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!>.