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.

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