By Tony Stafford
Not much happened in the past two weeks, just the Breeders’ Cup, AP McCoy’s 4,000th winner and the end of the 2013 Flat-race season at Doncaster on Saturday.
I suppose pride of place must go to AP, a man who until his 3,000th win or thereabouts would have qualified for Mr Grumpy, such was his unwavering ambition and drive above all else. But like so many driven characters, a happy marriage and two doted-on children have transformed him.
Where once there was apparent disdain, now there is an awareness of his role that almost single-handed has given racing a focal point. Much praise should also heap on Great British Racing, who helped orchestrate the final push to 4,000 and kept the press and TV fully informed and helped develop the public’s awareness.
McCoy’s embracing of the event at Towcester, with family at the forefront before he painstakingly excused himself to weigh in – “I’ll be straight back” – and then the celebrations with JP McManus and Jonjo O’Neill, the pair who have accelerated the momentum for this unique character’s latter active years as a jockey.
Then it was off to the Outside Chance in Manton village, a pub I know better than almost any other since my Fleet Street days at any rate, where AP’s celebrants included Toby Balding, the man who brought him across from Ireland all those years ago from Jim Bolger’s yard; and Martin Pipe, the ideal collaborator in many of his championship seasons.
Pipe and his main patron, the late David Johnson, with McCoy were an irresistible trio for many years and it was a poignant moment on Saturday at Wincanton when David’s old colours were carried to victory by Standing Ovation, trained by David Pipe on a day when McCoy set off on his fifth thousand with yet another winner at the same track.
Johnson chose a reverse version of the late Robert Sangster’s colours and such was his success that they were more often visible than Sangster’s in the prime Pipe years. Strangely, McCoy, a non-drinker, is now a partner in the Outside Chance with Robert’s son Guy as well as Howard Spooner. The pub is just a five-minute drive from the Sangster family’s Manton estate.
Toby Balding’s health has not been brilliant, but as well as joining the McCoy celebrations, he was fit enough to make it to Doncaster where his Astral Hall ran in the Listed fillies’ race. It was an awful day and my choice to leave the sports jacket in the car and don the raincoat despite sunny conditions at midday, paid a big dividend.
The ground was desperate, but with winners like Jack Dexter and the William Haggas-trained Conduct, who ran away with the November Handicap as the trainer ended like Andrew Balding with his first century, it was quite a classy day.
There was quite a feel-good factor too. Doncaster’s big days bring out the locals who generally dress very well especially in the top enclosure and it was heaving with people. One thing for sure is that young females of this generation have much longer legs than their predecessors – ask trainer Ian Williams, who cast an approving eye on at least one set as I happened to be walking past.
The Breeders’ Cup was sensational. When I used to tag along with the Thoroughbred Corporation a decade and more ago, two of my regular comrades were Willie Carson, European racing manager to Prince Ahmed bin Salman and Gary Stevens, the stable jockey in the US.
Gary, who also spent time in England with Sir Michael Stoute and then in France, has had a long and involved career, but now aged 50, he has come back from seven years’ retirement, a brilliant acting role in Seabiscuit and a TV pundit’s career to win the Classic and the other big race – the Distaff – on Beholder on the Santa Anita card.
Willie was there too, winning with partners Christopher Wright and Ellie Asprey via the Charlie Hills-trained Chriselliam in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, with Richard Hughes in the saddle.
Ryan Moore had a fair couple of days too, especially with his riding of Magician in the Turf race. Of Britain’s four best-known current jockeys, only Frankie Dettori missed out following that freak injury at Nottingham which cost him big-race wins on Treve and Olympic Glory.
I don’t know whether Hughesie is too bothered about football, but I do know that AP, Ryan and Frankie will all be cheering in the same direction as me as Manchester United try to stave off the Arsenal juggernaut this afternoon. The worry for me is that United often get a penalty – a la Chelsea – and we have someone sent off, maybe Flamini? Can’t wait, whatever the outcome.