By Tony Stafford
I had a lovely day on Saturday. Any day that starts for me on some gallops in whatever part of the country I happen to be in at that particular moment has the propensity for loveliness. On Saturday it happened to be Newmarket’s Al Bahathri Polytrack.
I was there to watch a couple of my boss Raymond Tooth’s horses, in the hope that they were not going the way of too many others in this barren year. The reference to a lovely day suggests a little more optimism as to the immediate future, but nice work on the gallops often tends to be illusory.
It’s very nice, though, to arrive at the gates after the end of the Bury Road and be confronted in the last moments before the light arrives by the sight of trainers and jockeys you know.
There was William Haggas and son Sam, in whose scruffy car we were to pile a few minutes later, for the always testing drive along the tree-lined track. Sam managed to hit both sleeping policeman while dad rebuked him as to the condition of the car’s interior. I managed to sit on a half-full two litre bottle of water without quite causing a liquid explosion, at the same time banging my head on the roof as he hit the first bump.
We met Michael and Richard Hills. I saw Michael first and said “Hello, Michael.” Then Richard appeared on my right. “Hello, Richard,” I said, relieved to get it right. After knowing them for decades, the only way I ever got them right was that Richard would be wearing a blue jacket and blue and white striped cap. His crash helmet on Saturday was blue and white stripes! He still rides out and like all his brothers, is an absolute gent.
Eddie Ahern, the pleasantest of chaps, was there and then as we watched Roger Varian’s first lot make their pre-gallop circle, there was Paul Hanagan, while minutes later Sir Michael Stoute, who heralded his arrival with a curious loud barking sound at some recalcitrant jockey, hove into view with one unknown associate, and the wonderful Ryan Moore, who showed out to me with a quiet signalled “hi”. Hope he wins the Arc, he’s been so unlucky with injuries.
Then again, I also hope Camelot wins it for my mates Michael, John and Derrick – sorry I can’t join them this time – and then it would be lovely if Yellow and Green could win for my favourite Frenchman – apart from Claude Charlet – and trainer of our ex horse French Fifteen, the urbane Nicolas Clement, who fancies her for a place.
Jeremy Noseda was in prime position as we arrived at the impromptu little wooden stand awaiting the work of his in-form horses. Jeremy had on his customary work morning and sales headgear, a massive wide-brimmed effort that evokes the South African bush. Works for him and his horses it seems.
Jeremy was there, his horses went past and suddenly he ghosted away. Seven or eight of us had climbed up to replace him, and the joint weight – well mine alone – might have been thought a severe test for the structure, but it held and the horses seemed to go all right. You never know though. As one friend Derek says whenever I tell him something or other went well, “They have to do it on the track.” Wise words, Mr Hatter, but it’s nice to know that you won’t necessarily need a miracle to transform crap work into racecourse success.
For the next two weeks it’s sales time in Newmarket. For most people, agents, trainers and would-be owners, it’s about the horses and buying the right one. We have a lovely Dubawi filly in on the third day of this week’s Tattersall’s Book 1, probably the world’s most significant sale along with Keeneland September in Kentucky.
For me, though, it’s more a gastronomic tour-de-force often starting with breakfast, and John Hancock has already booked me in as his ten o’clock Tuesday in the buffet restaurant, where the breakfast is the thing to have.
After first lot with William, I went across to Park Paddocks and the sale to meet the Dubawi filly – she is out of a half-sister to Raymond’s great miler Indian Ink – and her consignor Tom Whelan. Tom was recommended to prepare her for the sale by agent Amanda Skiffington, who saw her last year and encouraged Raymond to buy her.
I’d had a couple of chats on the phone with Tom, but it was great to meet him and also discover mutual connections in this wonderful game of ours. Tom told me his son Ronan leads the Irish apprentice race by 12 winners and is with Jim Bolger, with whom I once had a close connection. Jim has gone ever onward and upward since those days, I’ve merely gone. I’m now a friend of the father of a future champion jockey, but then I already am William Buick’s dad Walter’s friend, too!
The Dubai filly arrived on Friday and was going to be prettied up for future inspection, so I had to wait to meet her and Tom also, but luckily Ted Voute, one of the kings of yearling consignors happened to be located in the adjoining section of N barn.
So here’s the first sales catering tip. Lots of the major consignors offer refreshments to the potential buyers. Go along and look like you’re interested in one of his. Ted immediately offered a coffee – I was first there at 8 a.m. – and meanwhile wife and daughter were busying themselves in readiness for the rush.
My attention was drawn to a couple of Brevill sandwich makers, and it soon emerged that daughter had been up half the night turning three loaves of white sliced bread into ham and cheese sandwiches. “Would you like…” Mrs Ted started to ask, and before the words “something to eat” had passed her lips, I’d accepted a toasted sandwich. They did a double offering, cut in quarters, and I’m proud to say I desisted after three bits – less than half! Such restraint.
Of course, with maybe an hour to wait for Tom and the filly to be ready for me, it was off to the car for a read – well rather to the staff canteen across the way, and the discovery that the full English – egg, bacon, sausage, beans, mushrooms and tomato, two of toast (marmalade and jam available) and a cup of tea was only a fiver.
Had to have it, but I’m not telling John Hancock, or else he’ll want to come down off the top-priced version we have in the main restaurant. On second thoughts, he won’t because for the duration of the sale that room is John’s office and his clients need to know where to find him.
Then it was back to Tom by which time the trail of agents coming through went from a trickle to the anticipation of an imminent flood.
There was Cormac McCormac, whom my stunt man friend Roy always refers to as MrCormac McCormac – then again he styles the talented young Italian trainer “Michael” Botti. Oliver St Lawrence, and Jonno Mills, Dick O’Gorman and Jill Lamb, were soon on view – a veritable agents’ who’s who. They actually look at all 500 odd yearlings. Hope someone likes ours, or we’ll have to keep her and find a trainer.
The races were nice, principally lunch in the owners’ room where the buffet featured the best ham I’ve ever eaten, since the last time in the Limekilns Room at any rate, and some ace tuna and jacket potato. Megan Nicholls won the pony race and my surveyor pal Peter Ashmore was livid that her horse only paid £2.50. “When she won at Kempton she was 1-10 and the Tote paid 4-1!” he moaned. How soon old people forget. She was actually 1-4 and paid £3.90 that day, but it was still Peter’s biggest win of the year.
Paul Hanagan beat Hughesie in a tight finish to the most valuable sales race and probably clinched the trainer’s title for Mr Gosden over Mr Hannon, unless Mr O’Brien intervenes on Champions Day, and then it was off home to watch Arsenal beat West Ham.
It was just a lovely day!