Monday Musings: Triskaidekaphilia?

The number 13 is supposed to have unlucky connotations, writes Tony Stafford. Events thirteen years ago next weekend were the reverse for me. As the tall, mid-European said having approached me with a yellowish-coloured ring between his fingers all those years ago: “It’s your lucky day!”

He could hardly have imagined that his theatrical display of stooping down a few yards in front of me as we progressed in opposite directions along Finchley Road near St John’s Wood Station and brandishing the item triumphantly would have such lasting repercussions.

Or indeed just how lucky it was to prove.
It led to my being introduced a few hours later at Kempton Park to Raymond Tooth by his friend Derek Hatter, who’d been asked to verify the authenticity of the ring as we bumped into each other at the track. Derek revealed a few days later that the jeweller tasked with that professional action declared the fact it went green very quickly was not encouraging.

Entirely encouraging was the meeting with Punjabi’s owner, after his Nicky Henderson-trained gelding had romped to a 19-length triumph in the Adonis Hurdle booking his place in the Triumph at the Cheltenham Festival the following month.

We hit it off and then another chance encounter with my good friend Tony Mullins, outside the Victor Chandler tent where we had all been based that Gold Cup day, led to a going-home 12-1 winner, Pedrobob, in the County Hurdle, which clearly sealed the deal as Raymond’s racing manager.

Now on Saturday, again a consequence of unlikely events, the Tooth colours of grey and pink will be in action in the same Kempton race with Waterproof. We had formulated a plan to try to get him qualified for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle next month. That needed him to have had three runs over jumps and the third was to be either at Haydock in last Saturday’s Victor Ludorum or the back-up race suggested by Shaun Keightley at Market Rasen yesterday.

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We didn’t fancy the heavy ground at Haydock, or the likelihood of having to face Goshen, pencilled in by Gary Moore for that race. A hard race on heavy would probably have caused his 127 rating to be vulnerable had Goshen run riot, but in the end he didn’t run at all. Nor did we as Storm Dennis washed out Market Rasen and most of the countryside everywhere else.

It’s doubtful that running this weekend will constitute qualification. Entries for the Boodles close tomorrow and at that stage he does not have the necessary three runs. The handicap is fixed next week but I fear it is probably too late, so we’re going to check. David Dickinson gave Waterproof 127 after his wide-margin Fakenham win, but he probably wouldn’t have won at all had Bran, who’d just taken it up, not fallen heavily at the last flight.
It had been a plan for some time, immediately after his promising debut third at Huntingdon, to get two placed runs into him and then run against older handicappers, taking advantage of the big age allowance for juveniles. The number 127 certainly didn’t enter calculations at that stage. Now the best way of dealing with it is to get the third run in so that entry in future valuable handicaps can be made. If he’s not good enough for the Goshens of this world – and no doubt he’ll be in the line-up at Kempton – then so be it.

Goshen’s latest win, by 11 lengths in a small field at Ascot, had the experienced Nordano in a respectful second. That Neil King-trained gelding had run six times before Saturday with a couple of wins in acquiring the same rating as Waterproof. I remember writing in this column that I thought Goshen could give twice the 17lb he’s officially rated above Waterproof and still beat him half the track, so not much confidence there for Saturday!

But when Nordano turned out back at Ascot in the mud last Saturday off 127 which translated to 10st bottom weight against his elders, I think my opinion of Goshen’s rating was borne out. Nordano and Aidan Coleman set off in front and, jumping fluently, strolled away in the straight to win the near two and a half miler by 16 lengths. Mr Dickinson will exact his revenge: I wonder if he might act retrospectively on Goshen’s mark?

A couple of the sport’s icons returned to action over the weekend. First Cyrname, reappearing after his King George blow-out and back on the scene of his earlier explosion of Altior’s unbeaten record, looked a much less formidable chaser than hitherto, already consigned to last of four in the attempt at a repeat in the Ascot Chase. Riders Onthe Storm also looked sure to be denied as long-absent Traffic Fluide loomed up dangerously.
His capsize, which was spectacular enough, did not carry anything like as much public concern as Cyrname’s and when the latter eventually rose, it was to a massive cheer of relief.

Even though Cyrname was a 4-11 shot, I didn’t fancy him one jot, unlike Nordano earlier. His defeat of Altior over a trip beyond anything previously attempted by the champ, would have taken a toll on both horses. While Nicky Henderson gave Altior until Newbury nine days ago for his comeback, Cyrname was asked to battle with stable-mate Clan Des Obeaux, again over a longer distance than he’d ever previously attempted.

I was told that Nicholls excused the defeat saying that Kempton was a stiff track, exactly contradicting anything he and many others including Nicky Henderson always say about it being “sharp”. The way Cyrname stopped almost to a walk in the King George could hardly have been encouragement for his winning a top-class race only five weeks later and so it proved, hopefully with no lasting after-effects.

A similar situation occurred two decades earlier when I was involved with the Thoroughbred Corporation whose Royal Anthem had just won the Group 1 Juddmonte International by eight lengths from a top-class field of 12. Just over three weeks later he went on to the Irish Champion Stakes, with the general in-house attitude: “He never had a race at York!” Winning a Group 1 race of that quality? Not much he did, and it showed with a 13-length fifth to Daylami at Leopardstown. Neither trainer, owner, US racing manager and UK manager were there. Just me, and it befell me on Dick Mulhall’s irate say-so from California to check with the racecourse vet whether he’d been got at! The answer was easy enough. He was knackered. It cost him Horse of the Year honours, too.

The second icon to appear this weekend was dual Grand National hero Tiger Roll, only fifth but far from disgraced in a  Boyne Hurdle run in appalling ground at Navan. He’d won the race the previous year as a 25-1 shot building up to the Cheltenham Cross-Country and second Aintree triumph. He’d run the previous November but this time after much-publicised training issues and even more public attempts to intimidate handicapper Martin Greenwood into handing him a penalty kick of a handicap mark for the hat-trick attempt, it’s now down to business.

Fifth place here in a very strong race, won by stable and owner-mate Cracking Smart at 16-1, was creditable, especially as Magic of Light, last year’s Grand National second and already a winner over both hurdles and fences this term, was last home. The fear for the Tiger Roll team, more than the weight itself, would be if this extreme wet weather should result in testing ground at Aintree. Then, I fear, something, probably a light-weight, will come along to deny the hat-trick attempt.

- TS

Monday Musings: May Debestyman Win (Soon)

It hardly beholds me to criticise a fellow member of the media, but prompted by my friend Peter Ashmore, with whom I attended Kempton Park races on Saturday, and having reviewed the film of the finish of the Lanzarote Hurdle, I have to agree with him, writes Tony Stafford. After the horse we’d mutually dug out, Debestyman had jumped the second-last flight in front and was clearly going further away, there could have been little danger.

But then, edging left as they often do approaching the last flight in hurdle races there, unlike first time round when they cluster on the far side, Debestyman, an 8-1 shot carrying a little of Peter’s hard-earned made the first semblance of any mistake. He hit the flight and, jack-knifing to an extent that made it impossible for Micheal Nolan to stay aboard, the jockey duly went out the side door.

Meanwhile the nearest challenger, Notre Pari with Barry Geraghty in the J P McManus colours, also came down, in his case with an authentic heavy fall leaving Nicky Henderson, Geraghty’s more usual employer in the UK, to benefit for another of his major owners, Michael Buckley, with Burrows Edge, ridden by Nico de Boinville.

Sometimes Peter favours watching some of the “away” races in the small William Hill betting shop and returning there we both found it pretty galling to hear the winning punters coming up to the counter behind us saying: “He probably would have won anyway.”

Debestyman had three-mile form, so this 2m5f was in no way the limit to his stamina and such comments were as ridiculous as the average betting-shop punter from the 1970’s who used to stay all day and do his cash every afternoon. “No names!” The big firms must be wishing there were a few more of us (sorry, them) around never mind the public face of the “bet responsibly” rubric.

But returning to my point, Debestyman was edging slightly leftward and as horses clearly do have peripheral vision, he could hardly have missed the sight that confronted him immediately behind the obstacle. There, standing on a step ladder, was a photographer intent on the best shot. He got one. Peter was sure in the moment of his jumping, he must have been at least a little distracted, maybe even a shade frightened by the sight of a giant human within yards of him in mid-leap. Scrutiny of the film does not entirely rule out the possibility.

I’d love to see his shot. In the old days it would have been hawked around the Fleet Street picture desks – any unusual action like the completely unbalanced attitude of Debestyman at the time of the collision with the obstacle. At Kempton just at the side as you enter the track, they have a hurdle and a fence and they are both – even the smaller hurdle – very solid and big enough.

There were many more disadvantaged people after that incident than Peter and myself, for all it had turned a nice winning day for us into a small loss. But for owners The Plumpton Party and trainer Suzy Smith it was an unmitigated disaster.

She’s gone to one of the top tracks for a featured hurdle race on the back of a season where from 30 previous runs, she’d won two races. I saw the latest at first hand at Fakenham on New Year’s Day when Clondaw Bisto collected £5,490 for winning a handicap chase in good style.

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Suzy, based on the old Lewes racecourse, has also won this season with Oscarsman, who earned £4,094 for his defeat of Bean in Trouble at local course Plumpton at the beginning of December.

She had gone to Tattersalls Cheltenham sale in May 2018, returning home with Irish point winner Debestyman for £28,500 and almost to the day of Saturday’s frustrating events, “did what it said on the tin” by winning a two and a half mile novice hurdle at Plumpton. A proper Plumpton Party indeed.

So then it was on to Kempton and a challenge for a big one. Before the day, a season’s endeavour had yielded a total of £21,061 in win and place earnings for the Smith stable. The owners collectively would have got around 65% of that; the trainer maybe enough to pay the diesel for a few trips to the races from her couple of grand share of the riches.

Saturday’s race was worth almost five thousand more alone at £26.5k and most annoyingly of all, as the Racing Post analysis glibly observed: “…he looked unlucky and the handicapper will take note, so this may have been an opportunity missed.”  That’s right, put him up 10lb and make sure he won’t win again. You have one good horse and opportunities are few and far between. Maybe this is a time for the handicapper to show some sympathy.

What I’d like to see is for the Horserace Writers and Photographers Association to identify the snapper concerned, confiscate his step ladder and offer Miss Smith and the owners an apology. Obviously nobody can tell whether the horse was distracted but there’s a fair chance he was.

It was interesting that Suzy Smith had a welcome winner at Fakenham on New Year’s Day, just before Waterproof, also the beneficiary of a last-flight exit, the fall of Bran when almost a length to the good.

Waterproof got a 127 rating which makes him a borderline possibility for the Boodles Handicap Hurdle (Fred Winter) but Shaun Keightley thinks we might need another win and say an extra 4lb to increase the chance of his making the cut.

It wasn’t the idea to brag about Ray Tooth’s Pour Moi gelding – not this week anyway! - but another nice one for the exiled sire, Wolf Prince, won again at Fairyhouse on Saturday and also has ‘our’ race in mind. It was simply to applaud the tiny but ultra-friendly Fakenham track, run so efficiently by David Hunter, for its excellent prize money.

Kempton’s card opened with what was in effect a Triumph Hurdle / Boodles warm-up and the first three finishers would all easily make the top half of the Boodles field. The winner Goa Lil (Twiston-Davies/ Munir, Souede); Lord Lamington (King/ Netherfield House Stud) and Fraser Island (Henderson/ Spence) will all be on at least 135, yet they were running for a scandalous £4,158. Waterproof, yet to show anything like their class, collected £5,198 for his four minutes around Norfolk.

Gary Moore had juvenile hurdle races on his mind after the Friday abandonment of Huntingdon, the course suffering a creeping flooding when the neighbouring streams suddenly encroached after it rained in mid-morning.

The loss of an obvious opportunity for his Triumph 7-1 joint-favourite Goshen was an irritation but nothing like his reaction to the news that the BHA would not re-schedule the race.

They argued a four-horse field was one factor while the availability of other options made it unnecessary. Gary seems set on a juvenile race at Ascot this Saturday when the penalty scales are only slightly different. At Huntingdon Goshen would have carried an 8lb penalty, whereas at Ascot it is 10lb. The Ascot race, Gary will have noted, is worth less than half the value of the abandoned Chatteris Fen Hurdle.

Interestingly, Moore, who was a frequent in-and-out visitor to our sometime perch in the little William Hill shop, looked thunderous most of the time. Maybe he was remembering that 12 months ago, he ran the similarly-penalised Beat The Judge in the same race and he was a well-beaten third behind two unpenalised rivals.

Beat The Judge, around 20lb inferior to Goshen on the Flat, has never won since, but remains rated around 140. Goshen is on 143 and I reckon on what I’ve seen of this highly-talented stayer he’d give Waterproof at least double the official amount between them and still kick him into touch.

My favourite moment from Saturday, apart from another fantastic performance from a Hughie Morrison bumper filly, Maridadi, a five-length victress at Wetherby, was further proof that three miles around Kempton takes some getting in soft ground.

In the handicap chase, On The Blind Side ran a brave race but was anchored by 11st12lb, still gallantly running on to pinch third on the line. The winner was Miss Millie Wonnacott, claiming 7lb on the Neil Mulholland bottom-weight Fingerontheswitch. Her allowance brought the 10-year-old’s weight down to 9st8lb and therefore he was receiving 32lb from Alan Spence’s horse. Up the straight there was only one horse running!

Sharp track isn’t it?

- TS