Three personalities dominated the Flat season: Gosden, Dettori and Golden Horn. Victories for the trio in the Derby, the Irish Champion Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe ensured that John Gosden, a true ambassador for the sport, once again won the trainers’ championship, a title determined by the value of victories won. Frankie Dettori was not champion jockey and never again will be: that title (who needs logic in racing?) is determined by the number of winners ridden and deservedly went to the hardworking Brazilian Silvestre de Sousa. What Dettori did was to demonstrate that he is still as good as anybody when it comes to the flair, the judgment and the sheer balls needed on the big occasions. He had a point to make after being dropped by Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation in 2013 and temporarily running off the rails, and he has made it. Ironically, de Sousa too had been dropped from the Godolphin team at the end of last season.
Other riders have discovered that accepting retainers can be a mixed blessing and that losing them is not necessarily a disaster: young Harry Bentley, dropped by the Qatari team as its No. 2 rider at the end of last season, showed his character by booting home winners for William Haggas, Hugo Palmer, Ralph Beckett, Henry Candy and others and moving significantly up the table.
Andrea Atzeni decided at the end of the year to jump ship as the Qatari No. 1 while the team’s replacement for Bentley, Oisin Murphy, has struggled to retain the prominence he enjoyed the previous year when winning the apprentice title with Andrew Balding. Retained riders may enjoy a financial cushion but they have to go where they are told and don’t always find themselves at the big meetings where they can pick up eye-catching rides.
It has been a good year for those of you brave enough to invest in our Twelve to Follow, now moving into its 21st year. The Flat twelve ran on 42 occasions and knocked up ten victories between them. Remarkably, had you invested a tenner on each occasion you would now be sitting on a profit of £328. Our best contributor was Robert Cowell’s sprinter Goldream, who followed up his 20–1 victory in the Group One King’s Stand Stakes at Ascot with a 15–2 triumph in the Prix de L’Abbaye at Longchamp. David O’Meara’s Algar Lad scored a handy 14–1 victory at York and Denis Coakley’s Miss Marjurie won at 7–1 at Haydock. Mecca’s Angel was a Group One winner too in the Nunthorpe at 15–2 having already won at 4–1. If only she had had the soft going she needs and run more often in the top sprints. Academy House, Elm Park, Forgotten Rules and Igider also contributed to our pot while our trainer to follow, Hugo Palmer, did us proud with a string of Group victories and a Classic.
So where can we look for some winners over jumps? Among the novice hurdlers David Pipe’s Champers On Ice looks hot but is unlikely to be available at a working man’s price so let us go for Neil Mulholland’s Shantou Village, victor of a Carlisle contest by 19 lengths, Philip Hobbs’s Perform, an Aintree winner, and Warren Greatrex’s Duke des Champs.
My long-term hopes for the Grand National are Saint Are, Broadway Buffalo and The Druid’s Nephew but I won’t include them because National preparations don’t always give good punting opportunities.
Chasers who should give us rewards through the season are David Pipe’s Vieux Lion Rouge, Tom George’s God’s Own, Paul Nicholls’s Ptit Zig and Tom Symonds’s Kaki De La Pree. Among the novices Harry Fry’s Fletcher’s Flyer and Dan Skelton’s Value At Risk should prove worth following.
To them we must add the Evan Williams-trained Padge. Ridden by the ever dependable Paul Moloney in a truly testing 2m 3f race at Ascot recently, in which Paul Nicholls’s Anatol set a scorching pace, Padge came to the lead at the last and held on despite veering left and precipitating a stewards’ inquiry. When I remarked to Evan afterwards that he’d been quite pricey at £160,000 he smiled and said, ‘One day you’ll be telling me that was a bargain.’ Padge, he said, has the inestimable benefit of patient owners who have had to wait for Padge’s mind to catch up with his impressive engine. He’s been around a long time now but I make Evan my trainer to watch this season. He usually finds a good one for the National and he never hypes his horses. The jockey to watch? Nico de Boinville, emerging as Nicky Henderson’s top choice.
For the mares’ races Oliver Sherwood is sweet on his Legend Lady, a narrow choice over Warren Greatrex’s Hannah’s Princess, and the final place in the Twelve goes to a slightly more uncertain prospect, Dan Skelton’s Robin of Locksley. I watched him at Cheltenham behind the impressive Penglai Pavilion and I am sure that if they can stop him pulling his jockey’s arms out he is bound to win races.