The weather men have never forgotten October 1987 and the unexpected hurricane that felled half the trees in the South of England, writes Tony Stafford. The Dewhurst Stakes had to be postponed by a day at Newmarket and I still recall the gaps in the treeline on the last leg from Six Mile Bottom, past Lordship Stud up to the roundabout by the National Stud and July Course when I drove along the next day.
Now every hint of a breath of wind from the Atlantic is viewed with utter suspicion by the forecasters. Last Thursday’s wee drop of Doris did cause some inconvenience in terms of wind speed, but less structural damage - nothing like what was predicted.
I spent the previous morning visiting two Berkshire stables I’d never previously seen. First it was to Beechdown Farm, Lambourn, owned and built by John Francome and professional home to Clive Cox throughout his now 18 seasons’ training. Then it was on, after a last-minute call, to West Ilsley, base for pretty much all of this century for Mick Channon.
The boss, Ray Tooth, has three “new” trainers for this season’s two-year-old intake, with both Channon and Cox joining the roster, along with Chris Wall. When asked whether he would like a two-year-old, Mick Channon said he’d be delighted. “I had one horse a while ago for Ray, and he wasn’t much good”. We’re hoping for better.
The Cox visit was pre-planned, its object to see the progress of the home-bred colt, called Nelson River, by Mount Nelson out of the winning mare, I Say. He’d had two easy days before Wednesday after possibly getting cast, so he did a canter limited to a short burst up the straight, but satisfied his onlooking trainer as we raced alongside in the jeep.
The rest of that batch of juveniles – “as a group they’re the best I’ve had”, said Clive – went a little further and Nelson River, a big, nice-moving colt, would hopefully have been back with them by the weekend.
Cox proudly showed me the private gallops of the 260-acre site developed with such skill by Francome, departed from our screens but in no way rueful, according to his tenant. “John is never happier than when driving a digger around the place.”
With Profitable now in Godolphin colours and My Dream Boat and Zonderland also back for another season, Cox must be hopeful of beating last season’s tally of 65 wins and £1.5 million in prize money. Harry Angel, easy winner of the Mill Reef Stakes on only his second start, is the main hope among a nice group of three-year-olds.
Wednesday’s work was undertaken in the expectation of a light morning, probably in the spacious indoor arena, when Doris arrived on Thursday, so plenty was done. I was soon heading back east and while Jenni Tait in Mick Channon’s stable reported neither Mick (in Dubai, basking after Opal Tiara’s Group 1 win the previous week) or Michael junior, on the way to watch a runner at Doncaster, was there, they would happily entertain this surprise visitor.
So it was to West Ilsley, the stables that were to become the new home of Major Dick Hern the year after he won Classic success with my first equine hero, Hethersett, in the 1962 St Leger, when private trainer to Major Lionel Holliday.
For me, still at school, it was the ultimate betrayal, Hethersett being left to languish under the nominal care of head lad, S J Meaney, while actually having his campaign directed by the irascible Yorkshireman. Hern, taking over from Jack Colling, even had the effrontery of saddling Darling Boy to beat Hethersett in his comeback race, the Jockey Club Stakes, in 1963.
Jenni and her office colleague Gill Hedley seemed surprised I’d never previously been to West Ilsley, but both were understandably still bubbling over Opal Tiara’s big win in face of major Godolphin opposition in that Group 1.
Gill was part breeder of the filly with Channon. From the least promising beginnings, the unraced mare Zarafa was sent to Rathasker stud’s stallion, Thousand Words, a Juddmonte-bred quadruple winner, for Barry Hills and latterly in California for the late Bobby Frankel.
The resulting filly went through Ascot sales as a yearling, going unsold at 1,800gns, but after showing plenty of ability at two, attracted Qatar Racing, who privately acquired a half-share. Last year she made great progress, winning a Group 3 at Goodwood, but Qatar wanted to cash in, and she was sold at December sales last backend for 230,000gns.
Happily Gill stayed in and she said: “We have new partners who bought into her and they are delighted, as we all are”. No wonder, how many people breed Group 1 winners? If she does get sold later in her career, the numbers are sure to multiply once again.
Having enjoyed a classy filter coffee and luxury biscuits while talking to the ladies, we made the short 20-metre walk to see Telltale, another home-bred, already gelded, by Monsieur Bond out of Yarn. ‘Mum’ was a strapping filly who was always placed but never won, coupling natural ability along with a wind problem.
When he arrived, the initial idea was to put him into one of the normal boxes, but as Mick junior said: “He’s so tall, he couldn’t go in there, so it had to be one of the big ones.”
I understood from Michael it was formerly Youmzain’s box, but Jenni said: “No, that’s two along.” So here he was, the gentle giant, impossible to miss with his big white face. So after admiring him, I noticed a plaque outside the box, proclaiming that it had been Halicarnassus’ domicile. That high-class Channon performer is now a stallion in Turkey.
Underneath, though, there was a larger plaque in bronze, with a single word scratched underneath – “Henbit”, the Derby winner. The names on the plaque, though, might give Telltale something to live up to. I searched my memory since driving away, but came up with only four of the five names.
In reverse order they were: Little Wolf, winner of the Ascot Gold Cup; Minster Son, St Leger; and then Nashwan, 2,000 Guineas and Derby; and shockingly, the great Brigadier Gerard. That supreme champion, winner of 17 of 18 career starts at the start of my career in racing journalism, according to his only ever jockey, Joe Mercer, was sick with mucus pouring down his nose, when losing to Derby winner Roberto in the first Benson and Hedges Gold Cup (now Juddmonte International) at York.
The Brigadier, later very disappointing as a stallion, was the last horse to beat his contemporary, the equally-talented Mill Reef, in the 2,000 Guineas. Most racing historians reckon that field, with My Swallow only third, was possibly the best ever for the Newmarket Classic.
So I enjoyed a wonderful walk down Memory Lane, but it was not long before the mood was replaced by frustration at Lingfield on Saturday. While the racing was excellent, with the featured Winter Derby winner Convey adding further lustre to Opal Tiara, who beat him at Goodwood, the absence of any betting shop, thanks to the ongoing dispute between Ladbrokes, Corals and Betfred, and the racecourses, diminished the experience.
You could catch sight of races from elsewhere, where allowed by the direction of the course TV feed with replays, previews and the like interrupting the middle of major races elsewhere. Betting, though, was limited to the Tote with the three main Ladbrokes points uninhabited and the screens blanked out. I bet many of those who paid £25 for Premier admission wished they’d stayed at home.
I was interested in Jack Quinlan’s mount Sir Note at Kempton and noticed it was around 4’s, not bad, on the machine. When he won - yes, Racing Post, Jack Quinlan was riding! - the SP was 7-1. That was annoying for ordinary racegoers without apps or Betfair accounts. This is one disagreement that needs ending fast.