By Tony Stafford
I digress. I always do, and I’d already got halfway down when I thought I’d go back to the top and warn you all of what you probably already knew. Yes, I truly do digress, all the time.
I like Sunday mornings. I was looking forward especially to this one, a relaxed drive down the A303 for the extra meeting at Wincanton to watch Fair Trade win for the first time over hurdles, all the time rehearsing my post-race interview with Racing UK.
Yesterday was less relaxed. Yet again Roger the faithful driver was being unfaithful, his car overheating between Yarmouth and the Acle straight, so it was down to me to go up to Doncaster, as it had been four days earlier as he couldn’t drive me to Chantilly as he’s let his passport lapse.
That wasn’t his first misdemeanour either. On the day French Fifteen won his Criterium International, I duly called him at 5 a.m. to ask whether he was in the car park outside or in the road. “Sorry, mate” came the dulcet Nuneaton tones – his family lived next door to Larry Grayson, or Billy Breen as he was correctly labelled! – “I’m on the M11 and I couldn’t call you as my phone’s run out.” Talking of phones, the Hales’ and the Breens had a party line – remember those? – and Roger’s mum used to pick up the phone only to find Billy already talking. He’d hear the click and go into the campest tales imaginable, just for mum’s entertainment.
Fair enough, Saint-Cloud is not much further than Chantilly, and being that much older this week than in October 2011, I felt rather pleased with myself being able to cope with the drive. The earlier occasion was more taxing. Primed for a nice kip on the way down, I’d had to do the lot myself, watch the race, collect the Group 1 trophies and refuse any of the many offers of champagne before starting back.
Last week, I had the luxury of an overnight stay with Nicolas Clement, in the guest cottage in the grounds of his Chantilly stables, after a comfortable evening shared with two other trainers, father and son – from La Rochelle. They had three runners on the next day’s card and Monsieur senior, who had given the young Nicolas his first spell of learning the game outside what he picked up from his own very talented father Miguel when he was just 16, so 32 years ago, brought a wicker basket filled with oysters.
I’m a total novice with oysters save when in the very early days, a press do at one of the smarter shellfish emporia in Central London featured a bravura performance by the celebrated Guardian/ Independent journalist Richard Baerlein.
Generally best known as a shrewdie who earmarked the winner of the Schweppes most years after consulting his even-shrewder mate Capt Ryan Price, Baerlein also specialised in picking out the Derby winner. But I digress.
Even greater than his capacity for backing/unearthing winners, was his ability to consume oysters. As it was a press do, and therefore a freebie, Richard set down with a will, announcing eventually that as he’d managed ten dozen he’d stop, although I believe he’d managed double that as a younger gourmand – greedy git to you if unlike me you’re no linguist.
Anyway last Tuesday night we ate the oysters, I had six and loved them. They tasted of pepper mainly with a hint of lemon, probably because I doused them with the former and added a soupcon of the latter. Once I got used to the sensation of slimy things sliding down my throat, I was fine.
Then there was a fantastic stew, made by Nicolas’ Moroccan housekeeper, cheese galore and after the white wine some Armagnac. Slept OK, but up in time for 6.30, so really 5.30 to me and you, and a deluge. Then it was off to Les Reservoirs, the Classic-hopefuls’ gallop just down the road for first lot and Raymond’s Medicis colt showed he is getting near a first run with a fair effort in the deep ground. Later I was on Les Aigles, a wondrous single field of perhaps 40 hectares, with gallops going every which way.
A little man in a raincoat with a pen and notebook came over on Les Reservoirs and asked the trainer the identity of the 16 horses working. Grass gallops cost a lot to maintain and owners of each horse in the team using the facility will find an 11 Euro charge appearing on their France Galop account. (Back in England a couple of days later, I learned that the Newmarket gallops men are particularly vigilant when it comes to outsiders using the Links schooling facilities and a visit there sets one back double the French charge I believe).
Were you aware that it’s expensive owning horses? Note to self: How did I get here? I was going to talk about a whole load of things that caught my eye in the Racing Post extra bit as I had my calorie-counting-one-egg-on-toast-and-strong -tea in the Turkish café. Mine host supports Fenerbahce, while the men in the paper shop next door make obscene gestures when he sings their praises, and laud Galatasaray. Our team are still in Europe, unlike yours, he (we) say. I could have told you that like Steve Palmer, I found cohabitation and punting in the lemming-like way he does and I did, do not work. Reckon the bird might go before he’s fully cured.
Tony Morris, who keeps talking about his 50 years in racing journalism with Geoff Lester on the rails on 49, is on a diet and wins a grand off Hill’s Graham Sharp if he gets down to 12st. I should have been on a diet when I first met the pair of them maybe five years into his stint when I was as good at doing my brains and filling my stomach as Tony was at going down the Kings and Keys and falling asleep and missing his stop on the train home.
Alastair Down was writing about Jack Berry. I was going to recall the night in Louisville when Jack and Jo Berry and their owners, the well-known breeders Mr and Mrs David, former England fast bowler, Brown, got a lift from me from the hotel in the Thoroughbred Corporation’s Lincoln limo which I was driving during a Breeders’ Cup weekend.
Alastair also provokes more than a few memories. My own are often foggy, but I know Alastair used to come in for casual shifts at the Telegraph when I was Racing Editor. Like all the other casuals over the years, apparently, his principal role was conveying my bets to Corals across the road. I made some impression on Mr Down who says: “You invented Jim Bolger”, on which topic I have nothing more to add.
But I digress. There was no trip to Wincanton as the rain meant Fair Trade yet again would not have his ground. I tell you now, without fear or favour, that he’ll win half the track when he gets it and Alan King assured me it’ll soon dry up.
Doncaster was OK, even if Lewisham on his first run for Raymond Tooth was nosed out in the maiden. Still a fine first effort which shows he’s still got plenty of ability since joining us and Ralph Beckett. Ryan Moore kept apologising after a miracle ride was only just countered by an equally inspired Jamie Spencer on a highly-regarded David Barron three-year-old. The Flat is back and it’s great! See you at Newmarket and Newbury.
But I digress.