Friday, May 25, 2012

A Knight's chivalric retirement

Yesterday Henrietta Catherine Knight called time on a training career that saw her win three consecutive Gold Cups with Best Mate (2002-4) and the 2000 Champion Chase with Edredon Bleu; owned by Jim Lewis, those horses also won the King George VI Chase for her in 2002 and 2003.

Knight came into racing through a somewhat circuitous route.

Having gained her BEd (Oxon) qualification at Westminster College, Oxford, she taught biology and history at St Mary's School, Wantage, before embarking on a career trainng racehorses. Her first winner under rules was The Grey Gunner at Bangor-On-Dee in 1989, Bruce Dowling up; in 1995 she married former jockey Terry Biddlecombe and the partnership went to the very top of the profession, becoming affectionately known as racing's 'Odd Couple'.

In November 2005 stable star Best Mate collapsed and died of a suspected heart attack after being pulled up in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter. The quest to find a replacement was doomed to fail and led to a split with ambitious Jim Lewis.

Biddlecombe suffered a stroke in 2011 - it's Terry's continued ill health that is behind Hen's decision to hand in her licence. The vast majority of horses will transfer to Mick Channon who trains nearby at West Ilsley.

Over the years I came to associate the yard with well-schooled novice chasers, with a preference for using riders you'd lean to calling horsemen rather than jockeys. A couple of personal memories from the gaff tracks ...

Young Warrior (Bruce Dowling) won me some money one sodden New Year's Day at Exeter in the early nineties. There had been a market move for a horse of David Elsworth's, Seven Of Diamonds, and that one came to win the race but took a heavy fall at the last. Young Warrior collected but Seven Of Diamonds spent a fair while on the floor before eventually rising to a round of applause from the enclosures.

Another run that sticks in my mind is that of Blowing Rock (Jim Culloty) in a novices' handicap chase at Hereford in October 1998. We'd taken 9/2 and the horse had jumped well, gaining ground over his opponents at most of the obstacles. Three out Culloty sent the Strong Gale gelding on; the form book reads '... 5 lengths clear and in control when fell last, unlucky...'

Hen is set to have her final runner in next few days; it could be Harvest Song, owned by HRH The Queen, entered up in the 2.30 at Newton Abbot on Wednesday. That would be some finale - in Derby week, Hen Knight trains winner for The Queen - at Newton Abbot!

Friday, May 18, 2012

From the world's best racehorse to Bangor-On-Dee

At York on Wednesday The Fugue called the tune in the Musidora while a day later Dante winner Bonfire brought to mind Dante Alighieri's 14th century epic Inferno. Tomorrow Frankel, officially the best racehorse in the world, returns to action in Newbury's JLT Lockinge Stakes - a race for us all to savour (rather than bet on). It seems hardly plausible that four weeks ago his career was rumoured to be in serious doubt.

Having said that, I've been trying to find winners at Bangor... I still haven't quite recovered from not having taken an interest in an old favourite of mine, Hills Of Aran, who obliged at odds of 66/1 in the three mile handicap hurdle at Ludlow last night. So, the fallback plan was to have a good look at Sir Johnson on his hurdling debut at Aintree this evening but he's been taken out. As a colleague of mine regularly points out, 'racing, it's a game of regrets'.

Here's a couple of wagers I'm likely to regret...

Five of the eight runners in the novice chase (3.10) try regulation fences for the first time. Donald McCain's Golden Call is likely to be sent off favourite - his second to Ambion Wood at Perth reads well although the majority of his form in this country has been at three miles. Kauto Relko clearly posssess ability but didn't look the most reliable of jumpers when winning over course and distance last time while at least Kim Bailey's Mark Twain (by Rock Of Gibraltar!) has some reasonable chase form to his name, finishing third behind All For Free in a Class 3 handicap chase at Ludlow in December. Kim Bailey's charge isn't guaranteed to stay the trip; however, while Golden Call appears the percentage call, at the prices (6/1 in the tissue) I'm going to chance Mark Twain in a race where the favourite has only obliged once in the past seven renewals.

The same stable saddles up Mrs Peachey in the mares' bumper at 4.55 and she has the best form in the book but it's the newcomers that catch the eye. Nicky Henderson has entered Fabrika, Rebecca Curtis (50% strike rate with four wins from eight runs in the past fortnight) Gilded Article and Venetia Williams (31.58%  with six wins from 19 runs in the same timeframe) More Ballet Money. The Sporting Life Verdict makes a decent case for the latter-named, pointing out the mare is by Old Vic, cost £24,000 as a yearling and is the trainer's sole runner on the card; priced up at 14/1 in the tissue, I'll take an each-way interest in More Ballet Money.

Finally in the 4.20 I'll consider each-way terms about George Woolf who has had Richard Johnson in the plate for both his hurdle victories to date. The gelding ran no sort of race last time but is forgiven that run with Johnson back doing the steering - he has place claims at around the 14/1 mark. The good ground should suit and trainer Tim Vaughan boasts a strike rate of 26.09% in the past two weeks with six winners from 23 runners.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Down came the rain

A wet week at the races saw flag starts at Chester, Lingfield's classic trials moved to the all-weather and Saturday's Flat meeting at Warwick replaced with hurdle races (and a concert by The Undertones).

Staff at Warwick could be forgiven for thinking that it never rains but it pours.The course's application to build a 100-bed hotel was refused plannning permission by the local district council, much to the delight of local residents...  According to the Jockey Club, which owns and operates Warwick, the future of the course is now under threat yet earlier in the week the same Jockey Club reported record turnover, record crowds and record prize money contributions.

One who has been sweating up a little this 'shareholder spring' is William Hill CEO Ralph Topping. At the company's AGM on Tuesday 49.9% of shareholders voted against the executive pay deal; Mr Topping landed the spoils, a £1.2 million 'retention bonus', by a nose. Predicatably, opponents are demanding a stewards' inquiry.

One not complaining about the raining is Donald McCain; Ile De Re beat Overturn to give the trainer a 1-2 in Wednesday's Chester Cup. The Tote Exacta paid £139.00 but nobody on course will have collected as there are now no Tote pool betting facilities available at the track. 'Chesterbet' is the replacement offering but TV coverage gave more than a hint that the new service didn't offer the best of value. Channel Four's John Francome looked in a tight spot during Thursday's transmission: he was clearly disappointed with the return on a winning wager but intimated that the vast majority of punters at the track want to do two things - bet on a horse and watch it run. He went on to assert that they're not that bothered whether they get 4/1 or 6/1. Well, I think that one's open to some discussion...  Of course, none of this was a bother to Donald McCain who followed up his Chester Cup triumph by landing the Swinton at Haydock on Saturday with Red Merlin.

Finally, at a windswept Carlisle station last week, I absent-mindedly picked up a leaflet entitled 'Back A Winner - take the train and go racing for less!' The offer, from First TransPennine Express and Northern Rail, gives a discount of £2 off a £5 toteplacepot bet and up to £4 off entry to selected northern racecourses. A number of conditions need to be satisfied to claim your discount vouchers so, if you're interested, make sure your lawyer has a free five minutes before checking out the details... ;)

Friday, May 04, 2012

Guineas weekend at Newmarket

The focus shifts to the Flat now.

Cards on the table - I don't follow the Flat particularly closely, so those tempted may want to think again before jumping in feet first...

Eighteen have been declared for the 204th running of the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket where the going is currently described as soft and, according to layers, Aidan O'Brien's Camelot appears something of a shoo-in at around the 7/4 mark. Indeed Ladbrokes, who have long been rumoured to possess an 'inside line' to Ballydoyle, stand out from their competitors by offering just even money.

Those looking to oppose may be interested in Timeform's view that both Trumpet Major and Caspar Netscher are more highly rated. Caspar Netscher isn't guaranteed to stay a mile but is overpriced at 25/1, a point made by Topspeed, Dave Edwards, in the Weekender. Trumpet Major looked an impressive winner of the Craven while Power and French Fifteen are two others I've considered. The percentage each-way call is Power (12/1 Coral) who on official ratings is the top-rated animal in the field and won on soft ground at The Curragh last September.

I just wonder what affect, if any, the draw may have...

No selection put up for Sunday's 1000 Guineas but those interested in playing may find the Timeform ratings a decent starting point...