In his days as Foreign Secretary Robin Cook once told me that every politician should have a spell as a racing tipster to teach him humility — he tried it for the Glasgow Herald. I am not sure it worked the full miracle in his case, but racing is a true leveller with triumph and disaster as closely interlocked as the English and Irish scrums through their 80 minutes of mud-wrestling last weekend.
On Monday last week, the most exciting hurdler in training, J.P. McManus’s Darlan, trained by Nicky Henderson, came to the final obstacle at Doncaster full of running. One mis-step and the ante-post favourite for the Champion Hurdle went down in a heavy fall, which ended his life and shattered his jockey Tony McCoy. For Nicky and his staff there was the infinite, though not unfamiliar, sadness of returning home with empty tack to focus moist eyes on a vacant box, the highest of hopes transformed in an instant to sorrowful memory of a horse who had excited all who handled him. As his grieving trainer muttered, ‘Why does it always seem to happen to the best?’ and certainly it seems that way when you cast back to the suddenly extinguished talents of One Man, Dawn Run, Buona Notte, Dunkirk, Gloria Victis and Golden Cygnet,
It seemed particularly cruel because it was the same owner, J.P. McManus, whose Synchronised had last spring first won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and then died when running loose in the Grand National. As Nicky said on Saturday, ‘Nobody cares more about his horses than JP’ — and the battalions of equine pensioners in McManus’s home paddocks are eloquent testimony to that. ‘But you’ve got to sit down, rally the troops and fight on,’ and on Saturday the lights were blazing again at Seven Barrows.
Early this season, Tony McCoy had been schooling young hurdlers at the Henderson yard and been impressed with the feel he was given by My Tent or Yours. ‘There’s only one thing wrong with him,’ he told the trainer. ‘He’s in the wrong colours’ — meaning that since My Tent or Yours was not owned by JP he would not be his ride but would be partnered on the racecourse by Nicky’s stable jockey Barry Geraghty. Within days that situation had been rectified — JP purchased the Desert Prince gelding from his group of owners and, as he won a novice hurdle at Ascot in the autumn, AP was aboard, having refused anaesthetics when having his smashed face patched up the day before so that he would not lose the ride.
On Saturday, My Tent or Yours, whom McCoy had schooled behind a group of horses on Henderson’s gallops to get him used to big fields, came out again in Newbury’s Betfair Hurdle, the top handicap we used to know as the Schweppes. He not only won but also demolished the top-class field, resulting in his installation as favourite for the Supreme Novices Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and leading to excited talk that he might be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle. Ironically, poor Darlan had capsized at the second last when he ran in the previous year’s Betfair Hurdle and as Nicky said, ‘To find another capable of rising to the top table shows there is some justice.’
The horse whom My Tent or Yours displaced as favourite for the Supreme Novices was Jezki, one of this column’s Twelve to Follow. I must be getting something right because since my list appeared JP has bought two of them, the Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki, and Pendra, who is with Charlie Longsdon. Should he need another agent, I am open to offers and though there is plenty of time to go this season that gives me fair excuse for pointing out that to a £10 level win stake my selections are currently showing a profit comfortably over £100.
There was another potentially high-class Henderson candidate on show when Nicky’s Chatterbox won the novice hurdle at Newbury on Saturday. ‘He’s not been showing much at home but he’s bloody good when you stick him on a racecourse,’ said his clearly delighted handler, and the promised ding-dong battle between him and Paul Nicholls for the champion trainer’s title is hotting up nicely. As the Newbury card concluded, each had trained 88 winners this season. Paul’s prize money total, on which the title is decided, stood at £1,457,643, Nicky’s at £1,428,888. Such is the strength in depth of the Henderson team, even with the loss of Darlan, that the bookies make him the 1–5 favourite while you can get 7–2 against Paul Nicholls. But the Ditcheat team, which will be weakened when assistant trainer Dan Skelton leaves at the end of the season to set up on his own, will fight all the way and its Gold Cup prospects were enhanced when Silviniaco Conti followed the stable tradition set by Kauto Star and Denman of winning the Betfair Chase from The Giant Bolster. The second season chaser has not yet captured public attention in the way they did, but he oozed professionalism and jumped well through the mud.