By Tony Stafford
I’ve always loved Kempton, right back to the days when the family used to go there by coach for the Easter meetings. The stand where they now house the mechanical equipment to work the track was where we were situated and I remember the old Guineas trials where the horses were still around three furlongs from home when they passed us. It amazed me that the leaders at that point could finish unplaced!
Project forward a couple of decades and my Easter Monday dream day when Tangognat won the maiden in a field of 14 which included a multi-million pound Abdullah acquisition (when he still bought rather than bred yearlings) and the future winner of the Italian St Leger, trained by Ian Balding. He was second, but we won by 20 lengths.
Seven years ago yesterday, I was there to see Punjabi’s 19-length romp in the Adonis Hurdle and afterwards met Raymond Tooth as he supped his winner’s champagne in the little room that has now been subsumed by the new, much better owners’ bar. Within a month I was working for him and happily Punjabi is still around, a Champion Hurdle and some Irish big-race wins on his honour roll.
I wasn’t at Sunbury this weekend, forsaking the delights of those intriguing trials – as Nicky Henderson largely did in his case because of the heavy ground – for Lingfield’s prize-money bonanza as my mate Harry wanted to watch Jeremy Noseda win with thrown-in Grandeur in the Winter Derby Trial.
He surely did, but may forego the Winter Derby itself as owner Yvonne Jacques wants to stop off in Dubai before coming back for the real big-money day at Lingfield on Good Friday.
One sadness on Saturday was that the Racing Post no longer sponsors the valuable handicap chase. It seemed odd when for a couple of years, the race name had suddenly morphed into the Racing Plus chase. I think I’ve bought that weekends-only publication three or four times when the usually reliable Post fails to manage the two-mile journey from Canary Wharf as far as Hackney Wick. But when I have, and on the few days when it’s been dolled out free at a racecourse, I’ve been struck by how helpful the format must be for betting shop punters, with races coming in race time sequence regardless of meeting.
The advertising was great, too. The TV ads that said: “Bloodstock, throw it out, adverts, throw them out” amused but in the end condemned the unequal task it had against the 144-page gargantuan Racing Post of a Saturday. Now it no longer sponsors the race, that honour going to a betting company.
There have been some epic Racing Post Chase days, but at the late February meeting back in the 1980’s I remember going there leading the 100-runner (almost) Sporting Chronicle naps table by at least 30 points with little more than a month to go.
The main races came and went, and as was (and probably still would be) my wont – ask anyone bombarded by my “why Arsenal are better than the experts accept” stream of consciousness – I’d carefully gone down the list, crossing through the losers as they happened.
Then came a novice chase, possibly a novice handicap, over two miles, five furlongs. You can tell how long ago this was as Oliver Sherwood, still an amateur and riding principally for Fred Winter, won the race on Balmers Combe, trained by Richard Mitchell.
I’d noticed the name as I’d gone through the list and on further viewing, saw that Teddy Davies of the Chester Chronicle had not only given it, but was one of those in the bunch around 30 points behind.
John Stubbs of the Sporting Life, 81 today, came into the old press box and on my anxious request at the price, said it was 66-1. Upon hearing my protest that it had opened 14’s, he said: “True, but for a while we were going to return it 100-1!” Needless to say for the remainder of the winter season, I kept looking in vain for a long-priced winner, and didn’t even end up second.
It was not until years later that Teddy, a lovely old boy who was always at the Roodeye and most of other northern tracks, retold the story. He said he’d had a tip that Oliver Sherwood was going to ride a Fred Winter runner at Kempton, because for some reason John Francome wouldn’t be on it The Winter horse came out of the race, but Oliver got this no-hoper spare ride. Naturally, all the fancied ones fell, and I was foiled, never to win the “Chron” table. Thankfully three Sporting Life Cups – note to self, remember to get some silver polish – still adorn the shelf next to my work place in the home office.
Lingfield was great fun (apart from seeing Harry have a nice touch), especially as it gave a little respite from the gorging domination of the top jumps trainers on either side of the Irish Sea.
As I said earlier, Nicky Henderson opted out of the main Cheltenham trials at Kempton, if he hadn’t he might have slightly adjusted his long-held opinion of Kempton’s being a sharp track. In the mud, it definitely isn’t and that’s why he stayed away. No such squeamishness from Paul Nicholls whose Irving showed great Festival potential in the always-informative Dovecote Hurdle.
The differing attitudes of Britain’s big two with Cheltenham not just on the horizon, but poised with the food and champers, is quite striking. In Ireland Willie Mullins, who seems almost as much in awe as we are about the strength of his 2014 raiding party, goes relentlessly on.
Over the past two weeks his 29 runners have yielded 13 wins, eight second places with only six horses finishing out of the first four. In the comparable period, Nicholls has won with nine of his 39 runners, with 11 second places and 11 more out of the first four. Henderson, quiet as a church mouse in the one month he confesses that he doesn’t drink alcohol – watch out March! – has five wins, three seconds and just three unplaced from his 14 runners.
Mullins, with so far just £150,000 for his British jaunts this season, has more than £2 million (that’s right, sterling) to show for his domestic endeavours, more than 300 grand in advance of Nicholls’ tally and in turn he’s more than 600k clear of Nicky as he goes steadily towards regaining his customary crown. Cheltenham will be very interesting.