Eight weeks tomorrow and the Cheltenham Festival 2021 will start as late as it can be, and almost a week later than last year. So it will be more than a year since I last went racing and, by the look of things, a good while longer than that yet, writes Tony Stafford.
My guess is that, once the vaccines start working and the latest stay-home admonitions get through people’s mindsets, the numbers affected – and more pointedly dying – will begin to come down.
A few of my friends have already had the call and I shouldn’t be far off, but the risk is that you get a rogue message from one of the ever-mushrooming scammers to invite you to an appointment. The clue is that they add: “but could you please send us your details”.
A few of those who have already been seen will have known scallywags and con-artists from London’s West End in the 1960’s and 70’s but they will tell you that the old-style villains never targeted the sort of people that seem to be most in today’s roll-call of victims. As this year-long agony continues I’m becoming totally sickened by the nastiness of modern-day life and how much the internet has helped it along.
Even a year ago, there was nothing like the feeling of today. But then we were actively trying to anticipate what might happen at the Festival. Now the trials come along and there’s no atmosphere. Nick Luck or Luke Harvey might be on track to say what they think and the odd trainer or jockey offers an opinion, but it’s all getting so homogeneous – so drab.
It was sad that David Thompson died recently, leaving his widow Patricia to try to enjoy the successes of the Cheveley Park Stud jumps horses in Ireland. Envoi Allen of course is the biggest star, and yesterday at Punchestown he maintained his 100% career record with another bloodless win in a beginners’ chase where Asterion Forlonge was supposed to pose a question.
One of the major Willie Mullins hopes for the future, this fourth to Shishkin (and in the same ownership as that one) in the Supreme Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham last March had fallen on his second chase start when odds-on at Limerick on St Stephen’s Day and repeated the error as early as yesterday’s opening fence.
That left Gordon Elliott’s seven-year-old to jog round at his leisure and complete an unblemished ten-race record under Rules to go with another in a point-to-point after which winning debut the Thompsons paid an eye-watering £400,000 for him.
If you needed to know just how unrealistic prices for the most promising jumping-bred horses can be, Envoi Allen’s ten wins still leave him just about £60k short of the owners getting their purchase money back, never mind training fees. That figure includes his two Cheltenham Festival successes, the first in the 2019 Champion Bumper, where he beat Blue Sari, Thyme Hill, Abacadabras and The Glancing Queen, smart horses all with the last trio having won nice races this season.
I was about to say “already”, but even after an unusually slow start at the beginning of July owing to Covid we’re nearly two-thirds of the way through the campaign.
Saturday’s racing was entertaining enough – especially if you like horses stopping dead in the mud – but one horse that certainly did not was the Pam Sly-owned, trained- and bred-filly Eileendover who ran away with the Alan Swinbank Mares’ Open Listed Bumper at Market Rasen.
It was a day for the senior and distinguished ladies of the Turf. Pam, a sprightly 77, has run a mixed yard near Peterborough for many years and will always be known as the owner, trainer and breeder of Speciosa, winner of the 2006 1,000 Guineas.
She told Nick Luck after Saturday’s win she was never tempted to sell Speciosa despite the riches that would have bought, and Eileendover is a grand-daughter of the giant killer of her time. While it’s a long chalk from a Listed mares’ bumper to a Group 1 Flat race, her three wins have been way out of the ordinary.
I don’t know whether she shocked her trainer first time out – if she didn’t, I trust they had a nice touch! - but after making the short trip to Huntingdon for her debut she was allowed to start at 28/1 in a junior bumper over the “short” mile and three-quarters. She actually outran those odds, not just in terms of winning, but in numbers too, scoring by 29 lengths, almost unheard of in a 14-runner race.
That said, seven years earlier, an unraced three-year-old came down for the same race for his debut, bred by Ray Tooth but running in trainer Mark Brisbourne’s colours as the true owner didn’t want to be embarrassed. He won by 12 lengths and at 25/1. I seem to remember nobody had a killing that day either – I might have had a tenner on it and drinks with the directors were nice!
Next stop for Eileendover was Wetherby where, down by another furlong for a second junior bumper, she now had only 16 lengths to spare but at least the punters were more clued up as she started at 1-3!
On Saturday, as the only four-year-old in the field, she might have confounded a few punters as the much-publicised first UK runner for Willie Mullins since Brexit was signed and sealed; his mare, Grangee, was preferred to the Sly filly in the morning market before strong support for the domestic runner ensured Eileendover went off clear favourite by race time.
So it proved as Paul O’Brien allowed her to track Grangee while outsiders cut out the pace, and when the main rival moved, O’Brien went with her, but very wide trying to avoid any interruption to the run. Momentarily, he had to switch a shade inside but then the daughter of Canford Cliffs gathered momentum and Grangee was soon in trouble.
At the finish it wasn’t the Irish raider but the Jedd O’Keeffe-trained Newcastle and Wetherby unbeaten mare Miss Lamb, a 22-1 shot, who followed her home most closely, still more than six lengths behind the winner but eight in front of Grangee.
Another interesting element is that Miss Lamb is also a home-bred and, indeed, by one of the doyens of the Northern turf. Miss Sally (born Sarah Elizabeth) Hall, niece of the legendary Sam Hall and a distinguished trainer in her own right at Middleham, celebrated her 82nd birthday yesterday. She first took out a licence in 1969 and held it until 2016 with her last winners the previous summer. Just the 47 years!
Miss Lamb is under the care of Jedd O’Keeffe, a former assistant to Micky Hammond before starting out on his own in 2000. Hammond incidentally runs his star hurdler Cornerstone Lad over fences at Ayr today after his second at Haydock on debut last month. He has one horse to beat this afternoon!
Eileendover is primarily Flat-bred and it will probably be most unlikely that she ever runs over jumps, but the series of junior bumpers gives an ideal opportunity for later-developing horses with stamina to run at a realistic level rather than try to get their three runs for handicapping with all the pitfalls that can entail.
Smaller trainers can fall foul of the “schooling in public” regulation, an inexact science which rarely seems to be much of a concern to the major yards. At least this way round they can get valuable experience into their charges and Alan Swinbank was one of the most successful in that respect.
Basically a businessman, he turned to training in North Yorkshire when he had the benefit of learning from former trainer Bill Haigh, his long-time assistant. Swinbank’s greatest triumph came with the purchase for 3,000gns of the Dr Devious gelding Collier Hill, bred by George Strawbridge but unraced with John Gosden in his days of training for the Sangster interests at Manton.
He won first time in his only bumper then, after qualifying for handicaps and starting off with a mark of 58, Collier Hill won 15 of 45 career starts (including one from four over jumps in a single spell). He earned a total of £2.3 million, largely through his wins overseas which culminated with Group 1’s in Canada and Sha Tin, his last two career starts late in 2006. He also won the Irish St Leger as a seven-year-old the previous year.
Two of the better UK-trained bumper performers of the past couple of years have been Roger Teal’s Ocean Wind and Hughie Morrison’s mare, Urban Artist. Ocean Wind, a Godolphin chuck-out, also won that same Huntingdon race 12 months before Eileendover but by only a narrow margin and the third horse that day, Audacity, turned the form around with him when they met again at the Cheltenham December meeting. [The second horse, Makthecat, is now in the ownership of a geegeez syndicate – Ed.]
But Ocean Wind then won a hot Newbury Listed bumper and although only sixth in the Festival bumper, has won three of his four “proper” Flat races and has quickly moved to a mark of 104. Valuable long-distance handicaps on the Flat rather than jumping beckon for this likeable money-spinner.
There are parallels, too, with Morrison’s mare Urban Artist, whose path to the Flat from bumpers was scouted a decade earlier by her dam, Cill Rialaig. She had won her bumper first time at Exeter, a race the trainer tries to target every year with his home-breds, before graduating to a Royal Ascot handicap win as a six-year-old.
That is Urban Artist’s age now and with three Flat wins from five on her record, she is likely to be in direct competition with her contemporary Ocean Wind in 2021. Expect to see them both in the Ebor next August at York.
Another that may join them once her initially unsuccessful switch to jumping – Urban Artist had one indifferent try, too – is the geegeez syndicate-owned mare Coquelicot, at present recovering from a minor wind-op. Matt Bisogno always believed that this five-year-old half-sister to Ebor winner and Melbourne Cup runner-up Heartbreak City was more a potential staying Flat-racer than a jumper for the future and her first three tries at the winter game seem to suggest that will prove to be the case.
On the level, though, she deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the last pair and Eileendover as she also won three in a row to end her 2019-20 season, culminating in an easy victory in a competitive Listed race at Kempton. With the jumpers’ bumpers liable to be around for a while in the present dreadful weather, hopefully she will soon be ready to pick one off and I’m sure the owners and clued-up trainer Anthony Honeyball will be on high alert!