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Monday Musings: Lost Phone, Failing Memory

To say the last seven days have been eventful for me would be an understatement, writes Tony Stafford. For most people slogging through all four days of Cheltenham it would be a similarly apt description, but I bet not many of them lost their phone, such is their constant adherence to it.

The week started as usual on Monday night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club where my performance in terms of results was possibly the worst ever. But the other regulars David Dickinson, the BHA handicapper for two-mile hurdlers, and the ever-informed Ian Wassell of Coral/Ladbroke provided much better input for the members.

Prompted from the chair by Howard Wright, Dickinson touched on the angry debate between the handicappers (headed by Phil Smith over his Grand National ratings for some Gigginstown horses) and also an issue between Dickinson over another Irish horse running over here.

Dickinson always stresses how he is not allowed to bet under the terms of his employment and then, quite early in the piece – we attempt to analyse the Grade 1 races first – declared there was a certainty in the Champion bumper on the Wednesday.

His selection was Fayonagh, beaten on debut but twice a winner making all since then. Dave said she was already top on his figures even before he added the extra7lb for the mares’ allowance she was entitled to as only two of her sex in the race.

As I said earlier, I lost my phone on Tuesday night, it disappearing into thin air, apparently between being stuck in the traffic for an hour after racing, talking on the car phone for a while and getting to the hotel 35 miles away. Having lugged the luggage – I suppose that’s where that word originates? – up two narrow flights of stairs and repairing to the bar, the discovery was made.

No, not in the car, in the room, nor even in the pitch black of the pub’s car park – it wasn’t until Friday that I realised we could have parked in the brilliantly-lit market square directly in front of the hostelry’s main entrance. Calls to the number suggested the device was still in the area – rubbish connection around there, said the landlord – but by Wednesday morning I had to cancel my two numbers (expensive dual-sim phone from Russia) and have been bereft ever since.

Friends I’ve tried to call almost to a man (and woman) seemingly refuse to answer strange numbers and even more so when on arriving home, I’ve attempted again on the land line. One good friend did answer but completely failed to recognise the voice and fearfully cut the connection.

The point made by the Irish is that their handicappers get unfair treatment over here. Ten handicaps were run at Cheltenham last week and there were 59 Irish runners from a total of 226 in those races, a proportion of just short of one in four. The Irish won seven of them (almost treble what they should have achieved pro rata), while they also collected 12 places (second to sixth), for which there was placed prizemoney.

They had a clean sweep of the three handicaps on the last day and the seven wins were shared between six trainers with Jessica Harrington securing two to go along with Sizing John’s epic Gold Cup triumph. Alan Fleming, Patrick Kelly and Noel Meade joined in, leaving just a single handicap success each for Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott. The only handicaps that escaped the invaders were the Ultima Handicap Chase, where they had three of the 23 starters; the Fred Winter Hurdle, seven of 22 and the Kim Muir, four of 24.

Not that the big two were at all phased, even if Willie probably resented that Elliott, who now handles loads of his former stars, including Apple’s Jade for Gigginstown, won the Leading Trainer award. They were on six winners each but the Gordy hordes won on place countback. In all the Irish won 19 of the 28 races, leaving scraps pretty much for everyone else bar Nicky Henderson’s trio.

So now I must return to the issue of Fayonagh and the lost phone effect. Most of the day was spent trying to meet people by borrowing Harry Taylor’s mobile, using it to speak to someone else who might know the third party’s number. Then if that double improbability was survived, often going from one end of the track to the other, only sometimes with a satisfactory outcome.

Accidentally, I was actually in the paddock for that last race on the Wednesday and Harry told me that Anne-Marie O’Brien had told him that the Gordon Elliott people reckoned “their mare” was a flying machine. At the same time, a more usual Mullins/ Elliott contact told him he thought she wasn’t too well fancied. All the time I was blissfully unaware that it was she that Dave Dickinson reckoned a certainty plus 7lb, until hearing that Fayonagh was left. That finally resonated.

Thank God. That’s who I should have been on, and she had made all, the last twice, both on heavy ground. Surely she couldn’t win from there, could she, especially on this much faster ground? She could and did, finding as good a turn of foot even as Arctic Fire in the County Hurdle.

Now if the Irish moan at British handicappers in general and DD in particular, they have to take it back after that display.

Two runs ago, Arctic Fire had an Irish handicap mark of 169, but dropped to 166 after failing to stay three miles, before his second in a Mullins 1-2-3 in the Irish Champion Hurdle, 15 lengths behind Faugheen, but 13 ahead of the Stayers’ Hurdle winner Nicholls Canyon, rated 161 before Thursday.

I know the Editor of this publication had a lump [more a small interest – Ed.] on him ante-post for last year’s Champion Hurdle – he’d been second to Faugheen in it in 2015 and also second in the County Hurdle the previous year – but injury kept him out. For this belated (14 months nowadays is hardly a deterrent given the facilities the big stables offer for their inmates) return to allow him in on 158 was a gift, as it turned out, and he flew up the hill to win by a neck.

Watching him win was a minor irritation for me, and hopefully a joy for the Editor [no, sigh – Ed.], but the same day’s action provided an even greater cause of frustration than had Fayonagh two days earlier. I’d watched a three-mile race where Willie Mullins had a couple of runners recently, and the apparently less-fancied, trying a trip beyond two miles for the first time, bolted home.

That horse was Penhill, a decent Flat handicapper with first James Bethell and then Luca Cumani, with whom he achieved an official rating of 100. He won four of his first six starts before that three-miler, where he came from way back and spread-eagled a five-runner field by seven lengths and more. I remember making a mental note to remember him. I did, but only after an even more striking, but identical in composition, last to first effort on Friday. Fayonagh at 7’s was tolerable; Arctic Fire at 20’s was irritating, but Penhill at 16-1 broke what was left of my heart. Finally, I can tell someone!

Penhill is a son of Mount Nelson, newly-relocated to Ireland, having been sold by Penhill’s breeders Newsells Park to Boardsmill Stud as a jumping stallion.

The beautiful-looking Mount Nelson produces stock with plenty of substance, and that was the general opinion of onlookers at Clive Cox’s new season stable parade yesterday of the colt out of I Say, Ray Tooth’s nice winning mare. Many were surprised at his size, given he’s a first foal, but by all accounts he’s not backward: “He’s a big boy, so we’ll look after him,” said Clive.

Proper Flat racing starts at Doncaster on Saturday week. Can’t wait!

- Tony Stafford

 

Monday Musings: Confusion Reigns

All this Cheltenham stuff seems to be getting to a lot of people, writes Tony Stafford. Take Eddie O’Leary, brother to Michael and Racing Manager to his brother’s Gigginstown Stud. In yesterday’s Racing Post, Fast Eddie is quoted as insisting that a decision on whether their Empire of Dirt will run in either the Ryanair Chase or the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup will be delayed until next week.

In view of the litany of absentees from the meeting due to late injury, among them a handful of fellow Gordon Elliott inmates, such insistence – the word in one or other of its forms, got a couple of airings in Brian Sheerin’s page four piece – on pragmatism might be understandable, but next week, really?

It’s always tough to get weeks and years right. We talk about events in a jumps season as this year, when as with Moor Racer, now definite for the Champion Hurdle rather than a novice target, he might not have run since November 2016.

I’m finding it hard to distinguish this week from last, having set off at 4 a.m. on Saturday for Mark Johnston’s breeze morning where the most precocious batch of his juveniles set out on the road which might take one of them to the Brocklesby at Doncaster in three weeks’ time.

If that might seem too much time to allow for a 10 a.m. appointment you’re right, but Wetherby services offers an ideal opportunity for a Greggs breakfast special, bacon (three rashers) in a roll and a tea (my option) or coffee for £2.70. Anywhere else in that locale costs an arm or a leg. Thereafter, a wash and brush up, refuelling and an hour’s shut-eye were the perfect preparation for seeing third lot at Park Farm, Middleham.

Thirty or so of us were there to watch our particular interest, some intent on possible new acquisitions, others like me to appraise a possible early runner, as in Ray Tooth’s Tarnhelm. She has the distinction of being a regular partner for Deirdre Johnston and they were towards the back of a line of youngsters, some galloping, others like her doing a couple of canters – “maybe two weeks”, according to Mark, before joining them.

Anyway as they neared the onlookers, provided with a platform of rubber maps a fair distance away from the all-weather gallop, one distracted youngster veered left, hit the rail and ended on the other side. Luckily the rider took timely evasive action, and both she and her mount were unhurt.

Apparently, down at Richard Hannon’s last week, leading apprentice Hollie Doyle also came off, her mount spooking when several motor bikes sped past the string along a small road. She expects to be back race riding in a day or so.

Tarnhelm had to stop – she was the next one along – and if she can react with the same alacrity when asked to go faster, she could be all right. Time will tell, but Deirdre likes her.

Yesterday was the lull in the madness of Cheltenham week. Tonight I’ll have my usual pre-Festival night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club with Ian Wassell of Corals, BHA two mile hurdles handicapper, David Dickinson, and MC, Howard Wright – if he’s not in Bhutan or somewhere at the last minute – to run the final preview gathering of the year.

We might not be the best, but we are the last. Then after getting home at say 1 a.m. it’s up at 5 a.m. in order to collect Harry Taylor at Chigwell at 6.30, praying that the M25 will be kind to us for the first third of the trip west.

Howard has been an absentee a couple of times recently, I seem to remember Qatar as one lucrative alternative to his nice bottle of Bedfordshire RC wine, and Bhutan was a purely contrived possible destination. I knew Lennie Dorji, a great friend of Edward St George, and the pair spent every summer in England, betting in partnership and sometimes making money.

One year Edward had a successful time with David Loder horses, when I was a sort of advisor to the then young trainer, and even got a trip to Grand Bahama, which Edward basically owned with Sir (Union) Jack Hayward, that winter as a reward. He was totally disciplined. On hearing that Pat Eddery would be unable to ride the object of one potential 10 grand bet, he asked the trainer: “Who rides?” Upon hearing, “Paul Eddery”, he snapped back: “No bet!” It lost.

According to a comment made in the movie “The Lunchbox”, filmed a couple of years ago in Mumbai, Bhutan is the best place in the world to live: “you get five rupees there for one rupee here” one of the main characters says at one point.

Dorji was from that mountain nation’s Royal family and took important political roles, including I believe Prime Minister in his earlier days. If you saw the film on BBC2 last night, I bet you are still thinking about it and maybe like me quite affected. Try to see it.

Sorry Mr Editor, no more distractions. I started out talking about confusion for the Racing Post writer yesterday and in the same issue four pages later, my experiences on Champion Hurdle day eight years ago, when I was not there to see Punjabi win the big race, are recalled.

As with Chinese Whispers, even collaboration with the best of writers can be open to the odd confusion. If it seemed to read, therefore, that I drove there and back to Moorfields, “battling the London traffic”, I hasten to reassure that the 35 bus was my only conveyance option while recovering from a detached retina operation.

We’re not missing it this year, though, staying at a place called Highworth, between Swindon and Cirencester, and if 2016 is anything to go by, a better way into Cheltenham than from either A40 or M5. Starting as early as we do, there should be bags of time to see Punjabi and Rachael Kempster in the parade, unless like last year I’m forcibly prevented from the paddock by the security men.

Around New Year, I had a frustrating few days, wrestling with the apparent disappearance of the RCA despatched envelope which contained my new press badge for this year. I keep the robust, ideally-sized envelopes to contain such as driving insurance and car park documents and the like in the kitchen drawer.

When it came to taking it out possibly to go to Cheltenham on New Year’s day, I found to my consternation it wasn’t there and after a couple of lengthy searches, came to the conclusion I had erroneously thrown it out with the Christmas rubbish.

After a short correspondence with the RCA, I had no option but to part with £150 (£120 plus VAT) for a replacement. On Saturday night, returning at 10 p.m. after a stop-off at Chelmsford after the A1, I was met by a less-than-amused wife who said: “Did you lose this?” It was not the badge, but another RCA envelope with motoring documents. “That fell down behind the drawer”, she announced. “But I looked there a couple of times”, I whined. “Maybe there’s the one I wanted two months ago?” Two minutes later she retrieved another envelope, this one containing the missing press badge.

Saturday March 11. Hackney Wick, London. Dear RCA, I enclose the original 2017 press badge, issued to me, with car park label and use of badge instructions. Please send me the £150 so I can have a bet on Gordon Eliiott’s horses at Cheltenham next week.

Hope you all back plenty of winners, and maybe I’ll find one or two for the nice people of Bedfordshire tonight.

 

Monday Musings: From Tiny Acorns

It is very easy to under-estimate the beneficial effect that the big stables can have on others lower down the scale, writes Tony Stafford. They (especially the Maktoums) start with many hundreds of raw, well-bred horses and the simple fact is that they cannot all be talented, many certainly not good enough for their original owners.

Take Symbolic Star, a son of Nashwan from a typically-classy female family, who won one of three – a Wolverhampton all-weather maiden race – before being gelded four days after his next disappointing handicap run off 85 and sent to Tattersalls Ascot sale in July 2015.

Symbolic Star departed after a 7,500gns bid by Carlisle-based Barry Murtagh. In nine runs between his arrival in the far north and Wednesday, Symbolic Star never got in the first four – a fifth of six was his nearest. By the time he turned up at Newcastle on Wednesday last week, he was rated 50 and was running there for the seventh time for the Murtaghs.

Barry Murtagh trains a string (according to the 2016 Horses in Training – I’ll get the new one this week) of 14 horses and his wife Sue is listed as assistant trainer, with elder son Lorcan as conditional jumps jockey.

Lorcan has nine wins to his credit so far, the first on the Flat for Rose Dobbin in 2014, the rest in the north over jumps. Last winter he rode three consecutive winners for Ms Dobbin on Rocking Blues, topped off by a wide-margin success in the Eider Chase, and again in 2016-17 she has provided three wins, the best last Friday when 12-1 shot Monfass won the novice handicap chase at Doncaster.

So Lorcan Murtagh’s progress will have delighted his parents, but last Wednesday, Sue Murtagh was clucking around like a mother hen as she conspicuously guided her younger son Connor through the preliminaries to his first ride in public, on the afore-mentioned Symbolic Star.

Having tried blinkers during the non-productive nine-race lead-up to Wednesday, the Murtaghs now gravitated to a first use of cheekpieces and the five-year-old, expertly guided by Connor, stormed in at 25-1.

With tears in her eyes, mum Sue was understandably emotional as she told anyone close enough to hear – and luckily I was – that Connor, 16, had undergone open-heart surgery just six months earlier. He is an apprentice in the Richard Fahey stable and had his first ride for the Malton winning-machine back at Newcastle soon after brother Lorcan’s Doncaster win, finishing third on 2-1 favourite, Dose.

Coming hard on the unlikely Royal Artillery Gold Cup success of amputee Capt Guy Disney on Rathlin Rose, young master Murtagh showed just how adversity can be overcome with the right support and the skill and willpower of the individual.

Guy Disney was serving in the army in Afghanistan when the truck in which he was travelling was hit by a rocket. He lost his right leg below the knee, but after encouragement from Irish-based trainer Fergie Sutherland, who similarly lost a leg in the Korean War but later rode in point to points, he was set for his target.

It’s a big jump from winning one’s first race in a 0-60 on the all-weather to the top of the tree, but everyone has to start somewhere. I love recalling the fact that Ryan Moore’s first ever win came as an amateur in a hurdle race.

Most observers regard Moore as the top jockey in the world and the demand for his services in the Far East, Japan especially, illustrates that status. But over the past couple of years, particularly in Hong Kong, a serious challenger has emerged.

His name is Joao Moreira, a 32-year-old Brazilian, who relocated to Hong Kong in 2013. In September of that year he won on all of his eight mounts on a nine-race card at Kranji, Singapore, but in matching that tally with another eight-timer in the highly-charged Hong Kong racing arena at Sha Tin on Sunday, he was entering new territory.

Before Sunday, a maximum six winners had been achieved on a single day in Hong Kong, two of them by Moreira, but after breaking that tally with a seventh success on 6-1 shot Mighty Maverick, he closed out the epic meet with a dominating performance on last-race favourite Prawn Baba.

There was no particularly well-endowed (for Hong Kong) race on the day, but Moreira’s winners still totalled around £660,000 in prizemoney. He is sure to be in demand for Dubai World Cup Day in three weeks and no doubt Nick Smith at Ascot will be trying to entice him over for June’s Royal meeting.

Moreira has appeared at Ascot twice before. In 2013, he was selected for the Rest of the World team for the Shergar Cup and had five rides, winning on the Charlie Appleby-trained Ahtoug in the Sprint. At the 2015 Royal meeting, he was beaten a neck on Medicean Man (50-1) by Goldream in the King’s Stand Stakes. His only other ride that week was in the Queen Anne when, like Moreira, the well-fancied Able Friend travelled over from Hong Kong, but could finish only sixth to Solow.

Another of his 2013 Shergar Cup rides was the then Mark Johnston-trained Heavy Metal. Now seven, that gelding has been on a real upsurge in form at Meydan and won by six and a half lengths on Saturday, the last checking point before the World Cup meeting. Moreira might be an interesting contender, but will have to dislodge the revived Mickael Barzalona, who I notice has reached the grand old age of 25.

He seems an altogether different character than the extremely self-confident youngster who celebrated Pour Moi’s Derby win at Epsom even before getting past the runner-up Treasure Beach, never mind the winning line.

Barzalona has been re-crafted after a less than glorious spell as a Godolphin senior rider over here, back under the scrutiny of Andre Fabre, who trained Pour Moi for the Coolmore boys. That son of Montjeu never ran again, but after a slow start as a stallion – stamina rarely shines as brilliantly among young horses as speed – he is now newly grafted onto the Coolmore NH sire register.

Even as a late arrival, it will be hard to imagine his covering fewer than 200 mares this year. I hope the three Pour Moi youngsters that Ray Tooth has – two yearlings and a foal – will be precocious enough to make a mark on the Flat. They look nice types at any rate.

Monday Musings: Looking Forward, via Memory Lane

The weather men have never forgotten October 1987 and the unexpected hurricane that felled half the trees in the South of England, writes Tony Stafford. The Dewhurst Stakes had to be postponed by a day at Newmarket and I still recall the gaps in the treeline on the last leg from Six Mile Bottom, past Lordship Stud up to the roundabout by the National Stud and July Course when I drove along the next day.

Now every hint of a breath of wind from the Atlantic is viewed with utter suspicion by the forecasters. Last Thursday’s wee drop of Doris did cause some inconvenience in terms of wind speed, but less structural damage - nothing like what was predicted.

I spent the previous morning visiting two Berkshire stables I’d never previously seen. First it was to Beechdown Farm, Lambourn, owned and built by John Francome and professional home to Clive Cox throughout his now 18 seasons’ training. Then it was on, after a last-minute call, to West Ilsley, base for pretty much all of this century for Mick Channon.

The boss, Ray Tooth, has three “new” trainers for this season’s two-year-old intake, with both Channon and Cox joining the roster, along with Chris Wall. When asked whether he would like a two-year-old, Mick Channon said he’d be delighted. “I had one horse a while ago for Ray, and he wasn’t much good”. We’re hoping for better.

The Cox visit was pre-planned, its object to see the progress of the home-bred colt, called Nelson River, by Mount Nelson out of the winning mare, I Say. He’d had two easy days before Wednesday after possibly getting cast, so he did a canter limited to a short burst up the straight, but satisfied his onlooking trainer as we raced alongside in the jeep.

The rest of that batch of juveniles – “as a group they’re the best I’ve had”, said Clive – went a little further and Nelson River, a big, nice-moving colt, would hopefully have been back with them by the weekend.

Cox proudly showed me the private gallops of the 260-acre site developed with such skill by Francome, departed from our screens but in no way rueful, according to his tenant. “John is never happier than when driving a digger around the place.”

With Profitable now in Godolphin colours and My Dream Boat and Zonderland also back for another season, Cox must be hopeful of beating last season’s tally of 65 wins and £1.5 million in prize money. Harry Angel, easy winner of the Mill Reef Stakes on only his second start, is the main hope among a nice group of three-year-olds.

Wednesday’s work was undertaken in the expectation of a light morning, probably in the spacious indoor arena, when Doris arrived on Thursday, so plenty was done. I was soon heading back east and while Jenni Tait in Mick Channon’s stable reported neither Mick (in Dubai, basking after Opal Tiara’s Group 1 win the previous week) or Michael junior, on the way to watch a runner at Doncaster, was there, they would happily entertain this surprise visitor.

So it was to West Ilsley, the stables that were to become the new home of Major Dick Hern the year after he won Classic success with my first equine hero, Hethersett, in the 1962 St Leger, when private trainer to Major Lionel Holliday.

For me, still at school, it was the ultimate betrayal, Hethersett being left to languish under the nominal care of head lad, S J Meaney, while actually having his campaign directed by the irascible Yorkshireman. Hern, taking over from Jack Colling, even had the effrontery of saddling Darling Boy to beat Hethersett in his comeback race, the Jockey Club Stakes, in 1963.

Jenni and her office colleague Gill Hedley seemed surprised I’d never previously been to West Ilsley, but both were understandably still bubbling over Opal Tiara’s big win in face of major Godolphin opposition in that Group 1.

Gill was part breeder of the filly with Channon. From the least promising beginnings, the unraced mare Zarafa was sent to Rathasker stud’s stallion, Thousand Words, a Juddmonte-bred quadruple winner, for Barry Hills and latterly in California for the late Bobby Frankel.

The resulting filly went through Ascot sales as a yearling, going unsold at 1,800gns, but after showing plenty of ability at two, attracted Qatar Racing, who privately acquired a half-share. Last year she made great progress, winning a Group 3 at Goodwood, but Qatar wanted to cash in, and she was sold at December sales last backend for 230,000gns.

Happily Gill stayed in and she said: “We have new partners who bought into her and they are delighted, as we all are”. No wonder, how many people breed Group 1 winners? If she does get sold later in her career, the numbers are sure to multiply once again.

Having enjoyed a classy filter coffee and luxury biscuits while talking to the ladies, we made the short 20-metre walk to see Telltale, another home-bred, already gelded, by Monsieur Bond  out of Yarn. ‘Mum’ was a strapping filly who was always placed but never won, coupling natural ability along with a wind problem.

When he arrived, the initial idea was to put him into one of the normal boxes, but as Mick junior said: “He’s so tall, he couldn’t go in there, so it had to be one of the big ones.”

I understood from Michael it was formerly Youmzain’s box, but Jenni said: “No, that’s two along.” So here he was, the gentle giant, impossible to miss with his big white face. So after admiring him, I noticed a plaque outside the box, proclaiming that it had been Halicarnassus’ domicile. That high-class Channon performer is now a stallion in Turkey.

Underneath, though, there was a larger plaque in bronze, with a single word scratched underneath – “Henbit”, the Derby winner. The names on the plaque, though, might give Telltale something to live up to. I searched my memory since driving away, but came up with only four of the five names.

In reverse order they were: Little Wolf, winner of the Ascot Gold Cup; Minster Son, St Leger; and then Nashwan, 2,000 Guineas and Derby; and shockingly, the great Brigadier Gerard. That supreme champion, winner of 17 of 18 career starts at the start of my career in racing journalism, according to his only ever jockey, Joe Mercer, was sick with mucus pouring down his nose, when losing to Derby winner Roberto in the first Benson and Hedges Gold Cup (now Juddmonte International) at York.

The Brigadier, later very disappointing as a stallion, was the last horse to beat his contemporary, the equally-talented Mill Reef, in the 2,000 Guineas. Most racing historians reckon that field, with My Swallow only third, was possibly the best ever for the Newmarket Classic.

So I enjoyed a wonderful walk down Memory Lane, but it was not long before the mood was replaced by frustration at Lingfield on Saturday. While the racing was excellent, with the featured Winter Derby winner Convey adding further lustre to Opal Tiara, who beat him at Goodwood, the absence of any betting shop, thanks to the ongoing dispute between Ladbrokes, Corals and Betfred, and the racecourses, diminished the experience.

You could catch sight of races from elsewhere, where allowed by the direction of the course TV feed with replays, previews and the like interrupting the middle of major races elsewhere. Betting, though, was limited to the Tote with the three main Ladbrokes points uninhabited and the screens blanked out. I bet many of those who paid £25 for Premier admission wished they’d stayed at home.

I was interested in Jack Quinlan’s mount Sir Note at Kempton and noticed it was around 4’s, not bad, on the machine. When he won - yes, Racing Post, Jack Quinlan was riding! - the SP was 7-1. That was annoying for ordinary racegoers without apps or Betfair accounts. This is one disagreement that needs ending fast.

Monday Musing: Dream Season

As we get within a month or so of Cheltenham, the familiar forces are gathering, writes Tony Stafford. Over here the Nicholls and Henderson pulses quicken as expeditionary representatives travel far and wide to put down markers. In Ireland, the 1-14 shots that are Douvan and the rest toddle around to collect the odd €20k prize without breaking sweat on the way to Festival glory next month.

We’ve seen most of it before, so when something totally out of kilter with the norm confronts our vision, it is all the more enjoyable.

In Ireland, jumping especially is mostly about the Mullinses and the Walshes, leavened with increasing vigour by Gordon Elliott. All of the above were typically among the winners at Punchestown yesterday.

The scale of Willie Mullins’ and Elliott’s stable power must constantly frustrate would-be challengers for the major prizes, so when one of the lesser lights beats them at their own game, the satisfaction must be all the greater.

That sort of pleasure was clearly evident in the body language between rider Katy Walsh and trainer Ross O’Sullivan after Ruby’s sister made all with an enterprising and powerful ride aboard Baie Des Iles in the three and a half mile Grand National Trial. I would go so far as to say I reckon it was one of the best front-running rides I’ve ever seen in a long-distance chase, given depth of opposition and testing ground conditions.

The historical fact is that O’Sullivan, who happens to be Katy’s husband, was winning his third race of the season. His French-bred six-year-old mare is already building up a decent record, this being a second Irish victory following a Punchestown three-miler last season before a good second behind Bonny Kate in this event a year ago.

Ruby Walsh rode her that time, but yesterday was required for Sambremont, trained by Willie. That gelding stayed on late to pass Bonny Kate for second close home, but for almost the entire trip, Baie Des Iles, jumping boldly and accurately, led a nice few lengths clear of her old rival, with the remainder of the 15 runners, all geldings, miles behind.

Ross O’Sullivan’s best score to date has been four, two seasons ago. In seven campaigns over jumps (latest first) his scores are 3, 3, 4, 0, 3, 0 and 0. On the Flat it’s 2, 2, 0, 1, 0. Both last year’s Flat wins came with the veteran Doonard Prince, who collected consecutive autumn sprints at their local track, the Curragh, in fields of 27 and 23!

This though was at the other end of the stamina spectrum and considering Baie Des Iles’ relative youth, the fact she stays so well explains the trainer’s relish for a challenge for Newcastle’s four-mile Eider Chase next month. She’s already been sixth to Rogue Trader in the Irish Grand National and fifth behind Gold Cup candidate Native River in the Welsh Grand National, in each case as the only five-year-old in either race.

Yesterday’s win will have earned the daughter of Barastraight – unfashionable in France where he stands - a hike towards the 150 mark, but seemingly the prospect of soft ground on the tough Newcastle track offers the potential of perfect components for Baie Des Iles and her determined ally in the saddle.

I often get a reminder of the Eider Chase and two or three other now otherwise fading memories of an old former Daily Telegraph colleague, especially when, as on Friday, I see Grand National-winning jockey Graham Thorner at the sales, where he has become a bit of an ace in picking up unexposed hitherto under-achievers from the big yards.

He regularly turns £2k ugly ducklings into nice jumping prospects, but there’s always time for a reminder, as on Friday, of the day at Kempton when he rode a winner for Noel Blunt’s father-in-law. My Mate won by 25 lengths and the next day, recounting the tale, Blunty added proudly that of course he had given the jockey, who’d become a bit of a pal to him and his wife, a present. “Yes,” said Noel, “I gave him two quid!” I don’t think Thorner ever declared it to the tax people.

Noel eventually went on to the Sporting Life as chief sub-editor and there enjoyed cult status with such headlines as “Scaling the Eider” and “The Hanging Baskets of Babylon” actually appearing in the paper. Even before he so helpfully engineered my recruitment to the DT when a racing desk member died suddenly, the funniest of all was the Kruggerand episode when John Oaksey mentioned the gold South African coins in his Sunday article. Scratching of heads all round, until Noel had a brainwave. “Ask Tony <I was doing minor sports results on the next desk>. “He knows Latin!” Still miss you mate.

This is the time of year that my week quickens with young horses getting going on the gallops and mares preparing to foal. Ray Tooth has one on the board already from Lawyers Choice who has a nice big colt by Garswood, whose foals made up to £75k despite his modest initial stud fee of around £6,000 (£4,000 this year).

Garswood, of course, is a Group 1 winning son of Dutch Art, who produced two nice winners from Lawyers Choice – Dutch Art Dealer and Dutch Law, the latter who did so well for us last year. Their brother, Highway Robber, is the likely favourite for a race at Newcastle tomorrow.

His trainer, Wilf Storey, won with Table Manners on the same track on Saturday night, so she became the third dual winner for her dam, Nine Red, who is about to produce to consistent Yorkshire-based sire, Monsieur Bond.

As Tattersalls’ newly expanded two-day sale showed, demand for British and Irish bloodstock remains high, and Ray’s policy of producing his own horses rather than pay what’s needed at auction with so much high-powered overseas investment has to be our way forward.

To that end, I got to see a nicely-made son of Equiano out of flying filly Catfish, who we still maintain might have carried the accolade “the world’s fastest racehorse” had her saddle not slipped at the start of her Vodafone Dash attempt at Epsom a few years back. She finished third behind the John Best-trained Stone of Folca in the fastest electronically timed five furlongs, so, mated with a fast stallion, could well produce a decent juvenile. Chris Wall likes what he’s seen of him so far.

In all there are eight juveniles (seven home-bred) going into training and no doubt I’ll be boring you with all the minor excitements as their training regimes proceed. After all, Flat racing on turf returns next month. What happened to the winter? We didn’t get one, just daily Festival updates from November onwards.

Many Clouds, and Two of the Best in the World

I finally got to see the entire ITV4 coverage on Saturday – in a pub - and considering the understandable outpouring of grief after Many Clouds’ collapse following his gallant defeat of Thistlecrack in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham, I thought they did rather well, writes Tony Stafford.

Luke Harvey is warming to his job alongside Mick FitzGerald and assured anchor Ed Chamberlain and, while they all gave suitable reverence to the horrific conclusion to an epic race, they left the tears for Oliver Sherwood’s close friends Warren Greatrex and Nicky Henderson.

Maybe they would have wanted to be a shade more emotional, but the races kept coming and there was Unowhatimeanharry on hand to register his claims as Thistlecrack’s probable successor as World (now reverting to Stayers’) Hurdle champion.

The snag with ITV (or indeed ITV4) is that they still miss a few races at the start of the meeting so the Triumph Hurdle Trial had long since been contested before the cameras rolled for live coverage.

Most people on the other side of the betting battleground find it hard ever to be sympathetic to the bookmakers, but in this they got a rare-old pants-down experience. Two J P McManus horses, Charli Parcs, set to be ridden by Barry Geraghty, and Defi du Seuil (Richard Johnson) were equal favourites in the morning, with the possible understanding that if one was to be withdrawn, it would probably be Johnson’s mount.

In the event, Defi du Seuil, the Chepstow Christmas winner, for all his erratic late course and iffy jumping that day might have made him vulnerable here, was the chosen one, ridden by retained rider Geraghty, and he dotted up. The evens that shrewdies took translated to 1-5 at the off, whereas Rule 4 designates a much smaller cut in such circumstances.

On a weekend when the Willie Mullins hordes were so diminished, Faugheen and Annie Power both taken out of races and Nicholls Canyon falling – Ruby Walsh has been having a few of those - it was amusing to hear Rich Ricci quoted as saying: “We’re running out of horses!” Never mind Rich, you can send your man off to France and buy a wagon-load more.

What was remarkable on this particular weekend, was that both the outstanding American dirt horse and the supreme French trotting horse enhanced their already stellar reputations.

Ever since I fluked seeing Arrogate’s Travers Stakes romp – 13.5 lengths – last August, I have had no doubt that Bob Baffert’s now four-year-old is the best in the world. He beat the only feasible contender to the crown, California Chrome, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last autumn, coming with a powerful late run to win by half a length.

That pair were always going to be the prime factors in the inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational over nine furlongs at Gulfstream Park; and Arrogate (Mike Smith) always had the jump on Chrome, who faded – possibly injured – into the pack as his rival cantered to a near five-length win. The dropdown in form may have been a case of Arrogate’s looking Chrome in the eye late last year and telling him: “I’m best”: it was after eyeballing his foe down the back straight here that Victor Espinoza’s mount wilted.

Before Gulfstream, Baffert was sounding very negative about following on with the $10 million Dubai World Cup in two months’ time, but less so after this performance when presumably he considered how little risk and indeed opposition there is likely to be to his champion, outside the usual shipping/feed/track conditions concerns.

California Chrome retires with record earnings of $17m and Arrogate, beaten only on debut in a wonderful upwardly mobile career, is within $6m and surely will go to Dubai now to pinch the bit he needs to match his old rival.

The Pegasus Cup was an interesting exercise, 12 ownership groups contributing $1m each to have the right to run. Several, like Coolmore with nothing good enough to take the pair on, traded the slots, unsurprising in view of the fact the big two were both close to evens, and no doubt, there was a bit of a discount in some cases. Every horse got a pot, the numbers four to 12 collecting $250,000 while they were all promised a share in associated revenues.

If Arrogate is supreme in world dirt racing, the French trotter Bold Eagle is just as pre-eminent in his sphere, and he won his second successive Prix d’Amerique with a display of great superiority. He was a 3-5 shot in a 17-horse field and apart from a slightly sluggish start, was never questioned as he travelled up to the leaders in the straight and went well clear.

Bold Eagle, a six-year-old entire, was not the highest money-earner in the field. That distinction belonged to the 10-year-old Timoko before his 91st and last race and he certainly made a decent show, leading for the first mile of the 13-furlong distance before dropping away.

This was Bold Eagle’s second consecutive Prix d’Amerique win, and the champion could have four more attempts as trotters can run until the age of 10. The last dual winner was his sire, Ready Cash, in 2011 and 2012, interestingly after Bold Eagle was conceived. This was Bold Eagle’s 31st win in 35 starts and the French experts find it hard to see what can beat him going forward, like Arrogate. If he wins next year he will equal the achievements of the brilliant Ourasi, the best French trotter in the latter part of the last century.

Returning to Saturday, another of the Mullins hot-shots, Vroum Vroum Mag, was absolutely all out to win the mares’ race at Doncaster. Beforehand, with the Annie Power/ Faugheen issues in mind, the assumption was that Mag could step in for the Champion Hurdle, but it would take a big leap of faith to project forward from what was an ordinary performance.

Monday Musing: The Rust Is Settling…

Blame it on the cricket yesterday morning, writes Tony Stafford (pictured), but without it I would have seen more of the very entertaining Attheraces Sunday Forum, hosted by the eminently sensible Sean Boyce with guests BHA Chief Executive Nick Rust and journalists Peter Thomas and Chris Cook, all three firmly on my racing A List.

Slightly flummoxed by attempting to plot the course of the white ball in Kolkata, I switched over and thought I was seeing something. The vision was of a white shirt on a big frame, red tie and up close, a sleeked back fair mane. What’s President Trump doing over here? But no, that was first Mr Rust’s white shirt and red tie, Mr Thomas’s blond locks. Meanwhile Mr Cook on the end had an even more luxuriant haircut than even the Donald, but clearly the wrong colour.

The main topic I managed to see was the errors made in the lead up to the original Jim Best disciplinary hearing and stiff sentence, and the internal soul-searching before the recent independent re-hearing and its perceived feeble penalty.

Even now the journalists seem to struggle with the concept that Nick Rust has been fundamental in ensuring correct procedure after the Matthew Lohn fiasco. And, to his credit, Rust held his ground in face of persistent but respectful journalistic prodding in the absence of a McCririck presumably. Obviously Rust is still luxuriating in the wake of the agreed (by Government) Levy Replacement scheme starting on April 1 which should safeguard racing’s finances and bodes well for future prizemoney levels.

Whether or not the issue of Kempton’s possible closure in 2021 was discussed [it was, Ed.], I heard an interesting side-bar on its replacement as an all-weather track by Newmarket. Apparently there is just as much opposition to the idea of taking lesser horses a few furlongs down the road to run on all-weather as to slog round the M25 to go the 100 miles each way with the even-money chance of long, irritating delays to Sunbury.

My horse whisperer passed on the news that John Berry, small stable Newmarket trainer and former mayor of the town, is apparently strongly against the idea. He (my correspondent) then reminded me of the general opinion of the Newmarket trainers when Newcastle, 240 miles distant, announced it would replace its turf Flat-race track with a Tapeta surface. They were strongly against that scheme, but as he says, since its inception, the town’s horseboxes have been making the odyssey in droves for most meetings, especially to farm the maiden races.

It doesn’t seem to matter either that rewards can be skimpy bearing in mind that expenses for horsebox travel these days are so stringent.
I remember when I was first just about old enough (so 1964) to go into betting shops there was a trainer based quite close to Newmarket in Ingatestone called Peter Poston, or P J as the formal racecards of the day billed him.

He had a two-year-old filly in his care called Pidgeon Toes and his practice was to load her up in his converted meat van – he supplied meat to Smithfield Market - usually with two or three other no-hopers and collected a travel allowance for them all.

Hence they would be sighted in Carlisle and especially Hamilton Park. Pidgeon Toes almost always was second or third favourite in weakly-contested affairs and was always a bet to nothing each way against the normal odds-on shot for a place, which in those days was a third the odds for five to seven runners. She ran up a sequence of seconds and thirds, I think with the odd win.

It was largely the realisation that the travel allowance was more important to P J than the prospect of some prize money and it ended soon after he did – his fault basically. No wonder the French owners love the fact that their runners in PMU-covered meetings get travel allowances, although each horse nowadays seems to have a limit against its name on the France Galop site.

An article in the Guardian in 1968 by the late (Sir) Clement Freud called Poston the £120 man – presumably that was the allowance. I found the small print on the Internet coverage too testing for my eyes, but strangely in the same publication 43 years later, Chris Cook also spoke about the man.
Elsewhere there is a report about Poston’s best horse, Heathfield, apparently the 25-length winner of Ayr’s Tennant Trophy after a series of wins and another carries the fact that he died in 1991, soon after the Racing Post’s arrival. Sadly the nearly-complete set of form books which weighed down the loft of my house in Hertfordshire until early in the last decade did not come with me to my reduced circumstances in East London. But the odd glimmer of those old days 50-odd years away remains in the back of the brain.

If I don’t go racing soon – this last weekend makes it four weeks in a row for various reasons - I’ll go mad, for all the excellence of the coverage by the three Channels. But the Tooth team will resume action with the Mick Quinn-trained Circuit at Lingfield on Wednesday, and the newly ramped-up RCA red tape permitting, I’ll be there to cheer her home (or somewhere near it).

The cold weather in the South stopped Ascot on Saturday and what seemed an excellent card might have persuaded me to make the effort other than a certain event in Tallinn, Estonia, which I could watch on my computer screen in its entirety.

It was called the Juna Cup, for adult ice skaters and it attracted competitors from many European countries, especially Sweden, Finland, Russia, Italy and Great Britain. My wife has been skating for just over three years, so it was with a mixture of pride and disbelief that I watched her win her class (Bronze1 – the level goes up to Silver, Gold and Masters) by a clear 11 points. Not bad for a first overseas tilt and now it will be all systems go for the British Adult Championships at Sheffield in May.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musing: On Passing Kempton…

 

You’d better hurry. If you want to go to Kempton Park before the bulldozers move in as planned in 2021, there are only around 300 chances, writes Tony Stafford. If it’s jumping you want to see rather than all-weather, floodlit or otherwise, it’s somewhere around 45 meetings, based on the present fixture list.

It’s a funny thing about Kempton. While it’s going along in an untroubled, unspectacular manner, almost nobody loves it, but the minute its future is threatened, the over-my-dead-body brigade sharpen their metaphorical pencils.

Unless there are feet of snow or temperatures at around minus 5 Centigrade, meetings are rarely even threatened to be abandoned on the turf track, while during the now almost 11 years of its life as a Polytrack Flat circuit, it has become the venue for decent younger horses on the way up the ladder even if nobody is there to see them. Decent telly and bookmaker fodder nonetheless.

Now, though, the one-time Kempton Manor, first enclosed in the 13th Century and a racecourse since the 1870’s , is to be sold (the OMDB brigade notwithstanding) for housing. The overall 210-acre site is expected to realise around £100 million and initial plans are for 3,000 homes to be built.

Kempton’s owners, Jockey Club Racecourses, want to build, as replacement, an all-weather track at Newmarket as part of a £500 million group future investment. Unsurprisingly, the plans have brought extremes of opinion, with the OMDBs the more vociferous so far.

Anyone reading these notes will be aware that one of my main obsessions is with time. For instance, it has always intrigued me that if I project back the 87 years of age of my great-grandmother (who died when I was 11) before her birth in 1870, we’d get to 1783!

I first went to Kempton, on the old Hackney-based Fallowfield & Britten coach, picking up at Clapton Pond. The firm were actually taken over by George Ewer (Grey-Green Coaches) in 1952, but kept the old livery for a while. We certainly were regulars at the Easter meeting by the late 1950’s and the main recollection is crawling along in a great crocodile of coaches beside the retaining wall that goes all the way from the old Jubilee start 10 furlongs from home.

Another memory of those days is viewing from the stand at the top of the straight, a full three furlongs out and watching them flash by, then shaking my head when the end result was nothing like the order when they passed us.

That fixture featured both the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas Trials, and one name that has stuck is that of the 1964 1,000 Trial winner, Gwen (maybe Jack Jarvis and Lord Rosebery), who beat subsequent 1,000 Guineas heroine, Pourparler, to my great delight. Winding back the near 60 years from my first visit there – we went to Newmarket in 1952! – you get to 1900. To think that 70 years from now it’ll be 2087.

It seems strange enough that there are two courses as close together as Kempton and Sandown Park, which is likely to be the main beneficiary of any Kempton closure as the expectation is for the King George VI Chase to be transferred there.

When you drive the seven miles from Kempton to Sandown, you pass within a short walk of another well-known track, the now defunct Hurst Park, which closed in 1962. Hurst Park was built on part of the old Hampton Court Racecourse (closed in the 1880’s) plus some extra land and staged the Victoria Cup, now at Ascot. I believe I saw the last running of that race, and for many years always told whoever would listen that I backed the winner, King of Saba. I did back it, but I found out recently it finished second.

The differences in the make-up of the two tracks – Kempton is Pancake flat, Sandown tight around the bends but stiff uphill at the finish – bother some observers who believe that the King George’s traditional nature will be lost.

A major bug-bear for me over the years has been the insistence, even among leading trainers, especially Nicky Henderson, Kempton’s major spokesperson, that Kempton is a notably sharp course. Non-stayers rarely win three-mile races there as they are usually truly-run, while the King George itself, with a high-class field and winter going is always a true stamina test.

I’ve had a lot of luck at Kempton, most notably with a horse called Tangognat. He lined up for his second start under Rod Simpson’s care for the three-year-old maiden on Easter Monday April 8 1985 after finishing third on debut in a Leicester claimer.

Starting 20-1 in a field of 10, he swept to the front two furlongs out and won by 20 lengths from Fire of Life, later winner of the Italian St Leger for Ian Balding. Four days later we went back to the track for a conditions race and won by 15 lengths, each time loving the rare (for Kempton) heavy going. After two flops on faster ground, he went on to win a couple of nice juvenile hurdles around Cheltenham before fast ground in the Triumph effectively ended his career.

In more recent times, Kempton has been a good winning venue for Ray Tooth’s horses, Fair Trade winning both over hurdles and in a jumpers’ bumper, in which now abandoned category, Cousin Khee was also successful. I can still picture Skeleton’s rocketing home, passing almost the entire field in the last furlong under Silvestre De Sousa while an always fond memory is of Lawyers Choice.

The late Pat Eddery trained this filly to win twice, at 16’s at Wolverhampton and then at 25-1 at Kempton in my first year on the Tooth team. She has since proved a diamond as dam of both Dutch Art Dealer and Dutch Law, the latter sold for 150k last autumn after a four-year-old campaign when he won £80,000 for his owner-breeder.

Dutch Art Dealer, now six, raced for the Paul Cole stable until changing hands for an almost unbelievable 3,000gns last backend. He had his first run for new trainer Ivan Furtado at Newcastle recently and bolted up off 80 and I reckon that even though 6lb higher, he can follow up back at Kempton tomorrow night.

I think of Chelmsford and Newmarket almost as my local tracks, but it is 45 miles to the old Essex Showground and 60 to HQ. Kempton, if I go the direct (thus traffic-strangling) route through Central London, is barely 20 miles away, and that was always the balancing factor as I strove to get there each night meeting a few years back when I was lucky enough to host the evening entertainment in the Panoramic Restaurant.

Kempton featured some talented performers in those days, along with excellent food and one of the regular and most admired singers had been a contemporary of Kate Winslet’s at stage school. She recalled the future star of Titanic was just “OK at singing and dancing, and a little better at acting”. Not much different from attitudes in racing among trainers and their relative abilities.

Those evenings were a highlight in my later incarnation. From those days, so many of the Kempton personnel have gone on to bigger and better things in Jockey Club Racecourses, notably Paul Fisher, who signed me up, and Amy Starkey, now the boss at Newmarket. Good luck to them. I’m sure they’ll shed a collective tear, like me, if and when their alma mater goes.

Monday Musing: Channel Hopping and Interrupted Airwaves

No Bank Holiday this week? Then I’d better crack on, writes Tony Stafford. There has been an unreal feel to the past fortnight, but everyone should be getting back to work, unless they travel on London Underground, that is, where I understand there’s a strike today; or Southern Railway, where there usually is.

One good friend, Prince Pippy, called yesterday for his tri-monthly catch-up and our chat touched on those travel difficulties which often prevent his sister’s managing to reach London from Brighton. Of more concern to him was the damaging stand-off between the Arena Racing Company (ARC) and several major bookmaking chains over the broadcasting of pictures from the 15 tracks they control – those of the original Arena Leisure group and Northern Racing tracks formerly owned by the late Sir Stanley Clarke.

William Hill, whose yearly results are due this morning when the City are anticipating the green shoots of recovery <nice cliché, Ed>, and Paddy Power are in the “in” corner, having agreed, along with a sizeable number of independents, to pay ARC for their pictures. Ladbrokes and Coral, their merged main rivals for supremacy, and Betfred, staunchly refuse to join them.

I didn’t plan to visit a betting shop later today, and if I did it would almost certainly be to a William Hill outlet as they have almost a monopoly around here. And, more critically, it’s possible to park for free nearby – a rarity in the London Borough of Hackney.

I’ve had a bit of an Internet look at the William Hill situation, whereby it appears they have been attempting to find a suitable successor to James Henderson, their last Chief Executive, who resigned last year apparently because of the “digital decline of its online verticals”. If, like me, you are still mystified, look it up on the net.

But to return to Pippy, as he suggested, Ladbrokes and their allies in this dispute will be unable to show action from any of the three fixtures from Doncaster, Lingfield and Wolverhampton, all ARC tracks. I first got wind of this last week, when another pal, Roger, called from Yarmouth asking if I was watching the racing at home.

I was, and then he said: “are they near the start?” “Where are you?” I replied. “In Ladbrokes, but there’s no pictures, can you give me a commentary?” Apparently someone had had a decent bet and was shocked that he couldn’t see what was happening. Needless to say, the horse lost. They always do when you can’t see it. And when you can.

According to Charlie Brooks, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Ladbrokes intend relaying an in-house commentary, without pictures, from an employee watching in an office at their HQ. There are also plans for the firm to offer their shop punters an app (getting the hang of this techno talk!) enabling them to get the pictures on their mobile phones.

As usual it’s all about price, as with the always-contentious Betting Levy which Sports Minister Tracey Crouch has recommended should be based at ten per cent of gross profits from both retail and online bookmakers in the Levy replacement scheme to be implemented by April 1.

The Sports Minister, born in Ashford, Kent, and an old girl of Folkestone School for Girls and the University of Hull, might sometimes rue the fact that her local course, Folkestone, also under the ARC banner, remains frustratingly closed. Could she not intervene?

The chat is mostly about televising of racing in these early days of 2017. The much-heralded hand-over of terrestrial free broadcasting of racing from Channel Four to ITV has brought varying degrees of approval, presumably on the grounds of previously-held opinions on the broadcasters that have found their way onto the “new” team.

I did switch over during Saturday’s racing from Sandown a couple of times, but remain more attuned to Racing UK. The one thing I found grating was the repeated screaming of Luke Harvey that Finian’s Oscar was “a champion” after his 32 Red Tolworth Novice Hurdle win, when runner-up Capitaine was brought to a complete standstill by a mistake at a crucial part of the race. The fact Capitaine recovered to take second, five lengths behind the admittedly easy winner, up the run-in makes Luke’s insistence somewhat questionable.

Harvey has history. On Attheraces he portrays himself basically as a buffoon. His tipping skills are negligible as is the blatantly off-the-cuff manner in which he has historically arrived at them on his two-man show with Jason Weaver. To his new audience, though, he is presented as an expert. Time will tell. One of the many critiques of the new team I’ve seen reckoned that, in their initial broadcast, four people seemed to be talking at the same time. That’s Luke.

It was with some surprise that I discovered that what goes for terrestrial television may not be what it seems. One pensioner – she must be old, she’s my age! – down in Cornwall is in an area which cannot receive ITV4, on which subsidiary channel most if not all the new team’s output will be restricted until the Cheltenham Festival.

Even though ITV4 is on Freeview, it is unavailable in certain outposts of the country, including where that particular pensioner lives. She’s a big fan of racing. If there’s a Ladbrokes anywhere near, she can go there today and listen to the commentaries, but she won’t see too much! <Or she could get the internet or use her phone, Ed>

It appears ITV is unlikely to get any better in recognising Jack Quinlan’s talents in the saddle than the other broadcasting outlets. After he rode an exemplary race to win on the Amy Murphy-trained Mercian Prince, coming late and strong up the final hill in a competitive handicap chase, trainer and her father Paul, the owner-breeder, along with the horse, got all the plaudits. Naturally he didn’t get a mention at all in the Racing Post the following day – what’s new?

We’ve had no action with the Raymond Tooth horses since well before Christmas, but the home-bred juveniles are now all but one – hang on a bit longer Mick Channon, he’s been gelded – with their intended trainers.

It was planned to have a runner at Wolverhampton on Friday, but Mick Quinn decided against running Circuit – hope he enjoyed Liverpool’s gallant draw with Plymouth yesterday. In the event, it was slightly irritating in that Camaradorie, the horse which finished third at 100-1 and should have won the race with any luck in running, was a place behind Circuit when Ray’s filly made her debut at Chelmsford.

Mick has one of the two-year-olds, a daughter of Mayson and the Dubawi mare Grass Green, but he was especially happy to take renewed charge of six-times-placed Stanhope, who returned from Shropshire having dropped two stones, but has rather more than that to shed after his grass-gorging break. The trainer and owner will be disappointed if he doesn’t get that first win on the board pretty soon.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Musing: New Beginnings

You can take a horse to water, the saying goes, but you can’t make him drink, writes Tony Stafford. You can put racing back on ITV for the first time in 32 years, but if Racing UK and Attheraces start showing races before the new team’s 1 p.m. New Year’s Day opening time, you can’t make us switch over.

So my appreciation of the first offering from the totally “new” team of Ed Chamberlain, Luke Harvey and Sir A P McCoy can only be derived from other people’s appraisals. To think I missed both Luke and Matt Chapman! Now I’ll have to wait until the Festival to see them on ITV proper, as they’ll be on ITV4, while the main channel is apparently showing some compelling 32-year-old movies.

I was, though, able to see the arrival onto the Cheltenham scene of new trainer Samuel (as the racecard says) Drinkwater, at 26 the same age as his better known sporting namesake, Danny, the driving force behind Leicester City’s unlikely Premier League title in 2015-16.

Sam Drinkwater started out as a teenage amateur attached to the Nigel Twiston-Davies yard at a time when both Sam and Willy were at a similar stage in life. In eight seasons’ riding he managed 14 wins from 166 rides under Rules, of which 14 unsuccessful efforts for Nige were presented to him at a time when the trainer averaged around 600 runners per season. Hard to get in there!

He operated mainly in points and hunter chases and in the latter sphere collected three of his wins at Cheltenham, all for Fergal O’Brien. Bradley, 16-1, Dammam 14-1 and the 2-1 favourite Creevytennant were the Prestbury Park triumphant triumvirate from very limited rides for the O’Brien stable.

Sam’s been training pointers for a couple of years now and one of them, the now 15-year-old Working Title gave him an initial success when strolling home at Sedgefield on Boxing Day, having been backed from 20-1 overnight to 5’s, ridden by the trainer’s brother Joe, 20.

Joe Drinkwater had won nine points on the one-time Nicky Henderson horse – rated 142 as a young hurdler – between December 2013 and last March and now was in the plate as he took full advantage of the purely guess-mark of 99, which will no doubt be upgraded tomorrow.

Working Title won pretty much all his pointing starts, apart that is when the trainer stepped in twice, and more publicly and dramatically less successfully when Victoria Pendleton failed to get round on her two acquaintances with the old boy.

Victoria, of course, is another of the new ITV team, and I think she should be made aware that there will be plenty of people trying to get her to buy another “great prospect” or two for between the flags as she maintains her horsey obsession.

But Sam Drinkwater will always be remembered in that his first Cheltenham training success came with a 50-1 shot, recently recruited from the Twiston-Davies stable. He was multiple winner Tour Des Champs, who stayed on bravely to beat Doctor Harper and Tom Scudamore by a short head in the long-distance handicap chase.

Luck seems to stick with the same people and the signs are that young Sam is going to be a chosen one. But for the fact that his licence had not come through when entries for the Coral Welsh Grand National were made, his gelding would no doubt have been admiring Native River from behind as he soared to victory. Thus this target was selected instead.

There are 50-1 chances and then Sam Drinkwater 50-1’s. The local Gloucestershire Live issue of December 30 featured an article saying that while the family celebrated the trainer’s first winner, they were looking forward to Cheltenham and the stable debut of Tour Des Champs.

Sam is quoted as saying that: “Tour Des Champs is a big, stuffy horse, but he’s done twice as much work as our winner”. He goes on to say he trains in a yard with access to 1,000 acres with woods and lakes to keep the horses happy. He has 11 inmates with room for nine more. It won’t take him long to fill them up if he carries on like this.

Raymond Mould’s widow Caroline wanted to sell on a couple of her Twiston-Davies horses, but her daughter Katy suggested offering him to Sam rather than sell him at a sale. Seems like a great idea all round.

When you look in the BHA site, Sam Drinkwater’s only horse with an official rating is Tour Des Champs, the Working Title entry just missing the December 20 deadline. We’ll all be looking closely at anything else he runs, starting with Working Title again at Hereford on Wednesday. He would be carrying 12st5lb, including a 7lb penalty, but the trainer has until the morning to see whether to wait for the new mark.

Willy Twiston-Davies has, unlike his elder brother, been confining his talents to the Flat over the past five seasons, clocking up 189 wins, but the unequal task of keeping his weight down seems to have been lost. Before switching to the Flat aged 18, he’d ridden only eight jumps winners, including once on Tour des Champs.

Yesterday his recent return to jumping brought its first win, with Cogry from whom his previous regular rider, and Willie’s best friend, Ryan Hatch suffered a serious leg injury when falling in a chase over the course last month. Twiston-Davies senior sent him back over hurdles for a confidence boost, which will also have provided Willy with optimism for the immediate future.

With brother Sam fully occupied in his role as Paul Nicholls’ number one, Willy could well have a good few weeks until Hatch comes back.

Another with an optimistic slant on life after a New Year double was Lizzie Kelly, who said afterwards that the stable had been in a miserable phase, with them expecting the horses to run moderately when they did go to the track. So let’s hope for better luck for the very talented Lizzie and the Williams/Kelly family in 2017.

That wish goes out for all trainers, jockeys and owners, although as we know for most it’s an uphill battle. I just had to break off from this for a while for a call from a trainer friend, who can often come up with a witticism.

He was relating why he prefers not to use a particular jockey, whom he says he’s so laid back it’s as though he couldn’t care less. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a lovely lad, but he just never follows instructions. He often comes back and says, ‘You know what, he’d have run much better if I’d have done what you told me!’”

 

 

Tony Stafford’s Extra Mince Pie…

So I ate an extra mince pie rather than keep to the schedule, writes Tony Stafford. If apologies are in order, then sorry, but I’m sure you had something better to do rather than read about horseracing, at least my sometimes oblique slant on it. It was probably also that I knew I would be having a bit of a rant.

A few hours’ sleep would mellow me a little, I thought, but all night long, visions of something I hadn’t fully believed at the time, intruded on some fitful slumber. It’s all too easy to criticise a jockey – in the country’s 8,809 (March 2016) betting shops, people who watch every day will show you how with a vengeance – but I rarely notice, which suggests they (jockeys) might be generally competent.

But once in a while a ride is so out of kilter with the norm that even my customary lethargy is disturbed. Such a ride was perpetrated at Kempton Park on Boxing Day by Daryl Jacob, and I’m sure that after Might Bite’s last-fence fall when as the Racing Post reported, he was 18 lengths clear, trainer Nicky Henderson and owners The Knot Again Partnership will have been looking for an explanation of the latter portion of the ride.

Lining up for the two and a half mile Grade 1 Kauto Star Novice Chase, Might Bite was rightly one of the leading contenders, having won four of his eight career starts over three seasons and one of his two novice chases, for each of which he’d started 2-1 on favourite.

Firstly on chase debut at Newbury in November he was rallying under Nico de Boinville, his hitherto regular partner, when a blunder at the last fence resulted in a half-length defeat. Then earlier this month at Doncaster, with Jacob replacing the injured de Boinville, he made all, was left clear at the tenth, hit two out and then allowed to coast home.

Yesterday, once again Might Bite was ridden prominently, and after some initial skirmishes, went clear readily from the fourth-last fence. By the straight it seemed only a fall would prevent connections from collecting the £40,000 first prize. At the second-last he was well clear, whereupon Jacob had a look round at his toiling rivals, but unlike at Doncaster, for some reason he decided to go for broke.

He could hardly have detected danger from behind, but he proceeded to administer three strong left-hand blows with the whip and as they stretched ever further clear, kept riding vigorously and hurled him at the final obstacle. I must say I fully expected the outcome, a heavy fall, and there has been nothing since to convince me that a more measured performance from two out would have given the team a more than adequate winning margin.

Had he got over the last, he’d have won by an official “distance”. Instead it was left to Royal Vacation, at 33-1, to collect the trophy and the accolades for the seemingly-blessed Colin Tizzard stable. While Henderson was in the process of enduring a most un-Henderson-like Kempton Boxing Day – he had two minor winners elsewhere – Tizzard was enjoying the benefits of unworldly stable riches. As he said later, once Thistlecrack – yes I’ve finally got round to him – was aimed at the King George and a clash with Cue Card, then he was looking around for “something for the novice” and the solid, dependable and now top-flight winner Royal Vacation fitted the bill.

You’ll read plenty about Thistlecrack elsewhere, and his exemplary performance in just his fourth chase, beating Cue Card and a rallying Silviniaco Conti – unwilling to adhere to his unflattering 20-1 odds - with great authority.

So he’s a general 5-4 shot for the Cheltenham Gold Cup with the likelihood of a second novice winner of the race in three runnings after a 41-year gap between Captain Christy, whose victory I’ve just reprised on the internet, remembering my winning bet, and Coneygree last year, who had previously run over fences only three times.

In that regard Thistlecrack will have an experience edge on his predecessor, and will also, at nine next week, be a year older than the Bradstock family horse was when he won the Gold Cup. Coneygree missed Kempton, having chased home Cue Card at Haydock last month, but could well be in attendance at Prestbury Park in March having missed the race in 2016.

There might not seem, at first sight, to be too many similarities in the breeding of these two outstanding stayers. Coneygree, winner of nine of his 12 career starts, is by the multiple Group 3 winning miler/10 furlong performer Karinga Bay. John Oaksey, looking for a mate for Coneygree’s mother Plaid Maid settled on Karinga Bay because he was a son of the Noble Lord’s favourite horse, Ardross.

By contrast, Thistlecrack is a son of Kayf Tara, twice winner of both the Gold Cup at Ascot and the Irish St Leger and the perennial champion jumps stallion based in the UK. He is now 22 and will stand for a private fee at Overbury Stud next year.

But then the plot thickens. Ardross, also a dual Gold Cup winner, appears in Thistlecrack’s pedigree, as the maternal grand sire and father of the Tizzard champion’s dam, Ardstown. So they both have pedigrees packed with stamina. If anything, Thistlecrack carries a double dose of staying power and with 13 wins in 18 starts so far, it looks as though he’s just getting going.

For his first ten outings, he was beaten, then won, five times in a row, explaining perhaps why in his eighth start, in the long distance novice hurdle at Aintree in April last year, he started 25-1. The margin of success might have been less than the eventual 13 lengths had the weakening Alpha Des Obeaux not fallen late on. Beaten next time in Ireland, he has since won nine in a row in his last 19 months’ action.

It is interesting to delve further into the respective abilities of the two broodmares. Both raced over fences – Ardstown exclusively, collecting three pointing wins for the Knipes, who bred Thistlecrack, and four over fences from 23 career starts.

Plaid Maid won once over hurdles, and like her counterpart, four times over fences under rules in 19 career outings. She was a year younger than Ardstown, and eerily the pair met on the racecourse at Newbury on March 24 2001 in a decent 12-runner field which also included the former Champion Hurdler, Collier Bay.

The then 10-year-old Ardstown had been confined to hunter chases in both 2000 and the early part of 2001, but trainer Venetia Williams, considering the lightly-made mare unsuited hefting big weights, found her a suitable race over the three-mile trip. She was 4lb wrong in the weights, meaning her official 107 rating was swollen to 111 for the race.

Plaid Maid was conceding 7lb and at the finish Ardstown and Norman Williamson had a six-length margin over her and A P McCoy. That equates to an almost identical level of ability for the pair. Ardstown never won again, whereas Plaid Maid had one more payday next time out, before they both went on to their real purpose in life – producing jump racing legends.

Monday Musings: Murphy’s Law Alright for Jack

Is it better to be a small fish in a big pond or the only fish swimming around a puddle? Few are better qualified to make that judgment than Jack Quinlan, possibly the only remaining authentic jump jockey in the surprisingly underused National Hunt location of Newmarket, writes Tony Stafford.

Home for thousands of choicely-bred and often highly-priced Flat racers, all but a handful of horses are kept to that discipline. The occasional jumper has the chance to use the excellent facilities of the Links, close to the centre of town where they are more than likely to share the parking areas with golfers, often jockeys, at the local club.

Until a couple of years ago Neil King’s team was the best equipped to win jumps prizes and Trevor Whelan took the lion’s share of his boss’s mounts. Now they are plying their trade in Wiltshire at a yard close to namesake but un-related Alan King at Barbury Castle.

Unsurprisingly, when Whelan was in town, he and Jack often found themselves in demand for schooling horses, but as son of former HQ trainer Noel, Jack’s lucky break came when John Ferguson began overseeing the training of some of the Godolphin overflow stayers over jumps up the road at Cowlinge in a property once owned by the Mintons.

At first it seemed to outsiders that Fergie would probably be playing at it, a sop by his employer Sheikh Mohammed to Ferguson’s original wish to be a trainer. He, like Simon Crisford, started out as a young assistant, in his case to Sir Michael Stoute until switching to his long-term role with the boys in blue.

Firstly as an amateur and then as a conditional, Jack got onto the Ferguson team riding nine winners in 2010-11 and a career best 27 the following year. But then, ironically he was a sufferer from the success of the Bloomfields project – the Godolphin jumpers run in that corporate entity – as increasingly the top jockeys were employed as the stakes rose.

Initially Denis O’Regan, then Tony McCoy and latterly Aidan Coleman got pretty much all the rides, but even those relative riches for HQ riders ebbed away early this year when John Ferguson reverted to a more central role as Godolphin’s supremo, closing down the jumping operation.

Many of the horses were either sold or transferred to Godolphin’s Flat-race handlers, so even the odd winner that Quinlan still got had disappeared by the start of this season. He’d collected 10, then 19, 16 and 18 in subsequent seasons but often must have thought he should have listened to the suggestions of many friends that maybe he should re-locate outside Newmarket.

The snag for young Master Quinlan – he’s still in his mid-20’s - is that he comes from a close-knit family, with two sisters and a younger brother all steeped in the business. Noel still retains his old contacts and does some trading and preparing horses while his mother Jo spent many years taking the kids to various shows around East Anglia and beyond and training the family’s point-to-pointers.

In mid-summer, Jack’s hopes revolved around some largely unexpected opportunities for Robin Dickin and that West Midlands trainer has supplied Jack three winners from 15 rides, usually when stable jockey Charlie Poste is otherwise engaged. But that, apart from his riding the dribs and drabs of jumpers from around 20 Flat-race operators in the town, seemed to be that. And then along came Amy.

Amy Murphy, that is, daughter of owner Paul, who had plenty of success with among others Charlie Longsdon. His mare Kalane once ran third to Annie Power at the Punchestown Festival but now is probably team leader for Ms Murphy at the stable she occupies in Michael Wigham’s Hamilton stables in the Hamilton Road.

That accident of location – Noel in also based there – meant Jack would be an obvious choice for picking up schooling duties in what is beginning to look like becoming a bit of a powerhouse.

Amy can’t be too slow. As recently as November 3 she went along to Tattersalls Ireland Ascot sale and for the princely sum of £3,500 came away with a dual winning five-year-old out of Gordon Elliott’s burgeoning yard.

I’d be surprised if Gordon’s even noticed he’s no longer there. A couple of weeks earlier he’d taken two runners to a four-horse claiming hurdle at Stratford and came away with a 1-2. The runner-up Tajseer was the better fancied and was claimed afterwards by an owner of Phil York’s for £5,000. The winner, maybe because nobody could get anywhere near to pronounce his name, was left alone after a two and a quarter length success under Gordon’s much-respected amateur, Lisa O’Neill.

Lisa was the highly-proficient rider of Wrath of Titans, the ill-fated Kerry National winner in the autumn from six Elliott runners. On the same day that Shan Dun na NGall won the claimer at Stratford, she was also successful on the heavily-backed Presenting Julio, owned and trained by Liam Lennon. Her only other UK ride this season brought an unlucky unseated from a David Pipe horse at Cheltenham’s Open meeting.

The Stratford victory encouraged the jumping handicappers to give Shan, you know the rest, a rating of 117. The Racing Post analysis suggested 110, his mark before race, would be testing enough, but Amy did not waste too much time in deciding his future.

Four weeks to the day since his purchase at Ascot, old Dunny was sent to Chelmsford for a 13 furlong Flat-race handicap, from what now looks a gift mark of 48, almost 70lb less than his jumps figure – so probably 25lb too little. Starting 16-1 and ridden by Lemos de Souza, a Brazilian like namesake of former champ Sylvestre, he bolted in.

The official reaction was to adjust him 4lb to 52, and last Saturday he made it two out of two for Amy, her partner Lemos (and owner Mr Melo) by running away from his opposition over two miles at Newcastle.

If it was a red-letter day for the couple, they couldn’t keep JQ out of it, as three hours previously at Doncaster, he’d steered Kalane to a 17-length win over the Doncaster fences – her first chase success and Jack’s second win for the trainer after ex-French Mercian Prince’s easy victory at Southwell in late November.

After a couple of months with a licence, Amy Murphy has already reached five wins, two from seven on the level and three from 14 in her main sphere of operation. I’ve never met the trainer or her father, but a good friend bumped into them at the stable recently and says there’s plenty to come from some classy, unexposed horses. Clearly this looks like a project that could come to fruition probably sooner than even Amy and her two “boys”, Lemos and Jack, could have believed possible. Maybe Newmarket’s jumping pond is going to get a little bigger!

Monday Musings: A Weekend Roundup

The Elliott bandwagon continued to roll with Apple's Jade usurping her former guv'nor, Willie Mullins

The Apple of Elliott's eye

I’ve promised not to stray far outside the confines of horse racing for these musings, but how can I talk about the two people that head up this week’s offering without a mention of Arsenal and Chelsea football clubs?, writes Tony Stafford.

The pair concerned are linked even more closely than my own emotional allegiance to the former. The first, Neal Wilkins, sadly died last week after a long, debilitating illness. The other, Alan Spence, was yesterday celebrating a fine win for Josses Hill in Huntingdon’s Peterborough Chase the day after Chelsea’s confirmation at the top of the Premier League.

Many in racing will have known Neal, with whom I worked for a couple of years at the Press Association where he was a typist, but one always destined for higher things. Later he was the public face of Victor Chandler as their on-course rep, always getting in his ante-post television quotes with the same alacrity as Mike Dillon for Ladbrokes.

As another contemporary, Geoff Lester, said in last week’s story that recorded his death in the Racing Post, “Neal was always first to the bar and last to go home”. He certainly enjoyed a glass of wine as well as he stoically endured what he, like many Arsenal fans, regarded as under-achievement by his team.

Alan Spence was once a director of Chelsea in the Ken Bates days and remains an honorary Vice President – often promoted to Chairman by Derek Thompson when his horses go to post. My boss Raymond Tooth’s Tommo handle is “the most expensive divorce lawyer in the country” – maybe I should ask him if that’s true?

During the Flat season, Spence’s horses, including a few shared with son Michael and friend Peter Hargreaves, won more than 20 races, with Profitable collecting the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes for the Clive Cox stable. Profitable will not now appear in the Godolphin colours in next Sunday’s Longines Hong Kong Sprint after a deal was announced last week, but few horses will have better lived up to their name.

I met Neal Wilkins soon after a brief association at the Press Association with Claude Duval, whose recent retirement was accompanied by a bit of a shirty send-off in these parts. Claude had a fair old name to live up to – the 17th Century version is described as the “most gallant and courteous rogue” who earned his money robbing stagecoaches on the approach to London, in Holloway, between Highgate and Islington, in other words, outside the Emirates stadium.

While unable to resist the repetition of a one-time unflattering headline, I sent Duval off by ridiculing his final scoop, scoffing at the suggestion that Paul Hanagan was to lose his job with Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum. Well now he has, so hats off to the most courteous and dashing of journalists, whose retirement should be rather happier than his predecessor’s – he was hanged in Tyburn in 1670!

Alan Spence will have no more than four horses to jump in the winter – Soldier in Action will aim at the Triumph with Nicky - but obviously Josses Hill will be the focal point with possibilities of Cheltenham Festival success after placed efforts behind recently-deceased Vautour (Supreme) and Un de Sceaux (Arkle) in 2014 and the following year. He’ll want to avoid the latter, probably running in the Ryanair over 2m5f,  but just a cursory look at yesterday’s action at Fairyhouse shows just how strong the Mullins and Elliott teams will be next March.

Un de Sceaux showed a different side to his always-evident talent when forsaking the customary early lead under Ruby Walsh in Saturday’s Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, leaving that role to Gary Moore’s speedy Ar Mad.

Once that horse’s exuberance had been pricked in his first run after a layoff, Un de Sceaux settled down for a battle with Sire de Grugy up the final hill and over the last, coming out narrowly on top. With Sprinter Sacre – on parade again – out of the equation, the pair will be among the major contenders for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. They may only be keeping the seat warm, though, for Altior. Nicky Henderson’s gelding remains a hotpot for the Arkle after a second workmanlike novice chase win in the Henry VIII Novice Chase. Altior beat Charbel by six lengths in a rare case of two Irish- and Flat-bred animals contesting a major jumps race.

There were still more than enough French imports on show on either side of the Irish Sea. Aintree’s two big chases, the Becher and Grand Sefton, over the National fences, went respectively to Vieux Lion Rouge and As de Mee, both French-breds. Vieux Lion Rouge, seventh in this year’s Aintree spectacular, came late and fast under Tom Scudamore to get the Becher on the line for the David Pipe team.

As de Mee, ridden by Sean Bowen for Paul Nicholls, is jointly owned by the Stewart family of Big Buck’s fame and Dame Judy Dench, who when work allows, likes an evening at Sandown. I’m sure the next time she goes to Esher, she’ll love the newly-enlarged and improved owners’ room, just in time for Peter Jensen’s takeover as Chairman.

The best story from Aintree though was the excellent first post-wind-op effort of Many Clouds who impressed in the Betfred-sponsored Listed Chase over 3m1f. He was well on top at the finish and the Oliver Sherwood-trained 2015 National winner will be the one to beat again next April.

In Ireland yesterday, the potential state of things to come where Willie Mullins is concerned was brutally revealed when Apple’s Jade, his wide-margin Aintree Juvenile Hurdle winner, now with Elliott, brought to an end the winning run of 2016 Mares’ Hurdle champion, Vroum Vroum Mag. In ten previous starts for Mullins, shared between hurdles and fences, Mag had been unbeaten, but Apple’s Jade showed great resilience to hold her off by a short head in the Hattons Grace Hurdle.

Other notable winners there were Landofhopeandglory, completing a hat-trick for Joseph O’Brien in the Juvenile Hurdle; and Airlie Beach, who made it seven out of seven for Mullins in the Royal Bond Hurdle, in which Ruby Walsh chose fourth-placed Penhill. Airlie Beach won once last year in a bumper. He made his hurdles debut in mid-July and less than five months later has made it six-in-a-row over jumps with this smart performance. Bapaume, second to Landofhopeandglory in the Juvenile Hurdle, looks one to follow.

Amanda Perrett is one of Alan Spence’s trainers and she supplied him with three 2016 successes with the handicapper Frozen Force. Amanda and husband Mark, a high-class and stylish jockey in his riding days, always enjoy the occasional foray over jumps and at Huntingdon they sent out the former Juddmonte-owned Glaring to win first time at 33-1.

Glaring’s 2016 campaign on the Flat since his 50,000gns acquisition from Prince Khalid Abdullah, a long-standing owner with the stable, was modest. But considering he started with a rating of 108 based on French placed form in Group company, dropping to 93, it seems hard to understand his price of 33-1 in a novice hurdle. Spencey was there and I bet he backed it: after all it was his weekend!

Monday Musings: Noteworthy Gallic Raiders

Thirty-six Mondays ago, I was thinking about giving Dan Skelton a call, writes Tony Stafford. At the time, Raymond Tooth had a couple of pretty ordinary jumpers in the yard and they were both being prepared for a return after a midwinter break. In the end I decided not to.

Later that afternoon I was looking through the results and noticed that he’d sent two horses totally unheralded to Enghien – his first runners as a trainer in France – and they had both won. A case of lightning striking twice, you might say. The fact that one, a three-year-old debutante called Mont Lachaud could start at almost 19-1 and win a €24k first prize by 14 lengths was extraordinary.

But then the more experienced Shelford, having his first run almost a year on from his fifth place in the 2015 County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, also collected a big pot – in his case €28,800. To do so, and by 20 lengths at more than 14-1, defied belief.

A fiver double would have been nice – around £1,500 – but the fact that Dan, Harry and everyone at Lodge Farm could even countenance such a spectacularly successful raid, was the most impressive element to my mind. It ranks up there with Gordon Elliott’s first Grand National winner when he’d hardly even had a runner in his native Ireland. That was before dad Nick Skelton’s Rio gold medal, too.

Shelford might have been sent on to a second County Hurdle attempt carrying the penalty if he’d had the misfortune of being in a different yard, but instead he went back to Enghien 44 days later and won again, this time less extravagantly in terms of distance and odds, but with €40,800 in the bank. It came almost as a shock when in a third French foray, he and Harry Skelton were foiled by a nose at Auteuil in late June, €20,400 providing reasonable consolation.

Mont Lachaux has also undergone a return trip, again to Auteuil, where he met some of the better early domestic juveniles, finishing a close third in a well-contested affair.

Why, you ask, do I choose today to rehash all that rigmarole? Well, if you believe in lightning striking twice, twice, then go along to your local betting shop – or maybe Racing UK or Attheraces will be up to speed - and watch the 1.25 (local 2.25) and 2.25 (local 3.25) races from Enghien. I’ll be taking close attention at Newmarket sales.

Dan Skelton has sent back both March’s winners for today’s fixture. Their three aggregate victories all came on officially “very soft” ground. Today, they will encounter “collant a lourd” – holding to heavy, which should be right up their boulevard.

Each is aiming at a Grade 3 prize of €60k to the winner and runs again over the identical distance, just under two miles for the juvenile; two miles, three furlongs for Shelford. Expectations for the latter will not have been diminished by the excellent fettle of the stable’s other high-class hurdlers, North Hill Harvey collecting £56k in Cheltenham’s Greatwood Hurdle on Sunday last week and Ch’Tibello earning £61k in Haydock’s Betfair Price Rush Hurdle on Saturday.

**

Saturday’s big prize at Haydock, run on much heavier ground than might have been expected a couple of weeks back when trainers were crying out for rain, provided an ideal comeback opportunity for 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Coneygree. Coincidentally, because of his helpful pacemaking under Richard Johnson, it brought an equally satisfactory third Betfair Chase success for the seemingly evergreen and ever-improving Cue Card for the unstoppable Tizzards.

While not quite in the Gordon Elliott or Willie Mullins situation of having multiple options for almost every major race, especially in Ireland, Colin Tizzard could have one impossible choice to make, almost in the “which is your favourite child” degree of difficulty.

Cue Card’s winning at Haydock means all he’ll need to do to qualify for the available £1 million bonus is to add Kempton’s King George VI Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. As trainer’s son, Joe, said at Ascot on Saturday, “no one else can win it!” The snag is that if the bonus is still on come March, one of the bigger obstacles for Cue Card’s winning it is the stable’s own Thistlecrack, more likely to go there than challenge for a second World Hurdle, but possibly more likely to run in the RSA than either of those.

A few years back, one now defunct betting exchange formulated a similar bonus for three equivalent major hurdle races, the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and the Champion Hurdle. Punjabi won the first of them – rerouted to Wetherby – but fell when looking the probable winner two out at Kempton. Had he stood up, his Champion Hurdle chance, when clearly less fancied than stablemate Binocular, might have been taken more seriously.

Of course, had he won at Kempton, would he then have gone on to Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle, when frankly he disappointed and possibly been less fit and prepared for the big day? When I saw Punjabi in his paddock in Shropshire the other week, he was still reminding us that it was he that won the big one almost eight years ago.

They don’t often come back, so it was great to see Sire De Grugy collect another big prize off top weight at Ascot. It was almost as though Gary Moore had whispered into his ear that Sprinter Sacre was out of the way, so maybe it was time for him to come to the fore again.

Cue Card, Sire De Grugy and to a lesser extent Coneygree, served notice last weekend that the enthusiasts who follow jumping in preference to the comparatively ephemeral Flat racing code of the sport, have more familiar names to latch on to every winter than their counterparts.

All three senior pros, interestingly, are with connections and indeed stables not totally in the top bracket, although Gary Moore could hardly have more influence on the sport than through his family with Ryan, Jamie, Josh and their media-involved sister Hayley, while Tizzard is rapidly moving towards the top six jumping stables in the UK, helped by some new bigger investors.

Some of the big Irish cards are worth watching, often on Sundays, but with smallish fields at Punchestown yesterday when there were three Gigginstown horses in each of the first two Graded races (five and then six runners) and three more for Mullins in the five-runner Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle, it’s sometimes hard to match the enthusiasm of the Attheraces presenters. Yesterday’s fog at the track which blotted out much of the action, didn’t help the entertainment value either.

Meanwhile at Cork, the other Irish meeting yesterday, the weather was contrastingly lovely but everyone else had to scrap for the left-overs with fields of 24, 15, 14, 12 and 18 lining up for the first five events. If they think it is hard now competing against Mullins, Elliott, Meade and the rest, imagine how tough it will become when Joseph Patrick O’Brien fully gets his feet under the jumping table.

Monday Musings: The Globetrotters

When I reluctantly trudged into the office even earlier than usual this morning – clocks-back sleep lag – my idea of the lead topic was the victory first time out of the Sam Sangster-owned Giovanni Battistta (John the Baptist to you) at Newmarket on Friday.

The son of Clodovil – probably named after the Brazilian fashion designer, then television presenter and politician – showed great raw talent in outpointing a well-backed Godolphin newcomer with the rest five lengths and more away.

Where was Sam? He was admirably taking his mum to lunch in London and smiling away while he did, at the anticipation of all those bids from Hong Kong. He’s truly his father’s son.

But I’ll leave Sam with his picture of HK dollars, especially with a devalued pound, and reflect once again on the Cesarewitch, the form of which is working out amazingly well. Did you notice that Star Rider, eighth at Newmarket three weeks earlier, came back there on Friday and easily won the two-mile handicap by four lengths at 9-2 for Sweet Selection’s trainer Hughie Morrison?

On Saturday it was the turn of Tony Martin’s Golden Spear, a fast-finishing fifth at HQ who went on to win the ultra-competitive Leopardstown October Handicap, also two miles, at 7-1. The same day Ian Williams’ Blue Rambler, sixth in the Cesarewitch, easily won a handicap hurdle at Wetherby after being well backed into 11-8 favouritism to do so.

Martin will be supplying one of the best-fancied European challengers for tomorrow morning’s lavishly-endowed Emirates Melbourne Cup. His Heartbreak City, four-length winner of the Ebor back in August and, typically for the trainer, unraced since, receives 7lb from joint-top weight Big Orange and must be a big threat.

Among his closest victims that August afternoon were Shrewd, Martin stablemate Quick Jack (a big winner since at Leopardstown), Oriental Fox (won at Pontefract) and Godolphin’s Oceanographer, who was seventh.

Oceanographer is one of three Charlie Appleby stayers to win in Australia in recent weeks. He has made the cut, in part thanks to a 3lb penalty for his victory in the Lexus Stakes over a mile and a half of the Cup course at Flemington. That was only his second run since the Ebor and followed hard on his effort ten days earlier in the Geelong Cup, third behind stable-companion Qewy, whose 2lb extra for that win also secured his Melbourne Cup slot.

Francis of Assisi meanwhile was victorious in the Bendigo Cup, but does not appear in the final 24. Wicklow Brave, whose trainer Willie Mullins was second last year with Max Dynamite, is here fresh from his Irish St Leger defeat of Order of St George and the Godolphin hordes are further bolstered by the Saeed bin Suroor pair, Beautiful Romance and Secret Number, the latter winner of the Doonside Cup at Ayr on his only start of the season.

So there’s plenty for John Ferguson and his son James, who has been holding the fort Down Under in the build-up to the race, to enthuse about. Ferguson senior’s promise to shake up Godolphin in his new role brought as much sceptical amusement as conviction from this quarter, but when you consider carefully what he’s done over the past few years, you have to admire his energy, enthusiasm and above all professionalism.

A year ago he was well into the early part of his last – few knew at the time – season training jumpers for Bloomfields (Godolphin’s winter wear).  While no Cheltenham Festival winner was forthcoming, many important wins were achieved and the objective of giving once decent stayers another career-stretching option was in large part fulfilled. Then, when Ferguson revealed early in the year a reverse strategy whereby some of the better jumpers would be sent to Charlie Appleby, the head-shaking resumed.

Yet those three Australian wins included two ex-Ferguson inmates, Qewy and Francis of Assisi and, while the latter cannot figure, victory for any of the five blue-clad runners would be a resounding triumph for Sheikh Mohammed’s right hand man.

Soon after the announcement of the change in direction, 46 Ferguson inmates were catalogued for the Tattersall’s Ireland sale at Cheltenham on April 24 and in a masterpiece of preparation, all 46 turned up at Cheltenham and every one found a new owner. No reserves; no fiddles and no complaints afterwards. They sold for sums between 95,000gns for the once-raced Wenyerreadyfreddie (bought by Fergie for 41,000 Euro two years earlier) and in a single case a paltry 800gns, but mostly in the 10,000-50,000 bracket.

Commissioned, bought by Nick Bradley for 65,000gns, won the Queen Alexandra Stakes for Gordon Elliott less than two months later, while most recently Ian Williams, who bought three from the dispersal, has won twice with London Prize, for whom he paid 70k, as well as Blue Rambler who cost 48,000gns.

Four days on from Melbourne, the ever-dwindling band of UK-trained runners at the Breeders’ Cup will be flexing their muscles against the home team. Naturally Aidan O’Brien is sending plenty and it is probable that Europe’s sole venture into the uneven playing field of the dirt track will be his Arc heroine Found, in a career-defining attempt at the Classic and its big prize. The also-engaged Highland Reel is the main Ballydoyle hope in the mile and a half Turf race.

Sir Michael Stoute’s excellent season gets a couple of late chances for further lustre, but outside the O’Brien challenge, bolstered by one for Joseph, and a couple of runners for David O’Meara, it’s slim pickings.

Trainers know that there’s no point in looking at the money on offer in preference to the likelihood of bringing any home. Simon Crisford and Ralph Beckett have one each in the Juvenile Turf, Hugo Palmer has two options, Turf Sprint and Turf Mile, for Home oOf The Brave while Charlie Hills and Henry Candy (Limato) also look to the Mile race.

Tattersall’s at Newmarket have concluded business on the autumn part of their sales season and there was excellent trade at last week’s Horses in Training auction over four days, despite the ever-irritating and seemingly ever-increasing number of withdrawals.

Much of the success of this sale is that it attracts so many overseas buyers. It always frustrates when a horse you want to buy is withdrawn. The list of withdrawals is kept meticulously up to date by Tatts, but many of these happen after a trip from afar has already been funded.

My boss Ray Tooth said goodbye to Dutch Law (150,000gns) and Harry Champion (31,000gns), nice money for two home-bred geldings who’d also each won races both last year and this. Hughie Morrison and Hugo Palmer both deserve hearty thanks for their excellent handling of their careers and we hope the horses will do well in the next phase of their active lives.

Ray also made an acquisition, going along with Steve Gilbey’s hunch about Eve Johnson Houghton’s Cape Cross four-year-old gelding, Starcrossed. We were pleased to get the 13 furlong Flat winner for just 10,000gns and he has joined Dan Skelton, who described him as: “a lovely, big sort who should enjoy jumping”. Hope he’s right.