Monday Musings: A Happy Past

When your past catches up with you, it doesn’t always bring back the happiest of memories, writes Tony Stafford. But one chance encounter at my regular vantage point in the buffet restaurant at Tattersalls sales almost three weeks ago defies belief, but in a positive way.

My wingman – actually it’s the other way round – as much-respected bloodstock insurance doyen, John Hancock, now winding down, as if ever he would, and working for Anglo Hibernian under Jim Wordsworth, is a much more permanent attendee.

Jim had invited his staff in the Newmarket High Street office to lunch in the posh restaurant next door to the buffet on the first anniversary of the firm’s being taken over by a bigger company last December.

While John enjoyed sampling the expensive menu I took a couple of hours to wander the grounds; watch a few going through the ring and to catch up with the ever-industrious – and unflappable – Wendy Normile in the Coolmore office.

Later that day, a friend, Andrew Pasfield, a veteran of many Highclere Thoroughbred Racing syndicates of varying success, was to meet up with me. He was there to witness the sale later in the day of Luminate, a one-time Classic hope trained in France by Freddy Head but ultimately disappointing.

I arrived back in the buffet and found John on a busy table, luckily with one spare space next to him. Unusually they were not his clients, but coincidentally they too were there to watch the same Highclere filly sell.

I was sure I had seen one of them before and said, on being introduced to Andrew Gemmell, “I’m Tony Stafford,” and was amazed when he said, “I know”. Considering he was clearly blind, I was further astonished when he said: “I recognise your voice from when you used to do BBC Radio London with Norman de Mesquita”.

Considering my three-year stint, driving down from the Daily Telegraph in Fleet Street to Marylebone High Street in the West End every Friday to record a broadcast on the big Saturday cards to go out on Friday evening and again on Saturday morning, ended in 1980, it took more than a reasonable memory.

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But what he added was even more amazing. “You were always talking about Honegger and Michael Dickinson, and how he was going to win again.” I’ve previously referred to my depleted racing library and irritatingly I could not find any form book covering either his career or that of Fear Naught, the smart filly Honegger beat at Redcar in the race that persuaded me to tell Michael: “You must buy him. He’s got so much guts, he has to make a hurdler.”

So when the then Luca Cumani-trained colt came to the Autumn Sale at Tatts, presumably in 1974, I was delighted when the Dickinson’s did indeed buy him. Obviously it was even more gratifying that he won I think seven times as a juvenile and at least 20 races in all. I reckon Michael, Luca and me are probably just about the only people around who would still recognise the name Honegger apart from the remarkable Mr Gemmell.

That day he was clearly keyed up at the prospect of the sale of his Lawman filly but should not have worried. She was knocked down for 900,000gns, so the two Andrews got a very nice dividend on their 10 per cent shares in a filly that was originally bought by John and Jake Warren for Euro 85,000 as a yearling at Goff’s sale in Ireland. That was just about – training fees apart – all profit as she won £84,000 in her racing career.

Andrew Gemmell did have time to tell me before the sale that he owned outright a nice staying hurdler, Paisley Park, that only ten days before had won a valuable (56k) handicap hurdle over three miles at Haydock under top weight of 11st12lb. He said the plan was the JLT Hurdle (registered as the Long Walk), a level weights Grade 1 race over the same trip at Ascot’s pre-Christmas fixture.

He talked about being blind from birth, the son of two local GPs who looked after the children at the school for the blind he attended near Shrewsbury. From an early age his father instilled in him the love of cricket and horse racing and he attended his first Test match aged 11.

For 20 years he worked for Westminster Council, finally leaving when yet another change in work practices coupled with a wish to go to Australia to watch the Ashes Test series propelled him into his later life as a full-time sports fanatic.

Andrew has been an MCC member for years; is a season ticket holder at West Ham United – sorry Racing Post, not Arsenal! – and has been to the last 11 Melbourne Cups among almost 30 visits to Australia where he has horses in training. Three years ago he was part of the La Grange syndicate which owned the Ed Dunlop-trained Trip to Paris, a close fourth behind Prince of Penzance in the Melbourne Cup having previously finished runner-up in the Caulfield Cup.

On Saturday morning I called Andrew and asked if I could come down to the paddock before the JLT Hurdle. “Of course,” was the reply, and in the manner of all good stories, Paisley Park, a Euro 60,000 purchase by Gerry Hogan and Emma Lavelle as a three-year-old, came away to win in good style. Before the race, the big topic was the heavy ground because when he ran at Cheltenham in the spring, he pulled hard in blinkers and finished miles behind.

This time, he settled well under Aidan Coleman and outstayed his rivals, winning by a couple of lengths, suggesting that the 14-1 on offer for the Sun Bets Stayers Hurdle at the Festival might be over-generous. Certainly he is in for a shot at the £185,000 first prize as his stamina and form cannot be questioned. He was especially gratified that the horse gave initial Grade 1 wins for both Lavelle, with whom he has had horses since she started training, and Coleman.

The reference by Andrew to Norman de Mesquita, likewise a cricket fanatic, but much more, caused me to delve a little into his story. I knew from first hand that he was from a Portuguese Jewish family, but it took a reminder in his obituary, published in 2013 upon his dying aged 81, that he had also been an ice hockey referee, the announcer at Wembley stadium and a lover of theatre and classical music.

My best memory of my time working with Norman was when tipping Tamalin for the 1979 Grand National. Later that day, back in the office I was aghast that Gordon W Richards had declared him a non-runner.

I had another look at what had been my luckiest tipping race for the paper and came up with Rubstic. I said to Norman I’d happily drive down from Hertfordshire the following morning to the studio and give my revised tip live. All the way down to my mother-in-law’s house in Highbury where I would be dropping off the family I had the radio on with Norman telling the listeners Tony Stafford was on his way.

The journey was punctuated with two stops for travel sickness between the three kids, then age six, three and a half and 18 months, but I finally parked on a yellow line outside the studio at 11.20, ten minutes before the end of the show. We managed a quick, breathless interview and blow me down Rubstic won later in the day at 28-1. It took a great broadcaster like Norman de Mesquita to take the chance of such an uncertain prospect both in terms of my getting there and then fluking the winner.

But I must finish with Andrew. When we first talked about Norman I said: “Do you remember who filled in for Norman when he went on holiday?” He thought for no more than ten seconds and said “Simon Reed”. Of course he was right.

That is the same Simon Reed whose elder brother Oliver was the hell-raising actor who died almost 20 years ago. Simon still keeps the viewers informed with his commentaries on tennis and ice skating at the top events around the world. Just before I started work at the Greyhound Express in 1966, the Reed boys’ father Peter was that long-departed paper’s horse racing tipster and the youthful Oliver and Simon used to come in to sub up evening dog results ready for the printer.

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