There’s More to Aintree Than The National

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Kayley Woollacott with Lalor after victory in the Top Novices’ Hurdle

I don’t want to underestimate  the importance of the Grand National. It is an institution that transcends the sport. But it is a quirky kind of race, that dominates the meeting and can distract from how much more the three day Festival has to offer. And this year there was no event more poignant than Lalor’s triumph in the Grade 1 Top Novices’ Hurdle.

This time last year Lalor won the Grade 2 Champion Bumper at Aintree, leading to emotional scenes when trainer Richard Woollacott lead him back to the enclosure. Following Richard’s death in January at the age of 40, his wife Kayley Woollacott spoke profoundly and with dignity in the face tragedy. She highlighted issues surrounding mental health and embarked on fundraising for Mind, the Injured Jockeys’ Fund and Devon Air Ambulance. With a young daughter and a successful Point to Point yard, you could imagine that would be more than enough to juggle. But Kayley took over Richard’s licence and continued the work, albeit with a reduced number of horses. Her first win under rules came at Exeter on 8th April with The Kings Writ in a 3 mile Handicap Chase.

Following Lalor’s return to Aintree on Friday, Kayley’s response to the cameras after his win, was “It’s unbelievable – I don’t know how that just happened”. Well having spoken with Kayley in the week – as understated as she presents – I get the impression the answer is through hard work, determination and skilful planning. She was quick to praise the loyalty of  owner, Dave Staddon, to say how grateful she was to secure the services of Champion jockey, Richard Johnson – riding Lalor for the first time since victory at Aintree last year – and emphasise the importance of her staff. Whilst these are all valid points, I don’t think what she has achieved personally should be underestimated.

Lalor’s last race had been in February’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. A competitive Handicap run in testing conditions, he was placed 13th of the 20 finishers. Kayley said “He didn’t enjoy the ground, which effected his jumping”. He was subsequently schooled to work on speed, with a number of options considered for his next destination. She described the decision to “Go for the big one” as “a gamble”, but one which if it didn’t come off “would still leave us with a Novice Hurdler”.

The gamble certainly did pay off. And whilst I commented that I thought he looked beaten in the long run to the third fence from home, Kayley reflected he “ran the same race as in the Bumper… a little bit off the pace”.

As for the future, the plan is that Lalor will stay where he is and go Novice Chashing next season.

Yes, the Grand National is great, but an Elliott/Mullins one/two is nothing compared to the story of Lalor’s victory, which was one of endeavour and was as fitting as it was emotional.

 

 

 

 

 

Exeter Racecourse – Family Day

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Bryony Frost proves she can work with children as well as animals

They do like a theme at Exeter Racecourse, whether it be Devon Day, Festive Fun or in the case of today, Family Day.

There were bouncy castles, welly wanging – be careful how you say it – and a hunt (not literally) for Peter Rabbit. Children were also treated to a pre race Q&A with Bryony Frost and Nick Schofield. The questions included – How many times have you fallen? Have you ever been kicked by a horse and what injuries have you suffered? Sensing a theme and a desire for as much gruesome detail as possible, the questions were opened up to the adults. I wanted to ask for their views on Brexit, given the likely impact on the racing industry, but thought better of it. If only to save embarrassing my teenage son.

In truth it wasn’t a card to get the pulse racing – Two Class 3 Races was as good as it got- but they flocked in their numbers. Speaking with a with friend who is a Course director, I congratulated him on the crowd. He reminded me that children got in for free, and they seemed to form the majority, so the income wasn’t as healthy as it might have appeared.

The meeting opened with a Selling Hurdle, which was won by Under The Woods, in exactly the fashion that a 1/4 favourite should win. He was promptly sold at the auction for £10,700.

The feature race of the day was The City of Exeter Challenge Cup. An extended 2 mile Handicap Hurdle, it was won in some style by Michael Nolan riding Show on the Road. The favourite, Lord Napier, ended a distant last of the six finishers and looked to have struggled all the way.  The other Class 3 race saw victory go to the Father and son combination of Matt and Stan Sheppard with The Bay Birch, quickly following her triumph at Towcester ten days ago. By contrast The King’s Writ secured his first win under rules, in the 3 mile Chase.

The most exciting finish of the day was the duel between Shoofly Milly and Bact To Black in the Class 5 Hurdle. Bact To Black had opened in the markets at any price you like and started at 9/2. He lost by a neck, but Shoofly Milly had to survive a Stewards’ Enquiry before honours were confirmed.

Philip Hobbs’ Vodka All The Way looked like he might get the better of Holdbacktheriver in the Novices’ Hurdle, but had nothing to offer when asked the question close to home. The final race was a Class 6 Hunters’ Chase, in which only three of seven starters completed the trip. Of those three the evens favourite Tinkers Hill Tommy was last, with an unexerting first place going to the Chloe Rodrick trained Salubriuos.

We did manage to find Peter Rabbit, but my teenage son declined the offer to have his picture taken with him.

Around the Courts

I wrote back in October about a case in the Gloucester Crown Court involving two defendants who had pleaded not guilty to causing criminal damage in a betting shop. The men had relied on the rarely raised defence of automatism, which they claimed had arisen  by the trance like state induced through the use of fixed odds betting terminals. Having obtained an expert’s report, neither now seek to rely on the defence and one of the defendants has pleaded guilty on a limited basis, while the other has maintained his not guilty plea.  From what I have read the nature of his defence now is far from clear and the trial has been listed to be heard in May. The defendant who changed his plea, will not be sentenced until the conclusion of the trial.

Meanwhile in the Cheltenham Magistrates’ Court, conditional jockey Killian Moore has pleaded not guilty to driving with excess alcohol. Moore provided a positive sample of 59 micrograms of alcohol  per 100 millilitres of breath, following his Audi A4 being involved in a road traffic incident at Dumbleton on February 2nd. The legal limit is 35 micrograms of alcohol.  It is reported the  jockey explained to the Court that the alcohol reading was due to him being “plied” with rum to deal with the shock, when he had gone to a nearby house following the incident. The trial will  take place on June 26th.

This defence of post driving alcohol consumption is known to us in the trade as a “hip flask defence”. It is not without difficulties, as there is a statutory presumption that the alcohol level recorded in the reading would not be less than when the person was driving.  To rebut this presumption defendants need to obtain expert evidence with a back calculation, in an attempt to show their alcohol reading would have been below the legal limit, but for the post driving alcohol consumption. As experts being experts, require precise details of the alcohol quantities consumed, the hurdle I often professionally encounter is that clients are unable to provide instructions beyond “Well I don’t know exactly how much I had to drink, because I was pissed”.

Whatever the wisdom of Moore allowing himself to be plied with rum following involvement if a road traffic accident, one very sensible move he has made is not to instruct me to represent him. Having defended a few of these cases as a solicitor in the Magistrates’ Courts for over 20 years, I have yet to secure an acquittal.

The Irish Trainers’ Championship

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The race to be Ireland’s Champion Trainer is still wide open

If you believe the markets, with a month to go, the British Trainers’ Championship is done and dusted whilst there’s all to play for in Ireland. Interestingly, there’s not much that separates the contestants in both tables –  Nicky Henderson is £644,000 ahead of Paul Nicholls in Britain and Gordon Elliott is €491,000 in front of Willie Mullins in Ireland.  However, the best I could find on the Exchanges was 1.06 for Henderson to retain his title, while across the sea there looks to be a genuine two horse race, with Betfair Sportsbook offering Mullins at 4/5 and Elliott at 10/11.

One reason the bookies might be finding it hard to put a rizla paper between the Irish contestants is, as history has taught us, Punchestown can change everything. Last year Elliott went into the Festival more than €400,000 ahead, only to finish €200,000 behind Mullins and be denied a first Trainers’ Championship. Elliott described the outcome as ‘Heatbreaking’.

He may have been the top Trainer at Cheltenham this year, but Elliott has made it clear where his priorities lie ‘If you ask me do I want to be leading trainer in Cheltenham or leading trainer in Ireland, there is only one place that matters’.

I sense an increased determination this year to wrestle the title from Mullins’ grip. I heard it said at a Cheltenham Preview Night that Elliott had left some horses in Ireland to focus on the valuable end of season  handicaps. Whilst I don’t know the evidence for this, you can always do worse that back blind an Elliott horse with Davy Russell on board in a handicap.

Elliott also enjoys  the patronage of the mighty Gigginstown Stud and with their retained jockies, Davy Russell and Jack Kennedy, firing on all cylinders, this season may well have a different outcome. To strengthen the argument, even if Mullins’ top rider, Ruby Walsh, does recover from his injury plagued season in time for the Punchestown Festival, there has to be a question over his fitness and psychological readiness.

There doesn’t currently appear to be a great deal of liquidity in the market for the Irish Championship and the odds might not seem attractive, on which ever camp you favour. However, if you are tempted and want to squeeze some value, you should be able to lay Mullins at evens. And that might be where the smart money should go.

 

 

Studying the Form

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Barry Geraghty returns on Buveur D’Air after winning the Champion Hurdle

There are always many challenges facing punters in backing a winner at the Festival and this year’s preparation was even more tricky with the seasonally unusual heavy ground. Hours of study based on the assumption races would be run on good to soft, proved to be time wasted and the interminable round of Cheltenham Preview nights could provide no clues. Horses primed for a particular Festival race all season were either withdrawn or saw their chances greatly reduced, whilst the mudlarks were supplemented at the last minute.

If you look at the winners of the main race on each day, the task was even more difficult, because there was so little form on which to rely. Save for Champion Hurdle victor, Buveur D’Air – who arguably hadn’t had a test since winning the race last year- none of the other three had run more than once in the current season. Whilst at least Champion Chase winner, Altior, and Gold Cup winner, Native River, had been raced in the calendar year, Penhill who brought victory for Willie Mullins in the Stayers’ Hurdle hadn’t competed for 323 days.

This is in contrast to the winners of the corresponding  fixtures at the 2017 Festival, when Buveur D’Air, with three runs in the season, was the most lightly raced. The others – Special Tiara in the Champion Chase, Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle and Sizing John in the Gold Cup- had all been raced recently and each clocked up four runs during the season.

Doubtless too much can be read into this: statistics tend to be interpreted as we wish to view them and I’m sure the pattern isn’t repeated with all Festival races. However, I do wonder if it is a sign of a trend particularly with the main players to prepare their horses at home, rather than get them match fit through competitive races – Remember how we were all encouraged to back Melon in last year’s Supreme Novices’ on the basis of one race and the stories of how he was galloping around Willie Mullins’ back garden. The big trainers have vast state of the art facilities, where perhaps it is felt preparation for championship races is best undertaken, rather than doing battle at the race track.

Should the major events increasingly be dominated by such rarely seen horses, the problem for the punter is, it is impossible to study form, where there is none to study.

 

 

 

Cheltenham – What Price the Feature Race?

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Davy Russell returns a win for Gigginstown in Thursday’s Feature Race

I must admit I was flagging a bit by Thursday at the Festival and at first I thought I just misheard it when the Ryanair was announced on the tannoy as the day’s Feature Race. However, when my racing companion Spread Sheet Martin, who has a far better sense for detail than me, also picked up on it I knew my ears weren’t deceiving me.  Perhaps he’d just misread the notes. There was nothing in the Card to suggest the race’s elevation in status and certainly no advertising in the lead up to the Festival pointing to the Chase replacing the Stayers’ Hurdle as the day’s highlight. But then came all the trimmings associated with the main event- The horse’s being lead out by mounted men in hunting red, the dramatic music and that razzmatazzy stuff they put on the screens.

I found it all very confusing. I had rather assumed there was some sacred law written on a scroll stating that the 3.30 on each day of the Festival was to be the Feature Race and that any change could only be achieved by armed struggle.

I feared I knew the answer, but before jumping to any conclusions I made some enquiries: I tweeted Cheltenham Racecourse, the Jockey Club and the Racing Post, but none replied. I expect they were busy.

I would have to do my own research and it didn’t take long.  A quick google of Ryanair Cheltenham Sponsorship and the answers were there on the Ryanair website.  We are informatively told that Ryanair is Europe’s favourite airline – There was me thinking it was best known for cancelled flights and poorly paid pilots- and that it has extended its sponsorship of the two and half mile chase for five years.  It proudly states it will increase the prize fund from £300,000 in 2017, to £350,000 this year and rising to £400,000 by 2022.  And then the inexorable conclusion “In the light of this significant boost in prize money, The Ryanair Chase will now become the feature race on St. Patrick’s Thursday at the Cheltenham Festival from March 2018 onwards”.

The lack of any publicity by the racing authorities of this change prior to the Festival, might hint at a degree of embarrassment  on their part and I do wonder if Ryanair owner, Micheal O’Leary, was engaged in a back room power struggle with Cheltenham to have his race moved to the 3.30pm slot as well.

It turned out to be a good day for Mr O’Leary. Not only was the feature race run in the name of his company, but for the first time since he has sponsored it, one of his horses from the Gigginstown Stud won. The joy must have been enough to take his mind off the impending strike by Ryanair employees.

Perhaps in the final analysis, other than highlighting the power of money and influence of O’Leary in National Hunt racing, this doesn’t matter a great deal. However, whilst enough cash may buy you the main event and the winner, it can’t guarantee a great race. The Ryanair only attracted six runners, whilst fifteen started in the Stayers’ Hurdle and treated us to a far more thrilling finish.

The Prestbury Cup – State of the Nations

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Davy Russell raises the Tricolour to celebrate another Irish victory

With still more than a day’s Festival racing left, the screens flashed up at Cheltenham confirming that Ireland had an unassailable lead in the battle with the British to train the most Festival winners and had, therefore, retained the Prestbury Cup. Thursday finished 6/15 to the Irish and although the Festival ended with a slightly reduced margin of victory 11/17, there is no doubting on which side of the Irish Sea the balance of power lies.

This bare statistic, however, doesn’t tell the full story. All but two of Ireland’s victories were from either Gordon Elliott’s or Willie Mullins’ Yard, with a final result of 8/7 to Elliott.

If this duopoly is worrying, consider the concentration of ownership. Ignoring the Willie Mullins victories, there was only one Irish winner that didn’t race in the colours of Gigginstown Stud. Michael O’Leary owner of Gigginstown and a man who appears to relish playing the role of Pantomime villain, famously withdrew all his horses from the Mullins’ Yard due to an increase in training fees, and now largely favours Elliott to stable his large number of expensive thoroughbreds.

Whilst the big beasts of Anglo training, Nicky Henderson and Colin Tizzard, took the major Festival prizes, eight British trainers sampled the winner’s enclosure and none more than twice. The glory was also shared amongst a number of owners.

As the proud holder of an Irish passport, I am of course pleased that we won the Prestbury Cup and the dominance is all the more impressive when you consider that Ireland’s top jockey Ruby Walsh missed a majority of the four days, having aggravated a leg injury from which he had only returned to the saddle. However, it seems to me that so much power and money in the hands of so few isn’t good for the sport and it is actually British racing that is in the more healthy state.