Saturday, December 18, 2010

Winter's back, albeit with a winner

We were ever so lucky at Wolverhampton yesterday evening to get Rhythm Stick's race in: his was the second last, and the last was abandoned. Had ours not have taken place, of course, we wouldn't have known that he'd have won it, but we would have suspected that he might have done as he was the 5/4 favourite. Once again, he benefitted from a poorly-contested race: as mentioned in the previous chapter, we found ourselves in a 7-runner race thanks to the race being unexpectedly divided, and this then became a 5-runner race as two of our opponents were scratched. Of the five runners, he and another last-start winner, Don't Pay The Ferryman, dominated the betting, with only one other appearing to have much of a chance at all. In the event, that other ran runner deplorably, dropping right out up the straight and being dismounted just after the line, which left us to grind out a 1.5-length victory over the second favourite, with the next horse a further nine lengths adrift. Which was all terribly exciting. We have Franny Norton's tactical acumen to thank in part for the victory: although this hadn't been the plan, he had the nous to go to the front when it was clear that nobody else would, and Whipper settled beautifully there at a fairly relaxed tempo, while his two main dangers fought their riders in behind him. And after that he dominated the race and, although the runner-up closed all the way to the line (and continued to close after it, as the picture taken 20m after the post shows), he was still more than a length up when the post arrived. It made for a lovely evening, made all the more special by the fact that two of his part-owners, Peter Steele-Mortimer (his co-breeder) and Rebecca Hunter, were there to see him salute, which they hadn't been able to do when he'd won previously. And another first was that Hannah led up her first winner; let's hope she's entering the winner's enclosure on board, rather than beside, a horse before too long! Racing in midwinter when the weather is really bad isn't easy in any respect - not least the getting there - but all was well that ended well; although if our horse had been engaged in the abandoned last race (a race, incidentally, which I believe that all the jockeys who were engaged in wanted to take place) I certainly wouldn't have come home in such a contented frame of mind.

We're very lucky in Newmarket as training the horses usually remains fairly straightforward. Again in this latest bout of winter this area has got off relatively lightly as we only have a small amount of snow at present, so that obviously helps; and the other thing is that the all-weather canters and gallops on the Heath are so good that the work can usually continue interrupted. The big problem at present, though, is that we had a brief thaw prior to the current freeze-up, and on Thursday it rained all day prior to freezing. That was horrible as it was about 3 degrees and raining (which is much, much worse than minus 3 and dry) but at the end of the day the temperature dropped to minus 5 in an extremely short space of time. The rain turned to snow and the waterlogged ground turned to solid ice. The result is that, while the canters are fine, the walking grounds on the Heath are just sheet ice so one has to plan one's route very carefully - and then hold one's breath! What the Jockey Club has done is re-zone a couple of the AW canters (the far one on Warren Hill and the one along the side of the Heath) as walking grounds and that works really well, with of course the Severals trotting rings being usable also. So the past couple of very cold mornings we've been able to give the horses proper exercises, just taking a slightly different route than usual. It works very well: when off piste (Nick Patton, the Heath superintendent, wittily referred to one downhill walking ground as "the black run") one just has to try to avoid the worst of the ice and to trust in one's horse's common sense, while when on piste the horses happily seem to have worked out that they don't have to canter when they're walking back down, which is rather good as seeing the AW stretch off down the hill in front of him could be rather enticing to an excitable horse. Yesterday morning, when these photographs were taken (from Alcalde's back) was really rather special as the scene was in sunshine, although today's greyness was rather less spectacular.

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