Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sunshine in Doncaster - hold the back page!

I can't believe how lucky we were with the weather last week and the week before that. It was glorious. You'll have seen a photo on a blog I posted last week of David leading Lady Suffragette around the unsaddling enclosure at Plumpton in shirt sleeves, and that is representative of the week. Following the rainy weekend at the start of the month when we were married, the clouds were blown away and then the weather settled down, so that Cheltenham week was idyllic. It was then forecast to deteriorate markedly over the weekend, and for once they got it spot-on. As photo I took out of the dining room window this morning at around 6.20 will testify: March 21, but you'd think it was January 21 as the yard in the foreground and Warren Hill in the background are covered in snow. But the sun's already over the horizon and slashing its way through the clouds, and I believe that, even though it's bloody cold again this evening, spring will be returning shortly.

Things must be picking up because we were at Doncaster Sale this arvo and it was quite pleasant there: Doncaster sales complex is, with the exception of Southwell, the bleakest place in Britain, so when conditions there are comfortable, one knows the glass is set fair. We had gone up to peruse a few Darley-owned horses, mostly consigned by Mark Johnston. In particular we were looking at a 3-year-old full-brother to the Group One winner Soldier Hollow, named Peregrine Falcon: by In The Wings ex Island Race, by Common Grounds. Antony Harbidge had highlighted him, making an educated guess from his recent runs and his background that he was a horse with a fair future, and I concurred. Sadly, although the sum he fetched was not a big one in the great scheme of things (17,000 gns), it was more than we were in a position to outlay. He was bought by Christian von der Recke, so I suspect he will go to Germany, win two or three flat races there, then be brought back here to win a novice hurdle next winter, and be sold for £100,000 or so. It will be interesting to keep an eye on his future career, if possible. I must, incidentally, pay tribute to Mark Johnston for his helpfulness. Emma called his office on Monday morning to enquire about the horse, only to be told that none of the people immediately responsible for the horse were in the office at the time, but if she left a number, someone would call back. So she left my number, and at lunchtime Mark called me himself and gave me a very helpful and honest assessment. That was well beyond the call of duty, and very (typically) decent of him.

As often happens, the horses from Mark's stable didn't fetch as much as they would if hailing from, as Alan Whicker would have said in the old Barclaycard ads, "umm, certain other stables I could mention". This is, of course, because most people realise that few people would be able to turn a particular goose into a swan if he hasn't been able to do it: you only buy a horse from another trainer if you think you can train it better than he's been doing. In many cases, this isn't too difficult, because the modern-day habit of having as many horses in the stable as there are days in the year makes it virtually impossible for the trainer, however talented and/or conscientious, to do a proper job with more than a handful of them (it would be hard enough to do that if one had as many horses in the stable as there are days in the month, never mind the year); however, Mark is one trainer (Luca Cumani is another, as was Martin Pipe - and David now seems to have learnt pretty well from his old man) who has got the practice of organization down to such a fine art that he really does seem to get the best out of most of what he gets. And if he hasn't got the best out of them, it's normally because they have gone badly amiss, in which case one would want to hesitate before taking them on anyway. Anyway, Mark is a trainer from whom one should only buy with great circumspection, but the prices often reflect that, and anyway there are always going to be some which slip through the net - particularly among his Maktoum-owned horses, because they have to be pushed on through the pipeline pretty smartish, lest they cause a backlog to get in the way of the hundreds who are coming through to take their place. For what it's worth, two or three others in the draft caught my eye who may be worth keeping an eye on, in particular Rain And Shade, a three-year-old colt by Rainbow Quest from Coretta, by Caerleon from Free At Last, by Shirley Heights out of Brocade. I don't know who bought him, but he fetched 17,000 gns, and I predict that time will tell that the purchaser bought wisely; but then I did not have a close inspection of the horse, so there could be a drawback that I did not detect. Reciprocation (by Singspiel) was also a lovely horse, but his 36,000 gns price tag (bought by Kevin McAuliffe, so God knows where he'll be heading) will be harder to repay. And Whodunit was interesting: by Mark Of Esteem from a Sadler's Wells mare from a Riverman mare, he finished last on his debut in January, but he looked from a distance a grand horse, and he won't have to be special to look well bought at 4,000 gns. Another horse to remember is Hall Of Fame, who is never going to live up to his lineage: he is by Machiavellian from the great filly Petrushka. He has a big problem, which is that he has a defect in one of his hocks which means that the circulation in his lower limb is extremely poor, so that the whole area from coronet to hock is permanently grossly swollen. It is hard to see him becoming a superior athlete, and easy to see him not making old bones, but he has shown that he is at least a serviceable racehorse, having been placed three times over the winter, and he could prove an interesting purchase at 8,500 gns for Charlie Mann.

But - enough of my covetting other people's horses. What we've got to do is concentrate on the ones under our own care. Which is easy enough to do, as they aren't numerous. This morning, as we serious flat trainers ready our strings at the busiest time of the year in preparation for an all-out assault at the trainers' premiership, we had a grand total of six horses either cantering or galloping. I'd like to borrow a phrase from Alastair Down and say that "that's something to go to war with", but I don't know if I could do so with a straight face. However, the six are getting plenty of attention - and Lady Suffragette, whom I had the pleasure of galloping this morning, felt in pretty much perfect condition. And there wouldn't be many horses in Newmarket one could say that about. The only problem, of course, is that she is of very limited ability, but even so I suspect I will deflect her from the selling hurdle next week and instead allow her to get some more experience in a juvenile novice hurdle at the following Towcester meeting on Easter Day. I'd feel bloody stupid if I ran her in a seller next week and she finished second to a more experienced rival, was claimed and then won for someone else next time out.

We've got Chillly Cracker back, which is nice. She arrived from Chris Murray's Colton Farm Stud yesterday looking a million dollars. She was a solid filly last year, but she's now an in-foal five-year-old, and looks like a magnificent tank. She's in foal to that lovely horse Avonbridge, who could be about to fill the void left by the premature demise of his father Averti. Aahgowangowan was in foal to Avonbridge last summer when she went through a brief spurt of winning three times a week, so let's hope that lightning strikes twice. Chilly Cracker's problems last year were all in her head, but one is entitled to hope that being pregnant can act as a major attitude adjuster to a racemare; I don't know why this should be, but there's plenty of evidence to support this theory. So let's hope that Chilly Cracker can now relish the role of a racehorse. If she does, she could win a race; if she seems as if she doesn't, I doubt we'd run her, as taking her to the racecourse when she doesn't fancy the idea of racing is no fun, and a thankless task.

As regards people, I am happy to report that James has arrived safely back in the UK from his trip to Thailand. I don't know if I made it clear before, but this trip was a sort of 25th wedding anniversary celebration. Rather an odd one, you might think - and even odder when you realise that his long-suffering wife Alison didn't accompany him. We haven't had the full report yet, but he called by the yard the other morning to start to tell us the saga, and it seems he had the anticipated mighty time. I managed to avoid the full ladyboy debriefing. James was telling us that it's easy to understand why people get caught out by ladyboys, because they are "absolutely gorgeous" and it's very difficult to tell them apart from real women, so I interjected with a throwaway remark that "I suppose you didn't realise until afterwards" - but when his retort was the cryptic "Not even then", I decided that the conversation was getting too weird even for my taste, and managed to steer us onto a different subject. I'm planning to ask Gemma to get the full truth out of him and then give me a tastefully edited version. If Gemma can't manage that, it could be a job for Aisling when she gets back from Dubai, because I believe that Charlie's planning to invite Jim to have dinner with them soon after she gets home so he can tell them all about it.

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