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Muddy marvels to the rescue at Cheltenham

Sunday Times Sport, 27 October 2019

As the big guns of jumping returned to Cheltenham with promises for the winter ahead relentless rain saved Doncaster the debacle of a flat racing ‘Day of Shame’, just six runners in the Group One Futurity and only one not from Aidan O’Brien. It was like having a Grand Prix with five cars from Mercedes against just one from McClaren. It might be laughably newsworthy but it’s not sport.

What a relief to be at Cheltenham where that splendid Welsh hero Tobefair won his ninth race over hurdles for a set of owners at the completely opposite scale to Coolmore and the big flat racing battalions. The 17 members of the Down The Quay Club are so named because they frequent the Cresselly Arms at Creswell Quay just east of Carmarthen and are friends of the original owner Michael Cole who got the horse in exchange for the keep he gave to it and two others as a foal. “Would you believe it, he has now won over £100,000,” said Michael afterwards, “I have always dreamed of that. Perhaps now they will call me the ‘Sheikh Mohammed of jump racing’.”

Tobefair is the greatest tribute yet to the training skills of Debra Hamer who won seven consecutive races with the nine-year-old when he joined her small but sunny yard some ten miles south of Creswell Quay. “He such a big lump that jockeys always said he should go chasing,” she said in that winningly direct Welsh way of hers, “but although he jumped well enough he just would not commit himself in between.”

Tobefair is certainly a burly beast and was apparently fully bullock shaped when he came back from his summer break, but you could not fault him for commitment yesterday. The ground was heavy enough to have required a pre-racing inspection and the third last was dolled off because of the waterlogging which sprayed up as the runners thundered through. On Tobefair Tom Bellamy stalked the pace but needed all his resolution to tackle Sykes at the last and then outbattle the blinkered Sunset Showdown on the run in. This race was a qualifier for the Pertemps Final at the Cheltenham Festival in which Tobefair was second last year and no doubt will be aimed at again.

Champion jockey Richard Johnson had a rare winnerless afternoon but with 74 on the board he once again leads the table in a bid for his fifth championship in this his 26th season. Champion trainers Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson both got on the board, Henderson with the McManus debutant Time Flies By and Nicholls with the talented Quel Destin who returned from his summer break to win for the seventh time in the last 13 months.

Star turn Saint Calvados had also thrived from a summer off and a breathing operation to win the featured Randox Health Handicap Chase in a duel with Vaniteaux up the run in which he would have needed every breath available. “He was brave,” said jockey Gavin Sheehan afterwards, “I was proud of him.” It was an afternoon when remarks like that could lift the heart and invite perhaps unfair comparisons with flat racing’s naturally faster more fickle approach, for jump racing also has its own infinitely generous but competition threatening big battalions .

Last season JP McManus had no less than 160 individual horses running in the UK and an amazing 270 more in Ireland while Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown operation fielded 11 of the 30 runners in the 2018 Irish Grand National. But while both these juggernauts have had a Gold Cup winner in the last ten years, four of the other eight have been won by syndicates, something increasingly unlikely in flat racing where five of the last eight Derbies and four of this year’s five classics have been won by the all-conquering Coolmore team and their extraordinary trainer.

This is not to query their excellence but to suggest that if even massive players like Juddmonte and Godolphin are not prepared to compete, it must be up to the regulator to step in. To return to the Formula One analogy, Mercedes are only allowed two cars in each Grand Prix, so why not extend the same limit to racing? Screams that this would have reduced this year’s Derby field to just eight runners – Coolmore had seven of the 13 starters – can be countered that unless more than six opponents are prepared to turn up for our most famous race it no longer deserves its place in the calendar.

Much of this has been said before, so much hope will be placed on a new player in the game. This summer the former Olympic rower Annamarie Phelps took on the chairmanship of the British Horseracing Association whose task it is to represent and regulate what is still classified as a sport. Naturally, as now in all professional sport, racing now includes a series of linked business interests such as bloodstock, racecourses and bookmaking. But if it is to maintain its profile in the national press and on network TV, the actual racing has to offer real competition in which the public can get involved. Annamarie rowed in the Olympics, this could be just as tough.

Thank the heavens for what they did to Doncaster – and that they can still grant us Cheltenham.