Cheltenham, Ascot and Sandown Park are wonderful but without the little tracks racing would be lost. It was perishing cold — cold enough for brass monkeys to be keeping a watchful eye on their private parts — and the ground was heavy, but you could not have a better day’s racing than Warwick gave us on Saturday.
I fuelled myself at the blue-and-white Whitby scampi stall, which would be a welcome presence on any track, and a fellow muncher set the tone: ‘I only really come for the scampi,’ he said. ‘And I don’t mind if I never back a winner.’ But he was clearly enjoying himself, as were the punters huddling for warmth in the cosy betting hall — more of a snug than a ‘hall’ really — and tapping their feet between races to a lively three-man rock band in the grandstand. You don’t get much closer to horses either than when they stretch down the all-weather strip in front of the Warwick stand on the way to the start.
The opening novice hurdle went to Bold Duke, ridden by 3lb claimer Ben Poste for the four-horse Herefordshire yard of Edward Bevan, and the second race went to the Alex Hales-trained Big Jim, the beneficiary of a bold ride from Kielan Woods, a young rider whom I have noted seizing his opportunities this season. With all his opponents giving him weight, Kielan led almost all the way on the strapping seven-year-old, putting pressure on the others down the back straight. When the ground is that heavy, catching front-runners isn’t easy. It was the 17th winner this season for the youngster who rode 40 winners in his four years with Charlie Longsdon and now gets plenty of rides from Graeme McPherson as well as Hales and Ben Case.
These young riders have to graft for their opportunities — Big Jim was his only ride on the card, but Kielan insisted, ‘Of course I’d love to have six rides but I’m not complaining.’ He must be nearly six feet but doesn’t have trouble doing light weights. ‘I get to race most days at ten stone. I guess I’ve got light bones.’ He rode 23 winners in his best season so far and already has 17 this season towards his new target of 30.
The day’s big race, the Betfred Classic Chase over 3m 5f, was a real slog with only five of 14 runners completing but backers of the winner had an easy task picking him out all the way: Russe Blanc, who came over the last locked together with Midnight Prayer and went on to win by nearly four lengths, is not just a 50th shade of grey but actually white. His victory clinched a rare double for trainer Kerry Lee who has had just 23 runners since taking over from father Richard: another of the 23 was Mountainous, who squelched home to win the Welsh National at Chepstow the previous weekend. ‘It’s down to happy horses,’ she said.
Racegoers who brave conditions like last Saturday are happy souls too. They know their sport and enjoy success for the underdogs. Whether you can still apply that tag to Mark and Sara Bradstock after their success with Coneygree in last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup is a debatable point but theirs is still a small family operation with not many horses. One is Flintham, Coneygree’s half-brother and full brother to Carruthers, one of the most popular jumpers in recent years. Flintham had disappointed in two runs over fences this season but reverting to hurdles he showed all the family tenacity to lead all the way and head off a late challenge to win at 7–1. I could not look the sweat-soaked Flintham in the eye in the winners’ enclosure: more fool me, it was the first time in his career I hadn’t backed him. ‘They’re an extraordinary family, so tough,’ said a beaming Mark of Plaid Maid’s offspring. ‘They give everything and he stays for ever.’ A chasing career will now wait until next season.
We owed it to Jane Hedley, conducting her first meeting as clerk of the course, and to the Warwick staff who were still rolling back the frost covers half an hour before, that we were racing at all and it wasn’t just smaller stables that were grateful. Irish racing’s superpower Willie Mullins had sent six runners to Warwick over the previous five years and scored four victories. On Saturday he had Black Hercules in the novice chase and two runners, Open Eagle and Thomas Hobson, in the novice hurdle. On only his second outing over fences nephew Danny Mullins rode the imposing Black Hercules with confidence, leading most of the way to win comfortably. He then repeated the front-running tactics on Thomas Hobson, previously a quirky jumper, to win the novice hurdle at a generous 5–1. Open Eagle, naturally, was second and those two are just spear carriers back home. No wonder serious punters are now taking 5–2 that Willie Mullins will be champion trainer in England too this season.
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