With shorter days and leaves falling, I begin to itch for the more sporting, less obviously commercial world of jump racing. But Newbury’s classy card last Saturday, sponsored for the 24th year by Dubai Duty Free, proved the perfect reminder that the Flat too can provide character, good humour and success for the small battalions.
Eric Alston started as an apprentice jockey on two shillings and sixpence a week and began his training career in 1981 while a dairy farmer rising at 4 a.m. for milking. Plying his trade on the outskirts of Preston he is hardly in fashionable racing territory but anybody who loves the sport knows that he can win with cheap horses and that he has had some very decent sprinters through his hands. Remember Tedburrow, bought for £6,000, who won 21 races in the UK, Dubai, Italy and Hong Kong? Then there was Reverence who came to Alston as an unraced four-year-old and went on to earn a cool half-million.
On Saturday he brought owner-breeder Con Harrington’s Maid In India down to Newbury for the Group Three Dubai International Airport World Trophy and on ground that did not suit she came home at 12-1, half a length clear of the favourite Dakota Gold. Afterwards Maid In India’s softly spoken trainer revealed that the mare is almost blind in her left eye and may have to have it removed. She has to be given drops to stop ulcers forming which have to be discontinued six days before racing to avoid contravening drug regulations. ‘I was praying for rain,’ he said. ‘Though the ground is never as hard here I would have been happy to be in the first three. As it is I’m ecstatic.’ Talking about the race afterwards, Willie Carson, the former champion jockey, told me that he had ridden several one-eyed horses to success: ‘Funnily enough they always seem to have the rail on their blind side.’
No PR man, Eric Alston has never been the sort to go begging for horses and is down to just a dozen stable inmates. ‘I could do with a couple more,’ he acknowledged. Lancashire owners would be wise to take note.
Maid In India was cleverly ridden by Jamie Spencer who was in the saddle when the popular seven-year-old veteran Desert Encounter, trained by David Simcock, won the Dubai Duty Free Legacy Cup with the late swoop so characteristic of his jockey. Desert Encounter will shortly head for the Woodbine International in Canada that he won last year and his trainer was candid. ‘That was perfect. We came here knowing that he would be a little bit in need of the run but he is the sort of horse who needs one race to take him into another. This was always going to do him good and Jamie looked after him.’
Some have suggested that Spencer, whose pale face might more appropriately adorn someone earning a living in darkened snooker halls rather than out in the open air riding half-ton horses, has been having a quiet season. Simcock scotched that nonsense. ‘I am very fortunate to use him. He knows as much about this horse as I do. He is a very important part of the team, riding work for several days of the week. When my horses come right he does well, before that he sometimes has to sit and suffer. Jamie is hungrier than ever and he is riding as well as ever.’
Simcock is a realist, acknowledging that Desert Encounter, who has run in some mighty Group Ones, struggles at that level in Europe but comes alive as he has done this season tackling Group Three company at Goodwood, Windsor and now Newbury once again. He is also a man of becoming modesty. Urged by the photographers to pose with his winner, he refused politely, saying: ‘I never do photos.’ When I asked him why he replied, ‘That’s not my place’: such moments are for others like owners and the horse’s lad. When it emerged in conversation that he, like me, is a devotee of the not-always-top-of-the-table Worcestershire county cricket side I realised why Simcock is the right man to be handling a horse like Desert Encounter. Patience in such cases is everything.
Another man with that quality is Roger Varian, whose Pierre Lapin took the feature race of the day, the Dubai Duty Free Mill Reef Stakes, in the hands of Andrea Atzeni. After Pierre Lapin had won a Haydock race in May, he looked like a potential Royal Ascot star but his trainer realised that it had taken a lot out of him and wasn’t satisfied until this month that he had him back in prime condition. It wasn’t quite so easy as the ‘early to bed with a pot of chamomile tea’ that ensured Peter Rabbit’s recovery after his adventures in Mr McGregor’s garden — but Pierre Lapin has clearly begun to flourish again and he demonstrated that by winning his race with real style over the last 150 yards.