Sunday Supplement: The Slipped Triple Crown

Tony Stafford

Tony Stafford: Sunday Supplement

Sunday supplement 

by Tony Stafford

Nice bloke that Lee Westwood. Supports Nottingham Forest, you know. I was in the box at Doncaster on Saturday and had a nice chat with him. While I was watching the closing stages of the golf last weekend when he played so well in company with Rory McIlroy, I didn’t get the impression of what a big bloke he is. No wonder he had plenty of the beef on his plate. Nice catering at Doncaster.

He said on the telly after his great effort that he would be going home for the week before returning for the $10million shoot-out in the Players Championship, starting on Thursday. I hope either he or Rory wins it.

Lee probably needs it more, especially with Hoof It recovering from a Hobday operation and Mrs Lee – sister I believe to Andrew Coltart, she’s neat and Scottish anyway – needing a few dollars to pay for the move to Florida.

Mrs Lee looks a very nice lady, with a bit of a wee sparkle in the eye. Whether it’s because she recently read THAT book, you know the saucy one that people like her who “never read” have read and the one you see people with on the bus and the tube. I don’t even know the name of it and cannot be bothered to track it down via google!

At one time, while I got down to the serious business of choosing whether it would be summer pudding or that chocolate concoction that would round off my repast – I’d started with the smoked salmon – Lee’s famous trainer, Mr Michael Easterby, he of the interesting trousers and many thousands of acres, emerged over the threshold.

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“Lee, he’s got another horse for you”, said someone, a frivolous comment that threatened to make Mrs Lee bridle with Scottish anxiety at the waste of more good money. But that soon passed over.

If I can relate a Mick Easterby story, which also emanates from a day at Doncaster, in this case a summer evening, and concerns a case of mistaken identity.

I was at Doncaster to witness a runner for Prince Ahmed Salman’s Thoroughbred Corporation – the green and white stripes that no longer adorn the British turf, following his sad death a decade ago. In those days, along with Willie Carson I was part of the entourage, dealing among other things with securing boxes at the last minute, and it was in one of said boxes that we watched a two-year-old win a seller with alacrity.

I suggested this horse could have potential and was despatched to bid for it at auction. The easy part was getting it, the hard part trying to work out who would train it. Then the Prince had a brainwave, saying: “Who’s that funny guy? He’s a trainer from the north.”

Always willing to help, and with the capacity always to make two and two five, I had a Eureka moment. Mick Easterby! I suggested. And so, through the good offices of his nephew Tim, who trained for Thoroughbred Corp at the time, the two-year-old found its way to Mick. There was no great outcome in terms of results from the horse, but a couple of weeks later at Newbury, closure of sorts was effected.

“There’s the trainer I was talking about!” exclaimed the prince, pointing to an exceedingly portly gentleman, at least 35 years younger than Mick and dressed rather more sartorially, given that his bulk necessitated similarly generous garments to my own. It was Charles Egerton, Etonian, future London Marathon hero and like Easterby a genius trainer, but landed gentry rather than lifelong-scrimping Yorkshire landowner.

I related the story to Mick for about the third time on Saturday, and Lee listened with some gentle amusement. Don’t suppose it took his mind off next week’s $10 million possible payoff, or his upcoming responsibility at the St Leger winner’s presentation.

Like all of us in that particular box, Lee will have been rooting for Camelot, along in his case with Nottingham Forest.  Later, long after the presentation to Simon Crisford for Encke, whose turn of foot at the crucial time was the difference as Camelot did not instantly find the acceleration that had characterised all his earlier efforts, I saw Forest had fallen behind, but I didn’t want to upset our golfing hero.

In the car on the way home, they had gone 2-0 down, but rallied to 2-2. Lee’ll be happy.  Among the inner circle of the Camelot brigade, only Paul Smith, son of Chelsea fan Derrick, shares my and my pal Harry Taylor’s Arsenal allegiance, but his team’s 6-1 romp was almost an ironic sidebar to the deprivation of history for the great horse.

This defeat will be considered, like most Premier League reverses, in black and white by most people. In truth it will make no difference to his status as a great or even his future prospects at Coolmore stud as the true successor to his own recently deceased sire Montjeu. To win what he has in the style he achieved it was far out of the ordinary.

Earlier, as I stood on the balcony on the far point of the stand’s fourth floor looking over the daunting five-furlong straight, I must say I felt trepidation at what this horse was attempting. In my and indeed Michael Tabor, John Magnier and Derrick Smith’s lifetime, only Nijinsky (1970) followed Bahran (1935) as a Triple Crown winner.

On Saturday, it was not just the quality of horse that stood in the way of Aidan, Anne-Marie, Joseph and the three other young O’Briens’ making history, it was some exceptional trainers, John Gosden, Sir Henry Cecil, Mahmood Al Zarooni, David Lanigan, Tommy Carmody/ Johnny Murtagh and William Haggas that challenged the favourite.

In the pre-parade I was struck by the size and strength of all the runners, even pacemaker Dartford, and when I talked briefly to William Haggas when the Highclere team, which included Tory ex-minster Michael Howard, stepped away, he said: “It would be a great race, even without Camelot”.

He like me considers the St Leger – brought to new vibrancy by the ever-astute Mike Dillon and sponsors Ladbrokes – virtually a two-mile race, and it was in that context that Camelot’s initial inability to quicken instantly should be judged. I prefer to remember his brave, albeit unavailing last-furlong effort which clawed back almost all the three lengths by which Mikael Barzalona went clear of him.

It was an event to round off that amazing summer of sport and if not the right result for all of us in that box, and most racing fans, it showed the enduring appeal of horse racing. There’s no certainty in racing, just as Rory McIlroy must be aware there’s no certainty in golf. Especially if Mrs Lee reads that book again!

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