In sport, winning is everything. Come second and only your parents and the dog remember. Most readers will have forgotten that a month ago I reported that champion jockey Richard Hughes was hugely impressed by Richard Hannon’s Night of Thunder, calling him ‘a machine’ on the gallops. He expected Night of Thunder to win Newbury’s Greenham Stakes and become favourite for the 2,000 Guineas. Instead, the Greenham was won in devastating style by John Gosden’s Kingman with Night of Thunder well beaten in second. I advised readers to back Kingman for the Guineas and did so myself. But, come the day, when I discovered that Night of Thunder was 40–1, I had a saver on him too. Each way those had to be generous odds. To the chagrin of Richard Hughes, who felt he had to ride the stable’s also fancied 7–1 shot Toormore, Night of Thunder scorched home the winner. With the field split into two groups, Kingman led his side home but was in the wrong group.
There was a second reason for my 40–1 saver: Night of Thunder was ridden on the big day by former champion jockey Kieren Fallon, and, although Fallon is now 49, I believe that after a year of decline he is back riding almost as well as ever. It is all about confidence: over recent months Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation, owners of many of the best horses in training, had begun using Fallon not just as an experienced work-rider capable of giving them crucial feedback but as a race-rider too.
Shortly after the Guineas, his first British Classic in eight years, it was announced that Fallon was to be the joint stable jockey for the Godolphin horses trained by Saeed bin Suroor. Still supremely fit — he sometimes plays squash for an hour before a day’s racing — and the tactical master of many of Britain’s quirky racetracks, Fallon also travels with a huge cloud of controversy hovering over him. Episodes including a public fight with a fellow jockey, two bouts of suspension for cocaine use, past attendance at a clinic for a drink problem, an abandoned court case alleging his involvement in race-fixing and an accident which nearly lost him the use of one arm have trimmed the number of those prepared to use his considerable talents. But somehow today he seems more at ease with himself, the bad boy made good ready to enjoy his new and final opportunity. As the playwright Neil Simon once put it, ‘Sport is the only entertainment where, no matter how many times you go back, you never know the ending.’
Racing folk, particularly betting folk, like happy endings and I am hoping that with this year’s Twelve to Follow I can produce one, although I fear another 40–1 winner may be beyond me. With Fallon’s likely Derby mount True Story yet to run his Epsom trial and Aidan O’Brien’s Australia looking to me the likeliest winner at Epsom, I will go first for John Gosden’s Tagroodha as a Classic hope. She ran an impressive trial for the Oaks at the Guineas meeting. Equally impressive was Sir Michael Stoute’s Gospel Choir, winner over a mile and a half of the Qatar Bloodstock Jockey Club Stakes and there was no mistaking the assertive cocking of the maestro’s jaw as he declared of Gospel Choir: ‘We’re going to be ambitious now.’
Aktabantay, a 370,000 guineas purchase trained by Hugo Palmer, ran green when second to the Fallon-ridden Elite Gardens but looks a two-year-old to watch, and in that same category Richard Fahey reckons his Vimy Ridge a sharp one. His racecourse debut at Leicester last month showed promise.
It can be a mistake to invest too much confidence in three-year-old sprinters because they often struggle for a season against their olders. For that reason, I will exclude Clive Cox’s Fear Or Favour from the list despite his win at Bath last month while keeping an eye on his progress. The same goes for Marco Botti’s Naadir, third in a Newmarket sprint. But I am including three in that age group who have impressed their trainers. David O’Meara’s That Is The Spirit won over seven furlongs at Doncaster on 30 March without coming off the bridle and should stay further. Charlie Hills’s Cable Bay kept on improving as a two-year-old and David Simcock rates his Madame Chiang as an exciting prospect.
I drew attention to rookie trainer Olly Stevens last season and he only failed by a neck to land the 1,000 Guineas with Lightning Thunder. I like the look of his Heleman, who battled on to win a one-mile maiden at Kempton. Charlie Appleby’s Outstrip trailed in last in the 2,000 Guineas but scoped badly afterwards and I believe we can ignore that run. Among the sprinters, I like the look of Roger Varian’s Justineo, fifth on his seasonal debut, and Charlie Hills’s four-year-old Lucky Beggar. My final choice for the Twelve is the Curragh-based Gorteo. Johnny Murtagh was the ultimate professional in the saddle and clearly knows how to train. Gorteo, he insists, has a big future.
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