Monday Musings: On Racing’s Transience

It’s my wife’s birthday today and we’re going to the Whitstable Oyster Festival down on the North Kent Coast, writes Tony Stafford. The last time I was there, I was strolling past the fishermen’s huts along the quay when the phone rang with a six-figure offer for the boss’s then three-year-old Fair Trade.

The offer, from agent Stuart Boman, was greeted by trainer David Elsworth, when reported to him by the owner, with the response: “Don’t take it. I’ll get you a lot more than that!”

Seven years and four trainers on from that memorable remark, I saw Fair Trade on Thursday morning in a field in Muggleswick, Co Durham, where he continues to waste his, and everyone else’s, time. Winner of a Newbury maiden race before finishing tenth in Makfi’s 2,000 Guineas, a run which brought an unnecessary 18lb hike in his rating, he never won again in conventional Flat races, but took a jumpers’ bumper and two hurdles when in the care of Alan King.

Two days earlier, I’d just dropped off Raymond Tooth at Heathrow on his way to a week’s holiday when the phone rang. Former jockey Tom Morgan told me the sad news that David Wintle had died at the age of 82. Tom is married to Dave’s daughter, Alison. I’ve not seen her or her brother James for a long time, but often bump into Dave’s other daughter Becky, who is married to another bloodstock agent, Stephen Hillen.

Becky always kept me aware of her father’s up and down health and then one day in the spring, she suggested I call him. We had a nice chat, reminiscing about horses he’d trained for me and how a Terry Ramsden gamble – I’d brought them together in the early 1980’s – led to Wintle’s losing his licence for a while.

Without that connection, I would never have met Wilf Storey, one of my longest-standing friends in racing, and custodian of the field in which Fair Trade idles the days away. I had a filly with Wintle, called Maid of Ireland, and managed to persuade Tick Vergette – later Saunders – who I’d known when she was Geoff Huffer’s secretary at Cheveley Park Stables (now Stud) to let me use the filly as a makeweight in a deal to buy Fiefdom. Originally he was to be a riding horse for a local girl.

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Once a useful handicapper with Bruce Hobbs – he was fifth as a three-year-old in the Cambridgeshire – Fiefdom flopped over hurdles for Tick’s father George, and after a dreadful final run for them over Easter, they were willing to let him go.

Relocated to Rod Simpson, he took a while to get fit, but then won twice in a week, at Folkestone and Lingfield, before running fourth in the ladies’ race at Ascot on King George Day. In those days it was a non-handicap, and the older horses gave lumps of weight to the three-year-olds.

Fiefdom was ridden there by Celia Radband, a very nice girl who made many appearances in Eastenders and other television shows. She recommended Fiefdom as a potential jumper to Wilf Storey’s daughters Fiona and Stella, against whom she competed in ladies’ races, as she knew I’d been trying to sell him immediately before the two wins.

Wilf’s polite and understanding reaction when I said that I’d changed my mind for now, struck a cord and so, soon after when I needed to off-load a couple of horses that had been misbehaving on the Lambourn gallops – “Give ‘em away!”, said Rod, I asked Wilf if he had anyone “with two grand”. He gave the same reply that he still does: “No”, but they went up to him anyway. One was a lunatic and had to be put down, but Santopadre won three in a row and was fifth in Solar Cloud’s Triumph Hurdle.

A couple of months later, I did sell Fiefdom, and fully primed, was able to enjoy a touch when he won a Sedgefield novice handicap hurdle by ten lengths from 10lb out of the handicap first time out. He won a load of races and yesterday at Redcar, Mr Sundowner, the only son of Scat Daddy ever sighted in Muggleswick, gave Wilf a career-equalling eighth Flat winner of 2017.

On Thursday night, I travelled south to Mark Johnston’s for a Friday gallop when Tarnhelm, a promising Helmet filly was making her first comeback gallop after sustaining a chip in her joint, days before her proposed first run in April. To everyone’s apparent surprise, she trailed her two companions up the gallop. Mark and son Charlie, who watched with me, pointed out it was her first gallop since her injury and advised waiting until she could have another go next week.

In racing and generally when watching sport, the disappointments exceed the successes as the recent Murray and McIlroy results again proved. After Tarnhelm, at least there was the expectation of a follow-up win for Stanhope, three weeks on from his course and distance romp in first time visors on the July Course at Newmarket.

They worked well enough the first time, but now he seemed not to want to go down to the start, and he came back even more reluctantly to finish a remote last of seven. “I wouldn’t put them on again,” helpfully suggested jockey Pat Cosgrave. I’m sure Mick Quinn agrees.

It doesn’t only happen to us. I bet trainer Bob Baffert approached Saturday night’s San Diego Handicap with supreme confidence that Arrogate, the world’s unchallenged top racehorse on official figures, would resume with another triumph after that Dubai World Cup master-class by putting away his five vastly-inferior rivals. The Racing Post even suggested that TV viewers should stay up until the off time of 2.10 a.m. BST to watch the “Best Horse in the World” live on At The Races.

In the event, starting at 1-20, he put in a dreadful display, finishing more than 15 lengths fifth behind the winner Accelerate. In the US, even five runner races have three places in the Show Pool, and pay a minimum dividend of 10 cents on a two dollar stake. Thus the value-thieves who lurk around American racing dive in, resulting in the Show Pool’s being at least as big as the Win, while the Place (1-2 in the US) is almost ignored.

Not for nothing is the term “Bridge Jumpers” used to describe them, as the practice, while more often than not profitable, in time and return terms far more favourable than US and UK interest rates, is hardly fool-proof. Usually it takes injury or some other mishap for such a negative outcome to occur. In this case, Arrogate, generously treated in the weights by the Del Mar handicapper, ran stones below his normal level, and no doubt some of the “jumpers” might well have been looking for the nearest bridge from which to propel themselves.

As I prepare for a trip down to the coast and some fresher-than-fresh sea food, I would like to pass on my best wishes to Ana O’Brien in her recovery from that horror fall at Killarney last Monday night. I saw it live and was so relieved that this wonderful young lady’s injuries were no worse than they are.

There can be no such relief for the family of Stephen Yarborough, the senior stalls handler killed at Haydock on Friday in a stalls accident. Both these unrelated incidents show just how dangerous the sport is for those who put on the show, while those who write about, watch or bet on it, are safe to pontificate about what far too many see as the shortcomings of the brave entertainers.

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