Racing at Sandown on Saturday was like going back in time at least 30 years, writes Tony Stafford. Traffic built up a couple of hours before the early start; car parks were packed but then came the major difference: going into the track, racegoers were funnelled through a narrow opening where the Saturday staple drug-detecting dogs had a sniff at everyone.
I don’t know whether the course releases details of the number of non-admissions as a result of the screening policy but at the time I survived the examination it was all pretty good-natured, as it remained throughout.
The main attraction obviously was the return to action of the peerless Altior in the Betfair Tingle Creek Chase. The sponsors’ yellow scarves were draped around many shoulders but did little to nullify the effects of a downpour during the running of the race.
With only four contestants it might have been a relative non-event, but in the form of Un de Sceaux, such a reliable adversary, the champion was faced with a serious test.
When Ruby Walsh gathered the Irish 10-year-old for his run for home it looked as though Altior might struggle, but once the acceleration which has characterised his entire career kicked in, there was only one possible outcome. Altior won by four lengths with the other pair, Saint Calvados – who took Un de Sceaux’s customary position at the front for almost half the race, and Sceau Royal a respectful distance behind.
As all three remain among the immediate group of possible beneficiaries should Altior lapse from his present level in next March’s Queen Mother Chase at Cheltenham, it is understandable that Nicky Henderson’s eight-year-old is now odds-on for that race.
The entire Sandown card provided entertainment as did the track executive’s decision to broadcast on the big screens all the action from Aintree complete with Mark Johnson’s commentary. Often going racing means you lose track of what is happening elsewhere and while you needed rather more research to dig out Chepstow, Wetherby and Navan, it could be done.
I’ve always had a good crack at solving Aintree’s Becher Chase puzzle believing that previous visitors to the Grand National fences often hold an advantage. A field of 18 included a few with decent claims and, of these, previous winners Vieux Lion Rouge and Ultragold again performed with credit, unlike Blaklion who never recovered from an early mistake and trailed home in 11th spot.
With the ground all over the country suddenly having gone to soft or even heavy, I decided to have a late, brief look for a suitable light-weight and landed on the Robert Walford-trained Walk in the Mill, a son of Derby runner-up Walk in the Park, sire notably of Douvan and Min.
When Call It Magic, trained by Ross O’Sullivan, husband of the enchanting Katy Walsh, as seen on Luck on Sunday yesterday, was still well clear at the third-last fence, victory seemed probable. That was until you noticed Walk in the Mill, who found a strong burst around the outside and by the penultimate fence he looked unassailable. Denied a run in last April’s big race by an injury, he will be a contender next time round.
One For Arthur, the 2017 Grand National winner appeared on the Aintree card, in his first outing since, but in the Betway Many Clouds Chase over the smaller Mildmay fences. Unfortunately he blundered and unseated Tom Scudamore at the third fence leaving prolific winner Definitly Red to make all under Danny Cook. Brian Ellison has the Gold Cup firmly on his agenda.
Willie Mullins looked the trainer to follow in Ireland yesterday, with established and emerging stars sprinkling both the Punchestown and Cork cards. Mullins is fortunate to have – apart from a stable chock-full of brilliant horses – two authentic champion jockeys. So Ruby Walsh, fresh from his multi-tasking at Sandown, was at Punchestown, while Paul Townend took the road south to Cork.
Townend got the better of the day numerically winning four races while his senior colleague had a favourites’ treble. Townend was off with a rush, collecting the first two maidens with Maze Runner and Come To Me for his boss, then teaming up with Pat Fahy to collect the Hilly Way Chase (Grade 2) with Castlegrace Paddy after Mullins’ 4-7 shot, Great Field (Jody McGarvey), departed at the second fence.
Then Camelia de Cotte made it four in the mares’ novice chase before what looked a certain five-timer was narrowly denied in the finale. Here, Mullins’ well-backed Eight and Bob strolled clear before two out in a 20-runner novice handicap hurdle, but a scruffy jump at the last was all the encouragement fast-finishing Ronald Pump and jockey Robbie Power needed to get up late.
The aforementioned Min was the centrepiece of Ruby’s Punchestown treble, but the multiple former champion needed all his steel to overcome some tactical room-denying by a couple of his rivals coming to the closing stages of the John Durkan Memorial. In the end Min had a little to spare over Gordon Elliott’s Shattered Love and, with stable-mate Footpad, is one of the leaders in the group paying homage to Altior among the two-milers.
Sunday was an uncharacteristically barren day for Elliott, with none of his 12 runners getting top spot after three the day before at Navan. The last straw must have been the defeat of odds-on Santana Plessis in the concluding Pro-Am Flat race, where the honours went to Tom Hamilton on the Joseph O’Brien newcomer, Embittered, a son of Fame and Glory.
Joseph was not there to witness his winner although the communications from Hong Kong would have enabled him to see it. O’Brien was on track at 6 a.m. GMT, almost ten hours before his home winner, for the Longines Hong Kong Vase where his Irish Derby winner Latrobe was one of eight European contenders for the £1 million plus first prize.
Latrobe could manage only 11th of the 14 runners. Best of the Europeans, behind the four-year-old Teofilo gelding, Exultant, was Dermot Weld’s Eziyra in the Aga Khan colours. She picked up just shy of £200k while fifth-placed Waldgeist (Andre Fabre) collected just over £60,000 for fifth. None of the other visitors collected a cheque. Best of these in seventh was the much-travelled Rostropovich (Aidan O’Brien), with Charlie Fellowes’ Prince of Arran in eighth and Salouen, Sylvester Kirk, ninth. Ed Dunlop’s Red Verdon beat just one home, the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Mirage Dancer, who continued Ryan Moore’s run of overseas disappointments.
David Elsworth also sent over a challenger on the day, but his Sir Dancealot probably found the hotly-contested Hong Kong Sprint happening much too quickly after a busy season, and was never in contention, finishing last of eleven.
After her strong-finishing fifth at the Breeders’ Cup it might have been expected that William Haggas’ One Master would make an impact in the Hong Kong Mile, but while best of the three Europeans, she was still unable to collect any money for finishing a well-beaten eighth. Andrew Balding’s Beat the Bank was 11th and the Fabre-trained Inns of Court last of 14 behind Beauty Generation.
The Hong Kong racing pattern occasionally throws up horses in the mould of this New Zealand-bred six-year-old. Beauty Generation had won only one of his first ten outings as a developing horse. Since those days he has improved consistently and here completed a five-timer in the major mile races of the season at odds of 1-2. His earnings exceed £6,000,000 and it would seem he will continue to dominate for trainer John Moore and rider Zac Purton.