Sunday Supplement: All Aboard the Al Shaqab Charabanc

Next stop, Gravy...

Next stop, Gravy…

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

A few weeks ago, I exhibited some rather immature irritation at what I felt was “Product Placement” by Talksport in general and their star morning broadcaster Alan Brazil over their Cheltenham Festival coverage, as Al said: “direct from the Coral box”. Alan, whose love of a bevvy and a bet are regularly trailed in other programmes on the station when publicising his show, during Cheltenham even told co-host Ray Parlour: “Ray, you really have to go to Monaco for the Grand Prix. It’s great, you watch from one of the big yachts in the harbour. You’ll love it.”

In truth it was little more than a former decent sportsman having found that he could still earn a living and get to see some of the major events denied the man in the street because of the work he does.  And no doubt quaff a constant supply of champers.

I’m not a fan of the Morning Line and it’s not even because Messrs McCririck, Francome, Cattermole and Down are no longer to be seen. Nick Luck remains easily the most accomplished and assured broadcaster on racing and you get the feeling that if he had grown up wanting to be Prime Minister, he would have managed it. But there’s a feeling when I do watch the show that they are still hidebound in the old format.

Yesterday’s offering, viewed because for once I had a clear hour to use up between 8 and 9 a.m. set new standards in Product Placement on any TV programme in recent memory – not that mine is much up to scratch with the passing (ever more rapid) of the years.

If you hadn’t been aware of Al Shaqab Racing before yesterday, you jolly well would have been after seeing the show. Imaginative production planning hit on the idea of bringing to the screens Harry Herbert to join champion jockey Richard Hughes and former jump jockey and now gravel-voiced pundit Mick FitzGerald as “Lucky’s” guests.

They were outside in the paddock at Newbury to Hughes’ apparent annoyance – “it’s cold, you never said we would be outside”- where the said Al Shaqab was the lavish sponsor of the Lockinge Stakes card. Eighteen horses were declared for the Group 1 race, attracted by the £100,000 extra funding since a year ago.

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Spaced through the card were a number of horses either trained officially in Qatar, the base of Al Shaqab, or who may have raced there but now have European domicile.

The name Al Shaqab refers according to the not always accurate Wikipedia to a battle in which the ruling Al Thani family delivered their Gulf country from the Ottomans. It was under Britain’s administration until 1971 but on independence they found they had the third highest resource of natural gas and a lake of 25 billion barrels of oil.

No wonder they have the highest per capita wealth of any nation and there are fewer than 300,000 Qataris to spend it while accommodating up to 1.5 million migrant workers from elsewhere. The country’s financial clout persuaded the world’s football bosses (FIFA) to allow them to stage the 2022 World Cup in a country where average day-time temperatures through the year are just short of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In the mid-summer months when the competition is generally staged it would be far hotter even than that. Rather than question the decision of FIFA, led by its 79-year-old boss Sepp Blatter, to award the World Cup to an inappropriate region, the solution was merely to change it to a winter date, thus throwing the entire European domestic seasons for 2021-2 and 2022-3 into disarray.

Another instance of Al Shaqab’s largesse has been its spending power at the horse sales. It has been only in the last few years that the Al Thani ruling family have switched from concentration on Arabian horses to challenging their near neighbours the Saudis and Dubai in thoroughbreds. Not least of their plans was the recruitment of Harry Herbert, who was the accepted star turn yesterday morning.

As Luck helpfully told us, “Harry has a number of hats”. The guest was happy to enumerate them. Jockey Club member, Newbury director, the organiser of Highclere Racing and the Royal Ascot Racing Club, and advisor for the past 23 years to the Cartier awards. Additionally his sister Lady Caroline Warren runs Highclere Stud and his late father Lord Carnarvon was the Queen’s long-time racing manager – now succeeded in that role by Lady Caroline’s husband John.

Yet for all his obvious busyness, the Hon Harry was head-hunted by Al Shaqab’s Sheikh Joaan Al Thani as the human face of his burgeoning team. They certainly burgeoned at the recent Breeze Up sales in France, paying 600,000 Euro for the top lot from “Blarney” Holland’s Grove Stud and topped up with the next highest at 300,000 if memory serves.

Well many-hatted Harry held court in the paddock, describing Newbury as being beautifully dressed in advance of the big day. When I was there the previous afternoon it seemed more like a building site with the incomplete blocks of flats encroaching quite uncomfortably close to the car parks if not the running surface.

No doubt there were a few Al Shaqab touches but if I thought Brazil got the name Coral out enough times for even the bookmaker’s satiation, then Harry stumped him with Al Shaqab mentions. It was only at 9.30 that I realised I could have watched the re-run on Channel Four +1 to count them, but I still remember an era when there were just three TV channels.

Anyway, in the event, it wasn’t Al Shaqab that will have made the biggest impact on the day for the man in the street but Richard Hughes’ main rival and friend Ryan Moore, who stole the honours with five wins – missing out on the big one, which ironically was won by Godolphin. Even more ironically for Hughes, Night of Thunder, whom he passed over in favour of Toormore for the 2000 Guineas last year, was now out of his sphere of influence and was this time ridden by James Doyle in his guise as one of Godolphin’s two main jockeys. The other, William Buick, had a four-timer at Newmarket.

In a world where money is king, it was nice that one small owner, Mr J L (known as Lew) Day, collected the last race at Newbury with Spark Plug. A just-about retired businessman who also owns a hotel in Ireland, Lew asked a friend to help him find a nice horse, “a two-year-old, one I could go to the races to watch and not be embarrassed to tell my friends”.

That particular friend has known me for some time and thought maybe I could find one. Having been a regular watcher of the Brian Meehan horses on the Manton gallops, I’d seen the said Spark Plug and loved the way he went. Not one of the earliest types, he seemed to have something indefinable, and above all was one of the horses that had not actually found an owner since being bought by Brian.

Initially Lew was cautious and any chance of a deal fell through over price, but when Spark Plug made a winning debut at Bath 25 minutes before Ray Tooth’s Great Hall’s run for Meehan in the St Leger, Lew was back on the case. He’d been attracted – on my first spiel – by the fact that his dam was a Group 1 winner in South Africa. Kournikova had beaten a top horse, Ipi Tombi, later easy winner at evens of the Dubai Duty Free, in that top-level race, and in fact inflicted the only defeat in that great mare’s career.

Kournikova, like the decorous Russian tennis player of the same name, never made the heights, but there was enough spice in the pedigree of the Dylan Thomas colt to reignite Lew’s interest. After a short negotiation, Lew did the deal and when Spark Plug made a winning return last May at Doncaster, hopes were high.

His form tailed off in three later runs, so he started 2015 as a gelding, but soon indicated an imminent form upgrade for the entire Meehan team when he flew home into second from an impossible position in the Newbury Spring Cup.

Yesterday he came from last to first with a flying run, starting behind market rival G M Hopkins, who contrary to some observers had a pretty clear course, and then holding on comfortably as the Gosden horse chased him right to the line clear of the rest.

I texted Lew straight away suggesting the Royal Hunt Cup might be a possibility before Spark Plug’s inevitable move into Pattern company and then when I got home saw on the Racing Post site that Brian sees him as an obvious candidate for Ascot. Lew said: “If he keeps going like this, I’ll be looking for a two-year-old to carry the hotel’s name”. Fine, that’s no problem. As long as Al Shaqab aren’t looking.

Nobody seems to be looking at Peter Charalambous, whose Theydon Bois ran out a 50-1 winner at Newmarket on Thursday. “I’ve no owners”, he said. He certainly deserves more horses than he has, but then so do so many outside the gravy zone.

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