‘I’m going for Al Ferof,’ said a suit in front of me in the Totepool queue at Ascot on Saturday before the Amlin steeplechase. ‘Don’t waste your money,’ said his companion, a man with the sort of face that made you feel he should have been somewhere else helping the police with their inquiries. ‘He hasn’t been the same horse since he won this race last year. Forget it.’ His companion listened, but if ever I have learnt a lesson in racing it is not to dismiss as a light of former days a horse that Paul Nicholls keeps sending to the racecourse. Remember a certain Kauto Star? He fell in the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup. In 2011 he was third in the January King George to Long Run, third at Cheltenham in March and pulled up in the Punchestown Gold Cup in May. But in November of that year Kauto Star came back to win his fourth Betfair Chase at Haydock, becoming the first horse to win a Grade One in seven consecutive seasons. A month later Kauto won the King George for a record fifth time.
It was no surprise, then, at Ascot to see the former Paddy Power Gold Cup winner Al Ferof demolish a classy field by seven lengths, after which owner John Hales disclosed that following Al Ferof’s third in last year’s King George and fifth in the Ryanair it had been discovered he was suffering from ulcers, which are now held at bay by medication. Since he only came back into training in mid-September and looked a little burly, he must now be a genuine hope for this year’s King George. But among those he is likely to meet there is another Nicholls contender whom some pundits had begun to write off — last year’s King George winner Silviniaco Conti.
I don’t know how the Dom Alco gelding got his name but one Prince Conti was a famous rake who, on discovering that his sexual prowess was not what it used to be, reflected famously, ‘Formerly my ambitions were taken for declarations of love. Now my declarations of love are taken for ambitions. It is time for me to retire.’
After Silviniaco Conti had failed to assert himself having had every chance in this year’s Gold Cup, and had been beaten by Menorah on his seasonal comeback, some had suggested his racecourse prowess was waning. Nicholls and jockey Noel Fehily, however, had kept the faith and Silviniaco Conti answered the critics emphatically by taking Saturday’s huge Betfair Chase prize at Haydock, this time comfortably seeing off Menorah.
The need to get Mrs Oakley to Gatwick for a brief Italian jaunt meant that I had to be at Ascot rather than at Haydock. As ever we had fine racing at the Berkshire course, the most remarkable feature of which was the determination and skill of rider Nico de Boinville on Big Hands Harry in the novice chase. His mount jumped violently to the left at virtually every fence and appeared to have thrown away his chance. But Nico galvanised him into furious action after the last and headed the suspect finisher Polisky in a photo. ‘He’s never ever jumped to the left in schooling. He wouldn’t do so if we tried to make him,’ said a mystified Nicky Henderson as we walked down to the winner’s enclosure, but he paid due tribute to de Boinville, ‘He’s not just an accomplished jockey but a very good horseman.’
I must admit, though, that my heart was at Haydock where my favourite among this season’s Twelve To Follow, the Nick Williams-trained Aubusson, was contesting the £80,000 Betfair ‘Fixed Brush’ handicap hurdle, ridden as usual by the excellent 7lb-claimer Lizzie Kelly, his step-daughter. Our Twelve had got off to an unfortunate start: Knock House, Blaklion, Very Wood and Colour Squadron have all been beaten, the last-named showing little resolution when given every chance to win his Cheltenham race. Aubusson, however, could scarcely have delivered more impressively at 9–1 (14–1 had been available that morning). Kept in the first two throughout by the cool-headed Kelly, Aubusson jumped impeccably on his first attempt at three miles and ran out a worthy winner.
What I liked every bit as much was Lizzie Kelly’s eloquently direct response when asked afterwards by Rishi Persad about her emotions on ‘beating the boys’. ‘They are only men sitting on horses,’ she said. ‘They can only do as much as they can do and I can only do as much as I can do.’ She is not, she insisted, short of confidence. ‘My mother [trainer’s wife Jane] has put me on big stages before and I’ve got a lot of racecourse experience.’ She was saying, politely, what we all need to accept: let’s forget this stuff about women jockeys as a special category. The gender in the saddle is irrelevant. They are all riders, some better than others. Aubusson, she insisted, is a horse for the future. Hopefully, we shall hear a lot more about Lizzie Kelly too.
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