To say the last seven days have been eventful for me would be an understatement, writes Tony Stafford. For most people slogging through all four days of Cheltenham it would be a similarly apt description, but I bet not many of them lost their phone, such is their constant adherence to it.
The week started as usual on Monday night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club where my performance in terms of results was possibly the worst ever. But the other regulars David Dickinson, the BHA handicapper for two-mile hurdlers, and the ever-informed Ian Wassell of Coral/Ladbroke provided much better input for the members.
Prompted from the chair by Howard Wright, Dickinson touched on the angry debate between the handicappers (headed by Phil Smith over his Grand National ratings for some Gigginstown horses) and also an issue between Dickinson over another Irish horse running over here.
Dickinson always stresses how he is not allowed to bet under the terms of his employment and then, quite early in the piece – we attempt to analyse the Grade 1 races first – declared there was a certainty in the Champion bumper on the Wednesday.
His selection was Fayonagh, beaten on debut but twice a winner making all since then. Dave said she was already top on his figures even before he added the extra7lb for the mares’ allowance she was entitled to as only two of her sex in the race.
As I said earlier, I lost my phone on Tuesday night, it disappearing into thin air, apparently between being stuck in the traffic for an hour after racing, talking on the car phone for a while and getting to the hotel 35 miles away. Having lugged the luggage – I suppose that’s where that word originates? – up two narrow flights of stairs and repairing to the bar, the discovery was made.
No, not in the car, in the room, nor even in the pitch black of the pub’s car park – it wasn’t until Friday that I realised we could have parked in the brilliantly-lit market square directly in front of the hostelry’s main entrance. Calls to the number suggested the device was still in the area – rubbish connection around there, said the landlord – but by Wednesday morning I had to cancel my two numbers (expensive dual-sim phone from Russia) and have been bereft ever since.
Friends I’ve tried to call almost to a man (and woman) seemingly refuse to answer strange numbers and even more so when on arriving home, I’ve attempted again on the land line. One good friend did answer but completely failed to recognise the voice and fearfully cut the connection.
The point made by the Irish is that their handicappers get unfair treatment over here. Ten handicaps were run at Cheltenham last week and there were 59 Irish runners from a total of 226 in those races, a proportion of just short of one in four. The Irish won seven of them (almost treble what they should have achieved pro rata), while they also collected 12 places (second to sixth), for which there was placed prizemoney.
They had a clean sweep of the three handicaps on the last day and the seven wins were shared between six trainers with Jessica Harrington securing two to go along with Sizing John’s epic Gold Cup triumph. Alan Fleming, Patrick Kelly and Noel Meade joined in, leaving just a single handicap success each for Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott. The only handicaps that escaped the invaders were the Ultima Handicap Chase, where they had three of the 23 starters; the Fred Winter Hurdle, seven of 22 and the Kim Muir, four of 24.
Not that the big two were at all phased, even if Willie probably resented that Elliott, who now handles loads of his former stars, including Apple’s Jade for Gigginstown, won the Leading Trainer award. They were on six winners each but the Gordy hordes won on place countback. In all the Irish won 19 of the 28 races, leaving scraps pretty much for everyone else bar Nicky Henderson’s trio.
So now I must return to the issue of Fayonagh and the lost phone effect. Most of the day was spent trying to meet people by borrowing Harry Taylor’s mobile, using it to speak to someone else who might know the third party’s number. Then if that double improbability was survived, often going from one end of the track to the other, only sometimes with a satisfactory outcome.
Accidentally, I was actually in the paddock for that last race on the Wednesday and Harry told me that Anne-Marie O’Brien had told him that the Gordon Elliott people reckoned “their mare” was a flying machine. At the same time, a more usual Mullins/ Elliott contact told him he thought she wasn’t too well fancied. All the time I was blissfully unaware that it was she that Dave Dickinson reckoned a certainty plus 7lb, until hearing that Fayonagh was left. That finally resonated.
Thank God. That’s who I should have been on, and she had made all, the last twice, both on heavy ground. Surely she couldn’t win from there, could she, especially on this much faster ground? She could and did, finding as good a turn of foot even as Arctic Fire in the County Hurdle.
Now if the Irish moan at British handicappers in general and DD in particular, they have to take it back after that display.
Two runs ago, Arctic Fire had an Irish handicap mark of 169, but dropped to 166 after failing to stay three miles, before his second in a Mullins 1-2-3 in the Irish Champion Hurdle, 15 lengths behind Faugheen, but 13 ahead of the Stayers’ Hurdle winner Nicholls Canyon, rated 161 before Thursday.
I know the Editor of this publication had a lump [more a small interest – Ed.] on him ante-post for last year’s Champion Hurdle – he’d been second to Faugheen in it in 2015 and also second in the County Hurdle the previous year – but injury kept him out. For this belated (14 months nowadays is hardly a deterrent given the facilities the big stables offer for their inmates) return to allow him in on 158 was a gift, as it turned out, and he flew up the hill to win by a neck.
Watching him win was a minor irritation for me, and hopefully a joy for the Editor [no, sigh – Ed.], but the same day’s action provided an even greater cause of frustration than had Fayonagh two days earlier. I’d watched a three-mile race where Willie Mullins had a couple of runners recently, and the apparently less-fancied, trying a trip beyond two miles for the first time, bolted home.
That horse was Penhill, a decent Flat handicapper with first James Bethell and then Luca Cumani, with whom he achieved an official rating of 100. He won four of his first six starts before that three-miler, where he came from way back and spread-eagled a five-runner field by seven lengths and more. I remember making a mental note to remember him. I did, but only after an even more striking, but identical in composition, last to first effort on Friday. Fayonagh at 7’s was tolerable; Arctic Fire at 20’s was irritating, but Penhill at 16-1 broke what was left of my heart. Finally, I can tell someone!
Penhill is a son of Mount Nelson, newly-relocated to Ireland, having been sold by Penhill’s breeders Newsells Park to Boardsmill Stud as a jumping stallion.
The beautiful-looking Mount Nelson produces stock with plenty of substance, and that was the general opinion of onlookers at Clive Cox’s new season stable parade yesterday of the colt out of I Say, Ray Tooth’s nice winning mare. Many were surprised at his size, given he’s a first foal, but by all accounts he’s not backward: “He’s a big boy, so we’ll look after him,” said Clive.
Proper Flat racing starts at Doncaster on Saturday week. Can’t wait!
– Tony Stafford