Robin Oakley

The turf

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Cramming too much in is always a mistake. It was just one broken jar of tahini paste, requested by Italian friends along with the pork pie, the Marmite and two bottles of Amontillado as items unobtainable in Sardinia, but boy what damage it had done after my holiday suitcase spent three hours in the care of British and Italian baggage handlers. The sherry survived but, having separated itself into separate streams of oil and orange goo, the tahini paste had oozed malevolently around, insinuating itself into every crevice and tainting almost every garment, probably wrecking for ever the rather snazzy pair of Cambridge blue trousers purchased by Mrs Oakley in her latest optimistic attempt to make me look trendy. Mrs O, who fortunately does not allow me near washing machine or ironing board for fear of resulting havoc, was not amused at having to spend the first two days of our week’s holiday as full-time laundrywoman. Next time she will pack.  

Back for Newbury last Saturday I found much of the racing world up in arms over the way the authorities too had allegedly crammed too much in. Fixtures rejigging meant that Newbury, which regularly attracts 25 runners for its Weatherbys Super Sprint, was competing with crowd-pulling events at Newmarket, York and Chester. With 120-plus riders required, trainers complained about being unable to find suitable jockeys and bookmakers whinged about racing putting too many of its shop window highlights into Saturday programmes. Top jockeys moaned, too, because moving feature races from weekdays to weekends trims the number of top contests from which they can cream off lucrative percentages. I am with the courses on this one: if they reckon they can get big enough crowds on the day then good luck to them, and if some of the lesser lights among the riders thereby get a chance of boosting their earnings it will help both to develop talent and spread some of racing’s rewards where they are most needed. 

Five of the races on the Newbury card were sponsored by Chris Beek Racing, a syndicate ownership company that is doing well at the lower end of the market by offering affordable racing in small chunks. Typical of their deals to entice racegoers who might previously have thought ownership a step too far is Downright Dizzie. You can buy a 5 per cent share in her for the rest of the year for £595, payable at less than £100 per month. So confident is Chris that those who buy into her will be given a guarantee: if she does not win by 31 December they will get their money back. 

Chris Beek, who worked for Mick Channon and later for Mark Rimell, has been running his schemes for four years. So far in 2012 they have had 17 winners and earned £63,758 in prize money. You don’t have to be a prize mathematician to see that they are not winning too many top prizes but going for smaller races. Chris and his trainer Alistair Lidderdale buy cheap horses from claimers and sellers, looking for sound handicappers they can run on a regular basis. Currently with some 50 to 60 owners in the syndicates, they have around 30 horses but only ten will be running at any one time. To keep the costs down Chris Beek does the pre-training and sends them on to the Lambourn trainer when they are a fortnight off a run. The objective is to get the horses and their owners to the track as often as possible and to give everyone a good time without a massive outlay.

The biggest success so far has been Calico Cat, who was bought for £3,000 and recently sold for £40,000 after collecting winnings of £18,000. ‘He was the first to net us a real profit.’ Chris Beek Racing now has a breeding club, too, allowing members to buy into three mares in foal. For £2,000 they will own 5 per cent of the foal until the end of its two-year-old career — for me a sporting bet. 

The Newbury Super Sprint, always a keen contest, is also about good-value horses. Framed 22 years ago, it is confined to horses sold at auction as yearlings or two-year-olds for £50,500 or less. The weights are allocated so that entrants carry 1lb less for every £3,000 below £50,500 they cost. It has been won by horses as good as Lyric Fantasy and Paris House. Northern trainers have been doing well and it was Tim Easterby’s Body And Soul who won a tight contest with Satsuma on Saturday. First and second were ridden by Duran Fentiman and Nicky Mackay. Neither are names you see in lights but no superstar would have done any better. Stevie Donohoe, too, rode a cracking race on the gutsy Ewell Place to prevail in a three-horse finish to the Great Exhibitions Conditions Stakes and with the Tote paying nearly 10–1 I made enough to replace those blue trousers and buy a new suitcase.