Syndicates ready to thrive again as full crowds return

Several of racing’s biggest syndicates have spoken of their relief as members are able to enjoy the full thrill of racehorse ownership again following the easing of remaining coronavirus restrictions.

While the pandemic did not have the catastrophic effect on memberships many feared back in March 2020, it was still a testing time for organisations trying to market an activity for which the major selling point – going racing – was unavailable.

However, with the numbers allowed on track gradually going up before Monday’s ‘Freedom Day’, the syndicates find themselves in a far healthier position than they could have imagined last spring.

Tim Palin, of Middleham Park Racing, said: “Initially there was a big panic on, and we feared for our business because we thought the first thing to go for most people would be luxury items like a share in a racehorse.

“But in actual fact, while we initially lost four per cent of our revenue, we found that when racing was scheduled to resume on June 1 (last year) and the Government were being kind in propping up the economy and people were saving money, we found they had more money to spend.

“We’re quite lucky that most of our owners are established, elderly gentlemen, middle-class and not so affected by being made redundant like a lot of casual workers were. Unfortunately, it’s the young guns who suffered more.

“We were also careful to diversify – we used more trainers to give us the broadest appeal out there, and that has stood us in good stead.

“Our owners have been fantastically loyal, and we’ve actually seen growth in the horses that we have. I was a teacher for 30 years and probably spent £200 a month getting to work – all the home working has been a saving for people.

“It has been a bit frustrating badge-wise, limiting it to fours and sixes. Nine days out of 10 we’ve had to disappoint people who wanted to go racing. We’re delighted that racing carried on and have serviced most of our requests, but we have had to disappoint some people. Fortunately we hopefully should be getting what we want most of the time now.”

Sam Hoskins, who manages various syndicates including Kennet Valley Thoroughbreds and Hot To Trot Racing, paints a similar picture.

Sam Hoskins, racing manager of Kennet Valley Thoroughbreds
Sam Hoskins, racing manager of Kennet Valley Thoroughbreds (Simon Cooper/PA)

“Since May we’ve been able to get up to 10 owners on track, and some tracks have been extra helpful,” said Hoskins.

“I think some people are still being cautious, which isn’t surprising – and to be honest we aren’t getting the demand which was there pre-covid. We did have a lot of people wanting to come to Ascot on Summer Mile day, and Ascot was very helpful then.

“It’s great to be getting people back on track and it has got a lot better in recent weeks. I didn’t quite get the headache I thought we might have had as the numbers gradually increased and also people haven’t been going racing as much – but I’m hoping they will.

“We were really worried when lockdown was announced about how it would affect us, but our owners have been really patient. It’s been a long old time.”

Simon Turner of Hambleton Racing, who own Group One star Glen Shiel among others, said: “At various points it’s been very difficult, but we’ve been blessed in that our owners have been terrific, so it hasn’t been as painful as it could have been.

“But there’s no getting away from it – our members want to get on a racecourse and get back enjoying their racing, so it’s brilliant they can get back on track, enjoying what they’re paying for.

“Owners drive the sport, so it’s great that their experience can get back to normal, if they want it to.

“We haven’t seen a drop off in numbers. We’ve made sure we’ve looked after our current owners and we’ve seen lots of interest from potential new owners.

“What has happened in the last 12-18 months may have focused people’s minds. Ownership might have been something they thought of one day, but they’ve decided to kick on and look into it. There’s not been much else they could spend their money on!

“We have stable visits at David O’Meara’s and Archie Watson’s this week, and things like that are why you get involved. So it’s great to be able to offer those, along with paddock access once more.”

Marie’s Rock on Doncaster fact-finding mission

Connections of Marie’s Rock expect to have a clearer idea of her potential ambitions after the Irish Thoroughbred Marketing Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster on Saturday.

The Ffos Las bumper scorer was hugely impressive in winning her first two starts over hurdles last season for trainer Nicky Henderson and owners Middleham Park Racing.

However, injury ruled her out of an intended appearance in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, and she could finish only seventh when favourite to make a successful reappearance at Newbury in November.

The winner of that Newbury race, her stable companion Floressa, is again in opposition this weekend – and Middleham Park’s Tom Palin is keeping his fingers crossed for a much improved performance from Marie’s Rock in this Grade Two feature.

He said: “Her injury came at the worst possible time, really, as it ruled her out of Cheltenham then of course Covid hit and everything else was off anyway.

“At Newbury we felt she was beaten through inexperience, but this race has always been on our radar.

“We need to know what we have. She’s got a Champion Hurdle entry down to me, but that is because we don’t actually know what we’ve got.

“Is she a Grade Two mare or a Saturday handicapper? We don’t know yet, but she she’s still very exciting.”

With stable jockey Nico de Boinville seemingly siding with Floressa, James Bowen takes the ride aboard Marie’s Rock.

Floressa is actually dropping in class, having finished fourth in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day on her latest appearance.

Henderson told Unibet: “Floressa was very unlucky in this race last year, so you could say we have some unfinished business.

“I thought she ran a nice race in the Christmas Hurdle and she put in a very nice piece of work on Tuesday, so comes here in good form.

“The ground would be a very slight concern, but she has plenty of stamina, which will help under these conditions.”

Of Marie’s Rock, he added: “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for her at Newbury, where she was much too keen and then found plenty of traffic problems, so I’m happy to draw a line through it.

“She is much better than that and we’re putting a hood and a tongue-tie on to try to get her to relax.

“We’ve always thought a great deal of her.”

Phil Kirby saddled his former stable star Lady Buttons to claim this prize in both of the past two seasons and is this year represented by Rayna’s World.

Miranda (Paul Nicholls), Irish Roe (Peter Atkinson) and Sopat (Phil Middleton) are the other hopefuls.

Of Miranda, Nicholls told Betfair: “She won gamely on her return to action at Ludlow early in December and was then beaten barely a length when fourth in a tight finish at Musselburgh on New Year’s Day.

“I have a feeling the galloping nature of the Doncaster track will be more suitable for Miranda, who loves soft ground and worked great on Thursday morning. She must have a leading chance.”

A bigger field of 12 runners has been declared for the Albert Bartlett River Don Novices’ Hurdle.

Leading contenders for this three-mile contest include Henderson’s Emir Sacree.

The Seven Barrows trainer said: “I must admit he surprised me when he won at Ascot on his debut for us because we weren’t planning on making the running or anything like that, but he stayed well and galloped strongly to the line.

“The step up to three miles should suit and he won’t have an issue with the ground.

“He warrants his place in the line up and I’m intrigued to see what we’ve got.”

Marie’s Rock poised for weekend run at Doncaster

Marie’s Rock is set to skip the Betfair Hurdle in favour of the Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster on Saturday.

Won for the previous two seasons by the now-retired Lady Buttons, Marie’s Rock needs to bounce back from an underwhelming comeback run in the Gerry Fielden at Newbury which went the way of her pre-race galloping companion Floressa.

Prior to that the Nicky Henderson-trained mare had won a bumper and two novice hurdles and was favourite for the Dawn Run at Cheltenham before injury ruled her out.

“I had a conversation with her trainer this morning (Tuesday) and barring something out of our hands happening she’ll run at Doncaster,” said Tom Palin of owners, Middleham Park Racing.

“She’s a two-mile hurdling mare who we think is graded quality and that’s exactly what this race is. Options for mares in their second and third seasons over two miles are few and far between.

“Our biggest asset is speed so this looks the perfect race, conditions-wise if not weather-wise. It has been in our minds since the start of the season as it ticks so many boxes.

“As soon as she won at Taunton 14 months ago we thought this would be the perfect race for her this year.

“Of course the ground is going to be soft, but she does have a big knee action and hits the ground pretty hard. Obviously you’d rather it be good to soft, but she has handled soft a couple of times and we are racing in January – a very wet one at that.

“What it boiled down to was there’d be a lot more runners in the Betfair, it would be an insane tempo and you forget how lightly-raced she is.

“That probably contributed to her defeat at Newbury, and she was badly hampered. Interestingly Nico (de Boinville) still felt he was going to come and pick them up leading up to the incident two out. Her jumping wasn’t as good as it had been at home, though, which was probably down to inexperience.”

The unbeaten Fiveandtwenty will not be sporting the Middleham Park silks in Friday’s Sky Bet Juvenile Fillies’ Hurdle, however, with Donald McCain’s youngster set to wait for Musselburgh.

“While she’s not a small filly, heavy ground at Doncaster wouldn’t suit so she’s likely to wait for Trials Day at Musselburgh,” said Palin.

Euchen Glen in November Handicap mix

Euchen Glen, a Group Three winner on his last two starts, is among 31 entries for the Betfair November Handicap at Doncaster.

Jim Goldie’s seven-year-old has taken the Cumberland Lodge and the St Simon Stakes this autumn – but won a handicap as recently as September.

That success came in the Old Borough Cup at Haydock, and he has gone up 8lb in the ratings since then to 109.

He would have to carry top weight of 9st 10lb in Saturday’s Town Moor feature, on the final day of the Flat turf season, should he take his chance.

Rated just 1lb below is Raymond Tusk. The Richard Hannon-trained five-year-old was well-beaten in seventh place behind Euchen Glen at Newbury last month, but that was his first start since January.

“Until we get him back into form, we are a little unsure about what is his trip,” said Tim Palin, syndicate manager for owners Middleham Park Racing.

“He’s out of form, and the handicapper has dropped him 3lb.”

“We’ve got (all-weather) finals’ day at the back of our minds, but there is no point going anywhere unless he’s in form.

“The little niggles he had were a poisoned foot after Wolverhampton in the winter, and he cracked a rib in his box in the summer, which stopped us going to the Ebor. It’s not like he’s had a tendon or a leg to explain why he’s not running his races.”

Palin is still hopeful, however.

“He’s had a lovely break,” he added.

“We can’t argue for fitness this time, and he’s been flying at home.

“At this moment, he’s not telling us that he should be retired – but he’s just not been in form for 12 months.

“If the ground is really bad, we might give it a swerve and wait for a fast-track qualifier. If the ground is decent we might take our chance. We are just trying to get him back into form.”

Middleham Park may also be represented by Glencadam Glory, sixth in the St Simon, and Beechwood Jude – who is not guaranteed a run.

“Glencadam Glory has run some belting races. He actually beat Raymond last time,” said Palin.

“Things are absolutely spot on for him, and going down in grade could be exactly what he wants.

“I know we were flattered when second in the Ebor. He got the run of the race in front, and it was a Group horse that hunted us down. (But) if he could put in a performance like the Ebor, he should be there or thereabouts.

“He’s a likely runner, and Beechwood Jude is a definite runner if he gets in.

“He’s in the form of his life and he will love one mile four furlongs and the really soft ground.

“It was a bit of a punt putting him in, because we didn’t think he’d necessarily get in. In a normal year he’d never get in, but we thought there might be a chance he’d sneak in at the bottom.”

Glencadam Glory is one of three possibles from Tim Easterby’s stable – along with Aasheq and Bollin Joan.

Hughie Morrison’s Whitehaven and Roger Charlton’s Win O’Clock have both been in good form of late.

Other possibles include Ralph Beckett’s lightly-raced but well-fancied Sam Cooke, John Ryan’s Hiroshima, the Ian Williams-trained Kingbrook and David O’Meara’s Eagle Court – while John Queally’s Arcadian Sunrise is the sole Irish-trained entry.

Marie’s Rock has Newbury option

Marie’s Rock could tread the same path as Champion Hurdle winning stablemate Epatante by making her return from injury in the Ladbrokes Gerry Feilden Intermediate Handicap Hurdle at Newbury.

Connections of the unbeaten Nicky Henderson-trained mare have earmarked the Listed contest on November 28 – which Epatante won 12 months ago on route to establishing herself as the best around – as a potential starting point.

After winning her first two starts over hurdles, including a Listed victory at Taunton,  the Middleham Park Racing-owned five year old was denied an outing in the at this year’s Festival after suffering a stress fracture.

Tom Palin, Middleham Park Racing’s National Hunt Manager, said: “Marie’s Rock should be ready to go in a couple of weeks and we might look at the Gerry Feilden with her which Epatante ran in last year.

“She was near on favourite for the Mares’ Novices Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival but she sustained a stress fracture and had to miss that. She has come back and is better than ever and Nicky is really excited about her.

“Nicky has a bit of a hand in the Champion Hurdle and we will have to pick and choose where we go with her to avoid the big guns at Seven Barrows but we will try take the same route as Epatante for as long as we can, hopefully though to the Champion Hurdle.”

Though injury prevented Marie’s Rock from making an appearance at the Festival, Palin believes she would have gone close to giving the syndicate a first winner at the meeting since Junior landed the Kim Muir in 2011.

He added: “I wouldn’t have swapped our filly going into Cheltenham and think the world was supporting her going into that race before the injury. It would have been interesting to see how she would have got on.

“The winner was very impressive that day but Mr Henderson certainly thinks she would have gone very close or even won that race based on what he was seeing at home. She is very exciting.”

With a team of around 25 jumpers to go to war with this season Palin is particularly looking forward to seeing exciting juvenile Paros – who is a general 16-1 chance for the Triumph Hurdle – take to the track following his move from Gabriel Leenders to champion trainer Henderson.

He said: “Paros is really exciting Mr Henderson at home. He has raced once over in France and won very impressively and the form is working out well.

“It is a very exciting form line and it was the most expensive horse we have ever purchased so hopefully he will be good value.

“I’m not saying we will win the Triumph Hurdle but with a horse like him you assume you are working back from that date.”

Though plans remain fluid regarding a potential starting point Palin expects Paros to make his British debut this side of Christmas.

He added: “He has already got a penalty for winning at Dieppe which means we won’t see him in a regulation juvenile so it would probably in something quite nice.

“We were toying with the idea of going for the Wensleydale (at Wetherby) but that was two or three weeks too soon.

“There is a Grade Two juvenile at the November Meeting at Cheltenham but there are good races and sensible good races and we like to think we are quite sensible with our plans as it is a long season.”