Monday Musings: A Paisley Tinted Festival

It is three months since I first met Andrew Gemmell at Tattersalls December Sales in Newmarket’s Park Paddocks, writes Tony Stafford. From the outset I was astonished by the acuity of his hearing which clearly compensates to a degree of his denial from birth of what most of us will agree is the most vital sense – sight.

On mutually introducing each other, he recalled listening to my broadcasts on BBC Radio London in the early 1980s. Since then I have been doing some new work where it is necessary to record and play back short interviews. Hearing my own slow, boring tones is something of a shock. No wonder Adrian Lee – I think that was the name of the man who decided who should be on the shows when At The Races returned from the ashes of the old Racing Channel, where I did get the odd gig -told me “You are too dull”. Why not say what you really mean, Adrian?

There’s nothing like building your confidence. After an early go on the channel I once bumped into Richard Hannon senior who opined, “You always look a bit uneasy on the telly”. If he meant I was constantly looking over my shoulder, for reasons any regular reader would understand, he wasn’t far wrong.

Would that I could be as comfortable in front of the camera as Richard junior, enjoying Cheltenham last week, obviously is. I asked him when he might have a runner in the Champion Hurdle as the old man often did with excellent, close to winning, results a generation ago, and his reply suggested he might like to.

The weeks go so quickly. In that initial article about meeting Andrew Gemmell, I related his remark that I constantly referred in those broadcasts to a horse called Honegger that I’d suggested to Michael Dickinson might make a hurdler. I kept talking about him, probably because the Dickinson’s did buy him and he kept winning – to the tune of 20-odd races.

Well I see from a quick perusal of the intervening dozen articles since, that Paisley Park gets a few mentions, starting with the suggestion that 14-1 for the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle “might be over-priced”. After his victory in such devastating style at 11-8, despite a shuddering mistake at the last hurdle, that was a fair observation.

A month after the first meeting, I mentioned I’d started looking at the daily race cards again after years’ meandering along with not much more than Ray Tooth’s horses and their possible targets on my mind. Diminishing numbers have lessened that part of my day, and I’ve needed (and fortunately secured) some additional employment where it helps to keep abreast of events.

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It doesn’t quite keep the head above water, but as I said in that issue two months ago, “I’m looking” and when I find something “I’ll pass it on”. Last Monday, forgiving Howard Wright for his part in the Racing Post birthday non-appearance fiasco the previous week, I made what he suggested was a 20th consecutive foray up the A1(M) to Langford FC and the Cheltenham Preview Night, “the last but the best” as Howard, who in his 70s is as silly as me, always calls it.

We did find some winners, quite a few nice ones I fact, but with the wi-fi at the hotel anything but reliable, by the time I finally managed to get to the track every day I’d completely forgotten what I’d said and allowed Le Breuil, City Island, Band of Outlaws, Ch’tibello, Hazel Hill and the Altior-Politologue forecast, as well as the obvious Paisley Park to go unbacked. I did manage on the last day to have a few pennies on Ray’s home-bred Nelson River in the Triumph Hurdle and he confirmed his jumping potential by finishing fourth for Tony Carroll.

Thus he did what all good each-way bets do, finished just outside the money. At the time of my single-figure wager on the Tote, seconds before the off, Nelson River was paying 77 for a win and 16 for a place. I’d managed to blag my way onto the fourth floor of the old main stand where the hospitality boxes are and felt obliged to make a vociferous – if slow and boring – protest at the absence of any live pictures at the Tote betting points, quite a number of which there are at that level. Most of the boxes are over-filled, often with racegoers who are reluctant to curtail conversations even during the races, so hearing the commentary can be almost impossible. It would have been nice to step outside and get a noise-free view. Next year please, Mr Renton?

All those years at the Daily Telegraph entitled all of us without question full media credentials. The main Press facility on the second floor of the same stand is of limited capacity but was ours by right. Many more of the mushrooming media crowd are housed nowadays just near the North entrance, below the paddock in a vast building. I crept in there a couple of times, without being challenged <someone wasn’t doing his job although they were with great enthusiasm everywhere else> and as Gina Harding wistfully suggested: “This isn’t the main one”. Know how she feels.

I can’t complain. The wonderful Sophia Dale sent me for the first time Club badges for every day rather than a rectangular Media badge to sling around the neck, which actually does little more than get one through the door with the hoi-polloi, God forbid! If you persist or look as though you are entitled to be there, as in the fourth floor box level, you might just be all right.

At the Trials day, back in January when Paisley Park won the Cleeve Hurdle in such devastating fashion, I stood next to Andrew in the paddock as he listened to and we watched the definitive rehearsal to Thursday’s great triumph. This time, from the back of the new Princess Royal stand, I watched on the giant screen as my ticket did not get me into the paddock, any more than I was able to see Punjabi parading before the opening race in both 2017 and last year.

There were still more than enough people to congratulate the owner and trainer Emma Lavelle, who has done such a wonderful job on the gelding, bought as a young horse by the trainer for €60k. As ever, Emma gave plenty of credit to her husband, Barry Fenton, who rides the champion stayer every day at home. I hope he doesn’t run again this time.

While not exhibiting any of the eccentricities of the great Baracouda, twice winner and twice runner-up in the same race, his owner and trainer believe he hits a “flat spot” in his races, but as Andrew says: “It didn’t hurt Big Buck’s, did it?”

Coming back to Baracouda, he was also a seven-year-old at the time of his first Stayers’. While Paisley Park was winning the race on his tenth lifetime start, Baracouda did not get there until his 22nd career appearance. The first seven on the Flat were for his original owner/trainer, Mme Jacqueline Mathis, who also gave him an initial Auteuil spin before he was transferred to Francois Doumen.

By the time of that first Stayers’ success, Baracouda had already been a frequent cross-Channel traveller with wins at Ascot (Long Walk), Fontwell, Sandown, then the next season Ascot twice (another Long Walk) and Kempton before Cheltenham.

Once that significant barrier was passed, Doumen and owner J P McManus were happy to fire down his targets. In 2002/3, only two runs at Ascot (winning the Ascot Hurdle but only runner-up to Deano’s Beano in the Long Walk) preceded a Cheltenham repeat. He had three outings before Cheltenham the following season, wins at Newbury, Ascot (a third Long Walk) and Sandown but was surprisingly beaten by Iris’s Gift at the Festival.

Another short campaign followed in 2004/5, comprised of victories at Newbury and Wetherby before his usurping by the next stand-out champion, Inglis Drever, at the Festival. The end was now approaching, the 11-year-old following a Newbury second to Inglis Drever with a final fifth at Cheltenham behind My Way de Solzen, who was benefiting from Inglis Drever’s absence through injury.

Brilliantly handled so far by Emma Lavelle, Paisley Park is sensibly staying over hurdles, where he can become a multiple champion in the manner of Baracouda, Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s. There is no need to do anything else and certainly granted freedom from injury and the manifold potential problems racehorses can acquire, he should dominate the staying hurdles division for a long time.

Meanwhile, it’s the Lincoln next week, believe it or not. I’ve had an update from Hughie Morrison about Sod’s Law who will definitely not make the main race, but if the required 14 above him do come out, he’ll get in the Spring Mile. He’s on target according to the trainer, despite hanging onto his winter coat longer than most in the stable, but we’ve been waiting for this race and the straight mile should be right up his street. Count that as a tip, not that you can have a bet until the final entries are known on Thursday week.

Tony Stafford

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