Sunday Supplement: Cheltenham (and Aintree) Memories

Tony Stafford

Tony Stafford

Sunday supplement, by Tony Stafford

Coming out of Sandown on Saturday evening, I bumped into the Guardian’s Chris Cook, son of the late lamented Labour politician Robin Cook, who asked me: “Are you staying for the Cheltenham Preview?” Having done one myself as reported by Mr Bisogno in last week, and with another on the agenda at the Bedfordshire Racing Club on Cheltenham eve, my intentions were elsewhere.

“Who’s on?” I replied. “Henderson, Nicholls, McCoy…” “Go no further, I’m off!” a response that caused my racing accomplice for the day to suggest my requirements were rather higher than they ought to have been if I could afford to miss the opinions of that trio and whoever else might have been revealed if Chris had been given the chance to finish his sentence.

But then again, what’s the point? Cheltenham’s been rammed down our throats since the first juvenile hurdlers started their campaigns back in June. Ground, soft all winter, firmed up a shade for a couple of weeks. But then Thursday and Friday’s rain guaranteed there would be a mud bath and probably a punting bloodbath for those four days in the Cotswolds.

My own proper punting days are long gone, so in approaching being on a panel as at Billericay the other day, I felt inclined to take more of a purist view than say Barry Dennis, whose laptop kept everyone appraised of recent market moves.

Barry’s lost none of his energetic enthusiasm, or his tendency for good-natured (I think?) bullying as he presents his arguments, but the audience – generous in the extreme in the charity auction – were given what they needed by him and his friend David Johnson, so well connected where the Pipe and Nicholls stables were concerned. As to father and son Quinlan, trainer Noel and jockey Jack, common sense and genuine insight marked their contributions.

David Johnson could hardly have had a better time as a racehorse owner in terms of big-race success with a Grand National triumph and umpteen Cheltenham wins, but before any of that started my own love affair with the Festival got an instantaneous jolt when my dad drove me and a couple of friends there in 1968.

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In those days, the Supreme novice hurdle was known as the Gloucestershire Hurdle and run in two divisions. I was already at the Greyhound Express one year before the era of Sand Star, whom I napped in all four rounds – yes, only four then – as he went unbeaten for an Irish triumph. In the last, as we looked in the paddock, was a big chestnut gelding trained by Dan Moore and ridden by Tommy Carberry, his son-in-law.

We all backed him and he won. His name was L’Escargot, and until the appearances much later of Wayward Lad and recently Punjabi, no jumper challenged him for my affections.

The L’Escargot story was amazing. He was owned, like brilliant Derby winner Sir Ivor and less sparkling Larkspur, by Raymond Guest, a former American Ambassador to Ireland. To say Raymond had a few bob was a bit of an understatement, as he was from the steelmaking Phipps family which even now retains a top place in the US racing and breeding hierarchy as horse royalty.

With those family connections, Guest almost inevitably sent L’Escargot to New York in the days when there was still a credible jumping programme and he promptly won chaser of year principally through victory in the Temple Gwathmey Chase.

Returned to Moore, he was now in that tricky second-season chaser category, but luck was on connections’ side. John Hughes, one of the more original racing officials of his time induced the Wills tobacco group to sponsor a series of chases – the Wills Premier Chase – the final of which was to be run at Haydock, where he was Clerk of the Course.

In 2013, the motivation for me to find winners is almost ceremonial and decorative, but by late 1969 I’d arrived at the Press Association, starting point of Sir Peter O’Sullevan, Harry Carpenter and many others, where my colleagues included Tony Morris and Jonathan Powell, both still very active in the media (Jonathan was at Sandown) soon to be joined by Neil Wilkins, who was there too.

The loose-leaved form book was the constant accompaniment – no computers then – and study thereof suggested that L’Escargot was a good thing for the series. When he narrowly lost the Irish qualifier to Tom Dreaper- (trainer of Arkle) handled East Bound his chance in fact improved for Haydock, as the race’s conditions gave a Qualifier winner a 5lb penalty in the Final.

Hughes then framed his big card with a handicap hurdle also sponsored by Wills, and on the Tuesday in early January I looked minutely at the weights and reckoned that Ryan Price had the answer in the shape of a progressive type called Some Jest.

Then came what I believe was the forerunner of the Pricewise plan of attack. Phone the Hills, Corals, Ladbrokes and Tote offices and ask if they’d had any money for anything in the Wills Handicap Hurdle or Premier Chase? Every day there was a quote from one or other of Some Jest shortening, and the racing brief we sent to the papers duly appeared in the papers the next morning. I’d taken 20-1 Some Jest, 9-4 L’Escargot and a little double, as well as backing L’Escargot at 16-1 for the Gold Cup – he must shorten if he wins at Haydock, mustn’t he?

After the initial bulletin, Some Jest was down to 12’s and by Friday he was 4-1 favourite. On the day he drifted to 10-1 but won comfortably while L’Escargot made hard work of beating East Bound, but beat him he did.

So then it was off to Cheltenham. I had a little press up at 20-1 and again at 25’s so on the train going up I pretty much decided I didn’t need to have any more on. Well L’Escargot duly won, at 33-1 and when he won it again the following year in a mud bath which has rarely been replicated since the installation of what some might have said over-efficient drainage, he was setting a standard that only Best Mate and Kauto Star (with a gap) have repeated.

Yet those were merely the first three phases of the L’Escargot story. A Cheltenham-winning novice, US chasing champ and then dual Gold Cup hero, would have been enough for most horses. Fourth in 1972, his attentions, with pale blue hood affixed to denote senior indolence, were transferred to the Grand National.

In 1973, his first attempt, he carried 12st joint top-weight with the heroic runner-up Crisp, but the pair had the misfortune of meeting the on-the-up Aintree legend Red Rum, who was getting 23lb from them. I watched that race in an office in the Daily Telegraph, where I’d arrived the previous year. Red Rum had been my weights-day tip in the paper, one of nine winners of the race I found in my 30 years there.

As I screamed Brian Fletcher home, I had more than a passing interest in L’Escargot, feeling almost a traitor in ignoring him. That was the year he was almost on the deck at Becher’s, but he roared home for a 25 lengths third. In ‘74, he was the seven-length runner-up to Rummy, now getting 1lb from the top-weighted winner.

Then came the final career-making statement as in 1975, the pair came to the last alongside and clear of the field. Fletcher, destined to be replaced for Red Rum’s final two runs in the race by Tommy Stack, turned to Carberry and said generously and famously: “Go on Tommy, it’s yours!” and it was, L’Escargot receiving 11lb from the Aintree god, winning by 15 lengths with Spanish Steps a doughty third.

Red Rum became the best known horse of all time when Grand National winner for the third time in 1977 after two second places, as a 12-year-old back on the track where he won (dead-heated) his first ever race in a two-year-old seller ten years earlier. I reckon though that L’Escargot, two years his senior, deserves much greater acclaim than he ever gets for his class and versatility. Not quite Rummy, but somewhere near. I’ll be thinking of him as I retrace the miles west down the M40 on Tuesday morning.

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