By Tony Stafford
In the days around the turn of the Millennium, the impression given to the regular observer of the racing scene was that the big stables (and their owners) did their best to keep their smart horses with as near to an unbeaten record as possible, for the benefit of their eventual careers at stud.
The trials for the Classics were often principally contested by two or three proper candidates, with some dross thrown in to bolster the numbers. If the 2015 AON Greenham Stakes is anything to go by, the present crop of trainers and thrusting owners do not mind a bit of competition.
When Muhaarar (16-1) and Estidhkaar led home the field in the Newbury seven-furlong test in course record time, they not only advanced their own claims for major future distinction, but by definition reduced the chance of the beaten horses achieving Classic honours.
So on a day of consistent fast times, helped by drying ground and a tail wind, the 2014 Gimcrack winner beat the Superlative Stakes and Champagne hero. Ivawood, ahead of the winner in two of his juvenile runs, was a one-paced third, with stakes winners Dick Whittington and Toocoolforschool filling the next two places.
Then came the 50-1 shot Code Red, a Listed winner; previously unbeaten and twice-raced Fannaan; the Dewhurst and champion two-year-old hero Belardo, with wide-margin maiden winner, the once-raced Flaming Spear bringing up the rear.
I don’t ever remember such an array of talent lining up for anything other than a Classic. Here we had five colts rated between 119 (Belardo) and 113 (Toocoolforschool), the trio in between being Ivawood 117, and Dick Whittington and Estidhkaar, both 115.
Even the richest owners should take note of the example of Prince A A Faisal, who campaigned Belardo as a two-year-old, but now is listed as a minor share-holder with Godolphin. His horse had a hood on last year and no doubt Roger Varian will consider re-applying the device for his imminent objectives, which may or may not include Newmarket on May 2.
Naturally, the fast ground could well have mitigated against the chance of a number of these beaten horses. The fact that so many of the top performers of last year were thrown together for a proper trial suggests that the present bunch of mega-rich sheikhs and the like want to know whether their horses are from the top drawer.
The Dubai Duty Free Stakes (or Fred Darling to anyone of my generation) was the testing ground for Tiggy Wiggy’s run out to see whether Europe’s joint-top filly (with Found) on 117, therefore officially regarded superior to Belardo when 3lb weight for age is taken into account, would continue her merry way. She did lose twice in eight otherwise blemish-free races. It was generally thought she would need to be nursed to see out seven furlongs, but the nursing from Richard Hughes, did not work.
Maybe she’d have done better making it, in her normal manner, but in the end she was only third as two Kempton all-weather maiden winners dominated. Most experts on hand seemed to suggest runner-up Jellicle Ball would reverse form with David Oldrey’s homebred Redstart, a daughter of the exported (to France) Cockney Rebel, but her trainer Ralph Beckett has a good record with similar types.
The Newmarket trials were probably less significant. Kool Kompany (113 after two Group 2 wins in nine starts at two) gave weight and a beating in the Craven Stakes to dual winner Nafaqa, second to Andrew Balding’s Classic hope Elm Park in the Royal Lodge; and the 800,000 gns breeze-up purchase Moheet, winner of his one juvenile start. War Envoy, a keeper of good company in his now ten runs for Aidan O’Brien, has just one win to show for his efforts.
Sheikh Hamdan, with four wins on the day at Newbury and his retained jockey Paul Hanagan with three of them, would have left the track with an ear to ear smile (or at least maybe not the usual stone-faced owner) but Hanagan had to share the day with a certain L Dettori. Lanfranco also collected three wins, reflecting that even if he will no longer be needed for the French arm of his Al Shaqab racing responsibilities, there’s plenty to enjoy over here.
The Classic goings-on for once diverted attention away from the soap opera that is “AP is here and will try to ride his last winner at a,b,c.” He managed it at Ayr on Friday but no luck on Saturday when the main beneficiary was Hilary Parrott, collecting £119,000 for winning the Coral Scottish Grand National with the family-owned and once Ian Williams-trained 11-year-old, Wayward Prince. Thank heaven when they bring down the media-fuelled curtain at Sandown and the rest of us can be left in relative peace.
The jumping star of the week, though, was trainer Dan Skelton, who went to Cheltenham’s midweek fixture without a previous winner and finished the two days with four wins, three ridden by brother Harry and the fourth by Harry’s fiancé Bridget Andrews, who won’t mind if I say that her finishing effort on Wednesday in the finale looked more like Richard Johnson than a young girl conditional.
But then Bridget is the younger sister of still-amateur Gina and daughter of Simon, a top amateur rider in his day and a doyen of the East Anglian pointing scene.
Young trainers of talent abound and one to take Newmarket by storm was Hugo Palmer, already handler of the 108-rated Aktabantay, unlucky to go lame when in Santa Anita preparing for a run in the Breeders’ Cup last autumn.
He has a sure touch with juveniles, as he showed when his first runner in that age group, the Kodiac colt Gifted Master, came from the back to win by four lengths at Newmarket. Despite showing “coltish” tendencies in the paddock and at the start – the horse not the soon-to-be-married trainer – he strode away in the manner of a potential Royal Ascot winner.
Then there was the story of another new boy, but hardly a young trainer. Simon Crisford, now removed in body but probably not in spirit, from Godolphin, his safe harbour for so many years as its public face, sent out a 16-1 winner from his first domestic runner at Kempton on Wednesday night when he and the rest of us were at the sales.
“Did you back it?” he asked me yesterday as we watched a Tooth horse gallop back into favour. “You’ve seen him enough times!” “Yes”, I replied, “but only watching them go up the gallop in single file.” “Well, you should have asked me!” You don’t say.
As to football, Chelsea had less than 30% possession and beat Manchester United. Such a great team to watch! Luckily I was watching Arsenal make hard work of beating Reading, but if your goalie has one shot to save in the game and lets it in, you are snookered. That’s what never happens to Chelsea or Man U and I hope M. Wenger does not allow sentiment to persuade him to play Szczesny rather than super-stopper Ospina in the Final, otherwise they may not win it again.