Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was once challenged with the story that for their wedding anniversary treat he had taken his wife to a Rochdale match. ‘Sheer nonsense,’ he replied. ‘It was her birthday. Would I have got married during the football season? And anyway it was Rochdale Reserves.’
Shankly may have taken it to extremes, but there is a man/woman thing over sport. Women simply cannot register its importance, not even the saintly Mrs Oakley. Having missed the last race at Sandown on Saturday to drive 90 minutes back to Oxfordshire in time to pick her up from the station, I thought I would be doing OK, brownie points-wise. I was rapidly proved wrong. We arrived home just in time for the second half of England v. France in Paris; for me, watching England rugby internationals comes somewhere between a druggie’s deep craving and a sacred duty. It was made very clear that it was my equally sacred duty to converse immediately and at length with Mrs O. on her doings in the capital. I was lucky that my whisky and water later didn’t come laced with battery acid, and I was only fully restored to favour after volunteering the next morning to clean the mud off her Nordic walking boots.
At Sandown my focus had been very much on my sporting woman of the moment, the in-form Herefordshire trainer Venetia Williams. Given her penchant for full-throated fast cars and the eternal elegance of her racecourse outfits, you might expect Venetia to specialise in producing the sleekest of speedsters on the Flat. Instead, she has an outstanding record in turning out tuned-to-the-minute hefty steeplechasers, especially those who seem to revel in the soft and heavy ground that has been the norm this season.
With that in mind, I went for her Saroque at 100–30 in the opening race and collected my betting money for the day as he led all the way to score impressively. I also had a little each way on her candidate in the West Wales National at Ffos Las, Emperor’s Choice, although I made the mistake of backing him at starting price, which turned out to be 9–2 instead of the 9–1 available in the morning.
That we were racing at all at Sandown was much to the credit of the adaptable course executive. The hurdles course was waterlogged, so the day before they and sponsors Betfred had produced a rejigged racecard of six chases, including a couple restricted to veterans of nine, ten or over. Trainers interested in the three tasty new £15,000-to-the-winner chases had to move swiftly to get their entries in, and few are as on the ball as Venetia Williams.
Considering she had just won a race that didn’t exist two days before, we asked her after Saroque’s novice-chase success how she had been able to get her horse ready. Came the sensible reply: ‘With horses at this level you are training them to be able to take opportunities as and when they occur.’ It was no coincidence that precisely a year before when the weather had ravaged Sandown’s track she had won another late-substitute race with Kapka de Cerisy, like Saroque in the ownership of Andrew Brooks. Fast in her cars, fast on her feet. Perhaps it is appropriate that the sponsor of the Williams yard, which seems currently to turn out soft-ground winners at will, rejoices in the name of South Wales Shower Supplies T/A Faucets.
My only regret was not backing more of Venetia’s mudlarks. At Sandown she and stable jockey Aidan Coleman not only took another of the substitute races, the Betfred Mobile Veterans’ Handicap, with the ten-year-old Aachen, but also collected one of the original events, the Betfred Masters Handicap Chase, with Relax. I ignored Aachen in the veterans’ chase because it was only his second race after a two-year absence, and although the form of Venetia’s horses had me reaching for my wallet to have a little each way on Relax in the fifth, I slapped myself on the wrist and put it back, saying that I must stick to my original selection. Pity, he was 11–1 at the time.
The £15,000 substitute races brought another shrewd woman to the winners’ enclosure. Carol Lee, wife of Presteigne trainer Richard, said after a run-in scrap between their Grey Gold and Donald McCain’s Desert Cry, ‘Though not all horses do, he loves this ground. He is very fragile because of his legs and that means we can usually only run him two or three times a season. We have to wrap him in cotton wool and once it dries up you won’t see him.’ During the race and its preliminaries, Sandown had been illuminated by one of the most vivid rainbows I have ever seen. I ventured to suggest to Mrs Lee that with Grey Gold’s fragile legs we had for once seen the ‘crock of gold’ at the foot of the rainbow, although I, of course, had backed McCain’s Desert Cry.
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