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Monday Musings: Hong Kong? Phooey!

Why do people own horses? That’s a very good question in these days of high costs and, apart from at the top level, pretty ordinary prize money levels, writes Tony Stafford. In simple terms you have to love the game,  I assume, but some syndicates and racing clubs also manage to tap into social aspirations even for non- lovers.

At the higher level in that regard must be the Royal Ascot Racing Club which not only has the best facilities and catering standards available to its members, but the cachet of the Royal meeting itself to entice would-be adherents. They have also had a Derby winner, Motivator, run in their colours.

Not far behind, certainly for people of a certain vintage – and sadly perhaps racing still relies principally on that age-group – must be the Kingsclere Racing Club. This is run from Andrew Balding’s stable on the Hampshire-Berkshire borders and relies entirely on bloodstock bred by Kingsclere Stud.

Not the least of the appeal is that the Club is able to utilise the historic colours, black with a gold cross, worn by the wonderful Mill Reef, always referred to as among the top handful of thoroughbreds in the second half of the last century. Mill Reef was trained by Andrew’s father, Ian, for the colt’s American owner-breeder, Paul Mellon.

His 12 wins and two second places in 14 races included an impressive Epsom Derby success. His defeats were both at the very top level. As a juvenile he was edged out in a close finish by My Swallow, the champion European 1970 two-year-old, and then in the next year’s 2,000 Guineas when the equally brilliant Brigadier Gerard – who only ever lost once in 18 starts over three seasons’ racing – beat him and My Swallow in probably the greatest Guineas of all time.

Mill Reef would almost certainly have improved even on those figures bar a shattered leg sustained while being prepared for the 1972 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Happily, supreme care and rehabilitation meant he recovered well enough to fulfil a highly-meritorious stallion career at the National Stud in Newmarket.

Even after all these years the sight of those silks coming to the fore on the racecourse gives me a charge as it must the 25 shareholders (that’s the maximum Kingsclere Racing Club seeks according to their literature) when they appear on track.

For an interest in the stated 15 Flat horses – the odd one does run over jumps from time to time – each member pays £6,000 <hope that’s current> and in turn is entitled to one-fiftieth share of prize money, so the management keeps and underwrites at least one-half. In 2018, 14 individual Kingsclere Stud horses ran for a total of nine wins and around £180,000. I reckon that will boil down to around £110,000 of owners’ money after jockey, trainer, stable percentage and other Weatherbys deductions.

So it should still leave in excess of two  grand to each member from the six invested – a not-unreasonable return for the excitement of seeing 71 domestic and a few overseas runs during the year, especially with the social aspect and free admission to the top enclosure on track.

I’m not sure how many of the members – or even the trainer - fancied yesterday’s jaunt up to Newcastle for their four-year-old Seasearch, a son of Passing Glance who won twice last year and stepped up to two miles in 0-65 company. Sadly the jury will still be out on his stamina as he was a one-paced sixth of eight, but the travelling costs for the horse – if not the owners – will have been partially defrayed by prizemoney of £400 for all the also-rans.

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The bulk of the 2018 earnings for Kingsclere Racing Club was shared between two horses. Brorocco, who despite failing to win in seven starts, collected most with almost £60,000 from place prizes. The three-year-old Urban Aspect, a son of Cityscape out of Casual Glance, a Kingsclere stalwart, won £53,000 from four runs. After a promising debut third, he won three times, culminating in victory from a big field in a mile handicap at the York Ebor meeting in August.

Four weeks after York, Urban Aspect was gelded and the next time he appeared in a race programme was yesterday morning when he was due to make his Hong Kong debut in the concluding Lung Kung Handicap, a Class 2 race over a mile and worth £111,000 to the winner.

My former Daily Telegraph colleague, Jim McGrath, busily mopping up assignments all around the globe in his lucrative later years, penned a piece about the card in yesterday’s Racing Post. He suggested the former Richard Hannon horse Tigre du Terre was the one to be on.

But in a very competitive field he could finish only ninth, failing to build on a promising debut run last month. If any Kingsclere Racing Club member is none the wiser, I am very sad for you. Clearly a substantial price was forthcoming for their former money-spinner. At that point no doubt any ongoing pecuniary benefit would have ended in the way Motivator’s sale as a stallion did not enrich Sir Clement Freud and the rest of the Royal Ascot RC membership. I’m sure the Balding family and the club officials have that element firmly defined. This seems a very well-run and highly-successful enterprise from where I’m looking.

In the manner of Hong Kong racing, the new proud owner, Mr Leng Shek Kong, chose a “lucky” name for his investment at which point La Ying Star was born. When I looked briefly down the list yesterday morning, I could not understand why a horse with three wins to his name should be available at outsider odds in that 9.45 a.m. race.

Later, having not been professional enough to watch live – and even Jim’s wise words when I saw them had already been overtaken by actual events – I saw that the 3111- form figure horse had indeed won. I’m sure that even after the BHA hike from 93 to 104 as a result of York his previous owners would not have been dissuaded from backing him again wherever he appeared after wins at 2-1, 8-11 and 5-1.

If they were aware of his new surroundings they would have been rewarded at 29-1. If it had been me, I’m sure I’d have missed the Hong Kong wedding but tucked in at the Geordie funeral!

There were three more UK imports in the field. Sixth home Charity Go (BHA106) was also ex-Balding and this was the third Hong Kong outing for the former Fortune’s Pearl. He was a Qatar Racing “discard” if you could ever refer to the high-price Hong Kong Derby turkey shoot in that way, such are the prices received.

Ninth over the line was Classic Beauty (BHA 103) and unraced since winning easily at Naas in June for Adrian Paul Keatley. That was his third try for the one-time London Icon in the Far East where his record stands at 10/9/9. Lastly Tigre du Terre, no name change here, won three of nine for Hannon in the colours of another great ownership entity, Middleham Park.

It would be nice to think that the 25 or however many members there were last year, and will be for the new team in 2019, had their brains on at 29-1. Almost better than having 2% of the £111k!

As for New Year resolutions, I have made one in particular. Here and especially now – maybe later – might not be the place to reveal the details of a financial difficulty that has appeared in the carrying out of my usual function. What I have promised myself is that having spent the first almost 50 years of my horse-racing-aware (so 1962 on) life knowing pretty much everything about what’s running and therefore might be capable of winning each day, and latterly slipped markedly into sloth, I’m not too old or tired out to renew full attention. As someone – more than one – says from time to time, “You can still find them!” I realise, though, you have to look first. I’m looking, mark my words, and now and then I’ll feel confident enough to pass them on! Have a Happy Punting New Year.

 

 

 

Monday Musings: Remembering Trips to Sandbanks

Last Wednesday, my wife suggested a trip to the seaside to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, writes Tony Stafford. This Thursday will be the 49th anniversary of my first wedding – I doubt I’ll be marking that date other than sub-consciously, never mind next year.

The present Mrs S’s suggestion for the location of the trip came as a result of a friend’s recent experience. “I’d like to go to Sandbanks”, she said, and in preparation she scoured the internet for suitable lunch venues.

The previous time I’d visited the now exclusive resort, on the Poole (therefore Western) side of Bournemouth, was only a few years into my initial association in the early 1970’s but I’ll come to that a little later.

We arrived just before 2 p.m. but still in time for a quick lunch. The chosen restaurant proved to be yards from the car park and when I saw it was Rick Stein I could hardly believe my eyes – or my luck!

Me: “You know while you’re catching up on all those Russian programmes on the computer upstairs, I’m often watching the Food Channel < 133>? Well it’s usually Rick Stein!”

Her: “Really, I’ve never heard of him!”

The food was great, as it had been when Brian Meehan and his now wife Jax took me and a dozen other people to the Marlborough High Street branch of Rick’s last October after the parade of available yearlings at which I spotted Laxmi.

A leisurely walk along the beach towards Canford Cliffs and an ice cream followed in the 30 degree heat, before a return home listening to the England-Australia 20-20 on the car radio. Do not worry, dear reader, Mrs S had the earphones on and had something more suitable to entertain her.

The first trip to Sandbanks, as with most things in the early years of my Daily Telegraph employ, resulted from a telephone call from Fleet Street after the sales results from Doncaster appeared in the Sporting Life newspaper of that day.

A twice-raced horse called Princehood, trained at Newmarket by Atty Corbett, had won on debut by a short head, but had appeared only once subsequently, running down the field. Probably broken down, he was sent to the sales and made only 360gns to the bid of Mrs Louie Dingwall.

I believe it was in 1972 or the following year, but sadly the mountain of racing books that occupied the loft of a former Stafford household were dispersed many years ago. What I do know is that I called Mrs D, who would have been pushing 80 <born 1893> and asked if she had an owner.

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“No, my dear”, she replied in the Devonian burr she retained for all her long life – she died aged 89 in 1982 - and we agreed that I would organise a syndicate to buy the gelding, a light-framed chestnut as I recall. <I wanted to say chesnut, but the computer’s word-check would not allow it, even though the Telegraph style book would definitely have given the latter ruling>.

So I managed to find nine like-minded souls, mostly in the paper’s sports room, and a trio of likely punters from the Coral shop opposite to pay 30 quid each and we had a horse! One guy was called David Oldbury, and I haven’t seen him for 40 years. The other two were Trevor Halling and Chris Allen, both musicians, and Trevor, as a result of our meeting, eventually became a racing journalist. His son Nick is a boxing commentator on television.

A few days after the initial contact, I found my way to Sandbanks, then nothing like the swish resort it is now. I located the petrol pump and small garage on the beach and the nearby stables, obviously no longer to be seen.

Mrs D, by this time nearly blind, had as recently as 1968 driven her horsebox all the way down to Cagnes-sur-Mer to win the local Grand Prix, worth £6,000, with the veteran gelding Treason Trial. She had been a taxi and ambulance driver during the War from the garage on the almost deserted sands and was one of the first women to be granted a licence when the Jockey Club relented in 1966.

That day I met the jump jockey Gary Old, who was to form a winning partnership a little later with the Donald Underwood-trained True Song, trained near Godalming, down the road from Trevor Halling’s home, and also veteran Sussex trainer Paddy Butler. Gary, who died a few years back, used to ride the jumpers, but as soon as the weather turned, he’d switch to summer mode, renting deck chairs as a beach gigolo.

During the war years, Gordon W Richards, also a West Countryman, went to stay with Louie and her husband Archie when a raw 11-year-old as the stable apprentice. Better than sweeping chimneys!  Gordon, who had the “W” imposed – he had no middle name – to differentiate him from the 26-times Champion Jockey, became one of the great National Hunt trainers of the second half of the last Century far away from Dorset up in Cumbria where son Nicky still trains.

I digress. Princehood had a few runs for Mrs D, but in the manner of partnerships, a change was soon mooted. I’d got to know Ken (Window) Payne in his days training in the New Forest and he had by then moved into the main yard of Kingsley House – now the focal point of Mark Johnston’s operation in Middleham.

Ken reputedly not only used to sell multiple shares in single horses – there were apocryphal tales of six half-shareholders in some animals – but also occasionally resorted to housing two horses in a box such was his popularity for a while.

In the end he ran off with his (male) hairdresser years after his wife Lynda had decamped for a fling with the singer Gilbert O’Sullivan. One of the best Payne stories, of which there are many, concerned the day when he ran two horses in a four-runner Warwick (?) seller. Stable apprentice John Curant rode the winner, Big Jake, while Lester Piggott had the mount on the unfancied Mr Bojangles. Or was it the other way round? Why did I let those form books go?

We moved the horse to Payne, and we were on to a man when told he’d win the Doncaster seller one Thursday afternoon. He was unplaced. Two days later, some of us watched in the bar of the pub next door with a mixture of horror and disbelief as Princehood – his race televised on BBC with Julian Wilson’s commentary – strode home at 14-1 in a Lanark handicap, setting  a track record.

**

Last week I wrote about the likelihood of Sod’s Law’s being balloted out of last Wednesday’s London Gold Cup qualifying race at Kempton and he duly missed the cut by one, three horses on the same weight getting in.

It looked long odds-on that a similar fate would befall him this week in another of the series, but after Hughie Morrison took his terrier-like reasoning into battle with the BHA’s Paul Johnson arguing that there was no reason that the BHA could not sanction a division of the race, he won the day. Let’s hope Sod’s Law runs well on Wednesday. As Hughie said after his triumph, “I didn’t make any new friends today!”

On Friday, up in Co Durham, I saw Sod’s Law’s full-brother, a gorgeous flashy chestnut colt foal with four white socks and a big white face, along with two more home-bred foals, both by Garswood. When Gabrial The Wire won unchallenged the following day at Chester, we were encouraged that, as with Dutch Art and Mayson, both previously patronised, the choice of cheap-as-chips Garswood and Cheveley Park stud would pay off for Ray Tooth one day.

 

Monday Musings: The Irish Oligarchy

I was looking around for a middlingly-busy English trainer to make a point, writes Tony Stafford. Apologies to Jeremy Noseda for singling him out, but his situation amply puts into focus the absurd strength of the top two Irish jumps stables. Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott play out a year-long private numerical and prizemoney battle, to be resolved by five days’ head-to-head clashes with fortunes to be divvied up between them and their owners every spring at Punchestown.

And what sort of owners? After Elliott once again succumbed to the even more excessive resources of the Mullins hordes, his principal owner, Michael O’Leary of Gigginstown fame and the countless Ryanair millions, said: “We will have to strive even harder to catch up with Willie”. Actually his words were probably a little different, but that was the tenor of his argument.

One element which I did catch properly was that he thinks it is good for Irish racing that Gordon Elliott’s stable has grown to be competitive with the top man. That it has is entirely due to the Gigginstown horses’ switching from Mullins two years ago over O’Leary’s refusal to pay more for training fees than hitherto. Otherwise, he says, it would be a case of Mullins winning everything.

Last week he didn’t quite win everything, but 18 wins from 117 runners over the five days, including most of the Grade 1’s, was as fair an approximation to complete domination as you would wish to encounter.

Is it good for Irish racing? Is it good that overnight declarations for several of the top races were confined almost entirely to the Mullins/Elliott brigades? When the always-supine press applaud say Mullins or, less often last week Elliott, for a major winner with his fifth-string, do they worry about the impossibility it offers racing fans to come up with the 25-1 shot that happened to be the one that prevailed from the depths of the multiple candidates.

I mentioned Jeremy Noseda earlier. Over the past decades he has shown exceptional ability for various major owners, winning major races and placing his horses shrewdly. Sadly for him, a good number have gone elsewhere, often to the domestic big shots like Gosden, Stoute or the like, or joined the frequent yearning for the fashionable newer talents of whom Archie Watson is an obvious current example.

Yet Noseda still has the skill to plan major projects, like next weekend’s – now sadly ill-fated – challenge for the Kentucky Derby with the much-improved Gronkowski, who qualified for the Run for the Roses via a cleverly-conceived race at Newcastle. Victory there obviated the need to go for one of the North American Classic trials that would have provided a far more testing examination for earning qualification points for the big race. Alas, he misses out due to a setback.

In the whole of 2016, Noseda won 19 races from a total of only 109 runs. Last year, slightly more active, his 28 wins came from 122 runners – in the former case eight fewer total runners in the calendar year than Mullins sent to the track at a single fixture last week. In 2017, his total exceeded the Punchestown Mullins hordes by a mere five.

In all, Mullins’ tally for the whole of the 2017-8 jumps season in Ireland was 212 wins from 797 runs (243 individual horses) at a win percentage of 27. Level stakes losses for all runners was only 80 points, testimony to the fact that the “wrong ones” often win. Additionally, he won ten races from his 74 runners in the UK during the same period.

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Of course he’s a master trainer. His father Paddy was likewise a top trainer and his brothers, former sister-in-law (Mags) and the next generation of son Patrick, plus nephews and cousins form a pretty strong starting point for the country’s horse-racing aristocracy.

Then take the Walsh’s and the Carberry’s, leavened with the still-exploding Aidan O’Brien dynasty, with plenty more to come, and you can see why racing over there might seem to be something of a closed shop. Indeed, without the long-established practice of the formerly all-conquering J P McManus to spread a decent percentage of his horses around many of the smaller stables, the oligopoly would be even more intense.

It doesn’t happen here, even in jumping. Nicky Henderson might have been the pre-eminent stable this season with at least £1 million earnings more than anyone else and 141 wins, coincidentally, like Mullins in Ireland, at 27%. He had four wins on this country’s end of season climax day at Sandown on Saturday, but the ten horses he sent out there might just as easily have been routed to Punchestown in other seasons.

Four years in succession when Nicky trained Punjabi, he followed his Cheltenham runs each year by sending him to Punchestown. The first time (2007) his fourth in the Triumph and second at Aintree were followed with victory in the Four-Year-old Grade 1 at the Irish fin de saison jamboree. When he was third in the following year’s Champion, he crossed the Irish Sea and won their Champion Hurdle.

The next year he won at Cheltenham but was narrowly beaten in Ireland, while declining health (a breathing problem) caused unplaced efforts in both races in 2010. Yet even after his disappointing effort in his unsuccessful title defence, he still found his way across the Irish Sea those few weeks later. Happily he’s still fit enough at Kinsale Stud to make a yearly appearance at the Cheltenham Festival Parade of Champions.

In those days, Punchestown was Nicky’s Holy Grail, so much so that when I suggested we aim Punjabi at the Chester Cup the year he won the Champion – he’d won his only two Flat races for Ray Tooth and Hendo at Newmarket and Sandown the year before – the idea was given short shrift. As I said at the time (under my breath of course), we win another race in Ireland? So what! This is the Chester Cup, one of the great historic races. Wish we had something good enough to go for it now.

I’d have loved Gronkowski to give Jeremy a big run on Saturday at Churchill Downs, and in his absence I have to go along with Mendelssohn. His run on dirt in Dubai was astonishing, but as yet the signs are that the O’Brien team is not quite in top form. The way the market on the 2,000 Guineas has been going, it seems that Gustav Klimt, rather than Saxon Warrior, might be the one to be on from Ballydoyle.

Can you believe that both those massive races are already with us? I haven’t forgotten that a few weeks back I suggested it would be good for the sport if the home-bred Tip Two Win could do just that for the Roger Teal stable. Certainly it would be good for Roger and the colt’s owner-breeder Mrs Anne Cowley anyway. [And also for geegeez.co.uk, as Tip Two Win’s jockey is none other than our sponsored rider, David Probert – Ed.].

After that, next week it’s Chester for three days, then a week later the Dante meeting at York. It’s all just too much. Before the season gets going it seems it’ll be Epsom and Royal Ascot.

There has been quite a lot of comment about the switch from a general structure of maiden races with a few conditions events sprinkled in, to the almost total obliteration of the former by the newly-extended novice races. The big stables love them. They can have horses that won a race the year before, or in some cases, two years earlier and had gone through a campaign of Group or even Classic races, yet are still qualified to take on maidens if they hadn’t won again.

So take the example of Ray’s promising horse Sod’s Law. Second, beaten narrowly on debut in December at Kempton, he returned there for a novice race a couple of weeks back and finished fourth. The winner Fennaan, trained by John Gosden, had won a 16-runner novice last September and after the narrow win here – from a decent Richard Hannon type called Magnificent, was given a rating of 93.

It seems all the novice races, and there are few enough open to our horse when you include maiden auctions – he’s home-bred, so didn’t go to a sale, median auctions for less than £19,000, and fillies’ only contests. Hughie Morrison is looking for a satisfactory third race, but he’ll need to get cracking and we’re already into May. It’s another case of Sod’s Law. Whose idea was it to get that name?

Monday Musings: RIP Bryn Crossley

Bryn Crossley, who sadly passed away this week

Bryn Crossley, who sadly passed away last week

Somebody died a week ago, writes Tony Stafford. It is not often one can say this, but the accident of our meeting made a bigger impact on the second part of my life than anything else. That person was Bryn Crossley, who was only 59 when he passed away in Spain following two seizures, the second of which proved fatal.

The news was relayed to the media by another important person in my life (and for considerably longer than Bryn), former jockey and trainer Vince Smith, who trained Richie Boy, the last horse to win in what were then mine but are now David Armstrong’s red and white colours.

Back in 1981, Geoff Huffer invited me to look after the rides for Bryn, who had joined his stable at what are now the Cheveley Park Stud premises in Newmarket. Crossley had joined the previous year after a spell with Robert Armstrong and was a 5lb claimer who could do light weights.

Very few jockeys at the time had agents but one notable exception was John Reid who had been managed by Steve Taylor of the Sporting Life for some time and with considerable success. Steve and me had two similarities, age (I believe he’s a little younger) and a North London-ish accent, as well as the newspaper connection.

One advantage for both of us was early access to information as the Press Association, my previous employer, sent out racecards for four days hence at teatime every day. We needed to prepare them by marking them up at that stage for when the overnights came through three days later, merely “knocking-out” the overnight absentees before sending them down to be “hot-metal” printed.

Having offered to find rides for the young Mr Crossley, I was dead keen to look through the Racing Calendar, which in those days came through every Thursday from Weatherbys, as it does now, but with a number of differences. Firstly, they covered races three weeks ahead and all the entries were made at that stage.

All the horses were listed and you could see from a long way off where certain trainers might well want to run. For my first look for Bryn, I targeted a race at Doncaster on the opening Saturday of the season – no all-weather in those days – and it was a three-year-old handicap. I settled on a horse trained by Ben Hanbury, called Marking Time, and had the effrontery to ring Ben that night asking if Bryn, who could do 7st3lb, could ride it if it ran. Amazingly he said it would and he could, and three weeks later it did and Bryn gave it a highly-competent winning ride.

That was the first of 45 wins in a season that would provide the cheerful young man from Prestatyn in North Wales the apprentice championship. The world should have been his oyster and after his wedding in November in Tunbridge Wells to Jaci, Monty Court wrote in the Sporting Life that he was a potential champion jockey. Sadly, that was not to be.

But merely the act of looking through that Racing Calendar and at that particular race was to have a much more telling effect on my life for the next decade at any rate.

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The previous year I had got to know Sean Graham, the leading Irish bookmaker and, during a wonderful Sunday lunch at the Inn on the Park hotel at the bottom end of Park Lane and Piccadilly, he told me that he had entered an ownership venture with an up-and-coming Dublin-based trainer. Jim Bolger was the trainer and they had gone in 50-50 with ten horses. “He’s a very clever man and a brilliant trainer,” said Graham. “If you meet him, be sure to mention my name.”

Well at the foot of the handicap in which Marking Time was so well placed, there was another name, Lynconwise, trained J S Bolger, Ireland. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw it had more than a stone less than the Hanbury horse.

Rapid investigation showed he had done very little for David Morley, but at the end of the 1980 season, transferred to Bolger, he appeared in two Irish maidens – we had the Irish form book at the Daily Telegraph, I doubt the English handicapper did – and was placed behind decent animals.

I took my life in my hands and called Jim Bolger. “Mr Bolger,” I started tentatively, “I was talking to Sean Graham and he said to mention his name if I talked to you. Well, I’ve been looking in the Racing Calendar and I think that if you were to bring your horse…” at which point I was interrupted.

“Before we go on, no names.” So obviously the old manual exchanges in Southern Ireland must have had a fair degree of leakage, enough to keep Bolger cautious. In the end we missed what was planned as a triple assault over Easter – Lynconwise had a setback, but he came for three runs over the Whitsun.

In the meanwhile I’d started speaking to Jim on a regular basis, and after his filly Condessa had run a highly-creditable race in the Lingfield Oaks Trial on Friday, I noticed later that evening that she was declared for York’s Musidora Stakes the following Tuesday. I called and asked where she was: “On the way to the ferry in Doug Francis’ wagon!” said Jim. I suggested she might be re-routed to York – “She can’t be out of the frame.” She went to York and beat the 1,000 Guineas winner Fairy Footsteps and Paul Kelleway’s good mare Madam Gay! We were pals for a while after that.

Lynconwise duly came over and went to Doncaster for a mile handicap on Whit Saturday. The weather was dreadful as I drove Bryn north from Newmarket, but as it often does, cleared ten miles from Sunny Donny. We were fourth and when Bolger called on our way back asking: “Should we bring him home?” I said “It’s pouring near Leicester, so it should be soft enough on Monday.”

Bryn was in the saddle and got down to 7st2lb – for the first of only two occasions, the other when runner-up on Harry Wragg’s three-year-old filly, Popaway, behind Lester and Popsi’s Joy in the Cesarewitch – and they careered home ten lengths clear in the bottomless ground, at 9-1!. The following day Mark Rimmer deputised as Bryn was ineligible to ride, and he won the apprentice handicap at the same track with almost equal ease under his penalty.

For the next decade, we had a great relationship with owners like Virginia Kraft Payson (St Jovite), Henryk de Kwiatkowski (owner of Danzig) and Paul Green coming Jim’s way. No doubt we would have stayed in close touch bar my capacity never to keep hold of any of the money that came into my possession, and the subsequent inability to clear a bank overdraft he had helped arrange for me.

The Bryn Crossley connection led to my contacting Huffer’s former secretary, Julia (“Tick”) Vergette, a couple of years later to enquire whether Fiefdom, which her father George trained, could be bought. He had lost his form and was miles behind in a selling hurdle over Easter immediately after my enquiry. After some negotiation with Tick, who was back home by then, I secured him for a song, sent him to Rod Simpson and he won twice after finishing fourth under Celia Radband in the Ladies race – then a non-handicap – at Ascot on King George Day.

Celia, a long-standing extra on Eastenders, recommended Fiefdom to her friends and fellow lady amateurs, Fiona and Stella Storey, as a potential jumper. This led to Wilf’s calling me one day asking if he could still be bought – another trainer had the chance but did not show with the money at the Telegraph office as arranged on the morning of his first win at Folkestone. Later, that trainer told all and sundry I’d reneged on the deal!

I told Wilf I’d be keeping him for now – he actually ran in the Ayr Gold Cup later that year, nice preparation for a jumper! – but that I would come back to him when ready. In the meantime, liking Wilf’s style and politeness, I sent him Santopadre after he was mucking about one morning on the Lambourn gallops. “Shoot him,” said Rod. He had won three times, all with plenty of office support, by the time I was ready to sell Fiefdom.

The price was reduced and later Wilf told me he had expected to receive a wreck as he’d been busy. In the end he was surprised to receive a fine, big horse, which could run off a lower jumps mark than his Flat rating rather than the more normal 40lb higher. First time he won by ten lengths from 10lb out of the handicap at Sedgefield under Kieren Teelan, well backed -  even by me - at 9-2! Afterwards the shrewd and sadly late Alan Amies said in Chaseform Note-Book – “a certainty on his recent Flat form”. Fiefdom went on to win three Ekbalco Hurdles and a host of other races for Wilf. We’ve been friends for more than 30 years since then.

As for Bryn, the catalyst for those two life-changing relationships, he and his new wife decided he didn’t need an agent – “waste of money” was the official reason – and he soon slipped into the mid-range of jockeys, despite winning the following year’s Lincoln on King’s Glory for Philip Mitchell. In all he rode 220 winners by the time he retired in 1993 to join the Godolphin work-riding team. His marriage didn’t last very long either, the first Mrs Crossley sadly soon transferring her allegiance elsewhere.

Monday Musings: On An Ascendant Arc

Well, in the end I got there after all, and very Happily I must say, writes Tony Stafford. A friend came up with a very cheap – on a par with that bargain basement price for a 3 a.m. Eurotunnel set-off time – flight so, while 6.55 a.m. from Luton was still early enough, there was a compensatory upscale journey home.

So I got to see Enable in her finest hour and at the same time could marvel at the continuing excellence of the Ballydoyle team. Michael Tabor never tires of saying: “You can’t beat pedigree”. It certainly helps, as with the Coolmore team, if you control most of the good broodmares.

Before the Arc but after the Grand Criterium Jean-Luc Lagardere, won by the filly Happily with a rare show of stamina to outbattle the boys, Aidan O’Brien explained the astonishing dominance of the 2014 and 2015 crop of females he has the privilege of training, saying: “Most of our best mares have been getting fillies. Once they start producing more colts, it will change again”.

Certainly Happily qualifies as coming from one of the “blue hen” mares. You’resothrilling won the Cherry Hinton Stakes at Newmarket’s July meeting, and as a daughter of Storm Cat provided a perfect accompaniment to the qualities of Galileo. Admittedly in horse breeding, such an outcome cannot be accurately predicted – at least until it happens. The “lads” have now brought five examples of the mating to the racetrack and Happily, the first filly to win the Grand Criterium for 30 years (unless my quick scan of the names since 1987 failed to unearth another), shares those genes with Classic winners Gleneagles and Marvellous. It cannot be long odds that Happily joins them in the Classic club.

There’s no question that 2017 will go down in racing history as the year of the female. Not only has Enable, in the manner of such developing greats as Sea the Stars and Golden Horn, continued to progress through the year, she reached her peak on the most important day in her career.

Yesterday at Chantilly also provided a reminder that in the early part of the season – the Epsom Classics come within seven weeks of the spiritual start of the Flat season at the Craven meeting – Enable was not a stand-out contender, outside of the Gosden stable at any rate, for Oaks success.

There, just as in the 1,000 Guineas, it was Rhododendron that carried most racegoers’ sentiment – and cash – and for the second time she failed, as behind Winter in the Newmarket race.

A mental replay of the Investec Oaks offers an image of Rhododendron and Enable coming clear but, at the ten furlong point, few observers would have been favouring the Gosden filly. Then the daughter of Nathaniel (son of Galileo, of course) kicked in with her stamina and within a few strides the balance was tilted.

That Oaks image might have served us well when, dropped to those same ten furlongs for the Prix de l’Opera, Rhododendron reasserted her juvenile superiority over stablemate Hydrangea at the Pari-Mutuel odds of 9.2-1. Odds on against Enable, yet she was allowed to go off at a massive price here. She’s come back from injury sustained in the French Oaks; coaxed to race fitness in the Matron under Beggy behind Hydrangea and now rehabilitated at the top of the “without Enable” hierarchy.

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Watching her closely as she walked serenely in seemingly never-ending circles around the over-populated winner’s circle, it was impossible not to be struck by her beauty. But the Galileo’s also have that will to win, exemplified by both her and Hydrangea, and earlier by Happily, who looked only the third-most likely as she entered the final furlong yesterday.

The victories of Happily and Rhododendron added to the two Newmarket Group 1 victories the previous day of Clemmie (Cheveley Park) and US Navy Flag (Middle Park), bringing O’Brien to 22 Group 1 wins for the season, within an approachable three of the late Bobby Frankel’s record haul in a calendar year at the top level.

Clemmie, Churchill’s full-sister, is also from a Storm Cat mare, while US Navy Flag is a son of War Front out of one of the host of Galileo mares around the place.

War Front was intended to share that function with Scat Daddy, but the latter’s untimely death in the winter of 2015 balked that plan.

I believe Aidan regards Clemmie, going away at the end of the Cheveley Park, as the main 1,000 Guineas contender – until, like London buses another half dozen come along! – with Happily as the principal Oaks contender at this far-off stage.

One of the less-frequently mentioned, but a dual Group 1 heroine herself, is Roly Poly, and it seems as though she will be deputed to add to the tally in Saturday’s Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket. She was just ahead of Rhododendron, behind Hydrangea, in the Matron Stakes and that will have served to sharpen her after a short break following her midsummer exertions.

Arc Day reaffirmed that when his temperament, as at York, can be controlled then Battaash is a superlative sprinter as he showed with a dominant display in the Prix de l’Abbaye over the quirky Chantilly 1,000 meters which starts not far from the stands and concludes somewhere in the forest.

With Group 1 winners Marsha, the 2016 Abbaye champion, and Profitable leading home the rest, but miles behind, this was a run of the highest quality and, as a gelding, there’s no doubt he’ll be back for more next year, granted fitness and temperament holding up. We need a sprinter to rate as highly as the best of the milers and middle-distance horses.

It was an amazing day, when the French, with no winners, were completely obliterated by the British and Irish, and it ended with a memorable Foret triumph for Martin Meade and Aclaim.

The veteran Newmarket trainer, stallion and stud owner had provided the 50-1 winner Dolphin Vista and fourth home Chelsea Lad in a Betfred Cambridgeshire which showed why major bookmakers like putting their name to 35-runner handicaps.

The first three home on Saturday were allowed to start at 50-1, 100-1 and 50-1, combining for a 90,000-1 Trifecta. Just my luck, I had them the wrong way round… in my dreams!

Monday Musings: Tony The Greek

It’s funny how certain comments play on the subconscious, writes Tony Stafford. Many years ago, John O’Carroll, a Daily Telegraph racing desk colleague, with a touch of the gipsy about some of his early life in South Yorkshire, having offered to read my palm, looked at my right hand and refused to tell me what it told him. All he would say was: “You’ll live a long life”.

He’s well on the way to getting that right, as was the senior clerk in my first job at the National Provincial Bank on White Hart Lane, Tottenham, who habitually called me “Acorn Head”. When I recently had the wispy remains of a once-healthy head of hair trimmed off at the behest of ‘Er Indoors, that frivolous observation also showed an element of accuracy.

Then there was Richard Hannon senior, after one of my early appearances in what was to prove a short-lived TV career on the old Racing Channel. “You always look so uneasy,” he opined, and he was right. Uneasy it was, unlike R. Hannon junior, who is one of the more comfortable interviewees among racing people.

One of the less believable observations to my mind came from Derek Thompson, when, coming upon myself chatting with veteran owner-breeder Jack Panos, probably at the July Course, he declared: “You’re brothers!”

But Tommo was not as far offline as I thought. Jack, a Greek-Cypriot, does share a part similarity of heritage with me as my mother was Greek from Egypt where Dad met her during the war.  Jack’s family name is Panayiotou. My mother’s father’s surname was Meimaris, but uncannily, his half-brother’s was Panayiotou also. And I learned at the Raceform Reunion earlier this year from Willie Lefebve, who organised it – Tommo was there too – that I was always known as Tony the Greek. That WAS news to me.

Last year, the boss had his eye on a daughter of Helmet at Book 3 of the Newmarket sale and deputed me with Micky Quinn, who may have recommended her, to try to buy her. The bidding was relayed back to base, but a telephonic irregularity caused confusion and Mick stopped at 30 grand. “What happened?” roared the would-be owner. “It sold”, said Mick. “You …..! You’re both fired”.

It fell to me to pour emollient words onto the flames and remind the boss he’d been advised more than once of a Helmet filly available on the Mark Johnston site for a number of weeks since the trainer bought her at Doncaster. “You’d better go and see her tomorrow, then,” barked the boss.

As we had a runner – Harry Champion – at Redcar the next day, Middleham wasn’t an inconvenient stop-off point and they quickly organised bringing the filly in from the field. One of the things that appealed when she first appeared on the Johnston list was that she was a daughter of Anosti, a Jack Panos homebred who finished a good second when Ray’s Exclamation won the sales race at Newmarket nine years earlier.

The staff, headed by Jock Bennett, brought her in and apologised that she was hardly going to look like a sales entry with all the muck from the paddock. But Jock told me she’d already been through stalls and, a big filly, was around 460 kilos. Now sending me along to inspect a horse is rather like asking David Blunkett to judge a beauty contest, but having ascertained she was a well-developed filly with the requisite number of limbs (four), heads and tails (one of each), gave the go-ahead, in a rare example of Executive decision.

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In the spring she came to hand quickly and when in mid to late April she galloped well with two other early types and beat them, all was serene. Then came the bombshell. “She pulled up lame after the gallop”, reported chief on-site vet John Martin, “and we discovered a chip in a joint in a hind leg.”

There was no messing. Within a couple of days, she’d been transported down to Newmarket Equine Hospital and operated on by Ian Wright, the renowned surgeon. Within days she was back walking – no box rest needed, thankfully – and was in faster work by last month.

Mark and Charlie Johnston were in Deauville on Monday last week, beginning the next cycle of sales acquisitions, when they pinpointed Goodwood as the possible starting point for the filly now called Tarnhelm. Ray Tooth has a bit of a classical musical bent and Tarnhelm is the name of the helmet in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, apparently.

Imagine my surprise 10 months after we bought Tarnhelm, I was about to leave York races on Thursday when the phone rang. “Tony, it’s Jack!” At first I didn’t recognise the voice or number and the line was ordinary, amid the after-racing hubbub. But then I twigged and started by saying how sorry I was about his son <George Michael>, to which Jack said he’d been crying for nine months, but is starting to get a little better.

I incorrectly thought he was in Cyprus, from what he said, and he added he’d like to come to Goodwood to see her. Still believing he was overseas, I said, “Look we’re not sure how she’ll go and she missed so much time. Why not wait to see how she does and if it’s good, come with me next time.”

Well, Tarnhelm ran an excellent second behind the Mick Channon-trained Tricksy Spirit, a Lethal Force filly with two runs behind her. Tarnhelm showed plenty of speed to make the running until inside the last furlong, and once the winner and John Egan swept past on the outside, she rallied under P J McDonald and comfortably secured runner-up spot.

Jack was on straight after the race, delighted at the run and revealed that the filly’s yearling half-brother, by Sepoy is in the sales in the coming weeks and there is also a full-sister to her back at the stud.

I had a day at Kinsale stud in Shropshire yesterday for the Open Day and Rachael and Richard Kempster had approaching 100 guests. It always amazes me how quickly the yearlings develop and Ray’s seven (colts by Pour Moi, Mayson and Mount Nelson and fillies by Nathaniel, Pour Moi, Mayson and Monsieur Bond) all looked in rude health. The next task is to allocate them to trainers.

Winners have been slow to arrive in 2017, and so far Stanhope is the only contributor. He ran his best race yet when runner-up to Andrew Balding’s revitalised Rely On Me at Newmarket, drawing three lengths clear of the rest and earning a highest-yet Timeform rating of 92.

Despite her spring setback, Tarnhelm was the first of the Class of ’17 to run, but Clive Cox has entered Nelson River (Mount Nelson – I Say) for Sandown on Friday and he’s jocked up on the BHA web site.

I took particular interest in Nelson River’s two Nathaniel siblings (yearling and foal) on my visit, being reminded as ever that I Say is by Eclipse winner Oratorio out of a Sadler’s Wells mare.  Enable, of course, is by Nathaniel out of a Sadler’s Wells mare.  You can dream, Ray.

Monday Musings: On the Loss of True Blue Leadership…

The Lady in Blue just about managed to cling on to power after a humiliating election result that brought the “Dead Woman Walking” jibe from a former close colleague late last week, writes Tony Stafford. There was just as seismic a shake-up among the Boys in Blue, but in their case, the Top Blueboy went with barely a backward glance.

John Ferguson has been the great survivor at Godolphin for decades, constantly Sheikh Mohammed’s strong right-hand in various roles while others, notably Mohammed Al Zarooni, paid the price for uncomfortably controversial events with their jobs. Ferguson even found time recently for a highly-successful role as an NH trainer under the Bloomfields banner at Cowlinge, near Newmarket, manufacturing extended careers for one-time smart Flat-race stayers after it seemed their usefulness had ended.

Indeed some of them, once Fergie had to finish that sabbatical to become the supremo who would bring Godolphin to match up with Coolmore and Ballydoyle, were recycled again. Several have reappeared as versatile dual-purpose performers, like yesterday’s impressive Goodwood scorer London Prize for Ian Williams, while others, extraordinarily, won valuable and prestigious Flat races in Australia.

Ferguson’s younger son Alex developed rapidly as a pupil assistant/ amateur rider with Ben Pauling, where High Bridge kept the Bloomfields identity going last jumps season, while elder son James continued his highly-visible role as first an in-house junior Godolphin executive and later assistant trainer to Charlie Appleby.

But it seems the tensions had been growing between Ferguson Sr. and Saeed bin Suroor, the genial long-serving main trainer of Godolphin from the 1980’s onward. Saeed rarely appears anything other than politely content with his lot, but the distribution of the 2016 batch of yearlings between his Snailwell Road stables and Charlie Appleby’s Moulton Paddocks operation produced a major rift.

It apparently festered on for a while and then manifested itself publicly with a Racing Post article in which Julian Muscat revealed Saeed’s anger at the disparity between the precocity of many in the Appleby part of the operation and what Saeed described as horses in his care that were untrainable at two.

First-time wins for Appleby in the divisions of the juvenile maiden on Newmarket’s opening July Course meeting on Saturday, including the £2.6 million buy, Glorious Journey (Dubawi ex Coronation Stakes winner, Fallen For You) immediately added fuel to the argument.

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Those two winners, both by Darley’s brilliant home-bred sire Dubawi – their response to the supremacy of Galileo – made it ten wins from 14 juvenile runs for Appleby, who will carry Godolphin’s Royal Ascot hopes in that age division. He has 53 two-year-olds listed in Horses in Training this year.

Meanwhile Saeed, from the 58 youngsters in his list – though probably eventually there will be considerably more under both trainers’ care as the year progresses – has yet to have a runner, never mind a winner. His complaint was that the horses came in much later than usual, a similar situation to that experienced by Mark Johnston, whose intake under the Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed (Sheikh Mohammed’s son) ownership also arrived later than previously.

Outside the younger division, Appleby and bin Suroor have had broadly similar seasons, Appleby with 24 wins from 99 runs with three-year-olds and up; Saeed 26 wins from 89 runs. But if there was a time when the divisions were heightened, surely it has to be Derby Day, when with a full Maktoum entourage, headed by the Boss, HH Sheikh Mohammed, Ruler of Dubai, his trio of runners, all trained by bin Suroor, finished fifth (Benbatl), 8th (Best Solution) and 11th (Dubai Thunder) as Wings of Eagles and Cliffs of Moher produced yet another dominating Derby result for Aidan O’Brien and Coolmore.

That, coming fresh from the Ballydoyle Guineas double double of Churchill and Winter, and the humiliating non-performance of Thunder Snow, acting like a circus horse rather than competing in the Kentucky Derby but admittedly largely smoothed by his creditable second to Churchill at The Curragh, was probably the final straw.

So Ferguson graciously fell on his sword unlike the diminished Mrs May, although there are suggestions under the radar that maybe he helped stage-manage his own departure with his boss. Whatever the truth of that speculation, he leaves a massive void to fill. A cursory review of the last fortnight’s activity for the Godolphin world-wide empire, certainly shocked me.

The fact that Godolphin SNC, the handler of the team’s runners in France, had 20 runs between main trainer Andre Fabre and Alex Pantall in the past fortnight for six wins was no surprise. Between the two exclusively Godolphin domestic trainers, plus John Gosden and three Irish handlers, Jim Bolger, Mick Halford and Willie McCreery, there was a total of 43 runners in the period.

Yet even this large composite figure was comfortably exceeded in Australia where former top jockey and now their main trainer Darren Beadman provided six winners from a massive 49 runners. Just to keep tabs on that number of horses would be a major task for the Godolphin Racing Office. I understand that Nick Luck is in for the job, should there be a vacancy, and it would be hard to imagine a better candidate, especially as he seems to have no ambitions in politics, for which he would be equally suited.

Beadman, a multiple champion jockey in Sydney, echoed Charlie Appleby in stepping up to the main job after a period as an assistant, in his case, to the disgraced Al Zarooni. Beadman spent three years understudying John O’Shea, who moved over at the end of April. O’Shea’s big successes during his spell have been with Group 1 winners, Exosphere, and the former Mark Johnston stayer, Hartnell. From 19 starts for O’Shea, Hartnell won five times, but latterly has been frustratingly a minor player behind champion race mare Winx, finishing runner-up to her four times.

O’Shea in his turn, succeeded another highly-successful Godolphin trainer Peter Snowden, who developed smart juveniles Helmet and Sepoy, both now promising stallions at Dalham Hall stud. Clearly, the powers that be <whoever they might be> at Godolphin are hoping that another trademark stallion, in the manner of Dubawi, might be in the Australian pipeline. Certainly Henry Plumptre, Godolphin’s managing director in Australia, urgently needs to find an ally back at HQ.

Royal Ascot offers a quadruple chance to celebrate the Ferguson legacy. Last year’s purchases, Ribchester (Richard Fahey, Queen Anne Stakes) and Profitable (Clive Cox, King’s Stand), and more recent Ferguson acquisitions Barney Boy, fancied by the Hannons to turn around the 2,000 Guineas form with Churchill in the St James’s Palace, and Clive Cox’s Harry Angel (Commonwealth Cup) after his impressive Sandy Lane Stakes triumph, could give the Sheikh an immediate reminder of what he might be losing.

Monday Musings: A Good Friday

Good Friday for racing fans historically meant there was no chance to watch any action. Instead for the last 20 years or so, the Lambourn and Middleham Open days gave enthusiasts the possibility to see the sport’s equine heroes at close hand.  Lambourn has gone on serenely every Good Friday and there was again a massive attendance in the Valley last week. Middleham missed last year but another 7,500-plus is anticipated there today.

For the past four years, racing has finally been allowed and the winter all-weather season has ended with the crescendo of All-Weather Winter Championships Day at Lingfield Park. Musselburgh joined in, until this year when that track switched to Saturday.

The Arena Racing Company (ARC) this year bolstered its hold on the one-time sacrosanct Good Friday by adding two of their other tracks, Bath and Newcastle, in a monopolistic treble with enhanced prizemoney for both the latter along with the usual cash bonanza at Lingfield.

The crowds flocked in – certainly at my chosen venue in chilly Surrey – but I wonder just how many of them were happy with the continued absence of any on-course betting shop facilities at ARC tracks. Recently at the Raceform reunion, I met the manager of the Coral betting shop in Lingfield, promising to call in “the next time I’m there”. Of course, I didn’t stop – lay-by crowded, too much traffic et al – but I will one day if only to ask, how many people stood there all day listening to picture-free commentaries?

One friend, an owner with Highclere and member of four of their syndicates for this year, went through his fancies for the day and said which ones he intended backing on track. When I told him that he wouldn’t find an outlet there, he switched to the phone, as so many people must be doing these days.

Maybe that’s why Ladbroke-Coral and Betfred seemingly aren’t too worried about ending their dispute with ARC, at least not before the new Levy arrangement laws kick in later in the spring.

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of sympathy for David Nicholls. Two horses in his care until February, when he handed in his licence, appeared on the card and each won prizemoney of £93k.

There is no question that Nicholls was for many years an excellent trainer, especially of sprinters. Last October at Doncaster, he ran both Sovereign Debt (winner of the Mile race for Ruth Carr on Friday) and Kimberella (Sprint for Richard Fahey) in a seven furlong conditions race. Sovereign Debt won impressively with a late run and Kimberella set a fast pace before weakening into fifth.

Meanwhile the boss’s Dutch Law toiled at the back under what could only be described as a pretty complacent ride by the already-crowned champion, Jim Crowley. My confidence before the race in this three-time 2016 winner was hardly improved when Jolly Jim came into the paddock declaring, “Basically, he’s a shit, isn’t he?” and their performance matched his lack of enthusiasm.

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Unlike the Nicholls pair, who have continued to thrive, Dutch Law’s only public appearance since was in the sales ring at Tatts the following week when he was bought for 150,000gns. Where he is now is a thing of mystery.

Racing Post shows that Nicholls ran five individual horses in the opening six weeks of the season, none making an impact. His last winner at around the same time was Sovereign Debt, collecting another 90k plus in Doha, Qatar, when he beat Cougar Mountain and 14 others over a mile. I hope Dandy eased his disappointments with a little double on the pair – at 44-1!

Willie Mullins sent out 12 runners at the two Irish jumps meetings yesterday and with odds-on shots in the two most valuable races, could have been expected to narrow the deficit with Gordon Elliott (ran 22, two minor wins) in the Irish jump trainers’ championship.

He did to a degree, but neither Let’s Dance nor Yorkhill could land the odds. Let’s Dance got a fine ride from Ruby Walsh, but after leading going nicely turning in at Fairyhouse, could not withstand the late run of stablemate Augusta Kate and David Mullins close home.

Walsh had another unusual experience in the big novice chase, again being collared, this time after making almost all the running on headstrong Yorkhill, who jumped, as the commentator said, “alarmingly left” at most of the fences on the right-hand track. Cheltenham Festival winner, Road to Respect, trained by Noel Meade and ridden by Brian Cooper, steered a more conventional course and was rewarded with a neck victory, despite a brave rally from the runner-up.

The day’s action leaves Mullins £200,000 or so adrift of his rival and with a €290,000 first prize in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, in which Mullins has three representatives in the 30-horse field, he clearly has a chance of something like parity between the pair. Unfortunately, on a day where again Elliott has almost double Mullins’ 12 runners between Fairyhouse and Cork, ten of them are in the National alone. No wonder Tony Mullins among others is calling for a limitation on the number of runners trainers and owners can have in a single race.

It’s hard enough for small owners to match the big battalions, but when the luck goes as well, the game is hard to take. I had to make two unwelcome calls to Ray Tooth on Tuesday morning. First Mick Channon called to say that Ray’s unraced French-bred three-year-old Weekender, there for just two weeks, had been found dead in his box in the morning, presumably after a heart attack. “That’s the first one I’ve had in 30 years,” said a distraught Mick.

Then a couple of hours after Channon’s call, Mark Johnston’s vet called to say that the two-year-old filly, Tarnhelm, had been lame after galloping very well the previous Saturday and needed an operation to remove a chip in a joint. That went successfully during the week and hopefully all will be well, but with a late April debut in mind, this was a real frustration.

There was a bit of a setback, also in the early stages of what was to be Frankel’s first-season progeny’s assault on the Classics when Lady Frankel and Taulifaut could finish only third and fourth behind favourite Senga in the Prix de la Grotte at Chantilly yesterday. The winner was completing doubles for owners Flaxman Stables (Niarchos family), Pascal Bary and Stephane Pasquier, and it will be great if those shades of blue colours enjoy a revival in fortunes.

Three Frankel colts are among the declarations for Thursday’s Craven Stakes on Newmarket’s opening fixture. Frankuus, Eminent and Dream Castle are engaged and they are among six sons of the stallion entered to emulate dad in the 2,000 Guineas next month. The other trio are Cracksman, Seven Heavens and the David Elsworth-trained Swiss Storm, who continues to get glowing reports of his well-being. The Frankel three will do well to cope with Rivet and the chosen of the Aidan O’Brien pair, Peace Envoy and War Decree, in the Craven.

The happily-restored three-day meeting is wrapped around the two-day Craven Breeze-Up sale at Tatts, after racing tomorrow and Wednesday. The breeze-up gallops were shown this morning on Racing UK. Watch at home as it’ll be a bit parky on the Rowley Mile, but the bidding will be somewhere north of frenzied, no doubt, come tomorrow night.

Monday Musings: A National Treasure…

I never know exactly what I’ll write about each week until the last Eureka moment, writes Tony Stafford. This morning I expected it to be something Aintree-orientated as ever since my trip to the track on Friday, I’ve been troubled by a recurring dream, which wasn’t actually anything to do with sleep.

Going through one of the Mersey tunnels on the way to the course, a quartet of passengers with me, I had a feeling of unease. But it was only on the way back to their hotel on the Wirral, that the slight feeling became stark reality as that long, single street, passing close to Everton and Liverpool football grounds gave full illustration of the North-South divide.

Once my fellow travellers were alerted, we all participated in the unhappy sport - spot the shuttered business premises. On block after block, the metal barriers were fully down, even at around 5 p.m. on Friday. One of our number, Steve Howard, said that just about the only fully operational places were pubs, betting shops and fast food outlets. Most of the rest had seemingly given up.

That pessimistic view was in stark contrast to the many thousands of upbeat locals thronging the track. Much is made in the media of Ladies Day at the Grand National, expecting, indeed wishing, to see outrageous behaviour, especially from the aforementioned ladies. Admittedly, in such a big crowd, it was more sensible to find a comfortable base rather than look for embarrassments, but the clear impression for me was of well-dressed and well-behaved people of both sexes having a wonderful time.

I watched the Randox Health Grand National on television at home, fully expecting my last-minute find, the 12-year-old Raz De Maree to emulate Pineau De Re, the winner three years ago, when similarly I had the house and sofa to myself.

He’d run in that race, finishing eighth behind Pineau De Re having apparently jumped the last fence in 17th place, and I had at the back of my mind his strong finish to be just one and three-quarter lengths behind Native River in the Welsh Grand National over Christmas.

When Raz jinked to the right over first Becher’s, having jumped with great alacrity over all six fences including his last, he jettisoned Ger Fox out the side door. Not only was I on the wrong horse, but also the wrong Fox as Derek of that surname eventually guided One For Arthur to a memorable victory. Never mind, we’ll get it all back over Easter in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse.

“I won the race!” said my four-year-old grandson, Arthur, apparently for the rest of the weekend, and the result was a source of joy for his father, a general non-punter, but a tenner investor here, who spent much of the early part of his professional career working under the tutelage of JLT boss and prominent racehorse owner, Jonathan Palmer-Brown.

Raz De Maree’s abrupt exit was a typical Becher’s eventuality, but until I just now identified the culprit, I hadn’t fully realised how safe the race has become. There are 30 jumps to negotiate, 16 on the initial circuit and 14 (The Chair and Water excepted) second time round. Two fancied horses representing the stables fighting for the trainers’ title, Vicente, ridden by Brian Hughes for Paul Nicholls, and Cocktails at Dawn, Nico de Boinville for Nicky Henderson, fell at the first.

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For the remaining 29 fences, only two more horses could be said to have fallen, The Young Master, Sam Waley-Cohen, Neil Mulholland at Becher’s where he not only caused Raz De Maree to change direction abruptly, but also triggered the serious hampering and saddle-slipping of heavily backed Definitly Red, who pulled up soon after. A second Nicholls casualty was Saphir Du Roi at the 11th fence, ending the hopes of Sam Twiston-Davies.

So 19 got round and 40 horses and jockeys came back in one piece – subject to Sunday morning inspection. Driving back on Friday night, I listened to the Radio 5 Live preview programme and Cornelius Lysaght was prophetic when declaring that the Safety Review of the race, costing more than £1 million had been a great success, with fatalities being avoided in subsequent years.

Until I had that look this morning, I was unaware of the limited number of casualties, and this great race was the richer for it. It was a nice winner for Lucinda Russell, her bloke Peter Scudamore, and Scotland, collecting a first win since Rubstic – I found that one – back in the dim and distant days of the late 1970’s.

The other inescapable feature of the week was the sudden return to form of Colin Tizzard’s stable, so out of luck at Cheltenham. Cue Card didn’t quite make it, going under narrowly to Tea For Two and Lizzie Kelly in the Betway Bowl. I rarely differ with the quantitative assessments of the Racing UK experts, but it did seem a bit rich for those of them on duty on Thursday so readily to assume Cue Card to be in serious decline, just because they couldn’t beat “the girl”, I suppose.

This season, Cue Card started with a warm up third in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby before a 15-length demolition of 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. He was around three lengths second behind Thistlecrack in the King George, when Silviniaco Conti and Tea For Two were close in third and fourth. Silviniaco Conti was miles behind on Thursday, and Tea For Two improved his position by less than a length compared with Kempton.

Racing Post ratings gave winner and second a mark of 172, 7lb behind Cue Card’s highest rating of 179 when beating Don Poli majestically by nine lengths in the corresponding race last year. His Gold Cup fall three out was no more an accurate measure of his ability than any non-completed race ever is.

Whatever the Cue Card status might be, there’s no mistaking the merit of Tizzard’s other big wins, three Grade 1’s and a handicap chase for Ann and Alan Potts, and the Topham with 50-1 shot Ultragold.  Pingshou, Fox Norton and Finian’s Oscar won the graded races and Sizing Codelco collected the handicap on Grand National day.

Alan Potts had his 80th birthday during the week and his level of success suggests, maybe surprisingly, there might still be time for those of us not quite of his vintage to have something to anticipate with optimism.

One near miss for the Pottses was Supasundae in the three-mile Grade 1 stayers’ hurdle on Saturday. Yanworth, stepping up to the longer trip for the first time, following his disappointing effort in the Champion Hurdle, was all out to beat the Jessie Harrington-trained gelding.

In that regard he was avenging a defeat at the hands of Supasundae, then trained by Andrew Balding, in a bumper at Ascot in late 2014 after which he was bought by present connections. Yanworth had already won twice, latterly for J P McManus after a debut success in the colours of his trainer Alan King.

It would not be a surprise if Supasundae, an easy winner of the Coral Cup at Cheltenham previous time out, one day gains another verdict over Yanworth. A son of Galileo, the Newsells Park-bred gelding is a half-sister to that stud’s young stallion Nathaniel, also by Galileo. His mare, Distinctive Look, is a daughter of the great Danehill, a fine cross for Galileo and she has also bred Derby-placed and smart jumper Percussionist and Great Heavens, among a host of 100-plus rated progeny.

Orderofthegarter duly followed on from his emphatic comeback win the other day with a fluent success dropped to seven furlongs in the 2,000 Guineas trial at Leopardstown on Saturday. Ryan Moore may well wonder why he was on the runner-up, Taj Mahal, rather than the winner, but logic says that with Churchill or even Caravaggio as more likely 2,000 Guineas mounts, it might have been sensible to let Seamie Heffernan make this progressive colt’s acquaintance.

Monday Musings: Confusion Reigns

All this Cheltenham stuff seems to be getting to a lot of people, writes Tony Stafford. Take Eddie O’Leary, brother to Michael and Racing Manager to his brother’s Gigginstown Stud. In yesterday’s Racing Post, Fast Eddie is quoted as insisting that a decision on whether their Empire of Dirt will run in either the Ryanair Chase or the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup will be delayed until next week.

In view of the litany of absentees from the meeting due to late injury, among them a handful of fellow Gordon Elliott inmates, such insistence – the word in one or other of its forms, got a couple of airings in Brian Sheerin’s page four piece – on pragmatism might be understandable, but next week, really?

It’s always tough to get weeks and years right. We talk about events in a jumps season as this year, when as with Moor Racer, now definite for the Champion Hurdle rather than a novice target, he might not have run since November 2016.

I’m finding it hard to distinguish this week from last, having set off at 4 a.m. on Saturday for Mark Johnston’s breeze morning where the most precocious batch of his juveniles set out on the road which might take one of them to the Brocklesby at Doncaster in three weeks’ time.

If that might seem too much time to allow for a 10 a.m. appointment you’re right, but Wetherby services offers an ideal opportunity for a Greggs breakfast special, bacon (three rashers) in a roll and a tea (my option) or coffee for £2.70. Anywhere else in that locale costs an arm or a leg. Thereafter, a wash and brush up, refuelling and an hour’s shut-eye were the perfect preparation for seeing third lot at Park Farm, Middleham.

Thirty or so of us were there to watch our particular interest, some intent on possible new acquisitions, others like me to appraise a possible early runner, as in Ray Tooth’s Tarnhelm. She has the distinction of being a regular partner for Deirdre Johnston and they were towards the back of a line of youngsters, some galloping, others like her doing a couple of canters – “maybe two weeks”, according to Mark, before joining them.

Anyway as they neared the onlookers, provided with a platform of rubber maps a fair distance away from the all-weather gallop, one distracted youngster veered left, hit the rail and ended on the other side. Luckily the rider took timely evasive action, and both she and her mount were unhurt.

Apparently, down at Richard Hannon’s last week, leading apprentice Hollie Doyle also came off, her mount spooking when several motor bikes sped past the string along a small road. She expects to be back race riding in a day or so.

Tarnhelm had to stop – she was the next one along – and if she can react with the same alacrity when asked to go faster, she could be all right. Time will tell, but Deirdre likes her.

Yesterday was the lull in the madness of Cheltenham week. Tonight I’ll have my usual pre-Festival night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club with Ian Wassell of Corals, BHA two mile hurdles handicapper, David Dickinson, and MC, Howard Wright – if he’s not in Bhutan or somewhere at the last minute – to run the final preview gathering of the year.

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We might not be the best, but we are the last. Then after getting home at say 1 a.m. it’s up at 5 a.m. in order to collect Harry Taylor at Chigwell at 6.30, praying that the M25 will be kind to us for the first third of the trip west.

Howard has been an absentee a couple of times recently, I seem to remember Qatar as one lucrative alternative to his nice bottle of Bedfordshire RC wine, and Bhutan was a purely contrived possible destination. I knew Lennie Dorji, a great friend of Edward St George, and the pair spent every summer in England, betting in partnership and sometimes making money.

One year Edward had a successful time with David Loder horses, when I was a sort of advisor to the then young trainer, and even got a trip to Grand Bahama, which Edward basically owned with Sir (Union) Jack Hayward, that winter as a reward. He was totally disciplined. On hearing that Pat Eddery would be unable to ride the object of one potential 10 grand bet, he asked the trainer: “Who rides?” Upon hearing, “Paul Eddery”, he snapped back: “No bet!” It lost.

According to a comment made in the movie “The Lunchbox”, filmed a couple of years ago in Mumbai, Bhutan is the best place in the world to live: “you get five rupees there for one rupee here” one of the main characters says at one point.

Dorji was from that mountain nation’s Royal family and took important political roles, including I believe Prime Minister in his earlier days. If you saw the film on BBC2 last night, I bet you are still thinking about it and maybe like me quite affected. Try to see it.

Sorry Mr Editor, no more distractions. I started out talking about confusion for the Racing Post writer yesterday and in the same issue four pages later, my experiences on Champion Hurdle day eight years ago, when I was not there to see Punjabi win the big race, are recalled.

As with Chinese Whispers, even collaboration with the best of writers can be open to the odd confusion. If it seemed to read, therefore, that I drove there and back to Moorfields, “battling the London traffic”, I hasten to reassure that the 35 bus was my only conveyance option while recovering from a detached retina operation.

We’re not missing it this year, though, staying at a place called Highworth, between Swindon and Cirencester, and if 2016 is anything to go by, a better way into Cheltenham than from either A40 or M5. Starting as early as we do, there should be bags of time to see Punjabi and Rachael Kempster in the parade, unless like last year I’m forcibly prevented from the paddock by the security men.

Around New Year, I had a frustrating few days, wrestling with the apparent disappearance of the RCA despatched envelope which contained my new press badge for this year. I keep the robust, ideally-sized envelopes to contain such as driving insurance and car park documents and the like in the kitchen drawer.

When it came to taking it out possibly to go to Cheltenham on New Year’s day, I found to my consternation it wasn’t there and after a couple of lengthy searches, came to the conclusion I had erroneously thrown it out with the Christmas rubbish.

After a short correspondence with the RCA, I had no option but to part with £150 (£120 plus VAT) for a replacement. On Saturday night, returning at 10 p.m. after a stop-off at Chelmsford after the A1, I was met by a less-than-amused wife who said: “Did you lose this?” It was not the badge, but another RCA envelope with motoring documents. “That fell down behind the drawer”, she announced. “But I looked there a couple of times”, I whined. “Maybe there’s the one I wanted two months ago?” Two minutes later she retrieved another envelope, this one containing the missing press badge.

Saturday March 11. Hackney Wick, London. Dear RCA, I enclose the original 2017 press badge, issued to me, with car park label and use of badge instructions. Please send me the £150 so I can have a bet on Gordon Eliiott’s horses at Cheltenham next week.

Hope you all back plenty of winners, and maybe I’ll find one or two for the nice people of Bedfordshire tonight.

 

Monday Musings: £23k per second

What, if anything, are your memories of Royal Ascot 2006? A slightly incongruous question seeing that it’s almost ten and a half years ago, but a few elements of the fixture are indelibly stamped on the admittedly-failing memory, writes Tony Stafford.

The first concerns Royal Hunt Cup day, the Wednesday, when the race winners included Soviet Song (in the recently instituted Windsor Forest Stakes), Ouija Board (Prince of Wales), and Red Evie, thrillingly with a late trademark run under Jamie Spencer in the Sandringham Handicap.

That was her fifth of seven successive victories for owner Terry Neill and the Michael Bell stable and a winning bet for your correspondent. Two days later, arriving early, I sat for some time with the late George Ward, getting around eventually to breeding. I suggested he should try to book any suitable mares as soon as possible for the following year to Derby winner Galileo as I was sure Coolmore would be putting up his covering fee.

George said that the in my mind bargain figure was still way beyond his reach for the type of mares he owned. After I finished my drink and left, I moved along the second floor of the main stand to Coolmore’s box. I knocked at the door and asked the attendant whether I could have a quick word with John Magnier.

I was told he was speaking to his daughter so could I wait a moment, and then was ushered in, through a packed throng of people just finishing lunch. I can picture exactly where we exchanged the few words, which after introductions were to the effect: “Hello John, I’m not sure you realise what you’ve got with Galileo. He has eight runners, all three-year-olds, on this card today, from his first crop. That must be almost a mathematical impossibility.” He probably did, but I felt I had to mention it.

None of the eight managed to win that day, although Red Rocks and Sixties Icon, second and third in the King Edward VII Stakes for Brian Meehan and Jeremy Noseda, and The Last Drop, 17th of 19 in the King George V Handicap, were to fill the first three places in the St Leger three months later, Sixties Icon turning the form around at York – Doncaster was closed that year.

Red Rocks, third at York, went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf that autumn. In all there were five sons of Galileo in that St Leger along with two more by his sire Sadler’s Wells, two by Montjeu and one each by Desert Prince and Lomitas. Of the eight, only one was in the care of O’Brien, but that soon changed, as did the stud fee, quadrupled from the €37,500 in 2006 to €150,000 the following year. The 2006 St Leger 1-2-3 obviously helped, but the dramatic acceleration was made inevitable by the subsequent unbeaten juvenile season of second-crop colt Teofilo who did not make his debut until the following month.

Returning to Red Evie, after a couple more wins the following year, she was offered at the December Sale, but was led out unsold at a million guineas. Coolmore later acquired her privately and whatever figure Terry Neill eventually secured, it was clearly a fair profit on the 58,000gns he paid for her as a yearling to Timmy Hyde’s Camas Park Stud. Since then Red Evie has been routinely covered by Galileo and her third produce turned out to be Found, long regarded by Ryan Moore as a potential champion.

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Yesterday at Chantilly, Found confirmed that status with an emphatic triumph as she led home an extraordinary 1-2-3 for O’Brien and Galileo four-year-olds with fellow multiple Group 1 winners Highland Reel and Order of St George filling the places. Major owners often take plenty of criticism for their policy of prematurely packing star three-year-olds off to stud, but this trio and other predecessors like St Nicholas Abbey show this operation is much more selective.

When, as with The Gurkha this year, injury interrupts a stellar career, stud is the only option, but the riches available in the major international races mean more and more top animals will be staying in training at four and above. Multiple entries in big races is nothing new for O’Brien or the sire, but for once Galileo had fewer challengers for Europe’s showpiece than Dubawi, his great but now well-held rival, who was responsible for four.

I’ve been unsuccessful in my admittedly sparing attempts to find track records for Chantilly, but Found’s time of just inside 2min 24 sec seems fast as it’s a shade under 12 seconds per furlong. The Juliet Rose won the previous day’s Group 2 for Nicolas Clement in seven seconds more!
Earlier in the summer I pointed out here that Aidan O’Brien’s British exploits in the week between the King George (Highland Reel) and Goodwood’s Nassau Stakes (Minding) brought more prizemoney than any English trainer had earned for his patrons in the entire year.

Yesterday, the O’Brien Trifecta brought a total of £3.36m, again more than any English trainer has so far earned in the UK, none having yet broken the £3m barrier. For the Coolmore partners, this was representing a prizemoney return of more than £23,000 per second for the 2min23.61sec (more than five seconds faster than the Racing Post standard time).

O’Brien now has 18 Group or Grade 1 wins worldwide, with nine in the UK, three in France, five in Ireland and Deauville’s Belmont Derby win in the US. More seem certain to follow, starting possibly with Churchill in the Dewhurst next weekend; several obvious chances on Champions Day and the guarantee of a major challenge at the Breeders’ Cup in Santa Anita next month.

At the moment it’s at least £15million and counting and yet the trainer consistently attaches most of the credit to everyone at Ballydoyle and Coolmore, not least: “The owners, who send me such lovely horses to train.”

Only four of the seven other trainers who supplied Galileo colts (and one filly) that 2006 Royal Ascot day are still active, but I’m sure Messrs Meehan, Noseda, Channon and Weld must be wishing that Coolmore did not have quite such a stranglehold on the best of them.

I missed Newmarket on Saturday where Alice Springs (Galileo) made yet another step up the O’Brien in-house ratings with a fluent success in the Sun Chariot Stakes, instead favouring Ascot, where the highlight was Shalaa’s successful comeback after being off since winning last year’s Middle Park Stakes.

He’ll be back for the big sprint on Champions Day where John Gosden is equipped to clinch second place in the trainers’ title. We’ll be back there too for the Balmoral Handicap with Ray Tooth’s homebred, Dutch Law, despite his slightly disappointing close-up 11th in Saturday’s Totesport-sponsored handicap after looking a real contender two out.

Yesterday, Hughie Morrison reckoned: “Charlie <Bennett> got a little excited, but he’ll have to be more patient over a mile. Dutch Law looked great this morning and I’d love to run him. When do you get the chance to run for a share of £250,000?” In the case of Aidan and the team, Hughie, pretty much every day of the week. By the way, if Morrison’s Sweet Selection gets in the Cesarewitch on Saturday, I reckon she’s a handicap certainty.

Monday Musings: A Royal Villa Thriller

Monday meander

By Tony Stafford

After five consecutive days’ driving around the M25, I spent all yesterday morning wondering why I wasn’t doing the same again until realising Royal Ascot was over for another year. The presence of some Druid-like people around Woodford on my way home from a family barbecue where my children and all bar one of the grandchildren attended, reminded me that, from today, the nights are getting longer again.
Almost half a century of Royal meetings must have offered up plenty of spectacular performances, but Lady Aurelia in the Queen Mary Stakes on Wednesday almost defied belief. She streaked clear in the last furlong, having already set a fast pace, and stopped the clock at a time two seconds and change better than Profitable – told you – on the opening afternoon.

We always learned in the time/lengths equation that at five furlongs, a length is worth 3lb and five lengths represent a second. So Lady Aurelia, winning by seven lengths and up from her rivals, was a full 21lb superior to French-trained runner-up Al Johrah, and two stone and more better than the remainder.

Lady Aurelia was the latest Wesley Ward speedster to grace Ascot and, like Acapulco, last year’s sensation, and No Nay Never, is by the late Scat Daddy who would have been covering his mares at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in Kentucky this year at $100,000 but for his much-regretted death late last year soon after the fee announcement.

I was lucky enough to bump into Wesley Ward a couple of times after Lady Aurelia’s victory and he contented himself with a measured reaction to the win. “Yes, she’s special” was as far as he wanted to go, but having gone a full second – 15lb - faster than Friday’s Norfolk field he could have been excused for a little more extravagance.

Wednesday was the chosen day for Mrs S to accompany me to Berkshire and naturally we had to endure the showers as we traditionally waited on the front row outside the far side of the paddock for the other (and first) procession of the day.

This was a very hot contest. In the first of four carriages there was the Queen and Prince Philip, in the second Charles and his Duchess. Edward and Sophie were in the third, and after a clearly staged gap, the eagerly-awaited Prince William and Kate saved the best for last.

Magically, as with everything that’s happened in the year of the Queen’s 90th, the weather cleared minutes before the coaches turned under the stands and bright sunlight accompanied their arrival. For the first time, the boss didn’t have her proper camera, contenting herself with a phone, like the rest of Ascot, on which she recorded the event on video.

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The result was a nice moment, captured on the above still of William reacting to some good-natured calls from a couple of Brummies just behind us. “Up the Villa!” can just be heard on the You Tube clip before a louder repetition from his mate caught Wills’s ear, whereupon he grinned, turned round and pointed to the pair.


[Photo and video credit: Ekaterina Stafford Photography]

I thought it was encouraging that a future monarch can be relaxed enough to confirm his affection for his football club – even if Aston Villa were relegated. On Saturday I took the chance to congratulate Claudio Ranieri for his achievements with champions Leicester adding that “we’re Arsenal fans and so is Ryan <Moore>”. To which he replied: “He told me!”

Wednesday involved a quick departure to get home in time for the viewing of boss Ray Tooth’s Acclamation filly Climax’s debut at Ripon and she ran a blinder, three-parts of a length second to more-experienced Rosebride. Mark Johnston expects her to go one better very soon.
Friday also involved an abbreviated stay, this time a mid-afternoon, three-hour limp up to Newmarket for Dutch Law in a seven-furlong 0-95 handicap. He looked sure to win what was the best race he’s contended yet until nabbed on the line by a filly that since her winning debut had never previously raced in anything other than Listed or Group 3 class.

Last time, over a mile and a half in a Haydock Group 3,she was fifth of seven, highly-creditable considering all her opponents, including the pair she beat comfortably, were (and still are!) rated in the 100’s. The handicapper’s reaction was to drop her 1lb, allowing her in this race. If it had been anywhere but on his local track, trainer James Tate might not have entered her at the absurdly-shorter trip of seven furlongs, but he did and Namhroodah did the business battling to a last-stride win.

Jockey Luke Morris was at his strongest and it was not until the last stride that William Twiston-Davies was denied. Willie, delighted with his Ascot win, was a late and very effective replacement for Jamie Spencer, who failed to get to HQ after his helicopter, also due to transport Messrs Moore and Dettori, was unable to take off. They should have used the M25/A1 like the rest of us!

I wonder how long the Goffs London sale will continue. It’s lovely to partake of champers and canapes in the grounds of Kensington Palace the night before Royal Ascot opens, but quite how long can the punters be found to pay what is always a hefty premium for runners at the meeting?
Jet Setting, the 12k Julie Wood cull from Richard Hannon’s stable last October, was the obvious star of the show. Trainer Adrian Keatley transformed her over the winter and spring into a three-year-old capable of beating Minding, later impressive in the Oaks, in the Irish 1,000 Guineas.

Adrian was bullish going into the week with Jet Setting apparently guaranteed the type of easy ground she encountered at The Curragh, so it was no surprise when the China Horse Club coughed up £1.3 million for her. The Coronation Stakes did not bring an immediate return for the new owners, though, as while the celebrating syndicate were popping the corks on Friday, Jet Setting could do no better than a share of sixth place.

There were a few horses around the place for the first of so far three auctions in Kensington, but this time just one in-foal mare gave evidence this was something to do with horses. I probably would still have gone along if the weather hadn’t been so awful on Monday, but I bet most of those who bought horses with Ascot entries that night will be wishing they hadn’t bothered.

This week will be steady until Friday when the boss potentially has three to run, possibly Climax at Doncaster, newcomer Stanhope, a home-bred two-year-old Equiano colt trained by Mick Quinn at Yarmouth and Harry Champion at Newmarket on Friday night.

Later today I’ll find out if Cousin Khee is likely to get in the second half of the Northumberland Plate on Saturday. The old boy has not been on all-weather since running a close sixth in last year’s Lingfield Marathon or on the level since his staying-on eighth of 22 in the November Handicap. Hughie’s trained him for it, but we need 12 of the 51 above him to come out. As more than 20 of them ran principally at Ascot last week, there’s a chance they might not be in shape for another stamina test so soon after slogging through the Berkshire mud.

Monday Musings: Dark Clouds, Silver Linings

Monday musings 

By Tony Stafford

The thunderbolt came at the end of what had been a highly-satisfactory Friday’s activity starting early morning and concluding with a delicious scampi and chips in the Mayfair Fish Shop.

We – Steve driving, the boss and me - were in the car right after the feast when Rachael called from Kinsale Farm. “We’ve lost April Dusk”. The one consolation of the news was that Ray was able to talk to her, easing her pain while admirably controlling his own.

April Dusk was settling into his spring break in advance of going back for another season with Warren Greatrex, for whom he won successive races, over hurdles and then fences at Uttoxeter. We thought him a future star in staying chases.

Unfortunately, he and the stable had been coping within the restriction caused by a wart-like growth around his ear. Rachael did tell me the medical term – a sarcoid, one of twelve over his body, the worst of which was sutured and stitched - when I went up to the stud during Chester, but it was an ugly thing which had started to weep.

He’d come back together with the medication they’d been treating him with at Uplands, but clearly it was not working. The decision was made to laser it off. He had the operation, recovered from the anaesthetic, but then had a fall in the padded recovery room, breaking a shoulder, from which there was to be no recovery.

Proper racing and horse people are easy to spot. I talked about Kieren Fallon’s affection for the animal last week, and late last night after texting Warren and also Guy Anstey, the travelling head lad who first put me on to the horse, I got horrified calls back from both in rapid succession.

Guy, in particular loved the horse’s quiet good nature. He does a lot of the clipping out when the coats get too long and told me a while back: “You don’t even have to put a hand on him. He just stands still and lets you get on with it.”

He’d been just the same at the stud, although as Rachael said last week: “Once he goes out in the field, that’s it. He comes in when he’s ready”.

The grass is luxurious as the weather warms up in Shropshire, but there will be a cold, empty feel to his few acres as summer approaches.

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Earlier in the day, between lots on the Limekilns and then Warren Hill, I narrowly missed Rachael’s husband Richard Kempster. I was in the office at Cheveley Park Stud actually delivering the mating contract for the stud to countersign minutes before Nicoise was to be covered by Mayson.

The gap between the two actions was tight, clearly so as Richard was already preparing the mare for her hastily-arranged marriage of convenience while the ink was metaphorically drying on the contract.

When I saw his message, I was already on my way to Micky Quinn to see Nicoise’s two-year-old, Stanhope, too late to watch work on a morning of mismanaged appointments. Richard was also headed back to the A14 when we talked, saying: “Pity, you could have seen her being covered!” Not so sure about that, but then I’m no horseman.

Stanhope is a nice sturdy, indeed quite strong, colt by Equiano, and he’s coming along nicely in his work, so much so that the trainer, who will not be working at the Euros for Talksport - “There are horses to train!” - reckons he’ll be running in a couple of weeks.

Later in the morning, I caught up with my friend Noel Quinlan, who at the mention of the universally-liked Quinn, asked me whether I’d heard the story about him. Suddenly, I twigged, and it concerned the previous location of the colt before Mick strolled along Hamilton Road to pick him up after rookie trainer and owner had, in retrospect inevitably, fallen out.

Mick was just leaving when the young man, having talked about what Stanhope had done so far, called out: “He won’t make anyone famous!” to which the Scouser replied: “I’m already famous – I don’t need a horse to help me with that”.

Some may say – especially me – that my fixation with Mayson stems from the fact that he ran in the same red and white colours that adorn my office in the shape of the hurdler Tangognat and his exploits at Cheltenham in pre-Festival races 30 years ago.

David and Emma Armstrong have done more than justice to them, but as I’ve said before, they still give me the feel of part-ownership, unsurprisingly as I had them for more than 20 years myself.

Mayson and Garswood are probably the best two to race for the Armstrongs and both are now standing at Cheveley Park. We already sent a mare to each of them this year, and were prompted for the change of mind by the unexpected well-being of Nicoise post the arrival of her Dick Turpin foal. Rachael says they’ve managed to keep the weight off her, as she has a recurring issue with her feet when overweight, and that she always is at her healthiest when she has a foal.

Since Global Applause, from the first crop of Mayson, exploded into the consciousness for Ed Dunlop at Newmarket on 1,000 Guineas day, the phones have been in constant use in Duchess Drive and more than 30 additional bookings have been recorded for the fledgling stallion. Global Applause was attempting to follow up on Saturday at Newbury, finishing a gallant second to the equally progressive Mehmas.

At five grand a pop such a reaction is understandable, but it’s hard to estimate how successful any would-be additional patrons of the wonderful Frankel might be after the excellent winning debut of his first runner, Cunco, on Friday. Frankel stands at £125,000, and there will be plenty of people itching to join the throng with that single piece of evidence to go on.

We’ve got two Mayson yearling colts, and a colt and filly foal each, with Lawyers Choice’s yearling colt and filly both standing out in what we hope will prove an excellent two years’ breeding programme. We repeated Cheveley Park visits for her in the past and Dutch Art Dealer, sold as a yearling, and Dutch Law, both conceived in the days when mere mortals could afford their sire, Dutch Art.

Now that stallion is in the 40 grand range, but the pair, now five and four respectively have similar profiles, so much so that they are both in the same race at Kempton on Wednesday night off the identical mark of 82.

Global Applause, should he live up to expectations, could help the young sire on his way onto that sort of upward spiral. In racing, while there’s life there’s hope. Of April Dusk, for the people that encountered him, there’s just sadness and fond memories.

Monday Mélange

No, not melon. Mélange...

No, not melon. Mélange...

Is it me, or has this flat season been pretty, well, flat? I mean, don't get me wrong, there have been plenty of great punting opportunities; and the occasional great race - like Saturday's Haydock Sprint Cup... but, in the main the last couple of months seem to have been typified by a glut of unappealing low grade fare where the going has been as unpredictable as the race outcomes.

As a crude barometer of this, flat turf favourite statistics in 2015 show that the season to the end of June saw 33.13% of clear market leaders winning, for a loss at SP of 8.34%. In July and August, clear jollies prevailed just 31.36% of the time and lost a whopping 14.97% of stakes.

That microcosm is interesting in itself, but some context may shine a brighter light on proceedings. Looking at the previous three summers reveals the following:

Turf flat seasons 2012-14 to end of June: 33.31% winners, for a loss of 6.01%

Turf flat seasons 2012-14 July and August: 34.05% winners, for a loss of 8.03%

There are lots of possible inferences one could draw from those data, not least of which is the potential squeezing of book margins leading to the reduced ROI figures. While that is conjecture on my part and requires a good deal more digging to even begin to confirm, one thing is not in doubt: it's been a pretty tough time for most punters.

**

Separately, but contributing to a personal muted enjoyment of the flat season, is the lack of quality to punctuate the bloated fixture list these past few months. Racing needs its superstar horses in the same way that every sport needs them. But, whereas Messi and Ronaldo will boot up 50-odd times in a season across all competitions, racing's stars are increasingly sparingly campaigned.

Gleneagles, this year's 2000 Guineas winner, is an example. He has been seen on track just twice since that Newmarket win in early May, and not at all since 16th June 2015. He's been withdrawn due to the ground more than once, and while the commercial realities of the breeding sheds are grudgingly accepted, it is a criminal waste of talent - to say nothing of the disappointment to the viewing public - when tip-toppers are so heavily protected.

Although it may be harsh (actually, it is harsh) to compare any animal with Frankel, that lad book-ended his career with soft ground wins, beating top-notchers in Nathaniel on debut and Cirrus Des Aigles on curtain fall. He reached an official rating high of 135 at the end of his 3yo season.

Gleneagles and his cotton wool ownership have managed to race just once on softer than good - and only good to yielding at that - achieving a rating of 'just' 122.

The form of Gleneagles' Guineas win at Newmarket has taken plenty of knocks, and his Irish equivalent win looks even more hollow. Further smudges appear on his palmarès when one notes that the four horses behind him in the Prince Of Wales's Stakes have been beaten on all five of their collective starts since.

What I'm trying to say, in the context of such hollow form, is that there is little sense in protecting Gleneagles in this way. Surely breeders and buyers will know the house of cards on which Coolmore's flag-bearer's Classic form is built.

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[Sure, he was a very good juvenile, and that's attractive enough to breeders/buyers, but with so many other stallion options, Gleneagles would be a swerve in the barns at this stage for the Bisogno millions. Ahem.]

Now, to be fair (actually, I think I've been fair already), Gleneagles still has time to come out and show that he can do more. Perhaps in the Irish Champion Stakes, or the Breeders Cup Classic even. Given his ground dependencies, the chances of him being seen at Ascot on Champions Day look pretty slim from this range. In any case, it's not all about Gleneagles...

Looking at the big meetings, from a personal perspective, I enjoyed Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood as much as ever; and I gave York my usual 'kid gloves' treatment, because I consider it to be the hardest meeting of the entire year - flat and jumps - at which to find winners.

**

So, since Goodwood, which ended on 1st August, I've found it very difficult to get excited about flat racing. Luckily, that's about to change due to a similar Anglo-Irish call on our time this weekend as there is during Glorious Goodwood, when Galway contends for our affections.

This time, we have Doncaster's St Leger meeting fidgeting uneasily at the increasingly likely prospect of being usurped by Irish Champions Weekend (ICW), despite hosting the fifth and final British Classic.

ICW was a huge success last year upon the inaugural bolting together of two established meetings, one from the Curragh and one from Leopardstown. That success was, without question, down in part to meteorological fortune, and it may again be that the gods (or, more correctly, the sun's rays) shine on Dublin's outer limits.

Currently, the turf is reported to be at least good on both circuits, enhancing the chances of Gleneagles joining The Grey Gatsby and others pre-entered such as Golden Horn, in the Irish Champion Stakes. The full pre-entries can be downloaded here (Saturday) and here (Sunday).

Meanwhile, Donny will bid for screen time mainly courtesy of the Leger, the Park Hill Stakes, and the Portland Handicap. They also report good ground, and have a dry week forecast. So, unless we get some unexpected cloubursts, the racing this weekend could see the high summer funk replaced by some late summer fireworks. Let's hope so.

****

Even in the teeth of a bombardment of moderate racing, some services rise above the mediocrity to deliver profits for their followers. Stat of the Day is one such. During July and August, while most were suffering punting reversals, Chris's picks notched 19 winners from 47 selections - an 'out of the park' 40.43% strike rate - for £855.80 profit at £20 stakes. That 91% ROI is clearly unsustainable, but Stat of the Day is sure to continue to provide juicy profits for its followers.

Indeed, in 2015 as a whole, this one a day service which forms part of Geegeez Gold (and is free to all on Mondays. Oh, it's Monday today. Woohoo!), has netted 103.75 units to end August. That's £2,075 clear profit from £20 stakes.

And here's a thing: Chris also runs a 'sister service' called Statpicks.

Statpicks runs along the same lines as SotD - data leading to a selection - and after a sluggish start, has netted its followers 67.7 points profit in 2015. Again, at £20 stakes, that's £1,354.

Statpicks has just opened again for new members, and you can get your first month for just £7. Statpicks is available for an extremely reasonable £19 per month (when you take out a quarterly sub), and you can read all about it here:

-

JOIN STATPICKS FOR JUST £7

Matt

p.s. Something happened to me this morning which disgusted me. And I don't use that phrase lightly. A major bookmaker tried to install a piece of software onto my computer to spy on my betting activity. I'd heard of this only recently, and have started digging. I will report on this tomorrow hopefully, including how you can check your own machine to see if they're snooping on you, and how you can resolve the situation if they are.

UPDATE: That post has now been published, and can be viewed here.

Monday Musings: So Far, So Flat…

Meydan racetrack, from the stands...

Meydan racetrack, from the stands...

So the turf flat season has started.  The traditional Doncaster fixture was less curtain-raiser and more curtain twitcher as nosy National Hunt and all weather neighbours peered out at the strange interloper in their midst.

Two meetings for each of the winter staples subsumed Donny's eight race card and, while some doubtless rejoiced, I have to concede to a significant level of apathy (if that's not an oxymoron) at the opening of the grassy gates.

Those who enjoy the international flat racing scene - I am squarely in their midst - may have had more cause for gratification with the wealthiest race day in the world, Dubai World Cup day. However, again, for me this is the ultimate misplaced shebang. Putting an uber-valuable flat meeting in late March is like, well, putting a race track in the middle of the desert...

Historically, I didn't hold such a firm view. I used to treat all codes the same, and welcome each new season with the same fresh and open mind. But it seems odd that Doncaster's two day fixture should be marooned with no further flat turf racing until Good Friday. What, pray, is the point of that?!

I do understand that the odd placement of Easter this year, allied to the second season commitment to wealthy Good Friday race days north and south of the border, has rendered the isolation of that opening meeting more stark. But still, it almost lends credence to the stance of Great British Racing moving the commencement of the Jockeys' Championship to Guineas weekend, the first May Bank Holiday.

Whilst my apathy for a championship for jockeys is even more pronounced than for the weekend's flat turf action, I do have some sympathy with what GBR are trying to achieve. They know the equine stars of the flat are more fleeting than their National Hunt contemporaries (Dubai World Cup winners aside), and recognise that that transience makes it difficult for the sport to 'stick' with those peripheral to it.

So it makes absolute sense, from a logical perspective at least, to attempt to bring jockeys to the fore. And, further, to do that around the core seasonal offerings. The problems then begin...

Obviously, traditionalists get upset about so much as the changing of the tea bag brand in the members' dining room. Thus, truncating a championship at both ends is seen as akin to heresy in some quarters. But upsetting the traditionalists has to happen if the sport is to reinvigorate itself and build on the momentum that has been growing for a few years.

After all, who will be the traditionalists when the traditionalists are all dead?

The next problem is the introduction of prize money. It seems plain stupid to offer a bonus pot of gold to the wealthiest members of any community, and I absolutely disagree with financially incentivizing the jockeys' championship. Those who want to win it want to win it. For those who don't (Ryan Moore, let's say), £25k in their back pocket is no persuader.

Now, in fairness, there are good prizes for other categories, such as top apprentice, and that seems more appealing; and there is great sense in shortening the championship fixture window in what has become a far flabbier fixture list than was once the case (many jockeys will ride two meetings a day six days a week, and a single meeting on the seventh for five months - that's too much, for anyone).

The counter-argument, summarized by Ed Dunlop, who claimed that "It appears to favour jockeys who are riding abroad at both the beginning and end of our domestic season" is bunkum, as jockeys may or may not ride abroad in that time. Fact is, there's only ever a very small handful of jockeys in the running for the title and they've often ridden abroad prior to the revised season in any case (Richard Hughes, for instance).

Moreover, in the case of Hughes, he received a signficant ban (50 days) in 2012 and still went on to win the title.

Perhaps of more concern from a PR perspective is the curious decision to attempt to hurl jockeys into the sound bite spotlight. With respect, jockeys are paid to ride, and the great majority of them do that with a professionalism and competence that is a credit to their field. There are few things less appealing (to me, at least) than the post-race "how do you feel?" interview, especially when it's with someone like Ryan Moore.

I single Moore out not because he's a poor interviewee - on the contrary, when presented with something other than the banal, he's tremendous value add - but because he belongs to the school that believe the owner and trainer should be the first to hear the rider's perception of events. Thus, when C4 extend the long pole towards Ryan's chin they usually get car crash TV.

Another thing this highlights is that, actually, jockeys are already in the media spotlight as a consequence of a previous agreement along similar lines. Reference the aforementioned long mike...

This is all a rather long-winded way of saying I couldn't give a flying dismount for the new, or the old, jockeys' championship, and I don't actually know of anyone who does. Punters punt, racing fans love racing (and horses), and the occasional jockey-hopper gets mildly moist by Mr A leading Mr B by six wins in late season. That's as exciting as the jocks' champs gets. Next...

Your first 30 days for just £1

**

The Dubai World Cup is another over-funded irrelevance. To offer a first prize of almost four million quid for a race at the start of most runners' season is abject beyond compare in the sport of kings (and, increasingly, sheikhs). It was won this year by the eight year old (yes, eight, that's knocking on for a National Hunt horse), Prince Bishop.

He stands every chance of mimicking the winners in 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2003, and 2001 this century who failed to win another race. It's a massive crock of gold for the competitors and, obviously, if you had a ten furlong dirt horse rated 110+, you'd want to be there. But it's of zero consequence to either the European or US racing circuit.

The under card is worth tens of millions too, and is generally as pointless. Clearly the sponsors are extremely important people in the sport globally, and naturally I respect their right to host a card comprised almost exclusively of Group 2's and Group 3's masquerading as top tier heats. But I don't have to get excited by it.

**

On a brighter note, I am very much looking forward to both the all weather championships and Aintree's Grand National meeting. Now in its second season, the former is shaping up into a real destination event, with good horses racing for good money. Not great horses racing for ridiculous money: that would be daft at this time of year, now, wouldn't it?

The Sprint, Mile, Middle Distance, and Marathon all look solid Group 3/2 races; and all are Class 2 at this time, presumably pending inevitable Pattern recognition in due course. It's a surprise to me that it seems some of those races will start without full fields, and if I had a horse rated 85+, let alone 95+, I'd love to have a tilt at the appropriate category.

[Sad but true side note: I had instructed a trainer to make a claim for Tarooq when he was in for six grand a few starts back. An old boy with bad, well, everything, he won that day over a sub-optimal distance and I bottled it. There was no claim. He has since won a second claimer, this time with a price tag of twelve grand, over course and distance, by eight lengths. Rated 95, he would have been assured a run in the £150,000 Sprint, over his perfect track/trip... if we could have kept him sound. Sigh. He's not entered, so I assume he's not fit. That was the six grand punt. It's times like those that I wish I was even moderately solvent (or at least not so risk averse).]

And then, at the end of Easter week, all eyes will be on Liverpool for those fences, those girls, and that race. I'll be up there reporting for geegeez on Thursday and Friday, and I can't wait.

I love everything about the meeting: the challenge of working out which horses are better suited to the very different Aintree test compared with Cheltenham; the pride and joy the locals exhibit across 'their' three days (shame on the sneering judgmentalism that accompanies the hackneyed snaps of lasses having a good time and caught with their (mainly metaphorical) pants down on Friday); and the show piece on Saturday which has, in recent times, become a lot more insurmountable as a punting puzzle than its fences now are.

Like all big meetings, it will mainly be fun bets for me with the occasional strong opinion. And, like most big meetings, if you're not in front after day one, it'll be a long haul to the jam stick on Saturday evening. There will be previews aplenty, and a winner or two in their midst. Just don't ask me for the winner of the National.

[Side note: I will obviously be attempting to find the winner of the National, and that will form the closing element of my annual humiliation in the eyes of every relative, friend and passing acquaintance who assumes a man who can usually identify horse head from horse tail should readily be able to pick one amongst forty in a marathon crap shoot Grand National preview piece...]

After Aintree, then we'll start looking at flat turf racing. Fair enough?

**

Closer to home, we're planning an extreme makeover for geegeez.co.uk. Actually, the idea is that it won't be that extreme at all, but I recognize that the look and feel of the site has become a tad passée, and further, that the 'mobile user experience' is rather cackée.

We will be rectifying some of that very soon: specifically, we'll be deploying a new 'skin' with a couple of minor functional enhancements (login in the header bar on every page, sign in via facebook/twitter, and stuff like that).

One thing we won't be touching, for now, is the Gold functionality. There is nothing more than a glint in my eye in terms of creating a deliberate mobile friendly version of the cards, for two reasons:

1. It's a massive undertaking

2. They actually render pretty well on most devices (phones aside) already

Once the new look is in and settled - hopefully that second point will be instant, but sometimes things happen - we'll get back to the business of bringing more cool stuff inside Geegeez Gold. There remains bundles to add, and my commitment to making Geegeez Gold the best racing toolkit in UK is as steadfast as ever. We're making pleasing progress to that end. 🙂

Finally, just a reminder that the trial offer for Gold has changed. You can now get two weeks - yes, two weeks, woohoo! - full unlimited Gold access for a fiver. After that, if you can't be without it, it'll set you back just £24 a month. Or, if you prefer, you can take the same two week five pound trial with an annual £197 subscription option. That's a chunky £91 saving for those prepared to make the longer commitment.

Here's a link to get signed up. [NOTE: If you're a free member, log in first, and then click the link - that way your upgrade will be seamless, saving both you and me from admin aggro 😉 Thanks!  ]

Happy Monday!

Matt

p.s. all Geegeez readers can access Stat of the Day every Monday (12/1 winner last Monday), and today's SotD can be found here.