Tag Archive: racing

  1. Why the fifth-day races belong to Royal Ascot

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    The fifth and final day of Royal Ascot is always a curiosity. I spent an irritable part of yesterday within earshot of a former stipendiary steward who was adamant that the elevation of what used to be known as Heath Day to become a fifth day of the Royal meeting was little short of an abomination and, moreover, “Her Majesty disapproves”. Putting aside the nonsense of the final statement — for no indications of the sort have ever been given — I was really hacked off by his statements.

    Today is the busiest day of the meeting for caterers, for bookies, for the media and for the vast majority of the country who — horror of horrors — have to go to work Monday to Friday. There is nothing sub par about today’s Royal offering: the Diamond Jubilee Stakes is now firmly entrenched as a high-class Group One and races like the Hardwicke are knocking on the door of being top class. Throw in a ferociously competitive handicap like the Wokingham and it ticks the kind of boxes of which the proudest of monarchies would approve. Shame on the old boy who argued to the contrary yesterday!

    In the interests of balance, and for fear that readers might think I’m going sentimental, I do have a quibble with the Royal Ascot programme and I’ve been dwelling on it for a couple of days. The quibble is the Tercentenary Stakes earlier this week. I wish in no way to belittle winning connections, but this race does not belong at the Royal meeting. It’s excessive, average quality and doesn’t ring any of the right bells for the premier week of the year. I’m all for extending programmes, embracing new ideas but this week above all other weeks deserve extra special handling, and the Tercentenary dilutes rather than enhances the week. I’d scrap it in a heartbeat.

    Mention of the Wokingham earlier brings back the happiest memory of my punting career at this meeting. Readers would be forgiven for thinking that, based on recent evidence, fond memories are non existent but anyone who remembers Jeremy Noseda’s grey, Laddies Poker Two, will remember 2010 with clarity. The gamble started at 16/1 and with an SP no more then half that price, the galloping grey obliterated a field like an odds-on poke. A similar gamble has been underway this past week or so on today’s market leader, Brando. Headline makers will crave the Hollywood finale but bookies will fear — six years on — a raspberry ending to what has already been a tough week.

    This time last year, Ryan Moore had visited the Winners Enclosure no fewer than nine times. It’s been tougher this year but he still tops the standings, albeit with Frankie Dettori very much in contention. Dettori reminded us yesterday — atop Across The Stars — why Moore will never be over the hill and far away in the race to be top jock on the top days.

    Dettori’s ride in the King Edward VII was electric, judging it from the front and holding on from a swarming pack. It wasn’t a vintage race, but it was a vintage Dettori ride. I had some sympathy for Moore in the penultimate race of the day when his mount King’s Fete found all the trouble in the world before having the door closed on him in the dying yards of the race.

    Choose a size:A stewards enquiry failed to reverse placings and Moore backers were rightly exasperated. The rules were correctly applied, in my subjective opinion, but the rules are bonkers: it isn’t right that GBH is required for the stewards to act. Had all horses run straight to the line yesterday, Kings Fete would have won. Sometimes we make racing unnecessarily complicated. Simplify the rules and the best horses will invariably win the race, ideally on the racecourse, but if necessary in the stewards’ room.

    Meanwhile, a very welcome sartorial addition to the Royal Box came this week in the shape of the Queen’s cousin, Prince Michael of Kent. Prince Harry has had a crack of late, but the absence of bearded Windsors is something I lament. Prince Michael is a glorious exception. His ensemble yesterday — grey tails, black silk topper and floral tie — were set off expertly with giant whiskers that very nearly stole the show from a lesser spotted Sarah Ferguson. While I doubt very much that my fashion findings are likely to achieve awards in the months to come, I harbour one wish before we return in 2017: more Royal whiskers, please.

    The final flings of the wagering week will focus today on Cunco in the Chesham to keep the Frankel flag flying, Oceanographer for a resurgent Godolphin in the Wolferton, Simple Verse in the Hardwicke, The Tin Man in the Diamond Jubilee, Brando in the Wokingham and Clondaw Warrior to bring the curtain down in the Queen Alexandra. What could possibly go wrong?

    Top image: The Queen arrives at Royal Ascot, by Reflected Serendipity via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  2. Lady Aurelia (and Princess Mary of Denmark) shine at Royal Ascot

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    In the end A Shin Hikari came unstuck. Barely half an hour earlier, a more familiar international raider, Wesley Ward, reminded us why he is the undisputed global king of the speedballs when his much touted Lady Aurelia turned the Queen Mary into a hideous mismatch.

    Those of us watching on course stood open-mouthed as this two-year-old filly destroyed her rivals with contempt.

    The so-called Japanese superhorse turned in a less than super performance in yesterday’s Prince Of Wales Stakes, beaten a long way out and failing to deliver the international fairytale that many from the Far East had craved.

    The margin of her victory – and the time (the best part of 2 seconds faster that Tuesday’s King’s Stand) — are still scarcely believable and if I have ever seen a faster juvenile I cannot remember it. Ward is now a Royal Ascot, of course. His novelty value has worn off and given way to the highest level of respect from even the most grizzled and hardened of Ascot traditionalists.

    The international element of Royal Ascot has been much on my mind. Mary, the Crown Princess of Denmark turned a few heads yesterday, largely due to her alleged likeness to the Duchess of Cambridge. Poor Kate was making her Ascot debut but lost the battle of the brunettes to the Danish darling who was resplendent in orange. Of course the fashionistas refuse to call orange orange, just as red cannot be red. Rather like description of wine we are expected to prefix our colours with emotive descriptions, so in true Gok Wan style, I thought the Crown Princess looked radiant in her burnt Mediterranean sunset ensemble.

    In the fashion stakes for fellas, the grey top hats hit back hard yesterday. The Duke Of Edinburgh is their patron, although his son Charles served it up by way of opposition with easily the shiniest black silk topper on course. Charles is an Ascot curiosity. One senses that this week isn’t top of the pile when it comes to equine favourites, but he still looks to enjoy himself. He wears the palest of grey morning suits with probably the finest double-breasted waistcoat of them all. His black topper is the envy of the Royal Enclosure, just as a Prince of Wales ought to be.

    Prince William played it safe yesterday, favouring his grandfather’s traditional morning coat but his father’s topper. Well played William. Still, the grey toppers are on the charge and today — Ladies Day — will be decisive in my final judgement as to what constitutes the ultimate in Royal Ascot attire for the modern-day gentleman.

    On the racecourse later today we have, of course, the Ascot Gold Cup — probably the defining race of the week with a market headed by Aidan O’Brien’s Order Of St George. Recent Gold Cups have gone the way of Fame And Glory and, most notably, the outstanding multiple-winner Yeats for the all-conquering Tipperary operation.

    This time last year, stable jockey Ryan Moore was turning nearly all he touched to gold, but with only Caravaggio winning the Coventry it has hitherto been an underwhelming week for the Coolmore partners. They need to win today to halt the jitters and the pacing. Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation — for so long the arch rivals of Ballydoyle — are on the Ascot scoreboard, thanks to Ribchester, Portage and Usherette yesterday, and Messrs Magnier et al will not like for one moment the prospect of the Sheikh beating them to top Ascot owner. It’s a subplot to relish for the remaining three days.

    As script writers would have it, the most entertaining race for commentators on course today could easily be the RIbblesdale at 3.40. Queen’s Trust (10/1), Sovereign Parade (13/2) and We Are Ninety (14/1) are all in with a chance to provide priceless mirth for the 60,000 on course as Her Majesty settles in for the fillies’ feature. We are blessed with a vintage crop of commentators right now and if the likes of Hoiles, Bartlett, Hunt and Holt can’t conjure something entertaining for the Queen as they turn into the straight, I will be stunned!

    The Williams Millions enjoyed a rare day of sunshine yesterday so I’m going in again today with the following selections: Global Applause for Frankie in the Norfolk, Blue De Vega in the Hampton Court (or whatever they call it nowadays), Even Song for Team Ballydoyle in the Ribblesdale, Mizzou to give Luca Cumani some Gold Cup success, Abe Lincoln for Jeremy Noseda in the Britannia (each way, somewhat cowardly) and Guy Fawkes (the most bizarrely named Royal runner in history) for Her Majesty in the King George V finale.

    Top image: Royal Ascot by Reflected Serendipity via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  3. The sun and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge make an appearance at Royal Ascot

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    It’s sunny! All the amateur John Kettleys at Ascot yesterday got it delightfully wrong. We were supposed to be down in the doldrums until Friday at the earliest but with blue skies overhead Ascot on day 2, this is a much happier place.

    I am next to the Daily Express’s Royal correspondent, Richard Palmer, in the press room today. Palmer is a top man and a fount of all royal knowledge. We’ve just been told the Prince William is joining Prince Charles and the Queen in the first carriage today. This makes it the first time in the history of Royal Ascot that the monarch, heir and heir to the heir have all been to Royal Ascot together. I can feel the sense of history on my shoulder (although it might be the bank manager, encouraging me to scale back.)

    Tepin was my highlight yesterday — the supermare from the States landed the opening race despite drifting like an unmanned barge in the market. Truly, Royal Ascot is the greatest international festival of Racing in the world. Yes, we celebrate the British traits, but more than that we welcome the international feel.

    “This makes it the first time in the history of Royal Ascot that the monarch, heir and heir to the heir have all been to Royal Ascot together”

    One guy who has been spotted is the former One Direction star, Niall Horan. He came in with 13 (and I counted them, I think) bodyguards. If we judge Ascot on bodyguard count, Horan is up there with Her Majesty. His navy suit and shiny shades were a bit off-beam but he’s got 25 million twitter followers and if he tells them he’s had a rattling good time, then we should all hold our tongue.

    As I type, the Queen is probably exiting Windsor Castle and, guess, what, the snappers have all just run and told us it is tipping down. Do the carriages have windscreen wipers? The blue skies were too good to last, weren’t they.

    A Japanese superstar, A Shin Hikari, looks to be the pin-up in today’s feature, the Prince of Wales’s Stakes and is the unfamiliar name on everybody’s lips. He’s odds-on but beginning to drift a little in the market. He’ll have to be good to turn over the ultra-consistent Found under Ryan Moore. The word from the East is this is their greatest horse ever, knocking the likes of Orfevre and Deep Impact into cocked hats. For the sake of the game I hope they’re right. A Japanese winner here today would crown the global appeal of this meeting like never before.

    Elsewhere, we’ve barely an hour to go until the Jersey Stakes so if you don’t read this in time, spare a thought for those of us siding with Ribchester who ran out of his skin in the 2000 Guineas a month or so ago. Later in the card, I reckon the Queen has a terrific chance at a price with Make Fast in the Sandringham. The Andrew-Balding trained filly posted her best performance yet at Epsom on Derby Day and can be fancied to improve. If that dream scenario unfolds, will Wills and Kate be whooping for joy? If God is a racing fan, he will allow them both to catch the bug and we will look forward to welcoming the Cambridges back here for many years to come, rain or shine—and today, we have both!

    Top image: Royal Ascot by Timelapsed via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

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  4. Royals raise the fashion stakes at Royal Ascot

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    A rainy start failed to dampen Royal Ascot’s sartorial glamour. Ladies defies the weather in stunning outfits and extravagant hats, with solid colours the only concession to the unseasonal chill (with the notable exception of The Tootsie Rollers who wore matching floral frocks).
    The Royal Family set the tone, with The Queen in a classic yellow coat and matching hat, the Duchess of Cornwall in a delicate pink, Princess Anne and the Countess of Wessex both elegant in white and Princess Beatrice in a sober navy blazer. But it was Zara Tindall that turned heads with a striking floral outfit by queen of prints Mary Katrantzou, which she paired with a gorgeous blue hat by Rose Olivia Millinery.

    Hats were nothing short of spectacular. There were feathers and flowers aplenty—some arranged in towering displays that must have been a challenge to wear.

    Presenter TV Lisa Snowdown paired a lacey black dress and a funky top hat with netting and OPEN written on it in glitzy red letters, while two creative racegoes even sported matching In and Out outfits inspired by the EU referendum.

    But the prize for the craziest headgear undoubtedly goes to designer Anoushka Lancaster, who had a whole tropical forest on her head, complete with parrots, pineapples and giant leaves.

    By contrast, the accolade for the most elegant outfit must go to Elizabeth Hurley, who looked absolutely stunning in a white, figure-hugging Versace dress with nude heels and an understated floral hat.

    But what about the gents? Well, no one carried their top hat and morning dress with quite the same style as Prince Harry, who rocked the Ascot look with a blue waistcoat and pale blue tie, which contrasted beautifully with his ginger beard.

    Top image: Royal Ascot by Reflected Serendipity via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  5. Royal Ascot sees a wet but colourful start

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    It’s not really supposed to rain at Royal Ascot. That’s one of the unwritten rules of this week. When we cast our minds back to the fondest Ascot memories they invariably involve blazing sunshine, strawberries and gorgeous dresses. They don’t involve being cooped up in an overtight waistcoat in the Media Centre bunker, gasping for a bit of fresh air and wishing that photographers would stop bashing their giant wet lenses against us and leaving damp patches on our tailcoats.

    In truth, everyone is feeling a bit gloomy and cold and miserable. The Sky Sports crew have misplaced their umbrella and such commodities are valuable this morning. Tensions are rising. They’re showing vintage footage of Sir Viv Richards’ last Test Match in the media centre and press seem more transfixed by cricketing yesteryears than they are by a sensational opening day of racing, rain or no rain.

    It’s fully four hours (at time of writing) before we get underway with the Queen Anne Stakes and I’m sitting opposite John ‘Big Mac’ McCririck. Keen racing fans will know the whiskery McCririck has been confined to satellite channel Attheraces for the past few years, having lost his role at Channel 4. ATR don’t even have the rights here anymore but that hasn’t deterred Big Mac and his dutiful wife and chauffeur, Jenny, from being the first one here and preparing as if for a national broadcast.

    Mac is wearing a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” baseball cap. He is currently wearing four “Vote Trump” and “Vote Brexit” badges and that number looks set to increase. He takes a break from preparing his multi-coloured notes on the Coventry Stakes to tell everyone in earshot that his vision is for a world full of blondes (namely Trump and Boris Johnson). Jenny quietly slopes off to get more strong coffee.

    Jump jockey Ruby Walsh has just arrived in his morning suit. It’s all rather weird: not only do small jockeys look a bit unusual in long tailcoats but having National Hunt heroes at the heart of Royal Ascot adds to the sense of disorientation. Walsh is in fine fettle; he went to watch Ireland in the Euros yesterday and had a wonderful time; apparently he was serenaded on his flight over by some well-oiled fellow countrymen. Perhaps they were still celebrating his success on Annie Power, Douvan et al in March?

    Mrs Ally Vance is in one of the presenters of Ascot’s first-rate on-course TV service this week. She’s alongside the omnipresent Rupert Bell (brother of trainer, Michael and father of young TV presenter, Oli). The gates are opening to the public shortly and, as Bell ignores the rain and charges through a torrential downpour to find his cameraman, Vance laments the impact the weather has on Ladies Fashion. I listen intently to begin with but soon drift off and begin my own research.

    Channel 4’s Tanya Stevenson is wearing Godolphin blue on screen today; is she steering us towards Barchan, Toormore or the far more likely Belardo in our opener here? There’s no doubt that Belardo, in particular, will relish the testing conditions. Vance is wearing navy and cream, although her hat resembles the purple with white piping trim of Derrick Smith’s Coolmore silks; could she be hinting at success for The Gurkha in the St James’s Palace Stakes at 4.20?

    Flowery, floaty summer colours appear to be out of favour — for the time being, at least — and preference is for solid colours and something to keep the wet chill out. In the press room, black top hats are outnumbering grey rivals by a factor of 3:1. Today I am in the minority, openly confessing that my grey hat is less precious than my black one and today is not a day to be precious.

    And so to the racing. Day 1 at Ascot can confidently lay claim to being the single highest quality day of racing in the sport. The Queen Anne sees the best milers on both sides of the Atlantic lock horns before the Coventry gives us at least a handful of the very best two-year-olds in training. Caravaggio is the Ballydoyle hotpot, eliciting from Ryan Moore the kind of purring he seldom delivers. Whether this Scat Daddy colt handles the genuinely testing conditions he’s about to face remains to be seen. If he does, he will be a single figure price for next year’s 2000 Guineas.

    We move on to the sprinters at 3.45 in the King’s Stand where the heavily backed Mecca’s Angel continues to see strong support. We have a host of non-runners on account of the rain (have I mentioned it’s raining?) but Mongolian Saturday represents the international challenge, despite two recent defeats in Hong Kong. What a spectacle it would be if this bewitching sprinter handles the Ascot track.

    The feature race at 4.20, the St James’s Palace, sees a truly first-class renewal of what is often one of the most exciting races of the year. We have the Guineas heroes from England (Galileo Gold), Ireland (Awtaad) and France (The Gurkha) renewing hostilities. France head the betting ahead of Ireland and then England, but Hugo Palmer and Frankie Dettori are attracting support with Galileo Gold. If the big three hit the two-furlong pole together, we are in for a belter, and I wouldn’t write off the outsider of three with Frankie in the saddle.

    The last two races look impossible but I’m siding with Silver Concorde in the Ascot Stakes on account of his ability to stay and stay and stay, before returning to side with Godolphin’s Drafted in the Windsor Castle finale.
    Time now though, to sign off, wish all Ascot readers the very best of luck and if you can’t be here with me on course, comfort yourself that you’re almost certainly warmer, drier and less bruised by lenses than your correspondent is.

    Top image: the grandstand at Royal Ascot (darkened), by Michelle B via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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  6. Save racing from hooligans

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    In the media centre on Derby day were a series of murals with various statements on racing from the likes of Sir Michael Stoute, Kieran Fallon and more historical figures. Charles Dickens once wrote that “On Derby day, a population rolls and scrambles through the place that may be counted in the millions.”

    Dickens probably got a bit carried away, as did the Radio Times in the mid 1980s when they advertised BBC1’s coverage (headed by Judith Chalmers, no less) as coming from Epsom Downs where “500,000 racegoers” would be in attendance.

    The truth is the numbers have never been counted but were – even back then when the Derby was in its pomp – almost certainly someway south of those lofty figures.

    My biggest issues this year, however, with the “racegoers” themselves. What happened at Epsom on late Saturday afternoon – a mass brawl with riot police and disgusting scenes – shamed racing. It shamed Epsom, it shamed the Derby and it shamed us all.

    These were not racegoers; these were thugs. These thugs had no more interest in the merits of the Classic generation taking on the ultimate test of the thoroughbred than they were out for a load of strong lager and a chance to start a fight.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; perhaps we can point the finger at ‘societal change’ and modern-day youth. That would be easy, and I believe it would be cowardly. We have to ask ourselves — as lovers of racing — why our sport is too often the scene of the kind of unsavoury, anti-social behaviour which we might fearfully expect in France this Summer, as wannabe hooligans descend on Euro 2016, determined to ruin it.

    It’s not good enough to blame the warm weather nor the relatively late start time. We won’t change it overnight but we all have a duty to encourage those people who come to the races to only come if they have an element of interest in racing: the spectacle, the horses, the fresh air, the celebrities, the betting, whatever it is.

    If we allow folk to infiltrate our sport who tick none of these boxes we are on a slippery slope to big race misery, and all the colour in the world that makes Derby Day so unique cannot hide the ugly scar in our midst.

    Weld and Smullen: a dream pair

    A far happier spectacle at Epsom on Saturday evening was the privileged one I had of Dermot Weld and his jockey Pat Smullen at the cinema after having won the race with HH the Aga Khan’s Harzand.

    To my knowledge, Epsom is unique in having a grandly titled cinema and it is most notably associated in my mind as being the venue for the post-Classic press conference. It has no windows, is always far too hot and much too small.

    We all crammed in as Messrs Weld and Smullen – both still dripping in perspiration for different, but related reasons – began to calmly talk through their emotions. Two classier guys you would be hard pressed to find.

    Weld has a glint in his eye; he has a sense of mischief but his globe-trotting achievements – from Melbourne Cups to Derbys and all points between – are truly unique. He spoke at length about the near calamitous incidents leading up to Harzand’s Derby win, which saw the colt with his foot in a bucket of iced water after ripping off a shoe (with graphic consequences just a few hours before the race). He spoke of the tenderness of the farrier, the care of the equine staff and the affection in his voice was awe-inspiring.

    Smullen too was all class: this was his biggest moment and there can be few jockeys who are so universally liked as Smullen. He is an honest grafter and a first-class pilot: a potent combination. Weld so evidently trusts him down to his marrow and here is a relationship seldom is their bond played out in public. It is one of mutual respect, softly-spoken admiration and even more gently executed steel.

    Harzand’s Derby win may not be remembered as a vintage but these two guys deserved every bit of their long-awaited success and, for me, it is these two – just as much as the horse – to whom Derby Day belonged.

    Welcome back, Kieran

    A blast from our past hit us in the Derby Day finale as Kieran Fallon booted home the Dandy Nicholls-trained Blaine in the six-furlong finale.

    I love Fallon and always have; his pursed lips and ever-so-slightly menacing stare have been much missed. He’s not everybody’s cup of tea, of that there is no doubt, but his presence at Epsom made most of us smile.

    He looked terrific and I say that with a degree of envy given all that Fallon has been through – some self-inflicted but much of it not – in recent years. He is a character; he is good copy, but perhaps best of all he reminded us as we left Epsom that he is still one heck of a horseman and I, for one, am delighted if we see a lot more of him this Summer.

    Fashion to the fore

    Next week, of course, we head to Royal Ascot. Derby Day always makes me nervous as I dust off my tailcoat and trousers for the first time in almost 50 weeks.

    This year was a worry and I confess it wasn’t the most comfortable day, sartorially. I am now in a complete bind: should I cowardly go back to Favourbrook on Jermyn Street for some alterations to my formal clobber or get on a crash diet to return to my 2015 fighting weight in the nick of time?

    These problems might not be front of mind for those studying the form for the biggest week of the Flat season calendar, but those who dismiss the fashions and style at Ascot are needlessly pig-headed.

    Sure, it’s great racing, but it’s great fun too. And you might as well check out now for a while if you don’t want me to cast my amateur eye over some of the behind-the-scenes fashions next week that will keep us gossiping classes in clover. I’m not looking beyond day one as I promise to pair a duck egg blue waistcoat with a soft yellow tie.

    Mark my words, dear readers, I confidently predict a shift away from the bold colours of recent years as Ascot returns to a more demure, soft palette – and I am happy to lead the way. (And for those of you who have been following my tips, you all know what to do now.)

    Top image: Epsom racecourse, by Diamond Geezer via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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  7. The great derby forecast muddle

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    We’re well into Derby week now and it’s fair to say the Classic picture is as muddled as the weather forecast.

    The bookies haven’t the foggiest who ought to be favourite, with the underwhelming US Army Ranger and the supplemented Wings Of Desire disputing favouritism.

    Most of my fancies have – almost inevitably – been ruled out, and with more rain forecast between now and Saturday afternoon it’s unlikely that any market leader is likely to shorten drastically.

    I was musing over Tesio’s assertion that the Derby is the cornerstone of the entire breeding game. I’m not sure I agree, in truth. Galileo is possibly the pre-eminent stallion of our time – having won the 2001 Derby, among others – but the need for speed in the blueblood stock was brought to bear in Hugo Palmer’s decision for his 2000 Guineas winner, Galileo Gold, not to shoot for Epsom glory but to stick to the mile division.

    To my non-breeding eye, this is a desperate shame and it is why the likes of Sea The Stars (who won both the Guineas and the Derby) will always resonate more loudly with me than those of the Classic generation who stuck to a mile including, dare I say it, Frankel.

    Returning to this weekend’s field, we have news threads aplenty with a resurgent Sir Michael Stoute saddling Ulysses, the antepost gamble of the past week or so, and the return of the mercurial Kieren Fallon.

    Aidan O’Brien, as predicted, is bringing all but the stable cat over for the race with a multi-horse assault, but my pin has finally come to stop on the 20/1 chance Harzand, who could run into a place for the supremely talented Dermot Weld.

    I’ve not been lucky in recent years with Weld’s Epsom missiles but the rain will be in his favour and the trainer is quietly confident we will see a big run. His price is far too big.

    Long may she reign

    Over the Bank Holiday weekend, I went to visit my parents in the badlands of Bolton and invited them to Royal Ascot (they’ll be making their racing debut at said meeting) and both were excited at the prospect of seeing the Queen.

    With Her Majesty attending Epsom this Saturday for the Derby, followed by her unswerving devotion to the full five days of the Royal meeting later this month, I can’t help but feel we who love our sport are unfathomably fortunate to have royal patronage.

    Even beyond sport, Queen Elizabeth’s love of horses is evident at almost every turn, from her riding out in Windsor to her passion for polo and of course thoroughbred racing. It worries me that such a commitment might not be shared to its fullest measure by her younger family members, and this week is a timely reminder that we owe much of the exposure our sport enjoys to the support of the reigning monarch.

    Bookies add colour

    The Racing Post carried a picture of the Japanese sensation, A Shin Hikari, winning one of the early season highlights at a canter in France. The superstar horse is now a short price favourite for the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes at the Royal meeting.

    The picture was remarkable not only for the winning distance that the horse had triumphed by, but for the depressingly small crowd at the races. Indeed, the talented Tom Kerr, Racing Post columnist, was moved to ask why it is that the French don’t go racing when their racecourses are so pleasant and the racing of such high quality.

    Well, the answer is simple, isn’t it? No betting! There are no bookies on the tracks in France (just the soulless PMU counters), no betting, no noise, no spivs, no roaring, no atmosphere, no colour. And, as such, nobody goes for the entertainment value.

    Now I’m not for one moment suggesting that the game should revolve around bookies, but I will argue till my last breath that bookies make racing a richer sport. Whether or not the purists like it, racing without betting is — in the main — jolly dull.

    It’s how many of us arrived at the sport, through our grandparents on Grand National Day betting with matchsticks and trying to work out the arithmetic of the stakes and the odds and the each-way terms. Let’s not be snobbish. Even if we don’t use them on course, let’s not force the bookies off course, lest we be left with a terrifically funded sport on beautiful tracks and not a soul interested in attending.

    Top image: the field turning for home at the 2015 Derby’s Coronation Cup, by Monkeywing via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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  8. So Mi Dar wins the Musidora at York — but will miss the Oaks

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    The Knavesmire was awash with Frankie fever last week as Dettori rode the winner of both key trials, with So Mi Dar triumphant in the Musidora and Wings Of Desire victorious in the Dante.

    News has just broken that So Mi Dar will now miss the Oaks – very sadly – as trainer John Gosden informed us that she was lame. What a blow this is for those of us who had hoped Minding would be subjected to a genuine test rather than a lap of honour in the fillies’ middle distance Classic.

    So Mi Dar will now be trained for the Irish Oaks and, for fear of upsetting non-traditionalists, it allows me to vent my spleen about our own Derby and Oaks. I’ll allow sponsors Investec their rightful dues, but it is not the Epsom Derby, nor it is the English Derby. It is The Derby!

    Just as I sulk about the various parochial Grand Nationals that serve only to slice away at the only real Grand National — the Liverpool race — I bristle when racing folk feel the need to preface the Derby and the Oaks with needless geographical clarifications. Rant over!

    Epsom reflections

    I’ll take a break from the widespread Derby narrative this week, but not before I reflect on last week’s spray and pray column where I somehow managed not to mention the now likely Classic favourite, The Gurkha. Those of us who watched (on TV, sadly) the Ballydoyle colt power ahead in the French 2000 Guineas could hardly have been more impressed. He’s another one likely to go for the big one next month and the bumper field we were anticipating last week could be bumped up by yet another star contender. Let’s hope so.

    Tyne for change

    At the time of writing, Newcastle is preparing for its historic first meeting on the newly laid all-weather surface on Tyneside.

    Almost inevitably and quite understandably, the move to all-weather has fired extreme differences of opinion. Rarely one to sit on the fence, I confess I am leaning towards the camp of Richard Fahey, who is a fan of the switch. A glance at the fields on Tuesday, May 17, revealed healthy, competitive fare, allowing much more of the horse population some fresh opportunities to race and the nation’s punters — who are all too often overlooked in discussions — a decent lead into attractive betting markets.

    I can almost hear the traditionalists moan. But I simply don’t subscribe to those who scoff at the all-weather as some kind of poor relation. Sure, it looks a bit different, but it has a role to play and the absence of a decent track in the north of England has been an anomaly that has required correction for some time.

    Yes, I sympathise with those connections who lament the loss of a rattling good turf track, but it’s a trade and it’s a trade I think is worthy of a deal. Sure, if it quickly turns to uncompetitive dross, I will lose interest and might even change my mind, but I welcome the arrival of all-weather to the North of England and wish all involved in the Newcastle project every success in a world where change — however ugly and unpalatable at first — is necessary and ever present.

    Parliamentary punting

    I was lucky enough to spend last Thursday evening in the House of Parliament at a charity dinner hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Racing & Bloodstock. Some great and a few good people were there along with bookies, TV executives and MPs, all of us gossiping and drinking wildly.

    Philip Davies, MP, would be the first to acknowledge he divides opinion within the betting and racing industries, but this doesn’t seem to get him down. I asked him what his Conservative party leader, David Cameron, makes of him?

    Expecting him to confirm my suspicion that the PM views Davies as be a permanent stone in his shoe given the Shipley MP’s propensity to vote against his own government at most given opportunities, I was more than a little surprised when Davies said that the PM is rather fond of him.

    “I was chatting with him in the tea room not so long ago. He told me that his late father would have approved of me and my betting. Apparently Cameron senior loved the horses and loved having a bet. I wish a few more of my fellow members had a flutter then they’d be able to contribute more knowledgeably about important issues in racing and betting.”

    I often find myself arguing with Davies, who loves a heated discussion, but on this at least, I was in full agreement.

    Image: the final furlong at York by Chris Jones via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

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  9. Will Aidan O’Brien spray and pray at Epsom?

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    One of the myths perpetuated by some writers is that Aidan O’Brien is happy to rely on just one horse in the Classics when that one horse is sure to be good enough.

    Most recently Camelot, the 2000 Guineas winner, is listed as the best example, having been returned the 8/13 odds-on winner. Poor old Astrology, who finished a creditable third and was also trained by O’Brien, has been airbrushed from history because it doesn’t fit the myth.

    Fast forward a year to winning favourite Australia and, true enough, there are three more Ballydoyle horses down the field. It simply isn’t the case that Ballydoyle tend to rely on one and only one if they are brimming with confidence.

    This year, of course, they may not be brimming with confidence on the evidence of some lacklustre trials in recent weeks: few observers were swept off their feet when the highly touted US Army Ranger scrambled home at Chester last week and bookmakers made the unusual but warranted move of knocking out the antepost favourite in the Epsom betting despite him finishing first.

    At Leopardstown at the weekend, the Derrinstown went the way of Jim Bolger with a whole heap of Ballydoyle runners finishing in a pile not far behind. At the weekend, Lingfield provided even fewer clues, with the only horse entered for Epsom not taking the Epsom trial: cue much gnashing of teeth from the press and TV executives.

    So what will happen next? We have the Dante looming large this week at York which will, perhaps, provide the most telling clue as to the Derby pecking order. Ballydoyle are taking on Midterm, Sir Michael Stoute’s current Derby favourite, but already we can be confident that the Coolmore team will throw the kitchen sink at Epsom next month.

    Spray and pray, perhaps? Well, yes, there’s more than an element of doubt about whether or not they retain the faith in US Army Ranger and whether or not any of the many others are good enough. We’re set for a bumper field at Epsom and that’s no bad thing, but let’s nip it in the bud here and now that Aidan O’Brien only ever needs one and only one to land the biggest prize of them all; he uses many and this year he has many to use.

    Knavesmire hopes

    I’m not going to sulk on about the fact that, having missed the glorious sunshine of Chester, I am foregoing my annual May trip to the Knavesmire.

    York gets nearly everything absolutely spot on and it is why — possibly with the exception of Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood — it is the epitome of Flat racing at its best. It’s reasonably priced, it is dead easy to manoeuvre, it is rarely overcrowded but always retain a terrific atmosphere, and the best horses — from Sea The Stars to Frankel — tend to go there and strut their stuff on one of the fairest tracks in the land.

    I’m intrigued by Midterm in the Dante but excited by So Mi Dar in the Musidora this week. There’s no doubt that Minding’s 1000 Guineas win sets the standard for the Oaks reckoning, but I’d love to see Messrs Gosden and Dettori team up to once again at York to throw down the gauntlet on a hotpot favourite.

    Respect for the Channel 4 incumbents

    A press release landed yesterday from ITV confirming that Richard Willoughby is going to head up the production of the terrestrial TV racing coverage from January 2017 onwards. I know hime fairly well, having worked with him closely for a good few years whilst he has been leading the RUK coverage. It’s a good signing: he is young, energised and eminently sensible.

    Willoughby is good company but work comes first and ITV have secured an ultra pro who will be well liked and respected as the programme discovers its identity. Inevitably, the racing rumour mill is in full swing as to which on-screen talent is likely to be announced.

    I’ve been reluctant to join in the speculation as, frankly, nobody should give two hoots as to my own personal preference, but I can’t help but feel more than a pang of sympathy for the current members of the Channel 4 team, who are working as hard as they can to remain professional and deliver a good show, week in week out, under untold pressure and against a raging backdrop of gossip.

    They deserve to be treated well, however it unfolds for them all as individuals, and it was terrific to see them nominated for a BAFTA on Sunday evening as testament to the fact that they’ve been getting an awful lot right. A bit of respect for those currently in situ isn’t too much to ask, I feel.

    Don’t be afraid to touch Don’t Touch

    As I tried to keep across runners from here, there and everywhere at the weekend, the performance of Don’t Touch up at Haydock on Saturday might easily have slipped through the net.

    It was a six-furlong Conditions Stakes and was struggling for supremacy with so much quality terrestrial sport doing the rounds, but those of us who were lucky enough to be tuned in got to see a horse to set the pulse racing.

    Richard Fahey’s horse was notching up his sixth win on the spin, albeit the past five of which came as favourite. He is a huge horse with as eye-catching a stride as I’ve seen from a sprinter this season. It’s a significant jump to Group 1 company from where he currently is but this is a horse to follow and at 16/1 my money is now down for the Saturday of Royal Ascot.

    He’s likely — on all known trends — to find a more celebrated sprinter or an overseas superstar a bit too good, but that’s not enough to temper my enthusiasm. Don’t Touch will be winning more races this Summer and I am convinced there’s at least a big one in him.

    Top image: Epsom racecourse, by Diamond Geezer via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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  10. Paul Nicholls rises to the top

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    It would be wrong to suggest that Paul Nicholls (above) has been scraping the barrel all season. The Ditcheat handler has just bagged his latest champion trainer title, seeing off ferocious competition from the biggest of the Irish big guns, Willie Mullins.

    We need not revisit the ammunition that Mullins has been aiming at the UK this season, but what of Nicholls?

    His star has been, I reckon, Silviniaco Conti but it is admittedly a far cry from the household names he had at his disposal not so long ago in the shape of Master Minder, Kauto Star, Denman and Big Buck’s.

    It makes his success at the weekend all the more remarkable and while there are many who would give all the oil in Arabia for some of Nicholls’ stars, they must all fall short of coming close to matching Nicholls’ talent for consistently churning out the winners.

    He digs deeper than his rivals, he strives harder than his peers and he refuses to be beaten. If and when the big guns return, his contemporaries won’t know what’s hit them.

    Use common sense

    One frustrating sideshow on Saturday was the withdrawal of Mullins’ talented mare Vroum Vroum Mag from her place in the field shortly after it became mathematically impossible for the Irishman to overhaul Nicholls.

    Mullins openly admitted that he’d save the mare for Punchestown this week rather than run her in a race that she’d never have contemplated running in had it not been for the unusual circumstances of the season finale.

    Had Mullins cited a change of ground, he’d have been fined. Instead, he was honest (yes, I am inferring that some others were not, are not and will not be in the future) and got punished financially (irrelevant) and told that he had treated punters with contempt (very relevant).

    It is absurd that such accusations — hostile and deliberate — should be levelled at a guy who brought great horses over to Sandown at the weekend to help generate untold publicity for the sport. Of course, none of them would have been declared had he not been in with a shot. And punters are not stupid. They know that.

    They came to see Un De Sceaux battle with Sprinter Sacre. And those who were perplexed by a short-priced non runner at the 11th hour? Well, they either got their money back or they left it late to bet on a reformed book because having a flutter enhances their day, regardless of the back story, which was of no interest.

    Nobody really lost out. Mullins should be applauded for his candid attitude and the application of common sense ought to have trumped the rule book. Rules are there as a guide; people are there to interpret those rules, make exceptions to the rules, justify the exceptions and steer clear of punishing those who do more to promote racing than many others. How difficult can it be?

    Naas envy

    I’m a bit gloomy this week because I’m confined to barracks as the final throes of the National Hunt season play out in Punchestown. It will always hold a special place in my life – it’s where I met my now wife a few years ago – and it’s good racing all week.

    It lacks the intensity of Cheltenham and the one-eyed focus of Aintree but it has top horses and a rattling good atmosphere from beginning to end.

    After racing, a night out in nearby Naas is a vital part of the Punchestown package. Lawlor’s and Haydens were my drinking dens of choice before I had my passport confiscated by senior management, but I’ll be there in spirit this evening and if any reader is lucky enough to be going to the Festival for the first time, pack some aspirin, some throat lozenges and hold on tight.

    It’s the perfect way to say thank you and goodbye to the familiar racing faces until they return in October.

    Choreographing the summer

    Last night at Windsor I put the first horse of the season into my notebook. Choreographer lined up in the 10 furlong maiden for trainer Roger Varian and readily disposed of some fancied horses including Brian Meehan’s Magnum.

    Choreographer drifted to an SP of 9/2 but the manner of his victory was very taking. He’s unlikely to go to the Dante at York next month as one of the more fancied runners but he is definitely one to follow as much was certainly learnt on debut.

    Jockey Andrea Atzeni was fulsome in his praise and middle distances on soft ground or better should be within his compass. If we don’t see him in something like the King Edward VII or the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot I’ll be very surprised. Let’s hope I haven’t given him the kiss of death.

    Stormy forecast provides hope

    Now, of course, we return to Newmarket for Guineas weekend. The colt’s Classic favourite, Air Force Blue, is an unbackable 4/7 for the half million pound pot but Stormy Atlantic is the one for me with all the rain forecast.

    The Craven winner might not need a downpour but having been at HQ for the mother and father of all storms before this colt waded home, it’s hard to see any horse in the field who will be better suited to testing conditions.

    It would also be a fairytale for Ed Walker who has never had a horse with this degree of talent on his hands. Few would begrudge him a Classic winner and Stormy Atlantic is this week’s tip.

    For what it’s worth, if Minding fails to take the 1000 Guineas I’ll be staggered.

    Top image: Paul Nicholls with former Irish President Mary McAleese, by Ballymore Bugle via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

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  11. Why Richard Johnson deserves the limelight

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    This weekend’s thrilling climax to the UK Trainers’ Championship is the talk of the town (except in Newmarket town, but more of that later). The battle between defending champ Paul Nicholls and the Irish invader Willie Mullins is going down to the wire at Sandown, with Nicholls refusing to go down without a fight and Mullins bringing everything bar the kitchen sink to Perth and Esher this week in a bold bid at the title.

    Richard Johnson’s moment of glory

    It’s a terrific story and somewhat understandably there’s a real swell of interest from anyone who cares about National Hunt racing. But one guy who might afford himself a wry smile is Richard Johnson. Sixteen times runner-up to a certain AP McCoy in the jockeys’ championship, Dickie Johnson has emerged from the shadows and this Saturday he will be finally be crowned champion jockey. I saw Johnson at Alan Lee’s memorial service yesterday and he is fine spirits. It will, however, be an absolute travesty if the Mullins-Nicholls head-to-head deprives Johnson of his day in the sun this Saturday.

    What Johnson has achieved is outstanding and in any other era other than that which McCoy dominated we’d be talking about one of the greatest jockeys of our time. I’m sure Nicholls and Mullins will absolutely agree too that — whichever one of them takes the trainers’ title — the real star of the show this Saturday is Richard Johnson.

    Justice done?

    Another jockey in the news this week is Barry Geraghty. Geraghty was clobbered with a 30-day ban for his riding of Noble Emperor in Ireland earlier this month, ruling him out of next week’s Punchestown Festival. On Monday night, his appeal was heard and the good humour of racing folk on Twitter was in full force. As Geraghty’s lawyers were working their magic at the Turf Club, the thrilling climax of The People vs OJ Simpson was nearing its end on TV. The parallels were too much for some wags to avoid and Channel 4’s Graham Cunningham took to social media: “He looked bang to rights but a sharp legal team helped clear him of a very grave offence indeed.” Cunningham left it at that — and Geraghty is free to ride at Punchestown next week.

    Hitting out and hitting back

    The mother of all storms (in a teacup) has descended on Newmarket following the Racing Post’s publication of an award-winning young journalist’s article on the perils facing the East Anglian town. Drugs, drink and gambling addiction are rife, suggested the Post article.

    The Mayor of Newmarket (who trains racehorses, of course) wasn’t happy. He took to his blog and hit out at the Post, primarily, and their coverage of the article. The Post hit back, the journo hit back. The Mayor/trainer hit back at those who had hit back at him hitting back over the hit out in the original article. A few of us were faintly amused but hopefully we can swiftly move on from all the hitting sooner rather than later.

    Better than nothing

    We lost last Saturday’s card at Newbury on account of the recent deluge in Berkshire and authorities moved swiftly to shift it to Chelmsford in Essex. It wasn’t ideal and there has been no shortage of folk seemingly happy to pick holes in the process.

    I couldn’t disagree with them any more. I fully recognise that it was done at the 11th-hour and the Chelmsford card and set-up was imperfect, scrambled and lacking in depth. But at least it was on, and it was on Channel 4 on Saturday. Too often we choose not to do things, we only act if we’re sure of a reaction, and when we move uncertainly we see shadows behind every stable door. But for a million or so viewers on Saturday they got their fix of our sport, and that will do for me. My glass is half full this week!

    Check the Clouds with this weekend’s tip

    Time to check the empty half of the glass this week with a tip which I hereby acknowledge is ground-dependent. I have lost bundles on Paint The Clouds in the past couple of years but if we miss the rain, I think he can take the big one at Saturday for Warren Greatrex. He needs good ground so forget it if the rain comes, but the horse is full of ability, will relish the trip and deserves a big pot. If I stay sunny and the weather mirrors my mood, I’ll be going in once again!

    Top image: A smiling, if dirty, Richard Johnson, by Kate via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  12. The Grand National draws 10 million viewers

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    Ten million viewers tuned into Channel 4 Racing on Saturday for the Grand National. Ten whole million people. Of all the stories that emerged from that magical day on Merseyside, this is perhaps the one with the longest lasting resonance.

    As regular readers will know, I have not been backwards in coming forwards to shine a light on some of the shortcomings of the sport we love. But I’ll dish out fulsome praise where it is due and when we are allowed to bask in the very real evidence that 10 million of our fellow countrymen and women want to enjoy our sport, it’s a moment to celebrate.

    We won’t get carried away and assume that we can take any more than a fraction of those extra viewers with us into the Flat season this Summer. But within that fraction, there were surely some families at home with a youngster or two whose enthusiasm was fired by the unfolding stories at Liverpool. Those youngsters will start on a journey now, one that I set out on some years ago after watching Des Lynam front the big race and one which has given untold joy and nourishment to the soul.

    We are a nation that loves horses. I also believe we are a nation that enjoys racing and while visitors to this blog might not be representative of the public at large, I also believe we’re a nation that doesn’t mind a little flutter.

    We should be proud that the Grand National pulls in the many millions, we should be excited that Channel 4 leaves a legacy on which ITV can hopefully build next year when terrestrial coverage switches to them, and we can once again hold our heads up high and remind ourselves that we are not a niche pastime, but are part of the very fabric of all that makes the UK such a wonderful place to live.

    One reason to be careful after the Grand National and Cheltenham

    After Cheltenham, I chastised those who turned a blind eye to the equine fatalities at the Festival. If we are to truly invest our emotions in horse racing we cannot ignore the worst moments that come with it.

    So it was with more than a degree of anxiety that I arrived at Aintree on Thursday morning. Three days later we had, to my mind, a little too much back-slapping that all the horses and jockeys had come home safe and sound after the Grand National itself. We’d lost horses earlier in the meeting and we cannot pick and choose what we look at.

    I have zero time for those old dewy-eyed romantics who believed the race was somehow greater when the ditch at Becher’s Brook resembled the north side of the Eiger. Horses dying at any time is awful. Horses dying on the biggest days of all when the nation is watching is worse still.

    For those of us who bet, for those of us who argue and for those of us who have little more than a passing, armchair interest, the starting point must always be the same: make racing as safe as we can while retaining the excitement. And frankly if it’s a 50:50 call as to what must be sacrificed, we must never ever sacrifice safety. Without the horses we have absolutely nothing and their safety must always come first. There is more for Aintree, Cheltenham and all our racecourses to do.

    Two of the best

    Much was made of the odds-on processional races that preceded the Grand National on Saturday afternoon and while I’m in the camp of those who believe you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to quality horses in uncompetitive heats one after the other, I can’t dispute that – in Douvan and Thistlecrack – we may have seen two horses who may come to stand the test of time through the ages.

    I am not a great clock-watcher but the time team at Aintree tell me that the sectionals posted by Douvan in his latest romp on rain-softened ground were off the charts. When Rich Ricci muses that this might be the best he has ever had, it’s time to stop and stare.

    In Thistlecrack, we have the most exciting horse in training. He could easily dominate the staying hurdling division for years to come in the style of Big Buck’s who, brilliant as he was, never set the heart racing as Thistlecrack has this term. Connections seem keen to go chasing and trainer Colin Tizzard will not hesitate in shooting for the moon in the next year or two.

    It is dangerous to heap too much expectation on horses, but what’s the point in being circumspect in a world of timid souls? These two horses will sustain National Hunt fans through their shallow Summer and bring us to Autumn with memories and dreams for a season ahead.

    Sit tight

    With the exception of Punchestown, which will always hold a special place in my heart (it’s where I met my wife), attention switches almost unequivocally to the Flat and this week’s Crave meeting at Newmarket with the Greenham this Saturday.

    I’m going to refrain from tipping just yet on grounds that recent rain and a host of unexposed early season types will be on display in the coming days, eager to relieve us of what’s left of our Aintree wallets.

    It was anything but a vintage period for my tipping as winter gave way to spring but as spring prepares for summer, I’ll be watching eagerly over this next fortnight to ensure we arrive at the Guineas in little over a fortnight with a clearer idea as to what we can expect to come rattling down the line this term. Sit tight for now.

    Top image: Aintree racecourse, home of the Grand National, by Rept0n1x, CC BY-SA 3.0

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  13. Aintree Grand National: welcome memories and unwelcome changes

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    It’s Grand National week, of course. “The day the nation goes racing” as Des Lynam used to remind us at the top of the Grandstand programme in years gone by. And it’s difficult not to look back on what makes the Aintree Grand National so spectacular: evocative names of famous fences – Becher’s Brook, Valentine’s, The Chair and Foinavon – are as tongue-trippy as ABC for those of us who were brought up on the race.

    So too, however, are the horses who seem to come back year after year for another tilt at the famous marathon. “I backed him last year!” is a familiar refrain as office sweepstakes are undertaken across the country. “I know that one! Happy with that!” cries the once-a-year- racing punter when a previous winner is pulled from the bag.

    But on a serious note, we have the spectre of a changing Grand National on our hands this year and it’s not one which I welcome. A couple of years ago Pineau De Re gave trainer Dr Richard Newlands the biggest win of his life. I was with Dr Newlands at the Grand National Weights lunch a while back and he confessed he was worried whether his National hero would get into this year’s race. The handicapper has framed the race such that former winners are no longer guaranteed a run, and for me that is borderline sacrilege.

    What makes the Grand National so special is the prospect of familiar names providing once-a-year enjoyers of our sport with a sense of narrative and continuity. We all know that National Hunt racing tends to sear a deeper emotional scar into our hearts than the Flat because our heroes return year after year, often losing, occasionally winning and reminding us why we fell in love with the animals and the sport at the same time.

    Exceptions can be made for former winners, exceptions must be made for exceptional stories. Racing can stick too rigidly to its rulebook and its ideological mantra . Pineau De Re should be there on Saturday and I can’t help but feel we’ve got it wrong that he’s not.

    Willie Time Again

    It’s a little bit like Groundhog Day with Willie Mullins sending everything bar Min and the stable cat to Liverpool for his mega-assault on the UK prize money this week. He fancies a crack at the Trainers’ title and, purely according to the numbers, he ought to nick it off Paul Nicholls.

    More interesting perhaps is the evidence — somewhat terrifying for his rivals — that Mullins’ horses can often improve from Cheltenham to Aintree (and on to Punchestown). His blitzkrieg in the Cotswolds last month could be overshadowed by his three-day charge on Merseyside. The prospect of once again seeing Douvan. Vautour, Annie Power and company strut their stuff in the Spring sunshine is enough to warm the cockles of any racing fan.

    For me, Mullins’ best chance of a winner lies in the redoubtable Djakadam who seeks to avenge defeat in the Gold Cup from the absent Don Cossack and who ought to relish the flat track in what appears to be a vintage renewal of the Bowl on Friday afternoon.

    The best and the worst of racing

    Regular readers will know that I refuse to sidestep the awkward warts on racing’s largely pretty face. As I drove into work this morning, racing had made the news bulletins, not for a look ahead to the Grand National but instead for the grubby business of a four-year ban for trainer Jim Best.

    It’s the front page of the Racing Post, it’s the lead story on the racing pages of all of this morning’s tabloids and those of us who believe in the integrity of our sport are once again on the back foot trying to silence the titters of despair from friends who can’t help but believe that there’s an undercurrent of corruption in racing. In the week of the Grand National, it could scarcely be more depressing.

    Saintly tips

    I tried to cheer myself up by turning my attention to the biggest betting race of the year, before realising that my chances of turning a profit having backed most of the field antepost are dwindling. I have finally settled on Saint Are as my each-way selection of choice. The Tom-George-trained horse came second last year to Many Clouds but has largely slipped off the radar since that terrific run.

    I am a stickler for course and distance form at Aintree every bit as much as I am at Cheltenham and George is, I understand, extremely bullish. That’s good enough for me and if Saint Are leads them home on Saturday afternoon I will demand a sainthood for George.

    Image: the grandstand at Aintree, home to the Grand National, by Paul via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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  14. Royals and celebs raise the Cheltenham fashion stakes

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    The racing season kicked off in style at the Cheltenham racecourse. Zara Tindall, who passionately followed the action on the turf, set the tone with a stylish (and season-appropriate) plum coat with matching floral hat on the first day, an elegant blue ensemble on the second and a bright red coat, which echoed the one worn by her mother, the Princess Royal, on the third.

    Alongside red, white also proved a popular colour, with Katie Price rocking the pristine look, which she accessorised with a warm shawl. Autumn Phillips, by contrast, teamed a white blouse with a plum skirt, brown pillow box hat and a super camel coat.

    Hats and fascinators were nothing short of spectacular at Cheltenham, particularly on Ladies Day.

    Geometric patterns were also prominent, with AP McCoy’s wife, Chanelle, wearing a stunning blue number on Ladies’ Day, while model Verena Twigg braved the chilly weather in a revealing zigzag jumpsuit, which she paired with a sculptural hat and soaring wedges.

    Gents mostly wore tweed — a Cheltenham classic — but some bucked the trend. Green was everywhere on St patrick’s day, of course, but there were other bright suits on offer—who says bright hues are only for women?

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  15. Vautour and Thistlecrack light up Cheltenham

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    It is minus four degrees here at the Cheltenham Festival this morning. It’s the earliest I’ve arrived thanks to a few TV pieces I agreed to do before I checked the weather forecast. Despite my toes turning a deeper shade of purple, it is stunning. The weak, wimpy sun is beginning to appear atop Cleeve Hill and a sharp frost blankets the racecourse. It is hard not to stand and silently play back the loop of life-lasting memories that have been shaped this week.

    Yesterday was entirely framed around two of the hottest horses of the week, Vautour and Thistlecrack. Neither let us down of course, much to the disappointment of the bookmakers. To my hazy eye, Thistlecrack put up the unemotionally best performance of the week in the Stayers Hurdle. The manner in which he quickened was breathtaking and while he isn’t yet a public horse, he is fast heading in that direction. I’d be tempted to send him to Ireland for Punchestown next month before embarking on a novice chasing career. His gears are extraordinary.

    The Irish were out in fuller force than ever on St Patrick’s Day and with six of the seven winners it was little wonder that Cheltenham town centre last night was a sea of green. There was, however, near mutiny in the city centre when it transpired that nowhere was showing some wretched football match between Liverpool and Manchester United. Finally, word got round that a place called The Spectre had it on. I suspect the landlord is still counting the cash now.

    Back to the races and the Cheltenham management tell me that media interest in Victoria Pendleton’s ride this afternoon has gone through the roof. This morning’s press seem divided about the project, but I’m reluctant to vent my frustrations about racing’s inability to unite behind good news, as regular readers will know I’ve done that before. Ask yourself this, however: would we rather be talking about an Olympian new to our sport being at Cheltenham or some overpaid footballers behaving like louts here in the hospitality boxes?

    Elsewhere on the racecourse, I’ve had a strong whisper for John Constable in today’s County Hurdle. I’d love to see Alan King on the scoreboard today and I’m siding with Who Dares Wins in the opening race, the Triumph. I may yet live to regret taking on Barter’s Hill in the Albert Bartlett but Noel Fehily’s mount Unowhatimeanharry is the one for me at a price.
    I’m sticking with last year’s tip Paint The Clouds in the Foxhunters’, for all that my principal hope is the safe and sound return of Pendleton. The Martin Pipe is utterly impossible but I won’t be able to resist backing Qualando for Paul Nicholls, with the talented young Harry Cobden in the saddle. The finale will go to Next Sensation for the Scudamore team who look to have laid the horse out for the race again.

    And what of the Gold Cup? Many of us point to this race or possibly the Grand National as the reason why we ended up devoting vast tracts of our life to this intoxicating game. It stirs the emotions like little else, the Blue Riband of the turf and an annual feast of the most brilliant staying chasers in full flight.

    In Don Cossack, Don Poli, Djakadam and Cue Card we have four class acts who ordinarily would be clear favourite in any given year. I will never forget Kauto Star and Denman laying it down to each other in 2011 before Long Run came to pick them off. Fair play to Long Run, but it was the sight of those two legends hammering it out in front of the sun-drenched packed stands that still gives me goosebumps. That is all we dream of and all we can hope for.

    My hope this afternoon is that the big four are all there in contention as they roll down the hill. It will give us ten seconds to drink it all up and commit it to the memory bank for eternity, for this truly is a Gold Cup for all the ages. And who will win? Don Cossack, I suspect. But who will I back? With whatever is left in my account, my wife’s account and whatever I can find here on the press room floor, I will be backing Cue Card.

    There are too many ordinary days in our lives. This is not one of them.

    Top image: Racegoers at Cheltenham by Andrew Matthews/Press Association Images, courtesy fo The Cheltenham Festival

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  16. Sprinter Sacre wows the crowd at Cheltenham

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    Well, knock me down with a sixpence for a fan! They say a broken clock tells the right time twice a day and yesterday I somehow managed to turn the tidiest of my Cheltenham Festival profits.

    Any Currency, Diego Du Charmil and Blaklion — all more than reasonably priced — teamed up to turn the flesh wounds of the opening day into a distant memory. Last night, I stretched to an extra piece of keema naan with my traditional Cheltenham half-time curry and it dawned on me I was comfortably in profit.

    Not that any of it mattered. Sometimes — often, in fact — money is a distant runner-up to the sheer joy of racing and, just as I had hoped and dreamed but never quite believed, we had it in its most glorious technicolour yesterday, courtesy of the frankly unbelievable Sprinter Sacre.

    Frequent readers of the blog will know I am hopelessly fond of a fallen hero. We admire greatness but deep down we feel better connected with those horses who are great but have suffered adversity. Sprinter Sacre is the ultimate racehorse, in that regard. And his trainer Nicky Henderson deserves to be knighted for what he did with this fragile, sensational superstar.

    To watch him, on the rails, surrounded by over 50,000 dreaming believers pick off the mighty Un De Sceaux with a casual flick of his tail was to be transported to a truly special place. As roars go, this roar out-roared the lot. It was the stuff of unfettered emotion and for those of who were lucky enough to be there we will hold it dear in our hearts.

    Once again, yesterday I was struck by the sheer pleasure of meandering across this now truly great racecourse. It wasn’t always like this. On Gold Cup day, especially, it could be hellish trying to beat the crowds but the JCR and Cheltenham Executive have done a sensational job in delivering a sporting venue fit for purpose and the status of this unique meeting.

    This morning, the sun is shining but a sad piece of news has just broken: No More Heroes, the Gigginstown Stud owned novice chaser has sadly been put down due to an injury sustained in yesterday’s RSA Chase. He has been one hell of an exciting horse this season and his owner, Michael O’Leary, who is lead sponsor here today, is sure to feel the pain. It’s another reminder, were one needed, that all the riches in the land cannot soften the emotion that horses bring to us.

    Looking ahead to this afternoon, I am almost tempted to ‘have and hold’ before I inevitably give my winnings back to my bookie of choice. Sadly for my wife, that’s not how I’m wired so we’re going into battle with some more each-way plays, courtesy of Three Musketeers in the first for the very talented Dan Skelton. The near-impossible Pertemps Final can go to Missed Approach for Warren Greatrex who deserves a change of luck.

    The Ryanair Chase ought to go to Vautour but I’ll struggle to cheer him on, given the chicanery of his lining up here, and I’ll side with my old pal Al Ferof each way at 14/1 or thereabouts. The World Hurdle is a great renewal and I fancy Paul Nicholls can score with either Saphir Du Rheu or Aux Ptits Soins, both of whom will be cursed by my each-way money. John’s Spirit is more than well treated on his best form and can go close in the Brown Plate, before Bantam in the Mares race and Upswing in the Kim Muir can seal another winning day.

    OK, it’s unlikely, but thanks to Sprinter Sacre and a day from the Gods yesterday I am happy to dream.

    Top image: The crowds watch the action at the Cheltenham Festival, by Andrew Matthews/Press Association Images, courtesy of the Cheltenham Festival

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  17. Why the Irish yard is the heart of Cheltenham

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    This morning’s press is brimming with news of bookies nursing their Cheltenham wounds. Well, I’m a bookie and I’m a punter, and yet I must be unique in holding the unwelcome title of being on both of the losing teams. My firm lost a packet, as did every bookie in the land. As a punter — and you’ll have identified this from my so-called tips yesterday — I managed to do my brains.

    I was on the wrong Nicky Henderson horse in the first, I was prepared to take on Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle (yeah, that went well) and the handicaps are best unspoken about. Only Douvan and Vroum Vroum Mag stemmed the pain but they were too short to haul me out of trouble.

    Moving swiftly on, I was struck by the crowd figures reported here yesterday. Cheltenham recorded record numbers for an opening day and yet the racecourse itself had a wonderful, unhurried feel about it. The concourse improvements they have made here are an unmitigated success. It now genuinely feels like a first-rate course and the facilities complement the natural rural amphitheatre and, of course, the first day of racing.

    Sadly but inevitably, some tabloids have led their Cheltenham Festival coverage with some football playing thugs and their entourage disgracing themselves in a private box. They’re silly and it drives me mad that infrequent visitors to our sport will have their opinions influenced by the behaviour of a handful of people. 67,000 other people rubbed along happily and cheerfully — irrespective of birth-right, ethnicity or punting misfortune — yesterday and we all have a duty to dial up that side of what makes Cheltenham so special.

    As I parked up earlier this morning, Willie Mullins was supervising his horses in the Irish yard, chewing away happily on some gum and appearing to be wholly untroubled by the mantle of greatness that sits on his shoulders. I reflected on his awesomeness. He has brought 60 horses here this week, few of them can be written off and some have already won; it’s inevitable that more will today.

    Ruby Walsh was among the two dozen jockeys strolling around, just another one of the lads, surrounded by a few curious onlookers and a few shivering catering staff keeping themselves warm with a cigarette. Nothing could have been less glamorous, more inconspicuous and, to my mind, more evocative of why we love racing. Even here at the great altar of the game, the beating heart is easy to find. It’s not in the Winners’ Enclosure, it’s certainly not in extortionate hospitality boxes; it’s there in the Irish yard, with the crafty smokers, the farmers and the unfussed, beautiful horses.

    Looking ahead to today, I’m ignoring the vibes about Yorkhill, who is being well backed this morning and will keep the faith with Yanworth. The RSA Chase at 2.10 looks a brilliant shoot-out between More Of That and No More Heroes but I’m prepared to risk what’s left of my wallet on Blaklion each-way for Nigel Twiston-Davies. The 2.50 is typically impossible but I’ll take the advice of a press room judge who thinks the 25/1 about Hunters Hoof is a knocking each-way bet.

    The Champion Chase itself could yet provide the most thrilling moment of the week as the odds-on Un De Sceaux meets old favourite Sprinter Sacre about whom I have blogged endlessly in the past year. If they come down to the second last together the roar will be off the charts. I’ll probably forget that I’ve backed Felix Yonger each way and cheer on the Sprinter to deliver the story to end all Festival stories.

    It’s Budget Day, of course, so Any Currency can be fancied to go well in the Cross Country Chase each-way at 4.10 (yep, I’m getting desperate now), and the penultimate race features Diego Du Charmil who has been the subject of a sustained gamble for Paul Nicholls in recent weeks (I missed the wedding prices, but will take a funeral price).

    The Bumper, to round things off, can go the way of Coeur Blimey who would be half the price he is were he in a bigger yard. Mind you, if I’m looking for a result coming to the Bumper, I might as well go and try to hide away in the Irish yard with the furtive farmers and crafty smokers.

    Good luck today; my bank manager disagrees but it’s still a great day to be alive.

    Top image: Cheltenham racecourse by Kate via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  18. It’s all systems go at the Cheltenham Festival

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    It’s barely 8 o’ clock but I reckon there’s more than a thousand people here on the racecourse. The gates don’t open for another couple of hours but the first Cheltenham Festival ritual is well under way: the temporary catering staff are cold, lost and bored.

    Perhaps they’ve never been here before? Perhaps they’re not aware of what lies in store in barely a few hours? Perhaps the roar which signals the start of the Supreme Novices Hurdle at 1.30pm this afternoon doesn’t send tingles down their spine? Maybe they’ve not been longing for this day for what seems like an eternity. It certainly looks that way and I reckon their hearts beat to a different rhythm to ours, or to mine at least. And I pity them.

    Cheltenham Festival week is the greatest week of all. The Grand National at Aintree is a one-race bonanza, but for sustained, relentless brilliance this week is off the charts. And as I type, all the dreams are still alive, all the slips are being tenderly nurtured, and hope fills the air. Only the foolish few (that would be me) have managed to lose money on antepost runners who won’t even turn up. For the rest of the 60,000 who will shortly flock through these gates, joyous expectation reigns supreme.

    Each morning this week I will chronicle my losing bets of the day before, bring you the gossip, try to set the scene and share with you the madness of this utterly intoxicating week.

    Let’s get today’s losing tips out of the way: I’ve backed Buveur D’Air in the Supreme on account of the price. I can’t fathom why Nicky Henderson’s supposed second string is so big, given the rock solid credentials of his performances this term. I’ll watch Douvan turn the Arkle into a procession and marvel at a wonder horse. Out Sam in the first handicap and Aloomomo in the last handicap will give Warren Greatrex a day to remember. Vroum Vroum Mag ought to be invincible in the Mares race but the feature, of course, is the Champion Hurdle.

    Last year, Annie Power fell at the final hurdle in her race and saved the bookies an estimated £50 million in Rich Ricci-inspired accumulator bets. The year before she bombed out in the World Hurdle.

    This year she is — by default — the favourite in today’s big race. And I’m more than happy to take her on. I am fully aware of the risk of egg all over my face but The New One is my selection with an uninterrupted preparation for a race he could have won a few years ago. It would be a wonderful story for the Twiston-Davies team and in what looks like a non-vintage renewal, The New One has the unfortunate penalty of carrying the Williams Millions.

    It’s time to sign off for the day; the press have arrived, the coffee bars are open, the Guinness Village is glistening and the gates are about to open. Whatever you’re backing, whoever you’re cheering, however you’re watching, take a moment to recognise the importance of this week — the greatest show on turf and a week to be grateful for just being a small part of it.

    Image: the racecourse at Cheltenham, by Kate at Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  19. Looking ahead to Cheltenham

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    We’re in the midst of silly season preview nights. This time next week, of course, we will be at Cheltenham and fully immersed in the biggest week of the year, but before then we run the gauntlet of the infamous preview night circuit.

    I have been relatively fortunate this year, confining myself to two appearances on panels and just one as a spectator. The principal risk is to the liver, but the wallet is similarly under threat as pundit after pundit identifies a 20/1 dark horse for one of the handicaps.

    “It’s over half a stone well in” purrs one; “it’s been working the house down at home” chirps another. “The trainer told me last night he’s never had this mare better. She’s in the form of her life.” And so the waters get muddier rather than clearer.

    With 28 races and the best part of a week to wait, your correspondent is trying to detox the body and the betting strategy ahead of a major assault next week.

    A day in my life at Cheltenham

    I’m hoping to bring you all the colour of the Festival next week from the course but allow me to set the record straight for any of you who suspect my Prestbury Park existence will be confined to hospitality boxes, the Guinness Village and a series of after-parties in five-star hotels.

    I’ll be on course no later than 07.15 each morning, risking life and limb in the temporary media centre which is scaffolded above the parade ring and which never has enough seats, sockets or heaters.

    A series of TV and radio interviews is likely to be punctuated by occasional calls from salesmen who are blissfully unaware that Cheltenham is on and some irritating emails from Head Office asking me for budget updates.

    I’m hosting some box previews for our clients with Oliver Sherwood and Noel Fehily. When the racing starts, things tend to calm down for me. Nothing gives me more pleasure than a four-mile handicap when I’m trying to catch my breath.

    Press releases, market reaction, media queries about money back offers and expensive falls all combine to leave me at my workstation come 8pm most evenings, still shivering and looking out over a concourse of ripped tickets and broken dreams.

    Never has shivering and litter been so utterly intoxicating, though!

    Good luck, Victoria Pendleton

    I wrote recently about my dismay at the glee surrounding Victoria Pendleton’s travails in the saddle as she prepares for a tilt at the Foxhunters. And now we know: the Olympic cyclist will line up next Friday, and yet the gloom merchants are out in yet more force.

    I’m not in any way dismissing the safety issues that are rightfully being aired but Pendleton’s team are first-rate, to my eye, and well aware of the challenges and risks. We ought to unite and wish her well. Only if the Gold Cup – the Blue Riband of the Turf – is overshadowed by celebrity racing will I be irked.

    I wish Pendleton well, hope she comes home safely and will be cheering her on and enjoying every bit of coverage she secures outside of our parish for a rattling good cause and illustration of devotion.

    However, the Gold Cup has stood a far longer test of time and has brought more of us to the racing party than any celebrity. Let’s get things the right way round, at least.

    Short-term tipping

    So where do we begin with a 28-race Festival when it comes to the aforementioned detox on betting?

    Well, I am nothing if not an abject failure when it comes to practising what I preach so I’m going to put myself in the poor house right from the get go, by tipping up a horse in the opening race on the first day.

    The hot favourite, of course, is Willie Mullins’ hype horse Min. At 5/4 he’s a laughable price and will be bigger on the day so if you want to back him, hang fire and wait for the price wars to begin.

    My idea of the winner, however, is the ultra-tough Altior. I can’t see him being out of the frame and what’s left of the Williams Millions are down and the curse has been placed. And if it all goes wrong, I’ve only got to endure another 27 races of losses before I can leave the Cotswolds nursing my wounds.

    Image: Cheltenham racecourse by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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  20. Why Brodie Hampson’s win is a victory for us all

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    Racing can be a brutal business. We rage when we lose — both on the track and down the bookies, and we celebrate winners for a while because of the elation they provide.

    Seldom, however, do we think of racing in life and death terms. But the story of Brodie Hampson is one to stop even the most fickle, fair-weather fans in their tracks. Hampson’s dad, Mark, is dying of cancer. He was in the military and at the back end of last year he was told he had barely a month to live. His daughter vowed that, before he passed away, he would see her ride a winner in his colours. And so it came to pass at Sandown last month when Hampson booted home Jenny’s Surprise to score what must surely be the most emotional and uplifting victory seen in many a long year. It wasn’t the Cheltenham Gold Cup, it wasn’t the crème de la crème of thoroughbred racing and the monetary stakes and returns were irrelevant.

    But Mark Hampson was there at Sandown on that dank, cold February afternoon and his daughter made good on her promise. And just this last weekend at Southwell, the young Hampson went and did it again — this time aboard Goal who had little right in the formbook to register such a special victory. But Goal and Hampson stuck to the script and we racing fans, who far too often can’t see the wood for the trees, should be applauding for evermore. What a sport we have, what people we have, how lucky we are to be able to share in the smiles of the Hampsons, who have so much to be sorrowful about. It defies logic and is utterly humbling.

    Moore bad luck

    The Hampsons’ story recalibrates all the dials when it comes to luck and fate and fortune, but we must also spare a thought for the team at Gary Moore’s yard who could scarcely have endured a more tumultuous few months since Gary himself was hospitalised last November following a freak accident.

    A punctured lung and five broken ribs kept him off the gallops for all of three full days but he was back to see his star novice chase Ar Mad kick off December as he went on to finish it, emerging as the most likely Arkle rival to Douvan with thrilling victories at Sandown and Kempton.

    Stable star Sire De Grugy won a Tingle Creek and Traffic Fluide caught the eye at Ascot in the New Year before Violet Dancer won the Kingmaker for the yard to provide fresh hope for a yard who had earlier received news that Ar Mad was out for the season. When Traffic Fluide was then ruled out for the rest of term it seemed the Moore’s luck could get no worse but we have just learned of the very sad death of Violet Dancer after suffering post-op complications to repair a condylar fracture.

    It beggars belief that such misfortune can be bestowed upon one trainer. Moore is made of stern stuff as his November escapades revealed and if there is any justice in the world, both Ar Mad and Traffic Fluide will return in the Autumn and remind us all that the wheel has a tendency to turn for those who deserve it. The Moores deserve an awful lot more than they’ve received in the past few weeks and months.

    The return of PFN

    I wrote recently about Paul Nicholls and his chasing star Silviniaco Conti. Conti isn’t bound for Cheltenham but it has been cheering in the past week or so to watch a notable upturn in the fortunes of our multiple-time Champion Trainer with barely a fortnight until the greatest week of our season. Nicholls has endured a relatively lacklustre Winter, made all the worse no doubt by the sight of rival Willie Mullins hovering up what seemed like every big race imaginable.

    As the Festival looms large, the Mullins team remain confident but the absentees have left their mark, and Nicholls has regained some verve and attention. It’s precisely what we need and let’s hope PFN can sustain his run as we race headlong towards the Cotswolds.

    Bumper crop

    Tipping up a horse not trained by Willie Mullins for the notoriously impossible Champion Bumper is a fast way to guaranteed poverty, but I’m happy to continue along that inevitable track.

    Many observers on Sunday thought Aspen Colorado’s win was “workmanlike” and “underwhelming”. I disagree. I saw enough in the paddock beforehand to believe we have a real live Bumper hopeful. Given the cut and thrust of a championship race and, presumably, the services of Barry Geraghty, we can expect to see Aspen improve.

    The money is down, Follow me at your peril.

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  21. Silviniaco Conti and racing beyond Cheltenham

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    I’m writing on the day of my birthday (a not unsubtle hint, dear readers) and was feeling a bit sorry for myself as one often does until I remembered that we found a winner in last week’s column courtesy of Silviniaco Conti (pictured above) in the Ascot Chase.

    Ascot last Saturday was cold and wet and very un-spring like but Silviniaco Conti jumped like a fresh spring horse and gave us a beautiful reminder that not all roads lead to Cheltenham. Here was a rattling good horse who simply hates the Prestboury Park undulations. Is it fair on horses like Silviniaco Conti that we tend to hand out awards of greatness only to horses who excel at either Cheltenham or Aintree?

    Connections of Paul Nicholls’ star chaser would certainly not think so for this was his seventh Grade One success and the sight of him bounding clear over the last was every bit as impressive as a Rich Ricci-owned powerhouse coming up that famous Festival hill.

    We’re likely to see Silviniaco Conti in the Grand National for which he now disputes favouritism. He has the class, but I’m not sure he’ll relish a huge field over the extended trip and I’d prefer to see him go and win the Bowl again at the same meeting. There’s more to life than just the world’s biggest races!

    Ray remembered

    Last week, I wrote about the Aintree Media Centre being renamed in honour of the late, great Alan Lee.

    Hats off also to Haydock Park who, last Saturday, renamed their press room in honour of Ray Gilpin whose sad passing was chronicled in this blog before Christmas.

    His wife was at Haydock, wearing Gilpin’s famous red scarf. He loved the track and it’s great to be in a sport which honours its stalwarts — from every aspect of the game — in such classy ways.

    Victoria falls

    My irritability isn’t solely down to my birthday (did I mention it’s my birthday? It’s my birthday) but I’m feeling a bit fed up with the schadenfreude which appears to have accompanied a downturn in the fortunes of Victoria Pendleton.

    Last Friday, she fell off a horse at Fakenham. Not since Annie Power’s final hurdle tumble at Cheltenham last year has a slip-up been so analysed and deconstructed.

    Let’s remember that this time last year, the Olympic cyclist had barely sat on a horse and since then her project — namely to embark on a crash-course of high-intensity training in race-riding ahead of a possible tilt at the Foxhunters next month — has been a breath of fresh air for pretty much everyone in the sport. She has taken racing out of its parish.

    On Friday night, I understand, her Fakenham ride was the fifth most read story on the entire Guardian website, streaks ahead of the FA Cup and up there with our Prime Minister’s japes in Europe.

    Let me be clear: I think the Cheltenham Festival will come too soon for Pendleton. That gives me no pleasure, no satisfaction but, frankly, it doesn’t care a jot what I think. It doesn’t care a jot what any of the armchair jockeys think, either; experts will determine her suitability to ride and that will be that.

    She didn’t fall at Fakenham on purpose and I suspect deep down she is absolutely gutted that her extraordinarily happy story might be nearing its end. If it ends, she has lost nothing whatsoever and given plenty to many of us who still love it when our friends show an interest in our sport every now and again.

    Our capacity to relish in the misfortunes of others is an ugly blot on racing — not just racing, perhaps — and we ought to do better. Good luck to Pendleton over the coming weeks, and beyond.

    Viva Steve

    This Saturday, I’m giving the racecourse a swerve as I make my annual appearance in an old boys football match in Oxford. It’s likely to be even messier than my tipping, but if I make it through to half-time I’ll tune in to Kempton to watch Viva Steve run what I hope will be a big race in the Betbright Chase.

    Mick Channon’s novice chaser hasn’t been seen since running a bit disappointingly at Cheltenham on Trial Day behind King’s Odyssey but is worth another try on a flatter track and at 20/1 is still the kind of price for an each-way play that might make my likely hospitalisation on Saturday night that little bit more bearable. Good luck.

    Image: Silviniaco Conti by Kate via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 (detail)

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  22. Alan Lee remembered at Aintree

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    Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to be at the unveiling of the Crabbie’s Grand National Weights Luncheon, held on the 35th floor of London’s “Cheesegrater” building. It was a spectacular affair, attended by anyone who’s anyone in National Hunt racing with the pleasant addition of live singing from super soprano Laura Wright, and rightly whetted the appetite for what is indisputably the greatest single race in the entire world.

    On Saturday, April 9, this year we will pour into the Media Centre at Aintree racecourse (pictured), buzzing about our business, and most likely we will fail to find time to stop and reflect on the renaming of said media centre. For at the lunch, attended by two of Alan Lee’s children, we received the excellent news that the hub of press activity will be renamed in perpetuity as the Alan Lee Media Centre. It’s a fitting tribute to the much missed and much loved Times racing correspondent, who was the first to arrive and the last to leave in Liverpool every April.

    The new McCoy

    Sir Anthony McCoy, as we are now encouraged to call the recently retired knight of the realm, was on sparkling form at the SkyTower function in London and was asked for his views on the National this year. His pick is Holywell for the Aintree marathon, currently round about the 33/1 mark but sure to go off shorter if punters take heed of the former champion jockey’s counsel.

    McCoy pointed to the horse’s workable weight, the class of recent seasons and hinted at rumours that the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Cheltenham Festival winner could be showing signs of resurgence . McCoy was looking a little bit fuller in the face, a little bit healthier and an awful lot more relaxed than he ever was during his unparalleled riding career.

    He could still just about ride the top weight in the National, he admitted, but if he returns next year – on current trajectories – he’d be odds-against to make riding weight but very much odds-on to keep a devoted audience laughing long into the afternoon.

    Early guesswork for April

    With Cheltenham still the best part of five weeks away, it seems a little perverse to look ahead to Aintree, but given it’s the biggest race of the year, I’m going to use the next couple of months whittling my Grand National shortlist down to 30 or so possible.

    Kruzhlinin is the first one I’m going to put on record: the likely mount of Richard Johnson is 33/1 with the bookies and was a terrific recent winner at Kempton for Richard Hobbs. He’ll gallop forever and connections could barely disguise their confidence. If they ever discover your correspondent has backed him, said confidence ought to evaporate instantly.

    Look ahead to this weekend

    Clues for the big Cheltenham races are beginning to become harder to find but this weekend we have a feast of racing from Ascot, Wincanton and Haydock to provide us with some more, final clues to factor into our Festival reckoning.

    I’m not yet sure where I’ll go but would love to convince the wife that a trip to Wincanton makes the most sense: it’s one of my favourite tracks in the country and the Kingwell Hurdle this weekend has long been one of my favourite races of the season, ever since Binocular (financially, probably my favourite Champion Hurdler) skipped round to convince me he could threaten Hurricane Fly the following year. I was wrong, of course, but Wincanton in February is well worth the journey.

    Nearer to (my) home at Ascot, Silviniaco Conti can remind us all that there’s more to life than Prestbury Park. The former Gold Cup favourite enjoys Cheltenham as much as I enjoy lashing rain but on a flat track over a steady 3 miles this weekend he can stamp his class on a decent, but unspectacular looking field.

    Image: Aintree racecourse by Paul via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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  23. Sensational Ruby Walsh

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    Last weekend’s racing was pretty run of the mill stuff. We are unlikely to look back on Warwick’s Classic Chase and Sunday’s competitive fayre in Ireland in years to come and declare a vintage. And yet, at Leopardstown on Sunday, we were reminded that in our midst is one of the greatest horsemen ever to sit in a saddle.

    As Killultagh Vic, one of any number of novice chasers destined for the top and trained by Willie Mullins, came to the last fence there was little out of the ordinary. When the horse jumped, slid, skidded and all but crashed to the ground on landing, however, we saw Ruby Walsh perform the kind of miracle recovery that only Ruby Walsh is capable of. In Walsh’s words: “I just sat dead still and kept dead straight”.

    If you missed the race and haven’t yet seen it, take a look on social media where the incident has understandably gone viral. Walsh’s comments almost make us think that it’s little more dramatic than negotiating a roundabout in a car, but what he managed to do in not only staying on the horse but going on to win the race is the stuff of the extra-terrestrial.

    At times, it defies belief that one guy can be so good and so dominant. And what of the horse? Killultagh Vic finds himself propelled to the top of the intermediate novice chase betting market at the Cheltenham Festival.

    If that seems a bit odd for a horse with suspect jumping, let’s pause and reflect what skill he must have to have made mistakes, realised it, corrected himself and stayed straight. True enough, it helps when you have a master in the saddle, but Killultagh Vic somehow enhanced his burgeoning reputation by virtue of his error and recovery. All in all, that’s remarkable stuff.

    Champion hurdle

    For those of you suffering a bout of impatience that the Festival is still the best part of a couple of months away — or for those who can’t stand the prospect of the never-slowing build-up to the National Hunt’s greatest show on earth — have no fear because the Champion Hurdle is being run this Sunday at Leopardstown!

    OK, so it’s the Irish Champion Hurdle if we have to split hairs, but with Faugheen, Nichols Canyon and Arctic Fire, all set to line up for that Mullins fellow, we have the front three in the Festival market all about to lock horns.

    And for those of us who have been a bit cranky about the non-compete walkovers in Irish racing throughout the winter, we can offer nothing but praise to the trainer who is pitting his three best hurdlers against each other this side of the Festival.

    Faugheen ought to win, but the worrying news for all his rivals is that he still won’t be at top notch. The Machine is being trained for mid-March and this Sunday ought to be a decent stepping stone. If he wins by half the track, they might as well not bother competing in mid-March. It will be a lap of honour.

    Barbados blue

    It strikes me that anyone who is anyone in racing is currently on a beach in Barbados or, for the sake of clarity, at Mullins Beach Bar in Barbados. For once, this is not the preserve of Faugheen’s trainer. It is, instead, the home from home for racing’s rich and famous. From Paul Nicholls to owner Andy Stewart, those with the sense (and money) to escape the current winter chill are uncorking fine wine on the other side of the world.

    This has left me grouchy and envious and unashamedly so. I phoned a good friend of mine to wallow in my misery last week, knowing he is not a Barbados man. He answered the phone immediately and I went into a diatribe against those who were living the good life. “Sorry David, I can’t chat, mate. I’m at the Test Match here in Cape Town and need to get off my phone.” He hung up. Life can be cruel at times.

    Image: Ruby Walsh by Davy Jones Locker, CC BY-SA 3.0

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  24. Willie Mullins: good or bad for racing?

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    Questioning the value of Willie Mullins’ Cheltenham team to the Festival is a eyebrow-raising thing to do, but let’s have a crack.

    The Irish champion trainer, recent king of Prestbury Park and all-round thoroughly lovely bloke, is set to dominate this year’s Festival once again. In Rich Ricci, he has the pre-eminent owner of the National Hunt era; in Ruby Walsh, he has the undisputed favourite of the punters each March and his team of buyers is evidently second to none.

    A glance at the markets provided by the bookies show a Mullins horse as clear favourite for near enough every race priced up. In some cases, the Mullins horse is odds-on, in many others it is fantastically short given how far away the meeting remains and in some races — not least the Champion Hurdle — we have Faugheen as the odds-on favourite with the next two in the betting also stablemates!

    In itself, I’ve no problem whatsoever in one man’s dominance but as a punter I find myself conflicted by the lack of rivalry and meaningful opposition. The essence of sport is in rivalry, and one of racing’s great appeals is the multi-layered rivalry of jockeys, or horses themselves and indeed of trainers. Rivals improve each other.

    Mullins is so far in front it is difficult to pinpoint his most likely rival. Perhaps even more worrying is the tendency for so dominant a yard to resist the temptation to committing to specific Festival targets.

    Vautour, for example, is likely to head to the Ryanair, but might also go for the Gold Cup or possibly even the Champion Chase. Attempting to steer a betting path through the races with these question marks hanging over us is a futile challenge at this stage and may well remain that way for the best part of the next two months.

    And when it comes to the “new races”, the intermediate distance races, especially for the novices, what hope have we? We’re often betting 2/1 that we can even identify the correct race for some of these horses, let alone calculate their chances!

    Let’s be clear – this is not Willie Mullins’ fault! He’s doing absolutely the right thing for his owners and for his horses and, perhaps even, for the punters as well who hate more than anything the prospect of doing their dough before they even get to the races. But with too many possibilities, too many uncertainties, too many good horses for too similar a set of races, only the bravest or most fool-hardy of punters would dare to get involved in betting at this stage of the season.

    Lee loves it lashing down

    Last year, the BBC showed a documentary called Britain At The Bookies. One of the most entertaining blokes in the second episode was a punter who swore that the secret to picking winning horses was the size of their hooves. How we laughed. Fast forward six months or so and Kerry Lee’s terrific staying chaser, Mountainous, has just won the Welsh National. The Racing Post revisited the idea of hoof-size as a guide to picking winners in gruelling conditions. How we stopped laughing.

    The indisputable truth, however, is that the Lee family horses love this time time of year, and the wetter the better. Just as we might once have looked for Venetia Williams’s giants to slog through the mud throughout deepest, darkest winter, now we keep our eyes firmly peeled for Lee.

    Perhaps it’s dangerous to attribute a “type” to her yard, but they’re often big, they rarely lack for staying ability and they don’t mind a bit of the wet stuff. Watching from the warmth and comfort of my living room on Saturday afternoon it was impossible not to celebrate the very essence of winter jump racing as Mountainous slugged it out in the driving rain at Chepstow.

    The marketing guys who crave a pretty product free of endurance may disagree, but for some of us it was days like last Saturday and horses like Mountainous who first fired our love of the game.

    Prize money

    Speaking of those marketing guys, we’ve just had news that Ascot have upped their prize money for the Royal meeting. Well done Ascot, I say, without a hint of irony.

    They’re an independent track and they have the most high-profile race meeting in the world so they can do as they choose and choose they have. I salute them.

    At the same time, I can’t help but wonder what the small-trainer on the other side of the UK to Ascot thinks when he worries about making ends meet.

    Royal Ascot caters for the elite and in every sport the elite must be cherished, but so too must the grass roots on whom everything else is founded. I simply don’t buy the grumbles about prize money.

    Across the piece, prize money is increasing and income to racecourses — especially through picture and data rights — is on the rise. The distribution of this money must be looked at to ensure those at every level are fairly rewarded. It’s not the quantum, it’s the distribution—as my Maths teacher might once have said, had I been listening.

    Image: Willie Mullins (far left) with jockey Ruby Walsh, Faugheen, groom John Codd and owner Rich Ricci by Robert Watters, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  25. RIP Alan Lee

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    I sent Alan Lee a text message less than a fortnight ago. The racing correspondent of The Times had been in hospital for a few weeks and his desk in the various racecourse press rooms had been markedly vacant.

    I teased him that people would start encroaching into his familiar spots — always on the end of rows, it seemed — if he wasn’t careful. On Friday last week, he returned to the racecourse at Ascot to enjoy some of his beloved National Hunt racing; he was, by his own quiet admission, feeling a bit better and was looking forward to returning to work in the New Year.

    But Alan died the very next day from a heart attack. In a year of losses for racing legends — Sir Peter O’Sullevan and Pat Eddery, to name just two — this was devastating. Alan was 61 years young and as gentle, yet meticulous a soul as could be found in the press room. His humour was gentle, his voice was soft, his manner was courteous and his writing was superb. Racing journalism lost one of its superstars at the weekend — a fine man and far too young to even think of packing away his laptop.

    Those of us who struggle to finish a sentence in one piece will miss Alan for his journalism, but even more we will miss his soft, searching conversations many time over. RIP Alan.

    Groundless arguments

    The sudden death of a great man nearly always puts the petty squabbles of our racing parish into sharp perspective, and it’s been difficult of late to focus on the thrilling Christmas action in store, but the horses — and their excited connections — deserve to be enjoying sleepless nights at this frantic time of the year.

    However, one thing that has really been getting my goat in recent weeks is the guesswork peddled by some who ought to know better when it comes to giving their expert view or commentary to enthusiastic punters.

    Ahead of racing at Ascot on Saturday, a case was made for a horse who would relish the testing conditions. The horse in question loves the mud, true, but the ground — officially — was no worse than “good to soft”.

    Now unless I’m missing something pretty fundamental to National Hunt racing, good to soft ground or even soft ground itself is the absolute bedrock of jumping ground! Were it not so misleading, it would be comical, but it got on my nerves and I hope it’s the last time I have to mention it. Bah humbug.

    Don’t miss your cue

    My mum’s favourite clip of all time on YouTube is of a little girl singing a famous carol in her school’s nativity play. She doesn’t just sing it, she belts it — and my goodness can she belt. She knew what she had to do — right on cue — and she was going to miss her moment (watch here after 50 seconds or so). And so to Boxing Day when dear old Cue Card returns to Kempton with the hopes of all his emotional devotees (yes, that’s me) riding with him. He faces younger, fresher rivals in Don Poli and Vautour and although I doubt I will ever witness scenes to rival Kauto Star’s fifth King George, if Cue Card gets his lines right on Boxing Day, I’ll be roaring like that little girl in the nativity.

    Not a crack in the thistlecrack?

    It was difficult to find fault in Thistlecrack’s superb win in Saturday’s Long Walk Hurdle. He put an under par Saphir Du Rheu to the sword(please, please send him back over fences, Mr Nicholls!) but it was the fluency of his jumping that left a lasting impression.

    Defending World Hurdle champion Cole Harden might have something to say about my view that Thistlecrack is now clear pick of the pack in the staying hurdling division but if there are any cracks in this young horse they weren’t very evident to me. Not just one for the notebook, but one for a notebook all of his own. Which reminds me, I’m running out of notebooks — just in case you are looking for any Xmas present ideas…….

    A very Happy Christmas to all readers and best wishes for the festive season. See you in 2016.

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  26. Keep an eye on Harry Fry

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    It feels as if there are more new trainers within the National Hunt ranks than ever before. By “new”, I mean emerging talents within the past handful of years. Of course it always takes a couple of years for the ‘awareness’ factor to kick in, unless your name is Dan Skelton, who came straight out of the Paul Nicholls Training School and took his place at the top table.

    §Skelton is one of a small number of these ‘newbies’ who is astonishingly talented. He is a serious trainer, a big-time, big-prize hunter and if you like your betting, you write his horses off at your peril.

    The other young trainer I’d throw into the “heavyweight” category is Harry Fry. Fry is still in his 20s although to look at and to listen to you could easily be mistaken for thinking he’s been around since jump racing began. He has gravity, he is unfussy, he rarely allows emotions to get the better of him and he is a sensational trainer of some extremely talented horses.

    When Unowhatimeaharry won at Cheltenham last weekend, the winning connections — the Harry Fry Racing Club — went berserk, and it was great to see. Meanwhile, the winning trainer adjusted his tie, afforded himself a small smile and prepared for a round of interviews with the assembled media which could have made Jacob Rees-Mogg look like the proverbial wild-child.

    Fry is destined to be around for decades to come. He and Skelton could yet emerge to be the new Nicholls and Henderson — titans of the game and arch rivals of the highest order. Skelton and Fry are chalk and cheese. One in his leather jacket and hollering home his winners, the other in his tweed suit and covert coat, quietly plotting his way to the big prizes.

    It’s two years on from Skelton’s biggest win of his career, when Willow’s Saviour took The Ladbroke, but I think this Saturday could be another Fry Day. Fry’s horse — Jolly’s Cracked It — is attracting the kind of antepost support that makes bookies sit and concentrate. He’s an unspectacular horse who might just be coming to the boil at the right time — much like his trainer.

    The Corrie Canal turn

    A belated snippet of parish gossip reached my ears whilst I was racing at Cheltenham last weekend, relating to the ongoing discussion over Channel 4’s role as incumbent broadcaster of terrestrial racing. Much has been made of falling viewing figures and the possible interest from rival broadcasters Sky and ITV.

    ITV in particular, it seems, have some innovative ways of seeking to generate interest in our sport around the biggest days of the year — the Cheltenham Festival, Grand National, Derby and Royal Ascot. Step forward Norris, Rita and the cast of Coronation Street.

    Script writers would be encouraged to weave in discussions at Kev’s garage and the Rover’s Return that centre around the upcoming races. For me, it’s an inspired move. Racing continually navel-gazes about its ability to reach out to new audiences. As Bev pours a pint of Best for Tyrone, her casual reference to whether or not Venetia’s hotpot will stay the Aintree trip will reach out to over 10 million viewers in an instant. I think that’s worth much more than a hotpot. Watch this space.

    An apology

    Last week I wrote about my heightened anticipation around the shopping village at Cheltenham. If any reader can prove that they attended purely on my advice (more fool you), I will refund you somehow: the “shopping village” was little more than half a dozen stalls at the bottom of the parade ring selling over-priced art and a few charitable Christmas cards. It left me feeling anything but charitable and I am now officially well behind on my Christmas shopping!

    Image: Cheltenham racecourse by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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  27. Where have all the British hurdlers gone?

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    I’m looking forward to this weekend at Cheltenham.

    The December meeting before Christmas is certainly not the most glamorous of the year but it allows someone like me to kill several birds with one stone: not only is it the last chance to take advantage of some of the excellent deals available in the tented shopping village (rather more than 50% off marked prices if you look hard enough, dear readers!) but it also throws up some horses to follow for the future and avoid doing DIY at home.

    Moreover, the old Bula — now run as the International Hurdle — is an intriguing race albeit not one one of the premier Champion Hurdle trials any more.

    Its lack of depth is nothing to do with Nicky Henderson, who appears to be priming his Triumph Hurdle winner Peace & Co and a couple of other stablemates to take aim at a decent sized pot. The absence of any meaningful Irish contenders is in sharp contrast to a glance at the Champion Hurdle market, which is dominated with horses from the Emerald Isle.

    It is highly unlikely that Willie Mullins will lose a great deal of sleep when he sees Saturday’s running of the race, and the relative paucity of top UK hurdlers this season is a cause for concern. It wasn’t all that long ago that Punjabi, Binocular, Rock On Ruby and Katchit were winning the biggest prize of all but an era of Faugheen and Hurricane Fly soon re-set the dial.

    I will look to Peace & Co to bully his way into the Irish mix more in hope than expectation. And if it all falls a bit flat on Saturday I’ll go and buy some gifts in the warmth of that marvellous tented village!

    The money’s down!

    By contrast to my slightly glum assessment of the Champion Hurdling division at this stage of the season, a look at the big staying chasers makes me wonder if we have ever before enjoyed such an outstanding bunch of prospects in our midst.

    In most other years, any of the top six or seven in this year’s ante post Gold Cup market would be a clear favourite. The latest star to display his credentials was Djakadam, who took the John Durkan at Punchestown on Sunday. To my (admittedly dodgy) eye, this was as smart a performance as we have seen to date. Yes, Coneygree jumped like the star we know him to be at Sandown and we also know that Don Cossack, Don Poli, Cue Card and of course Vautour have done nothing to harm their reputations, but Djakadam on Sunday was my idea of a superstar in the rough.

    It’s easy to forget his sensational run in last year’s Gold Cup and, with another season under his belt, he has the makings of a becoming a true jumping great.

    Almost inevitably, the next two or three months will be marked by disappointment as big guns are forced to swerve the March Festival through injury. I confess that I have already invested in Djakadam for Gold Cup glory and will be keeping everything crossed that he comes through his likely appointment at Leopardstown on 28 December and gets to Prestbury Park as big race favourite in early Spring.

    HWPA reflections

    My job as your resident racing blogger is to bring you some gossip as well as opinion. And th recent HWPA lunch was brimming with gossip about the latest dispute between racing and betting over the funding of the sport.

    The BHA were notable for their absence but HWPA Chairman Steve Cargill wasted little time in firing a volley of bullets in their direction for charging top dollar to bookies for a product that might not be quite worth as much as some in racing might believe.

    Meanwhile, the gongs were well received, with BBC and ATR’s John Hunt collecting the Peter O’Sullevan Award for broadcasting to widespread acclaim. Hunt is one of the good guys — relentlessly cheerful and a master commentator and presenter. The much coveted Racing Write of the Year went for a record fourth time to the incomparable Alastair Down from the Racing Post. Down paid tribute to his visit in Spring to see JT McNamara and his family at home in Ireland in what was clearly a harrowing visit to see the stricken jockey. Both Down and Hunt spoke with an eloquence and heartfelt authenticity that echoed through the Royal Lancaster Suite. Both came close to tears when reflecting on their journeys to success in racing journalism and both received rapturous rounds of applause.

    Wherever and however we get our fix of racing news, commentary and discussion, we are blessed to have the highest calibre of professionals to aspire to. Long may that continue.

    Image: Cheltenham racecourse by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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  28. Hennessy Gold Cup highlights

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    This coming Saturday sees the most long-standing sponsorship in racing — the Hennessy Gold Cup — return to Newbury in what looks likely to be an outstanding event. The Hennessy holds a special place in the affections of National Hunt fans, for whom March’s Cheltenham Festival is not solely the be all and end all of the sport. Run over a little more than three miles in front of relentlessly packed stands, the biggest chase handicap outside of the Grand National is a spectacle to warm the hearts.

    This year we have the defending Gold-Cup winner Coneygree seeking to make history by defying top weight and justifying near-enough favouritism in what could turn out to be a defining moment in racing history. It was not all that long ago that the mighty Denman seared himself into the affections of the racing public by grinding quality rivals into submission off top weight with a performance that many go many decades without seeing.

    Coneygree can do it again — and if he does, he will cement his place as the undisputed kingpin in a vintage crop of staying chasers. He remains lightly raced, his connections are delightfully potty and he epitomises everything that we hold dear when looking forward to weekend racing.

    In Saphir Du Rheu he faces a top-quality rival in whom the highest confidence has been placed by his celebrated connections for some time. Throw in Bob’s Worth, Smad Place and my old pal Houblon Des Obeaux and there can be few who will object to my assertion that this weekend we can look forward to the race of the season and something to warm the winter cockles.

    Triple Crown misgivings

    The latest initiative from racing’s marketing department is the revival of jump racing’s Triple Crown — a £1 million bonus to any horse able to win the Betfair Gold Cup (which took place last Saturday), plus Boxing Day’s King George and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March. Kauto Star accomplished this rare feat some half a dozen or so years ago and it cost the sponsors a cool million. Unsurprisingly, it soon was discontinued.

    It’s back again now and following Cue Card’s victory at Haydock on Saturday he has two legs to go. Or does he? Well the bookies make him a relatively dismissive 33/1 to scoop the big pot. He’s prominent enough in the Boxing Day betting at 5/1 or thereabouts, but is a much bigger price for the Gold Cup. By way of reference, he is half the price to win the Ryanair Chase which would see him swerve the chance to even go for gold, even if he does triumph on Boxing Day.
    For me, it’s a needless sideshow to the natural flow of the National Hunt season, which is in rattling good health as it is without the need for marketing gimmicks. We get a lot wrong in racing, but the flow of big races from November through to March is not one of them. And dangling a massive carrot in the form of a million quid is not money well spent. Re-invest those funds lower down the food chain to elevate some of the humdrum run-of-the-mill small-field stuff that turns horsemen and punters off in an instant.

    Season of goodwill?

    It’s hard to ignore the Christmas carols, artificial snow in the shop windows and the general sense of financial foreboding that indicates that the season of goodwill is rattling down the line. Not so, it seems, in the precarious world of racing politics.

    The latest fallout has come about between Betfred and Jockey Club Racecourses over sponsorship of the Gold Cup. The end result is that the Gold Cup has no sponsor. Many industry commentators have suggested that racing’s power-brokers are playing a multi-million pound game of poker with the bookies and most of the bookies appear willing to see how the cards fall. It’s all beginning to unravel, and the festive exchange of bottles of port between racing and betting looks likely to skip a year at least.

    Keeping the faith

    Rather than tip one (beyond Coneygree) for the weekend, I’m going on record as keeping the faith with Phillip Hobbs’ Brother Tedd, who lost little in defeat behind Rock On Ruby at Ascot at the weekend. He would have benefitted from a truer gallop and lacked the acceleration when the race turned into a sprint. Better things can be expected and we might be able to sneak a fancier price next time out in a race that goes at a decent clip from the off. In the fullness of time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him develop into a top three-mile hurdler.

    Image: Having won last year’s edition of the Hennessy Gold Cup, Coneygree could triumph again in 2015. Photo by Kate via Flickr, CC BY-Sa 2.0

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  29. Sprinter Sacre is back!

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    Last week I wrote with some rose-tinted emotion about the wonders of seeing Bob’s Worth and Simonsig battling it out in the Aintree mud to give heart to those of us who believe National Hunt racing to be the purest form of equine sport.

    Fast forward a week and we are still catching our breath following Sprinter Sacre’s incredible return to form in Sunday’s Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, which must surely go down as one of the most brilliant moments – Festival aside – to be enjoyed at that famous racecourse in recent times.

    Sprinter Sacre is not just any old horse; he is one whom we all took to our hearts when he was in his 2012-2013 prime, reducing high-quality rivals to distant also-rans and making it all look so utterly effortless.

    And then the crown slipped: heart problems at Kempton so the wheels fell off and after a lengthy lay-off his return at the start of this calendar year was hardly the stuff of legend. He was a shadow of his former self and many were the voices who called for his retirement.

    Trainer Nicky Henderson kept the faith and, on Sunday, he was rewarded with something like the Sprinter of old. It made me reflect on the perils of snap judgements in the racing game: many would have retired Kauto Star when he appeared to be past his best, only for his victory at Haydock in the Autumn of 2011 to leave us with feelings hitherto unmatched.

    Sprinter Sacre came closest of all on Sunday and while there is no joy in seeing horses past their peak being flogged at lesser meetings than they deserve to pick up lace money, we must be grateful that those who cried out for retirement have been silenced. Whether or not he returns to the top of the pile at the Cheltenham Festival in Spring is a matter for another day (incidentally, bookies broadly say it’s 4/1 against). Last weekend belonged to him and all those who kept the faith.

    Machine says no

    As so often with sport, glory is swiftly followed by shock. And so it was when 1/6 shot Faugheen was beaten by stable mate Nichols Canyon in Ireland at the weekend. Defeat for Faugheen-the-machine was scarcely countenanced, but invincibility is a fickle crown to wear for champion hurdlers.

    Even the mighty Istabraq came to know what losing felt like, and while those who worship unbeaten records above all else will be disappointed, those of us who know the joy of this sport as a theatre for comebacks and a chance to rebuild reputations will be all the more excited about the Christmas period when we see on Boxing Day whether Faugheen’s defeat was just a blip.

    Sad for super Pat

    Genuinely sad news reached us a few days ago when we heard of the passing of Pat Eddery. “Super Pat” as my Bolton friends and I called him as we were getting the racing bug was a superb jockey, but above all else he was a gentleman.

    My personal fondest memory of him dates back to August 2002 when my aforementioned pals and I headed to Chester for the day to make our fortune. Inevitably, we did our brains and relied on Super Pat to dig us out of a hole in the lucky last onboard Jeremy Noseda’s filly Anna Kareena. Eddery came good for us, landing an 8/1 winner, and sending us into the Chester night with a smile.

    How sad it is now to learn of his hopeless battle with the bottle and how it robbed us of his warm company at far too young an age. Super Pat deserved better from racing, from all of us — lest we forget.

    Popular Popham

    On Friday at Cheltenham, HRH The Princess Royal opened the brand spanking new grandstand in her name at Prestbury Park. Complete with open fires in the poshest of the posh seats and views across the entire racecourse this was a development worthy of the premier jumping track in the world.

    One jockey who must have feared he might be spending a few too many days in front of the fire with nothing to do is the marvellous Ian Popham, whose injury travails of recent times is enough to make anyone wince.

    By his own admission, Popham wondered if his time jumping fences on horseback were over as broken bone after dislocated joint reminded him of the perils of the game. His big race win on Saturday about Annacotty was a joyous celebration of someone who has come through adversity and triumphed.

    If we have a better deserving jockey in the Winners’ Enclosure this season, I will be more than a little surprised.

    Image: Sprinter Sacre by Kate via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  30. When Bobs Worth beat Simonsig at Aintree

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    My weekend highlight was — without any doubt — Bobs Worth (pictured above) defeating his stablemate Simonsig at Aintree in the big hurdle race on Merseyside. Here were two celebrated chasers making their re-apperances — Simonsig having been off the track for what felt like an eternity — and going hell for leather in the Liverpool mud to land a relatively modest pot. This was National Hunt racing at its best, far away from the big Festivals and showcase days.

    Bob’s Worth, a former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner was returned the winner at double figure odds, reminding us all of the enduring appeal of punting on familiar names and daring to write them off. Simonsig showed the old swagger that made him so popular before injury ruled him out for over two years. It was a race in the gloom to make the heart swell with promises of more to come.

    Then — the very next day — the defending Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Coneygree, reappeared at Sandown to smash his two rivals in what was, to my eye, a faultless display of jumping from the still young chaser. As jumping performances go, it is difficult to think how it could have been bettered, even if the number of rivals he faced was little short of an embarrassment.

    Inevitably and understandably, the mind wanders to bigger challenges ahead, to the battles with the Irish (and by Irish, we largely mean Willie Mullins) and to the magic of the festive racing calendar and beyond. Forget bonfires, John Lewis adverts and Hallowe’en: real racing fans know that Christmas is on its way when all the big names reappear and allow us to dream once more that this could be the best season yet…

    Ground gripes

    Throughout the summer, we were subjected to a series of farcical days when Gleneagles — the star miler of the Classic crop — was entered for big races, only to be withdrawn because the ground wasn’t right.

    I kind of get it with the ultra-valuable colts, whose owners keep at least one eye throughout the season on the value to their operations when their racehorses take up stallion duties. But in the National Hunt world, where the horses are no less valuable in emotional terms to owners and fans, the prospect of dodging the mid-Winter races on account of testing ground often gets me irritable. We live in the UK, for goodness sake where it tends to always rain!
    Such is the value of the Spring festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree that too many of our superstars are wrapped up through the core jumping months, resulting in uncompetitive fields, small fields and lacklustre fare.

    Maybe I’d think differently if I were an owner, but as a watcher of the sport, I want to see these horses run — on all types of testing ground — and sometimes lose me money. It’s part of the pact of punting on the National Hunt and I still find it far more alluring that keeping my cash in my pocket as my heroes keep warm in their stables.

    In defence of racing hacks

    Earlier this morning the voting papers arrived for the Horserace Writers & Photographers’ Association Awards lunch at the start of December. Racing, like many sports, makes the most of its autumn and winter lunching season and the HWPA bash at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in early December is well-attended, well-lubricated and goes on for ever.

    However, it has also slightly lost sight of its raison d’etre, namely to celebrate the very best in racing journalism and photography. Indeed, many of the leading hacks in the Press Room have started to swerve the event on account of it failing to stay true to its ideals. I’ve submitted my votes but — as regular readers of this column will know — I’m unlikely to have enhanced the chances of any of the guys I’ve plumped for.

    Nonetheless, it made me reflect — with anxiety — on where racing journalism is heading. Too many of us have, too frequently, a downer on the sport, whether it be falling terrestrial viewing figures, unpopular presenters, too many bookies, too much data, not enough data, uncritical comment, unfair and over-critical comment, it never seems to end.

    And what of the sports editors and the channel controllers? Is it any wonder they look with dismay on the in-fighting in racing’s media and cut the space afforded to the sport we love? If anyone can find the last time the Evening Standard, for example, ran a horse-racing story I’d be straight down to Sotheby’s.

    My end of year wish is for racing to put its best foot forward again, to cast off the cloak of self-doubt and borderline self-loathing, and to celebrate the very evident fact that our broadcasters and journalists are second to no other sport in terms of passion, knowledge, insight and, more often that not, good-natured guys.

    A tip

    This weekend, we head to Cheltenham for their wonderful three-day Open meeting. I remember going up from Uni when Shooting Light won the Thomas Pink Gold Cup (as was). I was hooked from that day onwards. This weekend, I’m going to side with Totalize in the Greatwood Hurdle on Sunday. I’ve backed him to oblivion many times, often beating the market but seldom turning a profit. With favourable each-way terms I’ll have one (possibly last) roll of the dice.

    Image: Bobs Worth by Carine 06CC-BY-SA-2.0

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  31. The fickle hand of Frankie Dettori’s fortune

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    The images of Frankie Dettori collecting his Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe trophy earlier this month in Paris were ones that will – rightly – live long in the memory. As I wrote at the time, here is a jockey who has found his road to redemption this season and who – in the aftermath of Paris – was praised for having delivered arguably the ride of the season on Golden Horn. That day, Dettori steered a trouble-free path to glory, far from the rest of the pack, and ultimately it was to prove inspirational.

    On Saturday at Doncaster, however, Dettori got it wrong. This is no criticism. It’s simply an observation that needn’t be dissected too forensically. The jockey stuck to the stands’ rail, got boxed in, was all dressed up with nowhere to go on Foundation and ultimately came to grief.

    Those greedy punters who had their proverbials on the 10/11 favourite may choose to lash out at the jockey, but they ought to be silenced. Dettori had a bad day, just as we all do, all too often, but rarely do the rest of us have great days like the one the popular Italian had in Paris.

    If racing were metronomic and consistent we would tire of it almost immediately. Dettori remains one of the feel-good stories of the season we are now putting to bed and that’s how we’ll remember 2015.

    Sir Peter remembered…

    On Tuesday, I’m off to St Luke’s church in Chelsea to say a hearty farewell to the late, great Sir Peter O’Sullevan at his memorial service. Late last week, I got a sneak preview of the order of service and, having seen that, have closed the book on there not being a dry eye in the church. We will celebrate a life well-lived with contributions from the great and good of showbiz, sport and racing in equal measure.

    Next week I’ll share my reflections on what promises to be a good day, but for those unable to join us in Chelsea, raise a glass – if you can – to join from afar the many of us who will be retiring to the nearby bars and restaurants to continue our memories of a broadcasting great.

    …and Clive too!

    Happily, for those of us who try to retain our humour, Clive Brittain is very much with us. Brittain signed off from the training ranks at the weekend with his horse Acclio running in the 7f fillies’ handicap at Newbury.

    Acclio didn’t win but the scenes at Newbury were ones to celebrate. Brittain, aged 81, was there with his wife Maureen with whom he plans to share his retirement. Brittain won 6 British Classics over a career that spanned four decades, but even greater was his achievement in making the racing circuit a more happy, fun place.

    He remains slightly crackers and recent scenes of him dancing jigs of delight in Winners’ Enclosures at major meetings have done little to diminish the reality that racing will be poorer without him around. It’s not all about winning, really. It’s simply about making the racing more fun – and Clive was the king when it came to that.

    Breeders’ Cup apathy

    I’m in danger of becoming a grumpy old curmudgeon but the Breeders’ Cup doesn’t especially light my fire any more. I can’t put my finger on what it is about the meeting which leaves me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

    I’ve never been, of course, and perhaps that’s largely part of it. And it wasn’t always the case: at Uni in 2011 I hired out the Oxford Union TV room on the Saturday night to host a party that saw Sakhee denied by a nostril in the Classic, Fantastic Light dazzle in the Turf and Johannesburg turn over the unbeatable US hotpost (Officer, I think?!) in the Juvenile. That felt like an epic night, and it felt fresh, real and glamorous without being over-hyped.

    Perhaps this weekend’s Keenelend spectacular will rekindle my enthusiasm and also fire the punters who have been giving it a worryingly wide berth in recent years. Given my recent form, I dare not ruin the chances of any poor horse by tipping it this weekend. If you tune in at the weekend, good luck!

    Image: Frankie Dettori by Paul Friel

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  32. Solow wins The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot

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    Last week, I suggested that Champions Day was beginning to find its home in the affections of Flat racing aficionados; I suggested that Ascot’s big race day was pretty good. And what has hindsight provided? Well, for me it was more than pretty good. It was bleeding superb.

    Maxime Guyon and Solow triumphed at The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes View image | gettyimages.com

    In Solow and Muharrah we were treated to the spectacle of undisputed champions of their divisions, the latter decisively confirming himself the best around this term – bar none and without any possible quarrel. Unsurprisingly, Solow’s win was clouded with controversy: Gleneagles did run (as I had hoped) and emphatically flopped (of course he did: I had tipped him last week) so the brilliance of Solow was clothed in recriminations over Gleneagles’ participation.

    Failure to recognise Solow as the undisputed miler champion of the year is appalling. And in the Champion Stakes itself Dermot Weld reminded us all why he is such a genius by bringing Fascinating Rock to the boil after a couple of years of under achievement. I backed him in last year’s Derby and thereafter abandoned him as a hype horse. One day even I might learn that D K Weld is a magician and should be written off at peril.

    The critics remain vocal, however. TV viewing figures were poor, even allowing for a competing Rugby World Cup and the presence of a handicap on a self-appointed day for champions baffles many. It doesn’t baffle punters however, and it is those punters who clicked through the turnstiles and had a flutter.

    If the numbers don’t pick up next year, back in a regular later afternoon spot with no domestic sporting tournament to distract racing fans from their beloved sport, then we can worry anew. After all, we’re champions at worrying.

    Racing Post Trophy preview

    The last domestic Group One of the year is run this Saturday up at Doncaster as the Racing Post Trophy packs us off into the Winter with hopes of a Classic winner. I have mixed emotions – all selfish – about this race: firstly, it is always freezing cold and often wet. Flat racing at the back end of October at Donny is for the purists and I often realise I am far from pure when I shower on Town Moor.

    By contrast, it was here that I first backed Authorised and Camelot en route to their 3 year Classic-winning careers. You forget how cold it is when you back a favourite who proves himself even better than you dared to dream.

    This year we have John Gosden’s Foundation topping the early betting shows. Gosden has enjoyed the season of all seasons this term with Golden Horn as standard bearer supreme. And the joy of racing is that Autumn provides hope, most especially with the Racing Post Trophy.

    Could Foundation be the next Golden Horn? Will he send Gosden, Dettori and the rest of us into the Winter with dreams of 2016 glory? It’s a tough ask but his Royal Lodge win and the confidence oozing out of Highclere suggest that the vibes for this special colt are not without their own foundation.

    Three cheers for De Sousa

    Not everyone in the press room agrees when celebrated sports writers turn their hand to racing and pen a profile on a “lesser known” character in the sport. So when the Mail on Sunday sent one of their top guys round to see Silvestre de Sousa, champion jockey elect, earlier this month I enjoyed the piece, although I found it had some inaccuracies.

    De Sousa is unlikely to be remembered in years to come as a household name in the top tier of all-time great jockeys, but attempts to diminish the scale of his achievement this term are ill-founded. He worked harder than any other jockey and battled adversity with great courage.

    I, for one, bellowed my approval when he collected his prize on Saturday from Lester Piggott. Hard work is often just as attractive as natural ability, and gritty courage and determination won the day. I find that beautiful.

    Main image: Ascot racecourse by John Armagh

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  33. Arabian Queen springs a surprise

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    You’ll remember when last I wrote that Gleneagles’ participation in last week’s Juddmonte International Stakes at York was in doubt. Well, unsurprisingly, he didn’t run. So it was left to Golden Horn to complete his lap of honour, with his odds prohibitively short. Well, somebody forgot to tell 50/1 poke Arabian Queen!

    The battle-hardened mare sprang the biggest upset the race has ever seen and certainly the biggest Group One shock for ages. Incidentally, I remember a certain Sole Power, unheard of at the time, stealing the Nunthorpe at the same track a few years ago at 100/1. What did he go on to do, I ask you?

    Herein lies the beauty and the beast of racing; the Knavesmire racegoers were dumbfounded as Silvestre de Sousa (pictured above and below, beating Dettori at York) out-foxed Frankie Dettori to complete the shock, and the press room’s stunned silence soon turned to dismay as the hacks were forced to re write their pre-ordained opening paragraphs.

    The sense of anticipation, already punctured because of the Gleneagles no show, was reduced to blinking disbelief. But I couldn’t help smile and reflect that racing has a terrific ability to embarrass the planners and the assumers. Arabian Queen and Silvestre de Souza won the race fair and square, albeit on an unheralded, unlikely and, dare I say it, unsexy horse. She won’t go down in history as a great, but she reminds us that horses have a marvellous knack of making fools out of the finest!

    Elsie should know better

    Arabian Queen’s trainer, David Elsworth, is a demi-god. Not for delivering the aforementioned 50/1 outsider in last week’s Group One. Far more so because he trained another horse referenced in last week’s blog as a template for gutsy greatness (and greyness), Desert Orchid. So when it comes to forgiving the quirks of an individual, we tend to make exceptions for those we prefer to worship.

    It came to light in the immediate aftermath of last week’s shock that Elsie doesn’t like the press. He refused to come into the Winners’ Enclosure or to collect his prize from sponsors Juddmonte. He claims to have felt slighted by the press failing to respect his chances of success before the race, so didn’t want to play afterwards.

    Well, with all due respect to Elsie, whose training feats will be chiefly remembered above all else in the fullness of time, his behaviour is more than a little objectionable. Yes, he’s stubborn by his own admission. But, this time, he came across as petulant.

    It was only as I watched José Mourinho sulking yet again with the football press at the weekend that I was able to reflect on the largely brilliant relationship that racing’s key players (owners, trainer, jockeys) have with the press. Many are genuine friends, and, in return, the public have access they’ve never before enjoyed to these key players.

    Football has gone the other way, with carefully contrived press conferences and players who are trained to within an inch of their lives to say absolutely nothing. Racing gets its copy in good humour, often over a pint and with a mutual respect that everyone is trying to do their job. So when Elsie shunned the press, it made for intriguing copy. But we mustn’t let it spread, lest we end up with pasteurised, highly-spun, football-style press conferences that are no fun at all.

    Shalaa la la

    The John Gosden-trained Shalaa won the Prix Morny at the weekend, prompting Dettori to speculate that this could well be the “best two-year-old I’ve ever ridden”. And so begins the late Summer circus of hope and expectation that keeps Flat racing fans in thrall.

    We smoke the hope, often clutching crumpled Antepost vouchers for a Classic the following year, although at least we won’t have to do that this Winter, with Shalaa likely to be confined to the sprinting ranks.

    Dettori should know better than to fire us all up, but we fall for it more often that not and it would take a bold judge not to think his horse might just be out of the very top drawer, based on what we saw at Deauville.

    A tip?

    I’m not sure what is colder than the cold list, but that’s where I find myself right now. So here’s my latest tactic: tip a horse that isn’t even going to run. That horse, to my mind is a Golden Horn, and the race is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

    Hopefully we will see the Derby winner seek to restore his reputation in Ireland next month, but the prospect of his favoured good ground in Paris in Autumn looks longer than many of the odds still being quoted on him actually winning. Forget it!

    Main image: Silvestre de Sousa by Rudolph Furtado

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  34. Remembering Red Ray Gilpin

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    It’s approaching 12 noon here in the York press room and I’m back on a course which still tries to take the gold medal in my affections. Sadly, I’m only here today, as work and wedding planning duties loom large back at the barracks. Still, I’m determined to enjoy it — although mine will be a bittersweet joy as I, along with many others at York, commemorate the life of one of racing’s great and good.

    The top jockey award here this week will be presented in memory of a press-room stalwart, Ray Gilpin. Ray passed away last week after a long illness and his famous red scarf will be much missed in the background of TV interviews at all the big northern race meetings. Strangely enough, I knew of Ray before I even began working in racing. When I told my uncle, who has lived in Wales all his life and has next to no interest in the sport, that I was trying to bungle my way into racing, he told me “Waste of time. There was a bloke I used to play football with here in Wrexham called Ray. Tiny bloke and red hair. Lightning-quick winger. Could have made it but went into racing instead.”

    Well, Ray’s hair turned grey and he never made it as a footballer. However, he did make it as a thoroughly great journalist, who was professional to the end, had a waspish humour and a delightfully filthy mouth behind closed doors. He will be much missed. Here’s to hoping the jockeys this week do him proud.

    Guts make glory

    It didn’t happen. Gleneagles didn’t turn up for his much-anticipated encounter with Golden Horn on the first day of the Ebor Festival. It’s a shame, because it had all the ingredients to be the clash of the season, with the superstar miler of the Classic generation meeting the best middle-distance horse of our time (the two now look set to face off at Leopardstown).

    My gut told me it wouldn’t happen: it rained a lot in York on Tuesday night and Gleneagles “needs” fast ground. Well, that in itself has got my goat. The reason Sea The Stars and Frankel etched their way into our affections was not purely because of their undoubted brilliance, but also because they ran over different trips (especially the former) and on different grounds (especially the latter).

    Thinking back to Frankel, it was thrilling when the rain came at Ascot in that final October of his career, and everyone started worrying. Sir Henry Cecil looked to the skies, furrowed his brow, and said “Hell yeah. Let’s roll the dice.” He ground out an historic win over Cirrus Des Aigles, who loved the cut, and his legend was complete. Frankel hated it, too, as did Desert Orchid when he won his Gold Cup in the mud and the cold. And that’s why we loved him.

    Ducking York didn’t make Gleneagles any less of a horse — and I can hardly blame Coolmore for looking to protect their commercial interests — but nor will it make him any more of a great horse in our affections. Greatness comes not by winning everything, but by winning mostly and always rolling the dice when things are far from certain.

    Yorkshire values

    There was scandal in Ripon earlier this week, and I never thought I’d write those words. The racecourse have their own Tote operation, called RiponBet, which calculates on-course pool returns and deducts a hefty cut. In a dead-heat situation, some headline writers made an easy “Rip-off” pun and Yorkshire fell quiet as the tight-fistedness of the racecourse operators was highlighted in the press.

    Fast forward a couple of days and the good folk of Yorkshire are doing their best to restore their reputations here on the Knavesmire. It’s £32.50 for a bottle of pretty good (no product placement here, readers) champagne.

    What? You think you can get it at two thirds of the price in Asda? Well, that might be the case. But you can also be forced to pay over 85 quid for the same bottle at Ascot, 70 at Aintree and over 80 at Chester. I am, of course, entirely reliant on press-room friends to inform me of these prices, as I’m fully devoted to writing my blog rather than lounging in the various champagne bars of the turf.

    A tip

    On Saturday, the marvellous handicap that is the Ebor takes place, in front of what are sure to be packed crowds. I’m tipping up a 16/1 poke at time of writing, in Arab Dawn. I can’t help but remember his Royal Ascot win and I am determined to forget his John Smith’s Cup run, which was never really part of the plan for this season.

    The Ebor, however, absolutely is, and Hughie Morrison’s words “I’d love to win the Ebor with him” back in June are echoing in my ears as I go searching for the remnants of my wallet. Good luck!

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  35. Sammy Jo Bell rules at the Shergar Cup

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    Last week, I offered a spirited defence of the Shergar Cup at Ascot. Any of the more than 30,000 racegoers who packed the Ascot stands at the weekend cannot fail to have been transfixed by young Sammy Jo Bell, whose expertise in the saddle helped The Girls team to their first win in the history of the 15-year old team racing event.

    Bell was on the front page of the industry paper, the Racing Post, on Saturday and again on Sunday. I’ve long argued that racing needs its stars and when someone of Bell’s talent turns up for a big Summer Saturday of racing on terrestrial TV and the stands are packed to the rafters, you might rightly think that we are blessed from on high.

    She was absolutely brilliant: strong, determined, stylish and gracious in victory. Is she the finished article? By her own admission, probably not, but my goodness she was good and she’s young and she’s only going to get better.

    Racing people sometimes whinge that these great feats are happening day in, day out without the wider public being aware. It strikes me as a flawed argument: we need the big stages, the terrestrial TV and the national press to alert us — and those who might not follow the sport as closely as we do — to these stars.

    Bell will hopefully be around for many more big Saturdays and command many more column inches. Three cheers for that.

    The snooze before the Ebor storm

    You might not believe it but I spend a fair bit of time toying themes around before committing pen to paper for this blog. And I hope I’m honest enough. So when I tell you that I’m drafting this at gone 8pm in the office and the juices aren’t flowing, you’ll want to know why. And the truth is — really — because the racing is pretty rubbish at the moment. I’ve written before on the theme of feast and famine in racing, and Flat racing in particular, but the lull of this part of the year is a little more complex.

    Perhaps we are simply greedy? Once Glorious Goodwood winds down, we are chomping at the bit to get up to the Knavesmire for the Ebor meeting. Yes, we have last weekend’s Shergar Cup, which ticks a lot of boxes for a great day out but less so for high end racing, and we have this coming weekend’s half decent card at Newbury, but in the greater scheme of wines and spirits, they’re a little bit vin ordinaire.

    There’s little in the mid-week of this fortnight or so set the pulse racing, so we sit tight and pray that Summer isn’t over before arriving in York next week full of beans and hope, and maybe a bit of champagne. It can’t come soon enough for me.

    Welcome back, Michael Dickinson

    Aside from Bell’s brilliance at Ascot, the news which thrilled me most in the past week was the revelation in the Racing Post that Michael Dickinson was to start training horses from his base in Maryland, USA, once again.

    In all truth, I had a bit of a sneak preview having received a call from the great man a week earlier — much to my surprise. I’ve only met Dickinson a dozen or so times and my interest in horse racing post-dates his halcyon years as an all-conquering National Hunt trainer.

    He phoned me out of the blue, having been given my number by my boss, and I was asked for some feedback on an idea he was working on. I was delighted to help out, and having sent my thoughts, he phoned back to say thanks. Both calls will be treasured in the memory bank.

    Why? Well purely for the simple reason that I think Dickinson is bonkers — in the nicest possible way. I can’t keep pace with his conversation and his diversions and quirks. I laughed with him and he roared even louder, before returning to his theme and barking away.

    We have a lot of plain vanilla guys in racing and there’s no harm in keeping it simple. But Dickinson is a maverick, a loose cannon and an astoundingly funny bloke. Let’s hope he brings a few laughs back to these shores in the coming years while reminding us just how brilliant he is at training horses, too.

    Images of the Shergar Cup and of Sammy Jo Bell by Christopher Lee / Getty Images, courtesy of Ascot Racecourse.

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