Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Challenging


I'm writing at a time I wouldn't normally write, ie 7.30 am.  We're on a different routine at present because of the freeze-up.  We put back our start-time from 6.30 to 7.00 early in December because of lack of light in the mornings, but we've made another change just for yesterday and today as underfoot conditions are very icy.  I'm always conscious that the principal priority is making the job as safe as possible for both horses and staff, so just for these two days we're not tacking up until after 8.00, and riding a minority of the horses, with everything getting a good exercise as they are all (including the ones ridden) having an hour on our invaluable new horse-walker.  And then more than half of them are having a further in the afternoon.


Thankfully, the floor of the walker isn't slippery, and I've sanded the approach, so that's as safe as can be.  The Heath was fine yesterday, but getting there could only be done with great circumspection (and thanks to the horses being sensible - their having had an hour on the walker before being ridden obviously helped in that regard).  So I've put five horses on the walker at 7.00 and am now twiddling my thumbs until the others arrive at 8.00, when we'll get those horses off the walker, tack up and put another horses on the walker.  I rather like days like these - adverse weather conditions do make things challenging, but it's very satisfying, and a relief, if one can meet the challenge and get the horses exercised in a safe way.


We'll be back to normal tomorrow as a change in the weather is on the way.  The temperature is already rising, already up to zero.  Rain will follow, so I hope that Abbie and I don't get too wet when we are at Wolverhampton this evening.  Turn Of Phrase runs, and I hope that she can build on her good run at Kempton 13 days ago.  We'll get on the road as soon as we've finished morning stables so we should get there in good time, maybe four hours before the race.  But don't worry - we won't freeze and/or get soaked to death standing guard outside her stable all that time: we'll put her away and leave her alone.  Hopefully that won't earn me a six-month suspension!


And, by the way, we now know why there was no mention of CCTV evidence among the details we were given of the Viking Hoard Tramore incident: there were no CCTV cameras in the Tramore stable-yard.  By British standards, that's almost unbelievable.  The majority of the people who take horses to the races in Great Britain won't remember a time when they weren't ubiquitious in British racecourse stable-yards.  They have been a fact of life here since the Dermot Browne debacle, and that was 30 years ago.  By British standards, Irish racing seems awash with money (if the prize-money is anything to go by) so it's very hard to understand why that particular corner would have been cut.  When you take a horse to the races, it's such a weight off your mind knowing that you can leave your horse unattended and be fairly confident that you're safe to do so.  Irish trainers and staff clearly have not been allowed that luxury.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Back to the Future


I should have called the last chapter 'Back to the Future' when we revisited our look to the future by focusing on a few more of the young people who represent part of our future.  It actually called it 'The future (revisited)' but this one I will call 'Back to the Future' as we've been overtaken by events because another local apprentice has shown up on the radar.  I was saying in the last chapter how good Marco Botti is with apprentices; no sooner had I said that than he gave another what appears to be her first ride, Ellie Norris on Casina Di Notte, who finished second at Chelmsford last night.


That's so heartening.  Last year or whenever it was, we had all the doom-and-gloom talk stemming from the changes to the regulations regarding employment of apprentices.  I don't recall Marco's name being mentioned at all at the time, but he was already one of the best trainers for getting apprentices' careers off the ground (it is easy to forget that Andrea Atzeni was apprenticed to him, and Dan Muscutt as well if I recall correctly - and I'm sure that he had another very successful apprentice at the same time as Dan; and Gabriele Malune only got going when he went to him) and nothing has changed.  Good on 'im.


Less heartening is the bamboozlement that various tortuous stewards' enquiries are evincing.  We've had two particular head-scratchers in the past few days.  Yesterday we had the latest bulletin in the string of Justify non-sequiturs, while earlier in the week we had the Charles Byrnes bombshell.  The two things which these and other strange sagas have in common are that they make no sense and that they happen very, very, very slowly.  Justify's disqualification from the Santa Anita Derby in March 2018 should have been automatic as he tested positive to a drug which at the time (although not now - the rules were amended after, and presumably because of, this debacle) made disqualification mandatory.


However, the Californian authorities seem determined not to apply their own rules, as we were again reminded by an announcement yesterday.  Their reasons for not doing so have included that they have already ruled on the matter and that they aren't obliged to be bound by or to apply their own rules.  This latest announcement seems to imply that they believe that the matter has been put to bed, but I'd be amazed if the final chapter of that particular book has yet been written.  It just gets stranger and stranger - but surely nothing is as strange as the Charles Byrnes mystery.  As always, part of the weirdness here is the timing: when we first heard in the week of the positive test given by Viking Hoard at Tramore, I assumed that this must have happened some time this past autumn, and it was only a couple of days later that I realised that we were talking about a race which took place in 2018.


Leaving the slow-turning of the wheels of justice aside, though, the baffling thing is the dislocation between the verdict and the severe punishment.  The verdict appears to be that Charles Byrnes' misdemeanour was to leave the horse unattended for 20 minutes at some point between arriving at the racecourse and saddling him, thus creating a window of opportunity in which a person unknown could nobble him.  This makes no sense.  If that's a crime, then we're all guilty.  Who doesn't leave their horse unattended at some point in the run-up to the race?  We all do.  And the fact that doing so is acceptable is demonstrated by the fact that racecourses have canteens and toilets: if we weren't allowed to leave our horses, then those would be of no use to us.


Of all the unanswered questions, two which immediately jump to my mind are the matters of what the CCTV footage in the stableyard shows and, on the basis that the same horse was also heavily laid to lose at Sedgefield in the autumn of 2018 and was apparently dope-tested after that race too but without anything coming to light on that occasion, how did the layer manage to have similar certainty that the horse wouldn't win on that occasion too.  (And why was the horse so sluggish at Sedgefield too if no sedative showed up in his sample - the Racing Post close-up records that the horse received a reminder after the second hurdle).


The CCTV evidence from Tramore ought to make it easy to establish who went into Viking Hoard's stable at the races that day.  There was a finite number of people in the stable-yard, and there will be a list of every one of them.  There will have been a list of which box each horse occupied, so it will be easy to work out which CCTV camera will have been recording the relevant area.  The footage will have made it clear who went into the stable at what times; and if some of the people are hard to identify, just going through the list of people who had access to the yard on that afternoon should narrow the field sufficiently for an identification to be made.  As with the Justify debacle, I am sure that we haven't heard the last of this one.  Maybe I should have called this chapter 'Groundhog Day'.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The future (revisited)


Not that this is a tipping column, but I seem to have tipped a(nother) winner.  A couple of chapters ago I ventured the opinion that Christian Howarth might be the next Newmarket-based apprentice to ride his first winner - and last night that did indeed come to pass as he won at Wolverhampton on Arabic Welcome, trained by his boss Marco Botti and owned by Lucie Botti.  That was really good.  I would imagine that he will progress from here.  Marco really is so good with apprentices (and horses - he really is a very good trainer indeed, and I feel largely an under-appreciated one).  Predictably, by the way, when I was running through our local apprentices the other day I omitted a handful.  One of these is another of his apprentices, Morgan Cole.  She's had three rides for him already this year, and the year isn't even yet three weeks old.


I also noticed Cameron Noble having a ride the other day, and so I was thinking that I'd overlooked him (which would have been unforgivable - although, mind you, pretty much everyone else does, which is ludicrous as he has ridden an Ayr Gold Cup winner.)  But I see that he's finished his apprenticeship now (through age, presumably) with a total of 70 wins to his name.  Or I suppose that that should be 69.5, as his Ayr Gold Cup win was a dead-heat.    I think that he was apprenticed to Michael Bell at that time, but he started and finished his apprenticeship with Roger Varian, and also spent some time in Australia early last year, where I think he rode some winners.  I'm glad that he's continuing to race-ride beyond his apprenticeship as he's a good jockey, and a very hard-working and diligent one too.


Another one whom I overlooked was Gabriele Malune, but that was understandable as I hadn't seen him for months.  But then I saw him (driving a car) one day early last week and a couple of days later he reappeared back in Amy Murphy's string, which was great to see.  He had a horrible fall at Yarmouth in the summer and was off, injured, for months, so I'm very glad that he's back in the saddle and, presumably, nearly ready to resume race-riding.  Also overlooked was Gaia Boni, who has ridden a handful of winners for William Jarvis, but again I haven't seen her for a while (and we pass William's string every day) and I don't know where she is.


Someone whom I do see every day, and have been seeing every day for a few years now, is Alice Bond, and I very much hope that she can add her name to the list of local winning apprentices sooner rather than later.  If and when she does ride her first winner, it will be richly deserved.  I think that she has spent her whole working life to date in this street, initially with Charlie McBride in Exeter House and latterly with James Ferguson in Saville House.  She had one ride for Charlie in 2018, three for him in 2019 and, after transferring to James, three last year (two for James and one for Simon Pearce).  (I cheated: I looked these statistics up).  She is a much, much better rider than this limited experience might suggest.  You'd happily put her on any horse to do anything, and she would be a gift in those apprentices races restricted to ones in the early stages of their career.


My worst and least forgivable omission, though, was from my list of successful new trainers.  Patrick Owens, of course, got off the mark last year in his first season with a license.  He trains (I think) in part of St Gatien.  It was particularly creditable that he did get off the mark last year as he only trains a tiny string of unremarkable horses.  And when I say 'tiny', I mean it: he only had seven runners all year.  (And I do mean runners: I don't mean that he ran seven horses).  (Again I've looked up the statistics).  He's a master-horseman who has a very good reputation as a breaker and, if skill and hard work count for anything, he will soon be much more widely recognised than currently he is.


Looking inwards rather than outwards, we had our second runner of the year last week when Turn Of Phrase finished second at Kempton.  (She's pictured post-race in this paragraph, and in the previous and next two photographs you can see her ears this morning.)  She ran a nice race, trying hard and running boldly all the way to the line.  She ran off a mark of 55 and was clearly going to go up a pound or two (I found out today that she has gone up 1lb to 56) so I thought that, if there were a suitable 0-55 before whatever her new rating would be would be applied (ie before this coming Saturday) we might want to run in it, simply because it might be her last chance to run in 0-55 company.  (56- and 57-rated horses, of course, can run in 0-55s, but they are the first ones eliminated, so in practice they only get in if the race is divided, which only happens in a minority of cases).


Anyway, the gist of this is that there is a 0-55 mile at Lingfield on Friday so I entered her for that. (It closed on Saturday).  But I won't run her in it.  It would only be nine days between races and, while there are plenty of times when nine days is more than enough time between races, she's still relatively unseasoned and not (yet) as robust as I'd like, so I don't think that it would be wise to run her.  Her race was last Wednesday, six days ago, and I'm only going to give her her first canter since then either this Thursday or Friday.  So running on Friday wouldn't be ideal.  I'll probably run her insteads in a 0-60 8.5-furlong race at Wolverhampton four days later.


One might ask what difference four days would make (ie having 13 days between the two races rather than nine) but I feel that in this case it would make a big difference.  And, all things being equal (which they aren't, not least because she'll be running off 56 in a 0-60 rather than off 55 in a 0-60, and that's clearly less desirable) I'd much rather run her 8.5 furlongs at Wolverhampton than 8 furlongs at Lingfield.  See, it isn't just questions of whether to run your 2,000 Guineas favourite in the Craven or the Greenham, or your Honeysuckle / Epatante in the Champion Hurdle or the Mares' Hurdle, that need to be agonised over!

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Two saddening stories


Our first runner of the year - Surooj (who is in the first three photographs) at Lingfield last Friday - didn't yield success so we'll hope for better tomorrow when Turn Of Phrase (whose ears appear in the fourth and fifth photographs on a very cold morning on Sunday) goes to Kempton.  The trip to Lingfield on a cold day wasn't disastrous: she finished sixth of 14.  The close-up from the Racing Post is worth repeating: "Prominent in chasing group, headway and close up 3f out, went second and every chance over 2f out, soon ridden, lost ground and beaten over 1f out, weakened final furlong".  It was good to see her travel so well for such a long way; disappointing to see her knock up so markedly and quickly.  At the time I thought she just hadn't stayed two miles and needed to drop back to the Flat, but I've actually reassessed that since then.


I took Surooj for a trot on Saturday morning and she was a bit stiff, totally different from when I'd ridden her two days previously.  The chiropractor saw her later that day and found her to be very sore along her back and diagnosed a pulled muscle. So I'm happy just to cast aside any conclusions which I had made from her weakening in the closing stages of the race.  Obviously she won't race for a couple of months or more as she'll need a period of inactivity to recover from the muscle strain and then she'll need a gradual reintroduction to work, but when she does next race, I would imagine that it will be in another bumper at two miles.  Let's hope that we're not still looking for our first winner of 2021 at that time!


I suppose we should just touch on two of the stranger stories of the week, both of which have saddened me.  Firstly we have the bizarre articles highlighting the unspecified problems which Bryony Frost reportedly has had with some of her weighing room colleagues.  I must admit that these revelations (if something so vague can be called a revelation) left me feeling very disappointed.  Very sad, really.  This week we have seen/heard Tim Paine really letting himself, his team and his country down by being nasty to his opponents in the Test Match, and I would have said (and believed) that racing's competitors (jockeys and trainers in particular) would never show that level of nastiness to their/our competitors.  All my life I would have said that, but I'm very sad to find, only this week in these articles, that apparently I'm wrong.


There have been in the past instances of (young) jockeys riding too aggressively and incurring the collective displeasure of their senior colleagues and suffering the opprobrium of the other jockeys (and/or incurring the wrath of the stewards) as a result.  But that's not the case here.  Otherwise, I have always heard and believed that the weighing room is generally a very pleasant place in which the people treat each other considerately, courteously and kindly.  I've seen plenty of evidence to back this up.  I'm just very saddened now to hear that that is not necessarily the case any more.  We know that the world is becoming a nastier place, but surely not in the jockeys' room?


The second story is a sad one too.  Yesterday there was a story on the Racing Post website about Colm O'Donoghue being acquitted of beating up his ex-girlfriend.  I won't run through it all, but it would be instructive to read it if you haven't already done so, including the bit about her sending him a WhatsApp message saying, "Now to ruin ur life."  Whether or not you have read the story, I am sure that you will have noticed over the past year or so that Colm O'Donoghue's career has fallen apart.  These woes for him coincided with it being widely rumoured and generally accepted that he had beaten her up, and it makes me very sad to find that he has seemingly suffered sorely for a perceived offence of which he is, we now know, totally innocent.


The surprising part of the article was Jessica Harrington saying that his losing his job with her was unconnected with the rumours of his supposed cruelty which were circulating at the time.  To an outside observer, it seemed obvious that the loss of the job was a consequence of the rumours, as surely as night follows day.  There was no other obvious reason for it, particularly when one thinks of all the success which the trainer/jockey combination had enjoyed the previous year, most obviously with Alpha Centauri.  It's actually fortunate that the obvious reason for his losing his job turns out not to have been the reason, as that heads off any chance of there being a case for unfair dismissal.


Even leaving that aside, I am sure that we haven't heard the last of this matter.  The words of his solicitor in the Racing Post article are interesting: "Colm has been emphatically found innocent of causing any harm to Ms Macken.  The court also heard that Ms Macken cost Colm his entire career, as he could not get employment because of the things she was saying.  I'm delighted for him.  He didn't deserve this.  Colm is considering his legal options with regard to a civil case."  Whether or not a civil case ensues, one would imagine that the complainant will be charged with bearing false witness, ie perjury, which generally carries a prison sentence.  Most of all, though, I hope that Colm O'Donoghue gets plenty of rides during 2020 and beyond and rides plenty of winners, both big and small.  I obviously wish for a successful year for myself, but I actually think that I wish for a successful year for him even more so.
Thursday, January 07, 2021

Our racing year begins


Great excitement.  Tomorrow we'll have our first runner of 2021, only eight days into the year.  That's a bit earlier than I was expecting, but it seems the right thing to do.  I'd marked down a four-year-old fillies' juvenile bumper at Wetherby next Tuesday, 12th January, for Surooj, with the thought in my mind that it if was going to be extremely soft ground there, I'd re-route her to an AW bumper at Lingfield six days later.  Anyway, as so many National Hunt meetings are being lost (frost and/or snow and/or waterlogging) there have been two programmes of 'jumpers' bumpers' put on tomorrow, on the AW tracks at Lingfield and Newcastle.  These programmes were only created yesterday, with entries closing in the afternoon.


Surooj (pictured yesterday in the first photograph and today in the second) obviously isn't eligible for a normal jumpers' bumper as she has never run over jumps, but fortunately there is a normal bumper on each programme.  Lingfield's one is for fillies and mares only.  I entered her for that and then decided to declare her for it.  Basically, I took the decision that the ground at Wetherby is likely to be very testing (at the post-Christmas meeting, when the winner of one race ran a time over 100 seconds slower than standard, it was even heavier than when Surooj ran there on December 5th in a run which left me thinking that I'd like to run her next on ground less heavy rather than more).  So it was easy enough to eschew Wetherby - and then of course there's the possibility of the Lingfield National Hunt meeting six days later not taking place.  (The track is currently water-logged).  So we'll head off there tomorrow and hope for the best.