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Monday Musings: Rediscovering the ‘Lost’ Champion Apprentice

Six former champion apprentices lined up for the Bahrain International Trophy and its first prize of £250,000 over a mile and a quarter of Sakhir racecourse on Friday, writes Tony Stafford. The least well-known of them by a long chalk, Scottish-born Lee Newman, was the unlikely winner on a stable second string owned and trained locally by Bahrain national Fawzi Abdullah Nass on his first run in his new surroundings.

Riding with great enterprise on the ex-Mick Halford-trained Simsir, a four-year-old son of Zoffany, Newman sent his mount past the early runaway leader four furlongs out and stayed on well enough to hold off a host of fast, but too late, finishers. Frankie Dettori on the John Gosden-trained but locally-owned Global Giant just failed to get up but still had inches to spare over Ryan Moore on the Aidan O’Brien-trained Sovereign, last year’s Irish Derby winner, to secure second spot.

Nass also provided the fourth, Port Lyons, another ex-Irish performer. Since joining from now-retired Madelaine Tylicki, sister to Freddy, also a former champion apprentice, who was forced to retire after a fall at Kempton in October 2016 left him paralyzed from the waist down, Port Lyons had won four in a row and carried by far the major hopes for the home team.

Fawzi’s talent as a trainer has been best advertised over the years by his exploits with the sprinter Krypton Factor whose biggest win came in the Golden Shaheen in Dubai where he always sends a strong team every Carnival. Alan Spence’s home-bred Salute The Soldier won two races for Nass early this year and no doubt will be on parade again at Meydan in the 2021 Carnival.

I wish I could find a full resume of the why’s and wherefore’s of Lee Newman over the past eight years. I vaguely remember bits of it as in how he had serious trouble with his weight, something the other quintet of champion apprentice alumni in the field on Friday have not had to worry much about in their careers. More certain is that he suffered a bad neck injury when riding in Australia late in 2018 and is based there, but he has been a regular visitor to Bahrain, and finished third on another outsider, Rustang, 12 months ago in the same race.

Friday was not the only time that Newman had got the better of the two global champions. In 2000, the year of his title, he arrived like a comet, winning 87 races, stepping up on the 22 of 1999. In that regard he had a considerably higher tally in his championship than either of Friday’s immediate victims. Dettori won his junior accolade with 71 victories in 1989; Ryan Moore, who had his first Flat rides in 2000, won his title three years later with 52 wins. William Buick, 50 in 2008 when he shared the apprentice title with fellow Andrew Balding trainee David Probert, and another Balding graduate, Oisin Murphy, won with 76 in 2014, but still 11 fewer than Newman.

The final member of that exclusive club in Friday’s field, and the most recent recipient of the title was David Egan, who rode 52 winners in 2017 and weighed in with 50 in the latest Flat campaign when he benefited from his association with the Roger Varian stable. David Egan’s father John, who rode his first winner in 1984, is, at 52, two years older than Dettori who will be 50 next month. Egan senior was also in Friday’s line-up.

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Weirdly, neither of Newman’s closest rivals on Friday could manage to beat his tally in 2000. Moore had six wins, his first on the Flat – his initial winner was in a selling hurdle at Towcester earlier that year – then none the following year before going on his journey to the top. Dettori, having won 22 races in 1988 – coincidentally the earliest year for the statistics readily available to me, always far exceeded 87 in the ten years from his title until the Millennium when his tally dipped to 47 as a result of his being injured in that plane crash at Newmarket where his friend and later agent Ray Cochrane dragged him from the wreckage.

So what went wrong for Lee? Starting in 1998, when he didn’t trouble the scorers, Newman rode in the UK during only eight seasons, 1998-2002, then 2010-12 so with two eight-year gaps. After his title he achieved double figures only twice more, 22 in the year following his title and 43 in the second year of his comeback. Otherwise his scores in the three barren years were five, three and seven. In all, apart from that landmark 2000, his grand total in the other seven years he rode in the UK was only 102, small beer when you consider Murphy had 144 wins in this truncated year and Buick 137.

For sure Newman must have had talent way beyond the average. Richard Hannon senior clearly thought so as did David Barron. Between them the two master trainers provided him with 60 of his 189 wins. What a waste, but in the warmth of Australia rather than in cold UK winters on the all-weather, he perhaps finds it easier to keep his weight in check.

In all, the Bahrain International attracted five multiple champions. Dettori, Moore and Silvestre de Sousa, who was ninth on the very disappointing Bangkok for Balding, each have three titles. The present title holder, Murphy, has won the last twice and Jamie Spencer also has two championships, the second in 2007 shared with Seb Sanders. Other notables in the line-up were winter champion on the all-weather, Ben Curtis, who easily outscored Murphy and Buick overall this year with 164 wins, and Hollie Doyle, whose 131 wins set a record for a female rider.

Only three female riders have won the apprentice title: Hayley Turner, who shared the honour in 2005 with Saleem Golam, himself retired this year and now a barber in Newmarket; Amy Ryan in 2012, and Josephine Gordon four years ago. Doyle, a late bloomer, has the talent and connections to challenge Murphy and Buick, as well as her partner Tom Marquand even more closely in the coming seasons. How the racing authorities and the media, and indeed large swathes of the racing public, will be hoping she achieves that unprecedented accolade one day soon.

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National Hunt racing continues to gather momentum and there will be many who love jumping at Kempton – me for one – frustrated that they will be unable to be there to see the smart Shishkin make his first steps as a chaser today. Like Altior, the latest brilliant two-mile champion chaser from the Nicky Henderson stable, this Supreme Novice Hurdle winner is being sent straight over fences rather than challenge for the Champion Hurdle next March.

There were plenty of reasons to think that Altior rather than stablemate Buveur D’Air should have won at least two Champion Hurdles as he had that horse well beaten off in third when they met in the Supreme. With the Henderson stable also housing the 2020 Champion, Epatante, who could easily repeat the dose next March, Henderson has a proven formula to follow. It is understandable that going in a beginners’ chase like today with four opponents would be less demanding than, say, a Fighting Fifth Hurdle. If he can cope – and his 1-6 forecast price suggests he will - with the four-year-old Mick Pastor, in the same McManus colours as Epatante, he should be on the way to the Festival once again.

There were a couple of nice performances yesterday at Navan when Minella Indo, beaten a length by Champ (Henderson/McManus) in the RSA Insurance Novice Chase at Cheltenham, cantered round under Rachael Blackmore to the sort of bloodless victory that the Shishkin connections will be craving  this afternoon.

Earlier, fair hurdler Blackbow showed sufficient promise first time over fences for Willie Mullins in a beginners’ chase over two miles and a furlong to suggest he might develop into a Cheltenham contender next spring. Ruby Walsh, who maintains his close connection with the Mullins stable, reckoned on Racing TV that he’ll be a far better chaser than hurdler.

There were some smart performances over here on Saturday, the highlight being Bristol De Mai’s third win in four years in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, putting him almost in the Kauto Star category. Paul Nicholls’ multi-champion won the race four times and but for twice being diverted to Northern Ireland for seasonal debut wins in the JNWine Chase at Down Royal, he could have had an almost-unimaginable six in the same Grade 1 race.

This latest triumph For Bristol De Mai was gained at the expense of Nicholls’ Clan Des Obeaux. It had the Twiston-Davies stable mentioning the Grand National next April and at ten years of age it is easy to imagine the grey soaring over the fences. Clan Des Obeaux will now attempt to repeat last year’s win in the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day when his stable-companion Cyrname is the obvious one standing in his way.

One impressive Saturday winner who will not go for the King George is the Kim Bailey-trained Imperial Aura. The handicap he won at Cheltenham last March will no longer be run, but in-form Kim will aim him at the Ryanair Chase where his bold jumping front-runner will be a big threat to anything the Irish can produce.

The most remarkable success of the day was back at Haydock where the David Pipe stable sent out Main Fact for a ninth win in the calendar year. Bought out of the Dianne Sayer stable for only £6,000 in May 2018, the Juddmonte-bred, who won as a young horse in France for David Smaga, was then off the track for almost 18 months until last December. A close third after making the running on stable debut, that set him up for his first win early in January. Off 104 in a two-mile Warwick handicap he launched a quick-fire eight-day hat-trick. Then it was two more close together wins in early March, by six lengths off 123 and 15 lengths off 9lb higher, already revealing astonishing progress.

Lockdown halted the momentum and it wasn’t until late last month that Pipe brought him out for a Flat foray, which brought three wins at two miles in under a fortnight, starting off at 60. He will be on 78 when the turf resumes next March. Judged on Saturday’s events, that figure will be nowhere near enough to stop him.

For here he was, having never previously run over further than two and a half miles, the distance of his Uttoxeter win on March 14, trying three miles on heavy ground in a 17-runner Grade 3 handicap hurdle sponsored by Betfair. Turning for home another Main Fact win looked most unlikely as, off 147, 7lb claimer Fergus Gillard could be seen to be riding away vigorously miles behind the leaders. In the end, though, the gelding’s will to win came to the fore and he strode past the highly-talented Third Wind to make it nine-in-a-row. Where will it all end? One thing’s for sure, they haven’t forgotten how to enjoy such winning streaks down at Pond House!