Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Arc week

We've got to the last day of September and are still going around in T-shirts, which is the sign of a very benign autumn. It's been great. Admittedly the cloudless skies which had been the feature of the bulk of September have been replaced over the past few days by more typical overcast conditions, but it's still very warm (and very dry), at night as well as by day. Riding out in just T-shirts (plus shorts, obviously) isn't quite what it sounds, of course, now that body protectors are compulsory, because these supposed safety devices have one advantage (and probably only one) of being very warm. But even so it's great still to be in summer gear. This evening I was standing out in the yard after dark (ie after 7.00) listening to some of Dave Morris' stories, and it felt as if it was 10.30 pm on a midsummer night - great! Dave had been watching some Racing UK Arc previews, a lot of which have been focussing on the outstanding 1986 winner Dancing Brave (thus mirroring a lot of the Racing Post's pre-Arc build-up stuff), and this had moved Dave to take any suitable audience (ie me) on a trip down memory lane, allowing him to reminisce about looking after the fourth in the Dancing Brave's Derby (ie the Derby in which Shahrastani beat Dancing Brave), the Henry Cecil-trained Faraway Dancer. It made for a very pleasant interlude, because Dave's utterances are always worth hearing as long as one isn't in a hurry, so it was rather nice to stand out in the warm night, hearing and seeing a flock of geese fly over just before it got dark, and then seeing some of our bats flit about above my head (a true sign of a warm night) after darkness had fallen.

This weekend's racing is going to be great. Not only do we have, of course,the feast that is Longchamp's Arc weekend, but three days' of Newmarket will be very interesting, and then we have horses for whom to cheer in both Melbourne and Sydney. The news announced yesterday that Michelle Payne is to ride the 2007 Cox Plate winner El Segundo, whom she rode in a trial when we were in Australia in January and on whom she has an unblemished race-riding record of one ride for one win, in Saturday's Turnbull Stakes at Flemington went down very well in this household, as did the discovery that Lawrence Wadey's The Embassy has got a start in the Metropolitan.
Chris Munce will be on board and the horse is well drawn so, while he faces a massive rise in class and is what in English terms would be described as well out of the handicap, he must have a some sort of chance of picking up a valuable Group One prize. Which is really exciting, so ATR's overnight coverage will be particularly appreciated this weekend, even more so than normal. And then we have Newmarket's former temporary resident Scenic Blast running in Japan, I presume in the early hours of Sunday morning by British time, so that's another excitement.
With Steven Arnold unavailable, another jockey whom I respect, Mark Zahra (seen above on the Peter Snowden-trained Commands two-year-old Rarefied at Caulfield on 10th January, shortly before winning the Thomas North Plate), will take the ride and it would be great to hear of (I doubt we'll have the chance to see the race) this combination winning and thus following in the footsteps of another Aussie King's Stand Stakes winner, Takeover Target (seen here giving the young bloke some advice last summer).

But, of course, this weekend also features a race which, while not on a par with the various Group races around the world, will be keenly anticipated here, because Ethics Girl, who is surely bred to stay at least that far, tackles twelve furlongs for the first time. And what better place to do it than at Epsom, over the Derby course and distance, in the "Apprentices' Derby"? This race used to be called the Steve Donoghue Apprentices Derby (but surely used not to be run in October, because the August Bank Holiday fixture used to be Epsom's final meeting of the season) and sadly it no longer bears that title, but I'll think of it as such. She's well and she's got an experienced apprentice riding (Marc Halford) so let's hope that she and The Embassy can join forces to provide Lawrence (who co-owns her, as he does The Embassy) with a weekend to remember. The ground is likely to be pretty firm (not that you'd guess that from the official going report) but that shouldn't bother her. I suspect that it would, unfortunately, bother Stardust Memories, whom I'd entered in a maiden on the same card, so she had better not accompany us on the journey. So that's where I'll be on Saturday, and I'm looking forward to it.

It'll be great if Ethics Girl runs as creditably as To Be Or Not To Be did at Musselburgh on Sunday. I love Musselburgh and felt rather bad about having a runner there and not going, but it's a long way away, it was a Sunday, and my presence would have been superfluous as Wayne and Cathy had taken the mare up and so I knew everything would run smoothly without my intervention. My heart went out to them because the mare ran so well, and yet had comparatively little to show for it. She finished fourth, but beaten about a neck in total. Prize money to the winner was about ten and a half thousand pounds, while prize money to the fourth was just under eight hundred - so that was a very costly neck. The third horse, who beat her by a short-head, was a Godolphin-raced Storm Cat half-sister to Bernardini - and you don't expect to run up against something like that in a handicap at Musselburgh! But, while it would have been lovely if To Be Or Not To Be had won the race, one couldn't begrudge the winner her victory:
watching the race, it seemed as if the Mark Johnston-trained Feeling Fab (a daughter of a stallion whom I admire, Refuse To Bend, who is pictured here at Kelvinside Stud earlier this year, shortly before heading back to Europe) was trying really, really hard, and film of her standing exhausted, as if she'd just won a long-distance steeplechase, in the unsaddling enclosure afterwards confirmed this impression. It's no disgrace to be beaten by a horse like that.
She was one of Mark Johnston's Sunday winners in, remarkably, four different countries, as Mark won a Group One in Germany with Jukebox Jury, a handicap at Ascot with Record Breaker, and a hugely valuable Goffs Sales race at the Curragh with Shakespearean, whose victory has surely guaranteed European first-season sires' honours to Shamardal, another stallion I admire. I took this photograph of him at this year's Darley Stallion Parade, but that wasn't the first time I'd seen him: that was in the parade ring prior to his winning debut at Ayr in July 2004, and I liked him then and have liked him ever since.

If we are giving plaudits to Mark Johnston, which we are, we also ought to give them to two other very admirable trainers. Richard Fahey has recently passed the ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY WINNER MARK for the season, which is an absolutely superb achievement; while David Evans would 'only' be on about half that total, but that too represents a tremendous effort. Hats off to both men. And plaudits also to Nic Coward, who coped admirably with a Matt Chapman grilling in a recent ATR feature. Racing faces tough times and in these it's easier to criticize than to do something. Nic is clearly intent on doing something and I'd say that he's probably about as good a leader as we'd get. He probably doesn't have all the answers - but then again nobody does, and it's quite plain that he's trying to get things done as well as possible. Anyone who can handle Matt as well as he does has got to be good!

Finally, I can't close without passing on my enjoyment of one of Kelly Harrison's answers in her Q&A session in Sunday's Racing Post. A few years ago I went up to Musselburgh with Micky Fenton. Our plan was to drive to Ely (he kindly volunteered to drive), where we'd catch the Peterborough train, and then change onto the Edinburgh train.
We got to Ely in good time and, while Micky (seen here with Anthony Berry and Alan Munro at the Great Leighs trials day in April last year)was parking the car, I went into the station and bought the tickets. Unbelievably, while I was doing so I kept seeing Micky just wandering around outside by his car and doing anything and everything other than coming into the station. The upshot was that, impossible though this was to believe, we missed the train. Anyway, I thought at that point that we'd blown our chance of getting to Musselburgh on time, but Micky wasn't in the least put out and he promptly broke the record for driving from Ely to Peterborough so that, even if we didn't quite get to Peterborough before the train which we'd missed, we got there in time to catch our connection to Edinburgh. Anyway, this episode came flooding back to me when I read Kelly's answer to the question, "What is the strangest/funniest thing you have seen on a racecourse?": "A jockey got up early to catch a plane from Stansted to Ayr. While drinking coffee at the gate waiting to board, he managed to miss the plane. In a panic he decided to drive the six-hour (six-hour is putting it very kindly - JB) journey instead at flat-out speed. He arrived at Ayr with seconds to spare to ride a favourite that got beat and the rest of his mounts didn't run! This could only happen to Micky Fenton ..."! I really enjoyed chuckling over that story. And it illustrates just why Micky's hyper-relaxed nature (like formerly that of Harry White, who famously fell asleep before the Melbourne Cup) makes him such a good jockey, even if it makes him only odds-against ever to get from A to B in a normal manner!
Friday, September 25, 2009

September Morn

It just gets better and better. Today really was a dawn for a sing-along with Neil Diamond as we greeted it. Conditions might have been grim in Geelong, as our ATR pictures showed them to be, but here it was heavenly. Gerard Butler summed it up best. We see plenty of Gerard, because his horses warm up on the Severals trotting rings, just as ours do. Having spent several years in America, he began training at Churn on the Oxfordshire Downs before moving to Newmarket last year to train out of Mick Ryan's Cadland House Stables at the bottom of Warren Hill. I like Gerard and respect him as a trainer - he is very thorough indeed, his horses get very extensive exercises and invariably look extremely well - so like to pass the time of day with him.
This morning I ventured the opinion that you wouldn't get an autumn like this on the Downs; his reply was that you wouldn't get one like this in California! Things have to go badly wrong for mornings such as these not to be enjoyable, and today things went well. Two horses schooled over small jumps during first lot this morning (Cape Roberto and Ex Con, ridden by Aisling and Gemma respectively) and two horses did stalls work during last lot (Frankieandcharlie and Destiny Rules, ridden Hugh and Adam respectively); and both exercises went very well.
I accompanied the first pair up to the Links on Kadouchski and was able on this lovely horse to use 'Jockeycam': it is maybe not clear in the opening shot that this is the method of filming because the sun is so low that one can't really see anything, but the second picture makes it abundantly clear. And the third picture is remarkably good, bearing in mind that Kadouchski at that point was getting a bit uppity, just to let me know that he'd always rather participate in a schooling session than watch it.

As tomorrow is Grand Final Day in Melbourne, in which 'my' team Geelong will surely beat St. Kilda, the main meeting there for the weekend was the Friday night fixture at Moonee Valley, and the icing on the cake in this household was that Emma and I were able to arrange things so that we could interrupt our tasks at just the right time to listen to the calls of the main races on the internet, this obviously falling after our usual ATR time-slot, which today was from Geelong (and Moruya, which I didn't watch). It was good to hear both the feature races being won by jockeys who have many friends in the UK, Kerrin McEvoy winning the Manikato Stakes on Danleigh and Craig Williams winning the Bill Stutt Stakes on Carrara. The latter race, in fact, was particularly pleasing, not only because the first three home were all ridden by jockeys whose experience has been broadened by stints here (Craig, Brad Rawiller, who hasn't race-ridden here, and Clare Lindop) but also because the winner is a member of the first crop of Elvstroem, of whom we enjoyed seeing plenty in 2005, his good runs in his European campaign that year including minor placings behind Rakti in the Lockinge Stakes and Azamour in the Prince Of Wales's Stakes.
He is shown here in the overseas stable in Geoff Wragg's yard, in the company of our friend Colin Casey, Tony Vasil's foreman "Battling" Brian, and his jockey Nash Rawiller, older brother of Brad. So I am pleased that Carrara, trained like his dad by Tony Vasil and winner in the winter of the Doomben Slipper under Nash, is going from strength to strength, and I was also pleased that Miss With Attitude, who races in the same colours as Rebel Raider, ran well for Clare against the colts on her first start in Melbourne to be third in this race. I've never laid eyes on this filly so I'm not really in a position to comment, but surely, as a daughter of Galileo who has Mill Reef as the sire of her second dam and St Paddy as the sire of her third dam, she has to have Oaks potential. With last year's VRC Derby winner Rebel Raider side-lined, it would be lovely consolation for connections if that proves to be the case.

I'm currently enjoying reading about Classics of an older vintage, because I'm midway through John Saville's outstanding book "Insane and Unseemly". If you're struggling to guess which of the many possible topics this is about, I'll put you out of your misery: the subject is racing in Britain during the last war. As regular readers will have worked out, and not solely from the last chapter, I have massive admiration for the body of people, men and women, who got this country through the war; and this book can only increase that admiration. For instance, one chapter details how racing was going as things got serious as France fell in 1940. The Dunkirk evacuation - as anyone who has seen the wonderful film of the great novel 'Atonement' will understand - must have been truly terrible, for the lucky survivors as well as for the many casualties; and, after listing some of the racing people who perished (including the great amateur rider Kim Muir, who is honoured at the Cheltenham Festival), John Saville mentions that the Duke of Norfolk got out with his battallion of the Royal Sussex Regiment and "arrived home on the evening of 2nd June. Next day he was at Lewes to see his wife's Midas Touch run in the Berwick Plate, which was doubtless his way of coping with the appalling experience he had been through. Today he would probably be offered counselling.". Isn't that great?

But what I'd particularly like to highlight in this book is one aspect on which I have touched previously, including recently. Courses holding too many fixtures (from the point of view of their turf) is one of the bees in my bonnet, and I will just quote a couple of passages which illustrate my point that things aren't what they used to be in that respect. "The most obvious paradox is that despite there being far less racing, meetings were held at many more places and the sport was more deeply embedded in national consciousness. Compared with the 2008 allocation of 1,504 days' racing between 60 courses, the fixture lists for the last complete flat and jumping seasons before the war look very strange. A paltry 588 days were spread between ninety-two courses, twenty-three of which had only one meeting. In sixteen cases it was only a single day. All racing was on turf and it had long been axiomatic that, apart from the exceptionally wide Rowley Mile at Newmarket, no course could stand more than about eight days a season ... The solitary annual meetings at Ascot and Goodwood were important in the London social calendar, while the likes of Bungay, Rothbury and Much Wenlock were eagerly anticipated days out. People would know that race week was coming, whether or not they personally were interested in it or approved of it." I think that there is something for racing administrators both here and elsewhere (Victoria springs immediately to mind) to learn, not only as regards keeping the ground in good condition but also as regards making racing popular with the general public.

I'm midway through the book, so I don't know exactly how things were eventually organized, but it looks as if my previous understanding that they raced at Newmarket (for horses trained around here), at Stockton in the north (for northern trained horses) and at Salisbury in the south (for southern trained horses), with only the main races at Newmarket being open to horses from all areas (hence if one looks at the racing record of a horse such as Dante, champion three-year-old in 1945 and trained in Middleham in Yorkshire, one sees that he won a few top races, including the Derby, at Newmarket and otherwise raced only at Stockton). This appears to be confirmed by something I read a couple of pages ago, which again shows the differing views on turf management from the 1940s to the current decade: "twelve Saturdays had to be allocated to the inaccessible and narrow course at Salisbury, despite being more than the stewards thought it could stand.".

There's so much of interest in this excellent book that I'm sure that I will quote from it again. In the interim, let's hope for some more glorious weather over the weekend - even if that means that it might at times be hard to get Natagora outside, because what self-respecting kitten would abandon Kermit's position halfway up the stairs when the morning sun streams through the window at just the right angle? And let's hope for a good run from Somewhere Safer at the Gold Coast at 6.43 our time tomorrow morning.
Thursday, September 24, 2009

Proper people

I know that I'm often critical of minor details in the Racing Post, but I think that it's time to redress the balance by saying overall what a great paper it is. I'm not just saying that now simply because it's easy to say that all's well with the world when the sun is in the sky, as it continues visibly to be. We're still having this wonderful summer weather which we've had pretty much all September, although today was definitely an autumn morning rather than the (late) summer morns which we've been enjoying: the temperature had dipped enough during the night to bring a heavy dew and some patchy ground-level mist, which if anything made things even more glorious, as this photograph of Warren Hill c.7.15 shows. And the day now remains as warm, sunny and blue-skied as its predecessors. No, the Racing Post deserves praise just now simply for how much good reading matter there is in it. Sunday was as dull a day's racing as you'd ever see (unless, of course, one had an interest, which we didn't) but even so the paper was well worth buying for the articles alone. Admittedly some of the best bits - Dermot Cantillon's predictably sensible letter on the subject of marketing the sport, the James Eustace Q&A feature, and the latest tributes to the two dead apprentices, tributes which were every bit as moving as the first ones which had appeared two weeks previously - weren't written by Post employees, but there was plenty of good stuff which was, most notably Tom O'Ryan's feature on Denys Smith, one of racing's living legends.

Yesterday's paper also had some great stuff, including tributes to the recently-deceased John Manners as well as an outstanding double-page spread in honour of Manny Mercer on the 50th anniversary of his fatal fall at Ascot on Queen Elizabeth II Stakes Day, 1959. I obviously never had the privilege of meeting Manny Mercer, but I did meet John Manners once, and I treasure the memory. I was at Ascot Sale a couple of years ago, standing in the queue in the cafeteria to buy some lunch. As I was about to be served, a voice boomed out over my shoulder something along the lines of, "Give this man some more chips - go on, that's good - yes, that's fine - and a few more - he wants a good lunch ...". As I collected my consequently well-filled plate, I turned round to see who the director had been, and was greeted by a wild but smiling face which said, "I know who you are, but you don't know who I am, do you?". To which I replied, "Yes I do; you're Mr Manners", which answer appeared to delight him. We then spent the next half-hour eating our lunches together, during which time I was entertained royally by one of the most amusing men I've ever met. The front page of yesterday's Racing Post bore the quotation, "They threw away the mould when they made John - we will never see the like of him again". That's true, and more's the pity. I only met him the one time and I'd have loved to have spent more time in his company, but I am deeply grateful for the fact that I did at least have one opportunity to enjoy a virtuoso John Manners brahmafest.

John Manners and Manny Mercer both came from the old school, and I was lucky enough on Tuesday to spend a very special evening in the company of many of the old school's finest. The occasion was the 90th birthday of John Moore, whom some older readers might remember as having had a betting shop in Sun Lane, I believe both before and after betting shops were legalized. John had gathered 80 diners together on ten tables of eight, and I was very fortunate to be one of this number, alongside a wonderful collection of Newmarket characters who between them carry pretty much the whole of the town's 20th century history. If it was great that John - who is, I believe, a nephew of the late Reg Day, who was the doyen of Newmarket's trainers when he sent out Sweet Solera to win the 1961 1,000 Guineas and Oaks under John's late, great friend Bill Rickaby, whose biography contains a photograph of him and John skiing together in Switzerland around that time - should be hosting a 90th birthday party, what made this even better was that he was sitting on the top table beside his older sister, who is the widow of the former top jockey Eph Smith. I didn't know many of the people there, but John had very kindly put me on a table on which I felt completely at home, as I found that I knew some of its occupants already and that I was able to get to know the others quickly, happily and easily.

Sadly, John Moore's excellent party was not without a downside, because one of the guests died. While I am sure that, had this man been able to chose the circumstances of his death, dropping dead while eating a good dinner in the Bedford Lodge in the company of a lot of his friends would have been just about top of the list, even so this understandably cast a cloud over procedings - but in doing so it emphasized just what high-calibre people are those whom one might describe as 'old school'. Amid a younger gathering, this event might have caused severe disruption, which of course would have achieved nothing, least of all the resurrection of the victim. When one sees how so many people nowadays are completely incapable of handling disaster as easily as they handle triumph (and very often they can't even handle that well), it was inspirational to see this reverse met with realism and dignity. The generation which survived the war necessarily proved itself to be a stoic one, and it was very impressive to hear the delivery later in the evening of a speech which had been prepared by one of John's distant relatives. He had written the speech beforehand unaware that its delivery would be preceded by the death of one of John's life-long friends, so he added an introduction which ran roughly thus, "I have written a speech for this evening, but under the circumstances I wasn't sure what to do with it. I have, though, taken advice, and the advice is that we do what we did in the war: we just carry on". And that was a wonderful illustration of the strength of character which enabled our forebears to win the war on our behalf and to secure the freedom which, if we allow ourselves to do so, we can all too easily take for granted. I am sure that the victim would be very pleased and proud that his friends showed themselves able to handle a difficult situation well, even while coping with the shock of the unexpected loss of a friend.

To continue the theme of a week populated by good people, we have had the pleasure of a 2-day visit from our friend Stewart Leadley-Brown, a former resident of Newmarket who emigrated to the States 30 years ago. Stewart formerly co-owned Lady Suffragette and now co-owns the ugly duckling who goes by the name of Ben Bhraggie. Unfortunately Ben is continuing to make us wait a while so there wasn't much (any!) action for him to see from that quarter - although there was plenty of time to spend some 'quality time' with this slowest of slow developers, as this photograph shows - but I hope that Stewart still enjoyed his visit. I certainly did.

We had an interesting trip to James Fanshawe's stable to catch up with Stewart's former colleague Mick Bohannon (they worked together for William Hastings-Bass in Marriott Stables in Hamilton Road prior to Stewart's emigration) with whom Stewart was to dine the evening I was going to the Bedford Lodge, and a bonus of this was that we found Mick in the stable adjacent to the box of the 2009 Royal Ascot winner Spacious, who thus can be seen over Stewart's shoulder.
A further bonus was discovering - which I ought to have known, but didn't - that James' head lad Andy Hopkins was also one of their colleagues in Marriott at the time, as was Paul Rutter, one of Michael Jarvis' head lads into whom Stewart bumped as we crossed the Bury Road (which is seen here in its autumnal glory from the back of Agent Almeida) with the horses the next morning.
Stewart's visit was so well timed as the Heath really looks so lovely at this time of year if the weather is as good as it is at present. We even caught sight of a jockey who rode Lady Suffragette in one of her races, J D Smith, seen here walking down the side of Long Hill on the foremore of a pair of Michael Stoute's horses who passed us while we were up at the stalls there.

Mention of Michael Stoute reminds me to mention that the horse whose appearance has impressed me most on the Heath recently is Conduit. I saw him on Monday and he looked tremendous. I remember this week last year seeing on the Heath a horse who was about to run in a big race (Raven's Pass in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, which he won) and thinking that he looked the best I'd seen him all year. I regretted subsequently not having had a bet on him so, while the wonderful Sea The Stars is the best horse in the Arc and I am loth to place my loyalties anywhere else, I have consequently had an each-way bet on Conduit, who in my opinion looks sure to run well.
The other Arc contender whom we see regularly is the Michael Bell-trained dual Oaks winner Sariska (at least I presume that she's an intended runner in the Arc, as long as it isn't too firm). As this photograph of her and her regular rider Dave Murray, taken this morning, shows, she still looks very well, but to my eyes she is now going about like what she is (a filly who has already had a very tough, but rewarding, campaign), while Conduit also looks like what he is (a horse who has been kept fresh for the autumn). I'd love to see either win, but Conduit will do for my money.
Saturday, September 19, 2009

More days of our indian summer

We're being spoiled: every time it seems as if autumn is arriving, summer returns. We've had another couple of lovely summer's days, with nights to match. Yesterday was just perfect. I caught the last race from Newmarket on Racing UK and heard Derek Thompson saying that it was 27 degrees, so that's clearly what it was, and the day was followed by a summer night, the only difference being that the night began two hours earlier than it would do in summer, and similarly ended two hours later.
I was saying to Aisling this morning that, at seven, it was just like 5.30 in summer: idyllic. Other than the days' lengths, the only give-aways are the facts that some of the trees have started to change colour and that our rogue elder trees in the yard, as the top picture shows, now have more elderberries than leaves. It's good for both man and beast, and Agent Almeida is shown enjoying some sun-bathing in his pen, with Anis picking grass alongside his domain adding an some extra interest for him.

An extra pleasure for me today was that I enjoyed the luxury of only riding one horse (Frankieandcharlie) and spent the rest of the morning on the ground. I do enjoy riding, but one can definitely have too much of a good thing, and it's nice to pretend occasionally to be a proper trainer. We had three members of the All Points West Partnership (Jason Hathorn, Ken Gibbs and Tim Trounce) staying last night, so it was very good to accompany them (plus Jason's sister Mel and niece Dakota, who are shown with the others, and Ex Con and Hugh, after the work was over) to the Al Bahathri mid-morning to watch Ex Con have his first (easy) gallop of the autumn, accompanied by Cape Roberto (nearer camera).
That went very pleasingly, and we had a bonus afterwards because Luca hove into view just a bit farther down the gallop, which made it plain that he was about to have some horses come up. So we waited in the stand and enjoyed watching them, an interesting mix of young horses at various stages of readiness, come past in bunches of three or four (one of which is shown below). I've no idea of the names of any of the horses whom we saw, but it's a fair bet that several of them will enjoy very rewarding three-year-old campaigns in 2010 - and that one or two will eventually make their debuts for other stables in bumpers, just as happened to the formerly Jeremy Noseda-trained Ex Con!
So that was all very pleasant, as was our dinner last night: our guests were kind enough to treat us to dinner in the Plough in Ashley, where good food and a friendly welcome are guaranteed. I fondly remember eating there a few years ago with Jason's late uncle Joe McCarthy, and I know that he'll have enjoyed looking down on our dinner: he certainly enjoyed his visit there, and subsequently used to tell the tale of being presented with a choice of TWELVE different types of vegetables!

A questionably less worthwhile activity which I have undertaken over the past couple of days has been to sign myself up to Facebook. For so long I'd sworn I'd never have a bar of this nonsense, but Hugh and David were recently again extolling its virtues, so the phrase 'Don't die wondering' came to my mind. So now I'm signed up and, while I still question the point of it, I suppose there's no (or not much) harm in it. In fact, a couple of items have already given me a bit of pleasure, because I have already received 'friend' requests from a couple of former apprentices who had disappeared from my radar. Antonio Polli started off with Luca but actually rode most of his British winners while with Jeff Pearce, while Heather McGee was with Luca throughout her apprenticeship. Both rode for us - in fact I think they probably rode related horses, because I remember Antonio having a couple of rides on Henry and Rosemary Moszkowicz's grey filly En Grisaille about ten years ago, and I'm pretty sure that Heather had a ride more recently (obviously) on her similarly grey daughter La Gessa - so it was good to hear that they are still both alive and happy to maintain a friendly acquaintanceship. Antonio went back to ride in Italy once he'd finished his apprenticeship (I did actually see him back here a couple of years ago) while I don't know what Heather is up to; no doubt I might soon find out.

However, I doubt I'll be wasting too much time on Facebook. I can't help thinking that, if Facebook had been in existence a century ago, James Joyce might have found it hard to get 'Ulysses' published: one can imagine the proposed publisher saying, "Why should we go to the trouble and expense of printing and binding all this inconsequential and humdrum drivel when so much of its like is freely available on the internet?". In fact, the book might never have been written. Joyce is famously reputed to have said, when asked what he had done during the Great War, "I wrote Ulysses"; had he been a citizen of the current era, his reply might instead have been, "Uh, dunno really - but I did spend quite a lot of time on Facebook".

I should perhaps end this on a slightly more positive and relevant note, so I'll just mention how much I enjoyed last night's ATR coverage of Caulfield and Rosehill, most of which I watched on video, having only watched a couple of races live. (I didn't fancy too early a start after a good evening in the Plough). It was tremendous to see The Embassy, part-owned by Lawrence Wadey, win again, his fifth victory of the year and his fourth from his past five starts, and win in a manner which suggests that he'll have a chance in the Metropolitan in two weeks' time. Lawrence picked this horse out from the films of the pre-sale NZ breeze-ups a couple of years ago, and The Embassy's success is thus a real feather in Lawrence's cap, as well as a source of vicarious excitement and pleasure to me. In fact, with a bit of imagination one could even call his win today a good trial for next year's Melbourne Cup, something which one could also say about another victory on the card, that of Bart Cummings' High Chaparral three-year-old So You Think. Another winner to give us pleasure was the smashing filly More Joyous, who won when we were in Australia in January: we watched her debut in Sydney on the television when we were at Caulfield. I mentioned recently how much I'm enjoying the fact that Lonhro is siring good winners every week, so I enjoyed watching Demerit hold off Trusting to win the Caulfield Guineas Prelude. While complimenting Lonhro again, I should also tip my hat to another young sire, Fastnet Rock, who has sired three Stakes winners this week: one at Newcastle midweek and two today (Stryker in Sydney and the impressive Irish Lights in Melbourne).
I've been lucky enough to see Fastnet Rock three times and fondly regard him as one of the most impressive-looking sprinters I have ever seen, alongside the likes of Statoblest, Piccolo, Gold Brose, Hareeba and Choisir. I saw him in Geoff Wragg's yard on his abortive trip the UK (when he ended up not running) and twice at Coolmore Australia: in 2006 and again this year, when admittedly I couldn't actually see that much of him as he was well protected from the summer elements, as this photograph shows. Anyway, he's a lovely horse and I'm really pleased that he's had a good day.

And on one final note, I was very pleased to see Fastnet Rock's admirable paternal half-brother Pevensey win at Catterick today. I only caught one race from Catterick so I'm glad that it was this one, not merely because I like Pevensey (whose win today was his first Flat victory since winning a handicap at Royal Ascot 27 months ago) but also because it enabled me to see what the victory meant to his rider Ian Brennan, whose punch of the air after the post spoke a thousand words. Ian, of course, escaped more or less unharmed from the fire 14 days ago which claimed the lives of Jamie Kyne and Jan Wilson, but, while his body came out of the inferno intact, his spirit must have been severely battered, with Jamie being his colleague and friend and Jan being his girl-friend. To win today on this lovely horse, who must surely be a real favourite in his and Jamie's stable of John Quinn, must have meant a hell of a lot to him, and I'm very glad that I happened to catch the race.
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pick of the week

I feel rather bad that, when I gave Ted Durcan (and Sulamani) a laurel for the St. Leger victory of Mastery, I failed to hail a few other heroes from Saturday. There were two Stakes races at Goodwood - a Group Three 10-furlong race and a Listed sprint - and the trainers and jockeys of both winners deserve a real pat on the back. Stef Liddiard's handling of Mac Love, who landed his third Group Three win of the season, is as deserving of an award as John Oxx's handling of Sea The Stars has been (and that's not to belittle Oxx's achievements, rather to point out that Stef does truly deserve 10 out of 10 for what she has done with this old horse) while Micky Fenton deserves a pat on the back for his role in the horse's renaissance. And the sprint was won by a superb performance, in track record time, by Tamagin, who thus highlighted the skills of Jeff Pearce and Stephen Donohoe. And if neither John Oxx nor Stef Liddiard wins Trainer of the Year, that award would have to go to John Ryan, who had yet another winner at Goodwood on Sunday, and then has had another one since then. He has now had considerably more wins this year than he has had horses in the stable, and his handful of horses, of course, includes three who have won Stakes races (two at Group level, one at Listed) this year. And that is just superb.

I'm afraid that I can't nominate myself for Trainer of the Year however hard I try, but we're still here and we're still trying. And what is exciting is that a handful of two-year-olds are starting to look as if they are nearly ready to run, if not necessarily win. Ted Durcan was kind enough to lend a hand this morning, as this photograph of him on Batgirl on Warren Hill - with Rhythm Stick, who was incidentally bred at the same stud (Pantycoed), and Aisling more or less obscured - shows. Batgirl is under a bit of pressure now because two of the fillies who were formerly her rivals for our affections have already won. When we bought her at Newmarket last autumn, she obviously wasn't the only yearling on the short-list which Tony Fordham and I had compiled. She turned out to be the one who came here and I am very pleased with her, but I am obviously keeping an interested eye on the other members of the short-list, and the two who stick most closely in my mind as the two others most admired have both already won. An bright bay Orpen filly was bought by Paul Cole and she won second up at Newbury in the summer. She hasn't run since then (unless I haven't noticed her doing so - and the fact that I don't appear able to remember her name suggests that that is possible), so the one I have been able to enjoy watching more recently has been the Michael Bell-trained grey Doyen filly Wild Rose, who ran three weeks ago at Chepstow on her debut like a horse who would win second up, which she duly did yesterday at 13/2, which was very pleasing. Over to you, Batgirl!

One other thing which I have very much enjoyed doing this week was finishing reading the novel 'Punter's Turf', by Peter Klein. Richard Sims very kindly sent me a signed copy of this book, which is described as being written by 'Australia's Dick Francis'. That's a big call; but, while Peter can't yet match Dick Francis' productivity, he has already proved that he can concoct and tell a great racing tale. He was a strapper with Tommy Smith in the Kingston Town days and is now in a senior position in the racing section of the AAP press agency, but is now most conspicuous as the author of three books: 'A Strapper's Tale' which is some recollections of his time working in stables, plus two novels, the second of which I have just read. It is a very good story well told, with tremendous racing scenes in it. For British readers it might be hard to pick up a copy, but I'd be amazed if anyone who enjoys racing would fail to enjoy this book.

It was an interesting coincidence that I read some of this book on the journey to the wedding of Emma Candy (now Erskin Crum), because Emma was formerly assistant trainer to Gai Waterhouse, whose endorsement appears on the cover of the book: "Peter is a skilfull writer and knows his subject well - I know because he and I worked together for my Dad, Tommy Smith, in the late seventies and early eighties, where he was T.J.'s "travelling head lad". Punter's Turf is an authentic account of the racing world. Well done!". I rather enjoyed reading this comment, because Gai is surely the only trainer in Australia who would use the title 'travelling head lad'.
Mind you, I perhaps ought to amend that to one of only two trainers in Australia who would do so, because I suspect that Sean Acton, private trainer to the anglophilic owner/breeder Richard Sims (pictured eating a kilo of Greek sausage in Mornington in a very unenglish way), might have it written into his contract that he has to employ a travelling head lad, and refer to him thus. Mind you, it is about six years since Sean last had a runner, so he possibly doesn't have much call for travelling head lads nowadays.
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Golden days

We might have lost the proper summer conditions of the start of the week because of the nights getting chillier, but we've still been blessed with a further couple of lovely days. Friday and Saturday both dawned cool and beautifully foggy (Friday) / misty (Saturday) before the sun burnt the dew from the ground and the mist from the sky to leave wonderful cloudless blue skies and temperatures in the 20s. Glorious conditions, and we were lucky enough to enjoy them in two lovely spots: Bangor (pictured) and the Berkshire/Oxfordshire Downs. The trip to lovely Bangor was great in every way bar the most important one (the result of our race) while the trip to Berkshire was just perfect.

We took Anis Etoile to Bangor on Friday and I thought she had a good chance. She started favourite, but ran fifth - which wasn't actually a bad run, but it felt like one because I'd been very hopeful of better. However, she has come home in good form - as she has been proving while I write this by cavorting round the field outside the window with Ethics Girl and Stardust Memories, who both seem similarly unharmed by their recent racecourse exertions as this photograph of them playing shows, which is very good - and that is the main thing. The race actually was rather unsatisfactory all round. I'm rather cross with myself because, despite the lovely weather, I was too lazy to walk the track, so I can only rely on the jockeys' verdicts when commenting on its state. However, what happened was that I watched our race with consternation to see our jockey William Kennedy riding Anis as if his instructions had been to minimize the chances of her winning: ie he was the widest runner throughout.
I generally work on the assumption that on fast ground you want your horse on the rail throughout and, while on the Flat the draw sometimes renders this aim unfeasible, in jumps races where there is no draw this should not be an unrealistic aspiration if one is using a good jockey, which we were. So I was very non-plussed to see William going so wide, and thus ensuring that the mare wouldn't do as well as she might; it is not just the extra ground which the horse covers which causes the trouble, but also the fact that every time the horse comes to a bend, he/she has to make a bit of a run just to hold his/her position. And in the majority of cases there are only so many runs a horse can make in a race - usually one - without reducing his/her chances. Inevitably, therefore, she struggled in the latter stages of the race. (Although in fairness I'd probably be kidding myself if I claimed that it made the difference between victory and defeat).

However, having digested events, I'm very pleased that William rode her as he did. After the race he volunteered the information that he had deliberately taken her wide because the ground on the inside was unacceptably rough and, particularly bearing in mind that he was riding a particularly immature and gangly (ie fragile) animal, he felt that going on the bad ground would present an unacceptable danger. The validity of this view was supported by the fact that Tony McCoy, a jockey who would always be on the rail unless there was a good reason not to be, made the running on the second favourite four horses wide of the rails. We were then wider still. Both horses duly finished out of the first three (McCoy's horse was fourth) with the winner, completing an up-and-down day for Graham Lee who won the first and last races but had two falls in between, having a dream run on the inside throughout. Conspiracy theorists might believe that the race was fixed, but it wasn't: William and A P McCoy are two jockeys whose honesty is beyond suspicion, and it was just that differing jockeys reacted differently to the dilemma of whether to give their mounts the best chance of winning or the best chance of not being injured. And having spent the bulk of the afternoon by the racecourse stables and having seen the horse ambulance in action after seemingly every race and then finally having seen a horse put down in the stables after the last, I am ever so glad that William joined Tony McCoy in opting not to expose his mount to unnecessary danger.

This, of course, brings us to an interesting point, and a point which I have made on numerous previous occasions: the point that track preparation is all-important, and that it is all too often inadequate. I hate to single Bangor out because it is a lovely track in a lovely part of the country which is run by decent people, so I won't single it out; instead I will point out that Bangor is far from alone in providing the situation which pertained there on Friday. Basically, any track which is in such a state that the jockeys feel obliged to avoid the rail on fast ground is failing in its duty to provide a satisfactory racing surface. York (as anyone who watched the farce of the Ebor meeting will know - or indeed anyone who has watched any racing there since the retirement of the previous excellent clerk of the course John Smith will know) is probably the worst offender in the country, followed closely by Brighton. In the same way that it is wrong to have a rule (as detailed in the previous chapter) which allows trainers to jock a rider off on race-day and thus puts the trainer in the invidious position of chosing between what he wants to do and what he knows he ought to do, so is it wrong to put a jockey in the position of having to make the choice between going the shortest way round and going the safest way round: it's just not on that the route which maximises your chances of winning the race is also the one which maximised your mount's chances of breaking down. It's wrong for jockeys and for the horse's connections, and it's also clearly wrong for punters, because betting on such tracks just becomes a mine-field of uncertainty.

I recall a few years ago when the opening of Great Leighs was on the (more-distant-than-we-realised-at-the-time) horizon that Alastair Down wrote a piece in the Racing Post saying that the last things we needed were more all-weather racing and more tracks. At the time I put forward the opposite view in the letters' column, and subsequently debated the subject with Alastair at the races, that we do need either more all-weather racing or more tracks if we are to sustain the currently large fixture list, because all too many of our existing quota of grass tracks are currently hosting more meetings than the turf can satisfactorily sustain. If you don't believe this, then try walking some of them: you'll be horrified. As I say, York is the worst offender, and the last time I walked its track I was aghast and very worried (bearing in mind that I was due to run a horse there later in the afternoon). (In fairness, I haven't walked the track at York since it was relaid, or whatever has been done to it, but watching racing there and discussing it with jockeys who ride there has led me to believe that it has not been significantly improved). This is an important issue, because providing a safe surface for the horses ought to be the main priority of any racecourse manager - and even if, like seemingly the majority of journalists, one isn't particularly interested in the horses and instead regards the punter, rather than the horse, as the most important participant in the sport, one still should regard track maintenance as crucial, because of the reasons which I have outlined in the previous paragraph.

So that was Friday - and don't mind my rant, because I enjoyed pretty much everything about the day other than the watching of our race. And the mare came back safe and sound and lives to fight another day, probably in the near future, and that's the main thing.

Going to Bangor one goes through some lovely countryside, which we saw at its best, but we were treated to even greater delights yesterday. Emma and I were fortunate enough to be invited to the wedding of our friends Emma Candy and Rupert Erskin Crum, which took place at 2.30 yesterday afternoon in St. Mary's Church (a lovely church) in Childrey (a lovely village a couple of miles west of Wantage) with the reception taking place afterwards at Emma's father's stable, Kingston Warren, high up on the adjacent downs. The icing on the cake was that Emma's colleague Janet Anderson very kindly was happy to drive and to give us a lift, which luxury enabled me to sleep on both journeys - a real treat! I used to live in that area for two years in the mid-'80s, in East Hendred when I worked for Andy Turnell, and it's always a pleasure to go back. However, this time it was a particular pleasure: so glorious was the weather that, even being very familiar with the area, I was taken aback by what a lovely part of the country it is.
I had never previously been to Kingston Warren, one of the country's loveliest stables where Emma's parents were wonderful hosts (with wine-waiters so attentive that the only one person seemed to find the need to help himself: Tom Fanshawe, son of Emma's employer James) so that was a further treat, and all in all it was just a lovely day. Emma and Rupert are both so nice and I was so happy to be able to share their big day.

As always, when Rupert's about there is never a brahma far away, and he duly provided one in his speech. The trouble with most weddings nowadays is that they seem never to end, but this one was done the right way, with the happy couple departing at 7.00pm. Their departure was preceded by the speeches (which were similarly done the right way by being not too long and not too supposedly-funny), and the speeches were themselves preceded by a real treat: a fly-over by a Spitfire. When this appeared I thought that Rupert must have pulled a few strings to arrange it, but it transpired that it was just as much a surprise to him as it was to the rest of us,
and that Emma's father had arranged it, the plane being owned by a neighbouring friend of his who used to keep it on his farm and fly it himself but who now, in his 80s, has finally relinquished his pilot's license, so the plane now lives at Duxford and is flown by someone else. I was blown away by this display, and so clearly was Rupert: in his speech, in detailing what a lovely day he was having, he told us that the day had proved to contain five "Wows", which he proceeded to outline, starting with the Spitfire as "Wow" number one and moving on to Emma as "Wow" number two. A true brahma, and so very Rupert!

The funny thing was that the next brahma had Rupert as its victim rather than its perpetrator. Rupert is proprietor of Weyhill Horse Transport, which is one of the two principal horse transport firms in the south, the other (ie Rupert's rival) being Lambourn Racehorse Transport. As we were being shepherded out of the marquee to salute the departure of the newly-weds, a horse truck hove into view bringing the stable's two runners home from that afternoon's Portland Handicap at Doncaster - and, of course, the truck had 'LRT' splashed across the front! All in all, a really lovely day, and all the more enjoyable for my finding that I knew plenty of people there, which is a rarity because at the majority of weddings which I have attended it has seemingly been the case that I've found that I hardly know a soul.

Apart from the wedding, yesterday, of course, also featured some wonderful racing. Emma and I were both delighted by Mastery's win in the St Leger, which was doubly popular with us because of the identity of both rider (Ted Durcan) and sire (Sulamani) of the winner. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that Sulamani is one of my all-time favourite and most-admired horses, and yesterday was also a red-letter day for another young stallion whom I greatly admire, because Doyen sired his first winner, his two-year-old son Kumbeshwar winning at Chepstow. And, over and above the St Leger quinella, it was good to see Godolphin getting some great results, not least with its Dubawi-sired Group race two-year-old double and with the easy victory of the extremely exciting Medaglia D'Oro colt Al Zir.

Today's racing has started equally pleasingly, with the James Eustace-trained War Artist winning another big sprint (the Group Three Prix du Petit Couvert at Longchamp) and lovely Dar Re Mi, by another of my all-time favourite horses Singspiel, winning the Prix Vermeille, which has provided a splendid post-scipt to yesterday's festivities: she is owned and was bred by Sir Andrew and Lady Lloyd-Webber's Watership Down Stud, which is managed by Rupert's best man Simon Marsh (pictured).

Post Script - Dar Re Mi has been disqualified for a manouevre (which only caused slight interference and did not affect the result) which Jimmy Fortune asked her to make in reaction to Stacelita's pace-maker changing course in front of her to allow Stacelita up her inside, and which would have impeded Dar Re Mi had Fortune just sat there and done nothing. This was a very low act indeed by the French stewards - lower even than merely doing nothing about Stacelita's pace-maker being ridden for Stacelita's benefit, rather than her own, which is clearly contrary to the spirit of racing - and my commiserations to Dar Re Mi's connections, who have been deprived of a victory which should have been theirs.
Thursday, September 10, 2009

Indian summer

With my having complained about the arrival of autumn, it was a real pleasure on Monday and Tuesday to enjoy two perfect summer's days - and it was doubly pleasurable to enjoy them at the races. We've still got nice weather now, but these two days were perfect - unbroken sunshine in clear blue skies, temperatures in the mid-20s - with very warm summer nights afterwards. The funny thing was that on Monday it appears that only Kent, where I happened to be (at Folkestone with Ethics Girl), was the only part of the country to enjoy such a cloudless day, but I think the conditions which we enjoyed at Lingfield on Tuesday were common to the bulk of south-eastern England. Ethics Girl ran another good and honest race to be fourth on Monday, while Tuesday's run, although much less good
(Stardust Memories, pictured, was a tailed-off last), was still pleasing, because it was nice finally to see this lovely kind filly make her debut and, while the run in itself was appalling, I think that it's not unreasonable to believe that she will improve henceforth. After all, Ex Con ran equally badly on his debut before doing much better subsequently. Ted Durcan appeared to consider it the debut of a horse who might do well in the fullness of time, and I'm certainly not going to argue with that.

Folkestone on Monday was notable for being the meeting at which Kieren Fallon really hit his stride. He'd had one win to show for four meetings over the two days of Friday and Saturday, and then he'd ridden in Germany without success on the Sunday. But on Monday the floodgates opened: he had three rides for Luca and won on them all, and one ride (pictured)for George Margarson which finished second, beaten a head (by William Carson, whose victory was a deserved reward for his diligent pre-race track-walking). It was thus no wonder that when we got back to town in the evening the blackboard outside the White Lion at the top of town, which had been counting down the days until his come-back and which had announced his return with the words 'Thunderbirds Are Go', now read 'Normal Service Resumed'.
The third leg of Kieren's and Luca's treble came on Ordoney in our race, and I think that I'd worked out by that time that we were unlikely to win, as Kieren at the start of the afternoon had said that that horse was the best of their three chances and would win if he was as good as he looked at home. So Ordoney duly became the third horse to be given a drink in the winner's enclosure by travelling head lad Barry Baxby, and he provided the third opportunity of the afternoon for Sara Cumani to be interviewed by Graham Dench, as shown in this photograph.

The only slight downside to Monday came courtesy of a rule which I don't think should exist. This rule, which makes a mockery of the whole concept of advance declaration of jockeys, says that if a jockey's mount is a non-runner, he can be put onto a different horse, thus replacing the jockey who is meant to ride that horse. As Ethics Girl had previously been ridden to victory by both Alan Munro and Richard Mullen, it was only natural that Alan was the first choice on Monday (bearing in mind that Richard was riding at Newcastle). Unfortunately Alan was engaged to ride a horse trained by Peter Chapple-Hyam for Mark McStay. I had made no arrangements until declaration time on Saturday morning in case McStay's horse should end up not being declared, but declared he was; so I booked Hayley Turner (pictured on the filly), a very satisfactory substitute.
Anyway, come Monday morning, Laura Way, Alan's agent, rung me to say that Alan's horse had been scratched, so he was available if I would like to use him. The answer was that I would, as she knew, love to use him as he was my first choice for the mount - but that, as she knew, Hayley was booked, and it was against my principals to dishonour the verbal contract which I had made with Hayley by taking her off the filly. One might say that this was being more theoretical than pragmatic, but in fact the decision proved not to be to our disadvantage because Hayley, unsurprisingly, gave the filly a faultless ride.

Anyway, my point is that I should not have been put in this position. Temptation was put in my way to do something which is clearly contrary to all acceptable ethical standards. It's just not on to book a jockey and then tell him or her at the last moment that the verbal contract was figuratively being torn up because a better jockey had become available. I know that many/most participants in the sport believe this to be acceptable, but that doesn't make it right: they are wrong, because it is clearly wrong. And it shouldn't be allowed. Of course there are going to be times when the jockey in the morning papers doesn't ride the horse, but these should only be times which are unavoidable (injury, illness, traffic delays, failing to do the weight etc.) and not simply because a (ostensibly) better jockey has become available. So it's wrong from the punters' and racegoers' points of view that the rules allow this switch; wrong from the jockeys' point of view (because it doesn't increase the amount of rides given to jockeys as a whole, with every ride picked up by one rider being one simultaneously lost by someone else; and because in general it benefits those jockeys who least need and deserve help - ie the popular and unprincipled ones - and disadvantages those who most need protection); and wrong from the point of view of owners and trainers, because it puts one in an unpleasant situation of having to decide between what one knows is the correct course of action and what one would actually like to do but could only do with a bad conscience. And the trainers and owners who do take advantage of this rule - ie the ones with no scruples - are the very ones who should not have rules written for their benefit, because the rules should be written to try to contain the bad behaviour of such people, rather than to give it free rein. I can see that there is an argument that when a jockey is subject to a retainer he might be able to be re-directed, but even then I'm not certain that this practice should be allowed, and I'd say that a riding fee (and percentage if applicable) should then be paid to the removed jockey, in addition to the monies paid to the retained jockey who replaces him.

So that's my high-horsing for the day. It's a bad rule and, in an activity which is meant to be a sport and which is meant to be conducted in a sporting and decent manner, it is a disgrace to the sport that such a rule exists. The happy footnote to this story, other than the fact that staying loyal to Hayley did not prove to be costly (I'm careful there not to say that it didn't prove to be a bad decision, because it would have been the right decision irrespective of how well or otherwise Hayley had ridden), was that Alan was very pleased that I didn't ask him to step into the breach, because he told me that he feels that the rule shouldn't exist, that he has taken it badly in the past when he has been a victim of the rule by being replaced, and that he wasn't even particularly happy about Laura making me aware of the potential to call him up because he would have felt very uncomfortable indeed about telling Hayley that he had jocked her off. I was very pleased to hear that Alan's view was the same as my own, and I certainly wasn't surprised by it because he's a decent and thoughtful person well capable of distinguishing between right and wrong (unlike most people, so we're told, if the news story about most potential jurors nowadays failing the standard test to check whether they can cope with this supposedly basic concept). And it certainly made things easier that we were on the same wavelength.

So now it's onwards and upwards to Bangor tomorrow (with To Be Or Not To Be due to run in my absence at Kempton in an hour's time) where Anis is finally set to make her second racecourse appearance, four months or more after her winning debut. I'm looking forward to it.
Sunday, September 06, 2009

Through the tears

I doubt that there will be many members of the racing community who have not shed a few tears this weekend following the news of the deaths of Jamie Kyne and Jan Wilson. I know that riding and handling horses is a precarious calling and that we all can name friends and acquaintances who have been killed or maimed, and that we all know that there but for the grace of God go I. However, even with an awareness of man's mortality being ever in the background, few deaths from our circle have been more stunning than these, because of their sheer shockingness, their terrifying circumstances, their appalling shouldn't-have-happenedness. I was not acquainted with either victim, knew nothing of Jan and only knew of Jamie from reading about him in the papers and watching him riding and being interviewed on television, but it is clear that we have tragically lost two fine young people at the threshold of what would undoubtedly have been worthwhile and productive adulthood. I was thinking after writing the previous chapter that it might have seemed odd my referring to admiring Kieren Fallon because of his success, because in the majority of professions success is not necessarily something to be admired per se, and I had thought that perhaps I ought to expand on this. I will expand on it now because it is pertinent: jockeying is a bloody tough game and to make any inroads in it at all one needs to be of a very high calibre. Many believe themselves called, but only very few have the necessary qualities to be chosen, and even to get a nucleus of rides as an apprentice and to ride some winners, as these two youngsters had done, means that one has already shown special qualities. To reach the heights which Kieren has reached requires special qualities (admittedly not all the qualities are totally pleasant, because ruthlessness is probably one of them - as we know, while the meek shall inherit the earth, they probably won't inherit the mineral rights) but even to make the start which Jamie and Jan had made shows that they were well above average. Jockeying is a profession in which ability is essential but far from enough on its own, and they were clearly youngsters of skill, character, determination and likeability. An ever decreasing number of youngsters are thus blessed, and the loss of these two in such horrific and needless circumstances is just truly awful. Their families must have been so proud of them, and I hope that it is some small comfort to them in their time of grief to know that they are the recipients of universal condolences.

It seems hard to focus on the sport at a time when one is reminded that there are far more important things than which horse wins which race, but this weekend was one which, under normal circumstances, would have been very special. Sea The Stars (pictured before the Derby) and Rachel Alexandra - both brought into our houses by ATR - were true stars, the former's victory coming despite what is seeming an over-riding desire by Ballydoyle to beat him. Aidan's five-strong challenge was truly bizarre: that he chose to run Mastercraftsman as his second string and as the third favourite when the horse could instead have been the odds-on favourite and almost certain winner in the Prix du Moulin suggests a focus on beating this one horse which has gone beyond the rational; and what his no-hopers were up to is anyone's guess. The stewards and the press don't seem to find anything odd in it, but how anyone could believe that Rockhampton and Set Sail were ridden to achieve their best possible placing is beyond me: to my eyes they were ridden in a way that guaranteed that they would achieve their worst possible placing (and if they happened to get in the way of Sea The Stars in the process, then that would have been very unfortunate, wouldn't it?). Happily the best horse won, but I think that if Bill Woodfull had been watching the Sea The Stars v. Team Ballydoyle match, he might again have said, "There are two sides out there today, but only one of them's playing cricket".

The Kieren Fallon roadshow finally got its result at Wolverhampton on Saturday evening, the fourth meeting at which he had ridden. His opening day was as bizarre as its fanfare had deserved. It was rather ironic that his supposedly sure-fire come-back winner, Amy Weaver's two-year-old, was beaten by a Michael Bell first-starter - and that it was only after the race that we learned that the only reason why he was riding the horse was because Hayley Turner had been offered the ride on him but had turned it down to ride the winner! A similar brahma came via Ed Dunlop's contribution: Kieren's handicap good thing for Ed at Lingfield duly finished tailed off, just before Kieren headed off to Kempton's evening meeting, where his first ride, for Paul Howling, finished third - in a race won by an Ed Dunlop-trained outsider, ridden by Tom McLaughlin. The weirdness of the situation was just what we deserved, but he's back amongst the winners and it's good to have him there. He's also had two Group One thirds now, on two beaten favourites: High Standing and Youmzain.
Either would have been a popular winner, but I'm never unhappy to see Grosser Preis von Baden winner Getaway (pictured, after winning last season's Jockey Club Stakes) victorious, as he, along with the likes of Dubai Millenium, Shirocco and Sea The Stars, stands out in my mind as one of the most handsome horses I have seen. He's a beautiful animal, the type who would stand out as such whether on a racecourse, in the show-ring, the hunting field or in the Trooping of the Colour.

Finally, while reviewing the weekend's action, I can't end without lamenting the death of Curtain Call. While events in Malton make me wary of using the word 'tragedy' to describe the death of a horse, Curtain Call's death was just very, very sad. He was a lovely horse, and a fatal injury caused by being galloped on is always terrible as it is one of those things which just shouldn't happen, but does. Only a week or so ago Emma came back from Luca's stable telling me that she had been talking to Ed Walker, Luca's assistant, about Curtain Call and about how fond of him Ed was, and I know that his death will be felt badly by many in the stable, as well as by his owners. They have my sincere sympathies, as does William Buick, who had the misfortune to ride two horses at Kempton yesterday whom he had to pull up mid-race with fatal injuries. Despite the fact that it contained some great racing, we can just say that we don't want days like yesterday to happen very often.
Friday, September 04, 2009

Thunderbirds are go

This week, according to the Racing Post, is Kieren Fallon week, which means that today must be Kieren Fallon day. It's going to be exciting watching him ride again. In a way his perceived greatness - or 'the perceived greatness of his riding' might be a better way of putting it - has been blown out of all proportion in the excitement preceding his return, because he is only a jockey who, in common with all other jockeys, can't come without the horse; and furthermore, while he is a very good jockey, there are plenty of / several (delete as applicable) other very good jockeys who have been galloping across our TV screens on a daily basis for the past couple of years without attracting a great deal of comment. However, there is no getting away from the fact that he is one of the three dominant jockeys of the current era (the other two being Frankie Dettori and Tony McCoy) so it will be good to have him back. And he is a hugely charismatic character who is as lovable as he is roguish, so that's an extra dimension to his appeal.

In a way I feel slightly awkward about joining in the hysteria which forms his welcome, because he is returning from a drug-related suspension, and drug taking is a very bad thing. In fact it is not far from being the root of a large proportion of modern-day society's problems, and the fact that Kieren previously decided that drug-taking and jockeying could happily co-exist - not to mention his various other misdemeanours - inevitably goes into the debit side of his ledger. However, I think that the principal of crime and punishment is meant to be that, once a person has served his punishment, the slate is wiped clean and the miscreant is welcomed back into the fold - in fact, I am sure that that is the basis on which the whole legal and penal system was set up - so let's now just enjoy watching him ride without agonising too much over another's imperfections.

As we are in the season of rapidly-shortening days and rapidly-dropping temperatures, there's no bad thing in having some little excitements such as this to distract ourselves from the depressing season which is autumn. This week is proving, for me, one of the most depressing of the year, because it is the one which sees me getting accustomed again to the daily habit of getting up in the dark rather than in daylight. I hate that - and when it gets cold, as it will shortly do, that's even worse.

But the changing of the seasons is a fact of life, so there's no point in worrying about it. In any case, autumn comes with some compensations, such as being able to sit next to Natagora (who is visible in the photograph, if you look carefully) by the kitchen window at dawn and watch the occasional spectacular sunrise, such as the one in this photograph a couple of days ago. And of course the other consolation of autumn is that, certainly the way we operate, it means that there might be a few young horses getting ready to start racing, which is always exciting. And a few jumpers getting ready to resume. We have, amazingly, four horses entered next week (on past form it will be a miracle if all four run, but as of today all four are fit, sound, healthy and intended runners) and one of these, Stardust Memories, would be a young first-starter. And where there are untried horses, there is hope.

On the subject of horses, a couple who deserve a pat on the back, along with their trainers, are War Artist and Cadeaux Fax. The former, a lovely and well-travelled professional whom we regularly see doing his warm-up trots on the Severals, won last Sunday the historic Goldene Peitsche (Golden Whip) in Baden-Baden, which was a lovely result. He hasn't been easy for his trainer James Eustace as he's had a few problems along the way, but James, plus the horse's attendant/exercise rider Chloe Madgin, can be very proud of this great victory. And, at a lesser level, I ought to tip my hat to Rod Millman, trainer of a recent Largesse winner, Cadeaux Fax. Before joining Rod's stable, this horse had had three runs for Andy Haynes' stable, which led to the BHA handicapper allotting him a rating of 21 and the Racing Post describing him as "beyond hope". Cadeaux Fax finished a good fifth on his first run for Rod in July at 100/1, which saw his handicap mark raised from 21 to 52, and on Monday the horse broke his maiden, on his 9th start, by winning a handicap at Chepstow off a mark of 54. Which I'd say reflects huge credit on his trainer. Incidentally, I am having to highlight this saga through gritted teeth, because it means that Rod has taken a record off me: previously, I believe, I held the record as the only trainer to have had a horse's rating doubled in one hit (Quakeress' rating was raised from 15 to 30 for winning a seller at Wolverhampton in the depths of winter 8 years ago), but this 21 to 52 hike has blown me out of the water!