Monday Musings: Great Nights under the Chelmsford City Lights

I suffered from the rigours of the homeward M25 twice last week, especially when narrowly avoiding a several-hour hiatus after Epsom on Tuesday thanks to a last-second and probably illegal switch across the shaded portion of the carriageway at the Orpington exit, writes Tony Stafford. Then there was the always-fraught Friday following Sandown, so I forwent the splendours of Esher on Saturday in favour of an afternoon’s telly watching.

That allowed a good segment of the Test match, some football and plenty of racing before embarking on the often troublesome but nominally 45-minute north-easterly venture to what Derek Thompson kept referring to later in the evening as “Essex’s Premier Racecourse”.

Yes, Derek, the one-time Essex Showground – as the signs from the A120 still refer to it more than ten years after its initial identity as Great Leighs, but now firmly established as Chelmsford City, is indeed the premier track in the county. It’s also the only one!

Though more akin to a County show venue than to a traditional racecourse, Chelmsford does have one lovable characteristic. Ask the jockeys that did perform the M25/M11/A120 commute after Sandown’s Solario and Atalanta Stakes meeting on Saturday.

Messrs Moore, Buick, Doyle, Crowley, Murphy, Havlin and Bishop, the seven riders that made up the field for the second race, all found the double shift worth the trouble. On a day of multiple Flat-race meetings, Chelmsford’s prizemoney comfortably eclipsed the rest. Sandown’s two Group 3’s – the Atalanta Stakes for three-year-old fillies carried a £39,000 winner’s prize, and was won by the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Veracious (Ryan Moore); while the Solario Stakes, which highlighted the obvious Classic potential of Too Darn Hot (John Gosden/Frankie Dettori) was worth £28k to the winning owner-breeders, the Lloyd Webber family.

Over at Beverley, the Bullet, won for the second successive year by soon-to-be-retired 11-year-old Take Cover (David Griffiths/David Allan), although only a Listed was well up to the Sandown class, carrying a £34k winner’s prize. Meanwhile, Chester offered £20,000 to the odds-on Duretto (Andrew Balding/David Probert) for its Listed Chester Stakes.

But Chelmsford, under its present management and (Bet)Fred Done’s ownership – having supplanted the financially-challenged original grouping which was forced to close down after a brief initial burst – have long been known for relatively lavish prizemoney.

As I said earlier, ask the jockeys. The major handicap on Saturday, the Betfred Chelmsford City Cup, advertised in the Racing Calendar of August 2nd as being worth a guaranteed £80,000, was actually boosted almost up to the £100k mark, meaning the Jeremy Noseda-trained / Doreen Tabor-owned winner Cenotaph, ridden by Moore, earned more than £64,000.

Two juvenile races, a novice and a nursery, each offered 22k to the winner. With the promise of entertainment afterwards and a brilliant cloud-free day, the crowds rolled in from quite early on. I arrived with plenty of time to spare, and made a beeline to the owners’ room, which has a great view of the paddock but absolutely no sight of the track. Space was at a premium there, even so early in the proceedings, but I saw two free seats and proceeded towards them, mug of coffee in hand, when I saw a woman having the same idea.

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You meet very nice people at the races, and that was the case with Katie Fuller, who said: “There’s room for both of us” as I made signs of looking elsewhere. She said: “I’m here to watch my son, Ollie Stammers, who has two rides, including one in the first.”

The first time I heard that name was when, watching from the top of the Mark Johnston gallops viewing tower with the trainer and his son Charlie last year, as Ray Tooth’s Tarnhelm made her comeback after the first of two injuries, Ollie was involved in the gallop, I’m pretty sure riding her.

Mark and Charlie spoke very warmly of the then 16-year-old who had only just arrived after leaving school in Essex, where the family lived, near Coggeshall, and quite close to Saturday’s venue. Since then he has ridden six winners from 56 rides, all this year, five of the wins and 38 of the rides for the Middleham stable.

Katie told me he’d always ridden and never wanted to do anything else, starting racing in pony events with his own pony. Now he’s outgrown that sport, so has the pony, which at 15 hands high is no longer eligible, and has devolved to mum’s responsibility while Ollie works away 200 miles to the north.

Charlie Johnston showed up in time for Ollie’s second ride, on last year’s winner of the big race Masham Star, one of the three Johnston horses on which he has won races. Poet’s Society, the horse with which Frankie Dettori gave Johnston the winner that beat Richard Hannon senior’s all-time record a couple of weeks back has also provided two and Ravenhoe another pair.

Charlie said: “We bought back Ravenhoe <for £5,000> late last year specifically for Ollie to ride. He’s an admirable young man and after riding four lots every morning, he’ll voluntarily come back in the afternoon for an hour on the Equicizer!” They were true to their word, Ravenhoe having provided the promising young jockey with 16 rides already on his own.

Katie Fuller could not speak more highly of her son’s employers, at the same time saying many people had told her he would be better off elsewhere. Just to put that jaundiced view into perspective, Ollie has had 38 rides for his boss:  Jeremy Noseda has had just 63 runners all year.

Six-year-old Cenotaph’s hat-trick, all at Chelmsford and worth a cumulative £97,000 for Doreen Tabor’s coffers, might well lead to renewed Coolmore patronage to the trainer after his period in the relative doldrums. One thing never in doubt has been his brilliance in training and placing his inmates.

I bumped into plenty of interesting people on Saturday, quite a few of them in the company of fashion shop and racehorse owner Michelle Fernandes, as much a regular at Chelmsford as at her local track Yarmouth,  where I first met her some years ago with my pal, Roger Hales.

In the burgeoning Fernandes party, which very sensibly took up a prime position in the comfy armchairs on the owners’ room balcony well before racing, was another nice lady who set the tone for Chelmsford’s claim as the fashion alternative to Royal Ascot.

Mandy Freke, an Essex local, was there with her husband and her 24-year-old son, and was decoratively attired in strident colours, adorned by what she unashamedly admitted to being “£275 shoes”, which caught the admiration of the remainder of their group.

Coming up to the 8.15 race, Mandy wanted to buy another bottle of Prosecco, but said hubby was too mean to do so – “although he did buy me the shoes and a new Mercedes the other day!” Brought into the conversation, I was asked if I knew what would win the next race.

Earlier I’d mentioned Nayslayer, part-owned by Mrs Paul Shanahan and trained by Sylvester Kirk to one of her friends, suggesting that its chance was obviously improved as a bottom weight by Silvestre de Sousa’s coming on from Sandown to ride him.

He was well treated with triple course winner Buckingham on earlier course form, yet was 10-1 in a field of five. Mandy searched in her designer handbag and retrieved an envelope with some coins in it. “Have £2 each way,” I suggested but then discovered the champion jockey had not made the trip.

It was only after Nayslayer had won, in a battle with the Gosden-trained/Havlin-ridden and previously-unbeaten Marhaba Milliar, I discovered he’d been ridden by the Japanese jockey Yuga Kawada, here with the Roger Varian stable for a working holiday.

After the race, Harry Taylor, arriving late after a nearby family party but in time to back Cenotaph, said he’d been on Nayslayer twice previously but didn’t play here. Happily, he did press his luck on the last-race winner Crystal Moonlight, which looked improbable until Ryan Moore plucked the prize from the blue with a powerful finish.

By that time, Mandy’s £28 had morphed into the much-desired bottle of fizz. I left her and her friends to enjoy it and the rest of the entertainment. It was a great night out at Chelmsford. Ask the jockeys!

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