Robin Oakley

The turf: Paintball by number

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The first I heard of the recent death of Norman St John Stevas was from a questioner after I had delivered a lecture on Margaret Thatcher aboard a liner off the Chilean coast. What came immediately to mind was the story of Mrs T. dispatching one of their fellow Cabinet ministers to tell Norman that he really must stop his dreadful name-dropping. The emissary, I believe it was Chris Patten, duly delivered the message. Lord St John, as he was to become, theatrically clutched his brow and said, ‘Oh, my dear, you’re absolutely right. That’s just what the Queen Mother was telling me last night.’

The foppish Norman never was going to last too long in the Cabinet of the Leaderene, as he called her, not after the day he begged leave to depart early from an afternoon Cabinet committee session to get dressed for a Royal Academy dinner. ‘But Norman,’ she countered, ‘I’m going to the same event and I’m not leaving yet.’ ‘Ah, yes, Prime Minister, but it takes me so much longer to dress than it does you.’

Whatever else he lacked, Norman did have style, something this week’s fortnightly column will inevitably lack as it has to be submitted before the Cheltenham Festival to be read by most only after the conclusion of the year’s best racing event. Apologies, too, that my earlier top tip for the Festival, Fingal Bay, won’t have figured, having pulled a hamstring while I was in South America.

For those who read this on Friday, however, do take a look and see if Paintball, winner of the Imperial Cup Hurdle at Sandown last Saturday, has got into that day’s County Hurdle, for which, as I write, he is available at 10–1. Readers will have noted that this column has lately been extolling the virtues of the advancing Charlie Longsdon, Paintball’s trainer. After the Imperial he was full of Tiggerish bounce: ‘Last weekend was our biggest winner ever (Up To Something’s win in the £50,000 UBS Hurdle); now we have bettered that. We will be going to Cheltenham with a smile on our face.’

As I had predicted, this is a yard now moving from winners of lesser races in quantity (this was victory number 56) to picking up some quality contests. Paintball ran decently at Cheltenham last year and had a wind operation in December. So many horses come on for these operations to ease their breathing that I keep a special watch for them. Like blinkers worn for the first time they often produce a significant advance on previous performance and so I had a few shillings on Paintball, who paid £27.50 to £1 on the Tote. The only thing that would worry me at Cheltenham is whether Paintball, who was beautifully ridden by Noel Fehily, suffers the ‘bounce factor’, which often seems to afflict horses who run well after a layoff. Next time out they sometimes disappoint before resuming winning ways although quite why the experts never seem able to tell me.

If he wins the County Hurdle, Paintball will collect an extra bonus prize of £75,000 from sponsors Paddy Power for winning both the Imperial and a Cheltenham Festival race. For me he has already provided punting funds for the week and as his trainer says, ‘He isn’t big but he is tough.’

If I am too late to give you any Cheltenham hints then I can at least look further ahead to the bet365 (sic) Chase, Sandown’s big end of season event, which could provide a popular success for a small stable. Some are smaller than others: Mary Hambro’s jumping string consists of just one animal, Dover’s Hill, who won the handicap chase there by a neck last Saturday after leading all the way in the hands of near-neighbour Sam Twiston-Davies. Says his trainer, whose family has long associations with the Esher track, ‘He gets a hell of a shock when he comes to the races, at home he never sees another horse.’ With the lack of galloping companions, Mary Hambro trains her sole chaser by the clock: clearly the intensively schooled Dover’s Hill is thriving on the individual attention. Given good ground he is a lively prospect for the bet365. Like Cheltenham, another course with a tough rising finish, Sandown is one of those tracks that some horses like and others clearly don’t.

The other Sandown runner to impress was Alan King’s Call Me A Star, who beat Umadachar by a neck in the DBS/EBF mares’ bumper. My money was on Umadachar but you couldn’t really grudge the Barbury Castle yard its success. In the previous six runnings of the race, Alan had saddled four seconds and one third. It looked as though his candidate was booked for a place spot once again as Call Me A Star hit every kind of traffic problem two furlongs out, but Choc Thornton somehow wriggled her clear and she always looked like winning the battle for top spot. She will now be targeted at Aintree’s Grand National meeting run and the second will be worth watching out for too.