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Monday Musings: The Power of the Pen

They used to call it the power of the pen, writes Tony Stafford. If the response to my plea last week for anyone who might normally have expected to have heard from me over the previous couple of weeks, to call and /or send me their number, that power is much diminished as we approach the year AD 2020.

My thanks go out to Kevin Howard. He read the piece and responded, not immediately, but more so than anyone else, especially his brother Steve, but that busy chap has probably been too preoccupied with his preparations for Cheltenham.

It was through Steve’s good offices that last year we (me and Harry Taylor) got a great rate in a nice hotel in Worcester for Cheltenham week. He wasn’t there last March, but will be back in his old stamping ground from tonight. Having been confronted with a near doubling in room rates, we’re in a pub somewhere. Not sure which one, you’ll have to ask Alan Newman.

I hope the pub has wifi. I’ve some work to do for the first time in years and that involves the use of a laptop. I had one of those back in the Daily Telegraph days and it took plenty of lugging around. This one’s okay but I have visions of getting to the premises and finding I have to go to a café or somewhere to get coverage.

The second issue of last week’s offering ended with a jocular reference to my rapidly-increasing age, and the fact I’d need to be going to the café and buy the Racing Post to check I’m still around. I wasn’t and felt a strange chilly feeling of real unease at the thought of being summarily excluded as my friend Steve Gilbey – “former owner with Nicky Henderson” was the identification - had been a few years ago. He’s still a former owner with Nicky Henderson and might even have been a 50% owner (with Ray Tooth) of a Betfair (Schweppes) Hurdle winner had Know The Law been less fragile, but he’s still excluded.

If my birthday wasn’t in on Monday, Lucy Wadham’s certainly was, as she was to find out every few yards she stepped around Fakenham racecourse that afternoon. The congratulations required constant rebuttals: “It’s tomorrow” she declared many times. The following day, confirmation of that truism appeared in print, along with the absent list of Monday people.

In true Stafford style I’d protested to the nearest to authority, past and present, that I still know at the Racing Post, among them Howard Wright, their former Industry Editor. Howard will be in the chair as usual at tonight’s annual and always the last of the pre-Cheltenham Festival race nights at the Bedfordshire Racing Club. No, I will be coming Howard, after all.

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The excuse came back about a “new staff member inputting the wrong list” and that’s just about what happened. Those few of us who still buy the paper were to be a little surprised that the management was unable to wait until Royal Ascot for the customary annual price hike.

If you thought £2.90 a shot was prohibitive, like me – poor old codger on a limited income – the sudden 30p extra to £3.20, as happened on Saturday, would appear excessive. Ten per cent is a chunk, but it’s in line with the equally-harsh increase on the online service that kicked in a couple of weeks earlier.

Two rather more serious issues graced its pages over the past couple of days. The farcical initially wrong and then soon after corrected result, not for the first time because of the necessity for separate winning posts at Sandown for chase and hurdle finishes, caused great embarrassment all round on Saturday.

In congratulating Hughie Morrison yesterday morning – he’d been very gracious in saying he didn’t like winning in those circumstances – I discovered that Third Wind’s trainer had played quite a part in getting the result amended before the weighed in announcement.

Historically, “weighed in” was the sacrosanct moment before which bookmakers never paid out on winning bets.  Its status used to be like “under starters orders”, which has been lost in the mists of time and starting stalls.  Life is so helter-skelter these days that nobody can wait a moment longer. What was different about the £42,000 to the winner EBF NH Novice Handicap Final was that One for Rosie, 12-1 and originally declared the winner, and 9-1 shot Third Wind, eventually rightfully given the prize, were such big prices.

Many on course bookmakers, having paid out on One For Rosie, then had to stump up for Third Wind, but having already paid some punters for their place part of an otherwise losing bet, were assailed by claimants whose Third Wind tickets had been left with the layers.

Hughie’s part in the regularisation of the result – in his opinion, the change would not have happened before the “weighed in” announcement without it -  was that having seen the image and heard the initial announcement, he went into the weighing room to seek out Third Wind’s rider Tom O’Brien to instruct him to object.

He stated that as he was talking to O’Brien, the stipendiary steward was on his way out having also seen that the initial result was incorrect. In true big organisation style, the blame has been put on the Racetech technicians who lined up the camera for the photo-finish on the chase finish line, rather than the hurdles one a few yards further on, because of the different angles from which the horses approach the line at Sandown in chases and hurdle races. There is a single point on the stands side from which the two finishing posts both originate and it is always surprising to me how far apart the two finishes apparently need to be.

Third Wind’s victory was pretty ironic for the Tooth team. When Apres Le Deluge, his bumper winner of the previous season, was preparing for his hurdles campaign he was reportedly galloping all over Third Wind, and when he made a promising enough start in fourth at Exeter, the EBF Final was Hughie’s big plan.

Training problems ended that objective, but Apres is back in work, while Ray’s useful miler Sod’s Law is starting his preparation for the Lincoln, actually the consolation Spring Mile, with some encouragement coming from the trainer yesterday.

Also yesterday I was reminded of Michael Dickinson’s scathing criticism of US dirt racing in his recent appearance on Nick Luck’s Luck on Sunday show where he was suggesting dirt’s lifetime may be under a greater threat than anyone appreciates.

His comments came home in yesterday’s Post in a report which said that Santa Anita had cancelled race meetings and training indefinitely after 21 equine fatalities in ten weeks. Frank Stronach’s Stronach Group announced the measures last week and significantly the same group owns  Gulfstream Park where horses running in its multi-million dollar Pegasus Cup races were allowed 7lb if they did not run on medication. Magic Wand ran in the Pegasus Cup Turf race with the allowance and was rewarded with a lucrative second place. Previously Aidan O’Brien had normally taken the opportunity to use medication where allowed on his US runners.

O’Brien and his wife Anne-Marie, both champion NH trainers in the past, will I’m sure be at Cheltenham to run the rule over son Joseph’s attempt at a first Festival winner in his own right.  Three years ago when Ivanovich Gorbatov surprised Apple’s Jade in the Triumph Hurdle, he was credited with having done all the work while Aidan was the official trainer.

Among a couple of potential Joseph winners, the one I’d like to see victorious is Sir Erec in the same juvenile championship race. A former Aidan stayer, he was classy enough to run a close third to Stradivarius in the British Champions Long Distance Cup and has looked a potential Champion Hurdler in his two hurdles runs to date. He needs to recover from a stone bruise to appear, but if he does, he’ll be my banker, as Kalashnikov was when caught late on in last year’s opener. What price Amy Murphy’s star will come back to life in the Arkle tomorrow?

- Tony Stafford

Lalor to land an emotional Betfair Hurdle

Known as the Betfair Hurdle since 2012, the race was originally the Schweppes Gold Trophy and first run in 1963.

Nicky Henderson has enjoyed his fair amount of success with five victories, dating back to 1998. That sparked a run of four wins in seven renewals. His recent victory came in 2013, when classy hurdler My Tent Or Yours landed the prize en-route to a second-place finish in the Supreme Novices’ at the Cheltenham Festival.

That trend of talented novices taking the race has proved a theme of the Betfair Hurdle in recent times. Get Me Out Of Here, Recession Proof, Splash Of Ginge, Agrapart and last year’s winner Ballyandy were all first season hurdlers. Five or six-year-olds have won the last 10 renewals, with the age groups notching five apiece.

A maximum field of 24 go to post on Saturday with Nicky Henderson responsible for five. Jenkins heads the market and the six-year-old is currently on the crest of a wave. Always highly regarded by the Seven Barrows team, the application of blinkers appears to have worked the oracle. He’s won his last two, ably assisted by James Bowen last time at Ascot. The pair are re-united tomorrow with Jenkins off top-weight. The horse must cope with a 5lb rise in the handicap, with the jockey now only able to claim 3lb as opposed to five last month. It’s a tough ask to keep this run going, but both horse and jockey are firing on all cylinders.

Irish Roe is battling for favouritism and like Jenkins arrives in sparkling form. The seven-year-old mare was last seen getting within a length of Maria’s Benefit in a Grade Two at Doncaster. That was a cracking performance and suggested that her handicap mark should be some way higher than the current 134. She’s clearly progressing at a fair rate of knots and a race weight of 10-12 looks ideal.

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Only three of the past 10 winners have carried more than 11 stone, with 11-2 the biggest weight carried in that time.

Kalashnikov is one of the younger brigade and the five-year-old has impressed in his three outings over hurdles. Having won his first two over timber, he lost out to Summerville Boy last time in the Tolworth Hurdle, though the pair pulled clear of some talented rivals. He has the right sort of profile for the race and his handicap mark looks fair for what he has achieved thus far.

Henderson has another fancied pair in Kayf Grace and Verdana Blue. The former is a classy mare and despite now being an eight-year-old has few miles on the clock. Good enough to beat Augusta Kate in the mares’ Grade Two bumper at Aintree in 2016, she’s proved fragile since, but won cosily last time at Kempton and seems to be back on track. Nevertheless, a handicap mark of 140 is possibly high enough and she’s not for me.

Verdana Blue is yet another mare and was last seen finishing third in a competitive handicap at Ascot (had several of these behind). Despite her form reading stronger, Nico De Boinville has chosen to partner Kayf Grace. She looks an improving sort, though off 145 I fancy there’ll be others in the race with a more lenient mark.

Lalor is one such sort and is back from a wind-op. The novice hurdler was a leading bumper horse last term and is now trained by Kayley Woollacott after the tragic recent death of Richard. The six-year-old has run well but failed to win any of his three starts over hurdles. He’s looked a little weak in a finish, hence the operation. His form stacks up and a handicap mark of 137 looks fair. He should be a leading contender.

Gary Moore has a decent record in the race and runs the eight-year-old Knocknanuss. A decent bumper horse in Ireland, he arrived at Moore’s in 2015, but only got to the track back in May of this year. Twice a winner and twice runner-up from four starts over hurdles, he’s unexposed and on the upgrade. This is a much tougher assignment than his last win at Fontwell, but he’s an interesting contender.

Henderson’s Lough Derg Spirit gets in off 138 and that looks fair enough. He was a good novice last term and returned with a second-place finish in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton. Of all the Seven Barrows contenders this fella looks the one who could be well-in.

Moon Racer is an intriguing challenger and another back from a wind operation. Hugely talented as a youngster, he took the Champion Bumper back in 2015. He beat Ballyandy in his first run over hurdles but failed to be competitive when somewhat thrown in at the deep end in last year’s Champion Hurdle. Ballyandy ended his hurdling campaign off a mark of 147, whilst Moon Racer gets in here off 142. He has plenty to prove but the Pipe’s now how to prepare one, and he’s a horse that goes well fresh. His odds of 25s are tempting.

Divine Bere is another at a price that could run a huge race. The five-year-old only just lost out in last year’s Fred Winter before getting close to Defi Du Seuil at Aintree. He showed nothing on return at Ascot but was duly dropped 4lb by the handicapper. He’s probably carrying a little too much to win but he’s a stonking 40/1.

You’d expect a handicap of this nature to be competitive and it certainly is. Any of the above could win, plus a few that I’ve failed to mention. I’m going with Lalor in the hope that the wind-op has done the trick. He has the right profile and his bumper form was outstanding. I fear Kalashnikov, as he could be the class act in the field with plenty more improvement to come. The one for the each-way punters has to be Moon Racer. He could just as easily finish last, but a wind operation, coupled with an interesting handicap mark, makes his odds of 25/1 too tempting to turn down.

Best of luck to all those having a punt in this head-scratcher.