Sunday, December 10, 2017

Rust never sleeps

A winter's weekend: hard frost on Saturday morning, snow on Sunday.  Still, this is winter, and it hasn't been too bad, so that's fine.  Conditions were not good on the Heath this morning, but I don't anticipate any problems tomorrow.  I took Freediver out today and had to abandon plans to do some strong work as it was dicey enough doing slow work, but it's been thawing slowly through the day, and seems unlikely to refreeze tonight.  Plus the Heathmen will be out on Monday morning to do what they can to make things safer, so hopefully we shall be able to exercise reasonably normally and reasonably safely.

Racing's big political news of the past few days has been the announcement that there will be some sort of performance-related appearance money in all (qualifying) lower-tier races next year.  I haven't read the conditions as closely as I ought to have done, but I think that the gist of it is that every horse who finishes in the first eight will collect at least £300.  I presume that means that if the prize money collected is £300 or more, then there is nothing added; but if the prize money earned is less than £300, it shall be topped up to that sum.  So that's good.  It won't turn any loss-making trip to the races into a profitable one, but it will mean that some horses will receive a decent contribution to the day's outgoings who currently are receiving nothing.  And that is good.

I always work on the rough rule that the raceday expenses for every runner are approximately £450.  This sum roughly pays for the hire of the horsebox plus the diesel; the entry fee and the jockey's fee; and the staff overtime and expenses.  If the meeting is very far away, the expenses will be more.  Similarly if the trainer uses a transport firm it will be more, or pays someone to drive the box, or sends a travelling head lad in addition to the horse's lad.  So if one has a horse in one of the larger stables it will be more than £450, but in a smaller stable where the trainer drives the box himself, then that's a fair approximation.  So the £300 for the unplaced runners will be very much appreciated.  It won't make anyone run a horse who wouldn't otherwise have run, but it will be a big help.

The races which qualify will (I think) be any races of Class Four, Five or Six which are run at a value £900 or more above the minimum value for the class.  I think that currently not many races are run that much (if at all) above the minimum, but I believe that the idea is that qualifying races will be at such a big advantage as far as attracting runners that racecourses will be keen to have their races qualify, so will increase the prize money.  So that's a second (or, possibly, the primary) advantage of the new scheme.  Mind you, Class Six races are generally oversubscribed (and run at the minimum) anyway, so whether the courses push the prizes up for these remains to be seen.  But at least this is a step in the right direction, and a very concrete sign that Nick Rust's commitment to help the lower tiers (thus flying directly in the face of recent trends, which have been to ensure that all boosts go pretty much only to the top tiers) are indeed true.  So that's very good news indeed.  Good on 'im.
Friday, December 08, 2017

Death of a racing great

It's not our parish as he was a Lambourn man (THE Lambourn man) to his boots, but even writing from Newmarket the overwhelming news today is that an era has ended with the death of Peter Walwyn.  I started following racing in the '70s and he was the country's leading trainer at the time.  But even then his stable's fortunes (ie Seven Barrows' fortunes) were on the wane, and Henry Cecil was starting to take his place, with obviously Vincent O'Brien in Ireland the towering presence overall.  The guard probably changed properly when Daniel Wildenstein's UK-based horses moved from Peter Walwyn to Henry Cecil (ironically because Peter Walwyn asked him to take the horses away if he wouldn't have the stable jockey, Pat Eddery, on board - only to have Pat Eddery leave him a year or so later to take up the job with Vincent O'Brien).

I remember Grundy beating Bustino at Ascot in the 'King George' in 1975, the 'Race of the Century'.  I remember hearing my parents talking about it, but I don't think that I watched it.  At the time I was more interested in football, and the Grand National would have been the only race I watched.  The first 'King George' I remember watching was in 1977 (by which time I had lost interest in soccer and honed in 100% on racing) and I remember watching it on the TV at Ayr with my father, the first time that I visited that racecourse.  Derby and Irish Derby winner The Minstrel (Lester, Vincent O'Brien) won the race that day, but even then Peter Walwyn's runner Orange Bay (Pat Eddery) was only beaten a short head. So from the very early days of my following the sport, Peter Walwyn was a towering presence.  His passing really is the end of an era.

From a totally selfish point of view, I treasure the fact that I did meet him once.  All too often a great man dies, and one wishes that one had met him while it was still possible.  In general, I don't like going to weddings.  I struggle with both the formality and the jollity, if that makes any sense.  (And I'm aware that that makes me sound like a miserable git, and I don't actually think that I am - but there you go).  But one which I did enjoy was that between two people whom I like very much, Rupert Erskine Crum and Emma Candy.  That was a few years ago; I can't remember which year, but it was on St Leger Day.

Rupert and Emma are lovely people and I am honoured to call them friends.  It was a joy to share their big day, their happy day.  It was a beautiful autumn day, a warm September afternoon under a blue sky.  The wedding was in a lovely old church, in Sparsholt I think.  And the reception took place at Emma's parents' property Kingston Warren, which is one of racing's special places and that was (and still is) the only time I've been there.  So that was special.  And there was a fly-past by a Spitfire, owned and flown by a farmer-friend of Emma's father.  That in itself was a treat.  But (and I hope that Emma and Rupert won't mind my saying this, and I'm sure that they won't) the memory which I treasure from the day as much as any other was meeting Peter Walwyn.

Sir Mark Prescott always cautions us against meeting our heroes, as (he correctly says) it generally leads only to disappointment.  But I'm glad - no, I'm more than glad: I count it as a blessing that I met him that one time - that I met Peter Walwyn that day.  He was every bit as impressive, pleasant and charming as one would have hoped, and much more humble than one might have expected from the 'Basil Faulty' impression which he was reputed to give.  The history books will always confirm that Peter Walwyn was one of 20th-century racing's great men.  I'm very glad that I had the chance to find out that he was not only a great man, but a very nice man too.  The racing world has lost a colossus.  His family and friends have lost a loved one.  I offer them my most sincere, most respectful condolences.
Saturday, December 02, 2017


We're well into the National Hunt season now, and we've had some wonderful racing at Newbury over the last couple of days.  Richard Johnson's riding is a joy to behold, and Buveur D'Air was magnificent in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle this afternoon.  There are heroes galore in National Hunt racing, but I can't let today end without nominating my heroes of the week.  And it's not actually this week because it was last Saturday evening, but if I write this now it's still less than 168 hours (ie the length of one week) ago.

I had an ATR shift last Saturday evening so I couldn't get up to the Leisure Centre to see it, but (as you probably know) Simon Pearce and Nicky Mackay boxed so that there could be a charity evening in aid of Nicky's father Alan, who was paralysed in a fall on the Heath early this spring (only a week or so after Nicky had had a very bad fall at Chelmsford in which he broke his thigh, which kept him out of the saddle for six months or so).  Nicky's fall was terrible, but Alan's was even worse, especially as he didn't merely break his back, but all his ribs too.  The ribs heal in time, but the spinal cord doesn't, so he's in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  Thank God he can still use his arms, but even so it's a devastating disability.

Alan's a remarkable man.  He's one of the few people I know in Newmarket whom I've known for longer than the thirty and a half years that I've lived here.  He's spent his life doing the impossible.  You've always heard stories of him doing things that, if it were anyone else, you'd just think were exaggerated and/or made up - but you've known that, as it's him, they'll be true, and that you're probably only getting a watered down version of them anyway.  You never know how anyone will cope with facing up to paralysis, but there was always a chance that Alan would rise to the challenge unbelievably well.

Anyway, I haven't seen Alan since then (and I'm not proud to say that, as I should have done) and I couldn't get up to the Leisure Centre last weekend.  But I did speak to Alan a couple of weeks previously.  I was walking up Exeter Road one afternoon, and Danny Dunnachie (who was apprenticed to Eric Eldin in the late '80s when Alan was stable jockey, as well as Eric's son-in-law) appeared from out of the entrance to the Yellow Brick Road, talking on the telephone.  Danny came over to me. He said, "John, I'm talking to Alan.  Here, have a word with him", and handed me the phone.

I'd heard that Alan was handling paralysis in his own inimitable style, so my opening gambit was, "Alan.  Hi.  It's John.  I hear you're getting around OK?".  Even knowing how tough and uncomplaining Alan is, and how one should never be surprised by anything he does, I was still blown away but his matter-of-fact reply: "Yes, I'm doing fine, thanks.  I just can't walk".  He said it as matter-of-factly as the rest of us might say, "Yes, I'm doing fine thanks. I just get a slight twinge in my shoulder every now and then."  Unbelievable.  Absolutely inspirational.  A true hero.  (But then we knew that anyway).

So, with apologies to the heroes of National Hunt racing, we've just ended November and my nominations for Heroes of the Month have to be Nicky (seen in the fourth paragraph, on Ethics Girl at Yarmouth a few years ago, led up by Hugh Fraser) and Simon (seen in the fifth photograph, on a young Roy at Yarmouth a few years ago) - and, of course, Alan (seen here on his daughter's pony, on Hamilton Hill only a week or so before he was hurt) himself.  Anyone who rides in a race, Flat or jumping, deserves undiluted respect - but at least in a race, dangerous though it is, the other competitors aren't deliberately trying to hurt you.  If I had to ride in a race tomorrow or step into the boxing ring, I'd start cleaning my saddle and digging out my breeches now.  Simon had fought previously (he fought William Carson in the spring) but I think that it was Nicky's first time.  Heroes both - just like the man for whom they were doing it.  Respect.
Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cold wind

Hot wind appeared in the title of the last chapter of this blog.  It's a cold wind now: we've had a stiff northerly wind for the past couple of days, meaning that down the east side of the country has been more than bracing.  One wouldn't have wanted to have been taking a stroll along the beach at Skegness, and riding out in Newmarket has brought the colour to one's cheeks too.  We had a top temperature of 3 degrees today, after minus 1 at daybreak and with a few snow flurries thrown in, but it hasn't been too bad.  We expect that at this time of year, and at least we haven't still descended into the mire of mud which is usually our habitat from October until April.

There's no place like home when you're not feeling well, and there's no place like home when the weather's bad.  I'm feeling fine at present, but the weather isn't great, so it's no bad thing not to be having to go anywhere.  I had intended to go to Wolverhampton this Saturday night with Freediver (whose ears adorn the first paragraph) but that isn't to be.  She had her third run 10 days ago (Monday last week) which meant that she could be entered in handicaps any time from the following Monday onwards (ie three days ago) which meant that she could run in handicaps any time from this coming Saturday onwards.  There was, I believed, a suitable race for her this Saturday, so I entered her, intending to run her.

The only potential hitch was that, when I entered her on Monday morning, I didn't know what rating she would have been given, as the week's list isn't published until the Tuesday morning (which is fine for allocating the weights for the weekend's racing because, although the entries are taken on the Monday morning, the weights aren't allocated for another 24 or 25 hours, by which time the new ratings are known).  Anyway, the race was a 46-55, which meant that she would be eligible as long as her new mark was no higher than 57 - and as in her three runs she had recorded Postmarks of 56 (on turf in 2016, trained by Michael Stoute), 55 (on AW in 2016, trained by Michael Stoute) and 50 (on AW last week, trained by me) it was hard to see that she would be rated higher than 57.

The best laid plans dot, dot, dot - she's gone in on 60, so she can't run.  Ah well. That's not the end of the world.  I'll just take it as a compliment that the handicapper seems to think that she'll do better with me than she did with Michael Stoute, sticking to that high opinion of my skills even in the face of the disheartening fact that she was sold for 1,500 guineas at the February Sale after having raced for him.  Or he might just think, rating her as he does higher than she's ever performed previously, that she was a non-trier every time.  I wouldn't take that as a compliment at all.  (For the record, and while I can't comment on her first two runs, she was definitely trying last week, as anyone who watched the race will be aware).  Anyway, if she's been rated fairly, that's fine.  If she's been put in too high, that will become apparent when she runs later in the month, and her mark will be reduced.  Time, as ever, will tell.  Let's hope that she can end up running to a mark of 90!
Thursday, November 23, 2017

Hot air in the wind

We're hearing plenty about wind operations, and I must admit that I'm baffled.  I went to an NTF East Anglian Regional Meeting last week when this was discussed, and (as I reported in the previous chapter) the misgiving which some trainers present (the ones who train for the international big spenders) held was that it would provide a disincentive to those owners against having their expensive colts trained in England.  That's a valid concern (albeit one which applies only to a small minority of trainers) but it's important to remember that that's the only one.  Nobody mentioned having any other misgiving.  However, I keep reading in the papers and hearing on the TV that our concern is that we are worried that being given this information is to the disbenefit of punters because they don't know how to interpret the data.  That's just nonsense, and anyone putting across the myth that that is the general trainers' view is doing us a gross disservice.

Of course it is true that nobody knows (the horse's connections included) whether having had a wind operation since his previous run means that a horse will run better (or worse) than the Form Book suggests.  But that's no reason not to make the information public.  It's not merely that it would be absurdly patronising and/or paternalistic for the training community to take it upon itself to decide that the general public is too stupid to appreciate the implications of information and consequently, for its own good, must not be exposed to the information.  No, it's not just that: on top of the fact that that view would be ridiculous is the fact that a similar dose of uncertainty applies to all data - and nobody (surely?) is suggesting that no data should be released.

One could make exactly the same observation about publishing details of the jockey, draw and pedigree - and even form.  There are all too many times when the race is won by a horse who, according to the Form Book, had no chance; when being drawn 1 turns out to have been a massive disadvantage; when the booking of a jockey who hardly ever rides a winner and who is widely assumed to be moderate results in a horse being perfectly ridden, or when the booking of a jockey generally regarded as a genius sees the horse boxed in the whole trip, or going too hard too early; or when a race is won by a debutant whose pedigree, whichever way you looked at it, had suggested that he'd need more time.  But nobody in his right mind could suggest not publishing the draw, jockey, pedigree or form.  Do they?  Do we?  I know that I don't.