Monday Musings: Missing The Leger

Unlike my near contemporaries Howard Wright and Tony Morris, I have a far from complete attendance record at the St Leger, although for the past 20-odd years the absences have been rare enough, writes Tony Stafford. I will miss the 2018 vintage though as with Harry Taylor and Alan Newman, the latter author of “It’s not what you know”, the affectionate anecdotal record of his 50-plus years as a greyhound bookmaker, I’ll be in Ireland.

And what a trip! We fly on Friday from Stansted to Dublin, stopping off to park our belongings at our digs before an evening at Newbridge dogs for a big final close to The Curragh. On Saturday it’s Leopardstown for the first stage of Ireland’s Champions Weekend before another doggy night at Shelbourne Park’s Irish Greyhound Derby semi-finals.

On Sunday we will be at The Curragh for day two of the ICW spectacular and after a third night’s stay, will move on for the Monday double header of Ballydoyle, where I’ve been twice before, and Coolmore, which will be a long-overdue first. At last I will be able to match the boasts of Steve and Kevin Howard and my old school pal Tony Peters, who all got the tour a few years ago by posing as potential customers at the stud. In the way that fiction can end as fact, their filly Megan’s Magic did eventually prove a successful broodmare, but only after she was sold when she became intractable on the racecourse.

The first of my Ballydoyle visits was as a guest of David O’Brien, the year he won the Derby with Secreto (1984), when my abiding memory is talking enjoyably in a large room when left alone with his mother Jacqueline while she was working on some delicate needlework.

That day I’d flown in to Shannon and hired a car from the airport. David, whom I’d got to know at the Keeneland July Sales in the month after his, in many ways, traumatic win against father Vincent’s Storm Bird – the Epsom beaten favourite needed the subsequent Irish Derby victory to secure his once-jeopardised reputed $30 million stallion deal  – asked me to divert to the now-defunct Cashel Palace Hotel, where he was in a lunch meeting with Malcolm Parrish.

I’m sure I’ve told elements of this tale before, but Malcolm had been the vendor when Michael Dickinson and father Tony bought two nice horses, French Hollow and Flying Hugue, from his 100-horse Chantilly stable. The contact came through the recommendation of Prince Rajsinh of Rajpipla (Pippy to you) who at the time was the Paris correspondent of the Racehorse weekly paper, which I edited alongside my Daily Telegraph work.

I told Malcolm, who was a most agreeable chap, of my minor part in that deal and he said: “Do you want any more?” Probably the best of the nine horses that eventually made their way (obviously pay as you go) to Rod Simpson was Brunico, runner-up in the Triumph Hurdle before winning the Ormonde Stakes for Terry Ramsden and 20-odd points for Peter Bowen. The one that got away was Hogmanay, condemned as untrainable by Rod, but winner of a host of good chases for Terry Casey. Cheers Rod.

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Years later, just over a decade ago probably, I stopped off with my Collins Willow book editor on a trip which encompassed one of the short-lived big-money two-year-old races at The Curragh. We went on to Listowel for their Festival where my main recollection is of our enjoying a drink with Kieren Fallon after racing in the town’s main hotel.

That was a perfunctory trip to Ballydoyle but we got a nice look at the gallops and the isolation yard. I cannot remember much else apart from the gates which welcome or discourage would-be visitors. Then it’s on to Coolmore, where I trust we won’t need, unlike the Billericay boys, to pretend we’re planning to send a mare before taking an evening flight back from Cork to Stansted.

The previous time I was at the Irish Champion Stakes was 19 years ago. After the Thoroughbred Corporation’s Royal Anthem won the 1999 Juddmonte International at York by eight lengths from fellow 3-1 joint favourite Greek Dance, I was alone in the peripheral team to express caution about whether the four-year-old should take his chance there.

Trainer Henry Cecil, racing manager Dick Mulhall, based in California, Willie Carson, the domestic racing manager and jockey Gary Stevens all wanted to run, as did HRH Prince Ahmed bin Salman, the owner. In the irony of such moments, none of them ended up at Leopardstown, leaving it all to me. Henry was at Doncaster for the very good reason that Ramruma, his Oaks winner from that year and also Irish and Yorkshire Oaks heroine in a hitherto unblemished five-win three-year-old campaign, was odds-on favourite for the St Leger.

For Ramruma Doncaster proved a step too far. She finished runner-up to Mutafaweq and never won again, her following season being a major anti-climax. She was owned by Prince Ahmed’s elder brother Prince Fahd, who had won the 1991 Derby with Generous. Prince Ahmed emulated his brother winning at Epsom in 2000 with Oath, but by 2002, both brothers had died suddenly and their large empires were quickly dispersed.

At The Curragh, Royal Anthem showed that sometimes an unchallenged on the bridle win in a Group 1 can take more out a horse than is obvious at the time. If he hadn’t run, he was guaranteed to be Horse of the Year. Daylami won even more easily in Ireland than Royal Anthem (who was a remote fifth) had at York, and rightly took the award. Two months later at Gulfstream Park, Daylami emphasised his superiority with a two and a quarter lengths win over Royal Anthem in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Talk about being in the middle of a storm. I’d already got to the airport and was preparing to go through security when Mulhall called. “Get on to the racecourse vet. That can’t be right. He must have been got at!” Sorry Dick, it can be right and after talking to the vet, I was reassured it was even if nobody else was convinced. The fact that he ran so well, albeit without quite winning in the US so soon after, to my mind proved that.

Two years later, I missed another St Leger, again because of my Thoroughbred Corporation responsibilities. We were all at the Keeneland September sales in Kentucky and were preparing to go down to the arena when the 9-11 attack happened in New York.

My informal deal with the Telegraph was that I could travel with the boys as long as there was no cost to the paper and I still did my normal Telegraph tipping and writing as well as reporting on the sales. That morning we had the St Leger acceptors so I did the preview piece on the race before calling my daughter whose birthday it was and is (must remember her card tomorrow!).

When I finally got to Keeneland, everyone had gone and the event was delayed by a day, so I returned to the Marriott and watched proceedings from New York for a couple of hours with Michael Tabor and Jeremy Noseda while we had lunch.

Everyone’s flight plans home later that week were in disarray, not least the Saudis and especially the large Sheikh Mohammed party, which was stuck in Lexington into the following week. On the Thursday I learned that Tabor had managed to secure a plane to fly out the next day, but by the time I got round to trying to fix a spot, it was already full with trainers hoping to get back in time for Doncaster. Michael was rewarded with a St Leger win courtesy of Milan, while I stopped off at the Ladbrokes betting parlour in Pittsburgh where I’d broken my journey. Did I make it pay? What do you think?

I am very confident that Kew Gardens will win the St Leger in our absence. He stayed on well from miles behind in the Great Voltigeur and had gone into that race with remarkably little expectation considering he carried a penalty. After a spell when Ballydoyle had been in the doldrums with a now well-reported “bug”, I noticed in one recent two-week spell, Aidan O’Brien had 18 wins. The 11 in the same period by Joseph have helped propel younger brother Donnacha to a 20-winner margin in the jockeys’ title race.

I remember at the Eclipse meeting at Sandown just before he took out a licence, therefore when he was yet to reach 16, I asked Ballydoyle’s main vet John Halley, when he would start. “Very soon – and he’ll be better than Joseph!” was the reply. Looks like that lofty prophecy was not far wrong.

On domestic issues, it was wonderful to see the way Enable came back into action after 11 months off with such a clinical defeat of the high-class Crystal Ocean in the September Stakes at Kempton. John Gosden’s handling of her and many other recent stars has been outstanding and I fully expect her to give trainer, owner Prince Khalid Abdullah and the irrepressible Frankie Dettori another win in the Arc. In time she might be regarded as even better than Treve.

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