In his days as a novice jockey in the West Country, Bob Davies, who was to ride more than 900 winners, asked the trainer of the horse he was about to partner over 24 fences: ‘How does he jump?’ ‘No idea,’ came the reply. ‘That’s for you to find out.’ The pair survived the experience and Bob Davies has just retired after 35 years as the clerk of the course, company secretary and general manager who put Ludlow on the map. Having at one stage simultaneously held similar roles at Hereford and Bangor, he was a one-man demonstration of changing times. In times past, it did not occur to the powers that were that former jockeys might hold official posts in racing. The great Fred Winter, four times a champion trainer after winning three jockeys’ championships, only took up training because the Jockey Club refused his application to become a starter. Official roles were largely confined to those with officer-level experience in the forces, a public school education and at least two barrels to the family name. Perhaps it helped that Bob Davies had a degree in agriculture from Wye as well as his three jockeys’ championships.
Life is all about getting the timing right, as I have been reminded while checking out the dozen horses recommended to readers for the jumping season just concluded. After a couple of good years we showed a small loss on the Flat last year. Tantalisingly, Tom Dascombe’s sprinter Kachy, who had failed to win in five races in our time, then impressively won three out of four on the All Weather through the winter. Brando has opened the new season with a 9–2 victory and International Law, after a change of trainer, recently scored at 25–1. All too late. So how about the 12 jumpers?
One of the wettest winters on record reminded me what an achievement it is simply getting a horse to the racecourse on ground he can cope with. There are some 6,500 jumpers in training and in 2017 there were 1,174 races for them (excluding hunter chases). Our dozen horses managed only 22 appearances between them compared with the 48 contested by our Flat candidates last year. Four didn’t see a racecourse at all after our November start. The three winners included Cyrus Darius who gave Ruth Jefferson her first success following the sad death of her father Malcolm. If The Cap Fits scored impressively for Harry Fry but was injured before Cheltenham, and Death Duty, after winning once for the prolific Gordon Elliott, fell next time out and missed the rest of the season. Shantou Rock twice ran second in top-class races and Doing Fine was fourth of 29 in the Scottish Grand National. But with victories at prices of only 8–11, 6–4 and 5–2, our overall loss to a £10 stake came out at around £140. Painful.
Looking for candidates to repair our fortunes this Flat season, the first four I came across in my notebook — Sevenna Star, Raa Atoll, Il Primo Sole and Mr Marrakech —all turned out to be trained by the maestro John Gosden: all I had earmarked as future winners. Unfortunately, two have proved me right already so let our selection be the less-exposed Mr Marrakech, a son of Scat Daddy.
On a day when he also had a 50–1 winner at Newbury, with Adjudant, Brian Meehan seemed especially taken with Last Viceroy, a 40–1 third to William Haggas’s Derby candidate Young Rascal, so Last Viceroy goes in too. Roger Charlton’s Breathless Times, who seemed unlucky in an all-weather contest at Lingfield and then failed at Newbury last Saturday, should still have potential as should Richard Hannon’s September Newbury scorer Orange Suit.
Hugo Palmer speaks highly of the filly Labrega who was only just held off at Haydock after racing keenly first time out so she goes on the list as does Shargiah from the ever-advancing Roger Varian yard. David O’Meara’s Lord Glitters may be able to cope with a rise in class this year while Eve Johnson-Houghton’s Accidental Agent, a respectable sixth in the Al Shaqab at Newbury last Saturday, should still win good races. Her regular jockey Charles Bishop is a rider to watch.
Charlie Appleby’s horses are winning everywhere but the bookies won’t take any chances with them. The lesser-known James Tate has an impressive six-furlong performer in Invincible Army, so stick with him and watch for David Simcock’s Qayed over a mile. I am including, too, Waqaas whom Charlie Hills thinks should go well in big handicaps. Charlie sees his Porth Swtan as an Ascot hope and Andrew Balding’s Bacacarat, who finished third behind Porth Swtan at Newmarket, looks a potential improver so I include him too. Michael Dods, who did well with Mecca’s Angel, looks to have another good sprinting filly with Mabs Cross but she may not be ready yet for Group Ones. My final choice was Mark Johnston’s Baghdad but, my timing awry again, he won last week. Let’s take Clive Cox’s Astrologist instead.