Friday, July 13, 2018

Diamonds on a ring of gold

Another busy week.  July Week, so it goes without saying that it's a busy week for someone living in Newmarket.  I'm writing this early evening on Friday and I'm very tired, so I'll be going to bed early tonight.  The working day tomorrow will start early (we're starting at 5.30 during this hot spell) and finish late (I'm working for ATR in the evening, and last Saturday we didn't go off air until midnight) so it would be handy to be in bed before 8.00 this evening.  We'll see.  I actually feel that I could fall asleep right now, and it's not yet 6.00, but I have a few things to do before turning in.  Including writing this.

We've had two runners this week: Roy third at Brighton on Tuesday and Hope Is High second at Yarmouth on Wednesday.  It was another mighty and very happy occasion with Roy, whose current fame is rather special.  Sean Boyce's ATR feature on him, which was first aired that day, is excellent and I thoroughly recommend it - and I'm not merely saying that because Roy and I are both in it!  He ran his race again, but (as we knew in advance) he just isn't quite a Class Four horse, whereas the pair who finished clear of him clearly are.

I would hope that both he and Hope won't have their ratings changed because of those performances, because a rise of even a pound for either would mean that their intended next races would have to come off the agenda.  But they shouldn't be raised for that: he was third of five, seven lengths behind the runner-up, while she was second of four, decisvely beaten, three and a half lengths behind the winner.  Those two outings meant that Tuesday and Wednesday were busy days which ended with late nights.  Well, Tuesday was a late night, while Wednesday wasn't an early one.

The other days have also been busy.  The July Sale has been on and, while I haven't been much involved in that, I did spend some time up at Tattersalls on Monday, Thursday and today.  I did bid on two horses, both three-year-old Juddmonte home-breds.  I was under-bidder on one (Phobos, who appears to be heading to Michael Blanshard's stable) on behalf of an owner and bid on my own account for another (Principia, who was bought by Michael Appleby).  They'll be going into the tracker so we can gradually find out whether they were the ones who got away or whether we dodged a bullet.  As always, time will reveal much, if not all.

Sadly, though, three events have overshadowed all others within the racing family over the past seven days: the deaths of John Dunlop, Tommy Cuthbert and Laura Barry.  John Dunlop and Tommy Cuthbert were both very special men, each a true gentleman who stood at the head of one of the nicest families in racing.  John Dunlop was one of the country's most liked and respected trainers throughout his hugely successful 47-year training career, while Tommy Cuthbert must have been training for nearly as long: he was already training by the time that I started following the sport closely in 1977, and he saddled his last runners (Yair Hill and Red Forever) at Ayr on Sunday.

Tommy, though, will have attended the races more often this century as farrier than as trainer, in his role as the ever-cheerful, ever-friendly, ever-calm farrier at the Scottish racecourses and at Carlisle, Hexham and Newcastle.  We don't have so many runners that far north nowadays so I hadn't seen him for a while - but he was the sort of person you could go 20 years without seeing, and then be greeted by him as if you and he had been having a friendly chat only the previous day.  He often used to say that he doubted that he'd renew his license the following year; but he always did, such ageless horses as Exalted and Edas turning out again year after year, popping up and winning yet another amateurs' race with Helen just when you thought that they had been in the veteran stage for so long that they'd be just a run or two off retirement.  I'd guess that any horse trained by Tommy Cuthbert would have had a lovely life.

I never had the pleasure of knowing Laura Barry, but that was my loss.  When someone has died, one always hears people saying how nice they were, prompting one to wish that one had known them when they were alive.  With Laura Barry, though, I haven't just been hearing such stories today: I've been hearing them since about the time a few years ago that I first heard of a very promising apprentice called Laura Barry who was starting to ride a few winners.  Right from the outset, anything you ever heard about her was always good.  A shining star has clearly been extinguished today, someone who brought joy to those around her and who ended up proving that she was as courageous as she was kind.  To her loved ones, and to the Dunlop and Cuthbert families, I offer my sincere condolences.
Monday, July 09, 2018

Once more unto the breach

Once more unto the breach for our stalwarts.  Two runners this week, and they are ... um ... the usual suspects, ie Roy (pictured yesterday in the second last paragraph) at his favourite course Brighton tomorrow and Hope (pictured on Saturday in the third last paragraph) at her favourite course Yarmouth on Wednesday.  It wasn't a completely straightforward decision to run either horse, but I'm happy enough that we're doing so.  Each is in a small field (five in Roy's race, four in Hope's) and, while it's arguably too high a grade for Roy and from a handicapping point of view we ought to be waiting until he is reassessed rather than running with a penalty added on to his new mark (which is higher than the mark he won off last week), he's well, hasn't got another race coming up for a month - and it's a small field at a mile and a half on fast ground at Brighton.  Seemples!

With Hope I'd ideally like the ground to be less firm than this extended very warm and dry period will inevitably have made it.  (The fact that six of the seven races were re-offered after declaration time tells us how firm it is believed that the ground will be, as does the fact that it ended up, even after the re-offering, with only 40 declarations for the seven races).  However, she has good fast-ground form - and again it's a small field on a course and distance which is tailor-made for her.  And she's very well; and Silvestre is available to ride.  So, again, I'm happy that we're running.  And at this time of year one wants to try to make hay, and we haven't got too much else ready to run!

Roy's in good company at having three races in fairly quick succession, thanks to Aidan O'Brien having reminded us with Saxon Warrior and Athena that sound horses can cope with racing more than once a month.  I don't know why the myth that horses need plenty of time between races has come in, but it has had plenty of people who ought to know better swallowing it.  It's different if the horse isn't very sound (or is flattened by unnecessary use of Lasix) and needs time to recover from a race, but for a sound horse it's generally easier for them to race regularly as then they don't have to do much between races.

Go more than, say, two weeks between races, and the horse will have lost the benefit of the previous race and will have to do some solid work to maintain his fitness. You only need to go out to the Heath in the mornings to see how hard some horses are galloped even at this time of year, when they ought to be fit and shouldn't be needing to do anything particularly taxing at home.  In fairness, nobody really questions this logic until one gets to the higher levels, but at that point the received supposed wisdom kicks in that horses can't cope with racing.  And of course it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: once people start believing the publicity, the horses don't run regularly, so can't disprove the fallacy.

So it was good to see Aidan back up two top-class horses last weekend, and see them both run really well.  The record of horses who run twice at the same Royal Ascot, or the same Cheltenham Festival, is excellent - but it happens so rarely nowadays that one can end up forgetting that.  I suppose the problem is that so many horses aren't sound.  I saw a statistic a month or so ago that 29 members of Frankel's first crop were still unraced.  That's shocking.  These horses are now four-year-olds, so the likelihood for the majority is that if they haven't yet raced, they are not going to do so.  Frankel is clearly a very good stallion, and yet even he seemingly has nearly 25% of his offspring not sound enough to race.  That's dreadful - but sadly it's indicative of the modern thoroughbred.

It could, of course, be that some of these horses are sound enough, but just have no ability.  But not many will fall into that category: basically every sound horse can perform to a respectable level, while the ones who can't do anything tend to have things wrong with them holding them back, even if by definition (ie on the basis that they do have some racing) they are sound enough to race.  But that's the modern thoroughbred, sadly.  Whether it is a result of the collective underperformance of the breeding community or the collective underperformance of the training community is another matter - but I'd say that the breeding community is the principal culprit as we do just find that a significant percentage of the horses bred just aren't sound enough.

However, one could fill a whole university thesis on this subject, never mind a handful of paragraphs on the blog.  But the gist of it is that a sound horse shouldn't find that a race takes so long to recover from that he can't run again for several weeks.  And the other gist is that, sadly, finding a sound horse is easier said than done.  Horses such as Roy and Hope, or Saxon Warrior and Athena, who seem able to cope with their racing reasonably well, are fewer and farther between than they ought to be.  So we'll celebrate them while we can - whether they are high-class professionals or middle-of-the-road (or lower) professionals.  And we'll go to Brighton tomorrow with our proper little trouper, and we'll enjoy competing - win, lose or draw.  How we'll run is unknowable, but what we know is that he'll do his best tomorrow.  Yet again.
Thursday, July 05, 2018

Roy Rocket is alive and well

Tuesday really was a wonderfully enjoyable day.  Roy's victory at Brighton the previous Tuesday had been a very special occasion, and this time was equally joyful.  More so even, possibly, not least because the race was a thriller: he had to dig really deep to get there as the shorter trip didn't play to his strengths, and it was only close to home that one could see that he was going to win.  He and John Egan are a wonderful partnership, and what is really lovely is that the skill with which John rides him is matched by the love and enthusiasm which he displays for him.

So that was wonderful, Roy registering his eighth Brighton win on a perfect summer's day in a wonderful atmosphere in which pretty much everyone on the racecourse seemed to be sharing the joy.  Racing, whatever the grade, doesn't get much better than that.  Once again, At The Races did us more than proud, really helping to make the occasion special, and it was a wonderful post-script to see Roy's photograph on the front page of the Racing Post and on the racing page of the Sun next day.  It's terrific how popular he has become, and lovely that the media are promoting him so enthusiastically.

We might go back to Brighton next week for a third consecutive Tuesday.  From a handicapping point of view, this time (unlike the last time, when backing up made perfect sense) it wouldn't be ideal as he would be running off higher than what his rating will be by then.  But he seems to have come out of the race very well, and he's clearly at the very top of his game; a mile and a half on fast ground at Brighton is spot-on for him, and there aren't that many opportunities to have that exact scenario; there won't be another race for him for a month (when he'll go to the Brighton Festival on either the 9th or the 10th of August); and there are only eight entries in the race so it could be a tiny field.  So I imagine that we'll go - but we can firm up that decision anon.

That entry for Roy on Tuesday is our next entry.  We have one other entry next week: Hope Is High at Yarmouth.  Again I think that she could well run, but again that is not yet written in stone.  We have 14 horses in training at present, but less than half of them are anywhere near ready to race; so we aren't having many runners at present, and I'm not having to spend too much time perusing the calendar.  But what brief inspections I have been making of the programme book have highlighted two rather unsatisfactory trends.

Firstly, handicaps for four-year-olds and upwards seem very rare nowadays.  That is regrettable, and not a good thing at all.  It used to be that from September onwards the older horses would run out of opportunities to compete against themselves without racing against their younger, less exposed three-year-old rivals, who generally dominate three-year-olds-and-upwards handicaps simply by virtue of being in general less exposed and thus better handicapped (over and above the receipt of a generous weight-for-age allowance).  It wouldn't be an unusual situation to see a three-year-olds-and-upwards handicap having, say, 12 runners, of which four might be aged three and eight aged four or above; and to have the three-year-olds dominate the betting beforehand and fill the first three places.

One of my gripes with the racing programme is the fact that so many races are restricted to horses aged no more than three, compared to very few restricted to older horses aged four or more; that the element of built-in obsolescence which this creates in horses encourages people to treat horses like disposable commodities - ie to race them for a couple of years and then replace them, rather than race them for as long as they are suitable for racing - and that this is not a good thing for the sport or the horses.

This widespread deletion of handicaps for four-year-olds and upwards is not a good thing at all.  It is hard enough as it is to justify encouraging people to adopt a patient and sympathetic approach to their racing and to keep their horses in training rather than operate on a policy of getting as much out of them as quickly as possible.  This change to the profile of the racing programme just makes it harder.  Another retrograde step which I have noticed is that it is becoming ever more common for racecourses to break the rule which tries to keep a distance-balance to our programme.

The plans to turn Newcastle into a floodlit AW course were nearly undone by the rule which said (I think that this is right) that each programme has to have two races beyond a mile whose aggregate distance is at least two and a half miles.  This is a very good thing because it helps to ensure that Britain doesn't go down the way of the New World in making races beyond 1800m a rarity.  So much was made of the sanctity of this rule when Newcastle's plans were being mooted - and now, just a handful of years later, it seems to be being honoured more in the breach than the observance.

It might be that it has been written out of the rule-book.  This keeps happening to good rules.  When Sussex Girl ran in an apprentices' race at Yarmouth last month, I was taken aback when I got down to the start (I always go down there when she runs to lead her into the stalls as she is a bit tricky and she knows me and I know her) to find that three of the eight runners had gone to post early.  There used to be a very good rule that one couldn't receive permission to send a horse to post early for an apprentice race, on the correct basis that a horse who is so unruly that he needs to go to post early is not a suitable ride for an apprentice.

This oddity at Yarmouth has made me presume that that rule has been surreptiously removed from the book.  And maybe the very good one to give a solid distance-balance to our racing has been removed too.  But how about this, from the very few meetings which I have been examining recently?  At Yarmouth on 18th July (where and when I hope that Solitary Sister will run) the longest race will be seven furlongs.  Next Tuesday, Roy's race will be the only one beyond a mile at Brighton.  I don't want to pick on those two courses, but the point I am making is that I'm only entering horses at three meetings in the next two weeks - and only one of those three abides by this worthwhile rule.

It isn't that these two courses are the only ones, but they're the only meetings I have looked at in the next fortnight.  Over the past couple of years Kempton has caught my eye as being a serial offender, while Newmarket isn't as good at abiding by the rule as it ought to be.  (Witness the fact that there is only one race beyond a mile on July Cup Day).  (I've just looked at Kempton's programme and seen that only four of the six Kempton meetings scheduled between now and the end of August abide by the rule - and I must emphasise that Kempton puts on plenty of middle-distance or staying races, only it consistently breaks the rule by putting on, say, four on one card and then only one, or even none, on the next).  Does this matter?  Probably not, unless one believes that long-distance races are king (as I do, but I'm probably in a small minority).  Or unless one believes that rules should be observed, obeyed and enforced (which I don't, unless, like this one, they are good rules).
Monday, July 02, 2018

Beating (or relishing) the heat

Thank you, Neil and Glenn, for your comments after the last chapter.  And apologies that it has taken me so long to acknowledge them, and to write another chapter.  Where does the time go?  It just goes.  There's a saying that if you want something done, you should ask a busy man - but I'm not sure that that's right.  Sometimes busy does actually mean busy, just as Brexit apparently means Brexit; and I'm not just talking about a red, white and blue busy either.  Sometimes busy means that you just can't fit any more in.  I've been a bit like that recently (again).

It doesn't sound much, but when you have extra things outside the usual daily grind for a few days, then you just can't get everything done.  I had a period like that.  Emma and I treated ourselves to a day at Ascot on the Saturday (ie nine days ago).  (She had been on the Tuesday and Wednesday, but for me this was my first day out at the Royal Meeting since Black Caviar won in 2012).  That was lovely, but it wiped out the whole day.  I rode two lots and made up the feeds, but apart from dealing with a few emails that was the full extent of my working day.

And then I was on the Sunday Forum the next day, a late call-up as a substitute for a non-runner.  That took out the bulk of the time between morning and evening stables.  There was nothing extra on the Monday (bar the end-of-month full Town Council meeting in the evening) but Monday is always busy anyway as I have my Winning Post column to write.  And then we had runners Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  Roy at Brighton; Hope Is High at Salisbury; Wasted Sunsets at Nottingham in the afternoon and Leicester in the evening.

Wednesday (thanks to appalling traffic) and Thursday were very late nights, which was a strain as we are starting at 5.30 at present to beat the heat (which to my mind doesn't require any beating because it is a joy, but I keep being told that it's difficult).  I think that Friday was straightforward enough - and then I had a Saturday evening shift on At The Races, which meant that I pretty much had to have a sleep at lunchtime, as that was going to be a late night as the Grade One race at Monmouth Park was late.  And Sunday turned out to be fairly full, largely as I ended up spending three hours out on a horse whose exercise ought to have taken about 40 minutes.  And today is Monday (with an NTC Development & Planning Meeting in the evening, and 1,900 words written for Winning Post).

And my VAT return was due by the end of the month.  And the end of the month was also the deadline for an article I was writing for a magazine, and predictably I had spent three and a half of the four weeks which I had to write it doing no more than (occasionally) thinking about what I might write.  It all takes time.  Anyway, I ought to write something today as we're off to Brighton with Roy again tomorrow.  The trips to Salisbury, Nottingham and Leicester were pleasant, but ultimately unproductive which limits the pleasure.  Our trip to Brighton last week, though, was terrific!

Roy and Ross Birkett had won the race two years ago and then he been ineligible to run in it last year through being rated too highly; and this year he was the bottom weight.  And I was very happy with his condition.  So that meant that he had to win, yes?  Well, it doesn't really work that way.  Clearly he had as good a chance as anything else in the race, and a better chance than many of them, but that still meant that he was more likely not to win than to win - which is the case for any horse which doesn't start at even-money or shorter.

And we hadn't had a winner since October.  (Admittedly the situation wasn't as gloomy as that sounds: we hardly have any runners over the winter, and this season we had only run four horses, of which one was running in maiden races so wasn't in a position to be disappointing while the three handicappers had all been placed, running as if a win shouldn't be too far away).  But I never take anything for granted at the best of times; under the circumstances, therefore - well, it was just very, very good to have him win.

Roy is so popular at Brighton, which is a lovely racecourse.  Matt Chapman was doing the TV for ATR there and he really added to the occasion, and the victory was just a source of great joy, joy seemingly shared by pretty much everyone on the racecourse.  Roy is so special (and doubly special at Brighton).  As I bred him, part-own him with some dear friends who have been staunch supporters, and ride him pretty much every day and spoil him rotten; as he races in colours very dear to my heart; as he's pretty much always ridden by a good friend (whether that be Ross Birkett who rode him last week, or John Egan his regular jockey who rides him tomorrow, or Nicola Currie); and as he is the most loveable horse who carries a mountain of good-will behind him - well, it's a special day any time he runs, never mind wins - so last week was a wonderful delight.  We go back there tomorrow, so we'll hope for the best but take nothing for granted.
Monday, June 25, 2018

Runners in the sun

We've just had the longest day of the year, so I suppose that means plenty of time?  Well, no; not exactly.  Plenty of time outside, granted - but that means less time indoors.  And there are still all the usual things which need to be done.  In particular, the end of the month is looming and I've loads of specific things to do before June ends.  And now we have three consecutive days at the races coming up.  God only knows when everything will get done, but at least I'm finding a few minutes before bedtime this evening to preview our runners.

Roy runs tomorrow at Brighton with Ross Birkett in the race which they won two years ago.  They couldn't contest it last year as he was rated too high, whereas this year he has bottom weight.  That suggests that they should have some sort of chance.  Then Hope goes to Salisbury on Wednesday.  Silvestre is suspended so Nicola will ride.  It's a tougher race than the one in which she finished second to a handicap certainty last time, but she had 9 stone 10lb that day whereas this week she will only have 8 stone 7lb on her back, which may or may not be enough of a reduction to compensate for the rise in class.

And then on Thursday we shall have a double-header: Nottingham in the afternoon with Wasted Sunsets and Parek (Sussex Girl) at Leicester in the evening.  I'll be able to attend both meetings, which is good, as the two courses aren't too far apart.  Wasted Sunsets, having only run twice previously, has still to stick to novice (ie maidens plus lightly-raced winners) company so that's going to make it hard for her to figure prominently.  But I hope that she'll run respectably.  Sussex Girl, by contrast, ought to be ready to run very competitively, although three-year-olds are eligible, which will make it tougher than if she were merely competing against other (more or less) fully exposed horses aged four and above.  So we'll see what happens.  They'll all do their best and we'll hope for the best.  That's all we can ask or do.