Suddenly it’s all back – for some of us anyway, writes Tony Stafford. Ice rinks – yes, I have to be aware of those! – football stadia and racecourses can now have participants and visitors, within strict limits of course. My mate Scott was able – after some manoeuvring – to take up his annual quest to Sandown Park for the Tingle Creek meeting.
He chose to get from deepest Essex (well Shenfield) to Esher by public transport and the hourly service from Waterloo was a bind as inevitably train times were synchronised not to gel with races. It was a proper full day’s excursion and not without its difficulties as well as cost.
It was £30 for his grandstand ticket and as someone who with his pals, especially at Cheltenham, his version of some people’s pilgrimage to Mecca or Lourdes, will normally sprinkle his race viewing with imbibing. The rules for alcohol consumption on racecourses just as in hostelries in tier 2 are equally as strict. “I fancied a pint,” relates Scott, “So I went to the food outlet where drinks can only be bought to accompany a meal. There was no lager on draught so for a pint it had to be two half-pint bottles at £5.20 each alongside pasty, chips, mushy peas and gravy for £8.50. Almost £20 a shot and if I’d wanted another pint it would have been same again, as I couldn’t have got them without a second meal.
“One friend, who went there on Friday, had three pints, so three lots of pasty, chips, mushy peas and gravy. I’m not sure if he made it back again on Saturday!” said Scott.
Winner-finding was difficult from the outset and, like many punters on the day, the pleasure of getting back racing had its less enjoyable moments. Scott can at least rest assured that his day would not have been anywhere near as frustrating as Nicky Henderson’s. The multi-champion trainer must have had misgivings when deciding to withdraw Altior from the big race the night before because of the testing ground, but he still went to the track with three short-priced favourites at Sandown as well as his Gold Cup hope Santini returning to action in a Grade 2 chase at Aintree.
Sandown’s litany of shocks started early. Pars in the Middleham Park colours was 7/4 on to defy the penalty earned by his debut win in a €15k Dieppe juvenile hurdle back in March, but was a well-beaten fourth behind three more French-breds, led home by Fergal O’Brien’s Elham Valley, who won readily.
Surely there were to be no mistakes in the next, a National Hunt novice hurdle in which Grand Mogul, twice a winner, faced three rivals, two of them newcomers, and started 2/11. Nico De Boinville had him in the first two from the start and he had seemed to have got the better of Pride of Pemberthy, the only one of the other trio to have raced previously, when the Gary Moore-trained Golden Boy Grey, another French-bred, suddenly arrived at the last galloping all over him. Golden Boy Grey went on to win by nine lengths in the style of a fair performer, whatever reasons could be found for the favourite’s tame acceptance of his fate from the last flight.
With no runner in the Tingle Creek, Nicky would have been able to switch his attentions to Aintree for Santini’s first appearance since going under by only a neck to repeat Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo back in March.
He did have a former God Cup winner in Native River to beat and in having a couple of lengths in hand of him was creditable enough first time back. Less easy to swallow must have been his failure to beat 16-1 shot Lake View Lad, ridden by champion Brian Hughes and trained in Scotland by Nick Alexander. Lake View Lad was receiving 6lb on Saturday and was 12lb wrong at the weights with the 172-rated favourite. The winner, a ten-year-old who carries the Trevor Hemmings colours, must inevitably come into focus for a Grand National challenge after this.
The National fences were in use twice on Saturday and seemed to be back to a much more formidable status in both the William Hill-sponsored Becher and Grand Sefton Handicap Chases. Henderson’s Might Bite, who was second in Native River’s 2017 Gold Cup, has only occasionally shown anything like that level since and he appeared to have a clear dislike of the obstacles which led to an early pulling up by Jeremiah McGrath. So it was left to Sandown’s finale, a valuable handicap hurdle, if Henderson was going to salvage a spot of consolation from a dreadful day.
The punters, including Scott by all accounts, went in with both feet on 6-4 shot Mister Coffee, an alarmingly-easy winner of his last race over course and distance a month earlier and raised 10lb for this tough handicap hurdle. His late run never looked like matching that of in-form Benson, who completed a hat-trick for himself and an across-the-card double for Dr Richard Newland. The doctor’s love affair with the Aintree fences had continued a few minutes earlier with the 20-1 success of Beau Bay under Charlie Hammond in the Grand Sefton.
The Sandown race had been shaped by the predictably-fast pace set in the early stages by Totterdown, twice a course and distance winner, but reckoned by the Fergal O’Brien stable to be at the limit of his handicap potential. His mark will need to come down, and two earlier tries this year over fences have not revealed a similar level of talent in that discipline.
That reverse did nothing to take the gloss off a memorable day for this stable. Just a year since he moved from his original premises rented from his former boss Nigel Twiston-Davies, O’Brien’s progress is such that he is needing to take temporary use of a 30-box barn at Graeme McPherson’s stables while development of his own base continues – “it’s like a muddy building site at the moment”, says Fergal’s assistant and partner, Sally Randell.
Earlier they were celebrating Elham Valley’s win, yet another example of how they improve horses from elsewhere. Beautifully-schooled for this debut, the 70-odd rated Flat performer came smoothly through under Paddy Brennan to bring the stable tally to 63 for the season. “That equals our best score set last year,” says Sally. With five months of the season to go, a first century must be in the offing, not wishing to jinx it, of course.
There can only have been one highlight of the day, though, the unchallenged victory of the David Pipe-trained Vieux Lion Rouge in the Becher Chase over three and a quarter miles and 21 fences of the Grand National course. Now an 11-year-old, Vieux Lion Rouge won on his first try in the race four years ago, by which time he’d already run in the previous April’s Grand National won by Rule The World.
Opportunities for tackling Aintree’s National fences don’t come very often. It’s feasible, but very rare for a horse to run twice at a Grand National meeting, needing a run either in the Topham or Foxhunters as well as the big race. Back in 1977 Churchtown Boy won the Topham on the Thursday and then finished runner-up as Red Rum completed his third and final Grand National victory, to which he could add two second places in between the second and third wins.
Vieux Lion Rouge, owned by Professor Caroline Tisdall and John Gent, has run nine times around the Grand National course – it would have been ten without a break, no doubt, had the 2020 Grand National been run. Twice the big race has needed to have one of its 30 fences omitted for safety reasons, so Vieux Lion Rouge has navigated safely over an almost-unimaginable total of 223 fences without mishap. The one blemish on his safe jumping career was an unseat of Tom Scudamore three fences out one day at Chepstow when he was still in with a chance of winning. Two pulled ups also slightly mar his otherwise excellent completion record in all races.
Considering he must now be regarded as an Aintree specialist, the fact that he has won 11 of his 27 other races, between bumpers, hurdles and chases, as well as the two around the big fences, speaks volumes for his versatility, talent and the trainer’s skill. Tom Scudamore must have been livid to have been on the Pipe’s stable’s apparently better-fancied Ramses De Teillee on Saturday, a 13-2 shot against the 12-1 SP of the winner. That made it still only eight times in the gelding’s long career that Scudamore had not partnered him. That also included his first Grand National challenge back in 2016 when James Reveley was in the saddle. Tom has been on the gelding on all his other Aintree excursions.
For a few years I’d been thinking that Aintree had become relatively soft, something that the old timers regularly trot out. That wasn’t the case on Saturday, possibly with the testing ground contributing to the potential for errors and fatigue. That this old boy could canter round behind but in touch with a very strong field, go to the front easily by the second-last fence and draw 24 lengths clear up the run-in was a marvellous display and brilliant advertisement for the talents of David Pipe and of course a certain older member of the family who still keeps careful watch on events equine down in Somerset.