When the Ben Pauling-trained mare Anightinlambourn battled bravely up the Cheltenham hill to win her third chase from her last four starts for the Ben Pauling stable, it might have been seen as an omen, writes Tony Stafford. Certainly so, that is, by two handlers (unlike Ben) who train in the Valley and who had fancied later runners on that middle Saturday of the big Paddy Power Gold Cup meeting.
The first has been a licence holder for almost four decades since the 1984-5 season and, before that, assistant to a great champion for another six of his ten years’ training apprenticeship. The other, who has had his yard in Lambourn for 11 years, has spent it honing a method where jumping-bred animals are produced and developed with the principal, nay almost single-minded, aim of turning them into high-class steeplechasers.
The first of our two heroes, as heroes they are, is Oliver Sherwood, Grand National-winning trainer, and now in his late 60’s and happily free of the malignant cancer that threatened to curtail his life last year. Now the smile is back, the drawn features are a vague, lost figment of the imagination and winners are rolling again.
From an Essex farming family, Oliver is the son of hunting enthusiast Nat and brother of Simon, General Manager and Clerk of the Course at Ludlow and, for a never-to-be-forgotten while, rider of the peerless Desert Orchid, on whom he won ten races, nine in succession before the grey fell at Aintree in their last race together.
It’s almost 25 years since such as Large Action, owned by Brian Stewart-Brown, helped Sherwood onto the top table of jump trainers alongside his fellow former Fred Winter assistant, Nicky Henderson. More recently he won the 2015 Grand National with the eight-year-old Many Clouds for his main patron, the late Trevor Hemmings, Mr Aintree in succession to Ginger McCain, Red Rum’s trainer.
Halfway between those times, a young army officer was serving in Iraq, but he emerged from that experience with a resolve. Jamie Snowden had always been interested in riding and horses. It was as a serving officer that he managed to weave a reputation as the best military rider of his era. His frequent wins at the Grand Military meeting at Sandown every March made him the ideal man to trust to build a betting bank for the Cheltenham Festival the following week.
It helped that at this point he spent time as an assistant with Paul Nicholls, who provided some of the Sandown winners and he was also a prolific winner of point-to-points.
Later he joined Henderson, a while after Charlie Longsdon had left to start training and it was for Charlie that Snowden partnered the winner of the most valuable race of his riding career. He had ridden the 10-year-old gelding Kerstino Two to three wins in succession – the horse’s first three starts after coming under Longsdon’s care – and they finished in the money the next twice.
Then, on January 6, 2007, at Sandown Park, they lined up for the £25k to the winner Ladbrokespoker.com Handicap Chase. They won by three lengths with Mr J Snowden claiming five pounds making the most of that military races experience to beat the 9/4 favourite, Preacher Boy, ridden by a certain A P McCoy. Then in turn came Noel Fehily, Tom O’Brien, Seamus Durack, Ruby Walsh, Paddy Merrigan, Daryl Jacob (claiming 3lb), and Charlie Studd. Paddy Brennan, Sam Thomas and Timmy Murphy all pulled up in completing the rollcall.
Both Longsdon and Snowden had moved on by the time Ray Tooth’s Punjabi had joined Henderson and, while he was winning his Champion Hurdle and a couple of Irish Grade 1 races, Ben Pauling and Tom Symonds had filled the role as joint-assistants.
By then, Jamie, with the serious riding just about out of his system, had set up at Folly House in Upper Lambourn. By Saturday at Cheltenham, I make it he had trained a total of 335 domestic winners, and Jamie Snowden Racing Ltd has completed the clean sweep of training winners at every UK jumps course.
Win number 335 was the most valuable prize and easily the race with the biggest prestige of his career to date. It was the £90k to the winner Paddy Power Gold Cup, the feature of the entire three days, which he took with well backed 5/1 shot Ga Law.
As befits an army man, the road to the Paddy Power was planned with (almost) military precision – he did think that maybe three weeks between a comeback after 600 days off and running back in such a big race might entail the risk of the dreaded “bounce”. Well, the only bounce was the way Ga Law jumped the formidable Cheltenham fences under Johnny Burke and they had more than enough to hold off the challengers coming up the hill.
For a six-year-old on only his ninth career start, this was an exceptional performance and the French-bred gelding, like all Jamie’s carefully sourced young horses, has a pedigree to match his ability.
Johnny Burke was also on our other equine star of the show and when I say star, I have no doubt that is exactly what Queens Gamble is destined to be. She had already shown herself to be well above average on her only previous start, also at Cheltenham at the April meeting, when I think it’s fair to say she caught her trainer slightly unawares, for as he says he never fully winds up his bumper horses on their debuts.
Queens Gamble is a daughter of Getaway from a winning mare which the owners raced with Jessica Harrington. She in turn was a daughter of Hawk Wing, favourite for both the 2,000 Guineas and Derby of 2002 but second in turn to stable-mates Rock Of Gibraltar and High Chaparral, although he did win Group 1 races at two, three and four.
He didn’t produce anything like the 137-rated horse he was by the time of his retirement, but he was always slightly quirky and the fact he eventually was sent as a stallion to Korea tells its own story.
If Queens Gamble looked good last April, on Saturday the performance was even better as this is always a high class mares’ bumper. She drew easily eight lengths clear of the previous winner of the race, the unbeaten (in three) Fergal O’Brien mare Bonttay and the rest of a deep field.
As with Frankel late in Sir Henry Cecil’s career, and this year Desert Crown, the Derby winner for Sir Michael Stoute, there is no reason why Oliver Sherwood should not take charge of the best he’s had in his later years as a trainer, such is his wealth of experience and career-long success. All that’s missing really is that title!
I certainly remember calling him something in his riding days, way back in the early 1970’s. Then, the Sporting Chronicle was the northern-based racing daily in competition with the Sporting Life, the main paper in the rest of the country. Both had naps tables and I was in the Chronicle list.
Coming to the Kempton pre-Cheltenham meeting – the competition ended a few weeks later – I had a long lead in the 70-strong field, but halfway through the meeting, I thought I recognised a name of one of the winners.
The horse was called Balmer’s Combe, ridden by Oliver Sherwood. It won at 66/1 (having opened at 14’s!) and sure enough the tipster in fourth, Teddy Davis of the Chester Chronicle, had made it his nap. I only ever saw him at the big meetings and, obviously, at Chester, and it wasn’t until that May when I asked him about it.
"It was all a mistake", he said. "I was told Oliver Sherwood would have a winner that day. It was trained by Fred Winter, but then it became a non-runner. He’d picked up a spare ride on a no-hoper, trained by Richard Mitchell, so I assumed that must be the horse. There were a couple of non-runners and a few fallers, so he won!" I couldn’t hold it against Teddy who was a lovely old boy, obviously long gone; but that Sherwood!
Having expected a big run from Queens Gamble, on whom Johnny Burke didn’t need to be as vigorous as on Ga Law, I was delighted when she came up the hill clearly in a class of her own. She’s the real deal!
There was predictability about the rest of the day, notably an Irish double initiated by the well-backed Banbridge, who floated over the fences and cantered clear for Joseph O’Brien in the competitive Arkle Trial for novice chasers. Then there was a trademark gamble landed with ease by Tony Martin via Unanswered, living up to his name in a one-sided stayers’ handicap hurdle.
The Irish, as ever, are coming, but two stout Englishmen based in Lambourn will be doing their utmost to see them off this winter, in a race or two at any rate.