By Tony Stafford
You probably remember the joke better than me. A horse goes into the pub, goes up to the bar and asks the barman for a pint. “Why the long face?” the barman asks. I forget what happens next, but one thing I cannot ever forget, is that one day as part of some identification process my mother described her young offspring as having “a long face”.
Sometimes, when I’ve managed to lose a few ounces, the over-riding roundness – nothing like for example Alan Brazil’s – seems to give way to an attempt at long-ness, but I’m sure Dominic Fox’s mum, and also his late, lamented father Richard, would concede face-longitude as her son’s facial characteristic.
I mention – indeed feature – Foxy 2, or in current parlance Foxy Lite, as I reckon he has produced one of two miraculous career changes in the jockeys’ rooms of the nation during 2012.
The first of course is Graham Lee, who gave up throwing three-mile plodding chasers at the fences of the north country to become one of the best Flat riders based in that part of the world. He has become the go-to man for many top stables, and the strength that characterised so many of his triumphs up the hill at Cheltenham is unimpaired even as he rides at 8st9lb on the level.
It took more than a little imagination to predict such elevation for Lee, but the rise of Dominic Fox, particularly over the past three weeks, has been simply astonishing. Around a dozen winners including one on Saturday for Mick Easterby, his only ride of the day, at York’s Ebor meeting – it earned him a six-day ban – continue an unlikely climb.
I remember during the coldest days of the last winter, going to Lingfield with an old friend Roy who happens to be a good mate of Alan Bailey’s. Alan was using Foxy with some good results, especially considering that his tally last year was just two winners while in 2010 and 2009, he didn’t trouble the scorers.
Roy kept telling me “Foxy’s a good jockey, don’t worry about that!” Anyway, in the way of jockey-trainer associations, something happened it seems to disrupt the happy axis, so Foxy had to find other avenues.
My even longer-standing friend Wilf Storey had used the lightweight apprentice – yes he still claims 3lb – over the years and in 2007 when Foxy had three wins for the year, two were for Wilf. He was on board a few of Wilf’s very modest horses in the spring, and then the wily sheep farmer told me, “Foxy’s riding out for Roger Varian!”
The exclamation mark was mine, not Wilf’s but subsequent events have shown that was the key turning point, Varian giving him greater responsibility on the track to such good effect that lots of other trainers are entrusting horses with good chances to his care.
The measure of his amazing catharsis is that in the seven seasons from 2005-11, Foxy rode 17 winners, a tally he’s exceeded by four already this year, with as I’ve said, the bulk of them coming in the last month.
I cannot count the number of times Wilf has repeated Roy’s edict – “He’s a good jockey, did you see that ride at …?” The last time he told me about how good Foxy was, was on Friday morning, after another winner somewhere. That night at Newcastle Foxy rode Wilf’s horse Monthly Medal to victory, with the confidence, style and wisdom of a Piggott, Spencer or Ruby Walsh, Roy’s other great riding hero.
Needless to say, I wasn’t on the 18-1 winner. In the old punting days, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been on then either. Monthly Medal, like most of the horses in Wilf’s stable at the northern tip of Durham cost him very little.
He came from the immensely-talented Tony Mullins, to whom I have one big debt as on the day of Katchit’s Triumph Hurdle, he stopped me as I passed him in mid-telephone call, saying: ”wait a minute”.
He said: “don’t miss my horse in the last”, and Pedrobob duly obliged at 12-1 in the County Hurdle.
Now why would a member of Ireland’s most famous jumping family – brother of Willie Mullins and former rider of Dawn Run – feel inclined to help me along in my hour of need?
Well a few years earlier, I’d told him that if he had a suitable horse to bring over for a gamble, then Wilf Storey would be the kind of guy to land it. After a while a mare came over. She had fair form, but Tony assured us she was better than she so far had shown.
Wilf had trouble getting her fit – she took bags of work, much as another of my Wilf discoveries Fiefdom had done a few years earlier. Anyway she ran, the money was lost and a few days later, to everyone’s, especially Tony’s embarrassment, she was found to be in foal, having apparently run in a paddock with one or more amorous males back home in Ireland.
Well Tony’s Cheltenham intervention must have been impregnated by that old memory, but it had far-reaching implications for me. For that year 2007 was the time I first came into contact with Raymond Tooth, and we met up to watch Punjabi in the Triumph, when he ran fourth to Katchit.
So overall the mood wasn’t great, but as I came back after the encounter with Tony, I told Raymond and his party about the tip. Raymond left before the race, but the driver stopped in a lay-by en route to London for them to listen and Pedrobob came home in front of 27 other hurdlers.
On the following Monday, Raymond invited me to his office in Park Lane, where he offered me the job as his “racing advisor”, but I quickly changed that to Racing Manager – if it’s good enough for Teddy Grimthorpe, it’s good enough for me.
The Mullins, me, Wilf and Foxy Lite story comes full circle, however, with the case of Monthly Medal. A talented, if slightly delicate, for all his size and strength, horse, Monthly Medal was identified by Tony as the horse that could finally erase the embarrassment of the Matronly Mare of yore.
Well the day came, 13 months after his latest winning run in Ireland, and the money was down in a seven furlong claimer at Beverley, incidentally my luckiest track. He came home seventh of nine, miles behind Bolodenka, and for the next ten races, he had just one creditable second to show for it and seemingly his former trainer had forgotten all about it.
Then on Friday came the great day. Now in the ownership of some nice guys who work on the oil rigs near Aberdeen, Monthly Medal got it all right, coming late to win in a style that his old trainer, on the phone as I drove home from Newmarket on Saturday, described thus “He did it well, but it’s taken a bit of time!”
Poor old Tony, but now it’s me that who owes in our occasional relationship. I’m just glad that after he won, Foxy told everyone who wanted to listen that he was so pleased to win for Wilf, as he’d always kept faith in him, just as he had with Graham in his days of few opportunities a decade and more ago.