Monday Musings: Newbury a Cornerstone of the NH Season

The exploits of Paisley Park, last season’s champion staying hurdler, were fundamental in thrusting Emma Lavelle into the top echelon of jump racing in the UK last season even if she’d been highly respected with major winners for at least a decade before that, writes Tony Stafford. Labelthou and Crack Away Jack were among her early stable stars, but last weekend at Newbury produced a quickening of the Lavelle pulse.

There is always a slight (or sometimes more than slight) concern when an existing champion returns to start a new season, and both Lavelle and owner Andrew Gemmell were fully aware that resuming in a race as competitive as Newbury’s Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle offered a potential threat.

Off the track since his convincing win over Sam Spinner and 16 others in the Stayers’ Hurdle last March, it would have been understandable if Lavelle did not have him fully primed last Friday. There probably was something left to work with but the outcome was more than satisfactory as he came home under Aiden Coleman for a one-length verdict.

The victory should not be under-estimated as the runner-up was the 11-year-old Thistlecrack, running over hurdles for the first time since finishing a well-beaten favourite in the corresponding race two years previously when only fifth of six behind Beer Goggles. The last named, lightly-raced since that day, tragically broke down badly in Friday’s race and had to be put down.

Thistlecrack had turned belatedly to chasing for the Colin Tizzard stable, soon after preceding Paisley Park by three years in winning the Stayers’ Hurdle. Here, as Tom Scudamore produced the now veteran to head on up the run-in on Friday with a narrow lead, you wondered whether Paisley Park would be sharp enough to deny him; but Coleman had everything under control and the build-up to a second title is under way.

For most stables, such a triumph in Grade 1 company would have been sufficient excitement for one weekend, but Lavelle and the Makin Bacon Partnership, which also includes Mr Gemmell, had the effrontery to secure the weekend’s most lucrative prize, the Ladbrokes Trophy (formerly Hennessy) with De Rasher Counter.

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Many moons ago, in my formative years on the racetrack, the Exchange Telegraph Company shared with the Press Association (my employer at the time) the responsibility for compiling starting prices for the newspapers. In those days markets were strong and betting shops were in their infancy. Extel had a veteran SP man whose name I seem (possibly wrongly) to remember was Arthur. But he was universally known as Rasher for the simple reason that he had worked as a young man on the bacon counter at Sainsburys.

The Hennessy was never an easy race to win and with so many of chasing’s biggest names, equine and human, on its roll of honour, not least dual winner Denman, it has always had a cachet. This year’s race had no outstanding candidate so 24 horses lined up. De Rasher Counter and young 5lb claimer Ben Jones got the better of a finish of three seven-year-olds, followed home by The Conditional (David Bridgwater) and Elegant Escape (Colin Tizzard), with Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old Beware The Bear a close fourth.

Henderson also provided two other well-backed horses in ante-post favourite OK Corral and also On The Blind Side but neither ever held out much hope. Another with multiple runners was Tizzard and his 13-2 favourite West Approach was one of only two casualties, unseating Robbie Power at the seventh fence. Yorkhill, trained by Willie Mullins, was already a beaten horse when falling four fences from home, so in effect the only horse to hit the deck in a race of three and a quarter miles and 21 obstacles, all the better for the spectacle and the sport’s image.

De Rasher Counter, by winning off his mark of 149, might be some way off challenging for the weight-for-age championship races like the King George or the Gold Cup but Elegant Escape, who carried 11st12lb top weight and finished very well, must be among Tizzard’s host of challengers for both. Already the veteran of 15 runs over fences and with four wins, he has contested  big races for the past two seasons without much luck but the way he closed out the race on Saturday suggests he’s still progressing.

Another horse improving fast is Micky Hammond’s Cornerstone Lad, who overcame a 19lb gulf in hurdles ratings with dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’air to win the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. Henry Brooke sent the five-year-old clear from the start and despite being joined by the former champ on the run-in had the temerity and also the tenacity to see him off by a diminishing short-head despite all Barry Geraghty’s best efforts. After the race it was reported that Buveur D’air had finished lame on his off-fore leg, having taken a large shard of the second last in the top of his hoof.

Cornerstone Lad had already earned a rating of 142 over jumps when he finished last season with a win in April over the same course, his fourth success in 11 starts. At the time his Flat rating was only 65, ridiculously 77lb lower than his hurdles mark so when he turned up on Oaks Day in a two miles, one furlong handicap at Carlisle on heavy going I thought all my Christmases had come at once. All day I was regaling anyone at Epsom who would listen that this 6-4 shot was the biggest certainty of all time, so when he was beaten a short head by Only Orsenfoolsies, a 10-year-old 33-1 rag also trained by Hammond, imagine my embarrassment – only exceeded by the hit to my finances.

Only Orsenfoolsies won his next race over hurdles soon after, but Cornerstoine Lad was not sighted again until five months after Carlisle and, still rated 65, won as the 4-1 favourite at Catterick, an effort that brought his Flat rating to the dizzy heights of 71. A couple of weeks later he reverted to hurdles at Wetherby and showed how accurate the 142 was when “leading on the bit three out and drawing clear” in the words of the close-up man in the Racing Post.

So as he lined up at Newcastle on Saturday, also facing 154-rated Silver Streak and Lady Buttons (146), who received 7lb as well as the long odds-on favourite, he was available at more than double that pair’s price with only the Ray Tooth-bred Nelson River (142) at longer odds. That pair were comfortably beaten off and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict another big hike in Cornerstone Lad’s mark, possibly somewhere near 160, or 158 if the line to Silver Streak is taken literally.

That will mean if Micky Hammond wishes, he can revert to the Flat again, but now with an 87lb differential, in other words he’ll be a 10lb bigger certainty than at Carlisle – that is if Micky doesn’t have another old-timer to ruin the job.

A few weeks back I got a call from my son saying he was eating for the first time in the fish restaurant that had opened literally one hundred yards from my home in Hackney Wick about a year prior and it was “fantastic, we’ll have to go there one day soon”. I remembered those comments, so when a friend, Scott Ellis, wanted an option of where we could meet for lunch last Thursday, that conversation immediately came to mind. There wasn’t a chip to be seen but the food, overseen by the restaurant’s owner Tom Brown, apparently a Michelin starred chef in his earlier days, had recently been named Restaurant of the Year for London at the AA awards. There was never ANY restaurant in Hackney Wick for more than 60 years, just the Wick Café where I read my paper every morning.

“What’s it called?” asked Scott. “I’ll look it up.” “Hold on, yes, it’s Cornerstone! Bugger me!”

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