That was the season that was

It was largely a case as you were: Gordon Elliott went into the Punchestown Festival with a healthy lead in the Irish Trainers’ Championship, only to be overtaken by Willie Mullins again, who grabbed  the title for a twelfth time.  Nicky Henderson retained his crown in the British Trainers’ Championship as did Richard Johnson, as Britain’s Champion jockey.  There was a change in Ireland’s Champion jockey, with Davy Russell coming out on top, but only due to Ruby Walsh being sidelined through injury for much of the season.

Memories of Davy Russell’s four day ban for punching Kings Dolly in the back of the head before a Handicap Hurdle at Tramore in August, were all but forgotten by the time of his successes at the Cheltenham Festival; shortly after the death of his Mother of whom he spoke emotionally, tenderly and with gratitude.  Davy then went on to claim the Grand National for the first time, as the diminutive Tiger Roll held on by a head after a storming late charge from Pleasant Company.

Richard Johnson picked up a seven day ban for over use of the whip in his victory in the Gold Cup on Native River, in an epic duel with the reformed Might Bite. Also at the Cheltenham Festival Buveur D’Air,  who had been unbeaten without a test all season, proved he could also win in a proper contest, when he retained the Champion Hurdle Trophy beating Melon by  a neck. Another Nicky Henderson horse, Altior, looked out of it in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but through some skilful navigation from Nico de Boinville, triumphed by seven lengths from Min.  He now adds that to his Supreme Novices’ and Arkle wins.

However, whatever moments of glory British Trainers experienced at the Festival, Ireland retained the Prestbury Cup with still more than a day left ;which probably says more about the Mullins/Elliott juggernauts than it does about the strength of Irish racing. The cold statistics are that if Mullins had started the Punchestown Festival without a Euro in prize money, he would have still come second in Irish Champion Trainers’ title race and he even found time to come sixth in the British Table.

But there was so much more to the season.  The victory for North Devon trainer, Richard Woollacott, with Beer Goggles against a class field in the Newbury Long Distance Hurdle reminded me of all the reasons I love this sport; whilst Richard’s death at the age of forty less than nine weeks later, put it in perspective. There was no more emotional scene at Aintree in April when Lalor followed up his Bumper win their last season with a Grade 1 triumph in the Top Novices’ Hurdle for Richard’s widow, Kayley, who took on the licence.

Bryony Frost lit up the season like no other jockey, with her enthusiasm, infectious smile and notable rides. The biggest win of her career came on Present Man in the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton, but the enduring story was her rides on Black Corton. A horse that spent the summer at Worcester, Fontwell and Newton Abbot, went on to success at Kempton, Ascot and twice at Cheltenham. With two of the greats Nina Carrberry and Katie Walsh announcing their retirement at the end of the season, both going out on highs, and Lizzie Kelly winning at Cheltenham at Trials Day and the Festival, it won’t won’t be long before we just talk about jockeys, without the prefix “women”.

The loveable grey, Bristol De Mai, followed victory in  the Charlie Hall Chase by a distance win over Cue Card in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. The critics said that he was no more than a flat track mud lark and I wanted them to be wrong. But it proved to be the peak of his season.  Another seven year old grey, Politilogue, started by bagging the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter and looked for a while as if he could be one of the big players in the two mile Chase division. However, he was disappointing in the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, although found some redemption over two and a half miles in the Melling Chase at Aintree.

Un De Sceaux proved he was still at the peak of his powers, making it a hat trick of Clarence House Chase titles, and completed the season with only one blip, when running second to Balko Des Flos in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

At the tender age of sixteen James Bowen won the Welsh Grand National on Raz De Maree and finished Britain’s top conditional jockey. Cue Card finally retired.

Some spoke of the end of season finale at Punchestown  as being better than Cheltenham. It certainly wasn’t without excitement or controversy. Paul Townend’s steering of Al Boum Photo to avoid the final fence in the Champion Novice Chase and taking out of Finian’s Oscar in the process, was all the more inexplicable by the silence of both stewards and jockey.    Townend eventually explained that he thought he heard a voice telling him to miss the fence and apologised. Suggestions that he wouldn’t be up to riding the following day could not have been wider of the mark, when he secured a treble.

The biggest cheer of the week at Punchestown was reserved for Faugheen, whose even most evangelical disciples were conceding was a spent force. Reinventing  himself as a three mile hurdler,  he bolted up in the Champion Stayers’ by thirteen lengths.

While Britain started its end of season seven day break from the jumps, many jockeys found the lure of Kilbeggan too great and continued their racing in Ireland.  And for those of us this side of the Irish Sea there’s the Hunter Chase Evening at Cheltenham tomorrow and jumping at Uttoxeter on Saturday. Bring it on.





Faugheen The Well Oiled Machine

Faugheen laps it up at Punchestown’s Stayers Hurdle

Remember Faugheen the Machine? The horse that, save for a second at Punchestown in November 2015, notched up 12 consecutive victories, which included the Neptune and Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Then came a lay off for the best part of two years. Returning in the Grade 1 Unibet Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November 2017, he won beating Jezki by 16 lengths and it looked like a case of as you were, with any maintenance work having been successfully carried out.

What followed, however, suggested it might have only been a temporary repair – Pulled up at Leapordstown,  then second to Supasundae at the same track and a lacklustre 6th in this year’s Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Now aged 10, whatever his component parts, he couldn’t be described as a time machine.

Watching him work last Sunday,  Mullins said that he looked at Ruby Walsh and they both thought “That’s him gone”.  Mullins with if not both, had at least on hand on the Trainers’ Championship by Wednesday night and had no need to throw the dice, but said “We were always going to take a chance and run him though”, describing it as a “sort of last chance saloon”. It’s an establishment that Faugheen clearly enjoyed, winning commandingly by 13 lengths in the Punchestown Stayers Hurdle, over a distance he hadn’t contested since being a five year old Novice. He looked back to his best and probably received the biggest cheer of the week.

There’s now talk of sending him Novice chashing next season. I’ll raise a glass to that, because the thing about the last chance saloon is there is always time for one more drink.



There’s More to Aintree Than The National

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

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

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

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.