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!