By Tony Stafford
No, I’m not going to Cheltenham today, contrary to what I told my wife five minutes before I changed my mind. I’ve enjoyed watching the past two days of the Open Festival at home, with Lydia Hislop showing every horse in the paddock, and it’s been a busy enough week anyway.
Ever since a couple of Triumph Hurdle horses carried my colours – not mine any more are they David Armstrong? – in 1986, I’ve had an obsession with the race and especially enjoyed the Trial race at the November fixture.
Yesterday’s version was easily up to standard but significantly it showed just how hard to win the Triumph proper has become. In my year Tangognat started second favourite but was tailed off, hating the fast ground. Second string Santopadre was fifth, while Brunico, another of my traded acquisitions, flew home late into second for Terry Ramsden.
The trio were cheaply bought, especially Tangognat, a 3,000gns yearling selected on her own judgment by Zara Pratt (now Johnstone) on my behalf. If my memory fades, I’ve always got the sight two yards to the right from where I type to see Peter Scudamore bringing the red colours and Rod Simpson’s red noseband over the last flight in the Bet With the Tote Hurdle on New Year’s Day.
I doubt that any of yesterday’s first five home, all sourced and privately acquired from France, was cheaply bought. The winner Golden Doyen had good form at two in France, but missed almost a year before appearing for Philip Hobbs. He’s won two out of three and showed stamina and guts to rally past equally-promising Hargam, a lightly-raced, Listed performer of the Aga Khan’s bought by J P McManus and now with Nicky Henderson.
The next three over the line also have A-list jumps owners and trainers, third and fourth now with David Pipe for one-time Henderson “exclusive” Simon Munir and a partner while Terry Warner has teamed up with upwardly-mobile John Quinn for the fifth finisher.
Whatever you think about the role of agents, the likes of Anthony Bromley, Claude Charlet and Anthony Stroud associate Matt Coleman keep the money rolling for original owners and the French must rub their hands when they come calling.
But it all puts into perspective how difficult it is to win the smallest hurdle race with a horse, either sourced as a yearling and raced on at two and three, or bought at the sales from Irish or English stables.
Even then, they can easily prove incredibly overpriced. One major agent recently went along to the track to watch the debut of a six-figure buy at a major track. The horse, gelded since his last run on the level, trailed home almost half a furlong behind the winner. “Not very encouraging” just about explained the run.
I’ve been busy this week watching schooling in Newmarket and Lambourn and racing at Bangor. Two of the boss Ray Tooth’s horses involved were three-year-olds and the first of them, Adrakhan, made his debut for Dan Skelton on the Welsh border.
He’d come over from France via Deauville sales and showed plenty of talent over the jumps. The biggest problem for him was the fact he’d never run on the Flat, but being by Martaline he was always going to be a jumper.
That part of the equation held up well, but Dan was always worried that the heavy rain that fell on Wednesday morning might find him out and it did, Adrakhan eventually coming home fifth of six. Not that we’d found a particularly easy race – the winner Alan King’s Chatez, who loves the mud, was rated in the 90’s on the Flat and on his final start had been the 8-1 favourite for the £150,000 Balmoral Handicap at Ascot.
Chatez will be vying with Golden Doyen and Hargam, along with Pipe’s Stars Over the Sea, an easy winner at Ludlow on Thursday, for Triumph favouritism, but no doubt there’ll be loads more contenders, not least from Ireland, before the line-ups for the big race and the always-schemed-for Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at the Festival.
That race might end up on Ray’s radar. His Punjabi was fourth in the Triumph in Katchit’s year – Kingie’s quite good in the race, isn’t he? – before his third and then victory in the next two Champion Hurdles, so we’d like another Festival fling.
Maybe Adrakhan is starting from too low a point, but Ray’s recent Tattersall’s sales buy, Notnowsam could be a different matter. Placed fourth twice in a light Flat campaign in Ireland, most recently off 65 in a competitive Dundalk 14-runner handicap, he impressed everyone by his physique and attitude in the time leading up to his sale.
Day four is usually the preserve of flotsam and jetsam, but there was sufficient admiration for this impressive individual for five separate buying interests to have him vetted. Our man, one of the five, employed on Ray’s behalf by Noel Quinlan, who told us about John Joseph Murphy’s gelding, reported him “perfect”, so the stage was set.
With Ray on the phone back at base, prompted by Steve Gilbey, we were in competition from the start and saw off first Bromley and eventually Bobby O’Ryan, getting the nod at 46,000gns, effectively one bid more than the 42,000gns that secured Punjabi eight years ago in the same ring.
If you’d seen him jump his hurdles at the first go on Wednesday, eyeing them up with precision and taking Jack Quinlan soaring to the far side straight and quick, you’d almost feel sorry for the people who didn’t get him. The Quinlans won the Fred Winter with Silk Affair a few years back, too.
It was the same feeling at Lambourn on Friday when Ray’s other new horse, the five-year-old ex-Irish point-to-pointer April Dusk – yes it does sound more like a she than a gelding! – also had his first autumnal acquaintance with hurdles after a few sessions over poles.
The rain poured down for the whole of the session – Warren sending 19 horses, generally in lots of three including yesterday’s impressive Wetherby winner One Track Mind, with landlord Charlie Egerton heroically hatless in attendance for most of the time. I agreed with the common view that the facilities at Lambourn had greatly improved since being taken over by Jockey Club Estates, although as I’d not been on the collective gallops there since the Rod Simpson days, I’d hardly be a credible authority.
April Dusk won his only race to date at Ballybunion in May, and pleased Warren Greatrex, Gavin Sheehan and the boss’s rep with a fair replication of Notnowsam’s effort. Two buys, two lovely big, raw horses with a jump in them. All we need now is luck. Is that all?