Racing at Newbury on Stan James Day was more like yachting, once defined as standing in a gale tearing up £20 notes. Nor did it help when the heavens opened that my umbrella was in the stands 200 yards away and that, thanks to a back injury, I could only hobble at the pace of an asthmatic turtle.
It just wasn’t my day. On the way from Kennington to Paddington I had been foolish enough to question the sainted Mrs Oakley’s navigational skills and only narrowly escaped being turned to stone in the froideur which followed. I had mistimed my trains and was bound to miss the first race anyway, then First Great Western could not find a driver for the next train. If I had had any sense I would have turned back and spent the day on the sofa.
At least I had a more romantic explanation than usual for those kind enough to notice my back pain and inquire, ‘How did you do it?’ Not this time retrieving a fallen soap bar in the shower or bending for a loosened shoelace. ‘It must have happened while I was stretchering a casualty out of a minefield,’ I told them, bringing their eyebrows back down to horizontal by adding that at my age perhaps it was unwise to have undertaken a Hostile Environments course with ex-SAS instructors. I have suggested they hire lighter actors for future simulation exercises, but there has been scant sympathy from Mrs Oakley. Having lived with too many of my holiday injuries, she merely sniffed ‘Boys’ games’ and returned to her Kazuo Ishiguro.
A feeling you get in your bones is the biggest bane in racing, too. Like sentiment and greed, such urgings should be suppressed if you are ever going to make money. But Marcus Tregoning’s marvellous old battler Mubtaker, now an eight- year-old, was running in the Stan James Geoffrey Freer Stakes, a race he had won for the past three years, and I had an overpowering instinct that he was going to do it again, despite having finished 19 lengths behind Azamour in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes on his previous outing. Finding him at 6–1, I tripled my bet.
The old boy then ran an absolute cracker, with Richard Hills riding a cool race from the front and having the others struggling behind him. One of those who appeared to have been struggling was the 12–1 shot Lochbuie, on whom John Egan had been working hard from six furlongs out. But in the final furlong Lochbuie grew wings and flew, collaring Mubtaker in the last few yards to win by a neck.
Trainer Geoff Wragg and his jockey knew they had produced an unpopular result and had sympathy for Mubtaker and his connections. ‘It’s bloody unfortunate, isn’t it?’ said Lochbuie’s trainer, though his beatific smile rather gave the game away.
I have rarely seen John Egan look happier and when I taxed him with shooting Cinderella, he grinned even wider and said, ‘I may have spoiled the fairy story but this was my fairy story.’ Of Lochbuie, beaten ten lengths by Distinction at Goodwood, he said, ‘He’s never shown me that sort of speed before. Normally he just keeps on and on.’ Marcus Tregoning was delighted with Mubtaker’s showing and he will be kept going for the rest of the season while Lochbuie is clearly still improving at four.
There is plenty more to come, too, from Roger Charlton’s Strut, who won the five-furlong fillies sprint. Backed down to favourite after an impressive run at Windsor last time out, she was slow into her stride and gave the rest of the field a start. As trainer Roger Charlton said to jockey Steve Drowne as he dismounted, ‘You were 100–1 after a furlong.’ Nor would you have given much for her chances at halfway. But the jockey kept cool and she burst through in the final furlong to win impressively. ‘Steadily the penny is dropping,’ said her trainer of the still unfurnished filly. ‘And you wouldn’t mind running her over six furlongs after that.’ He reckons she will go on improving and Strut looks one to back until she is beaten.
There is nobody in racing who looks and sounds the part better than John Gosden, who clearly reads the weather forecast as well as the form book and whose trilby and raincoat were much more appropriate than the summer suits about him. The Manton trainer, who exudes shrewdness and calm, had four winners over the two-day meeting, including Sleeping Indian who looked impressive in winning the Hungerford Stakes from the pocketed and fast-finishing Majors Cast.
After her injury in Hong Kong, the race marked the British return of Mark Johnston’s star filly Attraction. She ran well enough, in front for most of the way before fading to finish fourth, but Gosden and Jimmy Fortune had their game plan to beat her anyway: ‘We didn’t want Attraction opening up and going away, so the plan was to sit in and take the race to her two furlongs out. It was nice to see him prick his ears late on, suggesting he had something in hand.’
Sleeping Indian’s trainer John insisted that the time for the seven furlongs was a fast one and when John Gosden says something like that you take note. He, too, is an improving horse. Stick with him.