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Monday Musings: The New Abnormal

Just nine days ago my over-riding thought as I contemplated the very strong card at Kempton was still how awful it was that Goshen had been cruelly robbed of his rightful crowning as the best four-year-old hurdler in memory, writes Tony Stafford. Sympathies for Gary and all the Moore family and the owners were intruding ahead of the general feeling that I’d witnessed one of the great four days of Cheltenham.

Just over a week later, along with everyone in the country, if not the world, apart of course from China where it started and where they now claim there have been no new cases for several days - sure! – even Goshen has been put at the back of the brain.

Looking back, there we were, between 53,000 on the first day and 65,000 on Friday talking, greeting and breathing on each other. A good proportion of racegoers at any time are in the older age group. Now 1.5 million of us senior citizens around the country are to receive letters telling us to stay at home for three months to help “damp down” in Boris’s words, the dreaded Coronavirus.

I’ve already effectively remained in the house under instruction from my wife, who will not be receiving such a letter. My only relief from the embargo has been three short taxi-service one-way trips to drop her at shops that have been denuded of fresh meat and fish, bread, pasta, toilet and kitchen rolls and household products. She did yesterday, though, and much to my amazement, come home triumphantly brandishing a copy of the Racing Post, cost £3.90. I wonder what the publication’s 110 journalistic employees are doing to keep that listing vessel above water?

Every day for the past week I’ve been pondering whether I’ve had it, got it or am incubating it ready to transmit to anyone I meet – which pretty much begins and ends with Mrs S. Yesterday she started a daily exercise session, prompted by my difficulty with putting on my socks without sitting down. It couldn’t have been too taxing, but today and on subsequent days it will be ramped up. Whatever you can say about people born and brought up in the old USSR, especially in Siberia, they can be pretty relentless!

I was thinking last Tuesday that the UK racing no-spectator model might work, but that stopped after one day. Then on Wednesday the Irish decided to race on crowd-free, so on Saturday we had Thurles on Racing TV and South Africa’s two meetings on Sky Sports Racing. Somehow, my copy of the Racing Post arrived in time to have a look at the 4.10 from Thurles in which a horse I’d seen run well recently over two miles, stepped up in trip and class for a beginners’ chase.

He’d previously won a hurdle over three miles and was trained by Joseph O’Brien, so more than enough reason to have a good look. I thought he would be around 6-1, checked and found he was double those odds, and had a tiny tickle. Backed down to 9-1, Thermistocles proved once again that young Mr O’Brien can win any race over any discipline at any level and sound jumping and stamina enabled this eight-year-old to beat a strong field with some comfort.

Sky Sports Racing also had yesterday’s Sha Tin card which started at 5 a.m. and featured, almost four hours later, the Hong Kong Derby with its £1 million-plus first prize. Local jockey C Y Ho was entrusted with the ride on the 3-4 favourite Golden Sixty and as he brought him towards the straight he was right at the back of the 14-strong field; meanwhile Aussie rider Blake Shinn sent the 290-1 shot Playa Del Puente into a long lead on the inside. Ho and Golden Sixty came wide, gradually gained ground, but still had at least three lengths to find a furlong out.

Instead of the frenzied tumult had the Sha Tin stands been as usual full of punters, there must have been almost an eerie silence that accompanied the favourite’s continued run which bore fruit three strides from the finish.  The Australian-bred Golden Sixty, a son of Medaglia d’Oro, has now won ten of 11 career starts, and never had a winning margin more than just over two lengths in any of them.

While everything is on hold here – I can imagine just how frustrated the few UK trainers nowadays that concentrate on early juveniles must be feeling – Ireland actually stages its first turf Flat meeting of the year today at Naas. Joseph and his father Aidan both had entries in the first two-year-old race of 2020 in Europe but Aidan’s runner, Lipizzaner, participates.

In between the sparse live fare available, there have been some interesting offerings on the specialist channels and one commentator for whom my regard has grown greatly in recent months has been Mick Fitzgerald. I confess it took ages to get past that gratingly-harsh accent but in a long discussion with John Hunt on Sky Sports Racing the other day he spoke very intelligently on the challenges facing trainers and jockeys, not to mention owners. His thoughts, not least his compassion, equated to the attitude of the Prime Minister and Chancellor as they announced the tightening up of measures to stop the virus.

But now I must return to Goshen. Anyone who saw the Triumph Hurdle on Friday the 13th of March will have been convinced that the margin – some say a dozen lengths – that he held over his toiling rivals coming to the last where he made his calamitous, race-ending mistake, would have been considerably extended by the line.

David Dickinson, the BHA handicapper responsible for two-mile hurdle assessments, had the job of putting the race on a numerical footing. We don’t see the Irish ratings, so the two horses that finished first and second under sufferance, Burning Victory and Aspire Tower, the latter who had a 152 mark pre-race, do not appear on the BHA ratings list.

But Allmankind, Navajo Pass and Sir Psycho, who finished third, fourth and fifth, went into Cheltenham on ratings respectively of 148, 139 and 147 and finished within a couple of lengths, close behind the second who was almost three lengths adrift of the winning Willie Mullins-trained filly.

Dickinson has left Allmankind and Sir Psycho on their existing marks, choosing to raise Navajo Pass to 147, which neatly makes this race a true ratings barometer. If Allmankind is 148 then presumably Aspire Tower could be dropped to 149 from 152 in Ireland and then the winner 152 (less the 7lb filly allowance she benefited from) thus around 145. Of the others Solo, rated 157 after his Kempton Adonis Hurdle romp, ran a stinker and has dropped to 152.

So what to do with Goshen? He was 151 going into the race and on the way he just scooted away from as we have seen some already decent opposition into an overwhelming last-flight superiority, I thought it the best performance (until he exited of course) ever by a four-year-old. I think it was probably only challenged by Our Conor’s 15-length victory seven years earlier which brought a 161 rating.

If the eventual winner had been male, the rating would be 152 and she was hardly going to reduce the margin, yet Dickinson has bottled it! He has chosen to raise Goshen to only 158, in other words suggesting he would have beaten the runner-up by six lengths. Ridiculous, indeed shameful! Not only have Goshen’s connections been robbed of a massive prize and well-earned recognition, the performance has been dimmed for no other reason than small-mindedness.

Goshen should have got at least 165 as I suggested here last week, and that would only have reflected his maintaining the margin to the line, when that seemed a conservative prospect. It’s not an easy job, I realise that, but when it hits you between the eyes, have the decency to admit it!

- TS

Monday Musings: Cheltenham Looms

I’ve not had much to say about Cheltenham 2020 until now, writes Tony Stafford. Normally I would be preparing, as I have for almost all of the last 20-odd Festival Eves, for a trip up the A1 to the Bedfordshire Racing Club, but it has always meant a 12.30 a.m. arrival home and therefore a mad rush to get organised for the ride west the following early morning.

I reluctantly ducked out this time and I trust the rather more youthful replacement – I assume whoever he or she is, must be! - will add some vigour to proceedings. It has been a lovely privilege to see the members every year and as I sit down to dinner tonight in Pershore, I’m sure my thoughts will drift off to Langford a time or two.

Poor Nicky Henderson, newly-adorned with a well-deserved honour, has yet another ticklish issue with Altior. In a season where the best chaser of recent times – never mind Cyrname’s rating and defeat of him at two miles, five furlongs this season - now there’s an old splint flaring up to put Wednesday’s participation in doubt in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

For the past four years Altior has been a standing dish at the Festival. Initially as a 4-1 shot he beat Min by seven lengths in the 2016 Supreme Novice Hurdle. Then with a Champion Hurdle seemingly a future penalty kick, he was immediately switched to chasing and the following year he was 1-4 when winning the Arkle. His first Queen Mother Champion came the next year at even-money with a replica seven-length demolition of Min and then last season it was 4-11 as he swooped late after looking likely to be beaten by Politologue in his second Queen Mum Chase.

Now, Nicky OBE is wrestling with the will he?, won’t he? dilemma he’s faced a number of times before with Altior. The problem has been that a requirement to provide copy for the bookmaking firm that sponsors his yard brought negative publicity earlier in the season over another Altior issue. Now he clearly feels obliged to detail every step his horses take, so while other trainers would be quietly hosing down the culprit limb in total privacy, Henderson is duty bound to keep the betting public in the loop.

In any case, Altior at 3-1 seems no bargain to me in a year when there are two truly top-class opponents in Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi. I don’t think I’d want to run him in these circumstances, especially as Hendo’s and Mrs Pugh’s sporting instincts clearly took over in face of public clamour before his sole jumping defeat in that ill-judged clash at Ascot with a fitter and stamina-proven Cyrname.

Henderson and Willie Mullins have been the overwhelming powers at Cheltenham this century and there seems no reason to think that they will not continue to dominate the four days at Prestbury Park. They have six between them in the 17-runner Unibet Champion Hurdle, Henderson’s quartet headed by Christmas Hurdle heroine, Epatante.

It is rare enough for a mare to head the Champion Hurdle market. She is the only female in tomorrow’s line-up as her stable-companion Verdana Blue has been withdrawn, presumably owing to the very soft ground, as has the unbeaten Honeysuckle, who has been switched to a mouth-watering opening-day clash with Benie Des Dieux in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.

In the 93-year history of the Champion Hurdle – four since 1927 have not been staged – only four mares have won the race. Even I can’t remember African Sister in 1939, but since then only Dawn Run (1984), Flakey Dove ten years later and Annie Power in 2016, have beaten their male counterparts.

Two of those four were of the highest class and if Epatante is to equal their achievements, she would need to be special, even if by common consent this might not be an up-to-standard championship race. In an open year I’m looking for a little each-way bet on Darver Star to help Gavin Cromwell gain closure for the understandable feeling that last year’s surprise winner Espoir D’Allen would have been the one to beat again had he not suffered a life-ending injury on the gallops late last year.

Darver Star’s rise echoes in many ways his predecessor’s arrival at Cheltenham last March, and while the 20-1 I should have taken is long gone, around 12’s is not too bad in this line-up.

I’ve been nagged ever since I’ve got to know him by a recently-acquired friend, Scott Ellis, who also makes the trek west today and in his case has done for 25 years, boy and man. He has been saying The Conditional, trained by David Bridgwater, is a certainty for the Ultima Handicap Chase, the race that precedes the Champion Hurdle. It is run on the Old Course’s version of the Gold Cup distance, so slightly less but just as severe a test and we have a full field of 24.

Scott was paranoid that the horse, originally in the 60’s in the first entry list, would not make the cut, and even on Sunday morning when at 9.30 there were still only 22 declared and 24 could run, he was worried The Conditional might not make it. In the event there are seven below him.

A course and distance winner in the autumn and then good enough to finish second to De Rasher Counter in the Ladbrokes Trophy (Hennessy) back in November, The Conditional then ran fourth over what proved a few furlongs too far at Warwick when favourite for the Classic Chase. I’m surprised considering it was stamina rather than ability that caused his defeat, that he was dropped 3lb to a rating of 139. I agree with Mr Ellis, he looks a big threat to all.

Solo on Friday in the JCB Triumph Hurdle has Gary Moore’s Goshen to beat among others, and I have to side with the latter, who could win by a cricket score. Solo won the race in which Ray Tooth’s Waterproof was being tested at Kempton. A burst blood vessel when apparently still well placed coming to the home turn ended Ray’s hopes.

Happily, after reassuring signals from the stable and the vet, he is being lined up for the Silver Cup on Friday at Fakenham, where he won his maiden. Last year there were eight runners in the race so we were hopeful when the entries came out on Saturday morning even though rated 127 in a 0-125 he’ll be the first to be eliminated. Depending on total entries on the day, the race can accommodate between ten (minimum) and 16. Thirty-two were nominated and I fear it won’t be like the Ultima. Instead it looks like a novice at Ludlow next week where he cannot be eliminated.

Great news that the mares’ bumper, lost to Sandown last weekend and the intended target of Geegeez’ smart filly Coquelicot, will be moved to Kempton on Saturday. If that track falls victim to the weather, I’ll give up. There’s more chance of being struck by lightning, or its modern-day equivalent, the CV!

- TS