After 30 years in racing it is a little late in Rab Havlin’s career to suggest that he will suddenly become a star. Havlin doesn’t do ostentatious. He is not a racecourse ‘name’, one of those riders towards whom sports-mad fathers propel their sons to seek a racecard autograph. To adapt Michael Gove’s Conservative leadership pitch, whatever charisma might be, Havlin doesn’t have it and nobody would ever associate him with glamour. What Rab Havlin does have, though, is the thoughtful dependability which has made him an integral part of John Gosden’s Newmarket winner-preparation factory.
On the racetrack Rab will often partner the stable’s lesser lights at lower-grade meetings, but when the Buicks or Dettoris have not been available he has proved the perfect supersub. Gosden’s 40th Royal Ascot winner Ardad this year was Havlin’s first. At Goodwood this term he rode California to win the Group Three Lillie Langtry Stakes ahead of a Dettori-ridden stable companion, and at Newbury last Saturday (13 August) he took the Hungerford Stakes on the 11-1 Richard Pankhurst, beating the highly fancied front-runner Home of the Brave, ridden by aspiring champion Jim Crowley, with a coolly calculated ride. Rab told us afterwards ‘I was able to come up behind Jim and sit on him again. He ran a little bit with the choke out to get there and when I sat on him he filled up. I thought if he shows a turn of foot, he’d win as I was travelling better than those in front.’
Richard Pankhurst’s success provided one of those racecourse moments when you wonder why you had been stupid enough not to back him. As a two-year-old the colt had won the Chesham Stakes impressively and despite a loss of form after that he had been kept in training as a four-year-old and hadn’t been gelded, indications they must still have believed in him. Rab confirmed: ‘He’s had lots of niggly little problems. Because of the time off he had lost confidence and wouldn’t always go through the pain barrier for you but he’s always shown us a lot at home and has massive ability.’ There is surely more to come. Hopefully for Havlin too, who went off quietly and rode another Gosden winner at Lingfield that night.
If I didn’t back Richard Pankhurst, I did at least manage the treble of Escobar, Kings Fete and Cosmeapolitan. But with the first two at even money and the third at 10/11 it wasn’t much of a payday. Even so I felt grown-up at last. For too long I have shied away from horses at evens or odds-on in search of the outsider to beat them: now I will take a winner at any price. The Hugo Palmer-trained Escobar, owned by Ian Jennings and Fiona Carmichael, looks to have a real touch of class and is a 25-1 quote for next year’s Derby. Why was he named after the world’s most notorious drug baron? Mr Jennings explained that after seeing Escobar at the sales there had been evening sun behind him at the second viewing and he swore it wasn’t the same horse. Then they noticed one white nostril ‘after which it seemed appropriate to name him after the biggest cocaine dealer in the world’. Said the proud owner of the still-learning Escobar: ‘He’s definitely next year’s horse.’ On Kings Fete we saw a masterclass of riding from the front by Pat Smullen, who led all the way and dictated the pace he wanted. He told me, ‘There didn’t seem to be any pace in the race. It wasn’t ideal to be in front all the way but he has a touch of class.’
The one that got away for me — painfully — was the 100-1 Chica de la Noche in a six-furlong maiden. Epsom trainer Simon Dow deserves much better horses than he is sent and when I asked him why we saw him so rarely at Newbury he replied that he didn’t often have horses of sufficient class to justify the journey. That was encouragement enough and I had a little each way on his filly. Nicky Mackay brought Chica up to challenge in the final furlong and I was just starting to plan my spending when he stopped riding. The saddle had slipped and 60 yards before the post the unfortunate rider was hurled on to the turf. How often does one lose a Flat race winner thanks to a fall?
The one other name to take away from a lively meeting was that of first-season trainer David Loughnane. He received his licence only in January, already has 29 horses and his first runner at the Berkshire track, Cornwallville, a purchase from France, won the seven-furlong handicap in a photo to provide his 17th winner. ‘He’d been finishing off his races there well,’ said the trainer whose natty tweed jacket and matching waistcoat looked like an entry for the best-turned-out racegoer prize that was on offer too. We will see more of him.