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Monday Musings: Of Coups and Separation

The Hollie Doyle/ Tom Marquand bubble will be stretched by a few thousand miles for the next two months, writes Tony Stafford. While Hollie contemplates a trip to Saudi Arabia for that kingdom’s big race, the multi-million-dollar Saudi Cup at the end of the month, fiancé Tom is bound for a return trip to Australia where he had such spectacular rewards last year.

It is fair to say that twin Group 1 wins on the William Haggas-trained Addeybb ‘down under’ instantly propelled him into the top echelon of Flat-race jockeys. Understandable, then, that he is prepared to spend the next two months – thereby missing the start of the 2021 turf season – on those lucrative shores.

The circumstances will be different though this year, as they will be for every UK resident not managing to secure an overseas “pass” in these days of limited air travel.

You need a valid reason for going but I‘m sure even the strictest enforcer of the rules will have agreed that travelling over to ride in races for a percentage of million-pound pots every few weeks is justifiable. Marquand will this time have to spend two weeks at the start of the trip stuck in a hotel room living off room service and, no doubt, Zoom calls to his beloved at the other side of the World.

Covid-19 first assailed, briefly relaxed its grip, and then re-established itself in Australia, where the discovery of a cluster of cases in a quarantine hotel in Melbourne which had been latterly free of the virus caused the removal of spectators from the Australian Open tennis championships halfway through a match on the main court towards the end of last week.

Luckily, Tom is bound not for Melbourne but Sydney where he had 30 wins during last year’s Autumn Carnival. Parting will be such sweet sorrow for the Golden Couple of horse racing but a few more big pots will help them hopefully on their way to getting a joint mortgage!

The two-week “house arrest” it seems will feature an exercise bike to keep the fitness up although if there are two better-prepared jockeys in the UK weighing rooms these days than Doyle and Marquand I would be surprised.

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Hollie’s principal employer, apart from the plum job she got last year with Imad Al Sagar, for whom she will be riding in Saudi Arabia, is Archie Watson. The Lambourn trainer has provided her with 115 wins from the 548 mounts she has had for his stable.

Watson and Doyle teamed up for the Group 1 win of Glen Shiel in the Qipco Champion Sprint at Ascot in October when it took all the rider’s strength to get him home from the equally-gallant veteran Brando in a desperate finish.

Watson, I was surprised to note on looking through his stats this morning, actually had quite a slip in numerical terms of winners between 2019 (133) and the comparatively-modest 70 last year, although quality – rather than the quantity that made his reputation – was the stable’s new focus. Now he faces an even quieter spell after antibodies of the highly-contagious EVA (equine viral arteritis) were discovered in one of his horses.

Watson has imposed an immediate halt on having any runners from his stable for the foreseeable future and is working closely with the BHA to ensure the outbreak is confined so as not to spread it through the racing community.

Jump racing’s recent hiatus with the ravages of one of the more aggressive winters of recent memory looks likely to get a reprieve for the rest of this week. Exeter managed half a card (no chases) yesterday but it is full speed ahead today at Warwick where the featured Kingmaker Chase pits the Skeltons’ highly-regarded front-runner Allmankind against Cheddleton and Sky Pirate.

It will be great to see horses of that class aiming to secure their places in Cheltenham Festival’s Arkle Trophy. I have in the back of my mind that Chaddleton, trained by Jennie Candlish, might be value at 6-1 in a four-horse race where the ground is sure to be very testing even at two miles.

I trust you will forgive what, by necessity, is a less comprehensive view of matters racing but there can rarely have been in the seven years or so that we’ve been going in this place – except of course from mid-March to May 31 last year! –so little of note happening on a racecourse .

As they say, even reminiscing about the past is not what it was, although uncannily on the morning that the last piece was landing in the inboxes of my correspondents and on this site, the events of June 10th 1989 were to be spookily rekindled.

Referring back to a planned four-timer for horses trained by Peter Hudson at the privately-owned Linkslade Stables of Al Deera Bloodstock Holdings – now Willie Muir’s base – following last week’s two-out-of-three attempted coup, I also had to recall that time a failed final leg.

By all accounts one of the architects of the Scottish-initiated bet would have won between £2 and £3 million had the third leg won. That’s the widely-touted figure and of course I have no intention of pointing a finger anywhere! But bad luck anyway, if that’s what it was.

What I can say with some accuracy is that Pharaoh’s Delight’s failure to win Leicester’s Sports Mercury Maiden Fillies’ Stakes at 8.45 p.m. on that Saturday evening some 32 years earlier cost the owner of the horses the best part of £250k – although getting the money from the 300 shops covered by Danny, Kevin, Paul, Lennie and my dad would not have been easy.

When it came to collecting the cash, my then 69-year-old father left those duties to his dog trainer, Paul Philpott, and Paul’s boyhood Homerton mate Roland, known as Boo, who for many years has been a noted collector of racing memorabilia.

Boo, who upscaled to Hertford years ago, has so much stuff, largely racecards and the like that he has had to take a lock-up to house it all. Recently he was asked to vacate the rented space as the owner had a better use for it and, while going through some of his collectibles from the 1980’s, came across the very Leicester racecard which I now have in front of me.

Pharaoh’s Delight was ridden by Pat Eddery that night and she had worked well at home although David Dineley, who had ridden her in work before the race, is still adamant more than 30 years on that he reckoned at the time she would need the run.

That wasn’t the trainer’s view and the now Norfolk-based garden designer was of the opinion she had the best chance of the quartet. The other three won well enough (at 11-2, 3-1 and 8-11) so £10k that had been placed in a variety of bets but the majority as Yankees, was shaping up to be a proper coup.

The plot thickened when Pat returned to the weighing room after her sixth place – “dwelt, headway halfway, eased when beaten final furlong”, said the close-up in the year-old Racing Post. Pat told George Hill - there as I couldn’t attend that night: “Bad luck, she’ll win at Royal Ascot.” She did, by just the six lengths in the Windsor Castle Stakes; and, for good measure, she won the Princess Margaret Stakes (Group 2) at Ascot and then the Heinz 57 Phoenix Stakes (Group 1) at Phoenix Park on her next two starts.

I wonder where Gallahers Cross, the beaten third leg of last week’s much grander coup at Musselburgh when shortened to 4-5 favourite, will run next. If what happened to Pharaoh’s Delight is anything to go by, the Daragh Bourke gelding, having his first race for more than a year, will bolt up next time – but that will be much too late! I expect they’ll see him coming!

Monday Musings: Willie Mullings and A Plot Awry

The Dublin Racing Festival, two days of the best jump racing in Ireland and perfectly placed five weeks before Cheltenham to offer definitive clues about the likely destination of many of its major prizes, did its job this weekend, writes Tony Stafford.

It also made the more than considerable likelihood that Willie Mullins will see off Gordon Elliott as champion trainer once again in their homeland into a formality. Fifteen races, mostly Graded and bolstered by some very valuable and fiercely contested handicaps, were framed. Mullins won nine of them, four of seven on Saturday and five from eight yesterday.

Elliott won one, in his juvenile hurdle niche where he still has the stranglehold on Triumph Hurdle calculations after Mullins decided that he needed to give French Aseel a little more time to settle into the stable routine. Ruby Walsh, the most brilliant race reader (Flat and jumps to be fair) I’ve yet to encounter on television let us in on that secret when discussing the Elliott winner Quilixios, who has supplanted French Aseel as second favourite at 6-1 behind his unbeaten stable-companion Zanahiyr, a 5-2 chance.

But elsewhere at least three Mullins Cheltenham candidates cemented their claims on major prizes next month. Last year’s Albert Bartlett Hurdle winner, Monkfish, maintained his unblemished record over fences in the 2m 5.5f novice and is now an 11/10 shot for the Festival (RSA as was) Novices’ Chase over 3m1f. If you think he’ll go instead in the shorter Marsh Chase you can have 7/1. Don’t take it because he won’t!

Saturday’s bumper winner, Kilcruit, bred by Willie Mullins’ mother, is now the 6-4 favourite for the Festival Bumper after a 12-length romp under the breeder’s grandson Patrick in Saturday’s Grade 2 event. The only problem with taking that 6-4 is that there are sure to be other Mullins runners in the race; but they will need to be good to beat this one.

Incidentally, when he made his debut at Clonmel last season, Kilcruit was actually beaten, and at the time was trained by Willie’s brother and the rider’s uncle Tony, who had such a spectacular summer with the staying German-bred mare Princess Zoe, winner of the Group 1 Prix Du Cadran at Longchamp last autumn.

Kilcruit turned up in Willie’s string for his seasonal debut at Navan in December where he won by almost ten lengths and, up in grade, had even more real estate and a good deal of extra goodwill to spare over Saturday’s rivals.

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A third certain Festival favourite will be yesterday’s easy novice hurdle winner, Appreciate It, now only 7/4 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. All three of these will have been heavily linked in multiple bets but the bookmakers are far less likely to be wrong-footed by these as they clearly were over the weekend by a very well-planned and almost as well-executed three-horse bet that could easily have repercussions for the far-sighted originators, or unscrupulous conspirators, according to where you stand.

Late on Saturday night, bookmakers, among whom Bet Victor have come forward to declare their hand, were assailed online by punters all wanting to back three horses, I would imagine in singles and linked multiples.

In Saturday night’s early betting they were all outsiders with only one – the middle leg, Blowing Dixie, at Southwell – having any realistic credentials according to yesterday’s Racing Post analyses.

Anyway, the three horses were firstly Fire Away, a 20/1 chance in the newspaper’s betting but double that the night before. In his last runs in Ireland he had been 7th of 15, beaten 38 lengths at 20/1; 14th of 25, beaten 25 lengths at 66/1; 8th of 11, beaten 26 lengths at 16/1; 6th of 8, beaten 39 lengths at 8/1; and PU of 16 at 8/1.

Those runs in Ireland took place between November 19th 2019 and March 2nd 2020. Transferred to Daragh Bourke’s Scottish stable he had three runs in late summer. They were 10th of 15, beaten 51 lengths at 50/1; 7th of 10, beaten 61 lengths at 20/1; and, last time out on September 16th, he started 50/1 and pulled up in a field of 11. Over the period his rating had fallen from an initial mark of 116 to 98.

Yesterday he was making his debut for a new stable, having joined Laura Morgan’s team near Melton Mowbray from Bourke only 11 days before the race. “He had two horses for sale and I originally had a different one in mind but chose him. I’m delighted I did,” she told Racing TV, understandably as he won the race unchallenged by 18 lengths at even money!

Leg two, Blowing Dixie, had won four races at Southwell, all of them over a mile and a half when trained by Jane Chapple-Hyam but, even so, for an 80-rated four-year-old Fibresand specialist to realise as much as £50k at last year’s July Sales at Newmarket might seem rather surprising.

Fetch it he did and, switched to the ultra-shrewd Iain Jardine, Blowing Dixie began a busy autumn schedule running six times between early September and late November. His card reads 7th of 7, beaten 25 lengths at 80/1; 8th of 9, beaten 22 lengths at 66/1; 7th of 8, beaten 28 lengths at 10/1; 10th of 13, beaten 21 lengths at 66/1; 5th of 6, beaten 16 lengths at 66/1; and finally 8th of 9, beaten 25 lengths at 17/2.

Starting for Jardine on a mark of 80, by yesterday he was down 15lb to 65. A 12/1 shot in the Racing Post, he started 4/6 and won by an easy two and a half lengths. His most obvious market rival, Drew Breeze, winner of two of his previous three races, started slowly and was never nearer than fifth of the eight runners, beaten 16 lengths at 13/8.

Daragh Bourke also figured in the third member of the overnight triumvirate. A former £260,000 buy from Tattersalls Cheltenham sale in 2017 after winning an Irish point and Galway bumper, Gallahers Cross didn’t win for Nicky Henderson and was sold on for £40k.

Between June 2019 and January last year he ran five times for Bourke beginning with an 8th of 9, beaten 48 lengths at 7/1, when the gloss of the decent placed Henderson form had not properly worn off. Next came an 8th of 10, beaten 62 lengths at 20/1; 11th of 12, beaten 54 lengths at 28/1; 7th of 7, beaten 39 lengths at 16/1; and, finally, last month, 7th of 8, beaten 50 lengths at 9/1. This time the official reaction to the string of poor performances was a reduction from 115 to 90.

So it is possible, even on the scantiest of scrutiny, to discern a pattern. Each of the three horses had a series of very poor runs from their respective (two, close together) bases in Scotland in the latter half of last year, and all three dropped just over a stone in the ratings and suddenly found form enough on the home gallops to persuade certain people to want to back them, and all on the same day.

The only thing that went wrong – possibly denying winning trebles into the thousands of odds against – was that Gallahers Cross, a 4-5 shot at the off, could finish only fourth of the seven runners, behind an all-the-way Paul Nicholls top-weight winner, Get The Appeal. Like Gallahers Cross, Get The Appeal is a son of Getaway.

As someone who set up a multiple bet many years ago which foundered at the final leg of four (when a future – two runs later! – Group 1 winner ridden by a multiple champion jockey finished unplaced), I can sympathise with those who thought their big pay day had come. On the other hand, any one of them whom I happen to know who didn’t bother to let me in on it – serves you right! But then, as with our try all those years ago that involved physically covering 300 betting shops, rather than pushing a few buttons on computers, two out of three isn’t bad.

Finally, it just remains to question how can any horse beat Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle after Saturday’s romp in the Irish Champion, a victory far more emphatic than last year’s? Tough, with plenty of stamina and unbeaten in one point-to-point and ten runs under Rules, surely the Henry De Bromhead mare can give Rachael Blackmore the distinction of being the first woman to win the Champion Hurdle. Sorry Epatante, unless Nico can contrive to make this a speed rather than a stamina test, her crown definitely looks to rest precariously on her head.

As Liverpool FC are finding, it’s one thing to win a championship, quite another successfully to defend it.