13 April 2003

Racing was rocked to its foundations last week by the Office of Fair Trading’s decision querying the British Horseracing Board’s claim to control of the Fixture List and runners data. At least yesterday showed the rude health of some of those foundations, healthy crowds for Classic trials at Newbury and Thirsk, plus a fairytale result for Ryalux and his trainer in the Scottish National.

Anybody who can get through in this game with the name `A Crook’ deserves all the credit he can get. Andy Crook has battled through much bigger handicaps than his name. As a jockey he lost part of a finger to a man-eating horse called Ubedizzy. As a trainer he lost his job two years ago when his former employer Micky Hammond decided to make a comeback. Twice this season Ryalux has gone close to the big time. Yesterday everything came up right.

But only in the shadow of the post. When Stormez and Tony McCoy went for home on the final turn and then jumped the last fence faster than Ryalux, you would have thought the prize was going back down to Martin Pipe’s groaning sideboard in Somerset. But even when Stormez was a neck up with 50 yards to go, Richie McGrath and Ryalux would not be daunted. The other horse’s lead gave them something to aim at and, in a rousing finish, he forced his big partner past his diminutive opponent.

“I was actually pleased ‘oss made a mistake at last,” the irrepressible Crook said afterwards, “it helped him to have a lead. He has done so well this season that he really deserved this.” Few would deny the bespectacled trainer this day of glory and supporters of other fancied runners had few hard-luck stories.

The unbeaten Sir Frosty forfeited his long journey from the West Country by falling early on. Sudden Shock never looked like continuing Barry Geraghty’s Grand National winning luck. Shotgun Willy threatened for a while but weakened from the final turn, and while Gunther McBride gave Richard Johnson the sort of nightmare ejector unseat that looks bad on video when still closeish at the second-last, his untidy jumping had already all but ruined his chance.

The four miles, one furlong of the Scottish National seems to take about 10 laps of the Doonside track, so there always seems to be much more action than the distance demands. Nonetheless, its eight-and-a-quarter minute journey was still some five times the duration of the Classic trials, the results of which once again got racing hacks into their best Sherlock Holmes mode.

Tante Rose won the fillies’ (Fred Darling Stakes) and Muqbil the colts’ (Greenham) trials at Newbury. The question we have to ask is just how meaningful Tante Rose and Muqbil can be in the Guineas considering their respective trainer’s publicly-stated reservations. Tante Rose’s problem is not speed but stamina. She positively winged home from the Michael Stoute-trained Crystal Star and the experienced Rag Top. But this over seven furlongs. Newmarket’s extra 220 yards could test her. “She didn’t seem to stay first time last year,” said trainer Barry Hills, “but she has done this well so she has to take her chance and anyway this race was a landmark.” It was indeed, the 2,500th winner since this most dapper of trainers took out a licence in 1969; a lot of horses, a huge history of success.

Some sleuths have touted stable-companion Gemiani as Tante Rose’s superior but Hills reported that for all her potential she is, at present, not as forward as yesterday’s winner and might well miss the Guineas at Newmarket. “I’m not going to force her,” said the trainer. “If she comes in time for Newmarket, she comes. Otherwise this will make a very good second-string.”

A slightly similar reservation arose when John Dunlop’s rather unimpressive-looking little chesnut Muqbil quickened sharply past Zafeen and Mister Links with the much-hoped-for Elusive City fading disappointingly into fifth. The reservation here is that Muqbil was supposed to be a Dunlop Derby horse and even in that preparation he has not been as impressive as the stable’s supplementary Epsom entry, Big Bad Bob.

“He hasn’t excited me that much this spring,” said Dunlop in his candid way, “but I was delighted by the way he settled, travelled and quickened. He will probably have to go to the Guineas but the owner has a nice colt called Maghanin, who runs next week and who might be better.” This is all traditionally confusing stuff for those who try and unravel the Classic trial mysteries.

At the end of the day Michael Stoute saddled a handsome Aga Khan-owned Kalinisi half-brother called Kalaman, who beat a $3.6 million Sheikh Mohammed hope named Act of Duty in the maiden race but today those with pipes and deerstalkers go off to Ireland, where star turn will be Dermot Weld’s unbeaten Refuse To Bend in the Leopardstown 2,000 Guineas Trial.

He is opposed by two Aidan O’Brien apparent lesser lights. It looks like only a win will do.

That has also been the BHB’s attitude to the OFT’s investigation into racing. In the result they didn’t get it, the basic conclusion being that the BHB had claimed rights on fixtures and race-data, which should belong to racecourses. To avoid prolonged confusion it is clearly essential that the racecourses, owners and the BHB find some acceptable compromise. But, as one has so often to say after Classic trials, you would not want to bet on it.

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