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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Tony Stafford

 

Monday Musings: Confusion Reigns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Monday Musings: From Tiny Acorns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: Looking Forward, via Memory Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musing: Dream Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many Clouds, and Two of the Best in the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musing: The Rust Is Settling…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Tony Stafford