I am sorry about my absence, but of course I come and go with the racing action.
The weather had made the racing fraternity ride the great plain of tedium. However, when the gloomy mists of boredom and inertia evaporated, the action was so plentiful and of the highest quality. Friday’s Newbury card had elements that Tolstoy would struggle to convey in pages of War and Peace.
While the Nicky Henderson-trained Sprinter Sacre looked like a horse with the world at his feet, his stable-mate Darlan looked very unlucky (in the game of racing).
On the subject of the more important game of life, both Darlan and AP McCoy looked very lucky. A bone-crunching fall in the Betfair Hurdle didn’t stop the resilient “iron man”, who then rode Shutthefrontdoor to win the Listed bumper. The only issue I have is that unlike Meryl Streep he won’t be getting a BAFTA – or even nominated for an Oscar. It seems that only the trivial act of counting strikes with a padded stick can stop this man.
Sprinter Sacre is a horse I could eulogise about from here to my retirement. Like Philip Hobbs’ rare act of waxing lyrical about Fingal Bay, Barry Geraghty picking a similar theme about a horse is as as rare as seeing a fox pursuing a hound. Barry’s attributes as jockey are numerous, but the quality that I have always most admired about him is that he is very down to earth. Rather than a hyperbolic description of a horse’s performance, he is very measured and matter of fact about what actually played out in a race. When he describes Sprinter Sacre as “the best he has ridden” (Moscow Flyer, Big Zeb and Kicking King among them) then it pays to lend an ear.
This is a horse who has it all. His ability to jump boldly and cleverly is something that you simply cannot teach a horse – they either have or they don’t.
It is so rare for a horse that physically possesses so much potential to actually fulfill it. Willie Mullins’ Mikhael D’Haguenet is a prime example of a horse who looked a world-beater in novice hurdles and was once “potentially the most exciting chaser around”. Sadly his lack of ability to jump fences was disappointing, so he returned to hurdles. And I nearly omitted the infamous failed chaser Big Buck’s as another prime example.
Talking of sons of Big Buck’s sire, Cadoudal, neatly moves us on to Long Run, who staked his Gold Cup claims in the Denman Chase last Friday. The storm will fret until Gold Cup day as to whether it was a good performance or not, but from someone who knows the horse it looked clear that he ran a very good race; that’s if he had one at all. For me Long Run has become rather idle and was only in second gear at Newbury. It is easy to forget that he once won the two-mile Kingmaker Novice Chase around Warwick to display his Arkle claims. I will admit that, particularly after the RSA Chase in which he was third I thought that, like his half-sister Liberthine, he might not ever stay three miles around Cheltenham.
He has seemingly relaxed and become more lackadaisical. It is notable that his earplugs are no longer needed. When he returned to training last summer, he was a much more relaxed individual who needed more chiding up the gallop. He was idling in front in the Gold Cup last year and was the same at Newbury. He is now a relentless galloper who probably takes a bit more work to get the oil into that huge engine. I seem to remember Aidan O’Brien describing Yeats in the same way in his latter years at Ballydoyle.
Long Run should also be given extra credit as the Seven Barrows team really fancied Burton Port to run well, which he did. He is certainly a horse who could surprise a few in the Gold Cup.
Another long-absent star lit up Ascot on Saturday as Riverside Theatre put in an immaculate round of jumping to win the Ascot Chase. He is a horse I have always been very fond of and I remember the day he got injured last year all too well as we thought he had a serious chance in the Ryanair Chase at the Festival.
I don’t try and talk about my former life at Nicky Henderson’s too much, but it’s just that they are doing so well. A mention must go to Nico de Boinville, who had a day to remember as he is trusted work rider of both Long Run and Sprinter Sacre, and also rode The Queen’s Barber’s Shop to victory at Fakenham. I was delighted for him as he is a hard worker and very talented horseman indeed.
Other horses that caught my eye were the Alan King-trained Balder Succes and Swincombe Flame, trained by shrewd handler Nick Williams. This progressive mare ran very well in third after setting a breakneck pace at Ascot.
Of the inmates at Dason Court, I was very pleased by the weekend’s runners. Nuisance ran another good race when second at Fakenham. She is showing a really good attitude and I hope she won’t be long in winning.
Then followed the 40-1 13-length success of Valmari at Wincanton. Teaching horses to jump can be a challenge, but I always feel that it gets more difficult with an older horse. Therefore when this eight-year-old mare appeared I knew it could be a challenge.
She started her life in Greece before joining Clive Brittain, where her rating got to a height of 89. On moving to another trainer she hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, although through no fault of her own. It was then that her current owner – Lawrence Jacobs of Leonard Jay Ltd – purchased her. She was covered by Lawman in Ireland but the foal died, so she was sent to me.
We started teaching an old mare new tricks. After a satisfactory comeback on the Flat, we schooled and schooled her. This is where my education with Yogi Breisner at Seven Barrows became invaluable as I used similar techniques to sharpen up her jumping. Her win was not a total shock and I was so pleased for Lawrence.
You simply never know how horses will take to it until you try – she answered my question in no uncertain terms. The shame is that she didn’t start her jumping career earlier in life. I only hope the postman, who caught me rushing out of the yard, took my very confident advice that she would go very well.
At Ffos Las on Sunday Tweedledrum didn’t stay the 2m 6f trip on the tacky ground and is also neatly proving my point that she is way too high in the handicap.
Midnight Belle ran a cracker in a very hot bumper. She was the first unraced horse home and behaved impeccably. Prior to the race the paddock was like a war zone – all part of the fun of bumper races, of course. I am looking forward to running her again.
The future looks bright as our team, equine and human, remain in good spirits. There are moments when I have to act in a Jerry Springer-esque manner when trying to train my staff – much harder than training horses – but otherwise all seems fair in love and racing. I am excited by the prospect of the Cheltenham Festival and of course by the arrival of the truly unbelievable Australian sprinter Black Caviar. The eager anticipation of her antipodean farewell would probably be akin to the great Phar Lap in 1931. These are exciting times for equine fanatics from winter through to summer – we’ve got a galaxy littered with stars.
Racing aside (a very uncommon phrase from me), one thing I will be doing is going to see the new film The Woman In Black, directed by James Watkins. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the stage show I would advise you to do so. Susan Hill splendidly conveys classic Gothic themes in her writing. The Gothic novel was, of course, designed to transport those in a mundane world to mysterious and far-flung places. My world is far from mundane, but I hope the film can transport me from a world away from racing and into the arms of a terrifying scorned lady; some might call it a kind of therapy…