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Monday Musings: Smith still having all the laughs

Thirty-eight years ago Littleton Stud owner Jeff Smith was at Royal Ascot to watch 10,000gns bargain yearling buy Chief Singer make his debut in the Coventry Stakes, the most important two-year-old race at the Royal meeting, writes Tony Stafford.

Trained by Ron Sheather, Chief Singer, a giant at 16.3hh, stood out in the field of more conventionally sized juveniles. This was so much the case that before the start Lester Piggott took time out to talk to Ray Cochrane, rider of the Smith horse.

Piggott was disparagingly dismissive about the colt to which Cochrane replied: “Have a good look at his face as that’s the last time you will. All you will see at the finish is his backside!”

Chief Singer, 20-1, duly bolted up by four lengths. The following year, Chief Singer was the only horse to give El Gran Senor a race in the 2,000 Guineas and he followed that performance with consecutive victories in the St James’s Palace by eight lengths, back to six furlongs for an easy victory in the July Cup at Newmarket, and he then completed the hat-trick in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood.

That proved to be his final win as his temperament got the better of him and he was sold in a £4 million deal to go to stud. Smith had been the owner of Littleton Stud in Hampshire since 1976 and unfortunately as the Racing Post only began publication in 1988 any winners before that have been difficult to access.
What I can say without fear of contradiction though is that the ever-suffering Arsenal fan, Jockey Club member (since 2009) and Chairman of his local Salisbury racecourse for a year longer, has enjoyed winners every season (mostly home-breds) since 1988 with Group 1 triumphs liberally sprinkled along the way.

You couldn’t ever describe the always genial Smith as a small owner-breeder, but he does have much more interest in breeding winners for himself than producing horses for others to benefit from.

In those 34 seasons I make it 485 wins for Smith with trainers like David Elsworth, especially, Ian and now Andrew Balding, James Eustace, (recently retired in favour of his son Harry) and Ralph Beckett. No doubt Jeff, who made his money designing and providing internal fittings for aircraft, will have a figure way above 500 as his personal measure.
The reason for all the attention to Jeff Smith at this stage of the season is partly the result of yesterday’s running of the Group 1 Prix Jacques Le Marois at Deauville together with the prospect of next Wednesday’s Juddmonte International at York.

In gaining a second successive Jacques Le Marois, the Gosdens’ Palace Pier needed to see off a sustained challenge by the 2,000 Guineas and St James’s Palace hero, Poetic Flare. John Gosden suggested his colt had been only at around 80 per cent efficiency but form advocates would be more inclined to take the result at face value; Palace Pier (rated 125 officially) having a neck to spare over 122-rated Poetic Flare, trained and bred by Jim Bolger. Third, just under two lengths back, was the Aidan O’Brien-trained Order of Australia, a winner at the Breeders’ Cup last year.

The Jeff Smith interest here is plain. Poetic Flare, who has danced every dance this year, was gallant all the way to the line at Deauville, as he had been in his previous start in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood last month. The ground was easier there and Una Manning, daughter of Bolger, suggested obliquely by saying yesterday’s ground was perfect, implying that Poetic Flare hadn’t been entirely comfortable in the Sussex Stakes.

But it would be hard to discern too much difference in Poetic Flare’s finishing effort there or anywhere else in his busy 2021 campaign. And whose colours finished ahead of Poetic Flare? None other than Jeff Smith’s.

In a year of many top-class three-year-old fillies – cite Aidan O’Brien’s quintet of Group/Grade 1 winning fillies from the Classic generation of 2021) - Alcohol Free, trained by Andrew Balding, is one of the best having won not just the Sussex Stakes but also, against her own sex, the Coronation Stakes at Ascot. In between she was a fast-finishing, unlucky-in-running, third to old rival Snow Lantern in the Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket and earlier a close fifth in the 1,000 Guineas to Mother Earth as joint-favourite in deference to her Group 1 Cheveley Park Stakes victory last year.

On Wednesday, she has a real giant-killer’s task in the Juddmonte International, not least because she is stepping up to ten furlongs, but also as she has to overcome St Mark’ Basilica. When the Aidan O’Brien colt added the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown last month to the two facile wins in the French 2,000 Guineas (Poule d’Essai des Poulains) and French Derby (Prix du Jockey-Club) he was awarded a European-high rating of 127 by the BHB’s handicappers.

That figure has since been matched by Godolphin’s Derby winner Adayar after his emphatic performance in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. In Wednesday’s feature, Mishriff, the globe-trotting and highest-earning horse trained in Europe, stands clearly second-highest rated on 124.

Mishriff, trained by John and Thady Gosden, earned a combined near £10 million for his Middle Eastern exploits in his owner Prince AA Faisal’s native Saudi Arabia (£7.5million), and Dubai (£2.3 million), at the end of last winter. He was reckoned a shade short of peak (that old Gosden chestnut!) when third and comfortably outpaced behind St Mark’s Basilica at Sandown but was probably more the finished article when runner-up in the King George.

So where does that leave Alcohol Free, rated 119? For one thing she comes into Wednesday’s race as an inmate of the stable that leads the trainers’ rankings in the UK. In recent seasons top place has invariably meant John Gosden or Aidan O’Brien. Two years ago Balding set his record earnings of more than £3.6 million from 124 wins. So far in 2021 his 106 wins have yielded stakes of £3.036 million, so he is firmly on target to beat both figures.

That 2019 Balding tally was some way less than half the earnings of the front two, with John Gosden at £7.91 million (192 victories) exceeding runner-up O’Brien’s £7.68 million from his 13 top-class winners by barely £230,000.
Now though, Gosden has made little impact with the Classic generation in his first year’s partnership with son Thaddeus and is languishing down at number six (81 wins and in his case a paltry £2.117 million). They trail Charlie Appleby and Godolphin (64 and £2.731 million); O’Brien (eight wins and £2.337 million); Mark Johnston (148 and £2.283 million) and Richard Hannon (101 and £2.143 million).

What that sextet has in common (although obviously O’Brien campaigns by far the greatest proportion of his team at home) is they all have strings exceeding 200. Size matters in racing these days, as indeed it probably always has done.

It will be difficult for Balding to hold on especially from Charlie Appleby who has not just the Derby winners, Adayar and Hurricane Lane (Irish, and also six-length winner of the Grand Prix De Paris), but also a host of horses primed to win Group and Listed races for the rest of the year when the two-year-olds will come increasingly on stream.

In the younger division, Balding can point to Berkshire Shadow and the unbeaten filly Sandrine as potential major earners for the rest of the season. For a trainer whose father Ian trained the great Mill Reef, one of the outstanding thoroughbreds of the Post War era, his now being firmly in the top echelon of his profession must be highly satisfying, the more so with his father and mother Emma still around at Kingsclere to enjoy it. Like Appleby, Andrew is modest about his achievements.

For Jeff Smith, the Juddmonte might not have been the obvious next step apart from the fact that the race holds a special place in his racing experience. Six years ago, the hitherto-unbeaten Golden Horn, winner latterly of the Derby and Eclipse Stakes for John Gosden and Anthony Oppenheimer, took a 130-rating into the Juddmonte.

Languishing on a mark a full 21lb lower, although she was getting the 3lb filly allowance in the York race, was the David Elsworth-trained Dubawi filly Arabian Queen, a daughter of Smith’s hard-working mare Barshiba. Nobody but Elsworth would have asked such a question of the Group 3 winner, but the veteran trainer had the first, last and all the laughs in between as Smith’s 50-1 outsider ran down the Frankie Dettori-ridden 9-4 on favourite in the last 50 yards. Golden Horn went on to win two more Group 1 races and was only narrowly beaten by Found in the Breeders’ Cup in his final race and second defeat.

For all his success over almost 40 years, Jeff Smith can be forgiven for telling his local newspaper in an interview last autumn that the Cheveley Park Stakes win for Alcohol Free had been his happiest moment in racing.

There have been two more great triumphs since for her and victory on Wednesday would no doubt put the cherry on the cake. But then you realise Jeff amazingly has owned three Racehorses of the Year in Chief Singer, his fabulous sprint filly Lochsong (Ian Balding), which he also bred, and the popular staying Flat-racer Persian Punch.

Over eight seasons in 63 races for David Elsworth, Punch won 20 races, 16 at Stakes (Group and Listed) level and never knew when he was beaten, much in the manner of his trainer. Persian Punch ranks alongside the great steeplechaser Desert Orchid as two undoubted horses of a lifetime for Elsworth.

I’d love Alcohol Free to win, but I hold with my belief that St Mark’s Basilica is a great champion. I also hope to see Snowfall put in another domineering performance after her Oaks and Irish Oaks cakewalks in the manner of Love last year in the Yorkshire Oaks on Thursday. Exciting days ahead - I wish I could be there, but it will have to be next year!