Sunday, July 11, 2010

Great leap forward

The title of this chapter doesn't refer to the fact that we took a great leap forward yesterday by, courtesy of Batgirl's good win at Nottingham, getting ourselves of the Racing Post's dreaded 'Cold List' - nor does it refer to that mighty win, by which Batgirl gained her wings. No, it's meant sardonically, but we'll come to that later.

Batgirl's win was so pleasing, not least for the fact that it enabled Tony Fordham to see his colours carried to victory for the first time. Throughout my training career, I've been fortunate to enjoy the patronage of some wonderfully supportive patrons. Tony definitely comes very strongly into this category, so it meant a great deal to me to repay part of the debt of gratitude which I owe him by saddling him a winner. I don't like to use the word 'pressure' (the former WWII fighter pilot and Australian Test cricketer Keith Miller summed it up when asked about the pressures of sport: "Pressure? Pressure is when you've got a Messerschmidt up your arse") but, when training horses, there are times when you find yourself facing what seem like tough decisions (some of which you get right and some of which, inevitably, you get wrong) and there are times when things just go wrong; and such times are much, much easier to bear when you are training for patrons who make it plain that they retain faith in your judgement. Anyway, it was a real pleasure to see Tony's colours in the winner's enclosure; and, leaving that aside, it was great to see Batgirl there, because she's a wonderfully characterful filly who, like (supposedly) all chestnut fillies (equine and human), has a mind of her own - so it was great to see that mind relishing the satisfaction of a race won, because I genuinely believe that, even if her victory didn't necessarily mean quite as much to her as it did to her human connections, she had enjoyed showing her rivals a clean pair of heels - which is just what one would have expected from parade-ring inspection, because (and I'm trying to be objective here) she stood head and shoulders above her rivals in both physique and condition beforehand, which I hope that you might understand from the imposing impression of her which these photographs give.

Part of Batgirl's individuality is that she lets you know when she doesn't want to do something. This is expressed each day after exercise, when you'd struggle to get her to go straight back to her box after being hosed down. Once scraped down, she marches briskly to whichever part of the yard she deems to have the most grass (or, as at present, the least dust) and only deigns to return to her stable once she's had however long she deems to be her due quota of forageing. Trucks, saddling boxes (and I duly had to saddle her outside again yesterday, but there's no harm in that as an alfresco dressing didn't do Starspangledbanner any harm on Friday, as this photograph shows) and starting stalls are other enclosures which usually prompt her to take a pause for thought before entering. She'd been very slow to be loaded at Yarmouth last time, so yesterday I went down to the start to lead her in - not that I'd do anything which the stalls handlers wouldn't do, but simply because she's accustomed to following me around. It was rather nice when I got there, as it turned out that Batgirl and I were spending the day surrounded by my former Luca Cumani workmates: Adam led her up, and the stalls team included three of our erstwhile colleagues, Mark "Bruiser" Dunwooody, Peter "Maxi" Taylor and Bobby Robertson. Happily, she walked straight into the stalls and the whole starting procedure was as straightforward as she found the race, the only blip being that one of the jockeys fell off shortly after the start.
It was good to see so exemplary a starting process (the U.R. aside) because I'd also been at the start for our other runner of the week (Hotfoot at Windsor on Monday) when the stalls' procedure was worse than chaotic. Iva had seemed rather surprised when I'd said that I was planning to go down to the start, pointing out that there wasn't much I could do there, but it turned out that we were both very pleased that I did so: Hotfoot (pictured) found herself standing in the stalls for what seemed like an hour, but probably was only around seven or eight minutes, as all hell broke loose around her. Two runners were scratched for refusing to go into the stalls (one of which broke Robert Havlin's ankle when she reared over) and a third all but refused to go in (before losing all chance by rearing as the gates opened) - and a couple of the others who had gone in less unwillingly were desperately unruly once in there. So our poor filly, who had had a bad experience on her first public appearance, was given a second baptism of fire. Happily, frightened though she was by the pandemonium around her, Hotfoot kept her cool and stood still throughout the inferno, and I think that having two friendly and familiar voices to reassure her - Iva leaning forward to scratch the top of her head and my standing in front of the stalls, putting my hand through the bars to rub her nose and hold onto the cheekpiece of her bridle whenever she did start to get restive - helped to ensure that all was well that ended well (from our point of view, if not from poor Rab's). I can't sum the whole debacle up better than by repeating my words to the starter, Robbie Supple, "Robbie, this is no criticism of you whatsoever, but that was a bloody shambles". Which it was - but I'm not sure what we can do about it, other than hope that fewer badly schooled horses will be sent to the races in the future. But that might be asking for miracles.

Now for our great leap forward. One would like to think that a generation of horses better schooled for the stalls might one day be a great leap forward, but as it is we've got to content ourselves for now with the Going Stick. I've been in favour of this innovation, seeking its findings and using them as a tool to try to guess what underfoot conditions are going to be like. However, I don't think I'll be taking it too seriously henceforth after my pre-Nottingham investigations. I was very uncertain whether to run the filly there yesterday, because she's a big, immature and cumbersome filly and I had doubts as to whether she'd be effective on what seemed certain to be a very firm surface. However, the course's bulletins suggested that the surface would be a well-watered "good to firm" track, so run we did (thank God!). Anyway, my assessment, once I'd walked the track before racing, was that the back straight was good to firm and the home straight (up which Batgirl was due to race) was firm, albeit smooth and with a good cover of grass. And, academically, the unwatered and unused section of the track down the back straight was hard. But God only knows what one could have concluded from the Going Stick's evidence. As you probably know, the Going Stick measures resistance on a scale of zero to 15, the lowest (ie heaviest) reading one would normally see being around four and the highest (ie hardest) being around 11. Yesterday's reading was 7.4, which one would usually think of as slightly softer than good! The previous Saturday, when the going had been "good to firm (firm in places)", the reading had been 7.5. This was the fourth time in the past twelve months when the reading had been 7.5, the other three occasions being when the official goings had been "good to firm", "soft", and "good to soft (soft in places)". Yesterday's 7.4 had been registered twice over the past year, when it had been "good to soft (soft in places)" and "good to soft". On 2nd June, the going was "good to firm (good in places)" which suggests that it was less firm than it was yesterday, and yet the going stick reading on that day was half a point higher than it was yesterday. I could go on forever citing similar non-sequiturs, but I think that you probably get the point: just as the Aboriginals might list influenza, Christianity and alcohol as gifts from the white man which they really needed, so might we be wondering whether racing ought to consign the Going Stick into the category, along with Racing For Change, of great and expensive leaps forward which might not be all that they are cracked up to be.

Lastly, I can't end my review of our week's runners without making a comment on the riding arrangements. Dane O'Neill (seen later in the afternoon yesterday in search of a double, leading the field in the 14-furlong handicap on the John Dunlop-trained favourite Dream Spinner, who ultimately finished last behind Montparnasse, who is shown in the second picture being eased down after the post) was in the saddle and he - as one would expect, because he is a top-class jockey - gave her an exemplary ride and gave us a very sensible summation afterwards. I was pleased to have provided him with a winner because I like and respect him and I'd never used him previously, an omission which I'm very pleased to have put right. However, one has to feel a twang of sympathy for the jockeys who have ridden her in her previous races, none of whom have done anything wrong and any of whom would have won on her yesterday. In particular, Tom McLaughlin, who had ridden her at Yarmouth on her previous start and who would have been in the saddle yesterday had I known that his 28-day ban had ended. I only discovered half an hour before our race that not only was Tom back from his ban, but that he was at Nottingham and without a ride in our race, so I sought him out to apologise and explain. He took it well, although had the conversation taken place after the race and he'd realised that he'd missed a winner, he might have been less phlegmatic! Furthermore, Iva, like Tom, had done nothing wrong on the filly when riding her to be third at 150/1 at Wolverhampton and last at Newmarket over a mile under conditions very different from yesterday's flat six furlongs - but then jockeying is no different to the rest of human life in that being in the right place at the right time (ie on horses on the days when it transpires that the trainer has put them in the right race, rather on the days when he's got it wrong) is the key. Even poor Richard Mullen, who was kind enough to come over to us with congratulations after the race, would have had cause to rue his misfortune had he known of it. After I'd decided on Thursday morning to run the filly, my first move had been to see which jockeys were at Nottingham and, having perused the list, my second move had been to call Richard's agent, only to find that the phone was engaged; and when I re-dialled immediately afterwards, I got through only to be told that he'd just got off the phone from accepting the ride on Alan Jarvis' runner in the same race. Had I made my call one minute earlier, Richard would have been the winning jockey yesterday, but that's the story of life: fate either decrees that you're in the right place at the right time, or it doesn't. You can understand why Napoleon maintained that the key quality which he required in his generals was being lucky!

No comments: