Sometimes the story exceeds its components: the myth overcomes reality, writes Tony Stafford. For instance, how many Stayers Hurdles has the now ten-year-old Paisley Park won in his 20-race, ten-win hurdles career? Two, no three one’s mind wants to say. We’ve seen Andrew Gemmell, his owner, celebrate so many times. Sorry memory – and that went for me too just now until I checked – it’s just the one.
Yes, that day almost three years ago now when the Emma Lavelle-trained gelding sailed up the Cheltenham hill under Aidan Coleman clear of Sam Spinner and the rest to create a magical afternoon also charmed by victory on Frodon under Bryony Frost.
The owner, blind from birth but able to build quite a stable of horses having spent a successful career working in local government, has moved on notably also as a leading shareholder among the Barbary Lions in the champion Alan King-trained Flat-race stayer Trueshan. Andrew has enjoyed many wonderful days but Saturday’s third victory for Paisley Park in the Grade 1 Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham was very different as he was unable to be present.
At the time Paisley Park came up the hill to tumultuous cheers from the packed stands, his owner was in London Bridge Hospital recovering from surgery on a heart valve. He was intent on getting the surgery out of the way so he can be at the Festival.
As to the Stayers Hurdle, in 2020, sent off at 4-6 Paisley Park was only seventh behind Lisnagar Oscar – a well beaten third on Saturday in receipt of 6lb. Last year, again favourite, albeit at a more conservative 9-4, he was third, closest at the line behind the all-the-way, indeed runaway, Irish six-year-old Flooring Porter.
Coming into Saturday, the auguries for Paisley Park were far from bright. He now has a 12lb lower handicap mark – a relatively modest 157 – than after that Stayers Hurdle triumph in 2019. He had been third three times in succession in lead-up races at Wetherby, Newbury and Ascot, latterly in the Long Walk Hurdle, a Grade 1 race he had previously won, around five lengths behind Champ.
Re-opposing on identical terms, the last expectation was that he would revive old memories and many people were talking up the re-directed chaser Champ as the likeliest Stayers Hurdle winner, the Irish excepted and in some cases included. Indeed, such had been the impression created at Ascot by the J P McManus horse that the Irish were temporarily forgotten especially when Klassical Dream’s much-anticipated midweek trial for the Festival ended in a weak-finishing fourth.
Now, in the manner of racing and the best tradition of wishful thinking – I’m up there wishing with them all, too – we’re projecting a nice win in a five-runner race onto success in a 15-runner championship event.
“Look at all that ground he lost when turning around as the other quartet set off”, they say. Well, try that tactic on the big day and see where it gets you if Flooring Porter goes hell for leather again. It’s hoping to turn a potential deal-breaker into a positive. Saturday’s field was thin with only two of the five-horse field both in-form (Lisnagar Oscar certainly was not) and proven at the trip.
Paisley Park remains a wonderful stayer and his victory allowed all the outpourings of emotion that are commonly ceded to jump racing’s longest-serving heroes. We should take it as one more very welcome reminder of his talent rather that expect him to match or improve on it in six weeks’ time. For his owner, just imagine how agonising it must be having to hear rather than see it happening. A remarkable man!
Earlier on the same Cheltenham card, we saw a very likely Festival winner in the shape of the Gordon Elliott-trained Pied Piper. The way this four-year-old by New Approach was followed vainly up the hill by his lesser rivals suggests his breeder, HM The Queen, was far-sighted in naming him.
Trained by the Gosdens, an easy win off 89 at Leicester in heavy ground on his last run before Tatts Horses In Training sale brought a final mark of 96 and a sale price of 225,000gns. I wonder whether Charlie Longsdon ever suggested to the powers that be that the owner-breeder might enjoy jumping him herself. Money talks, it seems, even in places maybe you’d think it would not!
If he shows up for the Triumph on the Friday of the Festival he will obviously take all the beating, such was the style of the win. Gordon Elliott also has unbeaten-in-three Fil Dor and the usual maybe we’ll go for the Supreme chat entered the equation briefly. You win the Supreme with a four-year-old, so what? Win the Triumph and if two have to go for it, needs must.
It’s not the same thing exactly, but I remember a few years back when Refinement was proving herself a top-class mare in long-distance hurdles, I asked Michael Tabor whether he would breed from her.
His answer: “How bloody old would I need to be before she has a runner?”. A home-bred foaled in 1999, Refinement won 13 of 33 races and more than £360k. Already the mother of four winners - West Coast Time (2012), Meticulous (2014) and Risk Factor (2015) - all won in the blue and orange silks, but her most exciting prospect is a horse foaled when she was 18 years old.
That horse, Walking On Air, is trained by Nicky Henderson and is the first of the quartet to be sired by Walk In The Park, one of the star jumping stallions among the Coolmore NH team. If ever there was continuity of ownership and production, Walking On Air is it.
Walk In The Park, trained by John Hammond, was a home-bred of Tabor’s Irish and French Derby winner Montjeu, also trained by Hammond, an Englishman based in France who retired in the last couple of years.
Walk In The Park was runner-up in Motivator’s 2005 Derby as a big outsider and started his stud career in France standing at only €1,500. He immediately showed his propensity to produce winners and he was hastily finessed into the Coolmore nursery. Nobody – apart from anyone asking to send their mare – has ever been publicly aware of his fee. Betcha it’s a fair few Euros now!
But what a pedigree, and the way the Nicky Henderson-trained Walking On Air bolted up at Newbury on hurdles debut recently – in a similar manner to Pied Piper on Saturday – may finally make MT fully satisfied that his long-term and slightly unwilling project was worthwhile.
This column often descends into ageist talk and this week’s prime candidate for inclusion is one who made the century before his death last week. That worthy was Dick Duchossois, owner of Arlington Park racecourse in Chicago and founder of its Arlington Million.
I had one enjoyable evening at his posh estate outside the centre of Chicago when there to watch the race in the 1990’s. Arriving with festivities in full swing, I looked around for people I knew and recognised Michael Dickinson, by this time training in the US. Michael was holding forth to a table of admiring fans. As I approached, he called the table to order and said: “Meet Tony Stafford, a journalist from England. He taught me everything I know about handicapping!” As well as talking to me every night when he was still a jockey and returning back home after his sauna sessions, he was on to Colin Russell and Walter Glynn all the time, too. I never claimed a monopoly on the information, it was just me lucky enough to be there.
Michael and Joan Wakefield were at Newcastle racecourse the other night, obviously checking up on the well-being of the Tapeta surface he invented. He was chatting to Jim Goldie and Joanna Mason outside the weighing room when my pal Wilf Storey and daughter Stella came out with the colours bag after Joanna rode his horse.
Jim asked Michael if he knew Wilf, adding he’s the oldest trainer around. Michael said he did but Wilf corrected Goldie saying Joanna’s grand-father (Mick Easterby) is the oldest and Dai Burchill (to retire after a winner later in the week) was also older than him. Wilf said Michael looks as young as ever. He will be 72 on Thursday if you can believe that!
Talking of trainers packing up, it’s a great shame that Mick Quinn has called it a day after his big owner Kenny Bruce ended their relationship. Mick seemed to suggest that Bruce, a partner with his brother in Purple Bricks, who are now calling themselves in their advertising the biggest estate agency in the UK, might return some time in the future. Presumably when he can better afford it!
Mick trained a few horses for Raymond Tooth including Stanhope, a home-bred sprinter who won races before being sold to Ireland where he continued to do well. When he decided to hand in his licence, he gifted his two horses to the Northern Racing College.
One of them and the last to win him a prize was Great Hall, for his second in a Huntingdon hurdle race as an 11-year-old in October last year. A son of Halling, Great Hall was named on the way back from Manton to London as Ray and I were driven back by Steve Gilbey after Ray bought him from Brian Meehan.
He was a smart middle-distance horse who ran in the St Leger and won eight flat races and one hurdle. He will be a wonderful schoolmaster. Mick’s colleagues on Talk Sport will be happy to welcome him back as he has more availability for punditry and commentaries, and he also looks forward to resuming his entertaining after dinner speaking.
A very nice family man, Mick Quinn is one of the most down-to-earth and cheerful of people. If he feels he didn’t get full reward for the 25 years of effort, generally with modest horses, often like with Great Hall in their declining days, he has helped make a day at the races very enjoyable for anyone he ever encountered.