky another eight lengths behind that one. Wishfull Thinking ran a stinker, beaten another fifteen lengths and Gauvain took a tumble after leading early.

So what of this gang and their respective Cheltenham Festival 2012 targets? Well, let's start with the winner. Somersby was beaten by Gauvain in the Peterborough Chase earlier in the season, a race that his trainer - Hen Knight - has ruthlessly exploited down the years.

Facts about Somersby. He is a hard horse to catch right. Fact. He is very good on his day (second in the 2010 Queen Mother Champion Chase). Fact. There is speculation about which race he will go for at Cheltenham. Fact.

On balance, then, for me he's a swerve. There are some horses which, if they beat you, you just have to say I knew that was a possibility but I couldn't have him. Somersby for me is one and, even if there was a definite race earmarked for him, I'd still struggle to believe he could see off all-comers.

As such, quotes of 14/1 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, and 7/1 for the Ryanair make no appeal.

The second horse home, Finian's Rainbow, will definitely head for the Champion Chase. He's a high class beast, and fast too. But he was beaten at Cheltenham last year by Captain Chris in the Arkle, and he's failed to improve his form figures since then.

Certainly, it's difficult to see him outpointing both of Big Zeb and Sizing Europe, and the Irish look to hold the whip hand for the big two mile event on Festival Wednesday. 13/2 may be reasonable for each way ticklers, but I'll not be playing.

Al Ferof ran a blinder. I was surprised he was joint favourite, on the basis of two novice wins, and to my eye he should have been at best third or fourth choice on form. (Obviously, he had more improvement capacity than most of his rivals).

To finish five lengths behind the winner in a race that may not have been run to suit - he does tend to hit a flat spot and then barrel on, as he did when winning the Supreme last year - was a very, very good performance. If I was a connection (I wish!), I'd be absolutely delighted with that as a prep for the Arkle.

Unsurprisingly, Al Ferof has been cut for that two mile novice event, and I'd now make him favourite personally. That he is available at 13/2 with Coral is a pleasant surprise, and I've had some this morning. If you read my Arkle 2012 Preview, you'll know I'm not a fan of Sprinter Sacre, and I think being double handed with Al Ferof (13/2) and Peddlers Cross (5/1) is a very strong wagering position in the race.

At least, that's how I've played it... 😉

********

Elsewhere, there was plenty of interesting action across the Irish Sea. On Saturday, the highlight of Willie Mullins' treble was undoubtedly the continued resurgence of Mikael d'Haguenet. As mentioned here last year, he clearly hated chasing and is now unbeaten in his last three tries at the smaller obstacles.

Granted, those three wins have been in relatively modest company, culminating in Saturday's besting of three rivals in a Grade 3, the pick of whom was rated 150. That's a very far cry from either Champion- or World Hurdle-winning form and, whilst an easy win is an easy win, it doesn't necessarily set the horse up for the lickety-split of a championship event across Cleeve Hill.

I have a huge soft spot for the horse, but I couldn't back him for a Cheltenham race.

Sunday saw more Graded action over at Fairyhouse, and more wins for Willie Mullins. As if three notches on Saturday wasn't enough, Mullins bagged four pots on Sunday: the first three and then the closing bumper.

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Vesper Bell won the opener at odds on, and is mooted for the Albert Bartlett. He's plenty to achieve before being mentioned in the same breath as Fingal Bay or Boston Bob, which is the main reason I put so many words into this sentence...! 25/1 is about right, and for speculators, he will improve. Whether it's even nearly enough to hit the board in Cheltenham's three mile novice race is another question entirely. Not for this scribbler.

The Normans Grove Chase, a Grade 2 over two miles and a furlong, was a belting little contest. Noble Prince, last year's Jewson winner at the Festival, was favoured over Blazing Tempo and Tranquil Sea, with a couple of others making up a classy enough quintet.

In the event, Blazing Tempo outgunned the Noble Prince by less than a length. But that tells only part of the story. Blazing Tempo cruised into this but was all out to hold the runner-up at the line. He, Noble Prince that is, was under the pump from the turn, and Davy Russell gave him an 'Irish ride' (as opposed to a 'British ride' under the new legislation) to galvanise his mount for a prolonged challenge.

That effort - conceding seven pounds as well to the winner - marks the runner up down as the one to be on in the Ryanair, a race whose extra three furlongs in trip plays strongly in favour of the Prince. As with Al Ferof, connections must have been mightily chuffed with this effort, and he's worthy of  more than a second glance in the Ryanair wagering. Currently a best priced 15/2 with sportingbet, and that appeals considerably more than the 7/1 about Somersby in the same contest.

The bumper at the end of the day went to Willie and son Patrick Mullins, as Champagne Fever bolted up at interest rate odds of 1/4. He's now been made favourite for the Cheltenham Festival Bumper, and good luck to you if that's your idea of a robust Cheltenham wager..! In fairness, that is still 12/1 favourite, such is the impossible nature of that race, especially when the winner maybe hasn't even run yet.

********

Back at Haydock on Saturday, Donald McCain was lording it in a Mullins-esque fashion, with his very own four-timer, the greedy blighter.

Cinders And Ashes got the ball rolling with a win in line with his odds of 8/13, and McCain was very complimentary about the horse afterwards. He's bound for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival, and is a general 12/1 chance, though Coral and Boylesports go 14/1.

It's hard not to worry about his ability to see it out at Cheltenham though, given that all of his winning (bar his debut bumper success at Fontwell) has been on flat tracks, and that he did bomb out when traveling well in the bumper around Chelters last year.

True, as his trainer says, he has strengthened up this term, but so have his rivals. A nice horse, but probably more at home at Aintree than Cheltenham.

Celestial Halo continued his 'testimonial season' by rolling back the years with another Graded success in the Champion Hurdle Trial. In truth, it wasn't much of a trial for the Champion Hurdle, as the Halo's three rivals were all rated 16 pounds or more inferior to the winner. Odd then, that he was available at 6/5, which looks tasty with hindsight. (Things often look tasty, and more often look very stupid, with hindsight).

It's hard to make a case for Celestial Halo in the Champion Hurdle itself, that race shaping up to be an absolute corker, but Paul Nicholls will continue to place this excellent stable servant to good effect, allowing him to mop up more minor Graded contests. He's still only eight, though, so another tilt at the Champion is not out of the question.

He's 80/1 in a place for the Champion Hurdle and, if he goes for that race, there will be worse value offers. Still, I couldn't sensibly recommend him as a medallist there, alas. Very, very likeable beast all the same.

Whilst on the subject of the Champion Hurdle, the previous second favourite for the race, Spirit Son, has been declared a very doubtful runner. He's been removed from most lists, meaning that Hurrican Fly - another horse we've yet to see this term - has hardened to 6/4 with bet365. Paddy Power however are offering 2/1, which is the biggest price for some time on that one.

Hurricane Fly is due to run in the Irish Champion Hurdle next Sunday, and if he misses that engagement, he'd surely struggle to get to the Festival. Of course, a run and a win there would strengthen his position at the top of the market.

All of which means that I remain happy with my Champion Hurdle ante-post pick of Binocular at 16/1 (now best priced 10's), and I still hold out hope that Nicky Henderson might revert Oscar Whisky (33/1, now best 20's) to the shorter trip as Spirit Son, one of his main contenders, is unlikely to run.

Brampour still looks like a bit of a reckless wager for the race (25's, now out to 50's). Ahem.

********

And that was the weekend racing! Management summary as follows:

 - Somersby deserved success but won't be on my Cheltenham betting slip.

 - Al Ferof definitely one to be on in the Arkle.

 - It's hard to see Finian's Rainbow scalping both Zeb and Sizing in the Queen Mum

 - Noble Prince ran a fine Ryanair Chase prep and looks a bet.

 - Cinders And Ashes more of interest at Aintree than Cheltenham for me.

Now then, following on from an interesting post, and some even more interesting comments on Ascot's new dress code, it seems the track is determined to unpick all the fine work it has done in recent years, and return to something close to the infamously despised 'bowler hat brigade' era of Stasi-like patrols.

For those who don't know, racegoers who 'fell foul' of the new dress restrictions on Saturday were given a little orange sticker to wear to identify them as such. Here's Ian's take on Ascot's 'Dress Dummies'.

The arrogance of the racecourse administration beggars belief, and this kind of 'outing' leads to alienation and accusations of classism/bullying. Whilst I may agree with the former (classism), I think the latter (bullying) is a tad far-fetched.

However, the underlying thoughtlessness - putting the track first and the paying punters nowhere (or surely they'd have realised how ostracising and offensive such a move would be) - is a serious concern from a racecourse administration that is heavy-handing its way to owning as many of the top flat races as it can; one which does little to control the more obvious issue of excessive drinking on race days; and one which is happy to pack the facilities to the rafters, rather than work on things like liaison with rail companies to ensure more trains on racing days..

We have a new Chief Exec of the BHA in Paul Bittar, and we're supposed to be ushering in a new dawn for racing along with the New Year. But yet again, it seems that those same old ugly legacy edifices insist on dragging the sport away from the necessary populism that will engage it with a new breed of racegoers and sustain it beyond the next ten years.

What a pity.

Matt

p.s. feel free to 'tweet', 'share', rate and/or comment on the above. Your thoughts are always welcome! 🙂