I have never been one for system betting but one little piece of guidance returns to my mind at the start of every year: back Nicky Henderson’s horses at Kempton in the run-up to the Cheltenham Festival. His runners always do well at the Thameside track, although that is not the only reason why the champion trainer has promised to chain himself to the earthmovers if the Jockey Club perseveres with its shameless plan to sell off the course for housing. Like me he simply cannot see any sense in destroying one of the fairest venues for quality jumping, home of the iconic Boxing Day sporting event the King George VI Chase, won four times by Desert Orchid and five times by Kauto Star. If Kempton Park didn’t exist, it would be just the kind of course the Jockey Club should be inventing — a fast-draining level track within easy access of the motorway and an easy rail journey from central London. Should it come to it, I will happily chain myself next to Nicky on those bulldozer blades.
If some were surprised not to see the Lambourn maestro at Kempton on Lanzarote Hurdle Day last Saturday, he did have a pretty good excuse. He was up in Scotland marrying his long-time partner Sophie Waddilove. Congratulations to them, although I hope Nicky wasn’t checking his phone. Kempton’s clerk of the course Barney Clifford couldn’t resist sending him a text that morning which read, ‘Since you are safely out of the way, the bulldozers have moved in.’
It was assistant trainer Toby Lawes who presided over a business-as-usual day at Kempton for the Seven Barrows yard. First the powerful Chef Des Obeaux, stepped up to three miles, strode away from his field under Noel Fehily in the three-mile hurdle. He’ll surely win another before becoming a classy chaser. Then this season’s wunderkind James Bowen, already snapped up at only 16 to join the Seven Barrows team, rode a clever race just a week after his success in the slogathon of the Welsh Grand National on Raz de Maree to take the hotly contested Lanzarote Handicap Hurdle on William Henry. ‘He’s an another AP,’ said the delighted Dai Walters, owner of the winner, while Toby Lawes noted: ‘He has an exceptional racing brain.’ Finally, the fitting of blinkers enabled the previously frustrating Jenkins to demonstrate on the racecourse the promise he has long shown at home to collect the final two-mile hurdle in the hands of long-time Henderson ally David Bass. With a victory at Warwick, too, for Mr Whipped, the Hendersons were not short of wedding presents.
This is proving a heartening season for new blood. While James Bowen was once again underlining his talent at Kempton, his fellow 5lb-claimer Bryony Frost, tipped here as the jockey to watch this season, once again demonstrated her instinctive horsemanship by leading most of the way to win the Warwick Classic on Neil King’s Milansbar, not always the easiest of rides and another who responded well to the application of blinkers for the first time.
Back at Kempton, we may too have seen the best horse in the north in the shape of Malcolm Jefferson’s seven-year-old Waiting Patiently. On a horse already unbeaten in four chases Brian Hughes bided his time before quickening after the last to win the 32Red Casino Chase from some well-established performers by eight lengths. Daughter and assistant trainer Ruth Jefferson was not getting carried away and insisted that the stocky winner is a soft-ground horse who is unlikely to be performing at the Cheltenham Festival unless the ground is at the very least good to soft. ‘He won’t run on good and the weather gods are out of my control.’
Another significant victory on an informative day at Kempton was that of Mercian Prince for Newmarket trainer Amy Murphy, who started at her Hamilton Road Newmarket yard only in the autumn of 2016. Daughter of breeder Paul Murphy, Amy used to ride out for Nicky Henderson and Dr Richard Newland. She had spells as pupil assistant and then assistant trainer with Tom Dascombe and Luca Cumani, where she used to ride King George winner Postponed, as well as working experience in Australia with Gai Waterhouse. (I sometimes wonder if there are any aspiring young trainers in Britain who haven’t done a spell with the much-admired Ms Waterhouse.) Mercian Prince had hated the ground when running previously at Aintree and was given a nice confidence-restoring ride by Jack Quinlan who deserves to pick up more mounts than those of the few jumping trainers in Newmarket for whom he does plenty of hard work. With a dozen jumpers, and 16 for the Flat, the bubbling Amy is well placed for take-off and I am sure there are more races to be won with Mercian Prince as well as the stable star Kalashnikov. Says his trainer: ‘He’s such a good traveller that he needs a strong pace and as he goes up in company it will only help him.’