Monday Musings: Onset of the Big Thaw

Who’d have believed it? In times of extreme weather, with snow blanketing much of the country, it seems the best chance of jump racing to resume after a blank week is Lingfield Park (along with Southwell), writes Tony Stafford. Before the drainage was (sort of) sorted out a few decades back, the joke among press regulars was that Major Peter Beckwick-Smith, then clerk of the course, would go out in a rowing boat and declare: “It’s flooded, but ‘good to firm’ underneath”.

The ground for the meeting later today will be the routine ‘heavy’ we customarily get when the elements actually allow proceedings to proceed. That part of Surrey/Kent/North-East Sussex got its share of the white stuff, but travelling down on Saturday for the decent Flat card, the instant thaw had transformed the picture, as it had magically in East London overnight on Friday.

Not so in many training centres, even in the southern half of the country. Olly Murphy, for instance, had to take his horse out to the road in Warwickshire to load him for the journey to Lingfield. For once the now expected market move for a first-time runner from the supremely-confident and successful young handler finished only third!

I hesitate to call my friend Mr Storey in frost/snow/wind/rain-ravaged Co Durham. Muggleswick sounds remote at the best of times, but with horses all-but-stranded in the fields and 14 inches of snow to contend with, there’s not too much activity with staff finding it impossible to get in.

Wilf’s grandson is making the best of it, offering his four-wheel drive tractor all around the local area, digging out driveways and school and supermarket car parks. The thaw will come up there, sooner or later. The one incontrovertible fact is that once the horses get going, they soon catch up, but you have to stay sane while you wait.

The thing for Wilf and family is that bad weather has been a constant accompaniment over the years and for a long time mid-December to mid-February was pretty much written off. The advent of Newcastle’s all-weather, half an hour down the road, changed the blueprint last year, but over the past week they couldn’t get out of the farm, never mind down to Gosforth Park.

With winter coming later than ever in recent memory and Cheltenham as well as Easter starting pretty much as early as it can, punters’ expectations for the Festival have to be problematic at best.

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Every year I expect soft going to be maintained until those four days in March, but magically the over-efficient drains work their oracle and the Henderson team gets the decent surface his horses appear to require. At least when I roll up at the Bedfordshire Racing Club preview night, “the last but the best” as Chairman and long-time ally Howard Wright always declares it, at Langford FC next Monday night, we’ll have a better idea, but this time the soft probably has it.

BHA Hurdles handicapper David Dickinson, on the panel with Ian Wassell of Corals as usual, last year declared Fayonagh “a certainty” in the bumper. So she proved, even after getting left and it’s a major shame she died in a stable accident before realising her full potential for Gordon Elliott. I’m afraid I won’t be able to pass on this year’s Dickinson wisdom, as my final offering will already be on the site before we convene.

Long- or even mid-range weather forecasts are rightly greeted with suspicion, but I couldn’t help having a squint this early morning at one or two locations where I’d like to see some settling down. With flood warnings accompanying the accelerating thaw, it was with some trepidation I noticed that the BBC weather forecast for the rest of this week and all of next promised rain pretty much on every day in various parts of the country.

It is certainly true for North Shropshire, where the boss had two foal arrivals over the past few days (a colt and a filly both by Garswood), but one of the mares suffered a colic and Kinsale farm is on high alert. It emphasises just how delicate is the balance when bringing equine life into the world. Our thoughts (Ray, me and Steve) are with Rachael and Richard Kempster and the vets as they wrestle with nature against the backdrop of snow and deluges of rain to come.

With Ireland seemingly brought to a standstill – Irish Thoroughbred Marketing went to the unheard-of lengths of closing their offices for at least two days – and no sign of any racing for a week, it is intriguing how much interference the weather may have had on the major stables. I expect not much. The 200-plus strong teams that will be sending legions of horses over next week will have it all under control.

Mullins’ and Elliott’s two biggest English-based rivals, Messrs Henderson and Nicholls, have taken advantage of the jumpers’ bumpers meeting today at Kempton, as did Brian Ellison and Donald McCain at Southwell and Newcastle at the end of last week. The anomaly there was that although a few from the south were left in, transport around the country proved next to impossible.

I thought jumpers’ bumpers were a thing of the past, but one of the beneficiaries of the previous set, Cousin Khee, no longer in the Tooth colours, but still highly active, was at it again yesterday. His trainer and the owner’s husband, Hughie Morrison, made a rare error when entering him for one of the JB’s, finding him to be ineligible. He did run in one chase at Kempton, but outside the three-year limit prescribed in the hastily-drawn conditions.

Instead, Hughie redirected him to Sunday’s two and a quarter-mile handicap, which amazingly carried an £8,000-plus winner’s prize despite a 76-rating ceiling, and the old boy (CK, not the trainer!) supplemented his recent course and distance win by six lengths, untroubled under stable apprentice Theodore Ladd. Who but Hughie could have an apprentice called Theodore?

He has another one, with a more prosaic moniker, the highly-intelligent and very talented Charlie Bennett, who won for the fifth time at the weekend on veteran sprinter Roy’s Legacy since first teaming up with him 14 months ago.

Afterwards, trainer Shaun Harris, who started out as a horse transporter, reported that the nine-year-old, who was winning for the 21st time, is targeting the record of 28 all-weather victories held by the retired Stand Guard. Such was the enthusiasm shown by Roy’s Legacy in holding on once guided into the lead turning into the finishing straight, Harris’s prediction that he can get the record looks realistic.

It was good to see pictures of Michael Bell and his grey hack leading the string, including a back-again Big Orange in the once traditional and now revived start-of-season walk through Newmarket High Street. Bell, with an enlarged 95-horse string and with his 21-year-old son Nick Bell – “He’s never been Nick, always Nick Bell” says the trainer – now the assistant, will be one trainer to watch out for in the early part of the Flat.

One Bell inmate attracting plenty of attention around the place has been Fire Brigade, a possible for the Betway Lincoln. Talking of early, that Flat curtain-raiser comes only eight days after the Cheltenham Gold Cup, on March 24 at Doncaster.

The snag for Ding-Dong is that, although rated 98, Fire Brigade needs 13 to come out from the 34 horses placed above him in the weights. Apparently, if he gets it, it could be between Messrs Moore and Spencer as to who gets the gig. Fire Brigade might even need to get a penalty somewhere to seal the deal, but then that’s always a gamble, especially with so little time to spare.

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