By Tony Stafford
I can picture the Nicky Henderson household last night. Nicky, back from Sandown, turns to partner Sophy and says: “Thank God that awful season – annus horribilis to coin a phrase of one of my better-known owners – is over”. Then, taking a swill from his schooner of wine, he adds: “Still, we’ve got our annual holiday to look forward to in Punchestown next week”.
Nicky’s self-styled annus horribilis – I did some Latin at school, so I know it doesn’t mean horrible arse – was concluded when Sire de Grugy, the horse that originally was merely regarded as the “sub” for last season’s champion jumps racehorse and two-mile chaser, Sprinter Sacre, actually officially earned Horse of the Year status even before he ended the 2013-14 season with another flawless win in the bet 365 Celebration Chase.
As the wins piled up through the season – especially after the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham – for the Gary and Jamie Moore trained and ridden French-bred, the general feeling was that here was a deserving champ, just as his brilliant predecessor had been until those heart problems unexpectedly arose at Kempton last year.
I love to joke a little about Nicky, but didn’t he go and win the season’s last big prize, the bet 365 Gold Cup (Whitbread to you, me and lots of others) with Hadrian’s Approach.
Now, at the end of a jumps season, one always gets to admire the myriad talents that have propelled Tony McCoy to 19 ravenous successive titles, the similar doggedness and skills that have kept Richard Johnson as his perennial nearest rival and the all-round attributes of Ruby Walsh.
But for me, I think the best big-race jockey is Barry Geraghty. True, my opinion of him might have climaxed when he rode unbelievably up the hill to win the Champion Hurdle on Punjabi, the horse thrusting in the middle of Binocular (AP) and Celestial Halo (Ruby) five years ago.
That was only a year or so into his full association with Nicky, and I reckon the trainer has probably won more than a few good prizes that would otherwise have slipped away, but for Barry’s brilliance out in the country and his controlled power in the finish.
The standard for jump jockeys is very high, and the same goes for trainers, with Paul Nicholls unexpectedly taking back his title from Nicky, and Philip Hobbs, Jonjo O’Neill, David Pipe, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Venetia Williams and Alan King all getting past the £1 million earnings. Donald McCain finished just outside.
McCain won the most races among that select group, and confirming the fact that to a large extent it’s a numbers game, turned out the highest number of individual horses, just a little shy of 200. I wonder whether his old man Ginger ever dreamed his son would become so influential as he took his handful of horses from the yard behind the car showrooms to gallop on the beach. Donald junior may never have a horse to match Red Rum’s eminence, but he’s confounded those of us who sniffed at the effrontery of it all when he took over the licence a decade or so back.
All of that nine-strong group has sent out more than 120 horses as has Lucinda Russell, the record-breaking Scottish trainer, who also stands proudly in the top 20, with last year’s Grand National-winning Sue Smith – confirming her progress – and a revived Emma Lavelle just above her.
The Flat is also very much a numbers game. Ask some of the trainers who have dipped down to around 60 horses and you’ll see frustration. A mate of mine won a race the other day, but felt unable to have a proper bet when confronted with, as he put it “yet another of those Mark Johnston horses in the green colours with the red hat.”
Ostensibly owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al Maktoum, son of Sheikh Mo, they clearly are part of the overall structure of Sheikh Mohammed’s sprawling empire and as my mate attests, there’s hardly a race open to three-year-olds especially on the all-weather tracks, in which the Middleham team doesn’t have a runner.
They tell us the Flat has hardly started, but the Flat trainers’ championship, running from Nov 10 2013 to Nov 8 2014, already shows that two trainers, Johnston and Richard Fahey have sent out more than 100 individual horses. Johnston, indeed, is already well into the 70’s for winners. He, Fahey and especially Richard Hannon, will be frustrating fellow trainers and their owners, along with the punters, as they try to assess the magnitude and pecking order within their operations.
Manchester United was always too big an operation for the one-paced David Moyes to cope with. Last night at Old Trafford, Ryan Giggs, with his mates Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes alongside – Phil Neville, still employed, but a couple of rows back – took charge for the first time, and duly got a softish penalty to get them going against toothless Norwich.
Phil’s elder brother Gary was in the commentary box for Sky and gradually cheered up as the confidence grew. I wonder if he took the odd look across at the monitor to see his twin sister Tracey’s netball team, Manchester Thunder come from behind to beat Surrey Storm 49-48 in the final of the UK Netball Championships.
Phil and Gary were also excellent cricketers, Phil showing more initial talent for Lancashire schoolboys than his contemporary Andrew Flintoff. Reckon dad Neville Neville would have found it hard to choose between Old Trafford and the netball at, I think it was Worcester, for last night’s spectating.
Everton’s loss to Southampton should leave the way clear for Arsenal to take their usual fourth place. The only unusual thing in another injury-blighted season, is that they can still win a trophy. But then, will Hull be any easier to beat than Birmingham should have been in the League Cup final a few years back?
For my final word, I must sympathise with my mate Steve Gilbey, a diehard Spurs fan who faces the ordeal of another winter of Thursday/ Sunday football, but also suffered a much bigger emotional setback on Saturday.
His local team Thurrock have had an excellent second half of the season in the Ryman Isthmian League North section and only needed a point from their final home game with lowly local rivals Tilbury to ensure a play-off place.
The team in sixth, Heybridge Swifts, also had a home game, against a higher placed team than Tilbury and needed a six-goal swing to overtake them. You know the rest, Tilbury overcoming Thurrock with a late goal to win 2-1, while the Swifts scored twice in the last two minutes to complete a 6-1 triumph. Never mind Steve, it all starts again in August.