Compacting the 2020 racing season in Europe’s three major nations has caused some difficulties, but when weekends like the one we’ve just witnessed happen, then assuredly it will be remembered for many years, writes Tony Stafford.
The last of four days of the St Leger meeting started on Wednesday with a trial gathering of 2,500 spectators and then neutered back again to selected insiders only by rising Covid-19 infections, if not deaths, both locally and nationally. France, meanwhile, had its customary trials day on Sunday, three weeks ahead of the Arc meeting itself, and Irish Champions Weekend, at Leopardstown on Saturday and the Curragh yesterday, completed the puzzle.
Normally the trainers associated with the big winners would have wanted to be there to witness their achievements. That wasn’t the case for Joseph O’Brien, who completed an astonishing feat in his 28th year by becoming the only man since the great Harry Wragg to first ride and then train a St Leger winner when Galileo Chrome got the better of Berkshire Rocco under Tom Marquand on Town Moor.
As has been widely reported, Marquand fortuitously got the ride on his first Classic winner because his proposed mount, English King, was re-routed to Longchamp’s Grand Prix de Paris yesterday - where he ran disappointingly. Original booked rider Shane Crosse was in quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19 despite showing no symptoms and “feeling on top of the world”.
Harry Wragg, born in Sheffield in 1902, was one of the leading jockeys between the wars. Known as the Head Waiter for his preferred style of leaving his challenge late – a 1930’s prototype of Jamie Spencer - he won two St Legers, although only the first was truly authentic. Sandwich, in 1931, was trained at Newmarket by Jack Jarvis for the 6th Earl of Rosebery, once captain of Surrey CCC. The 1943 winner, Herringbone, trained by Walter Earl for the 17th Earl of Derby, the last of his six St Legers and twenty Classics in all, was a war-time substitute run at Newmarket.
Wragg’s sole training success in the St Leger was in the 1969 race when Intermezzo won under the Australian jockey Ron Hutchinson for Gerry Oldham. Thus Wragg, who began his training career in 1947, took 38 years between riding the winner of the Classic and training one.
Joseph O’Brien had retired from riding by the age of 23 having been a triple champion jockey in Ireland. He was 20 years old when Landing Light won the St Leger. Compared with Wragg he certainly isn’t any kind of “waiter” with just seven years between the two events.
Back in 1980, a year before Wragg’s retirement from training and only five before he died aged 82, I visited him at his Abington Place stables in Newmarket’s Bury Road, accompanied by his son Geoff who would take over the stable with continued success in 1982.
I went there with Prestatyn-born Bryn Crossley, who sadly died two years ago, as at the time I was helping book his rides. We worked together for only that season, when he was apprenticed to Geoff Huffer at Cheveley Park, the racing stables now the location for Cheveley Park Stud. It was mutually satisfying when that very popular and personable young Welshman became Champion Apprentice that year.
Harry Wragg had booked Bryn for his three-year-old filly Popaway, a sound stayer who from (questionable) memory had 6st9lb in the long handicap. The old master, a true innovator, and one of the first trainers to weigh his horses regularly, wanted to go through the race with Crossley and it was quite an experience for us both. Bryn claimed 5lb and was planning to get down to 7st2lb – which he comfortably managed - for only the second time in 1980. The first was on Jim Bolger’s Lynconwise at Leicester, a race he won very easily on Whit Monday.
There was a chance that if the original Cesarewitch top-weight were to come out at the overnight stage as was rumoured, there would be a big hike in the weights, but he stayed in and that left the very tough Popsi’s Joy, owned and bred by the bearded solicitor Victor Morley Lawson and trained by Michael Haynes at Epsom, to run almost loose on 8st6lb.
Haynes shrewdly booked Lester Piggott, still at the height of his powers in his mid-forties, for the ride at his minimum weight. Two furlongs out Crossley took Popaway to the front, but Lester and Popsi’s Joy were always going easily and soon joined the filly. The two horses quickly drew away from the other 25 runners which included Sir Michael, who had won for Huffer the previous year and John Cherry, successful four years previously under Piggott. Popsi’s Joy won comfortably by a couple of lengths with Popaway around five lengths clear of the rest.
Popsi’s Joy won eight races in 1980 and 17 in all, culminating in a four-length victory as a 10-year-old in the Tote Cesarewitch Trial at Warwick. He survived at Michael Haynes’ stables until dying, aged 25, in 2000.
There was a post-script, as the top-weight, who did eventually miss the race despite having been kept in until the final declaration stage, was to make one further minor footnote in his career.
In those days, the Press Association, where I worked for three years in the early 1970’s, used to issue for Weatherbys a daily bulletin of Official Scratchings in a system far removed from the instant technical processes of today. At the bottom was a sorry final section entitled, “All engagements – dead”. There within a few days of the race, while we were still bemoaning Popaway’s bad luck to be so far out of the weights, was the name of the absent top-weight. If that had happened in 2020, the conspiracy theorists would have had a field day. I think at the time I was just about the only person who noticed.
Incidentally, Morley Lawson had already owned a Cesarewitch winner, the Arthur Pitt-trained Ocean King, ridden by lightweight Tommy Carter in 1974. The previous year, Morley Lawson, then aged 67, won an amateur riders’ Flat race on that horse. I’ve mentioned here a million times about my part-time additional job as Editor of the old Racehorse newspaper. In the first front page piece I wrote for that still revered weekly, I happened to select Ocean King, who won at a long price.
In that issue, it was attributed to The Editor, and on the following Monday morning, my colleague Roger Jackson passed on a letter from Peter O’Sullevan noting the great tip and wishing him a successful career in the future. Understandably Roger’s name, alongside his greyhound selections, was the only one the always very gracious future Sir Peter could find to congratulate.
This past weekend was one of tremendous success for Irish stables, not least for the evergreen Dermot Weld who sent over his improving filly Tarnawa to beat Jean-Claude Rouget’s self-professed “champion filly” Raabibah by three lengths in the Prix Vermeille a couple of hours before his Search For A Song repeated last year’s success in the Irish St Leger. Amazingly – and I’d be willing to bet he never expected it to happen – that took him level on nine wins with Aidan O’Brien in that Classic’s long history.
Weld is 72, but he was not the oldest winning trainer at the meeting. Both Jessica Harrington, born a year before Weld, and Jim Bolger, her senior by a hardly-believable five years when you see him, were on the scorecard yesterday. The only notable non-celebrant on the day was Kevin Prendergast, still going strong and training winners. Kevin was born in 1932, the year after Harry Wragg’s first St Leger win as a jockey!
Harrington’s Cayenne Pepper won the Group 2 Blandford Stakes, but it was the exuberant triumph of her two-year-old colt Cadillac in Saturday’s mile Group 2, a win and you’re in ticket to the Breeders’ Cup, that caused most eyebrows to rise.
Over the weekend, British-based – or more accurately Yorkshire-based – trainers won four races, three of them yesterday. The single link is that John Quinn, who won a Group 2 race with the ultra-tough seven-year-old Safe Voyage on Saturday; Richard Fahey, with a Sunday double, and Kevin Ryan, who won a sprint with Glass Slippers, are all Irish.
Mrs Harrington needs to get somebody, presumably her daughter Kate who often works as an expert – which she surely is! - on Racing TV’s Irish coverage as well as an important cog in mum’s operation, to talk to Wikipedia. That fount of sometimes accurate knowledge, says she is “principally a trainer of National Hunt horses but has had some success in Flat racing”. Well said, Wikipedia.
One of the features of this behind-closed-doors season, which started in Ireland with Naas on June 8, has been the astounding success of the irrepressible Johnny Murtagh. He has already won 41 races, gaining a career-defining Group 1 win in Saturday’s Matron Stakes with the ever-improving Champers Elysees who came from last to first to see off the Group 1-winning Coolmore pair of Peaceful (Aidan) and Fancy Blue (Donnacha). Johnny, highly successful in his time at Ballydoyle of course, continued riding when he first took out a training licence and was in the saddle in 2013 for his first four stakes winners, three at Group level. Champers Elysees was his first Group 1 and a memorable one.
Murtagh also concluded the two-day and two-venue extravaganza with a spectacular handicap win with his 99-rated (up from 68 three runs ago) Sonnyboyliston, who drew almost five lengths clear of the other 21 runners. Talk about a Group winner in handicapper’s clothing!
Meanwhile Dad and the two precocious sons more than did their bit to keep the family firm in the ascendant. Donnacha had only a handful of runners over the two days but yesterday his Galileo filly, Shale, carrying the Derrick Smith silks, reversed Debutante Stakes form with Joseph’s Pretty Gorgeous when making all in the Group 1 Moyglare Stakes.
Joseph wasn’t content with just the one Group 1 winner over the weekend, though. In a high-class renewal of the National Stakes his once-raced Thunder Moon produced a sensational burst from an unpromising position in the colours of Mrs Chantal Regalo-Gonzalez. Aidan’s duo of Wembley and St Mark’s Basilica avoided trouble in that congested affair to take second and third. It would be more than interesting to see Thunder Moon and Cadillac line up in competition before the end of the year, maybe in Kentucky.
And as ever there was Aidan. His two 2020 Derby winners, Santiago from the Curragh and Serpentine, who made such a mess of the Derby field at Epsom, reappeared, although to be pedantic Santiago had run third to Stradivarius in the Goodwood Cup in between.
Serpentine went across to France for the Grand Prix de Paris and could finish no nearer than fourth to his hitherto disappointing stable-companion Mogul, who had gone into Epsom as the Ballydoyle number one. This was Mogul’s third run since Epsom and he took advantage of his subsequent race-hardening to suggest that those earlier high hopes for him were not illusory. Serpentine, foregoing front-running this time, will have plenty to say in the future, I’m sure.
The two 2019 Derby winners were also out over the weekend. While Curragh hero Sovereign could not keep up the gallop after setting the pace in the Irish St Leger, Anthony Van Dyck avenged that Goodwood Cup reverse for his stable by holding Stradivarius all the way to the line in the Prix Foy at Longchamp. He has not always been able to replicate the form that won him last year’s Derby but on his day, and given fast ground, he’s a formidable Group 1 performer.
Sorry Aidan, it’s not going to get any easier keeping that armada of middle-distance Classic colts apart, especially when you add to the mix Tiger Moth, a four-length Group 3 winner on Saturday in his first race since a strong-finishing second in the Irish Derby. And that’s not to forget where Magical comes into the picture. Good enough to stay close to Ghaiyyath before outpointing her York nemesis memorably in Saturday’s Irish Champion Stakes, this insatiable five-year-old phenomenon will keep her male companions in the shadows for as long as she wants to continue.