Richard Hannon has confirmed that the connections of Sky Lantern are to launch an appeal to get the result of Friday’s controversial Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket overturned. Of course the racing forums are still fulminating after the stewards upheld the original outcome following a lengthy enquiry at the course. Where money is involved, and there will be plenty who took a hefty hit as the Guineas winner was carried violently left across the track in losing by a neck to the John Gosden trained Elusive Kate, objectivity is often the first casualty. I had no such financial involvement but still greeted the decision with dismay, if little surprise. Contesting the judgement may yet turn out to be a futile gesture, but if it casts some light on a system which has become excessively biased in favour of the offender, it will have served a useful purpose.
Royal Ascot wouldn’t be everybody’s sporting fancy. Too many top-hatted aristocrats loafing about sipping glasses of Pimm’s, a sort of Cheltenham Festival for the Bullingdon Club. Here, your place on the social ladder is pretty much decided at birth, the risk of a fall negated by the network of privilege. Thankfully, out on the track no such archaic niceties apply, as the much lamented Sir Henry Cecil would no doubt once have attested, but the big meeting is still a useful barometer of who’s up and who’s down. In the real world fortunes shift, yet there’s still that patent sense of unfairness, that you don’t always get what you deserve. Or maybe you do. Few will have noticed Kieren Fallon skulking around at the back all too often this week. Not many divide opinion in the way the Irishman does. you might think that’s exactly where he should be. But to me he’s every bit as regal as some of the other guests, a jockey still without equal among his contemporaries. I think he should be celebrated.
Ruler Of The World charges to Chester Vase glory
Tipping a chestnut to win this year’s Epsom Derby might be seen as a fairly solid option since half the field are officially registered as being of that hue, but of course that’s no way to assess the greatest flat race of them all. Perhaps pinning your faith in the training abilities of Aidan O’Brien might be the foolproof route. After all, the Ballydoyle maestro has five individual chances to take the prize for a fourth time. Not particularly scientific on its own though. Fortunately, there is an angle which is more likely to lead you to the champion. Your average punter probably has neither the time nor the inclination to pore over the pedigree charts yet here is where the mystery is most likely to be unravelled. Stamina is the precious commodity, and if you want a horse with the right credentials and a proven ability to get the trip, you need look no further than Ruler Of The World. It just so happens that he’s a chestnut trained by Aidan O’Brien.
Nicky Henderson with former Champion Hurdler Binocular
Nicky Henderson looked out across Seven Barrows, site of an historic Bronze Age cemetery, but all around him was silver and gold. There aren’t many sports where you can reclaim an individual title you last held a quarter of a century ago, just as there aren’t many people who wouldn’t get fed up of trying. As his formidable string of horses retreated to summer quarters, freed for a time from their day to day routines which have brought them such bountiful reward, the stable complex on the edge of Lambourn was a quieter place. Time then to reflect on a special campaign, one which made the years of toil worthwhile and which created memories so vivid that distance can never erase. For all the hype, the media frenzy and the unbearable nervous tension, the Trainers’ Championship was incidental. Source the raw material, cultivate the owners and trust in what you do; it’ll just sort of happen if it’s meant to. Who said nice guys don’t win?
Auroras Encore (right) on his way to Grand National glory
Aintree Grand National Meeting
The story was there to be written, only it came out with a different hue. The wait for the first female to ride a Grand National winner goes on but given how comparatively few have tried, or perhaps been afforded the opportunity, the odds are still very much against for the moment. Katie Walsh is a skilled horsewoman from impeccable stock and would have been an appropriate trailblazer. She still represents the most likely hope; in once more steering her mount safely home, albeit not to the fanfares that might have transpired, others may now feel empowered. Among the training ranks, however, there are no such barriers to be overcome. For the second time in five years it was ladies’ day in the winners’ enclosure, as Jenny Pitman and Venetia Williams were joined in the history books. Sue Smith was not why the headline writers were here, but at least the positive vibes had not been wasted.
Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth returns to a hero’s welcome
Cheltenham Festival Diary Days 3-4
It takes all sorts, and though the flashy horses are the ones we tend to clasp to our hearts, this was a Gold Cup for the gritty, doughty stayer, an old-fashioned celebration of the virtues of the National Hunt. As Bobs Worth battled doggedly up the hill, mud splattering in all directions, the picture may as well have been in sepia rather than HD. Among the tweed jackets and the umbrellas, there was something engagingly nostalgic, a reaffirmation of the solid, dependable attributes of one bred for the task. Long Run, his stable-mate and former champion, tried gamely to make it from in front, but he was forced to give best to younger legs, the runner-up Sir Des Champs also a graduate of the novice events. Previous Cheltenham form had once more been paramount, though a constitution of iron was the clincher on a day for the connoisseur.
Champion Chase winner Sprinter Sacre
Cheltenham Festival Diary Days 1-2
Sprinter Sacre delivered. When one so clearly special set off on the journey which would define him, that knot in the stomach grew ever tighter. Could he possibly fulfil the emotional investment with a performance which would catapult him out of the present and into immortality? What if, in his exuberance and élan, he clipped the top and came crumpling to the floor, a reminder that a second is as good as a lifetime in this game? We need not have worried, though his trainer at times looked as though a visit to the cardiac ward was imminent. It was graceful, it was effortless and it was profoundly confirming. It even had a brief, exceptionally brief admittedly, hint of fallibility when he put down on one round the back, but he was only laughing at our torment. The greatest horses are the ones the punters revere without needing to check their wallets. Nicky Henderson’s accidental hero has entered that pantheon.
Hurricane Fly could be Ireland’s banker of the week
Previous posts throughout this relentlessly damp season have rarely strayed far from the safe territories of Ditcheat and Seven Barrows, home respectively to the stables of the two men who have dominated the big races, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson. No surprise there, for the best horses seem to be firmly concentrated in their hands, a slightly disappointing echo of the great empires of the flat. Both will expect to be visiting the winners’ enclosure at Cheltenham and, as has become commonplace, will be going head to head for some of the most prestigious prizes. As ever, though, there is a significant additional factor as the Festival looms on the horizon. The Irish love nothing more than a raid on these shores and will have their usual strong hand to play. So where do their best chances lie of returning home with full pockets this time around?
Sprinter Sacre looks a certainty for the Champion Chase
Cheltenham Trials Day
You pretty much expect a forced hiatus at some point in the jumps season and the early weeks of the new year have brought familiar frustrations as winter tightened its grip. The loss of significant meetings has left trainers everywhere fretting about key Festival hopes entering the critical last stage of preparations. Prospects looked grim for this last reconnaissance opportunity at headquarters as much of the country shivered under a blanket of snow, so the Clerk of the Course and his staff deserve our utmost gratitude for getting conditions raceable. After the famine, the feast was sumptuous.
Long Run with jockey Sam Waley-Cohen
The deluge which has left much of the country underwater did not entirely spare racing over the festive season but it could have been so much worse. Cheltenham’s big meeting on New Year’s Day was the chief casualty, robbing several high-profile horses of the opportunity to advertise their various claims, and the Chepstow card which contained the Welsh National was held over until this coming weekend. The Boxing Day feature at Kempton thankfully survived while Leopardstown’s traditional Christmas week of action also went ahead as planned. The going may leave plenty of question marks over the value of the form but all information is greatly received and, with weather patterns remaining highly unpredictable, how are we to know that such conditions will not be replicated in the Cotswolds come mid-March?