As part of the after-dinner entertainment on a cruise ship recently, I encountered a couple of comedians. One claimed he had recently shared a booking with a topless ventriloquist. I bet nobody saw her lips move.
What was noticeable in both acts, given the seaborne clientele, was the concentration on jokes about ageing, like the chap whose wife, after five gins, undresses back in the cabin, looks in the mirror and bursts into tears, lamenting that she’s got a double chin, her boobs have dropped and everything is sagging: ‘Say something, Henry, to cheer me up.’ ‘Well there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight, love.’
Afloat or ashore, life reaches a point when you start taking particular enjoyment from the achievements of sporting veterans and this year’s Shergar Cup cheered me for precisely that reason.
In Ascot’s August showpiece, four teams of three jockeys representing England and Ireland, Europe, the Rest of the World and ‘The Girls’ compete in six races riding horses drawn by lot. The advantage for trainers whose horses participate is that the prize money is good (£30,000 for each race with a prize for all ten finishers) and there are no entry fees. All they lose is the chance to select their own jockey.
For racegoers, the attraction is seeing riding stars from around the world competing for the ‘Silver Saddle’. This year they included Rosie Napravnik, a 25-year-old from the USA who has ridden 1,600 winners including a Classic and a Breeders Cup race. Last year alone her earnings were $12 million. With her in the Girls team were Lisa Allpress, a New Zealander who took her country’s jockeys title last season, and the UK-based Cathy Gannon, deputising for the injured Hayley Turner.
The red-headed Napravnik was rapidly adopted by the UK media and has clearly, in her short career, ridden through all the gender questions. Yes, she says, it was harder at the start to make the grade as a woman jockey. Her first trainer advised her just to use her initials (AR for Anna Rose) on the racecard, but now she is up there in America’s top five she reckons her gender gets her much welcome attention.
In the first race, she kept Redact out wide but could finish only fourth. In the second, her mount Softsong took a strong hold early on and finished only ninth out of ten. Her next mount, Judge’n’Jury, was only one place better in eighth, and in the fourth race Gary Moore’s Jupiter Storm challenged half a mile out but then faded to eighth.
We had to wait until the sixth and final race for Rosie Napravnik to look like winning. Riding the 3–1 favourite Noble Deed for the in-form William Haggas, Rosie must have had the Ascot executive salivating as she drove her mount into the lead a furlong out. The vital publicity photos for the US media would have been framing before their eyes. But then the 8–1 shot Annunciation, seemingly without a prayer at halfway, came and nailed her on the line. Ironically Annunciation was ridden by Rosie’s now 50-year-old compatriot Gary Stevens, back in racing after a seven-year retirement.
It was the veterans’ day all round, typified by the England/Ireland team captain Kieren Fallon’s effort on Homeric in the second race. Shuffled back in a messy contest he quietly worked his way back into contention then drove up the outside and just edged past Gerald Mosse at the end. At 46 Kieren is riding as well as ever.
Mosse, another 46-year-old who was beaten a neck by Fallon in that race, said that he had heard Kieren coming. Riding Royal Skies in the fourth, the mile and a half Classic, he heard him coming once again. But you don’t mug Gerald Mosse twice. This time he waited longer and when Fallon made his effort on Bushel the Frenchman had enough left to repel him by half a length.
That victory, plus two seconds and a third, gave Mosse, the most courteous and sporting of the top French riders, the Silver Saddle. Given all the moaning about British racing, it was good to hear such a truly international jockey say that he would rather be at Ascot than almost anywhere in the world: ‘There is a great atmosphere, good horses and a good crowd. It’s one of the advantages of being mature — you get to come here and do this many times.’ The 50-years-mature Gary Stevens drove the point home nicely with his last race victory. Maturity brings a bonus, but the key is still wanting it.
As for the Girls, it wasn’t their day. Apart from Rosie Napravnik’s disappointment, Cathy Gannon got herself demoted from third to fourth for careless riding in the two-miler, which was also a race Lisa Allpress will want to forget. Despite being on a proven stayer, the New Zealander stayed out at the back far too long and made her effort far too late. Apart from that, the stewards gave her a seven-day ban for using her whip above the permitted level and without giving her mount time to respond.
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