The novelist Anita Brookner once declared that in real life hares always beat tortoises: ‘Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market… Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game.’
Bob Ford, one of this column’s Twelve to Follow last jumping season, was not one of the biggest contributors to our fortunes, winning just once in five outings and then at a miserly price of 8-15. But at Chepstow on Saturday on soft ground Tom Scudamore sent him off like a hare in front, daring the field to catch him. ‘He’ll never keep that up,’ said two racing sages beside me but he did, pulling right away to win by 13 lengths for Rebecca Curtis. Was it the hood they had fitted, I asked her afterwards. ‘No, it was more that he was on a good handicap mark,’ she replied. The knowing Chepstow crowd agreed, having made him the 2-1 favourite.
Chepstow, just a couple of gallops on from the Severn Bridge, is one of my favourite tracks. Set in glorious countryside, it always produces competitive racing in an unpretentious and accessible style. Phil Bell, who formerly ran Brighton and Fontwell, now heads the Arena Racing team at Chepstow and he appreciates that racing must be a genuine entertainment for the many, not a club activity for a small knot of cognoscenti. There was one obvious sign of that. At some tracks the runners plod around the parade ring in near silence: at Chepstow, course commentator Ed Nicholson provides handy nuggets of information, steering a neat line between informing first-time racegoers and not patronising the regulars. Mind you, I wasn’t so certain they obtained much information when he hauled me onto the rostrum to inflict on the unfortunate crowd my thoughts on politicians and racing. ‘Politics on the racecourse — whatever next,’ chided Nicky Henderson in mock horror afterwards. As one of the old hands he likes the quality of Chepstow’s racing but regrets the disappearance some time ago of the attractive old parade ring and saddling boxes behind the stands.
Mrs Oakley has a fixed conviction that everything I recommend will always finish second and when Ed put me on the spot I plumped for the 7-1 Aubusson, ridden by the talented 7lb claimer Lizzie Kelly for Nick Williams in the biggest field of the day. As maddeningly usual, Mrs Oakley was right. Aubusson, nicely positioned all the way by his young rider on his first outing of the season, finished a close second to the super-fit Shelford, another all-the-way hare ridden by Harry Skelton and trained by brother Dan. If only Aubusson had not been awkward at the last hurdle he could have won. I did, though, have the consolation that I had taken my £2 reverse Tote Exacta on the pair which paid me £100.40. I celebrated defiantly with an out-of-diet jam doughnut.
There was particular jubilation in the winners enclosure after the first race when Alain Cawley, virtually out of sight three hurdles out, galvanised the 33-1 shot An Poc Ar Buile into a storming finish passing four horses to win the maiden hurdle for Fergal O’Brien and the jolly team of cricketing owners led by Chris Coley. They go by the name of the Yes No Wait Sorries and most of them hadn’t had a penny on An Poc Ar Buile, who cost well under £5,000 and whose name translated from the Gaelic apparently means The Mad Irish Goat. ‘When one of them asked me if he should risk a pound each way I told him if he wanted to waste his money just give it to me,’ said Fergal. ‘We’re only here because the handicapper wouldn’t give us a mark.’ It was the 99th victory for the Sorries, ‘and it was the most unlikely of them all,’ said Chris Coley. When I asked which horse was likely to provide the hundredth he replied cautiously, ‘It could be a mare.’
Fittingly, the classiest race of the day was the novice hurdle named after the old warrior Persian War. I wouldn’t be surprised to see all the first three winning races this season. The winner was Nigel Twiston-Davies’s Kayf Tara gelding Blaklion, ridden by Jamie Moore as Sam Twiston-Davies was claimed by his employer Paul Nicholls to ride the second Vicente in the familiar red and yellow colours of John Hales. Also involved in the finish was Alan King’s The Pirate’s Queen. Blaklion was to have run at the previous week’s Cheltenham meeting but was withdrawn by vets after getting upset on the way to the start. ‘Thank goodness now that he was,’ said his trainer. ‘There was more money for this race.’ Paul Nicholls was clear about Vicente’s future: ‘That was his last run over hurdles. He’ll now go chasing over a trip,’ which, as Ed Nicholson would have explained to the parade ring audience, means that he will be running over longer distances.
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