As flat racing signed off with a controversial Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster, a new style Cheltenham hoisted the flag for jumping already six months into its 2015 -2016 season.
Unsung it may have been unheralded it should not be, for some mighty things have been happening while most of us looked the other way, most mighty from Richard Johnson. Two decades on from being champion conditional and freed at last from the towering shadow of A.P. McCoy to whom he was 15 times runner up in the championship, Richard has already booted home 107 winners, 33 clear of his nearest pursuer.
He had the 100 up ten days ago, rode a four timer at Carlisle on Thursday, and if winners escaped yesterday there was no mistaking his smiling intent. “Everything has gone very well,” he said wiping the mud from his cheeks, “and obviously I have to stay in one piece. But although I am 38 I feel in better shape than ever.” With his equable, farmer’s son temperament and magnificent un-wasted physique, Richard is on course to land not just a championship but a double century of his own.
If Johnson’s position at the head of the jockeys’ list was to be expected, the trainers’ leader is more of a surprise. In this last week of October the table is not headed by Nicholls, Pipe or Henderson, but by John Ferguson who moonlights or rather “early dawns” as a jumps trainer whilst masterminding Sheikh Mohammed’s world wide flat race and chairing Falcon Associates a company central to Dubai’s marketing arm. He trained Devilment to win the second at Cheltenham yesterday. It was his 61st winner of a season, not bad for a 50 horse stable.
Of course he has the inestimable advantage that Devilment, like most of his horses, started life as one of Sheikh Mohammed’s classic hopes. For instance Parlour Games, who ran third on his chasing debut later in the afternoon was out of the dual Oaks winner Petrushka. Yet while Ferguson may have been dealt the cards, moving the more fragile flat racer into the rougher demands of the jumping game still takes skill and understanding and to deliver this at a 40% strike rate is a high achievement by any standard.
Best of all it has been done with a smile. “I just love it,” says what must be the best organized man in racing, “I am with the jumpers until 10.30 every morning and in that time I can see all the horses and make the plans. I have a great staff and I don’t see why these horses should not progress through the season.”
Signs that the big battalions would soon resume their accustomed positions at the head of the table came with winners for both Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson later in the day. Paul’s ex-French Art Mauresque powered clear of Parlour Games in the Novice Chase and Nicky’s Towering got the best of a blanket finish in the handicap hurdle.
To win a competitive race on this stage at this time of the season is good for any jockey. To win it, as Nico de Boinville did, when the principal role at Nicky Henderson’s is up for grabs, is even better. Nico’s 44 winners last term included the Gold Cup on Coneygree. Yesterday put him already on 22. Many more will come.
Meanwhile up at Doncaster, Frankie Dettori’s golden resurgence of a season hit a jarring note when he was completely trapped in traffic on the hot favourite Foundation in the Racing Post Trophy. Whilst the 33-1 shot Marcel swept clear on the outside Frankie couldn’t get to work until the race was over. Bookmakers still hold Foundation as short as 16-1 for next year’s Derby. Not everyone was too happy with Dettori and as the colt’s owners include Sir Alex Ferguson, one hopes that the great man did not resort to the “hair dryer”.
But as the autumn sun dipped away over Gloucester there was no doubt that the biggest winner of the afternoon was a racecourse. Over three years and £45 million Cheltenham have rebuilt and reconfigured to produce something quite exceptional. Over the years, god help me, I have been, to all the major tracks around the world and it is not home prejudice to say that I don’t believe anything now beats what is now offered behind it’s unique Cotswolds to Malvern Hills backdrop. Get there when you can.