As she walked towards a Palace dining room once in company with the playwright Noël Coward, the late Queen Mother noted his gaily lascivious eye flickering over the Guardsmen lining the stairs. ‘No, Noël,’ she admonished him before he had spoken. ‘I wouldn’t if I were you. They count them before they put them out.’
Following the end of the Flat season, I have to do my own counting and it is not the happy story it was last jumps season when our Twelve to Follow showed a 50 per cent profit. Between them our Flat twelve made 41 racecourse appearances and from those they mustered six victories, six seconds and four third places. The star was William Haggas’s Green Destiny. Gambled on heavily at Royal Ascot, he was hampered and lost the plot. He made amends by winning the John Smith’s Cup at York at 6–1 before disappointing at Goodwood, when his apprentice jockey bustled him to keep with the early pace. Two more victories followed in the hands of Kieren Fallon, a Group Three at York at 11–4 and another at Newbury at 2–1, before he was aimed perhaps a touch too high in the Champion Stakes.
I had made David Simcock, whose Dream Ahead became champion sprinter of the year, my trainer to follow and his Shamardal Phantom won at Bath in June at 4–1. Mark Johnston’s Halifax scored at the same price at Sandown in May and Charlie Hills’s Slumber obliged at Newmarket in October at 5–1. Alas, it was not enough to return us a profit. Instead to a £10 level win stake we finished up just over £100 down. Racing is always a story of might-have-beens and the difference between profit and loss for the year came down to the head by which David Simcock’s I’m A Dreamer was beaten in the E.P. Taylor Stakes in Canada in October and the nose by which Halifax went down at Warwick in September.
Finding twelve for the winter game has been hampered by two weeks birdwatching in Oman just as the jumps season has swung into gear. A day’s sport in Bahrain on the way home was certainly racing with a difference. Palm trees swayed, the flames from oilfield burn-offs billowed into the sky beyond the track and a lake full of migrant birds was a decorative backdrop. Entry and racecards were free. Local trainer Jimmy Naylor, a former Newmarket man who has plied his trade earlier in Belgium and in Texas, and British jockeys Andrew Elliott and Mark Lawson sounded well content with the salaried life — no whip bans there — but without any (obvious) betting it all seemed slightly soulless, like an egg with no salt, and of course there was no jumping.
So how to profit this winter? Look for fancied runners from the newer faces in the training ranks such as Martin Keighley, Jeremy Scott and Neil Mulholland for better-value bets than on the well-scrutinised beasts running for Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls and Philip Hobbs. Neil’s Big Knickers is well handicapped and should win a hurdle or two and Martin Keighley’s Court In Session could progress well from hurdles to fences. Whatever their prices, I will stick with top hurdler Spirit Son from the Henderson yard and chaser Aiteenthirtythree from Paul Nicholls’s talent factory. He has loved that one from the beginning and good things are expected too at Ditcheat from the appropriately named Jump City. Of Philip Hobbs’s stars I was mightily impressed with first season hurdler Fingal Bay at Chepstow and again at Cheltenham.
Howard Johnson’s expulsion from the sport has seen Graham and Andrea Wylie’s top-class horses moved to other yards like those of Nicholls and Willie Mullins in Ireland. Horses often benefit from a change of scenery, and if the Nicholls team gets him jumping The Knoxs could be an exciting prospect while Willie Mullins has inherited the useful chaser Prince de Beauchene.
Horses can’t suck Fisherman’s Friends and another factor which can often bring significant improvement is an operation to ease their breathing. Paul Nicholls never wastes time in applying that remedy so watch out for his Flaming Gorge, Like Minded, Rebel Rebellion, Pasco and Slightly Tanned, who have all visited the vet to have their tubes eased. I will include Rebel Rebellion in the Twelve.
We always need an Irish flavour as the Cheltenham Festival results usually demonstrate. Though he unseated his rider first time out at Down Royal I will stick with Jessica Harrington’s smart Boston’s Angel and Gordon Elliott may have a nice young hurdler in Musawama.
The no-nonsense Peter Bowen is telling people that AwaywiththeGreys is the best he’s ever had and that will do for me, though you would have to fancy, too, his bumper horse Sir Johnson and the ex-Flat racer Mezzanisi.
I won’t name a Grand National hope because their preparation often includes races they have no hope of winning but I will include a horse from last year’s winning Grand National trainer Donald McCain. There is every hope that Peddler’s Cross will prove as exciting over fences as he was last season over the smaller obstacles. May they all come back sound.