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Monday Musings: Two Major Contenders from Left Field

At the age of 25 back in 1978 Kim Bailey took over the training licence from his father Ken at their family farm in Brackley, Northamptonshire, with the experience of having learnt his trade from three training greats, Humphrey Cottrill, Tim Forster and Fred Rimell, writes Tony Stafford. In 1995 he enjoyed the almost unthinkable achievement of winning both the Champion Hurdle, with the novice Alderbrook, and the Gold Cup with Master Oats.

Until Saturday they had been the only Grade 1 wins on his card. Now, 26 years later and in his 43rd year as a trainer, the still-boyish Bailey, greatly to his own surprise, can refer back to a wonderful performance by the nine-year-old, First Flow. After an end-to-end battle he emphatically saw off reigning Champion Two-Mile Chaser Politologue in Ascot’s Clarence House Chase.

Kim Bailey has, over the years, gone through a number of transformations and training locations as well as a major domestic upheaval and a Henry Cecil-like slump. That must have caused this consummate horseman to question whether he should continue to pursue his career.

Throughout, Bailey has always had the respect of his fellow professionals, even in the darkest days. The same was true of course for the future Sir Henry before the arrival of Frankel and the subsequent great loyalty – hardly surprising one might say – of Prince Khalid Abdullah. The recent passing of Prince Khalid could have significant implications for the future of many of the present-day’s leading Flat-race trainers.

Bailey’s own darkest years came in the first decade of the present century when in the four seasons between 2004 and 2008 he won respectively only six, six, nine and finally three races. Those three in 2007-8 came from 131 runs and produced earnings of a little over £29,000. Nowadays he characteristically has one of the higher strike rates, operating at close to 18%. Less than three per cent must have given him kittens!

The Racing Post statistics for each trainer includes a section at the bottom entitled Big Races Won. Between March 2002 and November 2012, a full decade, none of the Bailey winners qualified for entry in that section.

In more recent times, he has built up his business again at a modern farm in Andoversford, 15 minutes or so from Cheltenham. A great adherent to modern technology, he was moving around his snow-covered 70-strong yard on Sunday morning, reflecting by video on the previous afternoon’s exploits by one of three chasers that could be lining up in the top races at Prestbury Park in six weeks’ time.

As he progressed with his commentary, all the time he was sharing the credit, principally to David Bass, whose opportunist ride on First Flow he described as “one of the best rides I’ve ever seen”. Also earning his gratitude were various key members of his staff. If ever there was a benevolent boss, it is Kim Bailey, who stresses that any success achieved by Thornfield Farm is very much a team effort.

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That attitude will undoubtedly bring loyalty from the staff and he certainly has managed to keep a number of owners, among them First Flow’s, Tony Solomons, with him over many years. “Tony was one of my first owners all those years ago and I’m so happy for him. First Flow was not an expensive buy and he’s done so well for us,” says Bailey.

He certainly has. Saturday’s win for First Flow was his sixth in succession and his tenth in all from only 16 races over obstacles. The race was worth a few bob short of £60k and represented a nice early birthday present for his owner.

Tony rarely has more than a couple of horses in training but the retired banker also had tremendous success in recent years with the staying Flat handicapper, Nearly Caught. That smart gelding, trained by Hughie Morrison, won nine races and was placed 15 times.

His last win, as an eight-year-old, came on his final appearance when he easily won a Newmarket Listed race from an official rating of 107. That was his fourth Listed win, to which he could add a Group 2 victory at Deauville as a six-year-old. All of his five stakes wins and eight places came in his final three seasons’ racing.

While Bailey had some sparse years where major races were concerned, that could not be said of 2020 when he earned seven entries in that category. First Flow is joined by Imperial Aura and Vinndication as fellow high-class performers and Bailey hopes all three will make it to the Festival.

He regards Vinndication as a potential Gold Cup candidate. The eight-year-old is still lightly-raced and although he has yet to win going left-handed, he ran a blinder when only two lengths behind Cyrname in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby when starting out the present campaign at the end of October.

Bailey aimed him at the Ladbroke (ex-Hennessy) Handicap Chase at Newbury the following month and the gelding was still very much in contention when unseating David Bass five fences out (his only non-completion) under a big weight. The trainer hopes he will be able to prepare him in time to participate.

Until Imperial Aura’s unexpected early exit from his Kempton Grade 2 target a couple of weeks back he had been carrying all before him, adding two nice wins to his Cheltenham Festival novice handicap chase victory in March. Another eight-year-old, like his two stablemates he also has an enviable win ratio, seven from 12.

Nothing succeeds like success. From the dark days Bailey has now put together seven highly rewarding seasons, all bar last term’s 32 (for obvious Covid) reasons bringing between 43 and 61 wins and at least £400k in earnings.

With £450,000 already this term and more than three months to go, he could even get close to the £696,000 of the extraordinary Master Oats/ Alderbrook campaign when he had 72 wins from 312 runs, especially if things work out at the Festival.

It is hard not to be excited by First Flow, but one other horse produced an even more eye-opening performance the same afternoon. The Venetia Williams-trained and Rich Ricci-owned Royale Pagaille turned the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock Park into a rout and must be followed over a cliff for the rest of the season and beyond.

This race has had a proud heritage since its inception in 1981, with its early winners including the three Cheltenham Gold Cup victors, Little Owl, Bregawn and The Thinker. Jodami made it four a decade later, while its best recent champion has been Bristol De Mai, also a three-time winner of the Grade 1 Betfair Chase over the same course and distance.

Royale Pagaille was bought as an experienced four-year-old by French agent Guy Petit out of the Francois Nicolle yard in November 2018 at Arcana for €70k. He had won one of ten starts, a minor hurdle race at Pau, although he did have plenty of experience over fences after that victory.

Sent To Venetia, it was more than a year before he saw a British racecourse and his two runs last season before racing was summarily curtailed were hardly  earth-shattering. First, in a two-runner Chepstow novice chase he found the 150-rated Vision Des Flos predictably too good, trailing home almost ten lengths behind. Then, in a three-runner chase at Huntingdon he was miles behind the lower-rated pair Equus Secretus (Ben Pauling) and Lies About Milan (Fergal O’Brien) who fought out a close finish over the near three-mile trip. Those performances gave little inkling of what was to come.

Hence when Royale Pagaille reappeared for this season at Haydock on December 2, the son of Blue Bresil was the 11/1 outsider in a four-runner novice chase over two miles and five furlongs. He confounded those odds, very easily coming from the back to draw clear of the Kim Bailey-trained favourite Espoir De Romay, who carried a 5lb winner’s penalty.

After that, on the second day of Kempton’s big Christmas meeting, his winning margin of just over three lengths might not have been extravagant, but the style of the victory off his revised mark of 140 was such that the chase handicapper raised him 16lb to 156.

At no stage on Saturday did it appear likely that Royale Pagaille would have any difficulty in defying his new mark, travelling and jumping with utter authority. Conceding 20lb to the proven staying handicappers Just Your Type and Potters Legend, he was already a long way clear of the pair at the last fence in the heavy ground and it seemed as though Tom Scudamore could have doubled the eventual victory margin of 16 lengths over Potters Legend had he wished.

That suggests to me the chase assessors will struggle to keep his new mark below 170 and at the present rate of progress, further improvement could easily be forthcoming. That already takes him right into the top echelon of chasers. For the record, in its 41-year history the Peter Marsh Chase has never been won by a horse younger than seven, Royale Pagaille’s age.

Bookmakers are quoting Royale Pagaille for four races at the Festival, but if he was mine I would find it difficult to disregard the big one. There are many instances of trainers thinking their emerging horses are not quite ready but with the number of pitfalls that can assail them, those delaying plans often prove fruitless with the horses never actually making it to a later Gold Cup. And this one already has eleven chase starts to his name, so is hardly an inexperienced novice.

I’m suggesting you take the 12-1 (unless you can get better) for the Blue Riband of the meeting.  If you prefer to be safe, he is 8-1 non-runner no bet.