Yesterday was one of those days. Perverse, unpredictable and, ultimately, encapsulating all of “the glorious uncertainty” in a single afternoon. Allow me to draw the picture for you…
My chauffeur for the day was Sunday Supplement’s Tony Stafford and, as I appeared for our 9.30am pick up outside the little Tesco on Well St with a couple of flat whites (or “poncy coffees”, as Tony called them – “too much bloody milk”), we looked set fair for a cold but sunny afternoon.
The destination? Fakenham racecourse. The reason for the jaunt? A horse called Slipper Satin, bought cheaply by Noel Quinlan for a bit of fun, and bought into cheaply by myself and ‘Councillor Jim’ Cannon to the tune of a shared quarter (or an eighth each if you prefer), was running in a maiden hurdle. A maiden trip to Fakenham for a maiden hurdle.
We’d bought into Slipper after an encouraging debut where, despite kicking every timber impediment from its foundation, she ran on well for a reasonably close third in the Lingfield mud. That promise failed to replicate itself in two spins on the all weather, the first of which was a disaster day from a punting front as she ran pancake flat after I’d been assured she had a great chance.
Whilst there was cash lost in that initial spin on the beach, there was at least a crumb of merit in her effort, beaten just six lengths. Her second sand exertion offered less hope, as she sunk in the Southwell swamp, walloped by 32 lengths.
So it was that the initial promise of Slipper Satin’s heavy ground hurdling debut was masked somewhat by two hapless subsequent outings, albeit in an altogether different sphere. It was hope not expectation that fueled the mind as we trundled up the M11 bound for darkest Norfolk.
Those who look to the heavens for their portents may have turned back before Newmarket as the watery early sun gave way first to a few spots of rain, and then to a deluge of near biblical proportions.
As we aquaplaned cautiously forwards, the phone rang. It was Noel, trainer of Slipper Satin, and of two other engaged nags on the day. He was headed to Southwell with the other pair, he said, but we’d be greeted by the fairer members of Clan Q, wife Jo and daughter Jessica, as well – of course – as our pilot, the vastly underrated Jack Quinlan.
Noel related that Slipper had schooled well since her clumsy debut, and that we’d be doing our best to grab second behind the Henderson hotpot, and we had a fighting chance of achieving that. He also said that he felt The Doyle Machine was his best chance up at Southwell and Fire In Babylon was unpredictable and not to be trusted.
Just before closing, and as the line crackled and intermittently muted, he mentioned that there was a buzz in Newmarket of another gamble, this time on a Mandy Rowland horse, “Prohibit… or something”. As I was fumbling with my phone, begging for a signal somewhere in the windswept rain-lashed wilds of Suffolk, I finally managed to call up an odds comparison page. There were two horses trained (and, ostensibly at least, owned) by Mandy Rowland in the 5.00 Kempton and, at the time I was able to check, both were around the 7/1 mark.
One was called Prohibition, which was very similar to what I’d heard those weather-interrupted moments before. The problem, though, was that the other – Pipers Piping – was being backed. Heavily backed. No matter, I rolled with what (I thought) I’d heard. £50 e/w Prohibition at 7/1.
As the two and a half hour journey unfolded, and the rain gave way once more to pale sun, Tony regaled me with a few more anecdotes from his encyclopedia of racing tales, some of which are more printable than others, and one of the more pertinent of which he will narrate on Sunday. However, the snippet which really caught my attention – after only a light morning repast – was the one about the legendary Fakenham hog roast. This, I was told, was not to be missed. Racecourse food being what it is, I took this as being a pork bap damned with faint praise, but was more than happy to give it a whirl.
At last, we arrived at the track. There, we were met by George, a former Telegraph racing colleague of Tony’s, and Roger, Yarmouth’s toppest of top men. Proper racing people. Different backgrounds each, but all united by a lifelong affection for the turf, and not necessarily the good stuff either. I considered myself fortunate to be among these racing fonts, as I always do. For us racing nuts who spend most of our lives in the company of those who don’t ‘get’ it, it is a treat just to be in the midst of other racing fans.
And Fakenham on a cold Wednesday – it’s always cold there, I’m reliably informed – was a surprisingly lively place. A mug of tea (proper mug, no paper or polystyrene in sight) in the Long Bar later, and the worst of the cold was dispatched. It was hog roast time.
Well I never. Granted, I had low expectations despite the trumpet fanfare with which this meaty meal in a roll had been presented. But I was gobsmacked – literally – by the vast sumptuousness of the rightly lauded roasted hog. A fresh floury bap, unhinged in order to accommodate its sliced porcine guests, was a job to hold. Inside was the equivalent of two roast dinner’s worth of moist juicy pork, two generous slices of sausagemeat stuffing, and five (I counted them as I ate them) pieces of tender but crispy crackling. There was no room for apple sauce, and the job of closing the bun around its bulging contents was a futile one: instead I gorged from its open mouth.
Five quid. Delicious. Worth the trip, almost. Cholesterol checkup booked.
As the early afternoon whiled away pleasantly in the company of Tony and chums, we bumped into John Parrott, snooker champion and big racing fan. Parrott was himself passing time before an evening speaking gig in Norwich at one of the few tracks he’d yet to visit. He was kind enough to cheer my nag in leg two at Gowran Park, and seemed more gutted than me when it was nutted on the line by The Winkler. In truth, it was an early mercy killing for a bet that suffered two more deaths before the six legs were up.
Despite the absence of ‘live’ backed winners and the early defeat of my limped-in Gowran Pick 6, it was nearing three o’clock, Slipper time. There’s not much of Slipper Satin, a daughter of Excellent Art. Excellent Art is better known for siring horses over shorter trips and in fact has had just eleven National Hunt runners to date. Three of those have won, the pick of which is Runswick Royale, who also ran second in the Aintree four-year-old Grade 1 last year.
The dam, In The Ribbons, is an In The Wings mare, and both sides of Slipper Satin’s pedigree imply deep ground is favourable. That seemed to be the case when she swam home third at Lingers in mid-November, and we hoped it would be the case this day, as the official going predictably eased from soft to heavy.
She looked a touch unhappy in the the saddling boxes but by the time Jack was taking her down to post, she had ears pricked and toe pointed. She went down well. The race was an eight runner maiden hurdle, but it was reduced to seven – and therefore only two places – after the withdrawal of 100/1 outsider, Choral Bee. My intended each way play was shelved. I didn’t expect us – or any other horse – to beat the 2/5 favourite, Earth Amber, and I didn’t want to play for a single place.
I also didn’t like the 11/10 offering on Betfair, despite that being for three places. So I left her unbacked. Actually, I had £20 at 5/2 without the favourite. But that is as good as unbacked, relatively speaking.
Earth Amber was second on her hurdling debut, six lengths behind the potentially smart Wadswick Court (official rating of 136 now). Previously, she’d been rated 94 on the flat and was sent off a 10/1 shot in the Group 3 Sagaro Stakes behind subsequent Gold Cup winner, Estimate. She was expected to win convincingly here.
But Fakenham doesn’t suit all horses. I knew it was a quirky track but, seeing it up close and in its entirety, I really hadn’t appreciated the angular nature of its turns and the fairly pronounced dips and rises, the last of which climbs stamina-sappingly to the line.
Slipper Satin was sent off the 14/1 third favourite, with 5/1 Kathleen Frances – officially rated 104 – clear second choice. Seas Of Green was a 16/1 chance, and Miss Fortywinks was 20/1. The rest were unconsidered by the market. They set off, and it was a very tightly grouped field, as is so often the case at this paint-scraper’s circuit.
A mile and a bit into the contest, Slipper Satin was jumping well, but it was difficult to see how she was travelling as the field jogged away from the stands for the final time. In the throng, she’d been shuffled back to last, and Jack sensibly took a wide course thereafter. As soon as he did, Slipper grabbed the bit and cruised around the squabbling sextet in opposition.
Down the back straight she’d assumed a very close third, approaching the second last she’d taken it up from Miss Fortywinks. Jack let out a bit of rein and, gosh… really? I asked Tony if that was Slipper going clear in the twinkling of my labouring eye. He confirmed that indeed it was. If my eye was labouring, that was nothing in comparison to Slipper’s rivals, the closest of which was the Hendo hotpot.
Jack took his time approaching the last, such was his advantage, and popped that final hurdle in effective rather ebullient fashion. His, and her, job was done. They cruised to the line in splendid, scarcely believable, isolation, officially sixteen lengths too good for the best of the rest. Unofficially, she might have been good for 25 lengths had the jockey needed/wanted to ride her out. But what was the point?
This was the sort of ‘head in chest’ job that owners dream of, and it was our own Slipper Satin whose pretty little visage was brushing her pretty little bosom!
The debrief was, naturally, a lot of fun. Photos, chat with the Post reporter, chat with the jockey, and the trainer’s wife. Presentation. Glass of fizz. Lovely bubbly.
We sloped off before the next, and dialed into the 4.10 Southwell, where Noel’s last entry was racing. I’d had a tenner each way on The Doyle Machine earlier in the afternoon – you know it, fourth – but both Tony and I had left Fire In Babylon unbacked. So, it seemed by his 16/1 odds, had everyone else. He bolted up. The trainer had had three runners, and two winners, one of them co-owned by me, and the only horse of the three I’d backed was the loser!
We were in Brandon by just before five o’clock, and spied a bookies. Parking up as they were entering the stalls, we scouted the odds. Pipers Piping, the ‘other’ Mandy Rowland horse, was 6/4. Six to four! Prohibition was 16/1. Sixteen to one! What an idiot I am. I’d clearly, obviously backed the wrong one. Bugger.
They left the gate, all thirteen of them. One was a step slow. It was Prohibition. Hmm, I thought, cursing my luck and looking to locate the plunge horse. He was traveling all right in about fourth place and ideally situated. Meanwhile, Prohibition was taking the brave man’s (or non-trier’s!) route up the inside, fairly far back.
But. But… they had gone off quickly and, as it turned out, too quickly. Prohibition’s waiting tactics, whether by accident or design, had seen him appear on the scene with something left to give when all bar Ryedale Lass had cried enough. By the jam stick, even she was two lengths adrift and, in the most unlikely of circumstances, I’d stolen a grand from Stoke’s finest. This truly was my day…
As the dust settled, it was time to take a more clinical perspective on the events of the afternoon. My thoughts currently are thus:
It was a bad race: a Class 5 maiden hurdle at Fakenham. It was bad ground: heavy. The favourite failed to act on the track, labouring from some way out.
Despite that, Slipper Satin was no fluke winner and she is clearly a smarter hurdler than flat horse. 104-rated Kathleen Frances was beaten 55 lengths. That one may be regressive though and, in my opinion, the handicapper has a near impossible job in rating the winner, given the under-performances behind.
Nevertheless, the field was a collective half a mile from home and, by the line, 55 lengths separated the only four finishers. Two other pulled up, and Miss Fortywinks suffered an undeserved tired fall at the last. To scamper away in that fashion from a packing field is meritorious in any grade and against any opposition, and it is that which excites me most.
Let’s be clear: the use of the word ‘superstar’ in the headline of this post is misappropriated hyperbole of the first order. And yet, there is reason to dream. Perhaps Slipper Satin can win a Class 4 novice hurdle next time. Perhaps even a little handicap. Perhaps she might even go on to do something of greater note thereafter.
She remains enticingly unexposed as a hurdler and, though her profile is somewhat different to her trainer’s 94-flat-rated Fred Winter winner, Silk Affair, it is not so very different to 65-flat-rated Triumph Hurdle winner, Mysilv. It’s a quantum step from where she is to those (impossibly?) lofty heights, but Slipper Satin has found her metier and she has yet to burst our bubble. Our own little Sprinter Sacre, or Sprinter Splatter for her mud-loving predilection, perhaps.
Let’s see what happens…