Sunday Supplement: The Press Room, Wullie and the Foxes

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

“Don’t you ever wish you still had a proper job?” I’m sometimes asked, and as I loitered yesterday in the Ascot press room for the handsome slabs of carrot and chocolate cake to be released by the ever-efficient and ultra-friendly custodians of the food, I sort of did.

There they all were, the present and in some cases the previous generation of pressmen, intent on revealing to a Sunday morning readership the implications of another Willie Mullins Saturday smash-and-grab raid.

I had to say, it didn’t seem quite as cliquey as in the old days, the present-day crowd having to address the issue of immediacy. Not for them the luxury of taking their time, the words need to be out there for the on-line editions.

I wonder how such luminaries as the late John Oaksey, or the great Hugh McIlvanney, happily still in full flow, would have coped. The beloved Lord, who sadly missed seeing the Gold Cup triumph last year of his home-bred Coneygree by a couple of years, liked to fashion his copy if not at leisure, certainly with a degree of care.

I loved knocking out the first edition from Aintree every year for the Sunday Telegraph for Ireland and Scotland while John took a more considered view for the rest and the majority of the readership. He had maybe an hour and a half to do that. One year coming back on the sponsored train, possibly paid for by the Tote, I was across the aisle from McIlvanney as he checked with his office, still effectively re-writing to make sure the words were exactly as he intended. By then we were not too far from arriving back in London! Perfectionist indeed.

There was a bit of that about Lord Oaksey, despite the affable exterior, after all he’d watched his father, a great lawyer, in action as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals when at an impressionable age.

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That affability was certainly tested when a certain gentleman, newly-arrived on the Telegraph racing desk, was given the task of “subbing” John’s report from one of the far-flung racecourses of the kingdom. This was the first big story he’d been entrusted with, and he apparently took exception at the sometimes flowery language, and when he finished it could easily have been written by you or Jamie Redknapp.

I won’t reveal his name, but suffice to say, he’ll probably be reading these lines and smiling at the recollection.

I settled on the carrot cake, delicious and it was a fine complement to the Cumberland sausage and mash consumed three hours earlier. Tough work in those press rooms you know.

None of that, though, got me any nearer to the subject of this piece and you’ll realise by now that many times in the middle of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning I’ve no idea what I’m going to ramble on about. But then today we’ve got the Test in South Africa and Arsenal – Chelsea, but without Mourinho, although the snarling former Chelsea manager will never be far away from the thoughts of his adherents.

Now if Chelsea were to beat Arsenal, as they well could especially if Costa stays on the right side of the officials and Hazard comes back to life, the talk will be that as well as Costa-ing Arsenal the title they’d also be in with a chance of the Champions League. The former would be much more likely.

Also of greater probability is the apparently absurd thought that the aforesaid Mr Mullins might actually swoop past Nicholls and Hobbs, not to mention a reviving Skelton, and becalmed John Ferguson to win the jumps trainers’ title.

I think I saw even money as his earnings in the UK this season from nine winners ticked over the £400,000 mark thanks to bloodless triumphs for Ruby on Un de Sceaux and Vroum Vroum Mag. Unfortunately from the point of view of his customary Festival blow-swopper Nicky Henderson, that put Mullins barely £200,000 short of the master of Seven Barrows, who will have been irritated that as his string seems to be coming into form, lost meetings are conspiring against him.

The other day, Newbury succumbed to the elements on an afternoon when he had three obvious favourites. Stuck as he is on 51 for the season and with just 13 weeks to go, as of yesterday, time is running out, as it has for Chelsea.

In the seven previous campaigns, Henderson had 129 (last season), 124, 125, 167, 153, 136 and 115. Even to get anywhere near the lowest of those, he requires around five wins every week. That’s possible, with a little pot-hunting around the country, but probably unlikely. The prizemoney stats are even more worrying, as only last season of those seven, did his stable earnings drop below £2 million and then only by £100k.

The recent steady decline in chase wins may have been slightly addressed. Last time only 15 of the 129 winners came in chases, but this term chasers have provided 13 of 51 overall victories. No wonder he’s looking to Peace and Co and My Tent or Yours to challenge Mullins in the Champion Hurdle, but with the former showing such damaging over-exuberance on his Cheltenham comeback and My Tent confined to barracks for two years, the task for either will be extravagant.

So what about Mullins and the title? If he were to repeat last season’s first-day Festival exploits – four wins and even in the one race where his first string Annie Power fell at the last, saving bookmakers from that four-timer pay-out, he collected with Glens Melody – he would amass almost 600k in one daily swoop. That would put him close to a million and the repetition of 2015’s four later winners and a further £230,000 – never mind places – would take him past Nicholls’ present haul, though of course he’s still accumulating too.

In terms of probability, Nicholls should continue to click away and given even a reasonable Cheltenham, he and to a lesser extent Philip Hobbs should stave off the voracious Irishman. But with at least 10 ante-post Festival favourites and the likelihood of another Champion Hurdle 1-2-3 and the £350,000 that goes with that, the top two stables and the bookies who laid him at long odds, will be sweating.

The League title chase is just as compelling. While Manchester’s two gargantuan clubs struggle, it seems that the only time Leicester or Tottenham lose is when they play each other. Both are great to watch and in Leicester’s case, top position and with just the 15 remaining League games to be played, the Tinkerman can continue to use his resources in a sensible way.

Unlike them, Arsenal and Manchester City, along with out of touch Chelsea start their Champions League phase next month, while Manchester United, Spurs and Liverpool have the delights of the two-legged last 32 ties in the Europa League and debilitating Thursday-Sunday action. Add to that, Liverpool and City are in the semi-finals (second legs this week) of the Capital One Cup and the big teams’ FA Cup responsibilities – all six unlike Leicester are still in – and you can see why Leicester at around 11-1 might not be such a silly bet.

Tony Stafford

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