Sunday Supplement: A Great Start to the Season

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

A week’s travel around the nation encompassed visits to four of its eminently-varied racecourses. Doncaster, Huntingdon, Cheltenham and Uttoxeter provide a decent example of that variety and, in my case, attending on behalf of the boss Raymond Tooth, a batch of creditable runs, one from each of his jumping strength.

Cousin Khee, as you and indeed Keith Dawes will have noted last week – it always amazes me when complete strangers have managed to find these ramblings – was unplaced in the November Handicap at Doncaster. That eighth place still represented a decent effort as he ran past around a dozen or so up the straight.

I bumped into Hughie Morrison at Cheltenham on Friday in the record crowd for the meeting and he reported that the old boy didn’t allow himself to have a hard race after getting narked with the initial crowding that the younger whipper-snappers involved him in during the first half of the contest. Much more to his liking was the untrammelled wide course that Oisin Murphy managed to secure for him late on.

So rather than need days to recover, he was put to good use back jumping hurdles, an exercise which clearly kick-started his career in recent months, partnering a young novice on his initial steps. “Then it’ll be schooling over fences on Monday,” said Hughie, who, like owner and retinue cannot wait to see whether his jumping ability, liking for soft ground, and an above-average turn of foot make him a decent prospect as he embarks on yet another discipline after ten wins already.

Tuesday and Huntingdon was the next stop for the caravan. The rains might have relented a bit but the ground was still on the soft side, so not ideal for the four-year-old Notnowsam as he made his third attempt over fences after a win and second.

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For much of the way, following a fast pace, he looked the likeliest winner, but was stung by the better speed and overall greater experience of Raven’s Tower, who picked him up at the last and bolted up as Sam made his one mistake at that point.

Dan Skelton was happy enough as was Ben Pauling, trainer of the winner, who is getting going after a steady start following his departure from a job as joint assistant trainer to Nicky Henderson, along with Tom Symonds.

In the Punjabi days, Ben was always something of a rival to Tom, who championed Punjabi, when much of the stable, including the trainer and Corky Brown were in the Binocular camp. Indeed the pictures I saw from home – in detached retina recovery mode – saw the triumph on Tom’s face while Nicky looked like he’d dropped a £50 note and picked up a tanner, until he realised he’d actually trained the winner of another Champion Hurdle!

As we waited in the paddock on Friday while the officials decided whether to turn the novice handicap hurdle – Dan’s ambitious target for Adrakhan since last winter – into a glorified Flat race, which they eventually did, I moved across to Ben.

I asked him whether he was going to serve it up to us again, to which he replied with a nervous laugh. No wonder. Raven’s Tower had been a well-backed 20-1 shot on the Tuesday and now he was waiting for A Hare’s Breath, off for 600-plus days but with good runs behind Irving and Josses’s Hill on his scabbard for a former trainer. On Thursday he was 25-1. Now he was down to 6’s and despite having to beat a Tony Martin-trained, Ruby Walsh-ridden special, it never looked in the race that he could be beaten and he wasn’t.

We were delighted with Adrakhan’s staying on sixth, Dan still doubting he hadn’t been strong enough to get up the Cheltenham hill, but rider Harry disagreeing with his elder brother saying: “He stayed well. There’s a good one in him.” Harry was more concerned with the effect of the setting sun on this race reckoning “it was downright dangerous. All the way up the straight you couldn’t see anything, and I was standing up to try to see over the top.” What with that and the narrowing of the track at various points to go around the eliminated jumps, it was certainly a rough race and sixth of 20 represented another forward step for the inexperienced four-year-old.

I travelled up on Friday with a team of friends, Steve, Kevin and Phil from Billericay, and when they realised Raymond’s April Dusk was making his seasonal return to action at Uttoxeter, they happily switched away from day two at Cheltenham as this was one of the tracks they’d never visited.

As soon as we got there, the rain set in, but the overnight stop at Worcester was fortuitous as it reduced the travel time to just over one and a half hours. Warren Greatrex had found a nice race – the opposition melted away rather than face a 125-rated hurdler in a maiden. The event was uneventful and brought a satisfactory victory as, Derek Thompson – on the mic all day long, why do we keep finding him? – must have said: “as an odds-on favourite should.”

The key was his jumping, combining scope with accuracy, but Warren and Gavin Sheehan have sights on bigger and better exploits over fences. “Gavin thought it would be a good idea to get him a win before going over fences, and he was actually a bit short for this – he’s a big horse. He’s had plenty of schooling over fences and will now go straight to chasing.” A time note, this apparently uncompetitive affair was run in 13 seconds faster for the two and a half miles than the later hotly-contested handicap.

So from four runs, we had one win and three good performances. Already this season it’s five wins from ten appearances, with three places. This represents Ray’s numerically best jumps tally since the 1991-2 season when he had six wins, but obviously we’re nowhere near matching 2008-9 when Punjabi won that epic Champion Hurdle from Celestial Halo and Binocular.

We’ll be seeing the 12-year-old Punjabi tomorrow morning at Kinsale Farm and from pictures I’ve seen of his galloping around his paddock, there’s plenty of the old zest left. Their summer spells there didn’t do much harm for Notnowsam, Adrakhan and April Dusk, and we’re hoping Dutch Law’s break will be just as beneficial when he returns to Hughie in the New Year.

Ray is particularly keep to run the eye over the three home-bred yearlings – by Mount Nelson, Equiano and (in France) Stormy River – before they join their trainers later in the week, the Equiano colt bound for  new trainer George Scott, who had been Lady Cecil’s assistant until her recent retirement.


Then there’s Ray’s six home-bred foals and eight in-foal mares to inspect. His busy work schedule does not allow many such excursions, but this one is coming at a perfect time. Just can’t wait to get on the Chester train with Ray and Steve Gilbey in the morning.

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