You don’t realise how much your pleasures mean until you are denied them. It was wonderful to get back on a racecourse for Hennessy Day at Newbury even if my two sticks proved an encouragement to every acquaintance to engage at length about the hip replacements endured by their nearest and dearest. Even worse was the speculation about what had caused my problem. One even recalled me dancing on a tapas bar table at a BBC political staff Christmas party. How the past comes back to haunt you.
I have been feeling haunted by the disappointing show from our Twelve to Follow on the Flat, but fortunately the jumps Twelve are setting things to rights. True, Katenko fell in the Hennessy Gold Cup but at Newcastle The Last Samurai won at 7–2 and Bob Ford ran second at Bangor. The next day, Royal Regatta won a Leicester novice hurdle at evens and Doing Fine had already won for us at 10–1 so things are looking up.
Hennessy Day delivered too, giving us a buffet-table range of racing delights and demonstrating that you don’t have to be a multi-horsepower mega-yard to win. The mares’ novice hurdle went to Don Cantillon’s gutsy As I Am. The Newmarket handler not only trains her, he bred her and owns her, too, and despite the 7lb-claiming apprentice Conor Shoemark not being allowed his allowance by the conditions race, he let him keep the ride. His faith was rewarded by cool judgment as the one-eyed mare led all the way in the hands of her pink-cheeked jockey to beat hotpots from Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins. One day, her trainer admits, As I Am will be for sale and she will be a fine breeding prospect.
The £15,000 Bet 365 handicap chase went to Tatenen, owned by Andy Stewart and his sporting family. Once one of the Paul Nicholls stars at Ditcheat, Tatenen has fragile legs now in the care of ex-jockey Richard Rowe in Sussex. When he is top-notch, he is still a fine performer and he came home eight lengths ahead of Carrigmorna King. The weighing room’s most senior jockey Andy Thornton normally rides Tatenen, but he had commitments elsewhere and Leighton Aspell was in the plate. Ironically, Tatenen used to be his ride before the association with Thornton began. ‘We share our love between our jockeys,’ grinned the trainer. What goes around comes around.
The Stewarts were celebrating again when their old trouper Celestial Halo won the long-distance hurdle for Paul Nicholls. It is always good when prizes go to such great supporters of jump racing and at nine Celestial Halo seems as good as ever. If Big Buck’s stands up to the regime planned by Paul Nicholls to get him back on a racecourse, they will even be prepared to take him on at Cheltenham.
Jockey Barry Geraghty had been urging champion trainer Nicky Henderson to protect Triolo d’Alene’s handicap mark for the Grand National. But the trainer took the bird-in-hand approach and ran him in the Hennessy Gold Cup to triumph in the hotly contested race over Nicholls’s Rocky Creek (another of our Twelve to Follow) at 20–1. They have messed up his handicap mark now, but who cares, said Nicky.
Training performance of the day, however, was that of Alan King in sending out Vendor to win the 2m 3f handicap hurdle. Owned by one of James Stafford’s Thurloe syndicates, Vendor, who had shown real promise as a novice, was a nightmare to train last season. He was tried over fences he would not jump and never showed his form over hurdles. Alan King admitted that Vendor gave him sleepless nights and syndicate members were getting restless, urging that he be sent to another trainer. They gave him three equine MOTs and had his wind improved at Bristol University. But Alan King admitted that he had still been uncertain what would happen on the racecourse. Perhaps he told Vendor before the race what he told us afterwards: ‘If he hadn’t done it today he would have been gone.’ As it is, syndicate members were delighted and heaped praise upon their trainer for working a 16–1 miracle.
The only thing that marred the meeting was the Newbury executive’s decision to refuse entry to the members’ enclosure to men wearing jeans or not wearing a tie and to women wearing skirts shorter than security staff deemed seemly. There is no dress code at Cheltenham for the Festival or at Kempton for the King George. Why on earth should Newbury alienate potential racegoers, especially the young, with such outdated snobbery? Many youngsters pay more for their tailored jeans than I pay for a suit.
Newbury had such rules a few years ago and my son, wearing an £80 scarf, was turned away because he had no tie. I protested and the then chief executive presented him with Newbury neckwear and had the dress code debated and relaxed at the next meeting. The present bunch are digging in their heels instead. Racing will suffer for it.