Dry January it wasn’t and I am not referring to the trainers who normally undergo an annual abstinence but who abandoned the effort this year in sheer frustration at racing’s woes. The unrelenting downpours that have seen a whole string of race meetings called off through waterlogging struck again last weekend. Cheltenham, which had already lost its New Year’s Day fixture to the weather, had to call off its Trials day too, the last scheduled fixture before the Festival in March. With so many opportunities lost for testing individuals’ mettle round the Gloucestershire Valhalla’s undulations and gradients, there will be an extra question mark dangling above many Festival entries this year.
Fortunately for the most exciting horse in training, the race Nicky Henderson had selected for novice chaser Shishkin was the Grade Two Lightning Novices’ Chase at Doncaster, where racing did take place. Through his long history handling the likes of See You Then, Sprinter Sacre and Altior, Nicky has grown accustomed to the pressures of preparing superstars burdened with huge public expectation, but he has never come to enjoy them. Handling such horses is the equivalent of carrying a priceless Ming vase from one end of a gallery to the other across a recently waxed and polished parquet floor. As he says, there is everything to lose as they run necessary prep races, and very little to gain. But while the previous weekend Nicky’s popular Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air had been beaten into second on his return from injury, Shishkin earned full marks with yet another impressive display, fencing impeccably, cruising into contention when asked by rider Nico de Boinville, and coasting clear after the last. It is hard to see last year’s Supreme Hurdle winner getting beaten at this year’s Festival.
It would be difficult to find a greater contrast with Henderson’s mighty 150-horsepower Seven Barrows yard than the eight horses in the Jedburgh, Roxburghshire stables of busy Harriet Graham, who combines training with being clerk of the course at Musselburgh and Hamilton Park. We all love a success for the small battalions and her little Aye Right ran a great race in November’s hotly contested Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury, beaten only by Cloth Cap, trained at Jonjo O’Neill’s state-of-the-art set-up. Harriet attended that meeting on crutches after being run over by her own horsebox when it reversed after she got out to help a man she thought was having a roadside heart attack. (In fact, he was reaching into the well of his car for a dropped mobile phone.) If anybody deserved some better luck she did and I thought it might come when the 8-1 Aye Right contested Doncaster’s Sky Bet Chase last Saturday, ridden by Callum Bewley. In the van throughout, jumping beautifully and in a good rhythm, Aye Right looked to have his race won over the last two fences. ITV showed some wonderful footage of Aye Right’s well-wrapped trainer bouncing across the tarmac and yelling him home only for her shoulders to drop and the head go down as the 40-1 shot Takingrisks, trained by Nicky Richards, battled past him in the final 100 yards.
Sportingly, when Matt Chapman grabbed her for a consolation interview after such a cruel defeat, Harriet Graham’s first words were to offer congratulations to Nicky Richards. Callum Bewley had dropped his whip before the last two fences and it was a nice touch too when the great Ruby Walsh, noting that, immediately reflected that he had done the same himself in a World Hurdle at Cheltenham. Stuff happens and I hope Bewley won’t beat himself up too much about it.
Takingrisks, incidentally, was ridden by the canny Sean Quinlan who had been aboard Navajo Pass for Donald McCain when they beat Buveur D’Air the previous Saturday with equally well-judged front-running tactics. What does he do in his spare time — throw darts at a cut-out of Bambi?
The money I lost on Aye Right was made up to some extent by backing Hint of Stars in a 1m 4f handicap on the Polytrack at Kempton. I am not the closest follower of events on the all-weather tracks but I had noticed the remarkable results obtained lately by a pair whose names are going to require wider racecards in future, trainer Kevin Philippart de Foy and jockey Benoit de la Sayette. Hint of Stars’ victory was a third from four runners for his trainer and a fifth in the latest 14 rides for his 7lb-claiming jockey. Young Benoit, a bright and articulate rider who made his name on the pony-racing circuit, is the son of Geoffroy de la Sayette who left his native France to work in England for the Godolphin empire and who currently rides out Audarya, this column’s favourite for her international successes last summer, for James Fanshawe. Benoit is now apprenticed to champion trainer John Gosden, whom I cannot remember previously putting up a 7lb-claimer. He can only benefit from working alongside the likes of Frankie Dettori, Rab Havlin, Martin Harley and Kieran O’Neill. Watch this space.