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.

1 comment:

neil kearns said...

make John open the wallet and allow the queen the opportunity to blink - he has to make a derby entry for Dereham as you say no point in not dreaming - the one thing that surprises me with the smaller owner / breeders is they don't make these sort of entries and see what happens - quick true story I can remember John commenting as a beast (in which I had a share) went to post that at that point he/she was a potential classic colt/filly when the race was run that would almost certainly be a different matter - outcome was the horse actually refused to race !!