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A Racing “Guess Who”

When people have been around the racing game for a while, especially when they haven’t had the good fortune to crack it in the way of a Henderson or an Aidan O’Brien, a good way of teasing out their identity is to offer snippets from their lifetime, writes Tony Stafford.

We all know about Mr Frisk, the Kim Bailey-trained Grand National winner ridden by the amateur Marcus Armytage, son of trainer Roddy and brother to the first female Hennessy Gold Cup winning rider Gee, later Tony McCoy’s secretary.

Marcus was subsequently a colleague of mine at the Daily Telegraph – indeed he is still there. But our mystery man beat the youthful Old Etonian to it, winning five chases in a row, and unbeaten in six on the gelding in an invincible season as a novice, at one point telling an interviewing journalist that he and Mr Frisk would win the Grand National. Events would subsequently conspire for the combination of horse and jockey to be broken through no fault of our rider.

Next clue, born and bred in West Ham, East London, he went to the same school as did - a good few years earlier of course - Michael Tabor and the late and much-loved David Johnson, owner of all those wonderful jumpers with Martin Pipe. Our hero’s father Norman, youngest of a family of 13 after serving with distinction in the army, joined the Daily Telegraph as a printer.

In the days of hot metal linotype he and his many skilled colleagues would stand one side of the “stone”, the flat piece of the print room’s furniture along which the individual pages would be laid out and constructed. He would help the sub-editor – very often me on the racing pages – standing on the other side to fit it all in from my upside-down, back-to-front perspective. My job was assisted by having paper printers’ single long “takes” of the individual stories and racing cards which had to be cut to length – rather different nowadays with instant editing for all, not least without all the sensitivities of not crossing other unions’ demarcation lines.

Knowing what and how much to cut was the key but a good stone man on the other side made it easy and Norman knew his stuff all right. I loved those days and can still read newspapers upside down – maybe not the most helpful attribute these days, rather like knowing Latin declensions and conjugations!

A bit sketchy so far, well how about this? At 6ft 2 1/2inches he was the tallest jump jockey of his time. One season he broke his right collarbone nine times; it was only when ironically riding Bailey’s Just For The Crack at Newbury that both went in the same fall.

After retiring from race riding in the mid-1990’s he would not begin training in his own right for a few years, instead working as Norman Mason’s assistant – the assistant to the amusement machine magnate from the North-East was in effect the trainer.

Mason also had a Grand National winner, but Red Marauder’s success in 2001 when one of only four finishers happened after the mystery man’s departure having overseen his novice win. He was already setting up his own stable by then. What has defined him in the intervening two decades has been his extreme patience waiting, it seems, forever to land a touch for his owner, then carrying it off with certainty.

If you haven’t got it yet you never will so here we go - say hello to Alan Jones. From West Ham to the West Country via Northumberland has been a stretch. He still stands just as tall and with a season-best of ten a while ago and more likely four or five every term from his ten-strong string of individually and minutely prepared jumpers, he keeps the show going for his owners.

One of them enjoyed such a winning punt on his veteran horse Tiquer in the winter of 2017-18 that he decided to invest at a higher level. “He won 140 grand”, recalls Alan, “so decided to go to Goff’s in Ireland that October to look for a smart yearling. He had been using an agent but he thought his fees excessive, so he asked me to go along and find a nice filly for around 100-110k”, recalls Alan.

“We started with a dozen but boiled it down and eventually settled on a Camelot filly. To my surprise we got her for €100,000. The wind came out of my sails a bit when the owner sent her to Richard Hannon, but she was from a major Coolmore source, consigned by Timmy Hyde’s Camas Park stud, so you would have expected her to go to a big Flat yard. In any case, he is my biggest owner so you’d want to keep him happy.

“Of course, I kept my ear to the ground, listening for news on how she was doing at Hannon’s. It seemed she didn’t make the expected progress and it was as much an economy measure as anything else when I was asked to take her for the winter as a two-year-old”, said Jones. The next season as a three-year-old soundness was again an issue with her so it was back again to Mr Jones for some more rest and recuperation.

Ironically, recalls Jones, it was just when he detected the filly was starting to shape up that the owner nearly brought the project to an untimely end. “She was improving every day and then suddenly there was a potential buyer wanting to send her to stud unraced. I told the owner I thought we could still do something with her and luckily he finally agreed.”

Thus on Sunday, prepared on the same type of hill up which Martin Pipe, who in Jones’s estimation, completely changed the science of training racehorses, Lady Excalibur was finally ready to go.

The chosen target, a bumper at Stratford last Sunday, came along 1,021 days after Alan Jones signed the docket to re-invest that big chunk of his owner’s massive touch. After the event he reckoned “she’s not quick” but if you watch the video of where she is turning for home and where she is at the finish with Tom O’Brien sitting pretty you might have another opinion. The world is her oyster and whatever she does on the track she will always have a value as a potential broodmare.

As Tom told him afterwards, “You are just like my Uncle Aidan, you can perform miracles. This one certainly is”. Praise indeed, but when your stable is limited to a handful of animals, candidates for such miracles come along only rarely. In 60-year-old Alan Jones’ case 1,021 days from purchase to payoff is a bit of a sprint!

- TS

Nicholls has long-term Grand National plan for Topofthegame

Paul Nicholls has identified next year’s Randox Grand National as a long-term target for his sidelined stable star Topofthegame.

Winner of the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, the Flemensfirth gelding finished second to Lostintranslation at Aintree the following month but has not been seen in competitive action since.

Just as was the case this season before injury intervened, Nicholls hopes to see his charge return to action in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury at the end of November.

However, while he once considered him a serious contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he now views the world’s most famous steeplechase as a more suitable aim for the nine-year-old.

The Queen feeds carrots to Topofthegame on a visit to Ditcheat
The Queen feeds carrots to Topofthegame on a visit to Ditcheat (Matt Keeble/PA)

Speaking on a call hosted by Great British Racing ahead of being crowned champion trainer for a 12th time at Sandown on Saturday, Nicholls said of Topofthegame: “He’s fine and the plan would be for him to come in on July 1 and aim him again at the Ladbrokes Trophy.

“Now he’s a bit older this year and has had a few problems – in my view, the race to train him for would be the National.

“I think he would be fantastic round Aintree as he’s got some class.

“My aim is to try to get him back on track and have a good crack at trying to win the National with him.

“It’s not going to be easy – it’s a challenge – but he’s in good shape at the moment.”

Rachael Blackmore on the crest of a wave after National heroics

Rachael Blackmore is still struggling to comprehend the magnitude of her achievement after claiming Randox Grand National glory at Aintree.

The 31-year-old is used to breaking boundaries, having risen from relative obscurity to becoming one of the leading National Hunt jockeys on either side of the Irish Sea in the space of six years as a professional.

Just last month Blackmore became the first woman to ride the winner of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, aboard the brilliant mare Honeysuckle, and her six winners at the Festival saw her crowned leading jockey.

While those significant triumphs transcended sport to a certain degree, Saturday’s historic victory in the world’s greatest steeplechase has seen reluctant superstar Blackmore receive global acclaim.

“It’s still hard to process it all, to be honest. It’s been unbelievable,” she said.

“I was meant to fly home on Saturday night, but I missed my flight so I came home on the boat on Sunday and got home on Sunday evening.

“I genuinely lay awake in bed all night on Saturday. I was completely exhausted and got into bed thinking I was going to have a great night’s sleep, but I just could not shut down. I’ve been catching up on sleep ever since!

“I just couldn’t believe what had happened, I suppose. Your adrenaline would still be up and you’d be thinking about what was one of the biggest days of my life, so sleep just wouldn’t allow!”

Blackmore is well used to big-race success, but admits the feeling of winning the National on the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Times was different to anything she has experienced before.

Rachael Blackmore receives the Randox Grand National trophy
Rachael Blackmore receives the Randox Grand National trophy (David Davies/PA)

“It’s a very exciting race to be part of,” she told the PA news agency.

“I’d ridden Minella Times before, and he’s a beautiful horse to ride who jumps really well, so I was looking forward to going over the National fences with him.

“There’s a lot of anticipation in the build-up to the National. It’s so unique – 40 horses and 30 jumps. I suppose excitement was the overriding emotion on Saturday morning.

“You know very quickly if a horse is taking to the fences or not, and Minella Times absolutely took to them. After we jumped two or three fences, I knew he was really enjoying himself, and we got a fantastic passage around.

“Once you’ve got over The Chair and the water jump, you can kind of take a breath then as you’ve got over everything and you just have to go and do it once more!”

While Minella Times appeared to have victory in safe-keeping up the run-in, it was not until he passed the post that Blackmore let herself believe she had secured the most momentous of wins.

She added: “I could hear the commentator saying we were four lengths ahead, and I knew my horse wasn’t fading under me – he was going to stay galloping to the line. That is when I had the realisation that it might happen – and a few strides later it did happen.

“The feeling was just complete elation. It’s slightly different to Cheltenham – where you’re riding Honeysuckle in a Champion Hurdle, she’s favourite, and there’s a good bit of pressure attached to it.

“Going out in the Grand National, I didn’t feel any pressure. There’s not the same expectation, because everyone involved knows the amount of luck that’s involved.

“After Honeysuckle, my initial feeling was more relief, and then joy, whereas after the National it was complete joy straightaway.”

Rachael Blackmore could not believe she had claimed National glory
Rachael Blackmore could not believe she had claimed National glory (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Usually so composed in a race and afterwards, Blackmore did not find it so easy to keep her emotions in check on Merseyside.

“I probably was (emotional) afterwards, but it’s the Aintree Grand National – it’s such a big race,” she said.

“That’s not to say they’re not big races at Cheltenham. But Cheltenham is four days, with extremely important horses running every day – you can’t really allow yourself to kick back on Tuesday evening and enjoy the day, because you’ve a very important day the next day.

“After the National, Aintree was done. I had a ride in the bumper, but it’s just different.”

Among those who have congratulated Blackmore on her National triumph are tennis great Billie Jean King and Ringo Starr, drummer with The Beatles.

“It’s phenomenal,” she said.

“We used to go on camping holidays to France when we were younger, and The Beatles would be on the CD player in the car.

“I grew up listening to them, so it’s hard to believe when you’ve got people like that sending you well wishes.

“I’ve received well-wishes from everywhere, and people are just so kind. I feel extremely lucky to be in the position I’m in.”

Unlike many of her weighing-room colleagues, Blackmore was not bred to be a jockey.

Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham
Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham (David Davies/Jockey Club)

However, from an early age, the daughter of a dairy farmer and a secondary schoolteacher loved horses –  and the Grand National in particular.

She added: “I remember when the sileage was cut trying to get my pony to jump the channels of grass in the field – and imagined I was jumping fences at Aintree.

“The Grand National was the first thing that captured my imagination in the world of racing. It’s that kind of special race that captures a global audience – I never thought that I’d be winning it some day.

“I know I keep saying it, but it is genuinely hard to comprehend.”

Blackmore has certainly not had it easy, kicking off her riding career as an amateur struggling for winners on the point-to-point circuit before making the bold decision to turn professional at the age of 25.

Her career in the paid ranks got off to a steady rather than spectacular start, but she insists she never doubted she had made the right decision.

She said: “It took me a while to get that first winner as a professional, but I was no stranger to waiting a long time for a winner – they didn’t exactly come thick and fast as an amateur.

“There was never a moment where I thought ‘have I done the right thing?’, and that was mainly because I was riding a lot more.

“I was going racing nearly every day. It might have only been for one or two rides, but I was racing a lot more than before – which meant I was getting more practice and getting better at what I was doing.

“I received a lot of support. Shark Hanlon was my main backer then, and I wasn’t getting anxious because the winner wasn’t coming because that is racing, unfortunately.”

Not one to seek the limelight, Blackmore is nevertheless aware of her current position as a role model to potential jockeys of the future – whether that be male or female.

She said: “When I was starting off, I was seeing Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh achieving massive things. Seeing what they were achieving encouraged me and never made me think about gender – I never entered the weighing room thinking about gender.

“Hopefully that will just carry on now, and the same encouragement will be there for other people.

“We’re very lucky in our sport that it (gender) isn’t an issue. It’s the same with the likes of Hollie Doyle on the Flat – you’d be hoping that those things will all help.”

Blackmore is keen to pay tribute to De Bromhead, who himself has enjoyed remarkable success at Cheltenham and Aintree.

Henry de Bromhead and Blackmore at Aintree
Henry de Bromhead and Blackmore at Aintree (David Davies/PA)

As if becoming the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and the Gold Cup in the same week were not enough, he also saddled the second in the Gold Cup and the first two in the Grand National, with Minella Times followed home by stablemate Balko Des Flos.

“Henry’s achievements are nothing short of phenomenal,” she said.

“It’s incredible what he’s done – it has never happened before. I really hope that angle of it is not forgotten.

“To train those winners in Cheltenham, and have a one-two in the Gold Cup, was incredible – and then to come out and have a one-two in the Grand National, it really is a phenomenal story.

“He’s an exceptional trainer, and I feel very lucky to be part of his team. He’s got a very good team of staff that work for him, and it’s a privilege to be part of the whole thing.”

Blackmore and Townend (left) are battling out for the jockeys' championship in Ireland
Blackmore and Townend (left) are battling out for the jockeys’ championship in Ireland (PA)

With Cheltenham and Aintree in the rear-view mirror for this season, Blackmore is relishing the challenges ahead – with the Punchestown Festival next on the big-race calendar.

She can look forward to plenty of high-profile mounts and potentially making more history, as a thrilling race with Paul Townend to be crowned Ireland’s champion jockey comes to its climax.

Theirs is a friendship and rivalry which dates back to Blackmore claiming a very first victory on the pony racing circuit when she was just 15.

“I’d say I rode in five or six pony races in total, and Paul would have been very accomplished at the time and the champion pony race rider,” said Blackmore.

“For me, it took a lot longer for the penny to drop. He was extremely good back then, and I was definitely not in the same league.

Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore during the Grand National
Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore during the Grand National (Tim Goode/PA)

“You wouldn’t think we’d be in the situation we are now if you look back at the video. If you had to pick someone to ride a Grand National winner of the future from that video, I’d say I’d have been about 500-1!”

She added: “The last four weeks have been brilliant, but you can never accomplish everything you want to accomplish in racing.

“Racing is constantly turning. We came back from Cheltenham, and that was brilliant, but a few days later we were in Fairyhouse for the Irish Grand National – then we were in Aintree and now we’re gearing up for Punchestown.

“It’s a constant, evolving wheel where you’re definitely enjoying what’s happening, but you’re also getting focused on what’s coming up.

“I suppose there’s pressure there to prove you are what people say you are. But at the same time, if pressure got to me I’d probably be in the wrong job.

“It isn’t really a job to me. You’re a very privileged person when you can do something you love and get paid for it.”

Although Blackmore’s focus is very much ending a remarkable campaign on a high at present, she hopes there will be time to celebrate this summer – once coronavirus restrictions allow.

She said: “The minute Covid has decided to cease and resist, there will be a party!

“We have a break at the end of June, so it would be nice to get away if we can, but I don’t think you can do too much planning in the current circumstances.”

Aintree hero Rachael Blackmore on the mark at Fairyhouse

Grand National victor Rachael Blackmore was back among the winners at Fairyhouse on Tuesday as she steered Somptueux to glory for Henry de Bromhead.

Blackmore created history on Saturday when steering the De Bromhead-trained Minella Times to victory at Aintree, becoming the first female rider to win the four-and-a-quarter-mile marathon in its long history.

The rider was once again seen to good effect aboard Somptueux in the Follow Fairyhouse On Social Media Rated Novice Chase, with Blackmore getting the 5-1 shot home in front, beating Samurai Cracker by two lengths after a battle from the last.

Blackmore said: “We didn’t go much of a gallop and he was a bit in my hands early on.

“It was a lovely first run back after a break and hopefully he’ll progress now.

“He was let off for the winter ground and hopefully now we’ll have a good summer – it started off well anyway.”

Fairyhouse manager Peter Roe made a special presentation to Blackmore in recognition of her National win and reflecting on Saturday’s headline-grabbing performance, she added: “It’s hard to even comprehend it all.”

Somptueux’s victory means Blackmore is now nine winners adrift of the currently-sidelined Paul Townend in the race for the Irish jockeys’ title.

De Bromhead reflects on ‘crazy few weeks’ following run of big-race victories

Henry de Bromhead is struggling to take in quite what he has achieved this season.

The Waterford-based handler dominated the Cheltenham Festival in winning the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase as well as saddling the first two home in the Gold Cup, before repeating that feat with a one-two in Saturday’s Grand National.

No trainer has matched De Bromhead’s achievement in claiming those three Cheltenham features and the National in the same season – not even the handler’s childhood hero.

“Vincent O’Brien was my idol growing up, so to be mentioned in the same breath as him is pretty incredible to be honest,” he said.

Henry de Bromhead with Rachael Blackmore and the Grand National trophy
Henry de Bromhead with Rachael Blackmore and the Grand National trophy (David Davies/PA)

History will remember Minella Times as being the mount of the first female jockey to win the National in Rachael Blackmore, but De Bromhead was keen to credit several others, too.

“A lot of the credit for him even being there has to go to Frank Berry (racing manager) and the McManus (family),” he told talkSPORT2.

“Frank first suggested it at Christmas after the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown. I’d rung to say we’d entered for the Thyestes, but Frank said we should look at the National, so he deserves a lot of credit.

“We decided then that some of the staying chases could be slogs in the winter, so we dropped back to two-five at Leopardstown in February and again he ran a cracker, but it was frustrating to get beaten.

“The two questions marks with the National if you haven’t done it before are the trip and how they take to the fences, but Rachael knew after the second he took to it like a duck to water.”

Minella Times and Balko Des Flos (orange) fight it out after the last
Minella Times and Balko Des Flos (orange) fight it out after the last (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

While the formbook suggested Minella Times had leading claims, Balko Des Flos’ best days were seemingly behind him, but De Bromhead was not surprised to see the 100-1 shot run an excellent race to chase home his stablemate.

“When Balko came upsides with Aidan (Coleman) – he was a class horse who had lost his way, but had been showing up well at home. We’d done a few cross country things with him at home and he was loving that. Rachael thought he was going great at Cheltenham until he unseated her. Aidan was brilliant on him as well,” he said.

“We took Balko to the local cross country course in Ballinamona, which is a brilliant set up, and he just came alive. I wasn’t planning on going that route with him.”

With the Punchestown Festival now on the horizon, De Bromhead and Blackmore will barely get time to take in what they have achieved, but the two have emerged as major forces this season.

“It’s crazy, the last few weeks. If I’d just won the Champion Hurdle, I’d be using the same words (as winning the Gold Cup, Champion and National). I was pretty emotional on Saturday,” said De Bromhead.

“Rachael does the analysis of the races, that’s her thing. I just try to have the horses as right as I can. Obviously I ask her what she thinks before a race and I genuinely go with it, unless I have a strong view on something.

“It’s not just us, the team that works with us at home are brilliant as well – there are so many parts to it all. And we have brilliant clients as well, buying all these good horses. There’s a lot to it.

“Day-to-day Rachael does the analysis, though. It’s taken me a while to let go and before I’d have been more forthright in my views, but as you get more and more confidence in each other, she tells me how she thinks it will work out. Like all top jockeys, they seem to know what the others will be doing.

“She’s breaking all the records, no one deserves it more. She plays down the male-female thing as she’s just a high-class jockey, but she’s the one who is doing it. She’s bringing new people into the sport every day. She deserves it and we’re delighted to be along for the ride.”

Paul Nicholls’ sights set on 12th trainers’ title

Paul Nicholls stands on the verge of being crowned champion trainer for the 12th time, following his profitable Aintree.

A Grade One double on the first day of the Grand National meeting – with Monmiral and Clan Des Obeaux – and then a Grade Two bumper win for Knappers Hill in the hands of Nicholls’ daughter Megan added up to a highly successful trip north for the yard.

It was not seamless, though, because jockeys Harry Cobden and Bryony Frost were both injured in falls on Saturday.

“Heading to Aintree with fresh horses made a big difference,” said Nicholls.

Megan Nicholls celebrates winning on Knappers Hill
Megan Nicholls celebrates winning on Knappers Hill (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“The first day of Aintree was absolutely superb, and I was thrilled for Ged Mason and Sir Alex Ferguson (owners who also won with Dan Skelton’s Protektorat) on landing a Grade One treble.

“Obviously, Megan winning on Saturday after both my jockeys got hurt, eased the day.”

Nicholls is more than £500,000 in front of nearest challenger Skelton, so a 12th British jumps trainers’ title appears almost his.

“After Aintree, you’d have to say it would be difficult to get beat for the title,” he told Great British Racing.

“I’m currently £500,000 plus in front of Dan, and recouping those winnings doesn’t happen in two weeks. We’re just carrying on as normal and having plenty of runners – it’s all but in the bag really.

“It will be nice to regain the title. I was a bit frustrated last season, which ended prematurely because of Covid. Nicky (Henderson) was obviously in front after the Cheltenham Festival, but we had a big team lined up to run at Aintree and then on to Ayr and Sandown.

“We never had the chance to challenge him. So to get the title back this year, what with all the issues, will be fantastic.”

Despite the Irish dominating the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National, Nicholls is pleased with the performance of his own yard.

“Numerically, our record last season was 171 winners, and we’re only nine off beating that statistic, so that’s another milestone that I’m aiming for,” he said.

“If we can crack 172 winners and secure my 12th champion trainer title it would be awesome – and it reflects so well on the whole team.

“There’s all this talk about the Irish this and the Irish that, but we’ve not exactly had a bad season and will hopefully land 172 winners with over £2.5 million in prizemoney.

“My biggest battle over the next few years will be Dan Skelton, without a doubt. Then, the two Harrys (Skelton and Cobden) will challenge one another – that will be interesting!

“I keep Dan on his toes and I’m proud of the fact that he was with me for nine years and is achieving so much.”

Blackmore riding National high following landmark victory

Grand National winner Rachael Blackmore admits she was unable to sleep on Saturday night as she relived her Aintree heroics.

Just weeks after breaking boundaries at the Cheltenham Festival, by being crowned the leading rider in the Cotswolds, Blackmore outdid even that on Merseyside.

Riding Minella Times in the most famous race in the world, 44 years after Charlotte Brew (now Budd) partnered the 250-1 shot Barony Fort to become the first female to ride in the race, Blackmore created history.

While she would rather not focus on the issue of gender, she acknowledges that whatever she had previously achieved in her career, the recognition as a Grand National winner is on a completely different level.

Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore in full flight
Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore in full flight (Tim Goode/PA)

“I’ve re-watched it a few times, and I didn’t sleep at all on Saturday night – that’s the kind of high you are on,” Blackmore told Radio 4.

“For me, in racing, the gender thing was never an issue – and I’ve just carried that forward.

“There’s no taking away from the fact that it wasn’t that long ago people were saying women shouldn’t ride in the National – but personally it’s never been an experience I’ve had, and it should be something that racing is very proud of.”

Despite her headline-grabbing success, Blackmore will not be getting too carried away.

“The one thing that you learn very quickly (in racing) is that you lose a lot more than you win,” she said.

“You’ll have falls, disappointments and you are living for the days when it does work out – days like Saturday. It erases all the other days very quickly.”

Just about the only thing Blackmore has got wrong in recent years is her choice of mount in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, when she passed over eventual winner Minella Indo for A Plus Tard – who finished on his tail in second.

With Paul Townend currently sidelined by a foot injury, Blackmore has 10 winners to find to draw level with him in the race to be Ireland’s champion jockey.

Rachael Blackmore (right) is chasing Paul Townend hard to be champion
Rachael Blackmore (right) is chasing Paul Townend hard to be champion (PA Wire)

She added: “I never set myself massive targets and I’m not going to start now – I just have to take every day as it comes, try to get the best out of every horse each day.

“Of course I’d love to win the Gold Cup, but that is not something that I sit down and target at the start of the year.

“Racing keeps you grounded – it doesn’t let you get carried away. You might have ridden a winner, but then in the next race you get unseated at the first, so racing never lets you get carried away.”

Monday Musings: In Threes They Come…

They say disasters come in threes, writes Tony Stafford. The same is true where things we thought would never happen do actually occur. In four short days early in April, Prince Philip was no longer with us; a woman rode the winner of the Grand National, and a Japanese golfer became the first to win a major championship.

Having spent 73 years married to the Queen, Prince Philip was so much a fabric of our lives that it was a real shock when he did not make the century, unlike his mother-in-law Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who died in her 102nd year on March 30 2002.

On Friday morning I was stuck in a traffic jam having undertaken a routine 30-minute round trip to buy some hard-to-find organic dog food for our delicate and elderly Yorkshire terrier. As I emerged on the south side of Blackwall TunneI, I noticed a police car blocking the northern approach.

Three hours later, having missed the first three races on the second day of the Aintree meeting, I had undertaken a near 50-mile diversion to avoid the resultant gridlock. For all that time, after switching on the car radio and hearing of Prince Philip’s passing, I learnt lots I hadn’t known about him in Radio 4’s blanket coverage. How fortunate that the future Queen as a very young girl could discern the qualities which clearly entranced her on their initial meeting at Dartmouth Naval College more than 80 years ago.

Both descendants of Queen Victoria, who also made it to her 80’s despite being a carrier of the recessive gene haemophilia – none of the existing generations is afflicted happily - their marriage has been the one constant in a world increasingly subject to the potential horrors of social media and the like. Things may never seem to be the same again.

That’s true too of life after Covid. Today, on my late father’s 101st birthday, shops can again open in the UK in the midst of a week’s mourning for the Royal family. Hopefully we can start to go racing – I resolved not to until the ravages of the disease had been beaten. It seems it almost has been and on Thursday my second helping of the Astra Zeneca will either kill (if you believe the Euro politicians) or fully protect me.

Missing Aintree didn’t prevent us celebrating the continued rise of the remarkable Rachael Blackmore. It’s not a surname you hear very often although John Blackmore was in my first primary school class. He was well enough behaved and from memory quite a jovial chap. That was unlike Johnny Robinson who was only in the reception class of Amherst Primary School for one day. He was so disruptive that halfway through the afternoon he was tied to a chair. We never saw him again, nor was anyone else in need ever of similar constraint.

Amherst was the third Christian name of Sir Henry Cecil whose father was the younger brother of the third Baron Amherst of Hackney. It was my pleasure to know him well enough to ask him to write a foreword for one of my few “proper” books, all three of which my elder daughter presented me with (two to return) when I made a first visit to her house for more than a year recently. I was especially pleased to be reminded of Frankie Dettori’s Year In The Life, ghosted before and amended after that seven-out-of-seven at Ascot.

The Cecil-embellished volume was a second go at the earlier Little Black Racing Book, foreword by Lester Piggott. The idea for that was spawned by Collins Willow’s commissioning editor, Michael Doggart, as a racing stable-companion to the Little Red Book, a best-selling and much-admired volume by Harvey Penick, the great American golf coach.

His most celebrated student at university in Austin, Texas, was Ben Crenshaw. When Penick died in 1995 after a long illness, Crenshaw was one of the pall-bearers.

The following day he started his Masters quest, and as Ben later confessed, he was guided to success in that Major championship by Penick’s memory. His triumph will no doubt have made only a ripple in the sporting lexicon of the 1990’s in comparison with what will happen back home in Japan after Hideki Matsuyama held on by a stroke on Sunday night in Augusta.

That event came just 30 hours after what for most of our lives we’ve believed would never happen.  In 1977 Charlotte Brew, riding Barony Fort, got as far as the 27th fence before her horse was pulled up. In those days Aintree was much more fearsome and the fact she could negotiate 26 of the fences should have prepared us for a future female winner. Forty-four years on we have one.

The first of a series of Flat races in which women could ride came five years earlier than Barony Fort, at Kempton Park, when Scorched Earth ridden by Miss Meriel Tufnell won, the first of three victories in a 12-race sponsored-by-Goya series which brought her the title. Sadly she died from cancer aged 53. Charlotte Brew, who watched Rachael’s victory at home in the West Country with her three daughters, is now 65 years old and confessed to a tear or two as she watched Minella Times’ triumph.

As with momentous events happening in triplicate, Rachael Blackmore’s achievement at Aintree, coming hard on her domination and champion jockey award at the recent Cheltenham Festival, was the first of three memorable female rides within an hour on Saturday.

The third of them came in the concluding bumper at Aintree where Megan Nicholls, riding her father’s Knappers Hill, was involved in a drawn-out battle in the last furlong with jumps championship contender Harry Skelton and lost nothing in comparison with him or with Paddy Brennan on the fast-finishing second.

Indeed her strength in the finish was notable as she gained a sixth bumper win of the year for her father from only 15 rides. Considering she has ridden on the Flat in the last year at 8st 1lb, to lug the saddle with around three stone of lead back to scale with her horse carrying 11st 4lb was a feat of strength in itself!

Before turning to riding on the Flat, which at the time when she was only 16, her father described as “getting it out of her system”, she had ridden one earlier bumper winner but none more until this term. Instead she has won 96 races on the Flat, based in the north, so, far from merely getting it out of her system, she has become very accomplished. Also at the age of 23 she has shown herself to be a talented broadcaster when given the chance, usually as the expert analyst at jumps meetings close to the Nicholls stable.

The middle winner of the three had already long weighed in by the time Megan went to post. Every day I do a line for FromTheStables.com, and pass on the thoughts of a dozen or so trainers, including Micky Hammond, to the members.

Micky had four runners at Newcastle on Saturday but clearly best liked the chance of Ballycrystal in the finale. Becky Smith, one of the leading female amateurs under both Flat and NH Rules, had been starved of action during the ban on amateurs and point-to-point racing. Now the younger sister of Gemma Hogg, Hammond’s assistant trainer, is raring to go and is quickly at full flow.

After talking to Micky, I looked up Ballycrystal’s form. When trained by Brian Ellison, on Nov 23 2018 he had carried the same weight (rated 125) as the favourite and eventual winner in a 3m1f chase at Catterick. He was well beaten in fifth place but now, fancied after a decent run in a jumpers’ bumper at the track in February, was running in a handicap hurdle off a mark of 93, 32lb lower.

Fifteen minutes before the scheduled start of the Newcastle race, Cloth Cap, the horse that beat him at Catterick, was lining up as the favourite for the Grand National, 14lb well-in after winning at Kelso. If the two old rivals were to meet next weekend, Ballycrystal would be 69lb (so almost five stone) better off!

Becky expertly guided Ballycrystal (18-1 to 8’s) to a facile win in his handicap hurdle race, while Cloth Cap was pulled up after being in the first two for much of the marathon journey. I texted Micky later: “On the way they ran today, it might have been close between them at levels!” He’s looking up to see if he can find a race where he can take him on again!

ITV records peak of 8.8 million viewers for historic Grand National

An audience of 8.8 million tuned in to watch Rachael Blackmore make history when she became the first woman to win the Grand National on Saturday, the second-highest for ITV since it took over coverage of the world’s greatest steeplechase.

Although higher than in 2017 and 2018, the figure – which saw an audience share of 31.8 per cent – is down on the last running in 2019, when a peak of 9.6m (with a 39 per cent share) was reached for the big race.

The showpiece Aintree meeting began on Thursday, with an average viewing figure of over a million witnessing Clan Des Obeaux take the Betway Bowl and Abacadabras win the Betway Aintree Hurdle.

That figure is a record high for the opening day of the fixture since records began, with the coverage then moving across from ITV to ITV4 following the announcement of the Prince Philip’s death on Friday morning.

The ITV racing outdoor studio
The ITV racing outdoor studio (David Davies/PA)

Friday’s audience reached 900,000 as Livelovelaugh took the Randox Topham Chase over the National fences, before the following day’s Opening Show drew in more viewers than ever as 400,000 watched the programme – an increase of 100,000 on 2019.

Over on social media, the hashtag #ITVRacing reached over 122 million users, with videos from the meeting viewed over two million times.

Some 500,000 minutes of ITV social content were consumed during the fixture, with the most-watched moment inevitably Blackmore’s groundbreaking triumph.

Minella Times, ridden by Rachael Blackmore, wins the Randox Grand National
Minella Times, ridden by Rachael Blackmore, wins the Randox Grand National (Tim Goode/PA)

Dickon White, who runs Aintree as regional director for Jockey Club Racecourses in the north west, said: “The ITV team has done a superb job over the three days of the Randox Grand National Festival once again.

“We all needed to adapt following the sad news of the death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and they did so while ensuring our sport received the best showcase possible thanks to their quality production and presentation.

“Minella Times, Rachael Blackmore and Henry de Bromhead have given us a story for the ages and I’m grateful that ITV have helped to ensure it inspires people across our society that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, if you have a dream you should go for it.”

The aftermath among bookmakers includes Blackmore’s winning mount, Minella Times, being priced up as 20-1 joint-favourite with Coral for a repeat victory in 2022.

Any Second Now, third this year, is the other 20-1 market leader, with dual winner, Tiger Roll, 33-1 to join Red Rum as a three time National winner after connections chose not to run their charge in the latest renewal.

“Tiger Roll’s best chance of becoming only the second horse to win three Grand Nationals may well have passed, but as it turned out, his absence from Saturday’s race was barely noticed, as Rachael Blackmore and Minella Times delivered one of the greatest results in sporting history, never mind just in horseracing,” said Coral’s David Stevens.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates with the trophy
Rachael Blackmore celebrates with the trophy (Tim Goode/PA)

“The pair were an extremely popular choice with punters on what is always a unique day for the betting industry – as we expected them to be – but nationwide gambles on the likes of Takingrisks, Mister Malarky and Definitly Red went astray, which softened the blow of the payout on the winner,” added Stevens.

“Favourite Cloth Cap was another well-backed runner, but as we saw with Tiger Roll two years ago, despite taking a huge volume of bets on the horse, at the relatively short odds he was, and with the spread of money across the board that we see on this day, Tom Scudamore’s mount was never a bad result in the book,” said Stevens.

Betting shops were closed for the National, but are set to reopen on Monday in line with the latest easing of lockdown restrictions.

Stevens added: “With activity restricted to online, turnover was well in line with our expectations, and should have topped £100m across the industry, but we’ll be pleased to see betting shops open again for the 2022 National.

“As for the payout on Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore, yes it was significant, but worth every penny in terms of the positive publicity the victory has garnered for the sport.”

Brian Ellison announces retirement of stable stalwart Definitly Red

Brian Ellison has announced the retirement of stable star Definitly Red after being pulled up in the Randox Grand National at Aintree.

The 12-year-old was running in the world’s most famous steeplechase for a second time, after being badly hampered when still going well in the 2017 renewal.

Definitly Red won 15 of his 38 career starts, including the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree twice, the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby and the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham.

Ellison posted on his Facebook page: “The decision has been made to retire Definitly Red after his run in yesterday’s Grand National. He pulled up two fences before the finish when getting tired, but delighted to report that he came home safe and sound.

“We, along with owners Phil and Julie Martin, have been honoured to have had such a wonderful horse. He has given us all so much pleasure and owes us nothing.

“We would like to thank everyone who has supported and followed ‘Red’ throughout his career.”

Sub Lieutenant’s National spin gives Tabitha Worsley moment to cherish

Tabitha Worsley is filled with pride after her family’s beloved Sub Lieutenant carried her to 15th place in the Grand National.

Worsley’s mount was backed from 100-1 to 50-1 for the big race after the public were moved by the endearing underdog story of the 12-year-old and his small-scale trainer Georgie Howell, who is Worsley’s mother and has a stable of only six horses.

Saturday’s performance was a first Grand National experience for both horse and jockey, and together they were one of just three English combinations to pass the winning post.

“We couldn’t be happier,” Worsley said on Sunday.

“We always said we’d be happy if we go there and get round and finish in the top half, we’ve done exactly that.

“He’s just a hero, the horse, we couldn’t be prouder of him.

“Three English finishers and we were one of them, we just couldn’t be happier, and he’s all good this morning which is the main thing.”

Worsley was near the rear of the field throughout the race and felt her veteran mount lacked the pace to really challenge the front-runners, but navigating the National course at any speed is no mean feat and the family were thrilled by his efforts.

“He’s just done us all proud,” she said.

“I knew going out on the last circuit that I had no chance of winning the race, he was run off his feet and he just doesn’t have the speed he had as a younger horse.

“He’s finished tired, but he’s finished happy, he’s not exhausted.

“He was just unbelievable, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer horse to have a spin round on.”

The jockey had received some pre-race words of encouragement from Sub Lieutenant’s previous rider Rachael Blackmore, who went on to make history aboard Minella Times when she became the first woman to ever ride the winner of the National.

Blackmore’s victory breaks new ground for female riders and her skill in the saddle has Worsley’s full admiration.

“She is just unbelievable, she’s something special,” she said of her weighing-room colleague.

“I spoke to her afterwards to say ‘well done, what an amazing achievement’ and the first thing she did was ask how I got on – that’s the measure of her.

“She just is amazing, everything about her, she’s the ultimate professional and you wouldn’t meet a nicer jockey.”

Bryony Frost and Harry Cobden recovering after Aintree falls

Jockeys Bryony Frost and Harry Cobden are both on the mend after enduring heavy falls on Grand National day at Aintree.

Cobden was treated at Aintree University Hospital after both he and Lucky One hit the floor in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, and although the horse was unharmed, Cobden suffered facial injuries was stood down for the remainder of the card.

His Grand National ride, the Paul Nicholls-trained Give Me A Copper, went to Sean Bowen and was pulled up with two fences left to jump in the big race.

Frost then suffered a similarly crunching fall when parting company with Yala Enki over the 20th fence in the National and was also taken to hospital and kept under observation until late on Saturday evening.

Harry Derham, assistant trainer to Nicholls, confirmed that both riders have since been discharged from hospital, saying: “I was with them both last night and they were both very sore and stiff, but fine.

“When I got back late last night they were fine. They’re both out of hospital, I drove them home.”

Harry Cobden
Harry Cobden (John Walton/PA)

Nicholls took to Twitter to provide updates on the riders, who are both attached to his Ditcheat yard.

“Just seen Bryony she’s a little stiff and sore but will hopefully be able to ride from the middle of next week and be fit to ride Frodon (at Sandown, April 24),” he said, before adding: “Another positive update have just spoken to Harry Cobden and he is up and about and feeling ok and just a little sore, he will give an update in the next few days as to when he can ride again. Great news.”

Cobden reiterated Nicholls’ update via his own Twitter account a while later, thanking staff at both the racecourse and the hospital for their care.

“Thank you for all your kind messages regarding my fall yesterday,” he said.

“I’m feeling battered and bruised but luckily there are no breaks.

“I’m back at home now and on the road to recovery. A big thanks to all the medical staff at Aintree races and at Aintree hospital.”

Frost posted an image of herself with a black eye on Instragram, followed by a caption that read: “Thank you for all the kind messages I’ve received. I’m looking like I’ve got some dodgy purple eyeshadow on but I’m feeling better than what I look!

“My aim is to be back racing the middle of next week. I must pass a concussion test to be passed fit to ride. Knowing myself I have a positive feeling Sandown will be a realistic target to be 110% ready and fit.

“To be apart of Paul Nicholls’ team is one of the best not just because we get to ride some of the best horses in the country but when we have hard days everyone rallies to care. Thanks team.”

Enormity of historic National triumph still sinking in for De Bromhead

Henry de Bromhead was still on cloud nine on Sunday morning after saddling the one-two in Saturday’s Randox Grand National at Aintree.

Fresh from becoming the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase and the Gold Cup in the same week at the Cheltenham Festival, Minella Times provided the Knockeen handler with National glory, while stablemate Balko Des Flos filled the runner-up spot.

Just as he did after arriving home from Cheltenham, De Bromhead is required to quarantine for five days under Covid-19 protocols – giving him plenty of time to reflect on the enormity of his achievements – and those of Rachael Blackmore.

He said: “We got home safe ad sound last night and I’ve got a big smile on my face this morning, that’s for sure.

“It’s incredible – unreal. It’s hard to take it all in, to be honest. Hopefully it will sink in eventually.

“It’s a shame we can’t celebrate it properly, but isn’t it great it was all able to go ahead?”

De Bromhead’s remarkable success has been somewhat overshadowed by Blackmore, who became the first woman in history to ride the winner of the National – just as she was in the Champion Hurdle with the brilliant mare Honeysuckle.

The trainer has nothing but praise for his stable jockey, adding: “I’m absolutely delighted for Rachael. It’s brilliant for her and no one deserves it more.”

Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore on their way to National glory
Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore on their way to National glory (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Minella Times, Balko Des Flos and Chris’s Dream – who unseated his rider four from home in the Grand National – were all reported to have returned to Ireland in good shape.

The winner appears unlikely to run again this season.

De Bromhead said: “They’re all home and the three of them seem great.

“I haven’t spoken to anyone yet regarding plans, but I’d be surprised (if he runs again this season).”

Owner JP McManus was winning the Grand National for a second time following the 2010 success of Don’t Push It, who famously provided 20-times champion jockey Sir Anthony McCoy with his first and only victory in the race.

McManus’ racing manager, Frank Berry said: “It was a fantastic day and a great performance by Rachael and Minella Times. All credit to Henry and his team for producing the horse fit and well.

“I’m thrilled for JP and the whole family. It was a special occasion, with Rachael riding the winner – it’s a bit of history.

“Rachael has done it the hard way. She came from the bottom up and has worked really hard. It’s great to see her getting on good horses now and she’s delivering the goods.”

On future plans for Minella Times, Berry added: “You won’t see him again this year. He’ll have a good summer in Martinstown and we’ll plan next year’s campaign for him after that.

“It (next year’s Grand National) is a long time away, but you’d love to think he’ll be back there again.”

The best-fancied of seven McManus-owned runners in the 40-strong field was the Ted Walsh-trained Any Second Now, who ran a fine race to finish third after being badly hampered by the fall of Double Shuffle at the 12th fence.

Berry said: “He ran an absolute blinder. He got caught up with a faller and Mark (Walsh) gave him a wonderful ride to nurse him back into the race.

“That’s the joys of the National. You need a bit of luck on the day.”

Ted and Katie Walsh salute Rachael Blackmore and ‘fantastic result for racing’

Ted and Katie Walsh have heaped praise on Rachael Blackmore following her historic victory in the Randox Grand National at Aintree.

Fresh on the heels of being crowned leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival, Blackmore became the first woman to ride the winner of the world’s most greatest steeplechase aboard the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Times.

Ted Walsh, who trained Papillon to win the Grand National in 2000, is in awe of the achievements of both trainer and rider.

The moment Rachael Blackmore won the National
The moment Rachael Blackmore won the National (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck on Sunday programme, he said: “It was a great race and a great result for the race.

“Henry de Bromhead capped one of the most extraordinary years of my life. To win any one of the four races he’s won – a Champion Hurdle, a Champion Chase, a Gold Cup and an English National – you could consider it a good year. To win all four, I don’t remember it ever happening before to one particular trainer.

“Then of course the icing on the cake was having Rachael on board as well. She’s a wonderful ambassador for the sport, a wonderful rider and such an unassuming young woman. It’s great for the game.

“To have her on the biggest stage there is and riding the winner is great for the sport.”

Walsh saddled the third home Any Second Now, who did well to finish as close as he did after being badly hampered by the all of Double Shuffle at the 12th fence.

“I think it was extraordinary performance,” Walsh added.

Any Second Now (white cap) ran a race full of credit
Any Second Now (white cap) ran a race full of credit (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“Double Shuffle fell. If he’d fallen right he would have caught Rachael on the winner, but instead he fell in front of my fella and stopped him to a walk.

“I actually thought passing the stands Mark (Walsh) might let him jump a couple more and pull him up, but he started to pick up from there.

“He wasn’t good enough for the winner – he’d used up all his petrol to get there.”

The trainer is already eyeing a tilt at the 2022 Grand National, saying: “Twelve months is a long way away, but that would be the plan.”

Walsh’s daughter Katie had previously achieved the highest placing by a woman in the Grand National when third aboard her father’s Seabass in 2012.

While that record has now been beaten, she is thrilled for Blackmore.

She said: “When I knew he (Any Second Now) wasn’t going to get there, I found myself fixed on Rachael and absolutely roaring.

Seabass and Katie Walsh clear the last in the National
Seabass and Katie Walsh clear the last in the National (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

“She’s a great girl and an extremely hard worker. She’s so modest and realises how lucky, in one sense, she has been for all of this to happen.

“In another sense, I look at her and think ‘you deserve all this, because you are so good’. She’s so tactically aware and so strong mentally and physically.

“It was a fantastic result for her and a fantastic result for racing.”

Walsh added: “I often get asked the question ‘is this going to open the door?’. The door has been open for a very long time to any female jockey. You need a lot of luck and need to be able to work hard.

“You need to get the breaks – and when those breaks come, you need to be able to grab the bull by the horns and make the most of them.

“You have to be good enough and Rachael clearly has everything that you need and want.”

Brave runner-up Balko delights Coleman in National

Aidan Coleman was full of praise for runner-up Balko Des Flos – who massively outran his 100-1 odds at Aintree to give his stablemate Minella Times most to do in the Randox Grand National.

The 2018 Ryanair winner had been in the doldrums for a couple of seasons but showed signs the fire still burned bright before unseating Rachael Blackmore in the Cross Country at Cheltenham last month.

Coleman said: “I couldn’t be happier with him. He was super. He jumped brilliantly and travelled into it really well. He did everything right but just didn’t win. All credit to him.”

If there was an unlucky horse in the race it was Ted Walsh’s Any Second Now – who performed a minor miracle to get into third, having been brought almost to a standstill by a faller.

Jockey Mark Walsh said: “He was very unlucky, he very nearly got brought down at the third last and he’s done great to finish third.”

Patrick Mullins enjoyed a great ride on fourth-placed Burrows Saint, whose stamina appeared to give way after the last.

“I had a fantastic spin, and he did everything right,” said Mullins.

“We got a lovely position, and he jumped fantastic.

“I was chatting to Rachael (Blackmore) going past the stands with a circuit to go, and we were both very happy with where we were.

“We were side by side all of the way, and I was trying to get on to her boot and get a lead off her – but from the second-last, I just couldn’t go with her. He got very tired and maybe he didn’t stay, but it was nearly the perfect ride.”

Burrows Saint (left) raced alongside winner Minella Times for much of the race but eventually finished fourth
Burrows Saint (left) raced alongside winner Minella Times for much of the race but eventually finished fourth (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Farclas, who finished fifth, did best of Irish trainer Denise Foster’s four runners.

Her representative Lisa O’Neill said: : “Farclas jumped and travelled really well, and (jockey) Jack (Kennedy) seemed happy with him. You need a lot of luck in a race like this, so he ran a solid race.”

The yard’s other three runners were Shattered Love (10th), Alpha Des Obeaux (11th) and Milan Native – who pulled up.

O’Neill said: “It was a bit of an unknown for Shattered Love, and we didn’t know what would happen with her, but she is a class filly. She ran OK.

“Alpha Des Obeaux ran his race but was not good enough.

“(Jockey) Jamie (Codd) said Milan Native was unsure about the fences and frightened himself a small bit.”

Cloth Cap, the 11-2 favourite, was pulled up three fences from the finish when losing touch after being in contention for most of the race.

Favourite Cloth Cap was eventually pulled up in the Randox Grand National
Favourite Cloth Cap was eventually pulled up in the Randox Grand National (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Trainer Jonjo O’Neill will have the nine-year-old’s wind checked out.

“(Jockey) Tom (Scudamore) said he was going away grand and he just started gurgling a little bit – and he did the right thing and pulled him up,” said the Jackdaws Castle handler.

“He was having a great run, and everything was going grand … then he stopped.

“We will get him checked out, but we will look at his wind. Tom just said he got slower and slower, but he did the right thing.”