Spend the next few months identifying your potential Festival candidates

Next year’s Cheltenham Festival will run from March 15 -19th and whether you like it or not, the success of Jump racing’s showpiece event is a barometer of the wider strength of the sport. Here in the West Country, we’re lucky enough to enjoy a stronghold of the sport not seen since the Dickinsons made north Yorkshire a similar powerhouse 35 years ago. Plenty of that passion and will to win rubs off on smaller venues where the stars of tomorrow are nurtured.

There are some that say that the season has become too concentric around the Festival, with novice hurdlers winning in September and being priced up for the Supreme Novices. But since racing has hitched its waggon to the betting sector, there seems little point in reversing this trend. In a media market where racing is constantly fighting for editorial space, bookmaking sites have replaced mainstream media outlets like newspapers in bringing the racing news to the fan.

And so it is that even though the Festival is still 15 weeks away, even though races like Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle won so gamely by Thomas Darby on Friday are big enough events in their own right, even though Christmas is a prize money bonanza in its own right, winners of many of these races will see them as a stepping stone to one of 28 races in March. If you want to place a bet or want to learn more about Cheltenham Racecourse and the Festival, you should follow the link at the base of this article. But in this piece, we will list some featured races and favourite horses for the meeting no-one can match.

Champion Hurdle

There are plenty who’d argue that the opening day of the National Hunt meeting features far and away the best programme of races, and I wouldn’t disagree. This last weekend was a busy one for Champion Hurdle contenders on both sides of the Irish Sea, with 2021 winner Honeysuckle beating the other seven runners in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse with facile ease, whilst Epatante, winner in 2020, dead-heated with Hughie Morrison’s Not So Sleepy in a nail-biting snow-blinding Fighting Fifth at Newcastle.

If truth be told, it looks highly improbable that a British trainer will be taking the magnificent Champion Hurdle trophy back home on March 15th. Four of the first five in the betting are trained in Ireland, with a phalanx of Willie Mullins top flight winners ready to pick up if Honeysuckle slips, including Sharjah, winner of the Morgiana at Punchestown earlier this month, Ferny Hollow, last season’s Champion Bumper winner, and Appreciate It, winner of the Supreme Novices. The market is very one-sided, to the extent that even Klassical Dream, the 2020 Supreme Novices winner is priced at 33/1, and Goshen, who unseated his rider with the 2020 Triumph in the bag, at 66/1.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Day 2 features the kings of speed in the breath-takingly fast two mile championship. This was the second of the big four features to head westward across the Irish Sea last year when Henry de Bromhead scored with Put The Kettle On.

This next weekend’s Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown is always a key staging post for British contenders, but rather denuded this time around by Shishkin’s withdrawal from his planned reappearance. The Supreme Novices and subsequent Arkle winner is a red-hot favourite for the race, and will likely aim for the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas, which is sure to put a smile on the faces of the team at Sunbury.

Put The Kettle On certainly found the strength of British opposition too hot on his last outing in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham earlier this month, when Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra beat him 10 1/2l, with former winner Politologue in front. The Mullins yard also has Energumene, winner of the Irish Arkle and Grade I Ryanair Novices at the Punchestown Festival, and there’s the small matter of Chacun Pour Soi, the highest rated horse in Anglo-Irish classifications last season, at 176, winner of the Punchestown Champion Chase in April, and yet to appear this autumn.

This looks like the race of the meeting so far.

Ryanair Chase

Day 3 features joint billing for the Stayers Hurdle and Ryanair Chase, something of a halfway house between the minimum trip of the Champion Chase and the extended 3m of the Gold Cup. It’s been a successful race since its introduction under the initial sponsorship of the Daily Telegraph in 2005.

Last year’s winner Allaho is a well-respected favourite at 7/2, but after the race last year, Willie Mullins enthused about bringing him back for the Champion Chase over half a mile less. He’s also been suggested for the King George over Christmas, but has yet to reappear this autumn.

In the same ownership, but with Henry de Bromhead, Envoi Allen, a talking horse if ever there were one, has already stamped his authority on the season with a bullish victory in a Grade II chase at Down Royal. Fakir d’Oudairies, a 12l second to Allaho in the Ryanair, is also a leading candidate, and he’s shown his intentions loud and clear in the Clonmel Oil Chase at Thurles earlier this month.

Chantry House, Allmankind, and the recently re-energized Lostintranslation are the best of the British effort to date.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

And so to the big one. The Gold Cup, first run in 1924, three years before racing began here at Orchard Portman, is the most coveted conditions chase of the season, bar none.

After his comprehensive demolition of the British candidates in this month’s Betfair Chase, A Plus Tard is a worthy favourite at 7/2, outpointing last season’s winner Minella Indo and the season before Al Boum Photo.

Chantry House represents the shortest price among British prospects but we’ve yet to see Champ or Galvin reappear due to the lack of rain. And you can never quite rule out Frodon, fifth last season, but subsequent winner of the Champion Chase at Down Royal. Here’s not forgetting his stirring victory under Bryony Frost in last year’s King George.

Spring ground at Cheltenham is not the same as Haydock in November, and the configuration of the course means comparison between races and racecourses often obfuscates the best chances. This is the glorious uncertainty of racing that allows the occasional surprise like 100/1 winner Norton’s Coin in 1990. So if you fancy a horse, don’t let the odds marr your judgement. Who says your opinion counts less than others?

So often however, easier winners are to be found by researching some of the supporting races at the Festival, where you are more likely to see a horse that may have run at Taunton. One I like the look of is Elle Est Belle, a Skelton mare who shaped nicely for the Mares Novices Hurdle in an 8 1/2l win at Newbury over the weekend. If you want to know about other big hitters emanating from Taunton this winter, check this article.

Coming to the boil: West Country trainers prevalent in Taunton’s aperitif to the weekend

Taunton Racecourse has facilities that add enormously to the actual racing to create a memorable day’s entertainment. Chief amongst them are the Orchard and Paddock restaurants which have uninterrupted views of the entire course and the unrivalled backdrop of the Blackdown Hills.

More important than the location of the restaurants however, is the outstanding quality of the food. The menus, which change from raceday to raceday, are created by Head Chef Eric Mannel with fresh ingredients all locally sourced. Not for Taunton the corporate caterer, wheeling in centrally prepared food to be served in the racecourse restaurant, but all food prepared “in house”. The supreme standard of the food owes a great deal to Liverpool born Eric, who as a small child returned to his parents’ homeland, Germany. A Director of the Taunton Racecourse company, Paul Barber, is the eminence grise of the eponymous cheesemaker, the oldest and largest farmhouse cheddar cheese maker in the world. At about the same time that Barber recruited Paul Nicholls to his racing operation, Eric Mannel was recruited by the Racecourse company. Two brilliant and inspired appointments.

Eric’s training as a chef began in West Berlin and continued in Lugano, Switzerland. His first important posting was at the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver Canada, where Eric had the honour of cooking at the State banquet given for Her Majesty the Queen, Prince Phillip and Prince Charles. His company sent Eric to their luxury hotel in Antigua where his cooking received high accolades resulting in him being summoned to The Regency Hyatt on Central Park West in New York City. From there he was head-hunted by The Ritz Carlton in Atlanta, Georgia, where he worked with Willie Harbor. This worldwide experience has served Eric well, as those who have experienced the on course cuisine at Taunton over the last 28 years will testify.

The web page lists the menus and the various options available. The value offered is remarkable, whether for the £70  package which includes entrance fee, racecard, lunch, afternoon tea, all served to you sitting in the best seat in the house, or fish and chips in The Saddle Room, for which you will get change from a tenner.  The experience is not bettered at Cheltenham or Ascot where prices sometimes ten times those of Taunton are charged for festival events.

Any racing fan will be aware the single biggest issue facing the sport in the immediate future is the lack of rain. However, the going has improved since the last meeting with only small patches still good to firm; in consequence, we have been rewarded with larger fields.

In the two-mile Short Run Press Printers & Bookbinders Novices Hurdle, the first race on the card, six of the seven runners represented the elite of the training ranks, the field with the exception of Jimmy Frost’s 125-1 outsider,  exclusively comprised of entries from the yards of Skelton, Twiston-Davies, Nicholls, Henderson and Hobbs. It was the Phillip Hobbs’s horse, Earth Company, that won with consummate ease for a debut victory under any rules of racing. Gorcombe Moonshine, the long odds outsider, who had a heavy fall last time out, skied the flights, was soon tailed off and pulled up. Key to the Moon was another who was soon under pressure and a long way off the pace. The other five all look worth another look.

Race Winner, Earth Company ridden by Sean Houlihan (R) jumps alongside Gala De Corton ridden by Harry Cobden (L). PHOTO: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

 

The second, a three-mile handicap hurdle seemed a competitive affair with Just a Whim seemingly the only one of the six guaranteed to stay. In the event, it was a magnificent race to watch with all six runners in with a chance at the last. To the delight of favourite backers, Nelson’s Rock, making his handicap debut for Colin Tizzard, prevailed as an even money favourite under seven pound claimer, Harry Kimber. Kimber too may be one to watch. He is enjoying what may be a breakthrough season, with 8 winners from 66 rides, only 20 short of his entire season’s quota last year. Nothing breeds success quite like success.

The third, over fences this time, was the 2m 7f Short Run Press – Your Local Printers Novices Handicap won by Roque It for Paul Nicholls under Harry Cobden. This favourite, making his chasing debut, may well have been helped by only three fences on each circuit having to be jumped because of the sun. It was a brave effort as Roque It was the only one off the bridle and being pumped along at halfway.

The 2mile 3f handicap hurdle attracted seven runners. On paper this seemed to be the race of the day, and so it proved. The favourite Guernesey, a highly progressive horse, looked to be the likely winner until bungling the last leaving three others in with a chance. Four in line with half a furlong to the post, it was An Tailleur for the Jonjo O’Neill father and son combination that prevailed. Breath taking stuff.

Taunton Races
Race Winner, An Tailliur ridden by Jonjo OÕNeill Jr (R) jumps alongside Guernesey ridden by Sean Houlihan (L). – PHOTO: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

 

O’Neill Jnr is fresh back from a shoulder injury, and is showing some of the iron man qualities of his father; a torn shoulder ligament from the stable’s Morning Spirit at Aintree on October 24 reckoned to see him sidelined for six weeks. It’s taken just 25 days to be back  race-riding. Imagine yourself in the same position and appreciate the urgency which our jockeys apply to recovery from falls and injury, which is nothing short of remarkable.

The penultimate race, a 2m 5f Memorial Handicap Chase for former clerk of course Mike Trickey and Geoff White and  was reduced to five runners by the withdrawal of Duc Kauto and Marylin Monroe. Robaddan, a strong chasing type was going very well when he hit the fourth last at the roots and faded quickly to see the finish fought out between the winning mare Kiera Royale lose out to Mister Robbo, whose career had been very in and out in recent times, win well for trainer Deborah Faulkner, her second winner of the season.

Trickey was Clerk at Taunton for nearly 20 years until his death in 2013. Like many clerks, he earned the respect of the prevailing crop of riders having ridden under Rules, in Point-to-Points and eventing from a teenager into his forties.

The last, a 2m 3f handicap hurdle, was contested by 14 runners, the largest field of the day, and won by Kendelu for Devon trainer Nigel Hawke and jockey Kieren Buckley, prevailing by just a half length.

And so ended a wonderful afternoon, that was blessed by bright sunshine. Punters departed in a good mood; especially if they had sampled Eric Mannel’s cuisine!

A third tilt at the Portman Cup on the cards for Yala Enki

The Weatherbys Portman Cup here in January is next on the agenda for Cheltenham winner Yala Enki, following a pillar to post front-running performance under Bryony Frost in the Grade III Jewson Click & Collect Handicap Chase at Cheltenham today. Yala Enki and Frost have teamed up to win this 3m 4f conditions chase in each of the last two years.

Yala Enki ridden by Bryony Frost – 23 January 2021 – Weatherbys Portman Cup Chase  – PHOTO: Cameron Geran/PPAUK

 

The weather is hopefully the principal culprit in the small fields plaguing the big races at Cheltenham this weekend, although it would appear there is a financial threshold at which owners and trainers will take a chance. Self-evidently from the five runners in the £60,000 Jewson – sponsored race, this is not enough, whilst the £160,000 of the Paddy Power Gold Cup tips the threshold. There’s a hoary old argument to be had however about the valuable Pattern races, especially for novices, which consistently run up smaller and smaller fields, even at Grade I level. Time was when racecourses could see a modest sized field for a Grade II novice event as an investment for the future, but when only 8 turn out for the Supreme Novices, then a wholesale review may be required.

Those Somerset trainers that did pitch in their horses had good reason to be satisfied with a good weekend’s work, not just at Cheltenham but across the 3 other fixtures further afield.

Paul Nicholls could justifiably have felt he was being upstaged by former pupil, now rival for championship honours, in Dan Skelton. Whilst the latter enjoyed a rollercoaster weekend of contrasting fortunes, with big winners in Nube Negra and West Cork in Sunday’s big Schloer Chase and Unibet Greatwood Hurdle, he also hit the bar a few times, notably with the upset of My Drogo on Friday, who tipped up with his race won, and a 3/4l second from Protektorat in the weekend;s feature.

Nicholls finished the weekend tail up however, with a treble today, headed by Yala Enki, nice young novice chaser Threeunderthrufive, owned by the McNeill family, and bumper Timeforatune. It seems scarcely credible however, that these were the first Cheltenham winners for the champ since November 13 2020. His successes have been elsewhere as his older horses meet the down grade and youngsters have not been ready for the biggest stage of all.

Not so Philip Hobbs, who is putting the underperformance (by his exacting standards) of last season firmly behind him. Sporting John looked to have a little in hand in winning the Listed 3m Handicap Hurdle, and could be a lively contender for the Stayers Hurdle now his chasing days seem firmly behind him. Hobbs teamed up with Ben Jones for a double at Uttoxeter too to make a cross-card treble. A good day’s work.

This report wouldn’t be complete without a word for Lalor, transferred from Kayley Woollacott’s Crewkerne yard over the summer to Paul Nicholls, who ran a smasher in the Paddy Power to be 2 1/4l third. Woollacott won’t have been the first to lose a top flight horse to a bigger better known trainer, and she certainly won’t be the last. Lalor was the apple of her eye and she was doubtless watching with a wistful eye.

 

A day to remember: and another Williams winner

Sporting competition does not have to be between the most talented in any discipline to be the most compelling. Two amateur flyweights slugging it out in the village hall for no more than a mass-produced shield, can produce a spectacle as thrilling as a multi million dollar Tyson Fury/Anthony Joshua fight in Las Vegas.

We have seen this week that the FA Cup football matches, featured on the BBC, between non league clubs comprised of amateurs and semi professionals can be even more enthralling than those featuring  the brilliantly skilled antics of the Premier League and its highly paid stars.The members’ race at the local point-to-point is as poignant and memorable to many as the King George VI Chase or the Gold Cup. Thus it was that we looked forward to our second meeting of the season, sandwiched between The Breeders Cup and the season’s first top class jumps meeting at Cheltenham tomorrow, without any fear of producing a day that was not their equal. And so it proved on this latest Remembrance Day.

A poppy on the final chase as a mark of respect on the eleventh hour on the eleventh day and two minutes silence held at Taunton Racecourse, Taunton, Somerset, England – PHOTO: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

 

On what was a relatively mild mid November afternoon the season’s second meeting was run on unusually fast ground (officially good to firm). The attendance, swelled by Racing TV’s members enjoying a free day, witnessed the first race, a selling hurdle run over 2m 3f, won by Celestial Force, running in his lowest ever grade, for Paul Nicholls. Ridden by Lorcan Williams who is now within two of riding out his claim, Celestial Force, as his prohibitive 2/7 odds suggested, won going away. There was no bid for the winner, but the second horse, Eclair des Sablons, was claimed for £6,000.The entire racing community will have been thrilled that Nicholls, some thirty years after saddling his first winner, was rewarded with a trip to Buckingham Palace yesterday to receive an O.B.E..  Well done Sir.

It was a case of déjà vu in the second, the Newton King Estate Agents  Novices Hurdle over the same trip which saw Chester Williams, also claiming 3 lbs, bring home another odds on favourite Honneur D’Ajonc trained  locally in Devon by his mother Jane Williams. The nearest challenger, Glajou, ran well enough; before the race, the trainer’s daughter Megan Nicholls, had said that she thought he might want for race fitness, and so it proved.

In a previous blog, we’d reported that this was the week of the Williams, after 5 winners from trainers of that name. This sixth, and for good measure, a handicap chase winner at Sedgefield for Redditch-based Ian, brings Williams-trained winners since Sunday to 7. There are fewer stranger trends to follow.

Next, the race many had been looking forward to for many months as it was the first  race over the bigger obstacles of the season. This 2m 2f Taunton Business Club Novices Handicap Chase saw Catch The Cuban go off as favourite to win, but not without several heart-stopping moments. At the second last, Heronord, an unexposed horse running in his first handicap, came up between horses going best of all, only to overreach and unship the unfortunate Conor Ring. This left Naizagan, who looked a difficult ride, the only danger to the favourite. At the last Catch the Cuban went well clear only to start pulling himself up before being declared the winner in a photo finish by just a head. A lucky escape.

Race winner, Catch The Cuban ridden by Brendan Powell jumps the last and races in. – RACE 3 – 2:02 Taunton – Taunton Racecourse Business Club Novices’ Handicap Chase (GBB Race) (Class 4) at Taunton Racecourse, Taunton, Somerset, England – PHOTO: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

The 2 mile maiden hurdle seemed to be the most open race of the day, with several unknown quantities among the day’s largest field of 11 runners. The winner, Galore Desassances, very well ridden by Kieran Buckley, came from a long way back to win for Nigel Hawke.  Wearing cheek pieces for the first time, Galore Desassances seems to be a very good horse in the making. The fine run of Braveheart, who was backed, should be noted.

There were many amongst the sporting crowd who would have liked to see the Aytach Sadik trained Young Turk overturn the odds on Philip Hobbs’ Ebony Gale in the 2m 7f Arthur & Peggy Moore Memorial Chase. It was not to be as the favourite trotted up. Geoff (Aytach),has not sent out a winner from his Worcestershire yard for seven years, but there are only a few owner trainers in the country, and they add greatly to our sport. Good luck to him.

The last was a thriller. Saturn N’ Silk had been well backed for the Scudamore brothers but refused to race. At the second last there were eight in with a chance including the favourite Molliana who was at the back of the pack but nevertheless got up to win for Sam Twiston-Davies and Neil Mulholland. Home to Bath is a somewhat easier trip from Taunton for successful British mare Molliana; her last five outings have been to the picturesque racecourse at Les Landes in Jersey, and they’ve certainly given her a winning habit: four from five over the summer season has brought pleasure not just to her owners, but to a racing-starved island too.

Just Williams: a thriving Brecon tradition

You could do worse this week than back horses trained by trainers called Williams. It’s only Wednesday, but already there have been 5 winners trained by different trainers with that surname this week.

The Williams story began on Sunday at Ffos Las, where Point-to-Point form found its way to the top table in the partnership of Christian Williams and Jack Tudor in the Star Sports Bet Owners Club Guarantee Handicap Chase. Powerful Position held on by a neck to win, giving the stable its 14th winner of the term.

Not to be upstaged by his former stable jockey, Evan Williams responded 30 minutes later with a winner of his own, when Adam Wedge had a rather easier passage aboard To Be Sure in the 2m7f handicap hurdle.

The two Welshmen train around 20 miles apart, just west of Cardiff, in an area of South Wales where training steeplechasers is a growth business. Along the M4 corridor can be found a whole string of trainers (not all called Williams, mind), including David Brace, at in Pembrokeshire, Peter Bowen and Rebecca Curtis. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised to see horses trained by Williams in Wales. The name has its roots in Brecon and Monmouth, and has Belgian dn German roots from wil – desire,  and helm – helmet or protection.

But you don’t need to train in Wales to be called Williams, and the last of three Williams-trained winners at Ffos Las on Sunday was Venetia Williams’ Desque de L’Isle, a French-bred chaser successful in the closing handicap chase under Charlie Deutsch. Williams trains in Ross-on-Wye, not a million miles from the Monmouth county border.

Bangor Racecourse is no more in Wales than Chester, but the odd racegoer has muddled up Bangor-on-Dee and Bangor in mid Wales before now. The picturesque racecourse was the scene for another bout of Williams-it is this afternoon, starting in the opener, when Devon-based Nick Williams sent out the unpronounceable Yggdrasil to win the 2m4f handicap chase. Now with a name like that, you’d expect Yggdrasil to have been bred in the Welsh valleys at least, but in reality the four year old is a French-bred. Nick is fluent in French so it’s no surprise many of his horses carry names with French roots. He’s another trainer ready for a tilt at racing in France.

Devon trainer Nick Williams Pic: Sportinglife.com

 

Nick is married to Jane, mother of Lizzie Kelly, now retired, and one of the pioneering early twenty-first century lady jockeys. Jane used to train Pointers, then began training each under her own name with her own horses, so for all that they train from the same premises,  I suspect a bit of one-upmanship exists. It certainly appeared so after Jane won the third race of the day, a maiden hurdle, with a horse called Saint Segal, another French-bred.

The jockey? Nick’s son Chester… Williams. And it’s only Thursday. Time for a few more yet…

How our steeplechasers get the best treatment

The recent National Racehorse Week sought to draw attention to the care and attention lavished on the thoroughbred racehorses that run for our pleasure – and occasional profit – each year. The brainchild of trainer Richard Philips, who bemoaned that our horses can’t talk for themselves, the day attracted tens of thousands of racing fans to racing yards all over the country, and looks set to become an annual event.

Our racehorses are better looked after than ever before PHOTO: Mat Mingo/PPAUK

 

It’s an odd thing, but much of the lore of looking after horses is handed down from personal experience and from aural education. In nearly forty years of following racing, rarely have I seen a publication focused on how to train a racehorse for steeplechasing or hurdling. Which may explain why when Martin Pipe burst on the scene in the eighties with interval training, he was able to steal a march on his rivals with a greater degree of fitness.

The best horse racing guide I ever saw that would show a comparative novice how to train and ride a racehorse was John Hislop’s Steeplechasing, published by J A Allen in 1951. For the younger reader, J A Allen was a wonderful old bookshop in Victoria Gate, opposite the Royal Mews in London, which closed in 1999. Although riding styles have changed somewhat since John’s day ( no full boot in the iron now, just a toe on the edge of the stirrup), much of the premise of caring for a horse remains unchanged even now.

The Science of Feeding

Knarled old stablemen will continue to swear by the use of Guinness or raw eggs in horse feeds, but today’s reality is driven by science. A trip to Connolly’s Red Mills laboratories in Goresbridge will show you the granular detail of the nutrient content in oats, barley and other foodstuffs that is assembled in the right quantities to provide the optimum feed resource to top athletes like our horses.

The national hunt horse must have enough stamina to stay a distance and also enough speed to accelerate in the final furlong. Slow work is supported primarily by aerobic respiration. This means the muscles use oxygen to produce energy. Faster work is fuelled mostly by anaerobic respiration (without oxygen).Thoroughbred racehorses have high skeletal muscle mass which can increase and adapt in response to exercise. Racehorse diets high in protein help to support an increased rate of muscle protein synthesis and thus improves both muscle mass and strength, and there is a subtle difference in the feeding regimes between developing young horses running on the flat and the older chasing type.

The same food science that has been applied to our human athletes is now readily available to horses, and a majority of trainers are fielding regular visits from feedstuffs experts to iron out the particular foibles of some of their horses that have more sensitive digestive systems. This is a fascinating world, where the appliance of science to nutrition is enhancing performance year on year.

Hoof care

“No foot, no horse” is an old adage loved of farriers, and if there’s one thing that trainers of thoroughbreds will agree, it’s that the quality of hoof has deteriorated overt several generations of thoroughbred breeding. Larger yards will employ their own farrier, but changing shoes frequently does nothing for the quality of hooves.

Hoof care is as essential as feeding

 

Gary Pickford runs the largest team of farriers in Lambourn, numbering over 25, to service trainers, studs and other equestrian competition horses all over the west Country, sometimes even abroad. This includes the stock services of shoeing for exercise, the use of light steels or aluminium plates for racing, and podiatry problems in thoroughbreds that prevent them from running to the best of their ability. Gary and his team saw Altior through all his racing career, and also handle other nearby trainers like Neil King and Warren Greatrex.

Becoming a farrier is no quick fix. An apprenticeship with the Worshipful Company of farriers takes 4 years – considerably more time than it takes to become a fully-fledged jockey!  And such is the nature of horse care nowadays that farriers will liaise on an ongoing basis with feed companies to verify that the feeding regime is compatible with good footcare too.

 

Grooming & stable care

The biggest issue facing trainers presently is the recruitment and retention of reliable staff,especially among the smaller yards, where stable bonuses are smaller and pay and conditions more demanding. Under the Rules of Racing a percentage of the prize money pool is allocated to the stable staff depending on where the horse is placed in the race. at a little over 1%, this doesn’t sound very much, but if you are Paul Nicholls, with over £2m in win and place earnings, this can amount to a nice end of year fillip. Small wonder that the larger yards then are better staffed than smaller ones where a winner remains a novelty, hard earned.

Racing is one of the few employment sectors where getting a qualification from one of the racing schools in Newmarket or Doncaster guarantees you a job. But nowadays, there are as many immigrant workers from eastern Europe and Asia working in yards as white Caucasians. This is no enlightened anti-discrimination stance by our professional trainers; merely a realization that the modern day English and Irish workforce no longer finds weekend and evening working a positive element to a career move into horseracing. Lads like Madan Lal, Muhammed Zahid and Jalam Singh, who all work for trainer Tom George, have found English working practices easier than in their home countries, and they are far from alone.

However, the staffing crisis in racing has also affected the ratio of horses per lad. In Edwardian times, lads were charged with two horses each, because each horse would enjoy a hour’s strapping at evening stables to improve muscle tone. Nowadays, lads are overseeing five, even six horses each, especially at the height of the season when other staff are travelling horses daily. Strapping as a form of finessing fitness has disappeared.

 

Riding work

During the eighties, even our foremost trainers left plenty to work on a horse in its first race. An unfair assessment might be that they were “carrying condition”. A horse would run into form when a race allowed his belly to tighten and fat turned to muscle. Martin Pipe changed all that.

His interval training approach of shorter gallops repeated rather than endless steady cantering, made his horses much sharper from the off. “Make all” were his instructions for a majority of his runners in the years before other trainers realized he wasn’t using magic potion, but had trained his horses to be fitter from the get-go. If you view any race including a Pipe runner from the eighties, the chances are that Scu would be leading the field from the off, and would stay there.

The advent of all-weather surfaces both for training, and on the racecourse, has also assisted this general move toward a higher level of fitness. It takes a blizzard or a gallop washing away to prevent a trainer conditioning his horses on the gallops nowadays, and grass is used often to sharpen a horse’s mental fitness – as much a change as a rest from the woodchip every day.

There seems little doubt that improving the fitness of our equine athletes has added to the competitive nature of the sport. Our horses are running a little more frequently each season, starting younger and finding a new career by 12 or 13 – time enough for a second career outside racing. And with monitoring of where those horses go at the end of their racing career, surely, the thoroughbred has never had it so good.

Hobbs is another eyeing up France

In only five of the past thirty two seasons has the champion British National Hunt trainer not been based in Somerset. We are lucky in Taunton to be surrounded and supported by a family of other top flight trainers who have yet to win the championship and yet have invariably been close to winning the title. Perhaps chief amongst the many is Philip Hobbs.

Hobbs was born into an equestrian family, his father having been  a permit holder, and went to school at King’s College Taunton. As a teenager he shone as a showjumper and amateur jump jockey before turning professional forty five years ago. Ten years later, after a successful riding career, he turned his hand to training, beginning with just six horses. Great oaks from small acorns is a most apt phrase;  for now six have become  over a hundred, cared for by a staff of forty on 500 acres high above Minehead, within shouting distance of the sea.

By any yardstick, Hobbs’s training career has been an unqualified success. A list of a few of the great horses he has handled makes for impressive reading; , Detroit City, Dream Alliance, Captain Chris, Defi du Seuil, Flagship Uberalles, Garde La Victoire, Kibreet, Menorah, Monkerhostin, Rooster Booster, Thyme Hill and many, many others. Unusually, most of these horses have been sourced by Hobbs himself rather than a team of bloodstock agents who supply most of racing’s other heavy hitters. Dream Alliance of course is the subject of the recently released film, Dream Horse, in which Hobbs is played by Nicholas Farrell.

Last year was a rarity in that he trained fewer winners than in the previous season, although most trainers would have been pleased with two Grade I winners. This season has seen him bounce back with a strike rate to date of above 30%, a fact greeted universally with pleasure, for Hobbs seems to be a man who inspires kindness and not enmity, exemplified by the fidelity to him of his owners. One of those early winners was Iberio, a German bred horse, which, despite the name, will not end up as chorizo. Although the bumper he won was a modest one, Iberio is a horse that may well be worth following. Another with a German sire, Zanza, in common with many in the yard, had a quiet time last year and may be worth a vote of confidence this time round. To complete the patent, consider St. Bart’s. Perhaps not quite as exotic as his name, this gelding, nonetheless, has a good strike rate over fences and is bound to improve. Three others to follow when chasing the bigger prize money could be Kalooki ,Deise Aba and Everglow.

In common with many others in his profession, Hobbs has begun to campaign horses in France. I was present when Balthazar King triumphed in the 2013 Grand Cross de Craon in front of a crowd as large as a Bank Holiday at Cartmel – quite rare in French racing. Despite his fifth place in the Grand National 5 months earlier, the French crowd had largely ignored him. Jockey Dickie Johnson described it as a very rough race, but quality will out. Balthazar King won that race by 2 1/2l at a generous price of 15/1, of which his owners and trainer availed themselves handsomely. The Tote refused to pay out more than €3,000 for each bet, the rest coming by cheque afterwards! Balthazar King returned the following year to win again at a less generous 15/8.

Today, Hobbs was tilting at an altogether larger prize on the first day of Auteuil’s November spectacular. The Grand Prix d’Automne is a showpiece staying hurdle worth €350,000, at which Hobbs had aimed Thyme Hill, winner of five of his eight hurdle starts, including  most recently the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree this Spring. The field had attracted two of France’s best in Galop Marin, winner three times already of this race, and L’Autonomie, winner of 16 of her 21 races, and over €1.2m in win and place prize money.

Predictably for Auteuil in the autumn, the ground was heavy, illustrated by all the runners switching to the very outside down the entire back straight, where the watering system reaches its limit. Thyme Hill took the shortest route on the inner except around this part of the course, lying mid-division, and well in touch if good enough, until around the 13th of the 16 hurdles, when Galop Marin asserted.

Despite Thyme Hill not fighting out the finish, the winner, bought for just €13,000 at Tattersalls Ireland Mixed Sale, produced a gripping finish, with L’Autonomie opting for the stands rail searching for better ground. That move may just have cost the race with a winning distance of 1 1/4l. But what value Mme Patrick Papot has enjoyed from her Irish purchase! Galop Marin has won nearly €1.4m from his 13 successes – a figure Thyme Hill could only dream of in the UK or Ireland. Meantime, Thyme Hill finished a distant fifth but was rewarded with prize money of €17,500, more than enough to cover expenses.

Who’s to say Hobbs may not be back to tilt at this race again in 2022? In Michelin Guide speak, il vaut le voyage.

“In peace nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility” said Shakespeare, or, as Ian Duncan Smith  more recently put it, ”do not underestimate the determination of the quiet man”. Both authors might well have had P J Hobbs as their exemplar. Not for him racing down the running rail whooping and hollering for the benefit of the TV cameras and a chance at self congratulation. Instead a gentle smile accompanied by a firm handshake for his many well wishers. Not for Philip the morning phone call to the fellow trainer with whom he shared a dorm at school to ask “is yours off today, or is it just out for a run”. But horses doing their best for the pleasure as well as the benefit of us all.

Understated quality is a term that well describes Philip Hobbs. There would not be too much polyester hanging alongside the tweed jackets in Philip’s wardrobe.

The friendly sport: where to make and find friends for life

Even when many moons have passed, a deep friendship is immediately renewed upon reacquaintance. So it was when we walked through the gates of the racecourse at Orchard Portman for the first meeting of the season last week. Faces remembered from years gone by engender a familial warmth. Some have memories that stretch back seventy years.

One such is Captain John George, father of trainer Tom George. John was born in the Punjab whilst his father was serving in the British army in colonial India. On the family’s return to England, after independence, they bought a farm on Exmoor, only a few miles from the racecourse. At the age of eleven John used to ride his bicycle to watch the races, which he did standing by the third last. Thus began a lifetime fulfilled by a love of National Hunt racing.

John rode as an amateur, trained successfully, acted as a racecourse steward, and in the course of all this he bought Down Farm, arguably possessed of one of the most beautiful farm houses in Britain, situated in the Slad valley. It was there that John befriended Laurie Lee of Cider with Rosie fame, and where Tom now trains.

Down Farm, stronghold of trainer Tom George
Down Farm, stronghold of trainer Tom George

John has moved to three hundred fine acres in Cornwall which roll down towards the sea in Caerhays where he serves as church warden. His wife Caroline has a few brood mares and runs a successful stud. Caroline is related to a true giant of the turf, Cecil Boyd Rochford, Croix de Guerre,  (whose brother George, not to be outdone,  was awarded the V.C). What a family!

You’re unlikely to find T R George listed among the top trainers at Taunton; sadly it’s never been a course George Jnr fraternises a great deal. Nevertheless, he’s certainly worth following on a trip to Orchard Portman, as his runners rarely return empty-handed. He has a 40% win and place record here. And ironically, after years of being the only elite sportsman of that name, he now has competition. His rather younger namesake rowed at 3 in the British eight at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, and he’s no slouch either!

Another George making a name for himself is Tom’s son Noel, who master-minded his father’s highly successful training operation in France last winter. The team scooped over €180,000 from a small group of raiders. Expect something similar this time around too as our professional trainers adapt to an international Jump racing landscape.

Like every element of racing, there are little connections to be made which makes our small clique of followers so entertaining. You are never alone at the races even if you travel singly, and wherever you are in the world. You will always bump into some distant acquaintance!

It’s what makes our sport so special.

West Country is well represented as Taunton flag falls on new season

Welcome back Taunton.. After far too long without a spectator in sight, bars and grandstands were opened to the public once again to enjoy chasing at Somerset’s most endearing course. West Country trainers took their fair share of the prizes on offer, although the feature event wen northwards to Cheshire where Donald McCain’s onward winner march shows no sign of stopping.

See The Sea is a transformed horse since a wind operation in July. This handsome win was her third on the bounce since then, her only other run being a 5 1/2l second. She enjoyed a ding dong battle with Tom Lacey’s Glory And Honour up the run-in , but always had the measure of the runner-up, and there’s little to say she might not win a fourth whilst she and her handler are in this sort of form. McCain has already rattled off 48 winners and this was the fourth of the past week.

Winning trainer Donald McCain has plenty to be cheery about
Winning trainer Donald McCain has plenty to be cheery about

 

The prizes had less far to travel home in the opener when Valentino defied a jump in the weights to win the Cornish Gin Handicap Hurdle by 1 1/2l from Kendelu. Jackie du Plessis’s last two winners have been priced at 100/1 and 25s, so this 15/8 favourite must have been something of a shock! Small yard she may run, but underestimate the Saltash handler at your peril. Her 25% strike rate sits up there with the best.

Another West Country stable jumping out of its skin presently is that of Sutton Veny’s Milton Harris, who has enjoyed a terrific autumn so far, capped today by a double in the concluding two races here at Taunton. Mi Laddo has found it difficult to capitalize on his one victory up to today, but finally found a winning post again in front in the Thatchers Cider Handicap Hurdle under a forceful ride from Paddy Brennan, putting 1 3/4l between himself and his nearest pursuer.

Thirty minutes later, the Harris team were basking in self-satisfaction once again when Fire Lake, a neck second in her debut bumper at Ludlow in early October, went one better in the concluding Taunton Business Club Mares Bumper. This augurs well for a sale, given she remains in the ownership of her trainer, and for  promotion to a hurdle race. The Harris team has enjoyed nine winners in the past month, a personal milestone, and it would appear everything he trains is in with a shout presently. Stick with it whilst they’re in form.

Angela Tincknell has enjoyed horses with Paul Nicholls for a long time, and the latest novice hurdler to carry her colours successfully is Time To Tinker, a fairly straightforward ride for Bryony Frost, doubtless anxious to put the headlines of last Sunday’s papers behind her and get on with the day job. The Nicholls yard has accelerated into a high gear now the autumn is properly here. Big race winners at Chepstow a fortnight ago announced their presence back on the scene, but it won’t be plain sailing to a 13th trainers’ championship. Contenders are lining up behind for this coveted crown.

Having a family connection to help further your career offers a great head start, and Eleanor Williams is making the most of that opportunity, riding her second winner of the summer in the Taunton Racecourse Annual Membership Available Today Handicap Hurdle for conditionals and amateurs. Sensibly she stuck to hands and heels on Voodoo Doll, trained by her father, to repulse the late challenge of Soul Icon, to win a neck. In these days of more and more women riders, she is keeping excellent company in the weighing room.

 

Jones has a horse to dream for

Every trainer dreams of unearthing a horse to take them to the big festivals, or to breathe the oxygen of publicity that comes from a televised winner. It’s what drives a legion of handlers somewhat less successful than the likes of Philip Hobbs and Paul Nicholls, the flag bearers for the sport in the West Country. That strength in depth of horses trained in the four westernmost counties of the UK is illustrated by the extraordinary support for grass roots Point-to-Points at venues as obscure as Great Trethew and Bratton Down.

And one fresh dream was ignited today at Aintree when Alan Jones, training a handful of horses in rural Timberscombe, Somerset, produced four year old filly Lady Excalibur to win here second bumper in the elegantly-titled Jewson Southport, Bispham Road EBF Mares Open National Hunt Flat race, concluding the card.

Lady Excalibur might reasonably have expected to be enjoying maternal duties had she found flat racing to her liking. This well-bred daughter of Camelot didn’t cut the mustard for Richard Hannon, and eagle-eyed Jones picked her up for a trip down the A303 in June, since when she has won a Stratford bumper, and been a 3/4l second at Uttoxeter in the summer. Jones must surely be anticipating yet more success when she jumps a flight.

Alan Jones has a colourful past. He holds the dubious record for being the tallest rider of his generation, but being from circus stock, he may have considered this quite normal for a profession in which weight and height are critical criteria. At 6ft 2 1/2, he was, as they say, vertically challenged as a rider. Yet a few winners as an amateur led, inevitably to a tilt at the professional game. In the mid-eighties, he was even conditional for Kim Bailey, then enjoying considerable success in Lambourn.

Trainer Alan Jones has a horse to dream of with Lady Excalibur
Trainer Alan Jones has a horse to dream of with Lady Excalibur

 

He’d probably be the first to admit his training career is still awaiting that lift-off moment, since he took out a public licence in 2000.  However, from a select number of runners each year, winners flow on an excellent strike rate. Of his seven runners to date this term, only two have failed to reach the frame. In short, this is a man who knows his job, even if owners are not flocking to his door. The north coast of Somerset near Minehead doesn’t necessarily encourage large numbers of racing visitors, although Philip Hobbs seems to haver found a knack.

The tapestry of racing relies on handlers like Jones, whose eternal quest to find a horse to represent them at racing’s top table keeps the sport alive for new entrants. Long may it be so. Excalibur was King Arthur’s sword, that unlocked his leadership of the gallant knights of the Round Table. One Alan Jones will be hoping Lady Excalibur doesn’t sink into the lake of mediocrity never to be seen again.

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