It’s difficult to appreciate now exactly how much hype there was surrounding Melon leading up to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March. He even had his own twitter account. For a horse that had only raced once, winning a perfectly average Maiden Hurdle at Leopardstown, almost all the expectation was based on the stories of how he was performing behind closed doors at Closutton.
What the script writers hadn’t factored in was the bad boy of racing Labaik, for whom the biggest question was whether he would refuse to run again, denying Melon victory. Not to worry the experts said, Labaik was a freak, and all would come good at Punchestown. He came second again, with Labaik finishing last by 99 lengths, having eventually agreed to start.
Some form of redemption came at Down Royal yesterday when he won the Grade 2 WKD Hurdle, having been sent off 2/5 favourite in a field of six. The main rivals were Willie Mullins’ other entry, Coquin Mans, and Gordon Elliott’s Mick Jazz. Approaching the last two, the smart money was probably on Coquin Mans, although Melon quickly improved when it mattered. At the final hurdle both made mistakes, with Melon taking it in a particularly awkward fashion , but finishing comfortably by over 4 lengths.
Melon is currently 14/1 for next year’s Champion Hurdle and less than 20/1 for the Arkle. Let the hype begin again.
Just to remind anyone who is tempted to apply for the job of Head of Handicapping at the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) that your application will need to be submitted by 5th November.
The vacancy arises following the announcement by Phil Smith that he will be retiring from the post at the end of next May. Liverpudlian Smith has spent 22 years working for the BHA, following a career as a teacher.
There is surprising little on the BHA website by way of job description, required skills or indeed, remuneration. However, I suggest a good starting point would be a head for figures and the ability to wear a tank top without any hint of irony. As someone without a Maths O level to my name, I shan’t be throwing my hat in the ring.
Victoria Pendleton makes her Pointing debut at Black Forest Lodge in November 2015, with Betfair branding on display.
One of the stories doing the rounds last week concerned Cheltenham’s decision to require amateur Festival riders to hold a category B permit. To obtain this permit a jockey must have completed 15 rides under rules, a majority being over obstacles or 20 in point-to-point, or a combination of the two. The change will bring amateur jockeys in line with those who negotiate the Grand National fences at Aintree.
Inevitably the angle taken by the press was that this would have ruled out Victoria Pendleton from having competed in the 2016 Foxhunters’ Chase.
The sometimes insular culture of jump racing appeared generally to embrace Pendleton, perhaps valuing the positive publicity she brought to the sport, although tempered with some wise words regarding safety.
I had mixed views. There is no doubt she is an incredibly gifted and dedicated sportswoman. It was also obvious she has a passion for horses and started at grass roots level- I witnessed her debut at Black Forrest point-to-point on a cold November Sunday. As wonderful a setting as it is , somewhat unusually occupied by press on that day who probably struggled to find the venue, it can’t be described as being at the glamour end of the market. However, I can’t help but feel that there were some who have been reared in the world of horses from Pony Clubs through to points and Rules, who might with some justification, have been a little resentful. Whilst such jockeys do this, because it is in their DNA, they would not have had the facilities, investment or rides so readily available to Pendleton. Nor would they have the publicity or financial reward for their years of relentless hard and dangerous work.
Lawney Hill who mentored Pendelton and has not opposed the rule change, told the Racing Post that while “We have to move with the times.. we will lose the true Corinthians”. I would struggle to put Pendleton in this bracket. It was rumoured she was paid at least £200,000 by Betfair for a year’s work and doubtless received substantial sums for associated media work and from advertising.
For me this story was not about Victoria Pendleton. Her entry into the sport was a one off and Befair have moved on, now trying to reinvent Rio Ferdinand as a boxer. The consequences are most likely to be felt by those who are experienced riders, but devote most of their time to training. Callum Miller who rode in this year’s Foxhunters’ and is employed as a pupil-assistant in a point-to-point yard, said that to get the licence would mean having to take five days off work and “I’ve been riding all my life…Victoria Pendleton was completely different. She’d been riding for only a year”.
It is hard not to feel some sympathy with Miller’s position, but the move has largely been viewed as inevitable and necessary. I tend to agree.
Although not jump racing related, my attention was drawn to proceedings in the Gloucester Crown Court where a defendant has pleaded not guilty to a charge of criminal damage. The allegation is that he caused £20,000 worth of damage to fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT), after having lost over £1,000 on a machine in 20 minutes. His defence is automatism, which in simple terms is the lack of voluntary action, caused he would say by the trance like state the machines are designed to induce. A second defendant who had previously pleaded not guilty, indicated he wished to change his plea.
His Honour Judge Tabour QC adjourned the case for a pre-trial review in December and made it clear the defence would get no where without an expert’s report. The case is even more newsworthy, because the defendants say they were invited into the shop in spite of having filled in self exclusion forms.
As someone who makes a living from representing those accused of criminal offences, in over 20 years as a solicitor I have never had a client seek to rely on automatism, although I have a vague memory of covering it in a lecture as an undergraduate. I don’t know enough about the case to comment and I am a believer in leaving justice to run its course. However, it does seem to me that whatever the outcome anything that publicises the issues regarding FOBT’s has to be positive. As Judge Tabour QC also commented at the recent hearing: ‘I imagine Ladbrokes are extremely worried’.
I recently followed a fiercely contested social media argument on the question of- When does the jump season start? One pedant rightly identified April 30th, the day after the 2016/17 season ended, but that really wasn’t entering into the spirit of the debate. Such as there was, the consensus pointed to Cheltenham’s opening two days- The Showcase. That was certainly how it felt when I returned to Prestbury Park on Friday. Gone were the shorts and football shirt uniform of the summer spectators; replaced by tweed in various forms of flamboyance. And I felt slightly more at one with the world again.
The issue of whether the sport is too Cheltenham centric is is too great to do justice in this post, but there is no denying it is both the physical home and spiritual centre of jump racing. Perhaps even more importantly, it does what it does extremely well.
One of the great pleasures of attending the non festival events is that whilst there is never any shortage of numbers – over 12,000 attended on Friday and 18,000 on Saturday- you can explore corners of the course you wouldn’t know existed if you only visited during the Festival Circus and there are more places to watch from than there are races.
The meeting began with a short field novices’ hurdle. Largely on the back of the Skelton brothers’ summer successes, I backed Blairs Cove. The favourite Brillare Moment won. Having recently posted about the lack of entertainment provided by novice chases, the opening day had two competitive races. All eyes were on Sceau Royal in the 2.35. North Hill Harvey won for the Skelton duo. If only I’d stuck to the rationale for my punt in the opening race – I backed Movewiththetimes, heavily influenced by the belief that Barry Geraghty wouldn’t come for a single ride without a good chance of victory.
It is, of course, pretty basic stuff that you don’t attempt to recoup your losses in a tricky handicap with a field of 21. However, I couldn’t resist an each way on bottom weight Trans Express, who I’d seen win at Exeter recently and out of loyalty to Devon trainers. I missed out by a place, but I couldn’t resent trainer, Tim Vaughan, his first Cheltenham victory after 151 previous attempts.
The second novices chase was an intriguing affair and a case could be made for any of the 6 runners. On the basis that Black Corton is a proper stayer, with good recent form and Bryony Frost loves Cheltenham, this is where my investment rested. The favourite, Fagan, began to fade before the second to last (summing up Gordon Elliott’s day, having brought over 5 without success) leaving a straight fight between Sizing Tennessee and Black Corton. In all honesty I suspect the former would have won if he hadn’t fallen, but thank you Bryony Frost, my day had suddenly got a lot better.
Not willing to risk my modest profit on a amateur riders’ handicap chase, I was happy to to passively watch a race run at furious pace and Derek O’Connor to win by a convincing 9 lengths on What Happens Now.
Back to basic principles for the maiden hurdle and each way on the Skelton duo’s Gortroe Joe. The favourite, Slate House, won- I guess if you pay £260,000 for a horse on the back of one point to point win, you’re entitled to a little return on your investment- but I was content to collect on 3rd place.
Now with enough profit to justify a curry and small glass of wine when I returned to Bristol for the night, I stayed clear of the conditional jockeys’ handicap hurdle. The race was a story of a loose horse and how it influenced the outcome. Man Of Plenty looked like he would catch Bobble Emerald approaching the finish, when Harry Stock was forced to take evasive action to avoid the riderless horse. The argument goes he could have chosen the inside. Instead he went to the right, squeezing out Sean Houlihan who I thought was overly generous swapping his whip from one hand to the other and accommodating Bobble Emerald’s passage. After what seemed like an unnecessarily long look by the stewards, the standings were unaltered and a 33/1 winner was returned. The relief of the owners in the parade ring was both visible and audible.
I enjoyed Saturday less. Too many impossibly fathomable handicaps and I couldn’t couldn’t back a winner for love nor money. I was even out of the placepot after the second race, when the one banker I’d selected – The Skeltons’ Bedrock – let me down. My two other fancies of the day were Harry Fry’s Whataknight in the Pertemps and Alcala-who I still think would have got the better of Finian’s Oscar, but for freakish slip at Chepstow. Confident in the belief that even if the former didn’t perform for me, I could put everything on the latter in the novices’ chase and go home happy. By 4.30pm I was in the queue for the cashpoint machine. I was still restrained enough not to bet on the novices’ hurdle, but I would swear an oath and say if I had, I would have backed Callett Mad. Obviously he won, completing an impressive treble for Nigel Twiston- Davies, although the only one without his son on board who rode Dashing Perk.
It would have been wrong not have a punt on the final race, although I can’t ever remember winning on a bumper and have no idea how to read them. My £5 each way on the 25/1 Mighty Thunder seemed like a good idea at the time. He came 6th, with victory going to impressive looking Herecomestheboom.
Saturday night in Bristol was slightly more impoverished than Friday. I had to settle for staying in my hotel room with a bargain basement bottle of prosecco from Tesco and a large packet of Tortilla chips.
It would be wrong not to acknowledge Aidan O’Brien’s world record breaking 26th Group 1 flat victory. Even the big screen at Cheltenham yesterday switched to Doncaster to show Saxon Warrior win.
Yanworth- Flying over the fences at Exeter yesterday
We’ve now seen three of last year’s star hurdlers make their debut over fences and all have come through successfully. Death Duty has won both a beginners’ and novice chase, while Finian’s Oscar never looked to be threatened following the slip from Alcala at Chepstow. This culminated yesterday in Yanworth’s victory at Exeter, where JP McManus literally made a flying visit. For what it’s worth I thought Yanworth was the most impressive of the three. Whist approaching the first few fences with a degree of caution, once he got the hang of it looked like a natural and had plenty left in the tank at the end.
So what have we learned? Well in truth probably not a lot, save that the issues the BHA announced it had addressed back in August have yet to be resolved. In a division dominated by small fields with short priced favourites, the problem was perceived to be that any horse finishing close to a highly-rated winner was then getting hammered in the weights. This provided little incentive to enter and a culture of sitting tight to preserve a suitable mark, once it had been attained. The handicapper, of course, refuted the allegation. In response to this the BHA announced a number of changes. The most notable of these was prohibiting a handicap rating increase in weight-for-age novice chases of Class 2 and below.
Whilst some trainers did not consider this the answer – Donald McCain pointed to a lack of mid tier novice handicap races – the BHA changes largely found favour, with notably both Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls speaking in support.
These changes were cited as coming into effect from October 1st and the evidence so far is that little appears to have changed either side of the Irish sea. Death Duty set off in his beginners’ chase at Tipperary at 1/5 and followed this in a novices’ at the slightly more appealing 4/9 in a field of five, with his nearest rival starting at 7/1. Finian’s Oscar was 1/3 at Chepstow in a four horse race, in which his only realistic rival failed to finish. My view of the 2/7 Yanworth yesterday is that he was never troubled and although six started, to call it even a two-horse race in reality is being generous.
When I was at the Season’s Opener at Exeter recently, by far the most sparse line up was in the beginners’ chase (there was no novice chase), where although competitively raced between the top two in the market, could only attract four runners. By contrast the meeting began with the novices’ hurdle, with an extra race added to the card to accommodate the numbers.
The BHA are to be commended for recognising the problem and seeking to do something about it. There was also no shortage of expertise on their working group which included Philip Hobbs, Emma Lavelle, Dan Skelton and Nick Alexander. However, the jury is still out on whether the solution has been correctly identified and in the meantime watching the newbie chasers at a meeting will often remain the least entertaining event of the day.
My condolences to the Gittins Family and all those connected with Fayonagh
Along with Zac Baker, another man entitled to emerge from the weekend with a smile on his face is ten times Champion Trainer, Paul Nicholls. Having taken six horses to Kempton on Sunday, he came away with four winners two of which were in listed races, and two places. Given this you would think back on Manor Farm hopes for the season were high. However, Nicholls is playing down his chances of regaining the Trainers’ Championship wrested from him by Nicky Henderson back in April. “Being champion trainer again is going to be very hard, if not impossible this season because we have so many youngsters” was the recent statement; whilst emphasising this isn’t something he is stressing about and the pleasure he gets from training the next generation of potential stars.
The affable Somerset trainer currently sits second in the Championship table, with 42 wins and 58 places from 123 starts, and prize money nudging towards the half a million mark. By contrast Nicky Henderson is back in twelfth place, with a modest £180,000 in prize money, but only 82 runs. It is, of course, all fairly meaningless at this stage. Dan Skelton who has no realistic aspiration of taking the title is currently top with prize money of just over half a million pounds – it is credit to Skelton how hard he has worked the summer circuit, with no other trainer I can find getting close to his 319 runs. In a championship in which cash is king, it’s the glut of Grade 1 races at the business end of the season that count, and save for last season’s star hurdlers who are taking their first tentative jumps over fences, most of the big names are still enjoying an extended summer recess.
It’s easy to see why Nicholls might be downbeat about his chances after having only one winner at the Cheltenham Festival and none subsequently at Aintree last season. However , there is no doubt his stable is in form and in spite of his claiming lack of Grade 1 firepower there a number of class horses. I do also suspect a bit of kidology at play, perhaps taught by his good friend Sir Alex Ferguson. Wind the clock back to 2012/13 and the first time he lost the championship to Henderson. Early in the season when Henderson went out to defend his title, Nicholls was quoted as saying: “I can honestly say we have no chance of winning it this season . Realistically the prospects of another championship in the next couple of years are unlikely”. Not only did he regain the championship , but held onto it until last season.
This year’s contest is looking like another two horse race- their nearest rival Colin Tizzard currently trading at 7/1- and with Henderson 15/8 on and Nicholls 2/1, history tells us the smart money might be on the latter.
With all the agonising and anticipation leading up to the Cheltenham Festival, there’s something about a horse that you pin your hopes on, who then doesn’t perform on the day – It takes a while to rebuild the relationship. And so it is with The New One who I’d backed in this year’s Champion Hurdle and probably looked for every reason not to support him at Ffos Las yesterday.
Whilst some of the top jockeys chose Stratford in preference to South Wales, perhaps attracted by more rides, this handed the opportunity to amateur jockey Zac Baker in what was undoubtedly the top race of he day – The Welsh Champion Hurdle. For only the second time in his career The New One was ridden without Sam Twiston-Davies on board and fair play Mr Baker, you grabbed your chance.
Clyne quite properly went off favourite – A horse that loves the course almost as much as he would have relished the going, officially described as soft/ heavy in places, but with persistent rain and the survival of an early inspection I suspect veering towards the latter. Whilst The New One had beaten Clyne back in January, that was only by a length and with an extra 4lbs. Yesterday with a new jockey and Clyne’s 13lb advantage, it was no surprise punters had written a different script. For what it’s worth I backed another course and distance winner, who I thought would appreciate the going, Rons Dream. Whilst her success all seems like a long time ago, in a six horse race to be run in the lashing rain, I figured anything could happen and was drawn in by the attractive odds. As it turned out she faded quickly when it mattered and finished fourth out of five, with Remiluc having unseated Harry Reed.
The vastly experienced Sire De Grugy has run in some illustrious company over the years, but after a long lay off and now 11 years old, expectations weren’t high. He came a respectable third. However, in reality this was only ever going to be a contest between Clyne and The New One. Leading from the front, he didn’t always make life easy for Zac Baker. With a tendency to hang to the right and not always jumping cleanly – he absolutely clattered the final hurdle- there were times when Clyne looked as if he would finish the better. I wouldn’t take anything away from Zac Baker, who was made to work hard to secure the victory, but as yer man in Corals said to me before the start: “You can’t argue with class”.
Apart from imminent runs at Cheltenham or Aintree, Nigel Twiston-Davies is giving little away about his season’s plans for The New One. Should he end up at the Festival again in March, memories of last year’s disappointment might just have disappeared sufficiently for me to be tempted to back him again.
Hopefully you’ve worked out this blog is about jump racing, because if not I’ve fallen at the first hurdle. But beyond that, I’ll try and give you an idea of what to expect. Firstly, I’m not a tipping service and given my record, you wouldn’t want me to be. I won’t drown you with endless data or statistics and I don’t work within the industry so can provide no inside information.
What I do have is an enthusiasm for the sport, a little of which I hope to capture, and a fascination with its characters. Whilst I will offer comment and opinion on individual races, meetings and horses, I am equally interested in the context within which jump racing operates and its governance. Recently, to mention just a few, we’ve had the question of recruiting and retaining employees at stables, payment of jockeys for withdrawn horses and to what extent the government will regulate High Street bookies. Add to that the Davy Russell incident with Kings Dolly, there is no shortage of topics to cover. Each of these issues directly affect those who rely on the sport for their livelihood, as well as framing public perception and ultimately the success and sustainability of the industry is dependant on how they are addressed. If I am able to offer a little intelligent comment on these debates, I will have succeeded. However, most importantly I hope that what I write will interest you and provoke some thought, regardless of whether you agree with me or not.
Finally I want to express my appreciation to all the participants, who enable beautiful horses to run in this incredibly exciting and absorbing sport. Jump racing relies on each group of these participants equally; from punters to bookies, owners and trainers, the dedicated staff who are the lifeblood of the stables and those who work at the Racecourse. But most of all to the jockeys, whose bravery never ceases to astonish me.