Saturday, February 18, 2017

Keeping the past alive in this ever-shrinking world

Hard to believe that this week began with snow.  It's been up around 10 degrees or more most days since last weekend, with no sign of frost at nights.  Very balmy.  And quite a bit of sun on some days too.  None today, but; but still very mild on a day which began with one of those 'speak-of-the-devil' moments.  There was only one Australian race which I was very keen to watch, the VRC Lightning Stakes, and that wasn't until 5.45 GMT, so I didn't set the timer to record ATR: I'd be up before then whatever happened, so I'd just turn the television on at whatever time I got up.  Anyway, when I did happen to turn the television on, the horses were walking around the barriers before a 1600m open handicap at Eagle Farm in Brisbane.  Why was this remarkable?

Four days ago, Liam Casey (pictured in the first paragraph, back in the autumn) and I were talking about horses who might be running this season, and Liam threw up the name of last year's Wood Ditton winner Sky Kingdom, who had finished second to subsequent Eclipse winner Hawkbill at Newmarket second up in the spring before running disappointingly infrequently after that.  I ventured the opinion that he wouldn't be a factor this summer because, so I believed, Paul Makin had sent him down to Australia, and that Starcraft's trainer Gary Newham had come out of retirement to train him; but that I hadn't noticed him running there yet.  Anyway, blow me - the horse whom Bernadette Cooper was talking about as I turned on the TV was none other than Sky Kingdom, tackling this race second up (after an unplaced run in a Group race over 1200m) and set to go off the $9 fourth favourite (and whom she was tipping).  Unbelievable!  I could have turned on the TV any time, but that was the exact moment when I did.

Anyway, it was a total non-event: Sky Kingdom was perfectly placed in the run and travelled easily into the straight, but then knocked up badly and finished a distant last, eased down.  It did make one think, though: what a small world it is nowadays.  It was only recently that one couldn't watch a race unless one was on the course, even if it was only over the Rowley Mile, just a couple of miles away.  (And even on the course one couldn't actually see much if it without a pair of binoculars).  In the betting shops, just the Extel commentary (if it was in Britain); no pictures.  At home?  Forget it, unless it was on terrestrial TV.  Fast-forward a few years: Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Goulburn (which we had this morning), Happy Valley, Sha Tin, Meydan, Gulfstream Park, Aqueduct - no problems, watch it live in the armchair in your front room.  Small world indeed.

On the subject of the racing world, I'll just run through a little 'the story behind ...', prompted by an enquiry by Tuppy Dougherty on Twitter.  Nick Alexander had put up a link to his blog, running through his runners, and the picture was of one of the horses wearing what we would call an 'Australian noseband'.  Tuppy asked what this does.  I'll answer that question, and then run through a little story just for the sake of posterity.  It's a story which probably very few people nowadays know, and of the few who do I'd probably be the youngest; and I'm 50.  So it could get lost in the mists of time, which would be a shame as anecdotal history is something which deserves to be kept alive.

Basically this strip of rubber runs down the front of the nose before dividing and branching out so that there is a rubber circle inside each ring of the bit.  Think Richard Hannon's runners.  (Richard Hannon snr used to run all his horses in one; and I'm ashamed to say that, off the top of my head, I don't know if his son now does the same).  For most horses it does no good but no harm, aside from adding an ounce to the weight carried.  But for some horses it is very important: assuming that it's tight-fitting enough, it holds the bit up the mouth, reducing the chance of the horse getting his/her tongue over the bit, something which can interfere with his breathing and/or make him harder to control.  And it also means that, if a horse is hanging and the jockey has to put more pressure on one rein than the other, the bit can't slip through the horse's mouth.  And it also puts a tiny bit of gentle pressure on the front of the nose, as a net muzzle does, which can have a calming and controlling effect.  So that's Tuppy's question asked and answered.  (And I don't use them, by the way, preferring a tongue-tie for horses who put their tongue over the bit; and preferring a ring-bit for horses who hang; and preferring a net muzzle for horses who might benefit from one of those).

But the name, the 'Australian noseband'?  Few Australians would recognise this tag.  They would know it as 'cheekers'.  (And nowadays it would probably be seen less frequently in Australia than in the UK).  So the name?  Well, the late, great George Moore, regarded by many as Australia's greatest jockey, spent one season riding in Britain, 1967, retained by Noel Murless. (He spent most of the time which he spent in Europe in France, riding for Alec Head, winning many big races including the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe - and the family connection endured as his son Gary rode an Arc winner and a 1,000 Guineas winner for Alec Head's daughter Criquette).  George Moore, apparently, didn't complete the season here, but that's another story.  But in the only season which he did spend in England, he rode the Derby winner (Royal Palace).  A great, great jockey.

Anyway, aside from Royal Palace, one of the best horses in Warren Place during the summer of 1967 was St Chad, a three-year-old chestnut colt by St Paddy from Caerphilly, by Abernant.  He had won the Ladykirk Stakes over five furlongs easily at Ayr as a two-year-old "despite hanging badly throughout", as Timeform put it.  At three he finished second in the Free Handicap and then won Brightelmstone Handicap over seven furlongs at Brighton (which obviously nowadays either does not exist or does still exist but in a much lesser way), the Jersey Stakes over seven furlongs at Ascot, the Hungerford Stakes over seven furlongs at Newbury, and the Wills Mile (now Celebration Mile) at Goodwood ("splendidly ridden by Moore", according to Timeform, and in an all-Australian finish as Scobie Breasley was on the runner-up Reform).  He also finished fourth to Reform in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood and a well-beaten third to the same horse in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot.  At four, after George Moore had gone, he only ran twice: fourth to Petingo in the Sussex Stakes and last in the Wills Mile.  He then retired to stud in Ireland, where he enjoyed modest success.

So what is the story?  Well, for this I am indebted to John Williams, who was apprenticed to Noel Murless at the time.  More people know him as 'Welshie' than as John Williams (and he isn't the former National Hunt and subsequently Flat jockey John Williams) and many will remember him for working for many years for Neville Callaghan before finishing his working life in Jeremy Noseda's stable.  Anyway, St Chad, apparently, was very headstrong and hard to steer, and was looking like ruining his own career because of the waywardness which he had shown at Ayr.  George Moore, so I'm told, told Noel Murless that there was a bit of tack at home which would help to cure the horse of the things which he was doing wrong, and that he would get one sent over from Australia to use on the horse.  Hence St Chad getting his act together, and hence people here (initially just in Noel Murless' stable, subsequently throughout British racing) describing this previously-unseen device as an 'Australian noseband'.

(Funnily enough, as far as I can discern having just now inspected three photographs of St Chad racing, he appears not  to have worn it during his races.  Maybe it had done its job by that time, or maybe George Moore was so skilled (which he was) that the horse needed either Moore or the noseband, but not necessarily both; or maybe his trainer didn't want his days at the races to be spoiled by his being pestered by the world and his wife for an explanation of what this strange device was which the horse was wearing).

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