By Tony Stafford
Many years ago, I was taught a serious lesson. The two senior writers at the old Greyhound Express left to start a magazine. I was asked to come back from a summer “grass” job at the Evening Standard to be – aged 23 – the Chief Reporter. They might as well have disappeared, so little impact did they – well respected senior men both – make once they made the change.
Until a couple of years ago, I was well into that stage, until a chance meeting with the proprietor/editor of this weblication led to this almost weekly column which is now at the one hundred figure, maybe enough for an e-book?
Some Sundays I’ve had so little to say, a case of bricks without straw one might say, although possibly not quite as dire a situation ever than Exodus 5 illustrates. The conundrum for the persecuted Israelites was that they were still expected by the ruling Egyptian Pharaoh to produce the same number of bricks even though the fields were denuded of stubble.
There’s plenty of stubble around nowadays, almost as much on Premier League footballers’ “mooshes” as ink on their bodies and quite a few of the 20-30 generation were at Ascot yesterday similarly adorned with facial growth.
Much debate centred on the Newmarket – Ascot question. Why does nobody go to Newmarket, especially on a Friday for Future Champions Day but hordes will flock to Ascot whatever the race programme, although their older-horse Champions Day is a fair drawing card?
Start with ease of access, add glamour, especially for the younger, moneyed set and you are halfway there. Also I’m sure that many first-timers still think they are off to Royal Ascot and will be shocked not to see a morning suit around the place.
Well we were at Ascot at the end of the week of weeks for me. In a nutshell we had another “teeth broken, lost but this time retrieved” issue which made nice reading against your correspondent in the European Bloodstock News at the sales on Friday. Marcus Armytage, at the height of my discomfort came over at the races that day and actually interviewed his former colleague allegedly for his next Diary piece in the Daily Telegraph. He’s going on holiday now though, so I hope he’ll find something more interesting to write about when he returns.
Thursday was about a runner at Wolverhampton, Dutch Law, a Ray Tooth home-bred who all but got up to beat the Hannon hotpot after a slow start. His full-brother Dutch Art Dealer won a couple of hours later over the same track, but we had to buy in their Dick Turpin sibling back at the sales 24 hours later. Never mind, he could be quite nice in the end.
I suppose it’s a touch of perversity which has taken me so long to get to the other issue, the amazing success of Noble Mission over Al Kazeem in the Qipco Champion Stakes. For a couple of years the purists were entirely against the transfer of the Champion Stakes from HQ to Ascot, but this epic struggle up the straight to the exclusion of everything else was almost a re-enactment of the Race of the Century between Grundy and Bustino back in 1975 when Matt Bisogno was three years old. Don’t bother to ask him – precocious youngster that he must have been notwithstanding – if he remembers it.
The difference though is that the late great Dick Hern had organised a cunning plan so that the year-younger and reigning Derby hero Grundy, ridden by Pat Eddery for the Peter Walwyn stable, would be fully tested by virtue of two Lady Beaverbrook-owned pacemakers to help the cause of the 1974 St Leger winner Bustino and Joe Mercer.
It almost worked and might well have done had the original lead-out horse – as with Mark Renshaw for Mark Cavendish in those sprint stages to the Grand Tours – not been forced to pull out, leaving two lesser lights to do the job.
I labour that point, showing how much help Bustino needed, in order to marvel at the self-help policy that Noble Mission had to fulfil to beat off a fellow tough triple Group 1 winner yesterday, never mind Free Eagle, Cirrus des Aigles and the rest.
I’ve known Jane Cecil for many years and it’s fair to say that she has had to contend with as many obstacles since taking over the licence from her late revered husband Sir Henry Cecil as advantages in running the show at Warren Place.
In 2014 the stable has sent out 39 individual horses, 16 in the Prince Khalid Abdullah colours. Several other stable stalwarts, among others the Niarchos family, Lordship stud, Lord de la Warr and German owner and Hoppegarten racecourse proprietor Gerhard Shoeningh through Ennismore Racing, have remained.
The fact remains though that she had only 139 runs until Noble Mission’s triumph whereas Richard Fahey 271 individual runners had amassed almost exactly ten times as many runs. No-one says it’s an even playing field and to labour the point, Richard Hannon, also in his first full year after taking over from a revered relative, has sent out 293 horses for 1252 runs and a prize haul of £4 million plus, though not quite as much plus as was being expected before Friday and a string of high-profile defeats.
I was at the gallops back in April with Lady C, Racing manager Lord G, Henry’s half-brother Arthur Boyd-Rochfort and George (not C) Scott before Noble Mission’s work leading up to his first race, when she suggested to Teddy that the John Porter (or as they call it now the Dubai Duty Free) might be the starting point.
I don’t think they were expecting too much from a colt that up until then had been generally regarded as a little faint-hearted at best and a dog at worst, but a near-miss there; a romp over Telescope at Sandown, another against the same much-trumpeted horse at Chester, put him into a different category.
That was his last domestic run until Saturday, but then it was into Group 1 battle at the Curragh, where he beat Magician after going a long way clear; a nail-bitingly, agonising last-stride defeat by subsequently-disqualified (illegal substance) Spiritjim in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and another last-gasp near-miss in a German Group 1, his final effort before Saturday.
It was a couple of weeks ago that George Scott, head-hunted by Jane’s long-term friend David Loder from a job in California, told me that Noble Mission was in the best form of his life. He had been to Kempton with his regular galloping companion and finished “two furlongs ahead of him”, shades of poor old Bullet Train and his morning examinations with his (and Noble Mission’s) full-brother, the incomparable Frankel.
Sir Henry had supervised that horse’s unbeaten career culminating in victory in the same race two years ago and less than a year before his battle with cancer had its inevitable conclusion.
If it were still the times of Moses, Aaron and the Israelites, we would be breaking off from our search for straw with which to make bricks, and looking up to the sky to suggest that Sir Henry would be looking down, and a supreme being was master-minding the whole episode. But we’re much too sophisticated nowadays. Aren’t we?