How Cheltenham ever managed to race for two days heaven only knows, writes Tony Stafford. As we – Steve Howard, a good friend whose mortgage-securing acumen helped me a couple of times in my financially-injudicious past, and me – followed directions to Fergal O’Brien’s new yard less than ten miles short of the track, water streamed or rather surged through the gulleys next to the road. Evidence of what it must have been like on Thursday, when the decision to abandon Friday’s card was made, remained all too visible.
Fergal’s brilliant start since his switch from alongside Nigel Twiston-Davies has been accompanied by the sights and sounds of extensive building work and on Sunday morning as a group of existing and prospective owners concluded their visit, the mud was testimony to the recent climatic excesses.
On a former working farm, non-descript barns have been imaginatively transformed to luxurious housing for the equine performers that have propelled O’Brien into the horse racing consciousness. He is one of the star names of this early phase of full-on jumping. As winter extends its grip, as by some forecasters’ accounts it may well do in this most capricious of years, you had to wonder how horse boxes will negotiate the gradients of the narrow roads by which you approach the farm.
Kim Bailey, just down the road from O’Brien posted pictures one day late last week of his snow-decked driveway, so there must have been some of that at his near neighbour’s place. The sign for “flood” showed where the worst had been, and Sally Randell, Fergal’s right-hand, still apparently believed it was a hazard, warning us while beaming us in that “your car will get through it okay”. It did because there wasn’t one, but we marvelled at the thought of how close to being flooded some of the properties along the way must have been on Friday.
The O’Brien team had a rare disappointing day yesterday, Benny’s Bridge never giving the slightest indication that he might replicate his last-to-first spectacular from the last meeting, and the two in the bumper finishing just outside the placings as a tag team.
Beneficiaries of the day were clearly the Pipes, with senior (Martin) accompanying son David to the sports. There were plenty of O’Neill’s there too, Jonjo senior and wife Jacqui, nephew Joe, who helps run the admin at Jackdaws Castle, and his dad over from Ireland for the weekend. Jonjo junior, recently back from injury, was the chosen one to steer the Pipe-trained and J P McManus-owned Duc De Beauchene in the opening conditional riders’ race – a benefit for Pipe in recent years – and he did that with style and exquisite timing.
If that success was predictable, 100-30 in a massive field the give-away, the last-race bumper win of Israel Champ was less so, as his 16-1 SP testified. Here it was supposed to be J P again with the once-raced course winner Times Flies By, who had given Barry Geraghty a comeback winner after his latest injury absence at the previous meeting, but that one was unable to peg back Tom Scudamore on the Pipe runner.
Israel Champ, a wide-margin Irish point-to-point debut winner in the spring had been “expected” when running for the first time at Worcester less than a month ago, starting 13-8 favourite but, after setting what the race-readers observed was a very slow pace, faded into a modest sixth.
Up a good deal in class yesterday, and with Scudamore riding him for the first time, this was more traditional Pipe-Scudamore mode from a generation and a half ago. Now Tom orchestrated a sound gallop, one which none of the others, struggling to decide which portion of the by-now heavily poached terrain to choose for this last of 15 races over the two days, was able to counter.
Cheltenham very helpfully kept us appraised of the jockey standings and as we left the track after the last, the honours board listed a number of riders each with the number “1” alongside their names. In fact, possibly uniquely, especially with a couple of four-runner races yesterday, 15 different jockeys got into the winner’s position over the two days so there was no room for at least half the names to be displayed. I bet Richard Johnson, who won the first race on Saturday, never expected to share the spoils with 14 other riders.
Despite Time Flies By’s defeat in the bumper, J P will have been happy enough with his day’s work, present at Cheltenham to welcome Defi Du Seuil, who outpointed Politologue, Simply Ned and Saint Calvados up the hill to win an intriguing Shloer Chase. He also had doubles at Punchestown, initiated by Yanworth in his first try over the Banks course for Enda Bolger, and Cork where Joseph O’Brien chipped in with two young hurdlers with an obvious future.
There was no McManus winner at Fontwell where pride of place went to Gary Moore and his remarkable young stayer Goshen. After three runs as a juvenile, ninth of 12 at 40/1; eighth of 15 at 100-1 and tenth of 11, again at 100-1, beaten 21 lengths, Gary might have thought a 64 rating a shade defensive on the part of the officials.
Whether he realised just how ineffective that defence was when the horse showed up at Brighton early in June was not obvious from the betting, Goshen eventually strolling away to a 12-length win from a Mark Johnston odds-on shot. A week later I remember thinking him a mad short price to follow up at Sandown with other progressive young stayers in the field, but he won that by nine lengths off 70 (6lb penalty). After Sandown he again went missing until late October, reappearing at Nottingham, and again winning by a wide margin, this time seven lengths off a perch of 80, provoking a furrther 8lb rise.
Writing the Racing Post Analysis on that Brighton run back in June, Gary Savage made an intuitive point that Goshen is jumping-bred and the way he demolished his field by 23 lengths at Fontwell marks him out as exactly that. One downside was that he was showed exaggerated right-handed tendencies from the start and went markedly in that direction at the last two obstacles, between which Jamie Moore spent as much time looking back than forward. Goshen has to be a Triumph Hurdle candidate if the right-handedness, no use at all at Cheltenham, can be eradicated or at least tempered.
— At The Races (@AtTheRaces) November 17, 2019
While Jamie was minding his father’s shop close to home in Sussex, big brother Ryan was continuing his world tour in Kyoto, Japan, along with new champion Oisin Murphy, William Buick and multiple former French champion Christophe Soumillon. They competed in the Mile Championship, worth a shade over £800k and won by Indy Champ ridden by local jockey Kenichi Ikezoe. Murphy did best of the visiting quartet, collecting his rider’s portion of the 200 grand his mount Persian Knight picked up for third in the 17-horse field. Oisin has ridden enough in Japan not to be impressed by the conversion of currency from pounds sterling to yen, but for you and me 140 yen to the pound would make an eye-opening sum.
Ryan, 16th of 17, and the other visitors would have had to be content with the appearance money one assumes they are paid for such jaunts. Meanwhile Ryan’s regular Ballydoyle team-mates, Seamus Heffernan and Wayne Lordan, were on Aidan O’Brien duty at Lingfield the day before, riding Simply Beautiful and Quote, fulfilling their Gillies Stakes engagements originally frustrated when Doncaster’s last day was washed out the previous weekend. Both were also out of the money, Lordan suggesting that Quote would have fared much better if able to run in the mud rather than fast Polytrack.
Meanwhile, Frankie Dettori checked in at Lingfield for two wins, starting with Scentasia for John Gosden, who was on the premises along with wife Rachel Hood and replete with US-style cap. With Lord North a non-runner, Frankie pulled rank on this year’s French champion and Arc hero Pierre-Charles Boudot, claiming back the ride on Crossed Baton when Lord North was withdrawn from the Churchill Stakes field.
It wasn’t a wasted trip for the Frenchman though, as in the opener he squeezed through on the William Haggas-trained Fruition, clearly enjoying his win in the Royal colours, and ran closest to Frankie on the Chrisophe Ferland-trained Velma Valento in the aforementioned Gillies Stakes.
My Law didn’t quite get her first win but a year on from her sale, Sod’s Law’s little sister gained her first second place in the opener for Jim Boyle, so promises soon to become a fifth winner for her dam Lawyer’s Choice after Dutch Art Dealer, Dutch Law and Highway Robber as well as Sod’s Law who was sold last month and will be racing in Ireland in the winter.
The day before Lingfield, I received WhatsApp messages from Joseph O’Brien, showing two fleeting sights of the latest of the family to go into training. Soon after came word from Joseph that this yearling colt has done well physically since starting exercise and is in the main training yard. This was a great fillip for everyone and I can’t wait to get to Pilltown to see him and the set-up. We’re trying for Gaelic Law which Ray Tooth agrees would be an appropriate name.