Monday Musings: Chester Chat and the HIT Book

Joy O Joy! Tuesday morning, almost two months later than usual when the social-distancing postman left my little package on the doorstep having already scooted ten yards away before I answered the doorbell, it was here, writes Tony Stafford.

A helpful bookseller used his influence to get a pal to send me my copy of Horses In Training, guaranteed reading matter for the next two months and reference until the next one arrives hopefully off the bookstall at Cheltenham racecourse next March.

I swiftly turned to the William Haggas page and saw with some surprise that he had the same number of horses listed – 199 – as last year. On further scrutiny they WERE the same horses. Not surprisingly, as I’d been sent last year’s book.

When a friend does you a favour you need to let him down lightly, and he took no umbrage, instead putting in motion the right volume, which duly arrived speedily enough on Friday morning. I note that Mr Haggas is doing rather badly in stock market company annual results terms with just 197 horses under his care this time round. Still he’ll have one per cent more free time this year for which I’m sure he and Maureen will be grateful.

They’ll have to get son and ace agent Sam to get a few new owners through the door. Maybe he already has at the breeze-ups this spring?

Chester has come and gone – without me, of course, but Harry Taylor dutifully went driving up on his own on Tuesday evening. For anyone who has never been there in May, Chester town centre is the busiest and most vibrant place with bars, restaurants and hotels brim-full with people for the whole week.

After checking in to his up-the-hill-from-the-track hotel at what appeared a more-than-bargain rate, he thought he ought to stretch his legs – and found a ghost town: nothing open and freezing cold to boot!

Never mind, he thought, tomorrow we’ve got the owners’ restaurant at the track – the best food anywhere in UK racing bar maybe the Royal Ascot Racing Club, but they don’t let the likes of us in there! Not this year: “It’s the worst food I’ve had anywhere. Newmarket and Sandown were great, in fact for the first time I found a racecourse chef that could cook roast potatoes properly, but this was dreadful.

“Because of Covid, the waitresses weren’t allowed to serve food so we had it cold in a cardboard box.” Harry was booked in for three nights so he was gritting his teeth, but after the lunch debacle and then being forced to stay outside, by the evening he decided he’d had enough.

“Thursday morning I set off for home. I’m sure if I’d stayed another day I’d have got pneumonia”, he said. Having denied myself the usual bonhomie with Harry and also Alan Newman (another absentee this time) that we’d enjoyed for the past few years, it was probably fortunate that I stayed home.

One delight we missed was a promised Thursday dinner with Ian Williams, on the eve of his nine-pronged challenge on the Chester Cup (three) and Chester Plate, the consolation race in which he had six runners.

Ian’s The Grand Visir was a brilliant second in the historic Cup to the Irish (yes, them again) Falcon Eight, trained by Dermot Weld and ridden by Frankie Dettori. That horse’s success owed as much to handicapping leniency as anything else and Dermot is a talented international trainer and one hardly needing any gratuitous assistance from officialdom.

The only Irish runner in the main race, the six-year-old’s most recent run was in a Group 3 at The Curragh last June when off level weights he was fourth, beaten just over five lengths by Twilight Payment.

While Falcon Eight was kicking his heels on The Curragh in the intervening ten and a half months, Twilight Payment added to that June win with another, by eight lengths, in a Group 2 over course and distance before a close third in the Irish St Leger.

Sent to Melbourne by Joseph O’Brien, Twilight Payment then won the 23-runner Melbourne Cup getting the better of an all-Irish, all O’Brien 1-2 just ahead of dad Aidan’s three-year-old Tiger Moth.

For those achievements, it might be thought that Twilight Payment may have earned more than the 5lb handicap rise the three wins and a Group 1 third have entailed. Even more mystifying, Falcon Eight, beaten five lengths by Twilight Payment on his last run at levels might expect to be no more than 5lb lower than Twilight Payment’s rating at the time, never mind the collateral form that handicappers are wont to invoke when it suits.

But no, this high-class stayer, who on Friday brought his career stats to four wins in ten runs, was DROPPED 4lb to 104. Just to get a flavour of the injustice, The Grand Visir, whose last win of five over his career came in the 2019 Ascot Stakes off 100, has been beaten nine times since then yet remains on 103!

Ian Williams’ six runners in the Plate did no better than the third achieved by versatile winning hurdler Hydroplane, but here another less expected owner of that surname which sprinkles nicely through the W’s in Horses In Training 2021 came to the fore.

This was heavy-ground steeplechase specialist Venetia Williams who since the mid-1990’s has sent out around 1500 winners over jumps in the UK.

It’s rather different on the Flat. In all, over 24 seasons she’s had a total of eight winners and by taking the Chester Plate with much-travelled Green Book she was equalling her best score for any season – namely one.

The eight wins have come in that time from 153 runners but this was the first from the five horses that have appeared from her stable over the last five seasons. Originally trained by Brian Ellison for his prominent owner Kristian Strangeway, Green Book was placed in four of five starts as a two-year-old.

Kristian moved the French-bred to France, presumably to take advantage of the higher prize money – especially for places – and owner premiums and was rewarded with five more runs in the money from eight starts for Patrick Monfort at Senonnes.

The decision was made to sell the gelding and he was picked up at Arqana’s Deauville sale in November for a partnership of owners of Venetia’s – 100% to go jumping.  He had one try, a promising second place over hurdles at Hereford in February and it seems the decision may well have been to keep him a novice for the embryo season which got going a couple of weeks back.

So instead of a second jumps run, Green Book turned up at Chester and the €30k buy made all under Franny Norton and was never troubled to take the £18k first prize. Venetia loves a French-bred and, of 80 horses in her stable according to HIT 2021, 40, including Green Book, started out from France.

There are other trainers with a higher proportion of horses emanating from that well-travelled source, even among trainers called Williams. Two, Mrs Jane and husband Nick are each listed as training at Culverhill Farm, George Nympton, South Molton, Devon and their strings are respectively numbers 583 and 584 of the 602 in the book – it also includes a few from outside the UK.

Mrs Jane has 24, all bar seven French-bred, while Nick has one more, so 25, and of these 20 are French-bred. It’s as close as you could get to an equal opportunities operation for their two teams.

The way they source raw material, often quite cheaply, from France and habitually turn it into competitive racehorses, is no mean feat given the West Country hothouse in which they choose to compete.

It’s a shame that Richard Fahey, for several years probably the trainer with the most horses but one who for years declined to reveal his hand where juveniles are concerned, now has pulled out completely. It’s a particular shame when you’re as nosey as me.

The new Gosden partnership still keeps the older horse contingent – 151 this year – available for snoopers, but for a couple of years now the juveniles have gone missing. I remember only a short time ago adding up the cost of all the auction-bought two-year-olds in dad John’s string and you were hard pushed to find many that cost much less than 100K with many three and four times that. It probably got uncomfortable just how advantaged they and others at the top end are in terms of numerical and quality of opportunity.

Three of the other of the big names – Johnston, Hannon, and Haggas – have their full strings available, but with sale prices expunged. How refreshing that Michael Easterby, who hit the age 90 mark on March 30, has no such sensitivities. Surely creating a UK training record for the number of horses in the care of a 90-year-old, he has 116 at Sheriff Hutton.

Twenty of the 41 juveniles have their sale price proudly displayed. The most expensive was a filly by Caravaggio, who is a likely champion first-crop sire, which cost £28,571. The cheapest purchase was a colt by Estidhkaar at £2,857. Go Mick! He, of course, has son David well to the fore as his assistant!

Nephew Tim  Easterby, son of Mick’s elder brother Miles Henry (Peter), who also happily is still very much around, has 173 and again, no coyness where prices for yearling buys is concerned. The Easterbys are so successful (and of course brilliant at their job) that soon they might be having as many horses as acres on which they train. <Don’t be silly, Ed!>.

Dettori rises to the occasion with Chester Cup masterclass

He may be 50 and by his own admission only motivated by the big occasions these days – but Frankie Dettori proved again that when it matters there are not many better as he plotted a route to tote+ Chester Cup glory on Falcon Eight.

The Dermot Weld-trained top-weight was slowly away, meaning Dettori was faced with the conundrum of taking his medicine at the back of the pack or rushing up around the outside.

He decided to drop in to save ground and it proved an inspired move, although it also helped that when push came to shove with half a mile to run he was sat on the best horse.

Dettori had ridden Falcon Eight – who hails from an illustrious Moyglare Stud family – to win at Sandown two years ago and also rode him later that year in the Prix du Cadran. That knowledge certainly helped as he knew when to press the button.

“I had to go to Plan C. I know he’s not the fastest away and they went fast, so I just thought ‘well, I’ve got to take it’,” he said.

“The pace was honest throughout, but I was able to take a pull and I saved ground by going all the way to the back. When we got to three and a half (furlongs) out I peeled off and went two or three wide.

“I was able to sling shot around the turn and in fairness he picked up. I know he was lumping 9st 10lb, but he is a Group horse really.”

It was that manoeuvre that won him the race. Dettori found himself in the clear and with over a furlong to run the result looked inevitable, as Falcon Eight powered down the centre of the track.

“He was so much on top at the finish Dettori was able to coast over the line, winning by two lengths.

Weld does not make a habit of booking the Italian, but when he does it is a tip in itself.

“Dermot always had this race in mind – he booked me three weeks ago – and he’s a master at these kind of things. He made my life easy,” said Dettori.

“It’s a bit like Australian racing with its short straight here, because you are on a stayer, you’ve got to get them going early between the three and the two.

“In fairness this horse can be lazy at times, but today he’s shown a good turn of foot. Maybe the headgear worked, but he’s a different horse to the one I rode in the past.”

Weld was not on the Roodee to elaborate on plans, but Falcon Eight’s days in handicaps are surely over having defied a mark of 104, meaning a step back up in class looks inevitable.

Falcon Eight swooped down the centre to win going away
Falcon Eight swooped down the centre to win going away (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“He won a Listed race (at Sandown), but maybe we over-faced him too quickly after that by running in the Prix du Cadran and races like that, but he’s matured now and he’s worth another go in some Group races,” said Dettori.

“I’m sure Mr Weld has plenty of good plans for him.”

Incredibly it was exactly 30 years since Dettori last won the Chester Cup, on Star Player in 1991. And the importance of such races are not lost on him.

He said: “I don’t remember it (first Chester Cup) – I hope I don’t have to wait another 30 years!

“It’s so hard to win these races. We all have plans but with so many runners on a tight track, you have to readjust. I just had to let the race unfold.

“The only thing I was worried about was that I had so many horses to pass, but the pace was honest throughout and I was able to make a move going past the four-pole.

“He can be very lazy at times and I thought if he hit one of his flat spots it will be hard to get him going in this short straight, but in fairness, he did pick up well today and I always had the race won from one out.

“I was saving ground until about half a mile out, but I started to make a move and then three out I thought ‘right, we’ve got to go now, we’ve got to get going’.

“I got some momentum going at the top of the bank and when we sling-shotted down.”

He makes it all sound so easy.

Falcon swoops in Chester Cup under inspired Dettori

Frankie Dettori ended a 30-year wait for his second victory in the tote+ Chester Cup aboard Dermot Weld’s Irish challenger Falcon Eight.

Out of the same mare that produced the top-class Free Eagle and dual Irish St Leger heroine Search For A Song, Falcon Eight was a 15-2 chance as he made his handicap debut under top-weight on the Roodee.

Dettori, who won the 1991 Chester Cup aboard Star Player, produced a typically well-executed ride aboard the Moyglare Stud Farm-owned six-year-old – keeping his powder dry in midfield for much of the two-and-a-quarter-mile feature.

The popular Italian allowed his mount to make inroads ahead of the home turn before switching wide, after which Falcon Eight powered up the straight to win comfortably by two lengths.

The Grand Visir filed the runner-up spot, with Hochfeld third and Coeur De Lion fourth.

Dettori said: “I had to go to Plan C. I know he’s not the fastest away and they went fast, so I just thought ‘well, I’ve got to take it’.

“The pace was honest throughout, but I was able to take a pull and I saved ground by going all the way to the back. When we got to three and a half (furlongs) out I peeled off and went two or three wide.

“I was able to sling shot around the turn and in fairness he picked up. I know he was lumping 9st 10lb, but he is a Group horse really.

“Dermot always had this race in mind – he booked me three weeks ago – and he’s a master at these kind of things. He made my life easy.

“It’s a bit like Australian racing with its short straight here, because you are on a stayer you’ve got to get them going early between the three and the two.”

He added: “I don’t remember it (first Chester Cup) – I hope I don’t have to wait another 30 years!”

Falcon Eight set for Chester Cup but Almighwar an absentee

Dermot Weld’s Falcon Eight heads the field for Friday’s tote+ Chester Cup Handicap, with ante-post favourite Almighwar an absentee.

John and Thady Gosden’s charge headed the market for the two-and-a-quarter-mile showpiece after finishing second on each of his two runs this year, but he did not feature among a maximum field of 17 for the handicap feature.

Falcon Eight, who will be partnered by Frankie Dettori, will carry 9st 10lb with dual-purpose performers Who Dares Wins and The Grand Visir also towards the handicap summit along with Themaxwecan, one of five runners for Mark Johnston.

The Kingsley House team also fields Lucky Deal, Hochfeld, Trumpet Man and Rochester House.

Who Dares Wins is one of two for Alan King along with Coeur De Lion, while The Grand Visir will be joined by fellow Ian Williams inmates Cardano and Reshoun.

Hughie Morrison’s classy hurdler Not So Sleepy takes his chance, with Rare Groove, Nate The Great, Future Investment, Glencadam Glory and Blakeney Point the other contenders.

A field of 14 goes to post in the consolation tote+ Chester Plate Handicap, with Mancini and Elysian Flame topping the list.

Five runners have been declared for the Melodi Media Huxley Stakes, including the Aidan O’Brien-trained Armory.

The four-year-old was last seen finishing a creditable second to former stablemate Sir Dragonet in the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley in October.

Easter Classic first and second, Bangkok and Palavecino, represent Andrew Balding and Brian Meehan respectively, with Sangarius and Bharani Star completing the line-up.