Robin Oakley

My Twelve to Follow on the Flat

In what looks to be an intriguing season, the Derby and the Oaks are the most open they’ve been for years

My Twelve to Follow on the Flat
Electric burst: four-year-old Albaflora storming to victory at Ascot on 8 May [Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images]
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Combing through race recordings to try to find some fun horses for Spectator readers this summer, I have been struck by how often even the best riders find themselves stuck in equine traffic with plenty of horsepower underneath them but nowhere to go. Gaps open in a flash and then close again, forcing riders to snatch up and probe, often too late, for another opening. It is never, though, as simple as it looks from the stands. One former top jockey was berated by a trainer on his return to the unsaddling enclosure: ‘Why didn’t you go for that gap between the leaders two furlongs out?’ ‘Because, Guv’nor, the gap was moving a lot faster than my horse was.’ Selecting potential equine investments is getting harder: in the autumn I picked horses who’d shown potential on good going. We then had three months of monsoon. This spring I’ve been watching small fields competing while trainers have been keeping their best back in the yard and praying for rain. Climate change is no help at all.

It will nonetheless be an intriguing Flat season: the Derby and Oaks are the most open contests for years. No fewer than five top riders could fight out the jockeys’ championship: holder Oisin Murphy, William Buick, Ben Curtis and the engaged housemates Hollie Doyle and Tom Marquand. It would be handy to tune in to their breakfast conversations — if they ever had time for breakfast. Among the trainers, two of the most likeable men in racing, William Haggas and Andrew Balding, look to have formidable teams. Former top riders Darryl Holland and Kieren Fallon are combining to run a yard together and Sean Woods is back training in Newmarket after a profitable 16 years in Hong Kong. An interviewer asked him: ‘Your horses collected prize money of £25 million over there, didn’t they?’. ‘No,’ said Woods. ‘It was £46 million.’

For our Twelve to Follow I start with Ralph Beckett’s four-year-old filly Albaflora whose electric burst at Ascot on Saturday was the most impressive performance I’ve seen this season. Father and son Simon and Ed Crisford are hoping for big things from Ilza’Eem but I will trust their progressive Aaddeey with the nomination. James Tate’s bonny grey Top Rank, due out at Newbury this Saturday, should win some good prizes and goes in too. Clive Cox aimed two at Ascot’s Victoria Cup last Saturday but only ran River Nymph, who won. The other, Dance Fever, second to Tsar in July and gelded in October, looks an equal prospect and joins our Twelve. Owen Burrows’s Asadjumeirah stumbled at the start over five furlongs at Nottingham but should win sprint handicaps. So should Andrew Balding’s King’s Lynn, runner-up to the speedy El Astronaute at Chester. Another sprinter to watch is Ed Walker’s Came From the Dark who met the no exit sign under Hollie Doyle when full of running last time out. We must have an Irish contestant so in goes Joseph O’Brien’s filly Thundering Nights. I am including two middle-distance prospects from the yard John Gosden now shares with son Thady — Derab, a colt by Sea The Stars out of Enable’s dam Concentric, and the four-year-old Waldkonig whose three-year-old career was blighted by tooth abscess problems. William Haggas will surely win races with the likes of Al Aasy, Sea Empress and Tom Collins but we may get a better price on his Lockerbie, so far tried only on the all weather, so in she goes. Henry Candy’s Run To Freedom improved steadily last season and must be included. (I note in passing that he says Kingston Star has plenty of speed. From him that counts.) David O’Meara is a handicap master and I include, too, his consistent miler Shelir. Finally, it has been a rough year for the Queen but with a bit of luck Tactical, who won at Ascot for Her Majesty last year, can repeat the feat this July after his victory over Naval Crown at Newmarket’s Craven meeting.

And how did our Twelve do over the jumps this winter? Between them they competed in 45 races. Six of them won — Minella Indo, Imperial Aura, Kitty’s Light, Jetaway Joey, Soldier on Parade and Valleres, and as well as their seven victories we had eight seconds and seven third places. Minella Indo was the star, taking the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 9-1. An honourable mention, too, for Secret Reprieve from the previous winter’s Twelve who won the Welsh Grand National. He missed the cut for the Aintree version by one and had he run would surely have figured in the finish. The maths, though, was not good enough: to a £10 level win stake we ended with a loss of £73. But had Kitty’s Light at 9-1 not been baulked by the then disqualified Enrilo in the Bet365 Gold Cup, handing the race to the uninvolved Potterman, there would have been a small profit of £27. I hate bad losers who moan ‘We wuz robbed’ but we wuz.