I rarely buy the print version of the Racing Post, preferring instead the online option (saves at least £80 a month), but on Friday I stretched a point, writes Tony Stafford. I needed to check whether I was still officially alive – so many other great cricketers having succumbed over the past week – and, yes, there I was with yet another new description.
You have to hand it to John Randall, still the man behind the Post’s birthday feature and so much else, and also my former colleague Howard Wright. They keep their aging fingers – one set older, one younger – on the pulse and have now blown my cover and described me as “Editor-in-Chief of Fromthestables.com”.
So no longer Raymond Tooth’s racing manager and possibly other plausible titles involving the Daily Telegraph – left in 2002, really? – but it was nice of them to give the site the publicity it deserves. That’s just my totally objective opinion, of course.
Friday’s Post informed me and the rest of the rapidly diminishing number of the immediate post-World War 2 baby boom generation that I had indeed entered the final quarter of my personal century.
The values instilled in me by my racing loving, Arsenal supporting and cricket adoring father have stayed with me for at least 70 years since I first went to Highbury, Newmarket and Kempton Park. People might have expected me to grow up, but what would be the point? Become a Formula One fan, hardly!
The early days at the races were always by charabanc – coach to you – with stops at the halfway houses between East London and those two named tracks courtesy of the Fallowfield and Britten firm that picked up at Clapton Pond.
One day standing in the toilet on the way to the 1954 2,000 Guineas won by Darius – Harry Wragg, Manny Mercer - I felt a warm, moist intrusion on my left leg. Further enquiries revealed the culprit as Prince Monolulu, the famed racecourse tipster who sold his selections to a willing public. For many years he had the persona, if not the bladder control, to entice an audience.
In those innocent days this alleged chief of the Falasha tribe of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) had actually been born in the Virgin Islands and his name was the far from glamorous Peter Carl Mackay. At the time of my anointment as a future tipster he was already 72 years old and survived the 1961 legalising of betting shops, four years before his death aged 83.
When my dad got a car, a favourite was the spring meeting at Epsom where we would park on the Hill and watch from opposite the winning post, but later he asked if I’d like to go to Cheltenham.
He took me and a couple of friends for the opening day of the 1968 meeting and it happened to be the year when L’Escargot had the first of his big wins, in the second division of the Gloucestershire Hurdle, historically usually the race targeted by Vincent O’Brien before he left jumping to his inferiors having won multiple Gold Cups, Champion Hurdles and Grand Nationals in the early post-war years.
Dan Moore was the trainer and Tommy Carberry the rider of the horse owned by Raymond Guest, the former US Ambassador to Ireland. Guest also owned Sir Ivor, the outstanding Derby winner, trained by O’Brien to Classic success only three months after that Cheltenham trip.
We all piled on him with a few quid each and the atmosphere was very good on the way home. If L’Escargot made an impact that day, it was not until a year or so later that he was to become my favourite jumper of all time.
I had joined the racing desk at the Press Association and one particular week we were concentrating on the Wills Premier Chase meeting at Haydock early in the year. Two Irish horses dominated the betting on the Final, L’Escargot and a horse that had beaten him in the Irish qualifier a few weeks earlier. He was East Bound, trained by Arkle’s celebrated handler, Tom Dreaper.
It seemed to me that the betting was all wrong as winners of a qualifier had to carry a 5lb penalty. Research – in those days information was something to be chiselled out rather than at the touch of a keypad – told me that L’Escargot had followed his early hurdling days in Ireland by racing in his owner’s homeland, to such good effect that he was voted Champion US chaser of 1969, having won the Meadow Brook Chase at Belmont Park.
Before Haydock I thought I was very clever taking 14-1 about the Gold Cup. He duly won at Haydock, not by far, but as the weeks went by he drifted by the day. I travelled to that Cheltenham by train with a chap from Raceform called Peter Boyer (I think!) telling him all the way that 33-1 was a joke.
So it proved and he won at that price and followed up the next year in bottomless ground as favourite or thereabouts.
By the following year he started a four-time challenge for the Grand National, right in the middle of the Red Rum era. In 1972 he was a third fence faller carrying 12st top-weight. Under the same burden in 1973 he was a remote third to Red Rum, who was making his debut in the race and who received 23lb from L’Escargot and the Australian horse and joint-top weight Crisp, who famously just failed to make all in that epic race.
L’Escargot got nearer to Red Rum in second the next year and, as a 12-year-old in 1975, gained deserved recompense with a 15-length defeat of Red Rum, who by now was conceding him weight. That was where L’Escargot’s racing story ends as only the second horse (and still only the second almost half a century later) after Golden Miller to win both the Gold Cup and Grand National.
Red Rum still had to return for another runner-up place behind Rag Trade and then a final triumphant curtain call in 1975, when he made it three Grand National wins and two second places, also as a 12-year-old.
Once at the Daily Telegraph, Cheltenham visits were more regular but not to the degree that the outside staff could guarantee. But the year after I’d made a most impulsive “purchase” – £100k for ten horses from French-based carpet tycoon and private stable owner Malcolm Parrish in 1984 – I just had to be there.
Parrish owned all of the 100-plus horses in his stable and was pretty much the trainer although M de Tarragon held the licence officially. A few years earlier Michael Dickinson had bought through me but more significantly from Prince Rajsinh of Rajpipla – Prince Pippy to his readers in the Sun years later – who is the son of Windsor Lad’s (1935 Derby) owner, the Maharajah of that Indian state, two horses from Parrish.
One, French Hollow, proved a wonderful buy so it was fortuitous when going over to meet David O’Brien at Ballydoyle soon after his Derby win with Secreto, after that horse beat his father’s El Gran Senor the previous month, when he asked me to redirect to the Cashel Palace Hotel as he was with an owner.
That owner was Malcolm, later to own both the Lordship and Egerton Studs in Newmarket. I told him of the French Hollow connection and he said. “Do you want any more?” We agreed on ten and they were all to go to Rod Simpson. You might ask where did I have £100k to spend? Luckily Malcolm wasn’t much bothered and he got his money in the end. Rod didn’t like the look of one, Hogmanay, priced at £5k and when later he kept winning chases around Ascot and the like for Richard Casey it was hard to take.
There were problems with others too. A horse called Seram behaved like a lunatic from day one and Rod suggested I’d give him and another horse away. I moved them both to Wilf Storey who already had Fiefdom for me, and while Seram did have to be put down after almost killing Chris Grant on the gallops, Santopadre was an outstanding jumper.
In short time Wilf won successively a selling hurdle, a claimer and a novice with a double penalty, each time with noted punter Terry Ramsden filling his boots, the latter race by 15 lengths at Wetherby. It was around that time I got a call from the Jockey Club security people to meet me at Ascot. There they said they believed Rod Simpson was still training horses that were running under Storey’s name. I told them in my opinion Rod was nothing like as good a trainer as the mild-mannered Co. Durham sheep farmer.
Another of the ten was Brunico, a grey who later in his career won 23 point-to-point races for Peter Bowen. At this stage he’d just won at Windsor first time over hurdles as a partnership horse with Terry Ramsden, but he bought me out before his win at Sandown, where even Dermot Browne’s best efforts couldn’t stop him winning.
He was second in that year’s Triumph where Santopadre was fifth, both in Terry’s colours. He then won an amateurs’ Flat race on Doncaster’s opening meeting under Tim Thomson Jones before providing a big shock when winning the Ormonde Stakes (Group 3) at Chester at 33-1.
A third runner in that Triumph, carrying my then but now David Armstrong’s red silks, was second-favourite Tangognat but he hated the ground and finished tailed off.
The Cashel Palace Hotel was closed for many years but it has been greatly restored and a friend who stayed there last week – it re-opened on March 1 – says it is spectacular. As he was visiting Ballydoyle, Coolmore and the two younger O’Briens’ stables in preparation for the new season, he got his timing right – as ever. Lucky boy, that Harry!
One horse that will not be at Cheltenham is the Doreen Tabor-owned Walking On Air who was so impressive at Newbury recently. Apparently Nicky Henderson will not be able to prepare him for the race in time for next week.
His dam Refinement’s near miss is engraved on my memory, as I turned away when she apparently had the Mares’ Hurdle won, exactly at the moment her head hit the line going up rather than down.
The one Cheltenham I regret having missed of course was Punjabi’s Champion Hurdle victory in 2009 for Ray Tooth. I was sitting on my sofa at home recovering from a detached retina operation and dared not risk getting knocked over should he win. Instead I watched alone, barely cheering, just enjoying the unbelievable result. That day I fancied horses in every race and linked them all in a full cover each-way bet.
I had the 33/1 winner and laid out a nice few quid. Not one of the others managed a place! Never mind we beat Binocular! I love Cheltenham and regret I can’t get there in 2022. Hopefully there will be a few more chances, but you never know!