Thursday, July 18, 2019

Curtain comes down on of a great career

It took me a while to recover from what, to use a racing journo's cliche, one might term my 'punishing schedule' last week.  Lingfield Wednesday afternoon; Epsom Thursday evening; Chepstow Friday evening; the Sky Sports Racing studio Saturday evening.  When my travels finished around 2 am on Sunday morning, I was more than ready for my bed.  Still, all four outings had been enjoyable.  We didn't manage a winner, but Das Kapital ran well at Chepstow on Friday night, finishing second behind the favourite and his paternal half-brother Sigrid Nansen who was completing a three-timer.  That was encouraging.

We did have one entry this week, Sacred Star at Nottingham yesterday, but I didn't declare her.  She can go to Chelmsford seven days later instead, which looks a more suitable opportunity almost whichever way one looks at it, obviously including the fact that she's an AW winner who has run badly on her only turf outing.  I note that Mark Tompkins has a couple of entries in her race.  Obviously I'd like our horse to win the race, but that aside I'd love to see him have a winner to sign off his 40-year training career.  He's part of the furniture here and his retirement really will be the end of an era. 

It has become easy in recent years, while Mark has been training a small string of extremely undistinguished horses, to forget what a successful trainer he was for many years.  Few trainers earn the title 'Classic-winning trainer' but he earned it, and it's something that can't be taken away.  He was my neighbour for many years, just round the corner in Flint Cottage in Rayes Lane, and he was a great neighbour to have because if you ever needed to trouble him for some help, you'd have found that nothing was too much trouble.  He's been the Chairman of the Newmarket Trainers' Federation for years and that's a task which you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy as it is extremely onerous, not to mention utterly thankless.

Mark has been outstanding in that role, going well beyond the call of duty in doing things to help Newmarket and its trainers.  He's invariably friendly: you'd never pass him on the Heath without him having a smile and a friendly greeting, always asking how things are going - and not doing so in the standard glib way just for the sake of saying something, but because he was genuinely interested; and genuinely keen to find that people were doing fine, and quick to offer words of support and encouragement if the answer was negative.

It's easy to forget what has happened in the past, and so it's easy to forget how many people have learned their trade from Mark.  Just off the top of my head, the trainers to whom he was a mentor in their younger days have included Giles Bravery (England), Ben Cecil (California), Aaron Purcell (Victoria) and Jeremy Gask (New South Wales, previously England).  And there will be many, many more because those four are just the ones whose names have come to mind with five seconds' thought.  He's had one champion apprentice (Saleem Golam) and plenty of apprentices who have ridden winners, almost invariably more winners than they would have ridden had they been with anyone else.  He'll be a huge loss to the training ranks, far more so than most observers will realise.
Friday, July 12, 2019

Two down, one to go

We will end up having the three runners this week.  I had worked my way round to deciding that we shouldn't run Das Kapital at Chepstow on Friday, but on Wednesday morning I noted that the GoingStick reading was on the good side of good to firm (or, rather, suggested that the going was) and that the TV weather forecast was pretty adamant that there would be around four hours of fairly solid rain at Chepstow in the early hours of Thursday morning.  I'm more accustomed to using the GoingStick to provide confirmation that the ground won't be suitable - so now that it was suggesting that it would be suitable, I had really to act accordingly.  So I did declare Das Kapital and so Chepstow (notwithstanding that I don't think that much of the predicted rain actually fell) is where we shall be heading.  It does look a suitable race.

Lingfield on Wednesday was a very pleasant outing.  The racecourse was rewarded for putting on a turf programme in lovely weather (not, of course, that they had much say in the weather) by a good crowd, and it was a pleasure to be part of it.  Roy turned out not to stay the two miles, moving into fourth place at the top of the straight but then weakening out of it again, but funnily enough I think that he would stay the two miles at Brighton (which theory, of course, will have to go forever untested) as he is so relaxed there nowadays, but was much more fired up yesterday in his unfamiliar surroundings and raced far too exuberantly to last out the two miles.

Epsom Thursday was also very pleasant.  It was an idyllic evening at a very special racecourse which on a perfect summer's evening (which is what we had) is heaven on earth.  Loving Pearl finished halfway down the field but that was another step forward after her extremely low-key start to the season when she finished last at Newmarket on her resumption.  Logic says that she ought to improve with time and distance, and that is what she seems (albeit gradually) to be doing.  Gradual the progress might be, but it is indeed progress.  And when one is making progress, it's easy to look forward with optimism. She can run over farther again next time and that should help her.  We'll see about that in a small amount of weeks' time.  More immediately we'll see what happens in the 6.10 at Chepstow on Friday night.
Tuesday, July 09, 2019
I hope our planning will have been relatively straightforward this week.  I entered three horses and intended to have three runners.  I think that we'll end up only with two, but that's fine: the one not to run would be Das Kapital (who is entered at Chepstow on Friday) and his absence won't be for any sinister reason, merely that the rain which the forecast had suggested might be going to fall in south Wales won't have fallen.  He seems not to like the ground too firm, which is understandable as he's a big horse with an extravagant action, and if there still hasn't been any rain there by tomorrow morning, I won't declare him.

That'll leave us (touching wood!) with Roy at Lingfield tomorrow (Wednesday) and Loving Pearl at Epsom on Thursday.  Roy's got this far without ever winning anywhere other than Brighton, but I feel that if he is ever going to win elsewhere, tomorrow will be the day.  But still doesn't mean that I'm expecting him to win!  Whatever, it'll be good to see him run over two miles.  He finishes strongly over a mile and a half at Brighton, leaving one wishing that one could run him over farther, but of course Brighton doesn't have anything over farther.  He's run over two miles previously but only on soft ground.  So tomorrow it'll be interesting to see him tackle two miles on fast ground.

I hope that Loving Pearl (who is pictured in the first photograph, following Roy up the Al Bahathri on Sunday morning ridden by Georgia Dobie, who will be on board on Thursday) will be less uncompetitive at Epsom than she has been on her two previous runs for the stable, at Newmarket and Yarmouth.  She's bred to stay well, so I hope that this race, the longest one she has yet contested, will help her to run better.  She still seems very young (and it's almost impossible to work out how on earth she was able twice to finish second over seven furlongs as a two-year-old!) but I hope that she can start coming to herself this week.  As always, we'll be wiser after the race.
Friday, July 05, 2019

Wafer-thin

I had a very pleasant trip to Brighton on Tuesday, but again it was a case of the afternoon being very enjoyable other than the couple of minutes (well, the last 30 seconds or so) of our race.  Sussex Girl did what she generally does: travelled well and ran OK but not well enough.  She finished fifth of 13.  The funny thing was that she and her old rival Rocksette (they have run against each other several times there, including when Rocksette won for the only time and including when Sussex Girl won there in the autumn of 2017 with Rocksette second, beaten a neck, and including when Rocksette was second and Sussex Girl was third behind Fort Jefferson there nine days before that) again passed the post closely matched, Rocksette (who started favourite this week) finishing in sixth, half a length behind us.  Two consistent horses.  Two frustrating horses.

As regards being frustrating, when writing the previous chapter previewing the trip to Brighton I mentioned how frustrating it was that when Solitary Sister had finally got in a race, she had gone lame the day before it.  The brahma was that I'd forgotten the fuller extent of the frustration which she has prompted: the last time she went to the races (in February) she did not run for an even more unforeseen reason: racing at Chelmsford that night was called off midway through the card because of thick fog!  This isn't a good game for people who can't cope with setbacks.

It's also not a game for people who can't cope with being cold and wet because we spend far too many hours cold and/or wet in the course of a year.  However, happily this week that's the least of our worries as the weather has been lovely.  Temperatures in the low to mid 20s, and sunny just about all of the time: absolutely perfect.  I've taken loads of photographs this week and a few of them will illustrate this chapter.  Parek (Sussex Girl) and Dane O'Neill in the first paragraph, and then just general shots from the mornings thereafter.

Just two general points upon which to touch.  The announcement of the passing of John McCririck has been the biggest news story today.  (Well, it has been easily the biggest racing news story, and it hasn't been far from the biggest news story in general because it made the main section of the One O'Clock News on BBC 1 this afternoon, which tells one all we need to know about the size of the part which John played in British life in recent decades).  There isn't much which I can say to add to the outstanding obituary which Lee Mottershead has written of him for the Racing Post.  John deserved a good tribute and he has certainly got one there thanks to Lee.

I didn't know John well at all, but I am thankful that in recent years we appeared on the same 'Sunday Forum' panel on At The Races a few times.  Before that I don't think that I'd ever even spoken to him.  I'm glad that I did get to meet him those few times.  There was one occasion when people observed to me afterwards that he'd given me quite a hard time (I can't remember what that was about) but it hadn't seemed like that to me at the time.  With him you expected spirited dialogue, and sitting next to him the jousting was a pleasure rather than an ordeal.  He was a brainy man who cared, and he wouldn't have been the special person which he was if he hadn't been moved to engage in spirited debate.  And the further bonus of appearing on the same show as him was meeting 'The Booby'.  Even a brief meeting with her made it plain that she is a saint, and a saint who was the perfect match for John.  She will be mourning him grievously, and I offer her my most most sincere condolences.

On a far less substantial topic, I was glad to see that Katherine Begley had a ride for her boss Richard Hannon in the last race at Newbury last night.  On occasions officialdom has one scratching one's head (the totally unnecessary forced withdrawal of Aweedram from the Britannia Handicap at Royal Ascot being one of the more obvious recent ones) and the difficulty which she appears to have had in being granted a jockey's license is a case in point.  This appeared on my radar as she asked me to provide her with a reference as she has ridden for us this year (Roy in an apprentices' race at Brighton in the spring) and I was stunned to find that she was meeting opposition.

Kathy turned 26 recently, which meant that she ceased to be eligible to ride as an apprentice.  The convention has always been that if there is a doubt about whether a jockey will get 25 rides in a year, then the granting of a jockey's license is not guaranteed.  It used to be (but is no longer) the case that the trainer for whom the jockey worked would be asked to guarantee that the jockey would receive 25 rides, the commitment being that, if the jockey ended up having had fewer than 25 rides, the trainer would pay him riding fees to make up the shortfall, a commitment which certainly focussed the trainer's mind and meant that the guarantee was not given lightly.  

Anyway, I've never been totally comfortable with the idea that if someone has served an apprenticeship and is prepared to pay for the license, and is working full-time in racing, he/she should not be granted one.  I can understand the theory of applying some sort of quality-control to the jockeys who are riding in public, but that sorts itself out without interference from above: if the jockey isn't good enough, he/she just won't get the rides.  But if the would-be jockey has been riding in races as an apprentice for years, it's hard to justify starting to say that he/she suddenly is not good enough to ride in races.

That's by the by, because there was no evidence to suggest that Kathy wouldn't be able to get 25 rides a year.  I've looked up on the Racing Post site and seen that in the first half of 2019 she had 46 rides for six wins.  Very few of these rides were in apprentices' races, so there's no reason to believe that the total would have been significantly fewer had she been riding on a jockey's license rather than an apprentice's license (bearing in mind that, since the rule-change which meant that jockeys, rather than merely apprentices, can claim an allowance, she would still claim 5lb whether riding as an apprentice or a jockey).

One should point out that most of those rides came while she was still working for David Evans, but she's now in a stable which has thousands of runners, one of which she rode last night, so it's not as if she's moved to a stable which can't or won't support her.  Anyway, she was finally granted a senior jockey's license, no doubt in part thanks to a tweet from John Reid.  Replying to Kathy's tweet on 24th June, "I'm fit, strong, dedicated & natural on horseback and the BHA are making a fuss about upgrading my license to professional (due to age) citing 'lack of rides' yet their dithering has cost me two rides at Newbury tomo ... go figure", John wrote, "I personally don't understand your lack of rides.  I think you are an excellent jockey and if I was a trainer I would definitely put you up."

Fortunately, common sense has prevailed.  Let's hope that she can go on to mirror other jockeys who have been close to the borderline of being eased out of the game but who have gone on to glory.  Padraig Beggy gets even fewer rides than she does, yet he has just added the 2019 Irish Derby to his 2017 Derby victory.  I wonder how long the Irish stewards spend pondering whether to refuse him a license because of 'lack of rides'!  James Doyle and Danny Tudhope are two others who nearly fell off the map after the end of their apprenticeships (and I think that it is worth pointing out that the key figure in the renaissance of Danny Tudhope was Jim Goldie, not that you'd have known this when Danny's fall and rise was being documented on the TV at Royal Ascot).  I suppose the moral of the story is that one should never forget (as so many people, including seemingly the BHA, do) that the gap in competence between the fashionable jockeys and the unfashionable ones is wafer-thin (if it exists at all).  
Monday, July 01, 2019

Trying to make plans (Part Two)

Trying to make plans, eh?  That was the title I gave to the previous chapter, in which I mentioned that we'd have two runners this week, Sussex Girl and Solitary Sister in the 3.30 at Brighton tomorrow.  I was indeed trying to make plans rather than making them (well, I suppose that I did make a plan, but it was a plan which has floundered) because Solitary Sister won't be running.  She has had a long history of corns in her near-fore foot which formerly kept her off the track for a long time.  The near fore foot is fine now - so, right on cue, she was lame this evening.  Off fore.  Yes, you've guessed it: a corn.  You couldn't make it up.

Still, there's plenty worse things that happen.  She might have me scratching my head often enough, but what about those in charge of racing in Ireland?  They must be tearing their hair out.  We think that we have problems here, but what about the attendance-figures for Ireland's biggest meeting of the year, the Irish Derby Meeting?  Three days: 2,859 there on the Thursday, 3,661 there on the Friday (when there was a Group One race on the card) and 11,957 there on the Saturday, Derby Day.  One might say that that's not dissimilar to how things were when our Derby Meeting was still four days prior to its re-invention in the '90s, but even then our Derby Day, the only busy day of the meeting, attracted a few hundred thousand, not fewer than 12,000.