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Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Equinoctial


Horse racing, especially National Hunt racing, is notoriously unpredictable. The Grand National, of which there have been five winners at 100/1, is the most notorious of all, but other prestigious races, such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle, have also featured winners at 33/1, 50/1 and 100/1.


However, the longest-priced winner in British horse racing history came not in a high-profile, ‘championship’ race, but rather in the Grants Whisky Novices’ Handicap Hurdle, an otherwise non-descript event run over 2 miles 6 furlongs at Kelso on November 21, 1990. The winner that day was Equinoctial, who was returned at a starting price of 250/1.

Equinoctial had won a maiden point-to-point at Askeaton in Co. Limerick in February, 1990, when trained by Eric McNamara, but had already passed through the hands of Michael Hourigan and Michael Dods before making his debut, as a five-year-old, for Norman Miller in a novices’ chase at Perth the following September. Sent off 10/1 third choice of the seven runners, he was tailed off as early as the fourth of the eighteen fences and pulled up well before halfway.


On his next start, in another novices’ chase at Southwell a month later, he fell at the first and jumped badly when again tailed off and pulled up at Catterick two weeks later. So, after three starts, and three non-completions, over regulation fences, Equinoctial was put back over hurdles – a sphere in which he had previously finished last of fourteen on his only previous attempt at Ballinrobe two years earlier – at Hexham two weeks later. Ridden for the first time by conditional jockey Andrew Heywood, who claimed 7lb, he did at least complete the course, albeit a respectful 62 lengths behind the winner, Tranquil Waters.


Two weeks later, Equinoctial and Heywood tried again, at Kelso, but with no worthwhile form under Rules and racing from 15lb out of the handicap proper, the gelding was, justifiably, given no earthly chance by the bookmakers. Nevertheless, under 9st 7lb, Equinoctial chased the leaders from the fourth-last flight of hurdles and stayed on under pressure to lead on the run-in and win by 3½ lengths. Aside from a place in the history books, his prize for doing so was just £2,385.


Monday, 21 October 2019

John Francome


John Francome was christened “Greatest Jockey” by erstwhile Channel 4 colleague John McCririck and, while he wasn’t, numerically, the greatest jockey of all time, he was the third most successful in the history of National Hunt racing in Britain. His career total of 1,138 winners, which was a record at the time of his retirement in April, 1985, pales by modern standards, by the fact remains that Francome won the jockeys’ championship seven times; only Peter Scudamore and Sir Anthony McCoy have won more.


Certainly one of the finest jockeys this country has ever produced, Francome also became known for his frankness and relaxed, irreverent sense of a humour. He was never one to take anyone, including himself, too seriously. At a press lunch, he once dubbed Jockey Club stewards ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’ and variously claimed that he rode mainly for the money and that one of the reasons for his sudden retirement, at the age of 32, was that he was fed up with always being hungry.


Francome has the dubious honour of being ‘the best jockey never to win the Grand National’, but he did win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, once, on Midnight Court, in 1978. Trained at Uplands Stables in Upper Lambourn, Berkshire by Fred Winter – whom Francome joined, straight from school, as a 16-year-old apprentice and remained with throughout his career – Midnight Court was a well-fancied 5/2 chance by the time the ‘Blue Riband’ event was run, in April, after being postponed due to snow. Nevertheless, his easy 7-length win over Brown Lad came over something of a relief to Francome, after tabloid allegations of wrongdoing as a result of his friendship with bookmaker John Banks.


Another vintage Francome moment came in the Champion Hurdle in 1981. On that occasion, Francome rode Sea Pigeon, trained by Peter Easterby, who was sent off 7/4 favourite after winning the race the previous year. Although Sea Pigeon was an 11-year-old, in an act of derring do, rode him for a turn of foot, delaying his challenge until halfway up the run-in, before sprinting away to win cosily under hands and heels.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Looking ahead to Champions Day at Ascot

With the smell of autumn in the air and the days rapidly getting shorter, you could be forgiven for thinking that the high days of the horse racing season are behind us. True, the Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot and the Grand National are distant memories. But there is still one important event to come, and it’s at the most famous horse racing venue of them all.


A Royal Event


Champions Day is a relatively new meeting, having been created in 2011 to bring the British flat racing season to a dramatic conclusion. However, it is nevertheless steeped in history, as it brings together several historic races that were previously run at Ascot and Newmarket. 


The showpiece event is the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, a race that has been won by some of the most iconic names in the sport, and has always been the season-closer at Ascot. However, it would be reasonable to say that Champions Day really has two headline races, as the Champion Stakes has just as high a profile, and prior to 2011 was the main event at Newmarket. 


What’s happening this year?


This year, Ascot racecourse will be hosting Champions Day on 19 October. Gates open at 10:30AM, and then it is all action, with the following six races run between 1:30 and 5:00:


  • 1:30PM: British Champions Long Distance Cup


  • 2:10PM: British Champions Sprint


  • 2:45PM: British Champions Fillies and Mares Stakes


  • 3:20PM: Queen Elizabeth II Stakes


  • 4:00PM: Champion Stakes


  • 4:45PM: Balmoral Handicap


There is always a festival atmosphere on Champions Day, and this year will be no exception. If you decide to attend, stay around for the after party, which this year, will be headlined by the inimitable Basement Jaxx.


Past winners


The most famous winner in the eight year history of Champions Day is Frankel. The legendary gelding was a favourite in every sense of the word among horse race betting enthusiasts, with a career that saw him unbeaten in his 14-race career. That included winning the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at the first ever Champions Day in 2011 and coming back the following year to win the Champion Stakes and officially retire undefeated. 


Last year, Roaring Lion was a popular winner in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, winning his fourth Group One race of the season before retiring to stud at the end of the year. Tragically, it was not to be a long retirement and he died of colic in August of this year. 


The Champion Stakes has been won the past two years in succession by Frankie Dettori and Cracksman. Like Finkel before him, Cracksman bade a fond farewell to thousands of fans at the end of the race and retired a winner. 


The stuff of legends


In its eight year history, Champions Day has already been the scene of some of flat racing’s most memorable moments. A record 32,000 people turned out to see Frankel’s crowning glory, and the event has been well attended ever since. If you love flat racing, Champions Day is something you just can’t afford to miss. 

Monday, 16 September 2019

Nijinsky


Nijinsky, in 1970, was first horse since Bahram in 1935, and the last, to complete the so-called ‘Triple Crown’ by winning the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St. Leger and is considered, in some quarters, to have been the greatest racehorse of the twentieth century. Lester Piggott, who rode him throughout his three-year-old campaign, said that, on his day, Nijinsky was the ‘most brilliant’ horse that he’d ever ridden. However, Timeform, the respected ratings organisation, awarded Nijinsky a rating of ‘just’ 138, 7lb inferior to the 1965 Derby winner Sea-Bird.


Owned by American industrialist Charles Engelhard, who bought him on the recommendation of the original ‘Master of Ballydoyle’, Vincent O’Brien, Nijinsky was unbeaten as a juvenile, rounding off his two-year-old campaign with an easy win, for the first time under Piggott, in the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket. He reappeared in the Gladness Stakes, over 7 furlongs, at the Curragh the following April, which he won as a prelude to impressive victories over his own age group in the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and Irish Derby, before taking on his elders in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. In the latter race, Nijinsky was the only three-year-old among the six runners but, sent off at 40/85, never remotely looked in danger of defeat, eventually cruising to an effortless, 2-length victory over the four-year-old Blakeney, who’d won the Derby the year before.


However, preparation for his Triple Crown attempt was interrupted by ringworm, such that, for a time, he could not be saddled, or worked properly. He did make it to Doncaster for the St. Leger but, according to Piggott, “the gleam in his eye was a little dimmed”, a fact that was reflected by his performance in the race. Nijinsky recorded his eleventh consecutive success, but was ultimately all out to hold runner-up Meadowville by half a length, and never won again. He was controversially beaten in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and again in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket, two weeks later, before being retired to stud.