Thursday, April 20, 2017

Everything's turning to white

Busy time for the progeny of my broodmare Minnie's Mystery, who lives at Haras de la Cauviniere in Normandy.  Her offspring (all bar the first conceived in France, all born in France) are 9-year-old Grey Panel, by Largesse, trained on Jersey by Tony le Brocq; 8-year-old Dream Walker, by Gold Away, trained by Brian Ellison; 7-year-old Roy Rocket, by Layman, trained by me; 5-year-old So Much Water, by Le Havre, trained by me; 4-year-old White Valiant, by Youmzain, trained by me; three-year-old Rock On Dandy, by Rajsaman, trained by Harry Dunlop; a two-year-old son of Youmzain (ie a full-brother to White Valiant) who, the last I heard, might be going to a breeze-up sale in France next month; and a colt foal by Rajsaman (ie a full-brother to Rock On Dandy).

The reason why Minnie's has no six-year-old is because that foal, a Gold Away filly (ie a full-sister to Dream Walker) was fatally injuried in a paddock accident at the stud when she was a yearling.  The reason why she has no yearling is because, having foaled late and awkwardly in 2015, she was not covered that year.  She had a difficult time this spring too during and after foaling, and she won't be covered this year.  I suspect that she won't be covered again, but there's no need to rush into taking that decision.  Anyway, those horses represent her tribe, and she's been a wonderful matron.  And her progeny are making it a busy April for her.

Dream Walker ran in the Lincoln on 1st April.  So Much Water ran at Brighton on Easter Saturday, 15th April.  Grey Panel ran at Les Landes (the only racecourse he has ever run at, where he has won 13 races) on Easter Monday, 17th April.  White Valiant is declared to run at Fontwell tomorrow, 21st April.  And Roy is an intended runner at Brighton (a racecourse with which he has nearly as strong an affinity as the one which Grey Panel has with Les Landes, having won five times there) on Tuesday, 25th April.  No wins or minor placings so far this month for Minnies' progeny, but the two best chances are the ones still to come, so let's live in hope, until the races are run anyway.

While we are running though their names, I might just run through the backgrounds to the names of the three horses whom I train.  (I also named Grey Panel.  All the horses, like their mum, are grey).  Roy Rocket is named after the character in Graham Connors' song of the same name.  Roy Rocket wasn't his real name, but "when he was young he moved to the city to give it a try, changed his name to Roy Rocket because some fool promoter said it sounded right".  He "had a record released but it died without even making the charts; came back to his hometown (Mackay in Queensland, Graham Connor's hometown - Roy Rocket does exist); married and settled down".

'Lay' is the old English word for a story put to music, just like this song, so the layman is Roy Rocket, the songman (who now works as a mechanic in the garage and joins his friends with his guitar every weekend - "Roy Rocket is alive and well, every Saturday night at the Grand Hotel"), the musical story-teller like Graham Connors.  So that's why we have Roy Rocket, our dear Roy.  No specific greyness in that, but there is with the other two.  White Valiant doesn't refer to the stallion (well, with Youmzain what could you do?  What does it mean?  I don't know because my Arabic is worse than my Latin) but we have the greyness, or the whiteness anyway.

The song is by The Mutton Birds, the one-time band of Don McGlashan, formerly with Harry Sinclair in The Front Lawn, now generally solo, often singing with Neil Finn.  It's a great song.  Disturbing, in the vein of The Doors' Riders In The Storm.  With a similarly disquieting sound.  The narrator picks up a passenger on a quiet country road in New Zealand in his car, a white Ford Valiant.   He reassures her.  ("You're from the family that moved in up the valley.  It's lucky I picked you up and not somebody else") but we just don't know how it ends.  "We'll have to turn inland - there's been a landslide at the quarry.  Although I say it myself, you couldn't have better help if you found yourself losing your way round here.  You can still see the moon., though it's the middle of the morning.  You can smell the clay.  Like I said, you can count yourself lucky: not many people know this way ... Remember where we left the car.  Remember it's a white Valiant".  Great, great song.

And So Much Water.  Paul Kelly.  Another great layman, another who writes great stories and puts stories to music.  Stories written by himself, often in the spirit of the American short-story-writer Raymond Carver, writer of So Much Water So Close To Home.  Paul's 1989 album, released 12 months after Carver's death, bears the same name.  The title track of the album, though, has a different name (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) although it is the same song.  Everything's Turning To White.  (Other, of course, than listening to the song or reading Carver's story, a good way of finding out what happens is by watching the excellent movie which was made out of it, Jindabyne, with Gabriel Byrne).

"There's so much water, so close to home.  When he holds me now I'm pretending.  I feel like I'm frozen inside.  Behind my eyes, my daily disguise, everything's turning to white".  (The narrator is the main character's wife).  And So Much Water, like her mum and like Roy, hasn't wasted too much time in doing the standard grey horse's thing of turning to white.  And she's by Le Havre, the port on the north shore of the mouth of the Seine estuary, where, of course, there is so much water.  So if you've ever wondered whether these names have merely been picked picked randomly from the ether, they haven't.  There's method somewhere in the madness.  As is often the case.

For illustrations, we have So Much Water in the pen a couple of evenings ago (showing that she has come out of Saturday's race OK) and then in yesterday morning's sunshine; White Valiant (photographed by Emma on Long Hill) being ridden by his breeder about three weeks ago; the three siblings - SMW, Roy, White Valiant - in the field during a dry spell last summer; Roy in the stableyard in yesterday morning's sunshine; White Valiant's ears looking out at the frost-crusted Side Hill AW canter shortly before dawn yesterday, when the temperature was zero degrees; and then three shots of the Heath as both the sun and the temperature began to rise.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017

This and that

On Saturday I enjoyed what I hope will turn out to have been the first of several visits to Brighton for me this year.  Roy's very lightly-raced five-year-old half-sister So Much Water showed a bit of speed in her race, even if she couldn't keep it up for the full distance.  That was promising, and one would like to hope that she might build on that.  It's hard to know what distances might best suit her: I've always thought of her as a middle-distance horse but she's now shown plenty of speed before weakening in both of her runs to date.  If she does turn out to be a middle-distance horse, she should do well, bearing in mind that she has already demonstrated that she can gallop quite fast (albeit, so far, not for the full distance of a race).

Anyway, it was lovely to get her back to the races at last; lovely to see her show some speed; lovely to see her show a really good, positive, enthusiastic attitude before, during and after the race; lovely to be at one of my favourite racecourses on a nice day; and lovely to spend the evening in good company.  The only slight downside was that the ground was firmer than I saw there at any stage last year, but that wasn't the end of the world.  One knew in advance, as it has been so dry for an extended period, that it would be quite firm.  And she seems to have come home unharmed, so the trip should have done her a lot more good than harm.

Aside from that, the two big stories over the past few days have been Gigginstown Stud's decision to run a load of no-hopers in the Irish Grand National to prevent other people from running their horses in the race, and the stunning disregard for biosecurity shown by France-Galop in allowing horses to run from a stable (that of Jean-Claude Rouget) which has just had 57 horses fall sick with a highly infectious and potentially fatal equine herpes virus, two of which have had to be put down.  It was annoying last year when we were shut down for three weeks because a vet incorrectly raised a suspicion that we might have a case of the disease here, the quarantine remaining in place for its standard duration despite the fact that within 24 hours of making this incorrect diagnosis the vet admitted that she had been wrong.

That was very annoying at the time - but, on balance, I'm much happier training horses in a country where the authorities take biosecurity so seriously that they over-react to a misdiagnosis and shut down a stable which clearly hasn't got the disease than in one where the authorities are so lax that they don't take the containment of fatal diseases seriously and allow a stable which definitely does contain one to send its horses out to mingle with the wider horse population.  As far as the Gigginstown thing goes, all it has done is to reinforce my longstanding feeling that National Hunt racing, like nostalgia, ain't what it used to be.

In one sense, all Gigginstown Stud did was try to win the race by playing within the rules.  In that sense, there's no problem, as long as you adhere to the belief (which I don't) that winning is more important than how you play the game.  If the Irish Grand National hadn't been over-subscribed, there would have been no harm in what it did.  But it wasn't: the race was over-subscribed, and horses had to be eliminated.  If all the Gigginstown horses (14 in a field of 30, prior to scratchings) had had some sort of chance, then again it would have been understandable that so many ran.  But that was not the case.  Several horses were badly out of form (including two who had run deplorably in the Grand National nine days previously) and had no realistic chance whatsoever; and there was only one conceivable reason for running such horses, ie preventing other people's horses from getting a start.

Of course Gigginstown was just trying to win the race, but the the difference here was that by running horses such as the out-of-form Rogue Angel (pulled up in the Grand National, pulled up in the Irish Grand National nine days later) and the out-of-form Roi Des Francs (18th in the Grand National, beaten 79 lengths, and pulled up in the Irish National nine days later) the aim seemed not to be to try to win the race with those horses (as these horses had no realistic chance of winning, whether they ran or not) but simply to reduce the number of horses in the race not owned by Gigginstown, and thus increasing the chance of a victory for one of the several realistic Gigginstown chances.

I just think that this is so sad, and so totally against the ethos of what is meant to be a sport - and, just as I'm very glad that I wasn't a trainer having a runner at Chantilly on Sunday when the Rouget horses were running, I'm very glad that I wasn't the trainer of a non-Gigginstown horse who narrowly missed out on getting a run in the race, very probably owned by someone who would have been having his/her only chance of having a runner with a chance in a proper big race.  Is this what the 'sport' has come to, that is acceptable to run no-hopers in a race simply to prevent other people running their horses in the race?
Friday, April 14, 2017

Keeping up appearances

Thank you, Neil, for your observations under the previous chapter.  Yes, it was a thoroughly satisfactory and extremely happy trip to Towcester with Delatite yesterday.  He ran a lovely, very genuine race to finish second behind what seems a very nice horse, so that's very promising.  He was very well ridden by Harry Cobden - and I ought to point out, lest anyone think that Harry was taking an unnecessarily wide course, that he rode absolutely to instructions.  Inevitably, after a prolonged dry period, the ground was not to everyone's liking at Towcester yesterday. and that's even with all those who came being people who had declared their horses in the expectation of dry conditions.

The ground had been watered; and the most extensively watered parts down the hill, where it was obviously most important not to have it too dry, were indeed not at all firm.  Going up the hill, though, it had (understandably) been watered less.  And, while the bulk of the area was good enough, there were very bare patches which had taken the bulk of the hammering through the winter months, and these parts were worryingly firm.  It was on account of these areas, I presume, that the non-runner in our race, who had travelled to the racecourse and was initially declared there, was withdrawn.

However, having walked quite a lot of the circuit, I felt that we would be racing on nice ground throughout if we kept wide.  The outer sections on the course had plenty of grass on them (for obvious reasons, having had much less traffic on them through the winter) and it made sense to keep to them.  On the downhill, well-watered sections, the inside was getting a bit cut up and softer on the day; and on the uphill sections the inside half of the track contained the bare, firm bits.  Out wide, though, we had just nice ground all the way.  And, while in one sense one wants to find the firmest bits as they are often the fastest, that plan backfires if the horse is not comfortable racing on them and so won't stretch out properly.

It's a big circuit at Towcester, and the horses only turn 360 degrees in a two-mile race.  So racing wide along the straight stretches and tacking in on the bends so one was merely racing on the outside of the small field clearly seemed the way to go.  One only gives away minimal extra ground doing that, and the horse races on nice ground on which he will be both comfortable and safe throughout.  Harry Cobden carried out the instructions to the letter, rode the horse perfectly, and the combination ran a lovely race.  All in all, it was a pleasure to watch.

As was the very good Good Friday racing today on At The Races from Lingfield, Newcastle and Bath.  Excellent prize money, and good fields as a result.  The firm ground at Bath obviously put plenty of people off, but the racing was still very interesting there too, even so.  I haven't looked at Sunday's cards at Southwell, but I'm sure that they will be less interesting, both because the races take place on Southwell's off-putting Fibresand surface and because the prize money, I read in my Racing Post, is poor, which fact, like the surface, will have put plenty of people off running there.  William Haggas, I think that it was, pointed out that such low levels of prize money on a Sunday are particularly disappointing as the costs of running a horse on a Sunday, for obvious reasons, can be significantly higher than usual, as they can also be on Saturday evenings too.

That's just common sense, and was recognised when the Sunday racing programme was first instituted, with these increased costs being offset by the appearance money scheme which meant that every runner on a Sunday picked up £250 (80%, ie £200, of which goes to the owner, with 8% to the trainer and 6% each to the jockey and stable staff pool).  Inevitably that has been cut back (by 60%).  Good Friday became a sacred cow as regards racing fixtures, and the deal for holding fixtures on that day was that the prize money had to be excellent; but Sundays, for no very good reason, are not treated the same way.

But, really, for anyone running or working in a stable, racing on a Saturday evening (as we shall be doing tomorrow with So Much Water at Brighton, a trip I'm very much looking forward to as it gives Roy's extremely lightly-raced half-sister an opportunity to start making up for lost time) or on a Sunday is far more of an inconvenience than racing on a Friday, Good or otherwise.  This week has seen a general discussion about prize money levels on days which might for normal people be considered 'days off', but it might be an idea for our overlords to re-examine the appearance money situation in tandem with any prize money review which might be taking place.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sunny reflections

I had great plans to enter into this prize-money debate which, thanks to Richard Hannon and William Haggas, is raging currently.  But then, as always, time got away from me.   It's 8.20 pm and I've just got in from the yard; and I generally like to get to bed as soon after 9.00 as I can.  So I don't think that I'll do anything more than touch upon it.  Which probably isn't a bad thing as there isn't much which I can say which won't have been said already.  Although, having said that, I think that comparing the prize money with the cost of the horses is a fairly futile exercise.

If one wants to spend 190,000 guineas or 170,000 guineas or whatever on a horse so that one can have a runner at Windsor on a Monday, then that's fine.  But that's not quite the point: you don't need to spend such sums to have a runner at Windsor on a Monday, or at Southwell on a Sunday.  You spend those sums because you aspire to run at Epsom in the first week of June, at Ascot a couple of weeks later or at Goodwood in the last week of July; and if that doesn't come to pass (as it generally doesn't) then it doesn't come to pass, so reluctantly you end up having to run at Southwell.

So comparing the prize money on offer at the lower-tiers with the exorbitant prices paid for horses who are meant to be racing in the higher tiers is fairly pointless.  If one doubled the prize money in the lower tiers, or multiplied it by ten, it would still be paltry compared to the prices paid for horses who weren't intended to be there.  But what is relevant is the prize money compared to the cost of getting the horse to the race.  Some trainers charge more than others, but there are levels below which one can't be charged.  And basically at the level which is being discussed, the winning owner, who will receive about three quarters of the first prize, will approximately recoup his costs for the month.  Or half his costs for the month if he patronises an expensive stable and the race-meeting isn't too far from home.

And the problem which racing in general faces is that the return for the lucky few needs to be a bit more than that, relative to the cost of trying to win it, to provide anything like enough incentive for sufficiently large numbers of people to keep owning horses.  And people do need to keep owning horses for the sport to continue, although it is easy to overlook that at present because the sport is lucky enough to have a handful of international billionaires whose extensive patronage masks the potentially critical shortfall in numbers of owners.  And that should be something which concerns anyone who wants to see racing survive indefinitely at anything like its current extent.

To move on to a subject which may be happier or may be gloomier, we'll be going to Towcester tomorrow for the bumper with Delatite.  He'll only have five opponents, but they mostly look as if they have some ability, so it would be possible to run very well and fail to finish in the first four.  He's not particularly fast, but then Towcester doesn't put a premium on speed.  And he showed in his run at Huntingdon on Boxing Day that he can run quite well in an average bumper.  And he's fit and well, and has a very good jockey (Harry Cobden, who must be a big advantage in a race restricted to conditional jockeys and amateurs) engaged.  So we can live, as usual, in hope.  Until 5.20 tomorrow afternoon, anyway.
Friday, April 07, 2017

A Grand week, but a tragic one too

This week started with the terrible news of the death of James McNeile as a result of head injuries sustained in a fall in a point-to-point at Larkhill on Saturday.  News like that is as bad as it comes.  This is a dangerous sport and we are never in an accident-free phase, but even so recent months have been bad.  Over and above a fatality and several extremely serious injuries in races/point-to-points, we've seen too many serious injuries in training.  There have been too many to list, but recent weeks in this parish, aside from Allan Mackay's terrible fall, have seen Phil Cameron (Saeed bin Suroor), Jade Gooch (Roger Varian) and Tom Burke (Charlie Appleby) sustain injuries the recuperations from which will take months rather than weeks.  Thoughts and prayers with all affected.

To move on to happier topics, Aintree is being a delight, as usual.  Plus I think that it has been relatively unattritional so far, which is great.  It was lovely to see Lizzie Kelly and Tea For Two win the Grade One steeplechase yesterday.  The female contingent hasn't looked back since the hard-to-justify decision by France-Galop to give female riders a 2kg allowance sparked a minor bout of discussion on this side of the Channel.  I was on the Sunday Forum on ATR nine days before the Cheltenham Festival and, when I gave my opinion that the idea was nonsense, it was put to me that it might be more justifiable over jumps.

I pooh-poohed this too, and since then we have had all three amateurs' races at the Festival won by female riders (which I am sure had never previously happened) and now Lizzie Kelly doing so well yesterday.  Hopefully the idea that being female makes a person intrinsically an inferior race-rider has now been properly kicked into touch.  One is, of course, always going to find some odd-balls trying to maintain that being female does actually mean being inferior, but one just has got to live with that.  What one doesn't want to do, though, is to give such fools the idea that the BHA agrees with them.

What else is happening?  Well, we haven't had a runner since Kilim went to Wolverhampton on 18th March, ie 20 days ago.  But we ought to have one next week: today I entered Delatite for a bumper at Towcester on Thursday (13th April).  I hope that he might then 'open the floodgates' (which phrase I have put into inverted commas to show that my tongue is in my cheek).  But, relatively speaking, he would be opening the tricklegates.  I hope that So Much Water might go to Brighton two days later, Saturday 15th April.  Then I hope that White Valiant might go to Fontwell on Friday 21st April, and Roy (whose Sunday display adorns the first paragraph, of course) to Brighton on Tuesday 25th April.

Looking farther ahead, there might be a suitable(ish) race for Hope Is High's resumption at Yarmouth on 2nd May.  There would be a suitable race the same day for Kilim at Brighton, but I suspect that she won't be running in it simply because, while she's doing her daily exercise very satisfactorily and happily at present, her winter coat hasn't begun to move at all, which inevitably puts the thought into my mind that it might be wise not to be in too much of a hurry to give her her next race.  I'm looking forward to running her on the turf, but there are several months of summer racing ahead of her, and it wouldn't make sense to rush into giving her a race when she's going to show up looking a lot less ready than her rivals.

It's one thing running a horse with a thick winter coat in the middle of winter (and I know that a lot can change in 27 days, but even so ...); quite another running him/her with a thick winter coat in the late spring when all one's rivals have shed theirs.  Aside from that, I hope that we aren't too far away from giving three three-year-old maidens their first start of the year, which for two of them will be the first start of their lives: Sussex Girl, Irene Wilde and an as-yet-unnamed daughter of Myboycharlie.  They are all closing in on a race, with Sussex Girl perhaps the closest to running of the trio, but as yet I haven't been bold enough to name the day.  There's no point in setting oneself up for the disappointment of a postponement.

More immediately, we have the Grand National tomorrow, of course.  I'll probably give Blaklion and Wonderful Charm the opportunity to become the first Grand National winner I've backed this century, but if either of them were to manage to salute the judge, he would be doing so without my seeing it: I'll be on my way to Milton Keynes with Jason Weaver for an evening shift in the ATR studio.  (Although I see that the National is surprisingly late, so we might be there in time).  Wolverhampton, Aqueduct and Keeneland.  I'll have to try to do some homework to help me to hide the biggest gaps in my knowledge, and I'll need to stay alert for what for me will be a late night, so getting an early night tonight seems a good idea.