Monday Musings: Catholic Boys and Sales Season

So York is over for another year, and judged by the recent heavy rain all over the country, so is summer, writes Tony Stafford. For those owners and trainers whose campaigns have yet to ignite, the coming days will be filled with trepidation as the yearling sale season is upon us and decisions on which horses to retain and which to move on from the present inventory have urgently to be made.

Last week it was Arqana’s August Deauville Sale. Tomorrow signifies the start of three days of Goffs Ireland at Doncaster, the first two Premier, with the Silver sale on Thursday. One agent who should be approaching the coming days with optimism is Sam Sangster, especially where the 2018 season’s results with his new principal client Araam are concerned.

So far, four of six juveniles carrying the blue and purple livery have won, all from the Brian Meehan stable. Three of those won first time out, and Newbury scorer Athmad and last week’s Ffos Las successful debutant Palavecino have already performed at an above-average level in their sole starts to date.

In the old days, much of some bloodstock agents’ and indeed racehorse trainers’ work was carried out in the rarefied atmosphere of London’s West End, and I am sure that Sam’s revered late father Robert Sangster knew his way around the most salubrious establishments in that area.

I’ve often thought Sam was shaping up as the nearest approximation, personality-wise, to his father of the five Sangster boys, even more than the elder trio of Ben, Guy and Adam, the last-named who runs Swettenham stud in Australia, and indeed younger brother Max.

It seems that on one of his trips up west a year or so ago, Sam bumped into a chap who was connected to a Dubai businessman, Saeed Alghaith. It further seemed Mr Alghaith liked horses but was not interested in racehorses. Project forward to now and say hello to Araam.

Two of the six to run have shown special promise. Two weekends ago Athmad, a 92,000gns son of Olympic Glory, was sent to Newbury for a seven-furlong maiden race. Such events there in midsummer are never easily picked up, but Athmad gave a fair impression of doing so, making all and then going further away when gently encouraged by James Doyle. A little greenness causing him to veer right towards the stands rail did not disguise his raw promise and Meehan’s assistant, James Ferguson, confirmed the visual impression that he might well be a stakes horse.

When the Roger Charlton-trained Momkin won a similar event on the same track from a big field the previous month, he was given similarly lofty reports. Thus when he moved on to Ffos Las last week, ridden by Silvestre de Sousa, for a novice event, unsurprisingly he started at 7-1 on.

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Thus, as Momkin came through in the last furlong to challenge the Araam newcomer Palavecino, who had set a decent pace from the start, the outcome seemed inevitable, but while Momkin probably got a whisker ahead at one stage, Palavecino rallied under Nicky Mackay for a decisive if narrow win. They had pulled six lengths clear of the rest.

To have two such promising colts from a smallish sample reflects very well on the buyer and also the trainer, who consults Sam on the purchases and who, it should be remembered, is generally regarded as somebody whose young horses are usually better for the run. Since Sangster and Meehan have pooled their brains at the yearling sales, the results have been impressive. I’m pretty sure that in Athmad and Palavecino, Saeed Alghaith could have two horses capable of challenging for some major prizes.

Also, having won first time out with both horses at such a strategically-staged moment in the season, it could be that Sam’s shopping trolley might have even more capacity this time around. He certainly deserves it.


Ballydoyle had a quiet York, but six winners at The Curragh’s two-day meeting and a much-improved performance back in the US by Mendelssohn in second behind Catholic Boy in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, known colloquially as the Midsummer Derby, will have cheered up the troops with the autumn campaigns around the globe in mind.

While Catholic Boy was showing himself to be a potential future champion in a messy old year in North American racing, with Justify, the probable winner of that accolade after his Triple Crown exploits, now retired, momentous events were occurring in Ireland.

The most important Catholic boy of them all, Pope Francis, was visiting the country. The day before at York, Bjorn Neilsen’s home-bred four-year-old Stradivarius brought a £1 million bonus to his owner when winning the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup to complete a four-timer in the long-distance series.

Just by one day then, a double-double of Neilsen-Pope connections for me was foiled. Back in the 1990’s I used to speak quite often with Bjorn, having met the US-based financier on his visits to the UK. In 1992 his Assessor won the Lingfield Derby Trial and an Italian owner tried to tempt him with a £1 million bid. On reflection, he decided to keep the colt as he’d grown up in Epsom and wanted to try to win the Derby himself.

In the event Assessor was unable to go with Dr Devious and St Jovite, finishing 13th, but the decision to keep the son of Niniski proved correct as in a long career in the Cup races he won the Prix Royal Oak, the Yorkshire Cup, Doncaster Cup, Prix du Cadran and Italian St Leger. That success almost certainly fired Neilsen’s enthusiasm for staying races, so spectacularly sated by Stradivarius.

Whenever I called his office, as I’m sure I’ve said here before, his secretary called me “Robin Leach” after the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” narrator on television – obviously he had a tone-less voice. After my sole visit to Neilsen’s Wall Street offices and a six-inch thick deli sandwich down the road, I set off for the excursion train from Grand Central Station to Belmont Park.

I had been staying for that October 1995 trip with Virginia Kraft Payson – St Jovite’s owner – at her house on Sand’s Point, Long Island, but had no idea of the potential travel pitfalls that awaited me that day. On arrival at the station, I discovered the trains for the track had already finished and had to stop halfway at Jamaica station.

Outside I got a taxi, driven by a man with almost no English, and when I said “Belmont Park” he glazed over but let me into the back of the rickety yellow vehicle. After about a mile he pointed to a green expanse to the left side of the road, saying: “park”. Totally disillusioned, I persuaded him to carry on until I saw a line of people waiting at a bus stop.

We stopped and I asked if anyone knew the way to Belmont Park. One lady said she did and she got into the cab explaining that she knew the way as her son was involved in the sport. She said she’d just left Aqueduct racecourse where she had seen Pope John Paul II give a blessing to a large crowd of New Yorkers, one of a number of Papal stopping points around the city that day.

On further acquaintance, the lady said her son Joe Lee worked in Dubai as an assistant trainer with Godolphin. It turned out that my own son, who had spent a six-month spell working with Sheikh Mohammed’s sons in his private sports club, knew Joe, who was a particular friend of Jeremy Noseda’s, as they had lived in the same apartment complex.

We got safely to Belmont, despite the driver but thanks to Joe Lee’s mum and the Pope! After Stradivarius on Friday I had a quick chat with Bjorn Neilsen and told him for the first time of that blessed encounter. It’s been a funny old life.

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