Posts

Monday Musings: Travel Headaches

What’s an acceptable time for an aircraft delay, asks Tony Stafford. Mrs S is returning tonight from an unexpected but necessary trip to Moscow and her ETA at Heathrow Terminal 5 is approximately identical to the anticipated arrival through Tattersalls Park Paddocks sales ring of the boss’s Stanhope.

So is it better to wish for baggage handlers or flight controllers to contrive an hour’s go-slow or hope that the 114 horses already scheduled to miss their date with destiny at Newmarket before lot 410 struts his stuff are supplemented still further?

Transport problems have been a feature of the past 24 hours and the small plane taking a number of jockeys and other interested parties to Paris for the two Criterium Group 1 races at Saint-Cloud had a quicker turn-around than was initially feared when the meeting was delayed and then abandoned with just a single claiming race concluded.

Cambridge Airport does not permit landings after dark, so on this first day of GMT after the clocks went back, there were some anxious moments as jockeys anticipated landing at Stansted with their cars languishing in the Cambridge car park. Depending on your point of view, all was well in the end, apart from the French owners’ and trainers’ protest which halted the action.

In the Doncaster press room on Saturday, I had a chat with Marcus Townend of the Daily Mail and the Mirror’s Dave Yates, who both had as much intention of going to France as going to the Moon. “It has to be today”, said Yates, talking of the Bobby Frankel Group 1 record that Aidan O’Brien was to break later in the day. “Then it’ll be a great story. If it goes on until tomorrow, it’s just a footnote”. Wise words, Dave.

Of course, the two journalists will have been busy yesterday packing for that highly desirable journalistic “tick” in San Diego for next weekend’s Breeders’ Cup. Wish I could be there, lads. One friend, Andrew Pasfield, would have shared in the general irritation at the abandonment of the mile and a quarter Criterium de Saint-Cloud race. Luminate, the unbeaten Highclere-owned filly in which he has a share, was thought to be the one feasible impediment to another O’Brien win.

Andrew, who was also in the Melody syndicate years back, had asked in the days leading up to the race whether I knew what Aidan’s team was likely to be. When it became a strong-looking quartet including Nelson, Delano Roosevelt and Newmarket ten furlong winner Kew Gardens, he feared the worst, but the actual outcome was even more devastating.

Andrew was unable to be in Paris as his flight to San Diego was timed – in the manner of Mrs S’s inconvenient scheduling – to leave London as the horses were due to arrive at the start at Saint-Cloud.

The other Criterium, the International, has been cut to seven furlongs from the one mile trip over which the boss’s French Fifteen won six years ago. Highclere were out in force that day, too, cheering on Bonfire, who got going late and finished third. They and many observers thought themselves unlucky, but it was hard to deny the winner, who’d come from even further back under Thierry Thulliez.

There was an airport story involved there also as French Fifteen’s trainer Nicolas Clement had not expected to run the colt in the race when he arranged a promotional trip to China. So he was still in the departure lounge at the airport – not sure which city – prior to his return home when FF was galloping to victory.

Your first 30 days for just £1

My own travel plans that day were more than fraught. I’d arranged with my pal Roger Hales, Mr Reliable to you, to drive me and he was to meet me in the car park outside the house. At 5 a.m. I called to check he’d got there and received the rather unexpected news that he was 40 miles away on the side of the M11, broken down and with no credit on his phone – he was getting that corrected the following day!

So instead of having a bit of a snooze on the way over I had to drive and when we won, needed to enlist the help of a most obliging young lady from the Saint-Cloud office to lug the massive and very handsome trophy back to the car. Several hours and strictly no celebratory drinks later, said trophy was delivered to the boss’s house where it remains on proud display to this day.

French Fifteen, very sensibly, was sold a few days later and went on to finish inches behind Camelot in the following year’s 2,000 Guineas. He had his first crop runners this year and has had only a handful of winners, including one at the provincial track of Agen yesterday, over an extended nine furlongs.

It appears they share the characteristics of French Kiss, Ray’s home-bred colt and the only representative of his sire to have run in the UK – three runs unplaced with the maybe optimistic view that he might win next year, but clearly over a trip.

Camelot looked to have made a slow enough start to his stud career, but there’s been a flurry of talented winners lately. While the son of Montjeu might never be a Galileo, he’s certainly looking a more than decent prospect. How it must have irritated the Coolmore team when he came up just short in the St Leger- especially after the involvement of the winner Encke in the Godolphin “steroids” Al Zarooni scandal the following year. Otherwise he would have matched his illustrious Ballydoyle predecessor Nijinsky with a Triple Crown.

Maybe Saxon Warrior has the tools for such an achievement. He certainly showed all of speed, stamina and determination – the minimum triple requirement for mile, 12 and 14.6 furlong superiority – in winning the Racing Post Trophy on Saturday.

The timing of the turning back of the clocks gave Alan Spence the opportunity to win the first race of winter at Aintree with his £205k purchase On The Blind Side, who outbattled an 80-1 shot in a debut victory the owner described as “perfect”. The 2-1 about what the stable believed to be a certainty apparently was acceptable, too.

One of Alan’s more pressing decisions, following the multi-million sale of Profitable to Godolphin last year, was which of the many offers on the table to accept for Priceless, his other top Clive Cox-trained sprinter. The last I heard, he was favouring a possible foal-share deal involving Dubawi. With John Ferguson out of the picture, Darley better get a decent negotiator involved. Once Alan concludes that deal, he’ll be offering his services to Mrs May and David Davis to sort Brexit. They could do worse than take him up on it.

- TS

Monday Musings: On An Ascendant Arc

Well, in the end I got there after all, and very Happily I must say, writes Tony Stafford. A friend came up with a very cheap – on a par with that bargain basement price for a 3 a.m. Eurotunnel set-off time – flight so, while 6.55 a.m. from Luton was still early enough, there was a compensatory upscale journey home.

So I got to see Enable in her finest hour and at the same time could marvel at the continuing excellence of the Ballydoyle team. Michael Tabor never tires of saying: “You can’t beat pedigree”. It certainly helps, as with the Coolmore team, if you control most of the good broodmares.

Before the Arc but after the Grand Criterium Jean-Luc Lagardere, won by the filly Happily with a rare show of stamina to outbattle the boys, Aidan O’Brien explained the astonishing dominance of the 2014 and 2015 crop of females he has the privilege of training, saying: “Most of our best mares have been getting fillies. Once they start producing more colts, it will change again”.

Certainly Happily qualifies as coming from one of the “blue hen” mares. You’resothrilling won the Cherry Hinton Stakes at Newmarket’s July meeting, and as a daughter of Storm Cat provided a perfect accompaniment to the qualities of Galileo. Admittedly in horse breeding, such an outcome cannot be accurately predicted – at least until it happens. The “lads” have now brought five examples of the mating to the racetrack and Happily, the first filly to win the Grand Criterium for 30 years (unless my quick scan of the names since 1987 failed to unearth another), shares those genes with Classic winners Gleneagles and Marvellous. It cannot be long odds that Happily joins them in the Classic club.

There’s no question that 2017 will go down in racing history as the year of the female. Not only has Enable, in the manner of such developing greats as Sea the Stars and Golden Horn, continued to progress through the year, she reached her peak on the most important day in her career.

Yesterday at Chantilly also provided a reminder that in the early part of the season – the Epsom Classics come within seven weeks of the spiritual start of the Flat season at the Craven meeting – Enable was not a stand-out contender, outside of the Gosden stable at any rate, for Oaks success.

There, just as in the 1,000 Guineas, it was Rhododendron that carried most racegoers’ sentiment – and cash – and for the second time she failed, as behind Winter in the Newmarket race.

A mental replay of the Investec Oaks offers an image of Rhododendron and Enable coming clear but, at the ten furlong point, few observers would have been favouring the Gosden filly. Then the daughter of Nathaniel (son of Galileo, of course) kicked in with her stamina and within a few strides the balance was tilted.

That Oaks image might have served us well when, dropped to those same ten furlongs for the Prix de l’Opera, Rhododendron reasserted her juvenile superiority over stablemate Hydrangea at the Pari-Mutuel odds of 9.2-1. Odds on against Enable, yet she was allowed to go off at a massive price here. She’s come back from injury sustained in the French Oaks; coaxed to race fitness in the Matron under Beggy behind Hydrangea and now rehabilitated at the top of the “without Enable” hierarchy.

Watching her closely as she walked serenely in seemingly never-ending circles around the over-populated winner’s circle, it was impossible not to be struck by her beauty. But the Galileo’s also have that will to win, exemplified by both her and Hydrangea, and earlier by Happily, who looked only the third-most likely as she entered the final furlong yesterday.

The victories of Happily and Rhododendron added to the two Newmarket Group 1 victories the previous day of Clemmie (Cheveley Park) and US Navy Flag (Middle Park), bringing O’Brien to 22 Group 1 wins for the season, within an approachable three of the late Bobby Frankel’s record haul in a calendar year at the top level.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Clemmie, Churchill’s full-sister, is also from a Storm Cat mare, while US Navy Flag is a son of War Front out of one of the host of Galileo mares around the place.

War Front was intended to share that function with Scat Daddy, but the latter’s untimely death in the winter of 2015 balked that plan.

I believe Aidan regards Clemmie, going away at the end of the Cheveley Park, as the main 1,000 Guineas contender – until, like London buses another half dozen come along! – with Happily as the principal Oaks contender at this far-off stage.

One of the less-frequently mentioned, but a dual Group 1 heroine herself, is Roly Poly, and it seems as though she will be deputed to add to the tally in Saturday’s Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket. She was just ahead of Rhododendron, behind Hydrangea, in the Matron Stakes and that will have served to sharpen her after a short break following her midsummer exertions.

Arc Day reaffirmed that when his temperament, as at York, can be controlled then Battaash is a superlative sprinter as he showed with a dominant display in the Prix de l’Abbaye over the quirky Chantilly 1,000 meters which starts not far from the stands and concludes somewhere in the forest.

With Group 1 winners Marsha, the 2016 Abbaye champion, and Profitable leading home the rest, but miles behind, this was a run of the highest quality and, as a gelding, there’s no doubt he’ll be back for more next year, granted fitness and temperament holding up. We need a sprinter to rate as highly as the best of the milers and middle-distance horses.

It was an amazing day, when the French, with no winners, were completely obliterated by the British and Irish, and it ended with a memorable Foret triumph for Martin Meade and Aclaim.

The veteran Newmarket trainer, stallion and stud owner had provided the 50-1 winner Dolphin Vista and fourth home Chelsea Lad in a Betfred Cambridgeshire which showed why major bookmakers like putting their name to 35-runner handicaps.

The first three home on Saturday were allowed to start at 50-1, 100-1 and 50-1, combining for a 90,000-1 Trifecta. Just my luck, I had them the wrong way round… in my dreams!

Monday Musings: Tony The Greek

It’s funny how certain comments play on the subconscious, writes Tony Stafford. Many years ago, John O’Carroll, a Daily Telegraph racing desk colleague, with a touch of the gipsy about some of his early life in South Yorkshire, having offered to read my palm, looked at my right hand and refused to tell me what it told him. All he would say was: “You’ll live a long life”.

He’s well on the way to getting that right, as was the senior clerk in my first job at the National Provincial Bank on White Hart Lane, Tottenham, who habitually called me “Acorn Head”. When I recently had the wispy remains of a once-healthy head of hair trimmed off at the behest of ‘Er Indoors, that frivolous observation also showed an element of accuracy.

Then there was Richard Hannon senior, after one of my early appearances in what was to prove a short-lived TV career on the old Racing Channel. “You always look so uneasy,” he opined, and he was right. Uneasy it was, unlike R. Hannon junior, who is one of the more comfortable interviewees among racing people.

One of the less believable observations to my mind came from Derek Thompson, when, coming upon myself chatting with veteran owner-breeder Jack Panos, probably at the July Course, he declared: “You’re brothers!”

But Tommo was not as far offline as I thought. Jack, a Greek-Cypriot, does share a part similarity of heritage with me as my mother was Greek from Egypt where Dad met her during the war.  Jack’s family name is Panayiotou. My mother’s father’s surname was Meimaris, but uncannily, his half-brother’s was Panayiotou also. And I learned at the Raceform Reunion earlier this year from Willie Lefebve, who organised it – Tommo was there too – that I was always known as Tony the Greek. That WAS news to me.

Last year, the boss had his eye on a daughter of Helmet at Book 3 of the Newmarket sale and deputed me with Micky Quinn, who may have recommended her, to try to buy her. The bidding was relayed back to base, but a telephonic irregularity caused confusion and Mick stopped at 30 grand. “What happened?” roared the would-be owner. “It sold”, said Mick. “You …..! You’re both fired”.

It fell to me to pour emollient words onto the flames and remind the boss he’d been advised more than once of a Helmet filly available on the Mark Johnston site for a number of weeks since the trainer bought her at Doncaster. “You’d better go and see her tomorrow, then,” barked the boss.

As we had a runner – Harry Champion – at Redcar the next day, Middleham wasn’t an inconvenient stop-off point and they quickly organised bringing the filly in from the field. One of the things that appealed when she first appeared on the Johnston list was that she was a daughter of Anosti, a Jack Panos homebred who finished a good second when Ray’s Exclamation won the sales race at Newmarket nine years earlier.

The staff, headed by Jock Bennett, brought her in and apologised that she was hardly going to look like a sales entry with all the muck from the paddock. But Jock told me she’d already been through stalls and, a big filly, was around 460 kilos. Now sending me along to inspect a horse is rather like asking David Blunkett to judge a beauty contest, but having ascertained she was a well-developed filly with the requisite number of limbs (four), heads and tails (one of each), gave the go-ahead, in a rare example of Executive decision.

In the spring she came to hand quickly and when in mid to late April she galloped well with two other early types and beat them, all was serene. Then came the bombshell. “She pulled up lame after the gallop”, reported chief on-site vet John Martin, “and we discovered a chip in a joint in a hind leg.”

There was no messing. Within a couple of days, she’d been transported down to Newmarket Equine Hospital and operated on by Ian Wright, the renowned surgeon. Within days she was back walking – no box rest needed, thankfully – and was in faster work by last month.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Mark and Charlie Johnston were in Deauville on Monday last week, beginning the next cycle of sales acquisitions, when they pinpointed Goodwood as the possible starting point for the filly now called Tarnhelm. Ray Tooth has a bit of a classical musical bent and Tarnhelm is the name of the helmet in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, apparently.

Imagine my surprise 10 months after we bought Tarnhelm, I was about to leave York races on Thursday when the phone rang. “Tony, it’s Jack!” At first I didn’t recognise the voice or number and the line was ordinary, amid the after-racing hubbub. But then I twigged and started by saying how sorry I was about his son <George Michael>, to which Jack said he’d been crying for nine months, but is starting to get a little better.

I incorrectly thought he was in Cyprus, from what he said, and he added he’d like to come to Goodwood to see her. Still believing he was overseas, I said, “Look we’re not sure how she’ll go and she missed so much time. Why not wait to see how she does and if it’s good, come with me next time.”

Well, Tarnhelm ran an excellent second behind the Mick Channon-trained Tricksy Spirit, a Lethal Force filly with two runs behind her. Tarnhelm showed plenty of speed to make the running until inside the last furlong, and once the winner and John Egan swept past on the outside, she rallied under P J McDonald and comfortably secured runner-up spot.

Jack was on straight after the race, delighted at the run and revealed that the filly’s yearling half-brother, by Sepoy is in the sales in the coming weeks and there is also a full-sister to her back at the stud.

I had a day at Kinsale stud in Shropshire yesterday for the Open Day and Rachael and Richard Kempster had approaching 100 guests. It always amazes me how quickly the yearlings develop and Ray’s seven (colts by Pour Moi, Mayson and Mount Nelson and fillies by Nathaniel, Pour Moi, Mayson and Monsieur Bond) all looked in rude health. The next task is to allocate them to trainers.

Winners have been slow to arrive in 2017, and so far Stanhope is the only contributor. He ran his best race yet when runner-up to Andrew Balding’s revitalised Rely On Me at Newmarket, drawing three lengths clear of the rest and earning a highest-yet Timeform rating of 92.

Despite her spring setback, Tarnhelm was the first of the Class of ’17 to run, but Clive Cox has entered Nelson River (Mount Nelson – I Say) for Sandown on Friday and he’s jocked up on the BHA web site.

I took particular interest in Nelson River’s two Nathaniel siblings (yearling and foal) on my visit, being reminded as ever that I Say is by Eclipse winner Oratorio out of a Sadler’s Wells mare.  Enable, of course, is by Nathaniel out of a Sadler’s Wells mare.  You can dream, Ray.

Monday Musings: Fate’s Fickle Fingers

Sometimes when watching a televised race, some of the late action gets missed as producers hone in too tightly on the principals, writes Tony Stafford. On Saturday night, the Arlington Park coverage lingered on the winning line just long enough to catch a spectacular, but horrific, moment when a stricken Permian faltered and fell and William Buick was projected somersaulting over his head.

As I was switching forward and back to my normal Saturday night viewing of yet another overseas series – into its final stage – I didn’t keep up fully with the aftermath, save being pretty certain that the brave Permian’s career was at a tragic end. But until the following morning, I was unaware of Buick’s injury to a vertebra. I’ve known William and his father Walter for a long time and hope and trust that his recovery will be swift.

It befell Charlie Johnston to be on hand to accept family responsibility in the midst of a season of hitherto unparalleled success for the Middleham stable. Permian had been the standard bearer, winning the Dante and King Edward VII before failing by an agonising nose in the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.

He’d only been uncompetitive previously in the Investec Derby, but for once not because of unsuitability to the track, over which he previously collected the Derby Trial. Here he was beaten a long way from home, the serious leg injury which caused the fall proving an undeserved and premature end to a brilliant career.

The Johnston stable has been in the midst of an exceptional run, most times getting somewhere around 18 wins in the fortnightly portions as reported daily in the Racing Post trainers’ feature.

Among the three most active stables – the others being Richard Fahey and Richard Hannon – Johnston has been winning at a considerably higher rate, both in percentage wins to run terms, and on the winners to horses standpoint.

So far 156 victories have been achieved from 914 runs, with 94 individual winners from 184 horses and a domestic prizemoney tally of £2,333,676. The stable’s best of 216 was managed in both 2009 and 2013, while the most prizemoney of £2,992,112 came in 2014. Both those optimum figures, wins and money, must be within reach given the overall well-being of the team.

To compare and contrast, Fahey stands on 127 wins from 1088 runs with 100 individual winners from 261 horses. His prizemoney of £2,834,692 has been swelled by the exploits of such as Ribchester.

Hannon’s 126 wins from 846 runs – 96 individual winners from 227 horses – and domestic earnings of £1,926,341 leaves him some way back in third among the three biggest strings. John Gosden always operates on a more selective level. His 78 wins have been earned from only 385 runs and from 62 individual horses of 153 to run. He has earned £3,137,442 and is in line to beat his previous best of £4,241,991 in 2014, given that more mammoth prizes are likely to fall to his champion middle-distance filly Enable.

A cursory look at the official handicap marks of the 84 horses at present in action in Gosden’s stable explains the high conversion rate from runners into cash. Of 84 with official marks, 20 are rated above 110; 20 more in the bracket 100-109. A further 22 are in the 90-99 category; 16 stand between 80 and 89, with only four in the 70’s and just two in the 60’s.

Your first 30 days for just £1

In the face of such an overall high standard from Gosden, and the greater numerical opposition from Fahey and Hannon, Johnston’s achievement of winning so many races already, with a stable of wide-ranging abilities, is outstanding.

The Raymond Tooth team can hardly claim 2017 to be a vintage year in either money or winning terms so far, but there was more than a chink of light from the Mick Quinn-trained Stanhope when he came right back to the form of his Newmarket late June win when a length runner-up to the progressive Dark Power at Leicester yesterday.

That was creditable as Stanhope had been raised to 82 (from 74) after beating the subsequent dual winner Hart Stopper by three lengths on the July Course. Fran Berry, in the saddle on both good efforts, had been unavailable when he trailed home last after losing a shoe in between the Berry runs. He thinks the gelding has another pay-day in him.

Berry was also on the Quinn team when Great Hall – once owned by the boss – fulfilled stable expectations (backed at 20-1 by the trainer in the week, by all accounts) in the Shergar Cup on Saturday, a first Ascot success for Quinny. I know Tony Hind, Berry’s agent had been hoping for a real run at the jockeys’ title this year, but the early-season breach from his retainer with Ralph Beckett – and Silvestre’s ridiculous run of success – disrupted those ambitions.

With Buick likely to be out of action for a while it will be interesting to see developments in the Charlie Appleby branch of Godolphin, but whoever gets the majority of those rides, big-race opportunities will spread further, and after enjoying the publicity of winning the Shergar Cup Saddle, Fran Berry will be in the frame for his share.

A disappointing Arlington Million meeting for the Aidan O’Brien – Ryan Moore team, headed up by Deauville’s close third in the big race, did not dampen spirits for long, as they collected a Curragh treble yesterday.

Sioux Nation, contesting favouritism with the Gordon Elliott-trained Beckford in the Phoenix Stakes, got home half a length in front to give the trainer his 16th win in the race – a clear case for a referral to the Irish Monopolies Commission.

That followed the encouraging first win of the $3million Keeneland yearling Mendelssohn, like Sioux Nation, a son of the late lamented Scat Daddy, the cost of whose early death at the start of the 2016 stud season, is being acutely realised. When Washington DC ended his run of near misses by taking the Group 3 sprint later in the card, he completed a rare O’Brien treble. Washington DC (by Zoffany) made it three wins in a day, not unusual, except that none of them was for a Galileo!

As for the Tooth team, at least four trainers are reporting imminent action from a hitherto unraced juvenile. I will probably have news of an intended debutant this time next week, but whether we can expect first-time success is quite another thing.

Monday Musing: Making Hayes

Today is not the first time I’ve felt obliged to moan about the difficulty I have in prising information out of the Racing Post statistics data bank, writes Tony Stafford. The new version has all but defeated my ham-fisted attempts. Bring back the old one, please.

Why today, you might ask? It’s all about an image from yesterday’s racing from Galway, which prompted me to undertake a little research. Trainer Brian Ellison and jockey Chris Hayes celebrated a second successive win for the Ellison-trained Dream Walker in the valuable Ahonoora Handicap, feature race on the Festival’s seventh and final day.

Ellison also employed Hayes on the horse for a similar last-gasp win a year ago, and was making it a personal four in a row as Baraweez, caught close home yesterday in an Ellison 1-2-3 completed by Be Kool, had won the two previous runnings, under respectively Donnacha O’Brien and Colm O’Donoghue.

At this point I wish to declare an interest. Back in early 2005, I was at the sales at Newmarket and sat down for an enjoyable coffee with former jockeys and, at the time, trainers Declan Gillespie and Charlie Swan. They both contended that Ruby Walsh was the best rider of either code they’d ever seen, but when I quizzed Declan, whom I’ve known well since his days as Jim Bolger’s stable jockey, as to who he rated the best young apprentice at that time, he had no hesitation in nominating Chris Hayes.

Hayes rode eight winners as a 16/17-year-old in 2004 after a successful pony racing career and was still short of his 18th birthday when he turned up at Hamilton station (if memory serves – it might have been Glasgow Central!) to await onward transportation to the track on April 25 2005.

His Irish weighing room nickname, then and now, was Chesney, as he had more than a passing facial similarity to actor Sam Aston, aged ten at the time and the face of Chesney Brown in Coronation Street. Hayes looked barely twelve when he rocked up in Scotland and first impressions were that it was unlikely he would fulfil Gillespie’s expectations - except that it was Declan.

We had two rides for him, the first on a filly named Ekaterina, named in honour of my future wife. The horse did not live up to even the modest expectations we had of her and after trailing home seventh of eight under Hayes, had only one more run before leaving Wilf Storey’s stable. Dimple Chad, once with Luca Cumani, performed a little better in fourth in his race, but again had no long-term future and was also soon on the way out.

The most significant part of that day, though, was a conversation I had with Brian Ellison, suggesting he might want to employ Chris Hayes when he needed a decent claimer. He watched his two rides and took the opportunity a couple of weeks later when Chris was coming over again to ride Wilf’s handicapper Singhalongtasveer in a Beverley claimer.

That was the second race on the card and Wilf’s horse ran an excellent close second to a Martin Pipe winning favourite, ridden by Alan Munro. By that time, though, Hayes had already been in the winner’s spot after partnering Ellison’s 50-1 shot Seifi to a battling success in the two-mile handicap, going unbacked in this disbelieving quarter.

Twelve years on, the pair still team up occasionally, but of Ellison’s nine Galway runners over the week, Hayes came in for just the ride on Dream Walker.

I’ve still yet to go to Galway because of its direct competition with Goodwood and I’m sure there would have been plenty of those at the normally Glorious Sussex track who would have traded places with their Irish counterparts.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Luckily, I missed Sussex Stakes day, just like Churchill, whose connections, wisely I believe, chose not to subject him to the deluge that turned the ground to heavy. Ribchester, odds-on in the O’Brien horse’s absence, will have had no knock to his reputation after his brave near miss against Jim and Fitri Hay’s veteran Here Comes When in the feature in what was a great week for trainer Andrew Balding.

Instead I was up at Redcar for the belated debut of the boss’s three-year-old filly Betty Grable, who started her career in a quite competitive maiden over seven furlongs. This daughter of Delegator was always immature when with Hugo Palmer as a juvenile, indeed the trainer told me more than once that she was the typical model of a backward horse, with the back end much higher than the front.

With that conformational issue came occasional minor lameness and when she left Newmarket for Kinsale stud, the prognoses were far from optimistic. Eventually she went the way of a long line of Ray Tooth under-achievers, up country to Muggleswick, and the rather rugged grasslands of Wilf’s sheep farm.

Luckily, the Storeys detected after a while she had gravel foot and once they released the stinky build-up of ancient blood from the hoof, she immediately came sound and has never had a lame step since. From minute one she showed talent up the demanding Storey hill, and her debut, returned to Ray’s colours – “she was too good for me to take”, said Wilf – resulted in a promising sixth, a couple of lengths off third.

Of the 13 fillies that took part last week, only two are eligible for another seven furlong maiden there this Saturday, a median auction with a £28,000 ceiling. The only other qualifier is the filly that finished a tailed-off last at 250-1 on Wednesday.

Hopefully Paul Mulrennan, who especially liked the fact that despite an eight-minute wait in the stalls while three recalcitrant rivals refused to go in - she stood stock still, never budging, yet came out running - will be available. She’ll probably get much further in time – she is half-sister to the decent two-miler Gabriel’s King – but this race was too enticing to miss.

For me the highlight of Goodwood was the performance of Winter in the Nassau Stakes. Coming as it did just 24 hours after the trauma of Churchill’s late withdrawal from his objective, it must have taken plenty of soul-searching on the part of Aidan and the owners to let her take her chance on what was pretty much heavy ground.

The fact that she came through it in her first attempt against her elders on that going and over a new extended trip, spoke volumes for her ability and constitution. Pre-race scrutiny revealed she has done very well physically for her short break following her earlier Group 1 treble exploits. Those big feet would have helped her cope with mud, too!

In winning both English and Irish 1,000 Guineas and then the Coronation Stakes, she already has a unique set of big-race wins. This latest triumph must make it easier for the boys to accept that Minding is no longer around to win more Group 1’s. I would not be surprised if Winter were to exceed Minding’s tally of seven by the time she finishes.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Almost Autumn, But First A Glorious Winter

Don’t look, but it’s August - or will be tomorrow, writes Tony Stafford. Darker mornings and what used to be Glorious Goodwood, but now is officially the Qatar Goodwood Festival, are upon us. I don’t believe Goodwood has ever started as late as August 1 and by the time we get to the weekend, autumn will almost be here.

It has been positively wintry the last few days, but there will not be a shred of discontent from the Coolmore/Ballydoyle contingent if Winter, the second-most predominant filly of her generation after the peerless Enable, should carry her successful run through Thursday’s Nassau Stakes.

Some people may be suited by the various switches to the Goodwood programme, but I fail to see why there is any benefit in moving the Nassau, a perfect counter-point to my mind to the cavalry charge of the Stewards’ Cup and the always-competitive consolation race which precedes it, to the Thursday.

The Goodwood Cup, traditionally staged on Thursday, goes forward a couple of days to the opening stage of the five days, but at least the Sussex Stakes remains on the Wednesday, so not too long to wait for Churchill’s attempt at rehabilitation against Barney Roy and Ribchester, a handy Godolphin double act.

It was hot enough when Churchill could finish only fourth behind his nearest 2,000 Guineas victim Barney Roy in Royal Ascot’s St James’s Palace Stakes – 93 degrees Fahrenheit to my recollection. People everywhere were complaining about the heat, so no wonder some of the horses might have under-performed and maybe that was Churchill’s major reason for a sub-standard effort.

I pass on a slightly amusing story. I was fortunate enough to be based in a box that day and, arriving early with Harry Taylor, had the chance of a leisurely cup of coffee in an otherwise deserted location. Coming inside, I suggested there was a nice breeze outside as I accepted the offer of a second cup. This was greeted with the news that I was sitting with a fan whirring full on right behind me.

The King George duly provided Enable with a third successive Group 1 romp after her Oaks and Irish Oaks successes and firmly propelled her to the top of all the middle-distance ratings, and rightly so. The irony of the result is that while everyone pointed to the fact that she was getting 14lb from the older colts, so success was always highly likely, only one other three-year-old, the Godolphin colt Benbatl, even tried to take advantage of that generous weight concession, in his case 11lb from his elders.

Benbatl had been fifth in the Derby behind the now retired Wings of Eagles and then narrowly won the Hampton Court Stakes at Royal Ascot in a close finish with the Aidan O’Brien-trained Orderofthegarter. His fifth place here was in keeping with those runs and suggested that others of his generation might also have made an impact.

O’Brien ran last year’s King George winner, Highland Reel, and that admirable horse’s full-brother Idaho, but the former was clearly – and as expected – hampered by the soft ground. Fourth place, some way behind his sibling and also Eclipse winner Ulysses, who was a gallant second, represented further testimony to his toughness in adverse conditions.

I also admired the fact that O’Brien apparently had no hesitation about running Highland Reel, never mind Idaho. The pair collected a joint £185,000 for their exertions after which Highland Reel can be rested for a time before more highly-remunerative world travel.

Enable was much too good for this group of colts and indeed the only time she has been beaten, it was her stable-mate Shutter Speed who crossed the line first at Newbury back in the spring. Shutter Speed is one of a handful of potentially-dangerous opponents for Winter on Thursday, as she returns for the first time since her close but weakening fourth in the Prix de Diane in June.

Your first 30 days for just £1

John Gosden also has So Mi Dar to make things interesting, while Nezwaat (who, like Enable, has a recent verdict over Rain Goddess), Queen’s Trust and Godolphin’s Wuheida are other likely runners.

Wuheida, unbeaten at two when she won the Prix Marcel Boussac on Arc day, made a spirited return to be runner-up to the tough Roly Poly at HQ, a performance which looks even better after that winner’s follow up in yesterday’s Prix Rothschild (Group 1) on the opening Sunday of Deauville’s summer meeting.

Last week, I put forward my friend Lew Day’s Raheen House as a potential St Leger winner. Whatever his fate there, Raheen House does have one unique distinction – he is the only male yet to finish ahead of Enable as he split the two Gosden fillies Shutter Speed and Enable in that Newbury race back in the spring.

The outstanding performance on the King George undercard was undoubtedly Nyaleti’s five-length demolition of the previously unbeaten Dance Diva in the Princess Margaret Juddmonte Stakes. Nyaleti had been comprehensively outrun, first by September in the Chesham Stakes at the Royal meeting and then, dropping back to six furlongs, by Clemmie in the Duchess of Cambridge Stakes at Newmarket’s July meeting, but got back on track here in devastating style.

Mark Johnston’s filly is clearly improving and as one pedigree student pointed out to me before and, with more energy after, the race, she probably benefited from the softer ground as her sire, Arch’s, and maternal grandsire Verglas’ produce are usually effective in the soft.

So one might think that the two Ballydoyle fillies that beat Nyaleti are the front-runners for next year’s 1,000 Guineas, but by all accounts you must think again. For hidden away last Thursday night in an otherwise anonymous Leopardstown card, which contained just the four Aidan O’Brien winners – all, incidentally, as Paul Smith might say : “In the purple and white” - was another juvenile who might be the best of the lot.

Running in the Group 3 Silver Flash Stakes, Happily, a full-sister to both Gleneagles and 2014 Irish 1,000 Guineas winner, Marvellous, stretched five lengths clear of her rivals and impressed Ryan Moore. As ever, the biggest task for the trainer will be to plan a path that maximises the potential of all these, and no doubt others to come later. Already it looks as though the English trainers will struggle to make much of an impact in the major juvenile fillies’ races, Johnston and Nyaleti apart.

One of the more interesting aspects of the still embryonic jumps season has been the fantastic run of form of the Dan Skelton stable, enjoyed in equal measure by his younger brother Harry. Both are already into the 40’s for the season and a treble at Uttoxeter on Sunday even had the distinction of achieving the almost impossible – beating an Olly Murphy favourite.

While still in his first month with a licence, Murphy, son of trainer Anabel and former assistant to Gordon Elliott, has won with eight of 15 jumps runners and three of nine on the Flat, for almost a 50% strike-rate.

If the BHA handicappers keep giving his horses ratings like the 47 (won off 50 even with Jamie Spencer’s 3lb overweight at Newcastle on Saturday) for Banff (100 jumps after his second at Stratford on his Murphy debut) or the 43 allotted to Gold Class (103 jumps after beating Banff in that race), then he’ll continue to thrive, even without the obvious ability he clearly has to call on. [In both cases, the mark was achieved before the horse arrived at Murphy’s yard – Ed.]

Monday Musings: Emerging into the uplands once more

Until three years ago, a fundamental part of my life involved getting up at 4 a.m. on a Thursday morning and driving the near-100 miles down to Manton for work morning at Brian Meehan’s stable, writes Tony Stafford. This evolved from wanting to be there principally to monitor the progress of the handful of Raymond Tooth’s horses stabled there in those days.

Over time, I had a more specialised involvement as work watcher and owner liaison, keeping a record of the work which gave a rare insight into the progress of all the horses in Brian’s care. It quickly became the favourite part of my week, the early start having its own reward.

Nowadays, it’s Monday and the writing of this column that revives that discipline and it’s with a degree of pleasure that I can record a revival in the Meehan fortunes this year.

For many years Brian worked with the agent Johnny McKeever in the recruitment particularly of yearlings, but that connection has diminished significantly as Sam Sangster has become the main buyer for the stable.

Sam, son of the late Robert Sangster, fundamental in the establishment of Coolmore Stud with John Magnier and the late Vincent O’Brien, Magnier’s father-in-law, signed the ticket on the majority of the sales purchases over the past few seasons, including recent winners Raheen House, wide-margin juvenile scorer Barraquero, and progressive three-year-old I’vegotthepower.

Barraquero runs under the Manton Thoroughbreds banner and carries the same blue, green and white colours that adorned Robert Sangster stars like Derby winners Golden Fleece and Dr Devious, and also among many others, Storm Bird and Sadler’s Wells, sire of Galileo.

There are five Sangster sons, Ben, Guy and Adam before Sam, and Max, the youngest. Of the quintet, many people believe Sam might end up the closest approximation to his father. It’s not a bad start that he knows which end of a horse kicks and which eats if he’s going to make a success of the always-precarious racing game.

Meehan’s recent flurry of form includes two big-race wins for one of his least well-known owners, Lew Day, whose horses run under the ownership handle of J L Day. Spark Plug was his first entry into the yard, prompted by an enquiry to me from a mutual acquaintance in the summer of 2013 that “someone would like to buy a two-year-old”.

Midsummer is hardly the time to be getting anything any good that wasn’t already snapped up, but Brian did have a number of horses, speculatively bought at the sales and at that stage without an owner. They included a son of Arc winner Dylan Thomas, at that stage an under-performing stallion for Coolmore.

I’d been watching this unnamed youngster progress week on week, gradually creeping up the juvenile pecking order, and Brian confirmed that “yes, he can be bought”. I met the would-be purchaser in a pub near the Carlton Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge, but he hesitated about the asking price, even though his careful research of Meehan with veteran trainer Eric Wheeler got a strong affirmative.

Wheeler at the time was still training Lew Day’s sole horse, a modest handicapper called El Libertador, once owned by Katie Wachman, but running under Lew’s dark green livery for 79 of his 80 starts, four of them winning ones.

With no deal forthcoming, the Dylan Thomas colt, who was out of the Group 1-winning South African mare Kornikova, was named Spark Plug and duly won on his Bath debut, minutes before Raymond’s Great Hall ran unplaced in the St Leger.

Lew renewed his interest on the Monday morning: “Can he still be bought?” he asked and the delayed deal was eventually done. Four years on, and a spectacular Cambridgeshire success and last time out’s Sandown Group 3 win behind him, Spark Plug, at six, remains at the top of the Meehan stable hierarchy, a position challenged only by Raheen House.

Your first 30 days for just £1

The latter’s purchase, at 35,000gns, was a notable bargain for Sam Sangster, as he was a handsome son of Sea the Stars and Meehan did well to convince the owner to double his involvement. Raheen House would have been the name for Spark Plug had Mr Day acted with more alacrity back four years ago, as that is the identity of the family hotel in Clonmel, not far from Coolmore, which has staged occasional events there.

Meehan has long regarded Raheen House as a potentially high-class stayer and the care with which he has planned his three-year-old career is reaping its reward. A fast-finishing fourth to Permian in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot, he stepped up to win Thursday’s Bahrain Trophy at Newmarket, coming home strongly enough to convince trainer – and jockey Jamie Spencer – that he’ll be a major player in the St Leger in two months’ time. With no Ebor Handicap entry on the stocks, it could be we’ll see him next in the Great Voltigeur, the accepted St Leger trial, at that York meeting.

Permian added lustre to the form when failing by a nose to win the Grand Prix de Paris on Friday, so Lew Day, the man with two horses, can dream he might have a Classic winner to add to a Cambridgeshire hero. I’m delighted for Brian, who is no novice in winning big international races, but who had gone through the mill in recent years. It’s always a long way back, but he’s starting to emerge into the uplands again.

Rarely does a champion go through a career unbeaten, so while it was a disappointment that Caravaggio could not maintain his unblemished record in the July Cup on Saturday, the victory of Harry Angel, from the classy older sprinters Limato and Brando, was well merited.

Harry Angel had chased home Caravaggio in the Commonwealth Cup after helping set a strong pace, but here he lasted longer. The favourite’s pacemaker Intelligence Cross, a 100-1 shot, was only a neck behind Caravaggio at the line in fifth place, so there was clearly a disparity in the pace compared with Ascot. Equally, though, Clive Cox was confident that Harry Angel was in prime shape to have a good chance of revenge.

As is the way with Aidan O’Brien, others moved forward from the Royal meeting, Clemmie overturning the smart Nyaleti in the Duchess of Cambridge Stakes; and perennial bridesmaid, Roly Poly, appreciating Winter’s absence to win the Falmouth Stakes with an all-the-way romp that had Breeders’ Cup written all over it.

O’Brien had another notable success at the Curragh on Sunday when Spirit of Valor stepped up from his 66-1 Jersey Stakes neck second to the smart French colt Le Brivido, to win the Minstrel Stakes (Group 2) in a canter under Ryan Moore. That race’s under-estimated merit had been underlined the previous day at HQ when Parfait, fourth at Ascot, strolled home in a valuable handicap.

Much the most significant result over two days on the Curragh concerned Oaks winner Enable. John Gosden’s Nathaniel filly, under Frankie Dettori, followed up in the Irish Oaks, beating the Pretty Polly runner-up Rain Goddess by five and a half lengths. Talk afterwards of the King George or the Arc was certainly not fanciful, given trainer John Gosden’s excellent record in those championship races.

 

 

 

Monday Musings: Terrific Derby Pour Moi!

Derby winner, Pour Moi, sired Derby winner, Wings Of Eagles. Tony's guv'nor is delighted

Derby winner, Pour Moi, sired Derby winner, Wings Of Eagles. Tony's guv'nor is delighted

It is very easy to understand the appeal of horserace ownership, writes Tony Stafford. Most often, men or less frequently women that have done well in their chosen occupation, find attractive the thought of competing with the giants of the sport, the Maktoums, Juddmonte, the Qataris and, above all, Coolmore.

Often they will have enjoyed going racing with horse-owning friends, and even betting. Upon taking the plunge, they are immediately faced with the conundrum, to buy or breed? As prices at the upper end have continued to rise over recent years – the effect intensified by that latter Qatari influence, rewarded yesterday after they had bought into Brametot, the Prix du Jockey Club winner - some existing owners have felt compelled to move into breeding.

I must declare an interest at this point. Regular readers will know of my working relationship with high-profile lawyer and punching-above-his-weight owner, Raymond Tooth. He is in precisely that nether-land where yearlings you might want cost fortunes, and stallions you might choose for your mares are often excessively-priced.

Over recent years, the programme, guided by Rachael and Richard Kempster at Kinsale stud in Shropshire, has developed steadily. Major winners have not been too evident, but from minor- winning mare, Lawyers Choice, first Dutch Art Dealer and then the talented Dutch Law (both by Dutch Art) who made almost £90,000 on the track and afterwards £150k at the autumn sales, suggest Ray’s on the right path.

Every year we try to anticipate what might prove a hidden jewel among stallions – a putative Galileo hiding in the back sheds of Coolmore, Juddmonte, or own regular favourites, Cheveley Park and Newsells Park studs.

Dutch Art was our pick when he was covering for one-sixth of his peak figure a few years later, and in Mayson and now Garswood, we’re hoping that connection with Cheveley Park will continue to thrive.

Down in Royston, we liked Mount Nelson, now sold for a jumps stallion, but sire of a promising unraced colt called Nelson River at Clive Cox’s, and also the consistent Equiano. The other Newsells Park stallion is Nathaniel, who was available at around £20,000 for his first few crops.

We also tried Coolmore, but have been a little unlucky there so far, one mare slipping a foal in the autumn before we could ascertain whether we’d go back to St Leger winner Kingston Hill. Another didn’t get in foal, and so from two years’ patronage there, we have three youngsters, two yearlings and a foal, all by one stallion.

Imagine how many sires there are to pick from. Massive books with hundreds of pages and portraits assail the would-be small or even hobby breeder, all with the probably-unrealistic hope of competing at a high level. Why else would Richard Aylwood want to run his home-bred filly Diore Lia as a 1,000-1 shot in Saturday’s Investec Derby?

Well he might say he’d paid his full entry fee and also €6,000 to send her mother to Coolmore to be covered by four-time Gold Cup hero Yeats. True she’d been rolled over in two maidens for Jane Chapple-Hyam; and that trainer’s reluctance to let her run with an apprentice rider, who had just a single riding win to her credit in Ireland years ago, caused the filly’s removal to John Jenkins, down the road from Newsells Park.

Plenty has been said of the BHA’s refusal to allow Gina Mangan to ride. The more experienced Paddy Pilley was then due to take over but happily, from where I sit anyway, a muscle problem prevented Diore Lia from lining up at Epsom.

Yeats was immediately earmarked for the NH stallion job after his epic Flat-race career and as time goes by he’ll get plenty of dual-purpose horses. Derby winners, though never Galileo, often make an average start before going through the gears or more likely go onto the NH sire route.

Your first 30 days for just £1

In a year when Aidan O’Brien has won five of the six English and Irish Classics to be run to date, the thought of being able to go to a stud farm and look at a youngster from a Classic-producing stallion and contemplate what might happen in the near future would be a cheery prospect indeed.

Raymond Tooth has seven yearlings, but because of the death of one of his younger mares and the slipping of a foal I mentioned, just five live foals. That makes 12 in all. I can tell you that 41% of them, therefore five of the 12, are sons or daughters of stallions that have produced England Classic winners during 2017. We were never going to get anywhere near Galileo, responsible for this spring’s two dual Guineas winners Churchill and Winter, but did use Nathaniel and Pour Moi.

Enable, from the first crop of Galileo’s son Nathaniel, easily beat Galileo filly and 1,000 Guineas runner-up Rhododendron in Friday’s Oaks. Not only was Enable from Nathaniel’s first crop, it also means he has beaten his superior racetrack contemporary, Frankel, to a first European Classic win, although the fellow Galileo product already has a Japanese Classic to his credit.

The 40-1 Wings Of Eagles, who came through late to deny Cliffs Of Moher, the Ballydoyle/Coolmore first string, ridden by Ryan Moore, is from only the second crop of Pour Moi, a son of the late Montjeu, the other big Derby winning producer from Coolmore in recent times.

In that regard, Pour Moi has in common with Galileo that he is a Derby winner who produced a Derby winner from his second crop: in Galileo’s case, New Approach. Unlike Galileo, Pour Moi had been seconded to NH duties this year after some disappointing results, but no doubt he’ll be back from his “loan” spell in the Championship and in Premier League action again in 2018.

Wings of Eagles’ starting-price was extraordinary, given he could easily have won the Chester Vase had the race worked out a little more favourably and had Seamus Heffernan been a little less complacent in his pursuit of Ryan Moore on Venice Beach.

Venice Beach, who on Saturday finished twelfth, was only a 12-1 shot, but probably the fact that Heffernan settled for Capri, with heavy rain forecast at the time the jockey plans were firmed up, and the appearance of Padraig Beggy on Wings Of Eagles caused the lack of interest. As the song, <with apologies to “Living next door to Alice”>, says: “Beggy? Who the xxxx is Beggy?”

Well Beggy, we discovered, was a former Irish export to Australia who was banned after taking “certain substances”. When he returned without a licence, friends managed to get O’Brien to take him on as a work rider at Ballydoyle and that most loyal of men told him he’d get his chance if he worked hard. Three years on, he did, and how well did he take it? As for the Derby winner, he might have a battle in the Irish Derby, but I reckon he’s a dish for the St Leger.

Back to Ray and why we went to Pour Moi. As I said, he was a Derby-winning son of Montjeu, another of whose sons Motivator produced Treve, from the Anabaa mare, Trevise. We had a daughter of Anabaa in the dual French winner, Ms Cordelia, but it was only by a few days that she survived worsening foot problems, to foal to Pour Moi.

Instead of being able to nurture her second foal, she had to be put down, so the resulting filly was raised, with the patient care of all at Kinsale, by a 14hh Welsh cob foster mother, who produced a fountain of milk, once she had been “conned” into thinking this was her own “baby”. Let’s hope the effort was worthwhile and Ray gets his own version of Treve!

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Winter Scorches into Spring

Your eyes told you it was good, writes Tony Stafford. Reflection overnight on the times over the weekend more than confirmed that Winter had stepped up a notch on her 1,000 Guineas victory at Newmarket. It also suggested that Rhododendron, the runner-up that day, will be very hard to beat on Friday in the Investec Oaks.

There were two supporting Premier handicaps on the 1,000 Guineas under-card. The first, half an hour after Winter stopped the clock in 1 min 39.78 secs, was also a fillies’ race for three-year-olds. Constant Comment, rated 80 but a daughter of Fastnet Rock out of a Galileo mare, twin Coolmore influences, completed the mile a full 4.30 seconds slower than the Classic finale.

Then to finish proceedings for an epic meeting, run at a Curragh track denuded of stands and by all accounts facilities, Sea Wolf, a tough 101-rated handicapper, defied 10st1lb in beating 19 rivals. Although the difference in weights carried on the day might seem to have given an obvious advantage to Winter over Sea Wolf, an older colt or gelding would concede the identical 15lb to a three-year-old filly if they were to meet in the eight and a half furlong Diomed Stakes (Group 3) at Epsom on Saturday.

Sea Wolf’s time in a hotly-contested affair was 1 min 42.45 secs, almost three seconds more than Winter’s, reflecting a margin of around 50 yards, if you take an average 13 seconds per furlong.

Racing Post Ratings as ever were quick to offer assessments, suggesting this was a 2lb improvement on the defeat of Rhododendron. Time may well show this to be an over-cautious mark. Caution clearly is inhibiting the other big stables from tackling the O’Brien Classic generation, to such an extent that Roly Poly and Hydrangea were able to participate in yet another 1-2-3 for Ballydoyle, just ahead of Joseph O’Brien’s Intricately, but almost five lengths behind the imperious winner.

The previous afternoon, Churchill preceded his stablemate by also completing the 2,000 Guineas Newmarket – Curragh double with a fuss-free two-and-a-half length win in the Tattersalls-sponsored event. Thunder Snow, at one time travelling apparently better than Churchill until that embryonic champion’s decisive surge, rehabilitated himself after his mulish and inexplicable effort at Churchill Downs with a sound second place.

There was much made of the fact that these two Classic triumphs for O’Brien came 20 years after a similar double set him up for a total to date of 72 European Classic wins. Eleven of these have come in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. Not even Mr Wenger (seven FA Cups in the identical period) can match that.

There is sure to be a blanket attack on Royal Ascot from the Coolmore partners, with the Classic hero and heroine stand-outs for the St James’s Palace Stakes and Coronation Stakes respectively, while on Friday night Order Of St George warmed up for a second Gold Cup challenge with an emphatic success in the Saval Beg Stakes.

In this game, reflecting on triumphs achieved soon has to give way to concentration on future objectives. The proximity of The Curragh’s fixture to the Oaks and Derby, earlier this year due to the timing of Easter, and also relative to Chester and York’s trials has meant that any quick bounce on to Epsom from The Curragh was probably even outside O’Brien’s comfort zone. Luckily Ascot beckons soon after, though not as soon as is usually the case.

Rhododendron’s defeat at Newmarket was attributed by many as partially the fault of Ryan Moore. True he did find a little interference, but as I thought at the time, Winter showed no more sign of stopping up the final incline at HQ than than she did on Sunday. Rhododendron was flying at the finish to secure second and she looks set to make it three UK and two Irish 2017 Classic wins for Galileo, ever more the super-sire.

Without Churchill, the O’Brien Derby challenge looks more questionable, but of seven possible runners, only one, the promising Chester Vase second Wings of Eagles (by Pour Moi) is not by Galileo. Cliffs of Moher, the Dee Stakes winner, rather than Vase hero Venice Beach, seems to carry the principal hopes of connections on a day that looks sure to be characterised by observers as the chance for Frankel to put one over on dad.

Your first 30 days for just £1

He could easily do so with the Anthony Oppenheimer/John Gosden colt Cracksman proven on the track, having beaten Permian (Teofilo, by Galileo) there in the Derby Trial before Permian franked the form in the Dante Stakes at York.

Then there is 2,000 Guineas sixth, Eminent, expected by Martyn Meade to prove better suited to the longer trip, and the unexposed Mirage Dancer, who is highly regarded by Ryan Moore. He represents Sir Michael Stoute, who has a tradition of producing major forward strides with this type of horse in the Derby, but his patient trainer believes this may be too much too soon.

At present odds, there is decent value available about Mark Johnston’s Permian, who won the prime trial for the race, and the fact that the trainer has not had a Derby runner for a long time and needs to supplement him are positives. This time he has a proper candidate, but like O’Brien, I have a soft spot for the Chester trials: I was racing manager when Oath won the Dee Stakes for Henry Cecil and the Thoroughbred Corporation before winning at Epsom under a peach of a ride by Kieren Fallon.

Friday’s second feature, the Coronation Cup, has been selected as the 2017 European comeback for the five-year-old Highland Reel, whose trip to Dubai in March was doomed when the ground turned against him.

Previously, in winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf, he supplanted the lifetime earnings of Found, his contemporary and stablemate, thereby avenging his defeat by her when they were one-two in the Arc at Chantilly last October.

Both are over the £5 million mark and therefore their sire’s top two earners. With Found now retired, Highland Reel can be expected to confirm his status as the “new St Nicholas Abbey” by making a winning Epsom debut on Friday. Should Highland Reel be found wanting, then Idaho looks a worthy alternative in the field, should be run.

If you call a horse Profitable and he wins  a Group 1 race, then you have to take yourself at your word and take the profit, as Alan Spence did last year from Godolphin after Clive Cox’s sprinter won the King’s Stand Stakes.

Then to call a filly Priceless and watch her win the Group 2 Temple Stakes, following Profitable’s example of 2016, the only option is not to sell. She is indeed Priceless to Mr Spence and while the original idea was to go to Profitable when she retires, maybe watching the example of Wokingham winner Laddies Poker, now dam of Winter, and other sprinters, he might consider a date with Galileo. Whatever course he takes, the arch-negotiator holds all the aces.

I did notice that it is not just Derek Thompson who refers to Spence as a Director (sometimes Chairman, even) of Chelsea FC when his horses go to post where Tommo is acting as commentator. That description did apply in the Ken Bates days, but he’s now just a humble Vice-President, contrary to the Racing Post’s report on Priceless’s smart win. Had he been at Haydock rather than wasting his time at Wembley, Alan could have prevented the normally punctilious David Carr from making a rare error.

Monday Musings: Palmer Loses Gold-en Touch?

Palmer and Galileo Gold were not at their best at the weekend

Palmer and Galileo Gold were not at their best at the weekend

Regular readers of these thoughts will be in little doubt that I enjoy digging out statistics, writes Tony Stafford. Many will be suspicious of them, indeed the well-worn phrase, popularised by the American author Mark Twain, who attributed it to the 19th Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, says “there are three kinds of lies - lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Senior politicians on either side of the Atlantic have had cause to question the worth and veracity of public opinion data following several elections, but I still go with the credo, “facts is facts”.

I’ve no idea whether the ever upwardly-mobile Newmarket trainer Hugo Palmer sets much store on figures, but after the tame effort by Galileo Gold, last year’s 2,000 Guineas and St James’s Palace Stakes winner in the Lockinge Stakes, sponsored by his owners Al Shaqab at Newbury, maybe the alarm bells are starting to ring, if only sotto voce.

Before the big race, Palmer was stood in front of the exit from the parade ring, exhorting his horse’s groom to “go straight out” onto the track, only for an official to bar his way and point out the Group 1 requirement for “a parade” and therefore the need for the horses to go out in a precise order.

Palmer’s body language, and where one could hear it, audible language both suggested irritation. A second irritation soon followed when the expected pacemaker, Toscanini, there to give a lead to Godolphin’s Ribchester, missed the break.

That left the two principals out in front, and while Ribchester, leading the main group up the middle stayed there, Galileo Gold raced more freely than desirable under the stands rail where he had been taken by Frankie Dettori. He faded away into sixth, a dozen lengths or so behind the emphatic winner.

Towards the back end of last year, Ribchester twice inflicted defeats on Galileo Gold, thereby reversing the relative positions of the pair from midsummer. Here the market anticipated a similar outcome, but hardly one with such a disparity. The trainer had said before Newbury that the harmonious partnership between horse and jockey was back where it was at 2,000 Guineas time last spring, but whatever the reason, that was not the case this time.

With two stables, one on either side of Newmarket and a horse complement according to Horses in Training of 170 inmates – less the odd inevitable departure through erosion – the expectation from Palmer will be again to beat his latest annual tally of 71 winners. That followed scores of seven, then six and the acceleration to 15, 24, 34 before more than doubling that tally in 2016.

Last week at York, the Makfi filly Vintage Folly delighted her trainer when runner-up to Shutter Speed in the Musidora Stakes, encouraging Palmer to make optimistic noises in his post-race TV interviews about her prospects of going one better in the Oaks, in which his Architechture was second a year ago.

But in all honesty – no lies, or damned lies in sight – Hugo’s stats for the past fortnight have been poor, and for the past few days since Vintage Folly, simply dreadful.

From 28 runs in the two weeks analysed, with horses from Kremlin Cottage and the new Yellowstone stable in Hamilton Road, he has had a single winner of a Lingfield maiden race. Of the remaining 27, Racing Post ratings calculated that three had improved on previous figures; four, presumably debutants, got no rating and the remainder ran below form, many to an alarming degree.

The 28 runners were beaten a total of 353.5 lengths, at an average of 12 lengths per run, the precise distance by which Galileo Gold was beaten. Since Vintage Folly, beaten less than two lengths, the distances by which all his subsequent runners have trailed the race winners have been 6.25 lengths, 3.75, 13.5, 41, 18, 81, 4.5, 12.5, 28, 10, 28 and 7.75  Many of these were prominent in the betting.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Palmer’s 2017 tally has been boosted by eight all-weather wins, all with three-year-olds, from 45 runs, but on turf, his 55 contestants have managed only four wins, for a combined tally of 12. Richard Fahey, admittedly with a stable containing many more inmates than Palmer’s, has sent out 59 winners, 35 on turf.  There’s plenty of time for the tide to turn, but the combination of few wins and poor performances that have typified recent activity cannot be argued.

*********************************

One trainer friend who has rather less regard for BHA handicappers than me trotted out his favourite phrase: “You couldn’t bend wire like them” about one piece of evidence on today’s Carlisle card. It was in response to my own pointing out the apparent idiotic handicapping of a well-known stayer.

Over the years, the now 10-year-old Teak has been up to the high 80’s and was at that point early in 2016. By the autumn he was running off 80, and his Cesarewitch 13th of 33, 14 lengths adrift of Sweet Selection, was hardly a sign of deteriorating ability, with 20 decent stayers behind him.

That race was his last Flat outing on turf, as after that he ran unplaced in a stayers’ race at Chelmsford; made a fair stab at a Newbury hurdle race, before switching his attentions to the sharp mile and a half around Wolverhampton.

It was at that track that he won the first two races he had for his new (and still) trainer Ian Williams after switching from Adrian Maguire (who I was delighted to see, beat a Mullins hotpot in yesterday’s Limerick bumper, ridden by Finny, his talented son. Let’s hope Adrian reconsiders his decision to retire soon).

Nowadays Teak, former winner of the two mile five furlong handicap at Glorious Goodwood needs further, so it was with some surprise that I noticed the official responsible for two-mile handicaps, allowed Teak’s rating to drop from 80, via 74, his all-weather mark for the Chelmsford race to 62 after the triple Dunstall Park whammy. And whammy it was, with apprentice Luke Catton, who is yet to ride even a single winner, entrusted with the mount on each occasion.

Today at Carlisle, Teak steps back into turf stamina tests in the two mile, one furlong finale, and, blow me down, not with Luke Catton, but last week’s Group 2 Dante Stakes-winning jockey Franny Norton stepping in. It’s as near to a certainty as you’d get, an 80 horse running off 62 on his next comparable appearance, and it should certainly be enough to foil Jan Smuts’ bid for victory in his 100th start.

Frankel, possibly to media relief, got his first Classic win in Japan over the weekend, but over here, six wins for his old rival and fellow Galileo-sired stallion Nathaniel, offered hopes that the Newsells Park inmate is beginning to flex his own Group-race muscles.

Natavia, carrying the Frankel colours of Prince Khalid Abdullah, was an emphatic winner at Newbury on Saturday and trainer Roger Charlton has a high opinion of the filly. Maybe the Ribblesdale at Royal Ascot will suit her.

It was horrible to hear about Hughie Morrison’s predicament. The only good thing of his anabolic steroids situation is that nobody who knows him and the way he runs his stable, believes for a moment that he would ever have anything to do with giving a banned substance to a 50-odd rated filly, or anything else. He seems convinced that unless the police can uncover the true culprit, he is sure to face a long ban. I’m not so sure. The BHA writes its own Rules, so it can change them if the situation fits.

- Tony Stafford

Monday Musings: Title Settlement

 

Bank Holiday Mondays allow me a little flexibility in terms of deadline, writes Tony Stafford. I know this because the Editor takes longer than usual to acknowledge receipt of these jottings. Saying that, he will probably have been awake early as the sun peeped across the horizon well before 6 a.m. the time today when I finally realised what the topic would be.

By a circuitous route, having started out with the Henderson-Nicholls and Mullins-Elliott season-long scraps finally decided and the likeliest subject, I landed on June 11 2006 at the picturesque Perth racecourse.

That day an unknown young Irish trainer travelled over his recent acquisition, a horse called Arresting, to Scotland and, ridden by Richard Johnson, Arresting was an emphatic winner, backed in to 7-2 favourite. He had won at the track on his previous appearance, on his sole run for Gavin Cromwell, but joined Gordon Elliott, according to official records, six days before the June 11 landmark.

Elliott, a graduate of the Martin Pipe stable, had yet to win a race in his home land, but Arresting gave him two more victories in the UK that summer, stopping off in between without success at the Galway Festival.

Thirteen horses took part in that first race and the lists of trainers and riders illustrate how quickly the pendulum swings in racing, like life really. Stuart Coltherd, Jim Goldie, Geoff Harker, Diane Sayer and Grand National winner Lucinda Russell remain active, while the remainder, including recently retired Keith Reveley have either handed in their licences or, in the case of doubly-represented Peter Monteith, died.

Of the 13 jockeys, only the relentless Johnson; James Reveley, then a 7lb claimer, now France’s jumps champion; and Paddy Aspell, still ride over jumps, although he has gradually switched more to the Flat. Graham Lee finished runner-up here two years after his Grand National triumph on Amberleigh House, who died last week aged 25. Now he rides exclusively on the level.

Michael McAlister, then a 5lb claimer, had his last rides, winning one of six in the season ending last April, while Richie McGrath, Jimmy McCarthy, Phil Kinsella, David da Silva and Peter Buchanan have all retired after varying degrees of success.

Tony Dobbin, 45 years old today and another Grand National hero, almost a decade earlier on Lord Gyllene, the only Monday winner, is now assistant trainer to his wife Rose, while Kenny Johnson has taken over his father Bob’s small yard in Northumberland.

There is another name from the race which has forced itself into the racing consciousness, particularly over the latest season. Neil Mulholland, unplaced in that Perth race, won 54 races over a ten-year span in the UK, again with a Martin Pipe connection, before starting out as a West Country trainer in the 2008-9 season.

He was an immediate success with 16 victories in his initial campaign, before collecting between that figure and 21 in the next four years. More recently, Mulholland has found acceleration and expansion, almost Gordon Elliott-like, with 31, 51 and 60 wins before the latest awesome tally of 108 wins from 129 horses. His list of owners makes impressive reading, dozens and dozens of names, with Bob Brookhouse, one who is always ready to pay plenty at the sales, a notable major operator for the yard. Big-race wins, usually in staying chases have come via The Druids Nephew, The Young Master and Pilgrims Way, while he’s also proved a dab hand at winning Flat-race handicaps with some of his lesser jumpers.

Gordon Elliott’s narrow failure to dethrone Mullins after their final day denouement at Punchestown cannot alter the fact that he has become the big name going forward. He did something nobody – to my limited knowledge anyway – has matched, to win a Grand National before winning a Rules race in his native country. Silver Birch, a Paul Nicholls cast-off, won ten months after the first of the three Arresting victories and it was not until later that year that the Irish explosion began.

Your first 30 days for just £1

After two blank seasons, Elliott had six wins in his third, then 14, 26, 62, 40, 54, 56, 92, 123 and a mammoth 193 from an astonishing 285 horses, 101 more than Mullins up to Saturday. As the still-champion Willie lost 60 of the Gigginstown horses – not all of which ended with his protagonist – it was indeed a doughty effort to stay ahead but a team of 184 active horses is hardly negligible.

The next three home in Ireland were Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington and Noel Meade, all with big teams, Harrington benefiting from the Ann and Alan Potts defection from de Bromhead with the other pair similarly indebted to the Mullins split with Gigginstown.

Of the trio, only Mrs Harrington is seriously involved in the Flat with 47 three-year-olds and juveniles listed in the latest Horses in Training book. She was at it again last week, winning five races at Punchestown while yesterday, she had a winner each at Limerick and Gowran on the Flat, beating horses trained by Aidan and Joseph O’Brien respectively.

Gordon Elliott sent out a remarkable 1,234 domestic runners last season, even more than Richard Johnson rode in his second-busiest season; 188 wins from 1,026 compared with easily his best, 235 from 1,044 the previous winter when he collected his first title after 20 years’ wait for A P McCoy to retire. Since 1996-7 Johnson has posted a century of winners every season, with between 102 and 186 until the last two. The McCoy retirement has brought an average of 200 extra rides, a good few of them horses McCoy would have partnered.

Johnson shows no sign of slowing down, bar injury or illness, so there is little chance he will fail to complete the hat-trick as he intends to mirror McCoy’s annual tactic of a fast start during late spring and summer.

Nicky Henderson’s stable stars contributed greatly to his fourth trainers’ title, but it also helped that he had more individual horses (173) to run than anyone other than Dan Skelton (202). Henderson and Nicholls had an almost identical win average, around 25%, a figure which only Harry Fry, among the leaders, with 23%, could get anywhere near. Fry’s Punchestown double last week confirmed his status as a future potential champion trainer.

Team Tooth had a first Flat runner (two getting-handicapped Winter AW runs apart) at Yarmouth, and Stanhope as usual suffered an element of bad luck as he finished a close fourth.

It seems he’s a horse that finds trouble, but when he doesn’t it finds him, as when at Sandown, a golf ball from the inside-the-track course flew up from a rival’s hoof and hit jockey Charlie Bennett a resounding bang on the helmet.

Here, Pat Cosgrave had just moved him into a gap to challenge, when it closed. In a desperate attempt to get home in front, Jamie Spencer launched his whip right handed, twice hitting Stanhope on the head. First you can see him flinch right, then more dramatically back and left, so it was brave of the horse to nick fourth under hands and heels after recovering. Pat says he’s stronger this year. He’ll need to be!

 

Monday Musings: Seasons and Champions – Changing The Guard

Why doesn’t Paul Nicholls run more horses in Flat races? I am less than indebted to the Racing Post’s new-style trainer statistics which do not seem to allow me to investigate the multiple jumps’ trainer’s Flat performances before the 2013 season, writes Tony Stafford. [Should have used Geegeez' Query Tool - Ed.]

In that latter period, when in common with the previous ten jumps campaigns he has maintained £2m earnings and more every term, his 14 Flat runners (one unplaced in 2017) have not brought a single win. Despite these numbers, I’m sure he’d win plenty if he bothered.

A busy final end to this jumps marathon will probably mean he concedes the jumps title to Nicky Henderson even if a discrepancy of £170,000 to his rival is not impossible with Sandown’s Saturday riches to play for. Hendo, though, has the sublime Altior to head up a similarly strong raid on Esher.

By contrast with Nicholls, who recorded another notable achievement when Vicente collected a second consecutive Scottish Grand National at Ayr on Saturday, beating 29 opponents one week after his first-fence exit at Aintree, Henderson targets some prime Flat races each summer. Royal Ascot is a favourite while the Cesarewitch is another on his radar every autumn.

Henderson has enough in hand to ignore most of the minor midweek meetings in the UK, save Perth, where he might stretch the lead as Nicholls will be staying nearer home. His own location, though, will be in his favourite spring destination as house guest with Jessie Harrington.

Never before has Mrs Harrington been able to welcome her great friend from such a position of professional strength. For all of her big-race wins, spectacularly so in the case of her multi-champion two-mile chaser Moscow Flyer, Jessie has never experienced the like of the last month or so.

Her three Cheltenham Festival wins last month were headed up by Sizing John’s emphatic Gold Cup triumph and momentum has continued unabated under both codes. Our Duke, a novice with a big weight, dominated the betting before the 28-runner Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday and also the race, winning almost unchallenged after leading some way from home. He will clearly be a serious rival to Sizing John in all next season’s major staying chases.

That victory came just a couple of days after a Flat hat-trick at Cork, two of the winners being owned by her daughter and assistant trainer/amateur rider, Kate. As if Jessica Harrington hadn’t already proved her versatility over many years with her handling of Group-race Flat fillies especially, and more recently, done a great job with smart 2010 juvenile Pathfork.

That Niarchos-owned colt went unbeaten through his three-race campaign, all at The Curragh, culminating in a narrow defeat of Casamento and favourite Zoffany in the Group 1 National Stakes. His only other run in Europe was the following spring when an 8-1 chance, joint second-favourite with Roderic O’Connor for the 2,000 Guineas when he finished seventh of 13 behind the inimitable Frankel.

Yesterday Jessie moved another step forward. Her three-year-old Sepoy colt, Khukri, making his seasonal debut and only his fourth career start, contested the Listed sprint and easily reversed debut juvenile form with Aidan O’Brien’s Intelligence Cross, who beat him first time up.

Then in the Group 3 Coolmore Vintage Crop Stakes over a mile and threequarters she again had the edge on Ballydoyle when her new recruit Torcedor, a five-year-old previously with the now retired David Wachman, made it two out of two for her in beating Order of St George, last year’s Gold Cup winner at Ascot.

Your first 30 days for just £1

She must be relishing the chance to challenge that champion at the Royal meeting, and no doubt will hope at least to share the headlines on home soil this week with her lifelong friend and sometime rival.

It was wonderful in Easter week to have an unbroken series of high class Flat-racing days at Newmarket, with the restored to three-day Craven meeting, and two high-class varied cards at Newbury.

Somehow between the ever-growing imitation of Hong Kong if not quite Manhattan, Newbury’s new facilities are gradually emerging. It’s hard to work out where to park or even whether to take the little bridge over the railway; the new roundabout from the Thatcham Road or go through the town, they seem to be getting there.

John Gosden clearly found his way and in a week of almost unbroken success, his powerful yard sent out 11 winners over the two major fixtures. One that got away was the second division of the maiden, won by 100-1 shot Duke of Bronte, a gelded son of Mount Nelson, trained by highly-capable and versatile Rod Millman. The Royal colours were carried into second place here by Musical Terms, half an hour after Call to Mind, also trained by William Haggas, gave the Queen a belated (by a day) 91st birthday winner.

Her pleasure when having a home-bred winner, as always, was clear for all to see, as was the understated way she arrived driven by Racing Manager John Warren with only minimal evident security. Coming down in the lift with a camera-brandishing photographer, I learned on Friday from him that his local newspaper: “always know where she’ll be this weekend, so we don’t really even bother to check whether she’s coming”. Imagine that informality in any other country.

Late April brings a quickening tempo for many owners of Flat racehorses and the Raymond Tooth string is no different. The consistent Stanhope is ready for his first run since being gelded in Yarmouth’s finale tomorrow and Micky Quinn hopes he can follow half a dozen placed efforts with a first success.

Yesterday Hughie Morrison had his Owners’ Day and I stood in for the boss as what seemed like possibly the trainer’s best-ever team of horses was paraded in front of a big attendance. Sod’s Law (half-brother to last year’s star Dutch Law, but bigger than his sibling) and the giant French Kiss, got generally positive reaction from the crowd and guarded optimism from their trainer.

French Kiss is from the first crop of Ray’s smart 2011 juvenile French Fifteen, who after winning the Group 1 Criterium International at Saint-Cloud, was sold and then finished a close second to Camelot in the 2,000 Guineas. Outside his box, there’s a sign suggesting “this horse bites”, but it was his neighbour Sod’s Law that grabbed hold of my jacket. “Don’t you remember me from Kinsale Stud?” I asked, to which he seemed to reply: “Sure.” Sod’s Law indeed.

Great racing continues this week. For those with long memories, Epsom’s Spring meeting, once a three-day affair, is a disappointment, but even though it’s now just the Wednesday, the races get beefed up a little each year. It’s always enjoyable to be there, while two days at Sandown at the end of the week, with the jumps finale on Saturday, promise plenty of excitement.

My own Friday will be a little more prosaic, chauffeuring Mrs S to Sheffield, not to see the snooker, but for her date in the British Adult Skating Championships (Bronze) for which there are 31 runners, even more than the Scottish National. Sadly, I’ll be on dog minding duty so cannot stay up there to see it. When she recently went to Estonia and won, that was on the Internet, but this time I’ll have to wait for less immediate communication.

Monday Musings: A Good Friday

Good Friday for racing fans historically meant there was no chance to watch any action. Instead for the last 20 years or so, the Lambourn and Middleham Open days gave enthusiasts the possibility to see the sport’s equine heroes at close hand.  Lambourn has gone on serenely every Good Friday and there was again a massive attendance in the Valley last week. Middleham missed last year but another 7,500-plus is anticipated there today.

For the past four years, racing has finally been allowed and the winter all-weather season has ended with the crescendo of All-Weather Winter Championships Day at Lingfield Park. Musselburgh joined in, until this year when that track switched to Saturday.

The Arena Racing Company (ARC) this year bolstered its hold on the one-time sacrosanct Good Friday by adding two of their other tracks, Bath and Newcastle, in a monopolistic treble with enhanced prizemoney for both the latter along with the usual cash bonanza at Lingfield.

The crowds flocked in – certainly at my chosen venue in chilly Surrey – but I wonder just how many of them were happy with the continued absence of any on-course betting shop facilities at ARC tracks. Recently at the Raceform reunion, I met the manager of the Coral betting shop in Lingfield, promising to call in “the next time I’m there”. Of course, I didn’t stop – lay-by crowded, too much traffic et al – but I will one day if only to ask, how many people stood there all day listening to picture-free commentaries?

One friend, an owner with Highclere and member of four of their syndicates for this year, went through his fancies for the day and said which ones he intended backing on track. When I told him that he wouldn’t find an outlet there, he switched to the phone, as so many people must be doing these days.

Maybe that’s why Ladbroke-Coral and Betfred seemingly aren’t too worried about ending their dispute with ARC, at least not before the new Levy arrangement laws kick in later in the spring.

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of sympathy for David Nicholls. Two horses in his care until February, when he handed in his licence, appeared on the card and each won prizemoney of £93k.

There is no question that Nicholls was for many years an excellent trainer, especially of sprinters. Last October at Doncaster, he ran both Sovereign Debt (winner of the Mile race for Ruth Carr on Friday) and Kimberella (Sprint for Richard Fahey) in a seven furlong conditions race. Sovereign Debt won impressively with a late run and Kimberella set a fast pace before weakening into fifth.

Meanwhile the boss’s Dutch Law toiled at the back under what could only be described as a pretty complacent ride by the already-crowned champion, Jim Crowley. My confidence before the race in this three-time 2016 winner was hardly improved when Jolly Jim came into the paddock declaring, “Basically, he’s a shit, isn’t he?” and their performance matched his lack of enthusiasm.

Unlike the Nicholls pair, who have continued to thrive, Dutch Law’s only public appearance since was in the sales ring at Tatts the following week when he was bought for 150,000gns. Where he is now is a thing of mystery.

Racing Post shows that Nicholls ran five individual horses in the opening six weeks of the season, none making an impact. His last winner at around the same time was Sovereign Debt, collecting another 90k plus in Doha, Qatar, when he beat Cougar Mountain and 14 others over a mile. I hope Dandy eased his disappointments with a little double on the pair – at 44-1!

Your first 30 days for just £1

Willie Mullins sent out 12 runners at the two Irish jumps meetings yesterday and with odds-on shots in the two most valuable races, could have been expected to narrow the deficit with Gordon Elliott (ran 22, two minor wins) in the Irish jump trainers’ championship.

He did to a degree, but neither Let’s Dance nor Yorkhill could land the odds. Let’s Dance got a fine ride from Ruby Walsh, but after leading going nicely turning in at Fairyhouse, could not withstand the late run of stablemate Augusta Kate and David Mullins close home.

Walsh had another unusual experience in the big novice chase, again being collared, this time after making almost all the running on headstrong Yorkhill, who jumped, as the commentator said, “alarmingly left” at most of the fences on the right-hand track. Cheltenham Festival winner, Road to Respect, trained by Noel Meade and ridden by Brian Cooper, steered a more conventional course and was rewarded with a neck victory, despite a brave rally from the runner-up.

The day’s action leaves Mullins £200,000 or so adrift of his rival and with a €290,000 first prize in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, in which Mullins has three representatives in the 30-horse field, he clearly has a chance of something like parity between the pair. Unfortunately, on a day where again Elliott has almost double Mullins’ 12 runners between Fairyhouse and Cork, ten of them are in the National alone. No wonder Tony Mullins among others is calling for a limitation on the number of runners trainers and owners can have in a single race.

It’s hard enough for small owners to match the big battalions, but when the luck goes as well, the game is hard to take. I had to make two unwelcome calls to Ray Tooth on Tuesday morning. First Mick Channon called to say that Ray’s unraced French-bred three-year-old Weekender, there for just two weeks, had been found dead in his box in the morning, presumably after a heart attack. “That’s the first one I’ve had in 30 years,” said a distraught Mick.

Then a couple of hours after Channon’s call, Mark Johnston’s vet called to say that the two-year-old filly, Tarnhelm, had been lame after galloping very well the previous Saturday and needed an operation to remove a chip in a joint. That went successfully during the week and hopefully all will be well, but with a late April debut in mind, this was a real frustration.

There was a bit of a setback, also in the early stages of what was to be Frankel’s first-season progeny’s assault on the Classics when Lady Frankel and Taulifaut could finish only third and fourth behind favourite Senga in the Prix de la Grotte at Chantilly yesterday. The winner was completing doubles for owners Flaxman Stables (Niarchos family), Pascal Bary and Stephane Pasquier, and it will be great if those shades of blue colours enjoy a revival in fortunes.

Three Frankel colts are among the declarations for Thursday’s Craven Stakes on Newmarket’s opening fixture. Frankuus, Eminent and Dream Castle are engaged and they are among six sons of the stallion entered to emulate dad in the 2,000 Guineas next month. The other trio are Cracksman, Seven Heavens and the David Elsworth-trained Swiss Storm, who continues to get glowing reports of his well-being. The Frankel three will do well to cope with Rivet and the chosen of the Aidan O’Brien pair, Peace Envoy and War Decree, in the Craven.

The happily-restored three-day meeting is wrapped around the two-day Craven Breeze-Up sale at Tatts, after racing tomorrow and Wednesday. The breeze-up gallops were shown this morning on Racing UK. Watch at home as it’ll be a bit parky on the Rowley Mile, but the bidding will be somewhere north of frenzied, no doubt, come tomorrow night.

Monday Musings: The Kempton Horse Watchers

I’d been looking forward to the start of turf Flat racing 2017, but in the end I didn’t make it to Doncaster for either Saturday or Sunday, settling instead for the easier trip to Kempton Park, writes Tony Stafford.

With its future to an extent uncertain, you might think the track management might have taken their eye off the ball, but this first-day card had a special merit. The historic Rosebery Handicap, a long-time Easter feature over ten furlongs in the pre-Polytrack days, has taken an upward step, offering £28k to the winner (45 grand in overall money).

Over the past few years there have been a number of personnel changes on Racing UK and if you only took notice when something jarred, you’d have to say there was almost a monopoly of voices emanating from Hull. Often it only took until one of the younger-generation Timeformers who dominate Channel 432 punctuated a long, considered and usually pretty serious thought with “so”, but sounding more like “seew”, for me to spot them.

But now when brothers Chris and Martin Dixon are appearing, far from noticing their highly-distinctive accent, I listen closely hoping to hear about the latest horse they’ve brought into their “Horse Watchers” stable, handled so efficiently by Mick Appleby.

At Kempton on Saturday, they were both there to see a couple of runners, first the poorly-drawn Hakam, who might not have carried too much owner confidence because of that issue, but Silvestre De Sousa finessed a late run up the outside for a last stride nose win at 6-1.

This was the sixth appearance for them from the former Hamdan Al Maktoum horse, originally bought from Claiborne farm for $450,000 and re-cycled for £28,000 out of Charlie Hills’ care last summer. He won first time for them off 81 and having collected for the second time at Chelmsford three months ago, duly defied 86 this time round.

There is a close similarity with Big Country, the Rosebery winner, and one who could be called “home and hosed”, or rather “herm and hersed” a long way out. Again brought wide, but this time from an early close up position, he led at the top of the straight and the Brazilian and the onwatching Watchers never had a worrying moment. Sometimes to say a trainer has a talent for improving cast-offs from big stables, can become received wisdom without too much evidence, but Mick Appleby lives up to that reputation time after time.

Big Country cost £28,000 from Charles O’Brien and having won first time for the Watchers off 75, defied 84 now with ease.

One of the Raceform reunion boys from the week earlier alerted me to the team’s expectations and if only I ever had the urge to shout one home, I’m sure I would have done. The Ebor and then jumping are on the short- and mid-term agenda, and they have great things to come. Let’s hope they enjoy them, because racing and racehorse ownership isn’t always so rewarding.

I did actually shape for a shout a while later. I met a man representing an absent owner, as it turned out for a second time after an accidental, brief encounter last May, which he remembered but I didn’t. Resplendent in red-framed specs and Fred Astaire patent leather shoes, to go with mutton chops and a ready ear-to-ear smile, he sailed through the day.

He stayed close to my small party – located in the owners and trainers – for much of the day and plucked up the courage to show us his off-course morning bet, to small stakes. I’ve no licence to reveal any details, but I can say the first four had won and he needed a fifth later on, at Kempton, to land the big one.

Your first 30 days for just £1

He joined in the Ryan Moore bonanza at Doncaster – the Racing Post said bookmakers reckoned the Lincoln narrow defeat of another Moore – Hannon horse saved them a £40 million payout. Considering his bet, I’m sure there would have been lots of happy participants. He asked me to calculate how he stood, and from where I stood, he stood pretty well indeed. Of course the real big one - he’d avoided the Lincoln - would happen if the last one collected.

Considering the potential optimum outcome, he watched the race as it unfolded with great calm, and once his horse, who led from the start, was caught in the last furlong, finishing third, there was no recrimination.

Unlike the time at the track a decade ago maybe when one late friend, a long-standing racegoer and useless race reader, pursued what he thought to be J P Magnier, after the then amateur rider got left and took no part on one of his father John’s bumper horses, a hot favourite trained by Nicky Henderson. A totally innocent fellow rider in the race got the full force of my pal’s torrid invective and high-tailed it into the weighing room and temporary safety.

This very interesting chap simply took his medicine and ordered a bottle of champagne, nice stuff, too. On hearing my location, he told us he’d lived in Hackney at one stage in his varied, colourful life, first working for a burger bar owner and then becoming owner of the business with six of the fast-food vehicles, having bought out his boss.

Soon after, though, the realities of ad hoc trading in the East End of the 70’s came home to roost. A gentleman approached him saying he needed insurance for his business. He disagreed, but when one of the vans was destroyed by fire, he wised up - and sold up - eventually becoming a successful antique dealer, a profession from which he is now retired.

I don’t suppose there’s any betting on the Irish Flat-racing apprentices’ title, but if there is, Anastasia O’Brien, my favourite name, even if she only ever uses the diminutive, is a certainty. The result of being comfortably lighter than her fellow apprentice brother Donnacha means she gets on many more of the team’s fillies in maiden races than him and is improving in just the way Josephine Gordon did over the past 18 months.

After an initial flurry with a couple of first day maiden wins, Aidan seems to be relying on the Naas racecourse session of (was it 90 horses?) the other day and home gallops rather than actual races to frame the Classic horses’ immediate steps, so we’ll only see Churchill in the 2,000 Guineas; and Caravaggio, who knows?

I’m still at the stage where the latest Horses in Training book has largely supplanted my usual staple of novels as required reading. If you’ve not got it, go up to Tindall’s in Newmarket High Street during the Craven meeting and have a lengthy browse at John Gosden’s page. To see how very few of his 2016 yearlings – those bought at auction – cost less than six figures helps explain why domestically, he does so well in all categories. His judgment and methodical tactical astuteness don’t hurt either.

Premier League football and footballers might be in a different world to those clubs and players lower down the scale, but the difference is no less stark than for the haves and have nots in racing. More than such trifles, though, the book reveals who’s coming forward, and who might be declining. It’s a perfectly legal way of nosing into trainers’ business.

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.

Your first 30 days for just £1

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