Sunday Supplement: Cheltenham Friends Remembered

Remembering David Johnson

Remembering David Johnson

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

A few weeks ago, I was almost writing as if I could guarantee soft ground at Cheltenham. But those over-efficient drains, encouraged by the sudden relenting of the rains, re-emphasise that to predict how the ground will be more than a few days hence in this weirdest of countries, is futile.

It wasn’t that way all those years ago, when the warmer weather waited for Gold Cup day to pass before allowing the bony ground to ease. So now, anticipating those amazing four days in Gloucestershire, I’m going back to ignoring the ground in making my selections.

Luckily, I’m getting a 24-hour delay in finalising those opinions. For tonight’s little affair at Billericay, I’ve been promoted into an executive role, trying to elicit opinions and selections from a quartet of eclectic personages via my own microphone.

The night (at the well-appointed Ivory Rooms) is the scene for the Howard brothers’ (Steve and Kevin) second go at a charitable do. Last year it was a local beneficiary; this time the late David Johnson, who bravely came along with his pal Barry Dennis last year, is being remembered with his own charity as the focal point. Happily, in what could have been a sombre event, members of his family will be there, and again at Cheltenham later in the week. He would have been very proud of them all.

Our star turn this time – fresh from his appearance at the young Hannons’ and youthful Sangsters’ favourite pub the Sydney Arms – is John McCririck. The Howard boys must have pushed the boat out to secure his services. I know their largesse has extended as far as providing transport from Central London. Pity I haven’t a meter to make a true estimate of the extent of my generosity with my time.

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Big Mac first came into my sphere of consciousness as a rather trimmer version of himself in the days when he provided a coursing column for the old Sporting Life. At the time, end of 1960’s, I was with the long defunct Greyhound Express as White City correspondent and soon to be chief reporter. In fact I was little more than a kid who was fit enough to belt down the stairs for a bet in each of the then eight races that comprised the old-style unchanging format of dog meetings.

I remember we chatted, and even then the idiosyncratic clothes that are so well known to everyone who ever watched racing on Channel 4, were adorned, in those days with some style. But it’s fair to say that today will be the longest consecutive period of time I will have spent in his close proximity.

An hour each way in the car; late lunch in the Ivory Rooms with about half a dozen others and periodic jousting – the audience will hope anyway – in between drawing out his Cheltenham thoughts and wider opinions on the ageist policies which ended his colourful career on the big-time box. We might know each other a little better.

John still gets on Attheraces. He’s always been a Marmite issue, but the haters should realise that he did truly cultivate that outrageous aspect of his character (no doubt with his employers’ urging, as he said in court), and it never undermined the mountainous degree of research he put into preparation of each day’s work.

Barry Dennis, of course, is just as forthright and in just a 30-second slot on the Morning Line, preferably with a “Posh Bird” with which to communicate his “Bismarck” offerings, he made a massive impact. Indeed, this was one of the great ideas of an earlier age and the precursor to laying horses in general, which is at once the foundation stone of Betfair’s business, and the potential route to criminality in betting on horse racing.

Then we have the Quinlans, Noel and Jack. Noel, intensely loyal and organised in the most haphazard way one could imagine, tells me that you can’t make money training horses – not on training fees anyway – so he’ll be concentrating on turning profit on sensibly-bought and well-campaigned animals.

There will be a couple in tonight’s audience who have already benefited from that eye for a bargain. The filly Slipper Satin, picked up for a song at the sales Iast October, won and has been placed a few times over jumps and while unlikely to get in the Fred Winter, she’s a decent jumper who will turn into a few bob profit before long.

Son Jack, usurped to a large degree by Denis O’Regan in the John Ferguson camp, still gets the gig for certain Sheikh Mo – sorry Bloomfields – horses, and it would have been nice if New Year’s Eve had not been over the top in yesterday’s Imperial Cup.

It didn’t slow down Jack, who’s just collected his new sponsored car. It energised him sufficiently to take a racecard around the weighing room collecting signatures from all the Imperial Cup jocks to make a nice raffle item. He also separately got Tony McCoy’s signature to go with the author’s on Henderson’s Heroes, by Nicky Henderson, and that too will be on offer. Well done, Jack.

Stephen Johnson has also identified a nice item or two, and those will go along with the famed Heads and Tails game, a ten-minute route to gold conducted by the brilliant comedian Ian Irving. Big Ian has a tale or two to tell about the Green Monkey golf course which he played while over in Barbados as the entertainment for a Robert Sangster junket. Hope he remembers to tell it.

I’m delighted that Lady Cecil will be following Noel Quinlan’s lead last year in providing a stable tour and gallops visit on the first day of the Craven meeting. Assistant trainer George Scott has kindly facilitated this chance to go to the famed Warren Place, graced for so many years by the late, great Sir Henry. Brunch at the noted Pantry, in the town centre, and tickets for the races (well done, Noel) later on make this an excursion to cherish.

I eventually get my chance to offer my own opinions at the Bedfordshire Racing Club’s do near Henlow on Monday night. For the first time Howard Wright, my one-time deputy racing editor at the Telegraph before making his fame and fortune(?) at the Racing Post will be absent, on the Indian Ocean with wife Anne.

How do you replace the irreplaceable?  Well Howard has sorted out Club Chairman Derek Hillyard to fill in, and he’ll be looking after BHA handicapper David Dickinson and Coral’s Ian Wassell as well as me. We therefore have the form and the betting covered. I’m just there for the peanuts, but it’s always a great and friendly lead-in to the travel down.

This time I’ll only have a day there. Wednesday morning, I’m getting a 24-hour blood pressure test fitted, so that rules out Thursday, too, while on Friday I’m hoping Great Hall runs at Lingfield fresh from his winter in Dubai. He earned a little bit there too. If he doesn’t go, there’s the alternative of watching the racing in Billericay, bolstered by a few drinks and some of Kevin Howard’s excellent shellfish.

We’ll soon know what we should have thought. See you next week for the post-mortem.


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