You don’t always have to win to enjoy it. At the end of the £100,000 Paddy Power Imperial Cup at Sandown on Saturday the exhilarated 7lb claimer Archie Bellamy jumped off Lively Citizen with a grin on his face you could have driven a car through. ‘I got some spin off that,’ he declared. ‘You’re turning in and he just takes off. I had such a lot of fun out there.’ So he had, riding a well-judged race on the 28-1 shot to take the lead two out and keeping on well. Lively Citizen’s handler David Jeffreys, who trains at Hinton on the Green, Worcestershire, proved almost equally chuffed: ‘He’s a real trainer’s horse,’ he beamed. ‘He wears his heart on his sleeve and gives you everything. He’s so good for the yard.’ So he had been but as Lively Citizen struck the front there was a spelling mistake sitting on his shoulder.
Ridden on his 21st birthday by James Bowen, who has this season completed the transition from teenage wunderkind to dependable top race jockey, Suprise Package sailed past Lively Citizen on the uphill run-in to triumph by a clear nine lengths. Without a win in his previous seven races, only ninth at Leopardstown on his previous run and allotted 6lb more by the English handicapper than he would have carried at home, Suprise Package is trained in Monasterevin, Ireland, by Peter Fahey and when David Jeffreys admiringly declared, ‘Bloody Irish – I hope this isn’t a sign of what’s to come next week,’ he voiced the thoughts of virtually every English racegoer present.
By the time most read this column, thanks to publishing schedules, the Cheltenham Festival will be almost over and many of the home team who suffered a 23-5 trouncing by Irish horses at last year’s festival fear that the statistics could make equally disastrous reading this year. As I write, there is only one English-trained horse, Dan Skelton’s Protektorat, in the first seven in the betting for the Gold Cup. Honeysuckle is odds-on to win another Champion Hurdle and of the Grade One races only in the Champion Chase is there an English-trained favourite – Nicky Henderson’s star Shishkin. In part it is a numbers game. Even the top English trainers are likely to have no more than a dozen horses at the Festival while of the Irish contingent Gordon Elliott will be sending more than 50 from his Cullentra base and Willie Mullins a similar number from Closutton.
The one heartening sign at Sandown had been a thumping 17-length victory for Nicky Henderson’s Luccia in the British Stallions EBF Mares’ bumper. Some had been alarmed that a fortnight or so with scarcely a winner from Nicky’s Seven Barrows yard suggested a loss of form at just the wrong time. But there is no greater master of the art of peaking a horse at Festival time than Henderson and he has remained staunchly unworried. You could see his problem. What he has been trying to say to the media is: ‘The swans back home are fine; I’ve only been running the ducks,’ but you can’t say that too loudly or too often because some of the duck-owners still think they’ve got potential swans. Having trained Luccia’s mother, sister and brother, Nicky knows what he’s got in his hands and is already looking forward to next year’s Cheltenham with Luccia.
One man who instinctively knew a swan from a duck was former jockey and trainer Andy Turnell, who sadly died last week at only 73. Andy trained Maori Venture to win the Grand National, Cogent to take a Hennessy Gold Cup and Katabatic to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase but he will probably be remembered even longer as a jockey of remarkable bravery with a quite extraordinary sense of balance. He rode shorter in his irons than any other jockey I can recall and confounded the pundits by having fewer falls than most. Along with a few fellow journos in the Eternal Optimists syndicate I had a share in a horse with Andy called Rhapsody in Blue – one definitely in the duck rather than swan category – and I remember his patience with an animal who flattered to deceive with a habit of swallowing his tongue.
One of the syndicate was a little less patient and on hearing Andy give instructions to our jockey – the lovely Luke Harvey who is now such a joyous part of the ITV racing coverage – not to hurry Rhapsody but to ‘let him find himself during the course of the race’ at Worcester one day the jaundiced scribe exclaimed that it would be nicer if, rather than finding himself, Rhaps could for once find the others in the race. Luke was happy enough with the unplaced performance that day to offer to take the horse off our hands but Andy persevered. Alas the syndicate didn’t and in the end Rhapsody didn’t win for us but for new owners in the north with Richard Ford.