Sunday, March 20, 2016

In praise of red mares: from Annie Power to Indira

Cheltenham week is always one of my favourite times of the year but I can't ever remember enjoying the Festival more than I did this year.

Annie Power greets her adoring fans
There's a kind of ritual involved now. The racing calendar means our lives are pretty much governed by certain key meetings each year and with Cheltenham the details are reassuringly and deeply etched.

It starts at Lou and Charlie Eddis's house on the Friday before the Festival kicks off, their annual dinner and tipping contest, which was initially our old Pacemaker crew and now includes a few extras, being one of the social highlights of the year.

The Monday of Festival week is more exciting than Christmas Eve for fans of jump racing, and the annual gathering of my dysfunctional Festival family, made up of various miscreants from from the racing press room, takes place at Durcott House where we gather ahead of the traditional Cheltenham eve curry. This year's housemates were Ed Prosser (main organiser and breakfast chef), Tom Peacock, George Primarolo, Martin Kelly and Hayley Moore. Julian Muscat joined us for one night, just to ensure there was at least one evening when we all stayed up far later than we wanted to and drank the house dry of red wine, and George's wife Sally swapped Beverley Racecourse, which she runs very efficiently, for Cheltenham on the final day.

Celebrating St Patrick's Day with Zoe Vicarage
The week got off to a bad start for me when my car started flashing lots of warning lights on the way into the racecourse on Tuesday morning. Fortunately we made it into the car park and the AA towed it away to be magically fixed for a small fortune. Such inconveniences were quickly overlooked, however, when Annie Power waltzed her way to victory in the Champion Hurdle several hours later. Remembering the roar as she was brought in to the winner's enclosure still sends a shiver down my spine. She seemed to love the adulation, too, as she stood still with her ears pricked towards the gallery while the cheers rang out.

I've been at Cheltenham for all sorts of special occasions - Istrabraq's third Champion Hurdle, Best Mate's third Gold Cup, the battles of Denman and Kauto Star - but I'm pretty sure none of them received such a rapturous reception as Annie. I went home thinking we wouldn't see anything as special as that for the rest of the week but was proved wrong only 24 hours later. Even Nicky Henderson admitted that he never dared to hope that Sprinter Sacre could come back as good as he once was but hearts and voices soared collectively as the great beast cruised past the young upstart Un De Sceaux coming down the hill with two fences left to jump. After that it was just a case of praying that he got home in one piece, which he did, to a reception pretty much on a par with Annie Power's.

The fabulous team of Sprinter Sacre and Nico de Boinville
For me, they were the two stand-out moments, but there were plenty more, and if I had to nominate three young stars of the game, they would be Thistlecrack, Nico de Boinville and Joseph O'Brien.

Thistlecrack, whose extraordinarily effortless victory in the Ryanair World Hurdle brought up a treble of Grade 1 wins for the wonderful Kayf Tara, isn't actually that young but he is still a relatively new name to us all, having been minded so well through his early years by Colin Tizzard. The trainer praised the horse's owners John and Heather Snook for their patience and they wouldn't have been empty words because there is almost certainly nothing jumps trainers – and many of their flat counterparts – want more than owners with great reserves of patience. Great reserves of cash come in handy too, of course, but owners who have patience and are prepared to go out to buy an untried youngster and let a trainer take his or her time with that horse can be rewarded with success for a fraction of the price that some of the form horses command. Thistlecrack wasn't a real cheapie – he still cost €43,000 as a three-year-old store at the Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale – but I'm guessing that's around a tenth of the price that some of his equals have changed hands for when being imported from France.

Joseph O'Brien faces the press after his first Cheltenham win
On the subject of Nico and Joseph, if they will forgive the familiarity, it is especially nice to see two very talented young men act without a shred of arrogance or entitlement in their moments of triumph, but instead deflect the praise to the equine talents who have helped to elevate them.

Having had a random encounter with Nico de Boinville at the Swedish Grand National meeting some years back when he was riding in the Fegentri series, I've followed his career with interest and could not have been happier to see him win last year's Gold Cup with Coneygree. He's long been hailed as the work rider of Sprinter Sacre and other good horses at Nicky Henderson's, and credit must go to the trainer for putting his trust in the young jockey to fill the saddle vacated by Barry Geraghty when Sprinter returned to the track. His loyalty has been duly rewarded by a jockey who has as cool a head as anyone far senior to him in the weighing-room, and one which I hope will feature in many more big-race victories in years to come.

Indira gave us cause for celebration on Saturday evening
There will be many people who throw silver-spoon accusations at Joseph O'Brien, and he is the first person to admit that he had access to a phenomenal range of top-class horses during his riding days. Plenty of jockeys would have been found wanting when put under that much pressure at such a young age but, in my amateur opinion of jockeyship, Jospeh rarely put a foot wrong and, like Nico, rode with an assuredness way beyond his years. I'm sorry we won't see him race-riding again but I'll look forward to following the next stage in his career and wish him plenty of luck along the way.

John Cobb's comments in today's Racing Post about how much harder it has become for smaller owners and trainers to compete at Cheltenham of course have resonance in this yard. John has had two runners at the Festival over the years, with dear old Diamond Joshua finishing third in the G1 Triumph Hurdle back in 2012. We live in hope of having a horse to take to the big meetings, but it is getting harder to compete, for horses and owners, on the flat and over jumps.

Ethics Girl and her long-awaited first foal by Anodin
We are extremely fortunate to have the horses and owners that are already here in the stable and the joy of having a winner is multiplied many times over when it happens to be for a syndicate of really nice and patient people. The Severn Crossing Partnership, which races Indira and includes her breeders Louise Parry and Peter Steele-Mortimer, had plenty of fun with her at three, when she won twice and seemed never to be out of the places, but the price of that consistency in handicaps is that it can take a long time for a horse of a certain level to win again. Hope and fun have always been the watchwords for this syndicate, however, and there was plenty of excitement when Indira returned to the winner's enclosure on Saturday night, having been backed by most of us at double-figure odds.

Desiree's Sir Percy colt, who will be named Dereham
That lovely winner wasn't the only joyous occasion of the week on the home front, however, as our old stable star Ethics Girl, who I am lucky enough to now own in partnership with Lawrence Wadey and Bruce Sherwin, produced her first foal on Thursday at Haras de la Cauvinière. He's a fine colt by Anodin and if he's anywhere near as game, hardy and sound as his mother then he has a very good chance of being a proper racehorse.

A wonderful week was capped off by a Sunday morning visit to another colt foal, Desiree's son of Sir Percy, who is bonny and bold and looks very much like his father. I'm not sure how amused John will be when I ask him to make a Derby entry for him, but there's no point breeding horses if you can't dream a little.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Green Desert remembered


As mentioned in yesterday's EBN, I was one of the lucky ones to visit Green Desert in his final years. While some people are excited by a chance encounter with a pop star or actor, I know I'll never grow tired of meeting famous racehorses, particularly those who continue to have such an influence through the current stars of the track. 

Without Green Desert, who died on Wednesday, there would be no Golden Horn, Muhaarar or Shalaa, to name but three of his grandsons who have made such an impact on this season alone.  The morning I spent gawping at him in his vast paddock at Nunnery will long burn bright in my mind's eye. I knew then that he wouldn't be with us for much longer, and it is to the immense credit of the team at Shadwell that he lived on for another two years to the age of 32. Below is the piece in full that was written for the Racing Post shortly after that visit. He may be gone, but we will conitnue to hear plenty about Green Desert for generations of racehorses to come.

-------------------------------------------------------

POEMS about horses are guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye and there’s none lovelier than Philip Larkin’s At Grass, which depicts two retired racehorses out in their paddock long after the echoes of their final race call have died.

‘Almanacked their names live; they have slipped their names, and stand at ease.’

Green Desert patrols his paddock, September 2013
Larkin’s evocative words were brought to mind recently when, on a visit to Shadwell’s Nunnery Stud, an enjoyable hour was spent wandering the stallion paddocks with Ron Lott and Rachael Gowland. With no disrespect to Sheikh Hamdan’s active stallions, arguably the biggest treat was saved until last as we made our way to the bottom of the hill to pay homage to the grand old man of Shadwell, Green Desert. Now 30, the son of Danzig still has a glint in his eye which unmistakably says, ‘look but don’t touch’, and though he’s diminutive when viewed straight after the strapping Nayef, his reputation will stand tall for generations to come.

It’s no mean feat for a thoroughbred stallion still to be breathing at 30, and Green Desert was only stood down from active duty two years ago. There isn’t space here to do justice to his stallion career. In what it’s fair to call a current golden era for British sires – his own son Oasis Dream being high up in the pecking order along with stud mate Dansili, Dubawi, Pivotal, New Approach and, hopefully, Frankel to come – the pensioner still shades them all as the most influential stallion on these shores.

His reputation is earned chiefly through his stallion sons – Oasis Dream, Invincible Spirit and Cape Cross all occupy top 20 positions in Europe, and Byron has been represented by top-flight winners in the UK and America this year. In New Zealand, Volksraad was champion sire for six consecutive seasons, while Desert Sun will be best remembered for his influence in Australasia as the sire of Sunline and broodmare sire of Black Caviar.

Green Desert didn’t let the side down on one of the rare occasions that Hasili was allowed to visit anyone other than another of Danzig’s great sons, Danehill. Their liaison resulted in the dual Grade 1 winner Heat Haze, now the dam of one of the most eye-catching juveniles of the season, the recent 15-length maiden winner Radiator. Hopefully her turn to heap further glory on an already over-achieving family will come in next week’s Shadwell Fillies’ Mile.        
                         
The dark, stocky Green Desert, his coat still dappled even in his dotage, is more though than just a name on numerous catalogue pages. For many years after prized colts have left the care of racing yards, they are tended to by some of the unsung heroes of the breeding business, the stallion men. There are a few women, too, such as Yorton Farm’s admirable Lucy Dawson, but largely the role remains a male preserve.

Green Desert, age 30, September 2013
Despite the fact that Ron Lott’s eyes mist slightly when he talks about his beloved and clearly much-missed Unfuwain, he’s no softie. His years at Nunnery Stud stretch back to the days of its ownership by Sir John Musker and for nearly three decades, while other big-name stallions have come and gone, Green Desert has been a constant in his life. Ron speaks of the veteran with the wary admiration a matador might have for a bull. Dealing with stallions every day is not for the faint-hearted and respect must be earned on both sides.

“I hate the thought of anything happening to him and I’ll miss him when he’s gone because of everything he’s achieved,” says Ron.

Won’t we all, almanacked though his name may be.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Nothing to report but lots to say

My job dictates that I spend quite a bit of time talking to breeders who have enjoyed great success on the track and writing about their mares and families.

Oscar at Cheveral House
My own so-far-unsuccessful sideline as a small hobby breeder has given me very little to write about but I enjoy the reflected glory of 'my other mare' (John's mare) Minnie's Mystery, whose first three offspring have so far won 20 races between them, including Roy Rocket, who has won three for this stable this season.

Anyone who has read today's feature on John in the Racing Post, written by the excellent Nick Godfrey, will no doubt be surprised to hear that John would rather train Roy than Golden Horn but I know what he means when he says that. Of course we'd love to have a horse of the calibre of Golden Horn in this yard but recording a win, no matter how small, with a horse whose mating you've planned and whom you've known since the very first second he drew breath remains one of life's great thrills. Not that I'd know, of course, but I have lived vicariously through John's successes and consider that naughty monkey Roy to be my boy just as much as he is John's.

Of my own boys, there has been a fair bit of news of late. Nothing in the way of actually getting anywhere near a racecourse but the flame of hope has not yet been extinguished in my heart. Oscar's rehoming with Jade (who has looked after him so well over eight months) came to an end on Tuesday when I picked him up from Northamptonshire after she decided he was not going to go as far as she'd like him to in the world of eventing. So, in a rather sad echo of Oscar's one and only outing to the races, which ended in injury, we returned to Southwell (or very nearby) where he has joined Kate Turner's Cheveral House rehoming centre.

Kate is much more than just Hayley's mum. She's an extremely competent horsewoman and riding instructor, who clearly gave her daughter an excellent grounding in her early days, and she instantly put me at my ease when she so clearly warmed to Oscar and assured me she would do everything she could to find the right rider for him in due course. Most important was her assertion that she would not be in a rush to do anything with him. She plans to let him find his way and settle into his new home (which it sounds like he's already doing, turned out in a field of long grass with Hayley's old pony) before seeing what he's best suited to in his new career.


Delatite as a foal at a couple of weeks old
I remain convinced that a horse who moves as well as Oscar does certainly has the aptitude to do something else and I'm looking forward to hearing updates on his progress at Cheveral House, which, even on my short visit, was so clearly a haven of calm that it's hard to imagine horses not thriving there.

So that's Oscar. Next in line, Jack, was so small he didn't ever make it to the races. He now lives with an even smaller Shetland pony called Joey and is owned by our neighbour Natalie Dunn. An otherwise laidback character, Jack's one foible is a severe dislike of having his back feet touched so Natalie and I have been in discussion this week as to recent naughtiness with his new farrier. Step forward our excellent farrier Darren Rose, who does such a great job of keeping my flat-footed and soft-soled Panto sound, and has valiantly offered to tackle young Jack again.

Delatite's full-brother Alix, at roughly the same age in March
A completely different kettle of fish physically is the three-year-old Delatite. He's the little brother by age only as he's a big, strong horse and is just being broken in by John now. A little spooky through greenness rather than anything else, Del managed to cope well with being long-reined on the Severals this morning and I'm itching to see him with a rider on his back in due course.

The only filly Desiree has managed to produce so far is two-year-old Florence, by Archipenko. She may well join her brother at the yard before too long but so far has not left the farm. She's at Hilborough Stud with her mum and younger brother, who, like Delatite, is by Schiaparelli.

Delatite at two, leading a pack which includes yearling Florence at the back
Desiree and 'Alix', as we know him at home, have a fairly major outing looming as they are entered to appear at the TBA National Hunt Foal Show next Sunday at Bangor-on-Dee Racecourse. How they'll cope with this excitement I'm not sure.

Des isn't actually being judged but she'll be plaited and preened, while Alix has been a natural poser ever since he was born so is likely to be less fazed by the attention than his mother. I'm hoping he's been bred to be a winner on the racecourse – and as the biggest and strongest of Desiree's foals so far he certainly looks the part – but if he can catch the eyes of the judges and win a rosette in the meantime I'll be more than delighted.

So that's it, really. Nothing much to report in the way of success for my family just yet but there's always plenty to say - and the thing that hooks all breeders and keeps them enchanted year after year is that there's always hope.

Meeting Oscar for the first time
With Oscar I've had to admit defeat regarding his racing career but my hope for any horse who passes through this yard is that they go on to have a happy life in retirement after racing, whether it's as a competition horse, a happy hacker or even as a companion. I know that the team at Cheveral House will be doing all they can to find him a good long-term home and if for some reason that doesn't come about he can always come back to us here. The day I first set eyes on him as a newborn foal at Batsford Stud remains one of the happiest of my life, and though he may not have succeeded as a racehorse, he'll always be very special.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Kauto Star: gone but never fogotten

Although there are always horses I love to follow every season, there are a few 'I was there' moments that really stick in the mind. Istabraq's third Champion Hurdle, Best Mate's third Gold Cup, and the wonderful warrior Persian Punch raising the roof when winning his second Goodwood Cup are all such occasions, and I know I'll never forget my day spent watching Kauto Star from behind the scenes when he won his fifth King George on Boxing Day 2011.

We lost Best Mate and Persian Punch so publicly on the racecourse. Kauto Star's death this week following a paddock accident is no less heartbreaking but somehow, perhaps stupidly, I'm grateful his sad demise was not the result of a fall at the track, even though the outcome is no different.

Racing fans can remain grateful that he lit up our lives for so long and I'll always remember him for that special day at Kempton, which I wrote about on this blog at the time and will repeat here in his memory. What an absolute star he was.

----------------------------------------

On Boxing Day, Hugh and I went to Kempton with Alcalde. Arriving early, the first horse we saw as we entered the stable block was Kauto Star, whose picture below is kindly supplied by George Selwyn. What struck me most about him, apart from the fact that he really is a beautiful horse, is how calm he was through all the preliminaries. The Kempton stables are close to the track and the sound of the crowd roaring others home in earlier races may have been enough to unsettle some.

Kauto Star, the consummate professional, stood and waited, his ears flicking back and forth but otherwise hardly moving, as if he was mentally preparing himself for battle and conserving every bit of energy needed to win a fifth King George from a horse who stole his crown last year and wasn’t even born when he won his first race in England.

As history relates, he did just that. As we led Alcalde out to the parade ring for his race, the last on the card, Kauto Star was led back in past us, tired but triumphant.

Later, after darkness had wrapped up the day and cars queued to leave the car parks, the five-time King George winner grazed quietly at the side of the stable block, waiting for his moment to get back on the lorry to Ditcheat, every now and then lifting his head to watch his many fans heading home from the course he has made his own.

I stood for a while, hardly wanting to take my eyes off him. The image of that perfect racehorse so calm and content after giving thousands people their most memorable day at the races is imprinted on my mind forever.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Happy times and one sad note

Once again there's been a woeful blogging absence with plenty of scribbling elsewhere to keep me busy.

I'm going to have to restrict  my Royal Ascot round-up to a list of horses that stirred me the most: Time Test, Trip To Paris, Suits You (a wonderful first stakes winner for Youmzain on the biggest stage) and good old Medicean Man, so valiant in defeat. And thanks for a wonderful week of fabulous racing and downright good fun must go to Jenny, Liam and Conor Norris, Chris Hannaford, William Huntingdon, Susie Rowe, Richard Tucker, Rachael Andre, Will Lambe and the one and only Harvey Smith.

They say you should never meet your heroes but in the past few weeks I've been fortunate enough to meet three of mine: the aforementioned childhood show jumping hero who, disappointingly, refrained from any two-fingered salutes in the Royal Enclosure; Roger Charlton, with whom I spent a fascinating morning on the Beckhampton gallops for a forthcoming TDN feature; and Peter Willett, who is an inspiration to every would-be writer on the planet in publising his latest book at the age of 95.

Cottesloe with his very happy winning connections
On the home front, Roy Rocket continues to shine at his beloved Brighton, a track as quirky as he is himself.  Cottesloe has been a truly welcome addition to the stable, winning on his first start for John and owner Stewart Brown on Saturday after a 162-day lay-off. Many thanks to John Hoy of Hoycubed Photography for the accompanying picture from Lingfield. Roy heads back to Brighton this afternoon so we're hoping he can justify favouritism and add to the Newmarket mayor's great strike-rate this season.

Among all the fun, one piece of truly sad news was the death of Joe Janiak's terrific old warhorse, Takeover Target. We enjoyed a string of summers with him here in Newmarket and though I tend to favour stayers, he was a sprinter who got well and truly under my skin. The piece below was written for an Australian website after he retired in 2009. I can't really add to it, except to say rest peacefully, old boy, you were truly remarkable and much loved.

-----------------------------------------

We’ve come to know it as Takeover Target’s box. It’s the end one in a row of six at Newmarket’s Abington Place Stables, an overflow from the main yard occupied by Aussie ex-pat Jane Chapple-Hyam.


Takeover Target's final exercise gallop on the Al Bahathri
For four consecutive annual visits, the great sprinter spent his days there, contentedly picking grass in the quiet paddock after exercise and heading off for evening walks with Joe Janiak once the morning hullabaloo of Newmarket Heath, just beyond his gate, had abated. 

Among more than 2,000 equine bluebloods in British horseracing’s HQ it would have been easy to overlook Takeover Target. With his funny shuffling stride and almost common head, his conformation gave no hint at the true champion contained within. Looks, though, are irrelevant. Racehorses are often, wrongly, compared to sports cars with high-performance engines but their ability to perform is much more organic than mechanical. On the racecourse Takeover Target’s chipped knees and strange gait didn’t matter: he was quite simply all heart. The good ones always are.


Leaving the gallops one morning last year after watching a string work, I spied through the trees the telltale saddle-cloth with the target logo. Returning to the viewing platform, I was fortunate enough to watch Takeover Target and Jay Ford complete a final exercise gallop before the July Cup. None of us knew then that it would be the last gallop of his career, barring the race in which he was injured seriously enough to bring the curtain down without that longed-for Hollywood ending. 


Disappointing though it was for those of us who had grown to love him during his English summers, it was only right that he should have had his last winning hurrah in his homeland, to stands packed with adoring fans at Morphettville. He was Australia’s horse, a sprinter to make the nation proud, his rags-to-riches tale an inspiration to every would-be racehorse owner in the land.


So now, in his place at the end of the stable row, we have Gold Trail, perhaps prophetically named if he’s anywhere near as good as his compatriots who have arrived for England’s flagship meeting before him. Next to him, where Scenic Blast stood last year, is the mare Alverta, while Nicconi is in the next-door yard, the four-year-old colt stabled separately to keep his mind on the game and off Alverta.


The champ, in his Newmarket box, with trainer Joe Janiak
The 2,500-acre training grounds on Newmarket Heath will be a bewildering environment for them, the masses of green space and gallops of differing camber and length a stark contrast to the familiarity of the training track. 


Choisir taught English racegoers to have the utmost respect for Australian sprinters, a message reinforced by those who followed in his wake. Their now annual presence at Royal Ascot is a highlight of the summer, as is their time spent in Newmarket in preparation. Gold Trail, Alverta and Nicconi are welcome here. But it will always be Takeover Target’s box.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lots of travels but Bangor is best of all

-->
It’s pretty poor only to have contributed to this blog once since the start of the new year. It’s been a busy few months with lots of travelling, all of it work- and horse-related.

In January, Nancy Sexton and I spent a few days in Ireland on the inaugural ITM Stallion Trail and at the ITBA Awards. While both events were excellent, the highlight of the trip had to be seeing Hurricane Fly win his fifth consecutive Irish Champion Hurdle. He’s a terrific and durable campaigner who reminds us how lucky we are in jump racing that so often the stars of the show are around for many seasons.

Nancy, Gwen, John, Dawn and Audrey en route
The following week Nancy and I were back on the road, this time with Dawn and John, heading to Normandy for La Route des Etalons. This is the sixth year running that I’ve been on the French stallion weekend and it’s always a thoroughly enjoyable occasion with the chance to bump into plenty of friends along the way and of course enjoy the odd glass of wine or Calvados. We also took the opportunity to call in on Minnie’s Mystery at Haras de la Cauvinière, who now has Ethics Girl for company there. Minnie is expecting a foal by Youmzain in April and we have that foal’s two-year-old full-brother, White Valiant, here in the stable and cantering away. He’s the biggest and strongest of all Minnie’s offspring so far and is one of three of her children in the yard, along with So Much Water and Roy Rocket. I’m hoping to hear later today that Ethics Girl has been covered by Anodin at Haras du Quesnay, and so will begin an exciting 11 months in the wait for her first foal.

A quick return trip to Normandy came just a week later for the Arqana February Sale with Liam Norris and William Huntingdon, who also never miss the opportunity for a glass of wine or two, which is what makes them such excellent travelling companions. They ended up buying four mares, including one for themselves who has recently foaled a first-crop Dabirsim filly. The Norris/Huntingdon partnership is of course famous for having bought the dual Oaks winner Dancing Rain but they also had a good result this week with the highly impressive win of Karar at St. Cloud for Francis Graffard and Al Shaqab Racing. They bought Karar as a foal for 55,000gns and resold him as a yearling for 120,000gns and he looks to be a seriously exciting three-year-old prospect for the season ahead.

Four-legged creature with a difference at Al Shahania Stud
A fascinating trip to Qatar followed for the HH The Emir’s Sword Equestrian Festival in Doha in February. Of course Qatar is now a pretty influential force in European racing, but plenty of horses bred here and in Ireland are bought to race over there, so it was interesting to see their facilities at first hand and to enjoy a few days at Al Rayyan racecourse as well as a visit to Al Shahania Stud. The warm weather was a bonus, as well as the good company, which included Adam Ward, Nick Godfrey, Tony Smurthwaite, Tom Peacock, Isabel Mathew, Jason Singh and Seb Vance among a host of others.

Some of the Durcott House crew
For the last 12 years, Cheltenham Festival week has been spent at Durcott House in Evesham, where Ed Prosser does a very good job of being our breakfast chef while the rest of us loaf around watching the Morning Line before heading to the races. Leaving aside the terrifying fall of Annie Power, this year’s racing was some of the best I can remember at the Festival. To witness four such outstanding novice chase performances as those posted by Un De Sceaux, Don Poli, Vautour and Coneygree in the space of four days is almost unbelievable, and the latter’s emotional triumph in the Gold Cup was the icing on the cake of an outstanding week of action.


Helen, Kirsty, Richard and Ken enjoying the Bangor sunshine
This Tuesday I’m being sent to Dubai to cover the World Cup meeting for the TDN but prior to that we had a very exciting outing to Bangor on Saturday, which has to count as the highlight of my year so far. Anyone looking at the results and seeing that Near Wild Heaven finished eighth on her bumper debut might wonder how I could feel that was an exciting day but, having bought her at the Doncaster Store Sale in May and then watched her all through her early training right up to the stage where she’s ready to head to the races has been an absolute pleasure.

It’s made better by the fact that she is owned by a really nice syndicate of patient and passionate jumps fans and also because she is simply a delight to deal with. She took her long trip to Bangor in her stride and behaved perfectly throughout. She’s still a young, relatively weak-looking horse by National Hunt standards and she will have a break before too long to benefit from some good spring grass. But she appears to be of very sound mind and limb and her progress so far, including making her debut on the date we had pencilled in many months ago, has given us all plenty of hope for the future.

Near Wild Heaven's first day at the races: a model pupil
From the Beverley Hillbillies syndicate which owns her, Ken and Kirsty Gibbs and Richard Jones made it to the races. Ken and Kirsty’s student daughter Helen was the star of the show. After a heavy night out on Friday, she’d only made it to bed at 5.30am but managed to come along to the races looking glamorous and mysterious in her Raybans and then to back at least three winners, including, appropriately, Binge Drinker. It was only a shame that the forecast was narrowly missed when Al Co finished third.

For anyone who likes friendly country jumps tracks, then Bangor is a must-visit. The staff couldn’t be more helpful and welcoming and on a lovely sunny day like yesterday, it would be hard to find a more beautiful location for a day at the races. It was great to catch up with Richard Kent and Sarah Taylor of Mickley Stud, who raised Near Wild Heaven as a young horse and board her dam at their farm. Also present was John’s old lodger Donald McCain, who must be the most successful trainer at the track. His daughter Ella was leading up for him and won best turned out for one of their charges.

John and Donald, former colleagues at Luca Cumani's stable
Near Wild Heaven travelled to the races with Lucy Wadham’s filly Sunshine Corner, who is a very close relative to the stable’s good mare Baby Shine and if her winning performance in the bumper yesterday was anything to go by, then she is a horse with a very bright future.

The great thing about going racing with good people on a nice day is that it helps you forget about all the politics which can ruin the enjoyment of the sport. I’m not going to get on my soapbox about yet more changes to the Flat season. All I’ll say is that I’m a boring old traditionalist at heart and I hate to see seemingly pointless changes to a sport whose main selling point is its rich history and time-honoured meetings. It seems that each year racing is becoming less and less recognisable as the sport which first bewitched me in the days of the great Red Rum. I hope it doesn’t slide too much farther down the slippery slope to corporate tedium.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Sunday morning walk

-->
One of the privileges of living in Newmarket is that, once the horses are away, there’s seemingly endless open space for dog-walking on the Heath.

Yearlings over the hedge at the National Stud
A favourite walk is to follow the track along the Devil’s Dyke between the Rowley Mile and July Course and then come back around the National Stud hedges. If time permits and Brian O’Rourke is turning a blind eye, it’s also good to walk the Town Plate course backwards.

Gus and I spend many Sundays at the spot that seems to encapsulate Newmarket best: fields of mares and foals to one side and the vast expanse of the two racecourses on the other. It’s what this place is all about. 

Walking back up along the hedge by the airstrip on the July Course you come to a place which affords a view of both grandstands. In the farther distance the upstart Millennium Stand of the Rowley Mile rises from the flat gallops which surround it, backlit by the morning sun, a glowing, eerie, frosty white. Across the way, the old lady next door, the fading beauty that that is the July Course, is cocooned by her lovely trees. Stately she stands after all these years.

In not so many months, both courses will be owned by racegoers’ shouts, the drumming of hooves, flashes of coloured silks and popping of corks. This morning the utter stillness is broken only by the flash of a black-and-white spotted dog on the trail of rabbits and the incongruous shrieks of seagulls circling above the yearlings’ feed bowls on the National Stud next door. Today both courses belong to me. And to Gus.