Christmas Day couldn’t fall better for this column than it does in 2021, writes Tony Stafford.
Okay, so we miss the Saturday’s racing as we’re tucking into the turkey and the boss-provided M & S hamper’s goodies, but Boxing Day on Sunday will have a special resonance.
As someone who still needs to maintain a daily interest in the bread-and-butter action, it will be nice not only to have a blank Saturday, but also a further two-day reprieve on Thursday and Friday. And later today we will get the acceptances for what is likely to be a vintage King George VI Chase.
The 2022 Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite will not be there but his remaining at home for a target on Dec 28 means stable-companion Minella Indo, the reigning title-holder, will have Rachael Blackmore’s assistance at Kempton. The pair will renew rivalry with Bryony Frost and Frodon who beat them in the Ladbrokes Gold Cup at Down Royal, Galvin interloping in second, at the end of November.
The Down Royal race was Minella Indo’s first since his Cheltenham triumph on the day Rachael stayed loyal to A Plus Tard and finished a close second, leaving Jack Kennedy to come in as super sub on Henry De Bromhead’s equal stable star.
These two fantastic female riders could hardly have had a more eventful 12 months since Bryony and Frodon upset stable companion and preferred-in-the-betting Clan Des Obeaux in last year’s King George. Twelve months on, again Clan Des Obeaux, the mount of Harry Cobden, heads the market in front of Minella Indo.
Bryony, as we touched on last week, won her case, and overwhelming public and industry approval, against the now 18-months banned (three suspended) Robbie Dunne. Frodon, an 18-time career winner, has had Frost as his regular partner for most of the past four years and Down Royal was their tenth triumph together.
It seems odd that Frodon is again the second choice for her stable on a track where he, having fallen on his first acquaintance, has won on his next three visits. Minella Indo, though, will be tougher to repel than on that domestic reappearance after his long break.
If Bryony has been getting the sentiments, Rachael has been collecting the plaudits. Within a few days at home in Ireland last week she cleaned up the Irish Racing Hero Award, the RTE Sportsperson of the Year and the Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year accolade.
Then last night, perhaps the biggest distinction of all – we in the UK like to think so! – on the evening when Emma Raducanu predictably won BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Ms Blackmore annexed World Sports Star of the Year.
So it was four awards for Rachael.
Admittedly Emma was the first British woman to win the US Open since Virginia Wade in 1968 and only the fourth ever to do so. Even so, Rachael’s catalogue of unique achievements was probably more unlikely. The first to win the Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle in March, she also uniquely became first female to be champion rider at the Festival. Then in April her win on Minella Times was the first by a woman in the 182-year history of the Grand National.
The 2021 dominance at the top level among staying chasers enjoyed by Henry De Bromhead and illustrated by A Plus Tard’s bloodless victory in the Betfair Chase at Haydock has taken some of the gloss off the Willie Mullins chasers.
Mullins, after a 30-year training career where he had become the supreme big-race performer of these islands, had still not won the Cheltenham Gold Cup to 2018. Then Al Boum Photo, in 2019 and 2020, picked up two in a row. That gelding’s valiant attempt at the hat-trick resulted in a creditable third behind Minella Indo and A Plus Tard last March.
Al Boum Photo will probably take on A Plus Tard at home next week but Mullins does have a likely lad in the emerging talent of Asterion Forlonge lined up for Kempton
As a novice last season he was third behind Nicky Henderson’s Chantry House in the Marsh Novice Chase at Cheltenham but he has been transformed since then. He would clearly have won the John Durkan Memorial at Punchestown last time but as he came smoothly to challenge two fences out, he unseated Brian Cooper leaving Allaho to win gallantly.
Chantry House went on from Cheltenham last spring to win very easily at Aintree and resumed action last month with another bloodless win at Sandown. This pair, should they both run, will make up a five-horse nucleus with probably at least as many decent bit-players to ensure this is the race of the winter so far.
Nicky Henderson will be buoyed by the win in Ascot’s Long Walk Hurdle on Saturday by Champ, more normally regarded as his prime Gold Cup hope of recent years. It was especially so as his original favourite for the race, Buzz, had to be taken out through an injury sustained at home just before the stayers’ contest.
Champ’s stamina and talent have never been in doubt and it certainly looks that reverting to hurdles shows the J P McManus horse in his best light.
Injuries are such a part of jump racing and it was perhaps slightly ironic that so soon after Buzz’s former stable-companion Not So Sleepy shared the Fighting Fifth Hurdle that Buzz should succumb apparently with the world of long distance hurdling at his feet.
Injury on the home gallops also caused the demise of one of Not So Sleepy’s oldest rivals, Silver Streak. Evan Williams’ grey, a hugely popular multiple Graded hurdle winner, had been fourth behind the Morrison hurdler and fellow dead-heater Epatante at Newcastle and earlier sixth just behind fifth-placed Not So Sleepy in Honeysuckle’s Champion Hurdle.
Williams and jockey Adam Wedge dusted themselves down and replied in the best manner possible, winning the near £40k Howden Silver Cup, the race that followed the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday.
Apocryphal evidence – and plenty of eye-witness stuff too – has accompanied the various evasions of triple champion flat-race jockey Oisin Murphy as he attempted to disguise his ongoing problems with alcohol over the years.
Last week, faced with the prospect of having to attend scheduled disciplinary hearings into two findings of excess alcohol in his system and also one into alleged breaches of the Covid-19 rules last year, he handed in his jockey’s licence.
In their reporting of the news, the BHA stated that it is their responsibility to be sensitive when riders get in difficulty. The news that there were two such alcohol-related inquiries pending – one previously unreported from May at Chester – suggest the leniency in the case of Oisin might have been inappropriate.
Murphy held on to win a third jockeys’ title by the skin of his teeth and by only two victories 153-151 over William Buick in a tussle that lasted until the final day of the season on Champions Day at Ascot in late October.
That first positive test’s being unreported and presumably not dealt with at the time made the second, which was followed by an altercation in a Newmarket pub, less likely to be adjudicated upon appropriately.
Several times, even in one interview since the end of the season that brought a third championship, he has made statements suggesting he has stopped drinking. Maybe he has, but even if he is being sincere in those sentiments, I believe his third title will always be tarnished. Everyone likes Oisin, but it’s time for the self-delusion to stop.
There are many instances of sportsmen’s careers being ruined by addictions of all kinds, with drink, drugs and excessive (and of course where jockeys are concerned, illegal) gambling most regularly. The true champions, people with the staying power of a Piggott and Eddery (11 titles each) and in the generation before Lester, Sir Gordon Richards with 26, had to stifle such temptations. Likewise, the remarkable Sir Anthony McCoy, winner of 20 jumps championships in a row, with no heed to injury or any other possible inconvenience, needed the utmost control.
Oisin Muphy is already a very good rider and still one young enough to change. If he ever wishes to aspire to their eminence, he first needs to start being honest with himself. He certainly has a fair bit of their talent – now he needs to show he has just a tiny portion of their resolve.