Monday, December 05, 2016

One day at a time

The trip to Wolverhampton on Friday night turned out to be fairly straightforward, even if I was very drowsy at times on the journey home.  I kept the window down so that the icy blast kept me awake, and we got home safely.  And the run was OK.  On the face of it, it was moderate as Kilim only finished 10th of 12, but I wasn't too disheartened.  The main thing was that she needed to show that she had learned to relax in a race. She's bred to stay, but had not previously contested staying races because she was always in too much of a hurry.  But she ran as if she's finally learning to relax, so we can now run her a bit farther, and we can continue to travel hopefully (as always - I'm an optimist by nature!).

Another horse who ran seemingly moderately was our former inmate Cottesloe, who had his first start for Neil Mulholland at Chelmsford on Thursday.  He too didn't run very well, finishing 14th of 15 which was poor for him as he usually runs better than that.  However, it was the shortest race he's ever contested in England (it was a mile, and all his 20 races for this stable were over 10 furlongs or farther) so that's easily excused.  I was assuming that he was running in it solely to have a gallop in preparation for a run tomorrow at Fontwell, where he was entered in what looked a suitable handicap hurdle.  But he isn't declared for that, so we'll have to wait and see what happens next.  He's a lovely horse who ought to continue to hold his form, and who should have a win in him over the winter.

As we're into December we can say that we're in winter.  However, it has been very straightforward so far, all five days of it.  The worst aspect of winter is the wet and the mud, even more so than the cold.  But happily we are still blessed with high pressure so, although we have had to endure overnight frosts, we have been enjoying lovely days with very benign conditions, both overhead and underfoot.  Long may such weather continue - but, of course, it won't, as it has to start raining sometime soon, and once the place becomes a quagmire, it is likely to remain thus for the duration of the winter, unless we have the respite provided by a freeze-up at some point.  But we'll just enjoy the current dry sunny spell while we have it.
Thursday, December 01, 2016

The world keeps turning and we keep going

The world has indeed kept turning as the week has gone on, as is generally the case.  It's been turning a bit glumly from my point of view, but one keeps going.  It helps to be busy (and fortunately, if that's the right word, I've been very busy) and good weather helps too.  The past two days were truly glorious: cold at the outset, but with crystal-clear skies which made for a few hours of splendid sunshine during the all-too-short midwinter days.  It's not really midwinter, of course, as today is only 1st December, which to my way of thinking is the first day of the three winter months.  But we're only three weeks short of the shortest day (which is a daunting thought in that we have another three weeks of the already-short days getting even shorter).

It was weird yesterday because the weather page on my phone maintained that it was 5 degrees for several hours during the day, but the frost never budged at all in the areas which the sun didn't reach.  And then last night it was ostensibly above freezing all night, and 2 degrees at dawn - and yet the conditions were extremely icy this morning.  So strange.  Exeter Road was like a skating rink for the first three lots, but once we had tip-toed down it, leading the horses, it was plain sailing for the rest of the exercise, thanks to the good work of the Heathmen in keeping the surfaces of the AW canters and of the walking grounds as they should be.  And plain sailing for the rest of the day too: although the forecast had said that we wouldn't see the sun all day today, we had bucketfuls of it again.  Truly glorious.

Anyway, I'll be off to Wolverhampton tomorrow with Kilim.  She's capable of going very well, but hitherto she hasn't been a very professional racehorse, falling into the trap of running her races the wrong way round, ie putting too much effort in in the first half of the race, and weakening at the end.  She's been going around in a very relaxed manner in recent weeks which is lovely, but she can still be headstrong enough when she gallops, so we'll just have to see how things transpire.  Still, she seems fit and sound, healthy and happy, and she has a good jockey (John Egan) booked.

So,  in what looks a competitive - if, obviously, low grade - race, we'll hope for the best and expect nothing.  Whatever happnes, it'll be a long day.  7.15 doesn't sound too late, but I'm quaking.  Racing at 7.15 means leaving the racecourse maybe 8.30.  And as the racecourse is Wolverhampton, which is 130 miles away from here, that means getting home some time after 11.00.  (And that's assuming that we don't have the overnight closures on the A14 which made trips back from Wolverhampton on Friday nights last year a real test).  And 11pm, over and above being about 7 hours after nightfall, is dauntingly late for someone who likes to be in bed around 9.00.

I got on my first horse this morning at 5.50 (for a lot in complete darkness, but there were no other horses on the Heath, so that was OK) on the way through to finishing morning stables at about 1.15; and I will be disappointed if I'm not in bed by 8.00 tonight (and I'd imagine that I'll be asleep within a couple of minutes of turning out the light).  So tomorrow evening's schedule - gulp!!  Let's hope that Kilim (pictured in this chapter, enjoying the afternoon sun yesterday with one of her friends) does run well, as a good run generally shortens the journey.  Coming home with a winner in the back makes the journey seem to take about 10 minutes, but even a good run buoys the heart.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Rest easy, dear friend

Big boys don't cry, supposedly.  If that's the case, I'm afraid that I've gone back to the nursery this week.  I've spent all too many hours over the past couple of days going about my business with tears running down my cheeks, just as they are now.  All's been grand, and we've been had a couple of lovely days, filled with truly glorious sunshine after frosty starts.  But yesterday's sunshine lost all of its joy while I was riding out third lot yesterday morning when I was hit by the ultimate bolt from the blue.  My phone rang, with the name Carol Whitwood appearing on the screen.  But it wasn't Carol: it was her son James, showing all of the fortitude, kindness and consideration which he has inherited from his parents, calling to give me the worst possible news that his mother Carol had passed away over the weekend.

Carol has been coming here pretty much every Tuesday morning for the past 20 years to help me by detecting and healing problems with the horses' backs.  She has simultaneously been bringing the regular doses of joy and moral support which one can only receive from someone who is both an exceptionally kind person and a true friend.  She was not due to be here this Tuesday (ie today) as she and Martin were going to be going to Hever Castle Hotel in Kent to celebrate their wedding anniversary (I have a feeling that it was going to be their 50th, but I could be wrong) so when she was here last Tuesday she left with a cheery, "Good luck if you run at Wolverhampton (where Kilim, whom she has treated a few times, runs on Friday) next week, and I'll see you in two weeks' time."  The sudden discovery that not only will I not see her next week, but will never see her again, really was as stark a bolt from the blue as one could ever receive.

Anyone who knows me will have been bored stiff all too often by my accounts of the magic worked on horses in this stable by what the late Leslie Harrison once described to me as "the genius of Carol Whitwood".  They will also be aware that Carol has been much more than 'merely' a massive help in the training of these horses, and a true friend to the horses whom she has helped: she has been a true friend to me, a rock-solid and unflinching source of kindness, wise counsel and gifts.  Losing her as a friend has hit me for six, so I can only imagine how devastated Martin, James, David and the rest of the family must be to lose her as wife, mother, mother-in-law and grandmother.  I offer them my deepest condolences, and I so appreciate James' thoughfulness and kindness in ringing to let me know.

Rest in peace, dear Carol.  You are much missed.  You will be never forgotten, and always loved.
Friday, November 25, 2016

Paying my respects to Peter Boothman

Not least because we now read the Racing Post on Emma's ipad and reading the contents of a newspaper on an ipad somehow seems less straightforward than reading a newspaper, on many days I read only the 'runners and riders' and the results, leaving the features and the bulk (if that's the correct word, which it might not be as there often isn't that much that is actually worthy of being described as 'news') of the news to be read at a later date.  Lazy, I know, but that's how it happens.  Anyway, on Monday evening I caught up on the previous few days' worth of Racing Posts, which turned out to be unfortunate.

I had accepted an invitation to attend the annual exhibition on Monday evening of the Society of Equestrian Artists in the Palace House Mews, and had told Jim Power, a very nice man who is one of the stalwarts of the Society, that I'd be there.  And there were two Newmarket Town Council meetings which I arguably should have been attending.  But on Monday it rained pretty much all day, I was working outside more or less uninterruptedly from 6.30 am until 6.00 pm, and when I finally got back in the house after feeding the horses to begin drying out and warming up, I really couldn't face leaving the house again.  So I found that unexpectedly I had a free evening, and I used it to read some Racing Posts.

I can't check the details because the ipad is currently not working, but on Monday evening I read a brief article in the Racing Post of the previous day (ie Sunday 20th November) saying that Peter Boothman had died, and that his funeral would be in the church at Fordham at something like 2pm on 21st November.  In other words, the funeral had taken place about five hours previously.  Which was very unfortunate, because I would have liked to have paid my respects to him, and feel rather bad that I didn't, notwithtstanding that it was not by choice that I was absent.  He was a man whom I liked very much, so I will use this chapter of the blog to pay the respects which I failed to pay at his graveside, and belatedly to offer my condolences to his loved ones.

I believe that Peter didn't live in Newmarket but in one of the outlying villages, presumably Fordham, which explains why I hadn't seen him for a long time.  But I can remember clearly when I did last see him.  The penultimate time that I saw him was at the wedding of Wayne and Lisa (nee Jones) Smith at the Curragh.  That took place in an August, and I would guess it was three years ago.  I believe that Peter was at one time married to Wayne's aunt.  I was very pleased to see Peter there, not least because I hadn't seen him for a long time.  And then, by chance, I saw him in the market-place in Newmarket about a week later.  And that was the last time I saw him.

I can only hope that there were not too many people caught out by the short notice given in the paper of the date and time of his funeral because he was a popular man and there would have been plenty of people around here who would have liked to have been there.  Over and above the many people who would have known him here, there are many around here who would have known him in Ireland.  Peter's best years as a jockey were spent in Ireland, when he was one of several British jockeys who took up jobs over there in the '60s, including Wally Swinburn and Colin Williams who both live in these parts.

Numerous of his Irish colleagues from that era have family living around here.  The late Phil McEntee was very friendly with him, and his son Phil jr trains in Hamilton Road.  Peter and Vivian Kennedy were neighbours as well as colleagues, and Vivian's youngest son Willlam has ridden several National Hunt winners for this stable, while his grandson Jamie Insole has also race-ridden for us.  George McGrath's son George jr worked in this street for Willie Musson for many years, and is now doing a very good job running the National Association of Stable Staff, whose offices are round the corner from the bottom of this road.  And Mark Sullivan, son of the late Paddy Sullivan, is working for Peter Chapple-Hyam.

If I recall correctly, Peter (long retired from race-riding by this time) was riding out for Gavin Pritchard-Gordon when I came to town in 1987.  When Gavin retired he moved to Ed Dunlop, for whom he rode out until he retired.  Taffy Thomas was doing the same for the same stable, and I'd say that they retired at around the same time.  It was always a pleasure to see Peter in the mornings.  Right into, I presume, his 60s, he always had a very relaxed, calm, kind seat on a horse; and always a pleasant smile on his face, and always a friendly greeting.  I liked and respected him, and I am only sorry that I was not there to bid him 'Adieu'.  He deserved a good send-off.

You'll have seen from all the photographs in this chapter (which were taken this morning between about 7.30 and 9.30) that we've had a lovely day.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky all day, and once the mist (and the slight frost) had been dispersed by around 9am we had unbroken sunshine right through until the sun started to set shortly after 3pm.  I don't think that we have any rain forecast in the next 10 days or so which is great as we got very wet at the start of the week, so a dry period will be much appreciated.  And, while one might have thought that an extended period of high pressure at this time of year might see us having some very cold weather, I don't think that we'll be having anything worse than slight frosts.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Targets hit?

It's been good to read plenty of further comment on Peter Stanley's Racing Post letter, all of it echoing his concerns.  One thing which we possibly ought to do is to hail the BHA for having previously tried to address the concern.  One reason/pretext/excuse (delete as applicable) which the guilty parties used to use for retiring short-distance colts at the end of their two-year-old season was that there would be a dearth of suitable races for them to contest in the future.  When one considers how many valuable and/or prestigious sprints there are for horses aged three and above, this was a touch hard to swallow, particularly bearing in mind what a good record three-year-olds have generally had in Britain's principal weight-for-age sprints.

However, the BHA, to its credit, decided to act to try to address the problem of premature retirement by removing this excuse.  The sprint programme for three-year-olds was expanded, most notably by creating a new Group One sprint, the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot.  Anyway, this admirable plan has clearly been a failure: decent short-distance two-year-old colts are still being retired to stud, and in greater numbers than ever before.  Furthermore, the results of the Commonwealth Cup have shown why the plan was doomed to failure, having been won by two horses (Muharrar and Quiet Reflection) good enough to win at weight-for-age.

It ought to be the case that a Group One race should be won by a horse good enough to win at weight-for-age, so it is good that has transpired that that is indeed the standard required to win the Commonwealth Cup.  But that means that the race does not solve the problem.  There always has been a good supply of weight-for-age sprints, so genuine Group One horses have never had anything to complain about.  The complaints about lack of opportunities were being made on behalf of horses not good enough for such races; and the creation of the Commonwealth Cup, while it has created an opportunity for good but not top-class horses to run, has not created an opportunity for such horses to win.  Hence we are still seeing an increase in the number of good, but not outstanding, two-year-old colts being retired to stud.  And breeders unfortunately are still rewarding this practice.

On the subject of things not working, ever since QIPCO British Champions' Day it has been buzzing around in my head that one ought to point out that the restructuring of the programme which spawned that fixture has been a failure.  I heard TV pundits on the day telling us what a success the change had been, and I felt that this misinformation ought to be corrected at some point.  The day itself, of course, is a big success.  If you put on a day consisting of extremely valuable Group One races, you're going to get good fields and good races.  And if you have a huge budget to promote this day and put on musical entertainment afterwards, you are going to get a big and happy crowd.  That is obvious.

But the point of the restructuring was not the creation of a very good race-day: this was only the means to an end. The end was to solve one of British racing's very big problems: the fact that the sport is not seen as a suitable sponsorship opportunity by the marketing departments of the big companies.  We are blessed to have very generous sponsorship from studs, from concerns controlled by philanthropic racing enthusiasts (eg Investec, QIPCO, Timico) and from bookmakers (although not as many as previously, now that several bookmakers are not allowed to sponsor races) but we don't have support from the impartial multi-nationals, simply because the geniuses who control the marketing budgets of such concerns believe (incorrectly, in my opinion) that racing does not appeal to a wide enough (nor correct enough) audience.

The Grand National has at times been the one exception among the big races.  Even the Derby has not been able to break through: Ever Ready only sponsored it when Sir Gordon White was in charge, and Vodafone only sponsored it when Sir Ernest Harrison and Sir Gerald Whent were in charge.  The creation of the British Champions' Series in general and British Champions' Day in particular was intended to address this problem.  The aim was not to create something which the racing audience regarded as a major event; it was to create something which the wider audience regarded as a major event (or was believed by the marketing men to regard as a major event).  This change would, or so it was believed, result in a change in the position which our sport holds in the sponsorship market-place.

Of course, no such change has happened.  Whereas in Australia, where big racing events are viewed as big days for society in general rather than merely for racing enthusiasts, during the recent Spring Carnival in Melbourne we had the Group One BMW Caulfield Cup, the Group One Schweppes Thousand Guineas, the Group One Myer Classic, the Group One AAMI Victoria Derby, the Group One Ig Markets Toorak Handicap, the Group Two Dilmah Caulfield Spring, the Group Two Schweppes Tristarc Stakes, the Group Two Schweppes Crystal Mile, the Group Two Antler Luggage Moonee Valley Cup, the Group Two Mumm Wakeful Stakes, the Group Two Lucrf Super Vase Stakes, the Group Two P. W. Glass Fillies' Classic, the Group Two 7 News Matriarch Stakes, the Group Three Telstra Phonewords Stakes, the Group Three Lexus Stakes, the Group Three Merlin Garage Door Openers, the Group Three Cape Grim Beef Stakes, the Group Three Sensis Stakes, the Group Three L'Oreal Paris Stakes, the Lavazza Prontissimo, the Schweppes#flemingtonfling Stakes, the Lexus Hybrid Stakes, the Mumm Stakes, the James Boag's Premium Stakes, the Mss Security Sprint, the 3AW Talking Melbourne Mile, the Tcl Quhd TV Stakes, the Hilton Stakes, the Antler Luggage.

Those races are just from the two Saturdays of Caulfield, the one Saturday of Moonee Valley and the four days of Flemington.  And that's on top of the usual benefactors such as Emirates Airlines, Coolmore, Darley, Crown Casino, William Hill, TAB etc.  Compare that with the UK, where the Schweppes Gold Trophy at Newbury disappeared off the map maybe 30 years ago, the Schweppes Golden Mile at Goodwood maybe 20 years ago, and the L'Oreal Hurdle at Newbury maybe 35 years ago.  See what I mean?  The re-arrangement of the programme will only have achieved its objective when we have a similar breadth of commercial, non-racing-oriented sponsors on our big days here.  That was the laudable aim, but that day is not even remotely in sight.