Monday Musings: Fine Margins and the Royal Regatta

What is the relevance of the following succession: neck, head, nose, short head and neck? No they are not a new variant on the heads, shoulders, knees and toes kiddies rhyme, although they would comfortably fit the meter of the song, normally sung to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down, writes Tony Stafford. They are race distances which added together barely stretch to a single length.

These narrow margins offer unarguable evidence of the toughness and talent of the Karl Burke-trained, John Dance-owned, P J McDonald-ridden Laurens.  They were achieved successively in one maiden race (on debut); one Group 2 and three Group 1’s, the latter trio encompassing the Fillies Mile (last October) and then the Prix Saint-Alary and yesterday’s Prix de Diane, her first Classic.

When she didn’t win, second time out as a juvenile at Deauville, and behind the Richard Hannon longshot Billesdon Brook in the 1,000 Guineas on her 2018 reappearance, the margin of defeat was also uniform, one and three-quarter lengths each time.

Maybe the fact of five tight photo-finishes has kept us from celebrating her class until now. There were distinct impressions for instance that if she met her nose Fillies Mile victim, the strong-finishing September, again, she would struggle to replicate the performance, but while September has been off the track since her Breeders’ Cup third at Del Mar in November, Laurens has continued to thrive.

At Chantilly yesterday, race commentator Patrick Faraday (or is it Ferraday, I can never quite catch the name accurately, so sorry Pat) gave emotional gloss to the drama as he talked of a “host of challengers” as they neared the finish. His additional information, after she crossed the line, must have given a jolt to one former jockey who until George Baker’s career-ending injury in San Moritz last year, acted as his driver. No Patrick it was P J, not Frankie McDonald, but happy soul Frankie would have enjoyed the mention.  Again there was a late flourish from the Andre Fabre-Godolphin runner, Musis Amica, coming from last into second, but we won’t be fooled this time.

Who is John Dance? We ought to know as in 2017 he ran 34 individual horses on the Flat and already this year 24 have carried his predominately white colours. These are (or were until sold in a couple of cases) spread among nine trainers with Burke ‘s Spigot Lodge in Middleham housing eight, the most. They are all based in the north apart from one, so far unsuccessful, with Hugo Palmer.

Mr Dance is the proprietor of Salcey Forest Stud, in the centre of Forestry Commission land ten miles from Northampton and he added to that breeding involvement by acquiring Robert Barnett’s Fair Winter Farm in Buckinghamshire last October.

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When that purchase was announced, reflecting the history of the place based on the family’s Time Charter line, Mr Dance was already anticipating having Laurens as his own foundation mare, calling her a Classic prospect for 2018. That prediction looks pretty smart eight months down the line.

Will Edmeades, who looked after the Barnett breeding interests in Buckinghamshire, has returned to his former base in Newmarket, no doubt leaving Dance to undergo another demanding activity, staving off the bids which are sure to come from the biggest breeding operations around the world.

It would be nice to think that he will be as resolute in resisting them as his daughter of Siyouni, one of the most promising young French stallions, has been during her racing career. One of the friends of Salcey Farms Stud’s web page was congratulating herself last night for having “backed her for the Arc before her latest win”. I’m not surprised.

Trainer and owner have already shown admirable enterprise in her programme, never flinching from the next challenge however daunting, so I fully expect to see her back at Parislongchamp – great name for a racecourse! – on the first Sunday in October. Maybe Happily, one of the foiled “host”, barely half a length back in fourth after a far less smooth run than the winner’s, will be there but the O’Brien filly  has been generally frustrating so far this year.

Aiden will have his usual blanket coverage at Royal Ascot this week when there is little doubt that victory for Order of St George will be among the principal aims. There will be no Big Orange to foil his delayed quest for a second victory in the race unlike last year but the quirky Frenchman Vazirabad and John Gosden’s Stradivarius pose obvious challenges.

Royal Ascot always represents the mid-point of the Flat racing year, with car park activity before and after racing celebrating the approach of the year’s longest day. I hope to take up invitations to Jamie Osborne (“Tuesday or Friday, usual spot”) and Brian Meehan (Wednesday), same location, but it all gets a bit hectic. I wonder how I ever got on when I had to write about it, do the tips for every race and bet on all of them – not always the ones I’d selected for the Daily Telegraph readers either?

I enjoyed a ride in Jamie’s gallops car in Lambourn last week, marvelling at his ability to travel up a dirt road at above 30 mph, anticipating and accommodating the regular speed bumps and still keeping the five horses in the work sufficiently in his camera phone screen for me to receive a What’s App recording immediately afterwards.

Raymond Tooth was encouraged by the representation of the display of his home-bred Pour Moi colt, Waterproof (ex Laughing Water), and this first foal might have a bit of a future. On one hand Pour Moi has been swiftly re-branded as a jumps stallion at Coolmore’s NH division: on the other, he was sire of the 2017 Derby winner Wings of Eagles, so clearly he can get a good one given the right ingredients of nature and nurture.

Saturday night was interesting. I’ve never been to Fontwell for a race starting at 8.55 p.m. but that was the assignment of Ray’s lightly-raced Starcrossed in a handicap hurdle stretching up to nearly two and a half miles for the first time.

Compared to the much more experienced and improving staying mare Rebel Yeats, he clearly has plenty to learn as a quite serious mistake at the third flight showed. That meant the gelding and Harry Skelton (who had ridden the two previous winners) forfeited first run to the 10lb claimer-ridden winner, but Starcrossed stayed on resolutely up the hill to get within a length and a half.

Dan Skelton reported him in great shape on Sunday morning and will no doubt be scouring the final days of Volume 2 of the Programme Book 2018 for a quick return. More realistically, he might wait until early next month to find the winning opportunity he strongly anticipates for the Cape Cross six-year-old, bought cheaply on Steve Gilbey’s inspired hunch at Newmarket sales in October 2016 and already a novice hurdle winner at Huntingdon on the second of just four runs.

So enjoy Ascot, whether you are there in person or watching on the box. One normal regular attendee of my acquaintance is staying away in favour of blanket home absorption of all things World Cup. Hope he’s been laying the short ones! [No comment! – Ed.]


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