Sunday Supplement: All Weather and Aintree…

Tony Stafford in his Telegaph days...

Tony in his Telegaph days…

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

“Proper” Flat racing has been going a week, mostly not on proper racing ground. Up at Newmarket, the main grass gallops are still not open and I had a morning watching a couple of workouts there on the Al Bahathri Polytrack.

For all that, it’s an exciting time and when I got home after stopping off at my son’s to watch a certain lunchtime football match – I steadfastly will not mention Arsenal’s now ten wins in 11; nine straight home League wins and 21 wins in 26 in all competitions since late November – I collected the late-arriving Racing Calendar. [Ed. Oops, you just did.]

It has fixtures for the week four weeks ahead and I see in that first weekend in May, there is the small matter of the 2,000 Guineas and 1,000 Guineas. Next Saturday is the Grand National, then there’s Ayr’s Scottish National meeting, the Craven at Newmarket, the last week of the jumps season and McCoy’s final farewell. No wonder we (well me) age so quickly with such a torrent of unstoppable activity.

First things first though. Home-bred horses are reckoned to be a bit of a potential money-leaking pursuit. The best way as the old saying goes: “Of turning a large fortune into a small one”. Fortune certainly comes into it and if the two of the boss’s young colts that I saw turn out yesterday maintain the progress, Ray Tooth’s decision to switch course and breed rather than buy will be looking good.

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His colours gave more than a hint of collecting a chunk of the Lingfield All Weather Championships cash on Friday when the eight-year-old Cousin Khee stayed in contention right until the last 100 yards of the Marathon. He merely stayed on at one pace into sixth, but was beaten less than three lengths by Mymatechris.

There can be little wrong with an event that on a gloomy, generally wet morning still attracts a crowd of 9,000. You can always tell the success or otherwise of a sporting event by the length of the queues outside the ladies’ loos. Before the first race, they were of Royal Ascot proportion. Hate to think how long the good ladies of Liverpool will be required to nurse their drinks waiting for their turn this week. At least they won’t have to be worrying about whether their team is going to make the Champions League.

Godolphin’s three wins including the big one were a decent return on what must have been a long-planned assault on the series of races where qualification required either a win in one of a number of “win and you are in” qualifiers, or three runs in the catchment period. The last condition caught out Jeremy Noseda’s plan to try for a second win in succession for Grandeur in the big race – his third in the Winter Derby rather than a win ended that objective.

For me, the best result though was provided by Gay Kelleway, who upset the big guns with a 20-1 winner. As long as the small stables can win a big race now and then – like Phil McEntee last year in the same series – they can dream and think it worth the uneven battle. Sadly, a very good friend is about to draw stumps on his career, another victim of the appalling finances for trainers, but more of that next week when I can do proper justice to his achievements in adversity.

I’ve had many happy trips up to Aintree. I remember standing next to Bob Champion’s biographer Jonathan Powell in the cramped Press stand as Aldaniti entered into folklore with his rider’s recovery from cancer one of the true miracle stories of the race.

Before I was a regular on-the-spot observer, the race had a real hold on me. When Nicolaus Silver won, I’d just got back from playing in the London Grammar Schools six-a-side football tournament at the Polytechnic ground, Chiswick and cheered on my dad’s bet.

Soon after, I was set to report for the Walthamstow Guardian on a Walthamstow Avenue (one of the great amateur sides but sadly long gone) match, I travelled with the team on the coach to all the away games that season. First we watched the Foinavon race at home – needless to say by then I was betting and landed on the very unlucky second Honey End – and got to the game in time.

But of all the Nationals, the Red Rum years were the best. First – by now I’m at the Daily Telegraph and gave a selection, Pricewise-style, on the day the weights came out. I landed on Red Rum for his first win, but in the next few years I had a conflict as my favourite jumping horse of all time, L’Escargot, was one of his major rivals.

That rivalry was brought back sharply in the memory after 40 years with a great two-page homage to the old horse, who was one of two horses – Rag Trade was the other – who prevented Rummy getting a fourth and fifth win over the then formidable Aintree fences.

The writer was Steve Dennis, one of the less routine scribes at the Racing Post. He brought back all the excitement of a horse who won two Gold Cups before finishing third, second and finally, gloriously first at Liverpool. Add a Gloucestershire Hurdle success, then a champion chaser accolade in the US when still a novice for his owner Raymond Guest, a one-time US ambassador who also owned the great Derby winner Sir Ivor, and you have a true star of the ages who, as Steve so rightly said, rarely gets much of a mention.

Well done Steve for giving deserved generous space to a great of the sport. Not that it will be anything like the hysteria we’ll get if a certain veteran rider makes it two wins in the race this weekend.

I’ll trade being there – and it actually would be quite nice for AP to win it – for another stint on the gallops when the weather’s improvement could see some meaningful grass action. If AP doesn’t win, like Ryan Moore, Frankie Dettori and me, at least his football team is giving him a fair degree of enjoyment. When he packs up, there might not be too much more to keep him interested.


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