The mission was simple: take a load of garden refuse to the council dump and be back in time to drive Mrs Oakley to an urgent appointment in Oxford. On my return, there was no Mrs Oakley in sight. Strange, since she is the sort who will camp out at the station the evening before to catch a 9 a.m. train. She had a house key; I didn’t.
Half an hour of fretting later, as I mounted a ladder to peer through the bathroom window for fear she might have slipped over and knocked herself out, an enraged Mrs Oakley appeared beneath me. She had frozen stiff on the nearby bridge, where she had walked to cut me off on the only route home to save us motoring time. How could I have been so stupid not to have seen her, she inquired, employing a vocabulary distinctly richer than I had known her to possess. How could she have been so blind not to have seen me pass, I replied with equal acidity. Well, probably with added acidity.
It was only after several minutes of such marital pleasantries that we both realised what had happened. The back gate of Oakley Towers, through which I had returned, is not visible from the front door. Mrs O. had clearly left through that front door to intercept me down the road at the precise second I drove in at the back. As we constantly see on the racecourse, timing is everything.
It was perfect timing last Saturday when that true gent of a jockey Jimmy Fortune announced his retirement after cleverly riding his old boss John Gosden’s Nathra into a valuable third place in the Group One Sun Chariot Stakes, significantly increasing her value. As the Racing Post put it: the ever-dependable Fortune, who has been plagued by back trouble, was a Group One jockey going out in a Group One. Much better than departing after a Wolverhampton seller on a soggy Tuesday.
Certainly you will not see a sweeter bit of timing than young Charlie Bishop’s ride on Accidental Agent to bring home his first Ascot winner in the valuable Totescoop6 Challenge Cup, a Heritage handicap. As Accidental Agent’s orange cap began scything through the field, and as he held off the late challenge of the grey Lord Glitters, a £270,000 import from France, the lady in front of me in the stands began screaming him on at the top of her voice, jumping up and down with a force that could have split the concrete. It was Accidental Agent’s trainer Eve Johnson Houghton, who is having a phenomenal season, egging on the handsome three-year-old. If ever sheer force of will and waves of emotion could have brought home a horse a winner, Eve’s performance would have done it, but Charles Bishop had timed his challenge perfectly anyway. Having invested myself on Accidental Agent at 20-1, I added to the shouting, although I passed on the jumping.
For the country’s leading woman Flat trainer, this one was special. Accidental Agent is owned and was bred by her mother, who was equally moved by the success, although I don’t think she heard Eve saying later that Mum could use the £112,000 prize to pay for the horses she has just been buying at the sales.
Accidental Agent has done the Johnson Houghtons well already, winning an £81,000 sales race at Newmarket on the same day last year, but there is clearly more to come in Listed and Group races in 2018. The only nasty moment came when Eve realised, after ferrying buckets of water to Accidental Agent in the winners’ enclosure, that she had lost her handbag. Fortunately, it reappeared soon after, having been retrieved by her mother.
They have been having a wonderful year at Woodway Stables in Blewbury on those lush gallops where her father — now, at 77, one of the older assistant trainers in the business — handled such horses as Ribocco, Ribero, Habitat and Ile de Bourbon. With Fulke Walwyn and Peter Walwyn as relatives, it is a family with a formidable racing pedigree. Eve’s grandmother Helen trained the 2000 Guineas winner Gilles de Retz in 1956, in the days when the Jockey Club used to insist that women could not train and their licence had to be held by a man. The success was therefore recorded in the name of her assistant Charles Jerdein, who later became an art dealer in New York, an occupation memorably described by his former employer as ‘selling old masters to old mistresses’.
Accidental Agent’s success was Eve’s 48th of the season, so she is already comfortably ahead of her previous record of 41. And she has been doing it with all sorts, including my favourite, the consistent veteran What About Carlo. It really is time that some of the big owners with hefty cheque books started sending her some horses with Classic potential. They would not regret it.