Racing’s New Year began well with the award of OBEs to both Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, showing that they do get some things right at No. 10 and the palace. It would have been monstrous for either of our two best jumps trainers to have been left out when the other was honoured. We owe them both a lot, not just because of the great horses such as Kauto Star and Sprinter Sacre whose careers they have handled so adeptly but because of the impressive training talent they have nurtured. Nicky’s assistants have included Tom Symonds, Charlie Longsdon, Jamie Snowden and Ben Pauling while Paul has launched the careers of Dan Skelton and Harry Fry.
For once, though, Ascot’s card last Saturday was not dominated by the big two. Philip Hobbs, Somerset’s Mr Dependable, may not have the overall horsepower of Henderson or Nicholls but he knows what to do with the good ones he gets and the most scintillating performance so far this winter came from his Defi Du Seuil. In an epic duel for the Grade One Matchbook Clarence House Chase, a race won in the past by the likes of Desert Orchid, Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Altior, he put to the sword Willie Mullins’s popular and ultra-talented veteran Un De Sceaux, still a star at 12.
The ace two-milers had already met in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in December, when it took a photo to determine that Defi had prevailed, and the rematch had brought out a healthy crowd. For Defi, taking on the Mullins hero again at Ascot was a different matter: Un De Sceaux’s six victories in England included three in previous runnings of the Clarence House. Bookmakers couldn’t separate the pair, who both started at 11–10. The bold-jumping Un De Sceaux set off in front and bravely tried to take Defi Du Seuil out of his comfort zone, but at the second-last Defi took matters into his own hands with an electrifying leap and a surge on landing that took him clear for an easy victory. Said his delighted rider Barry Geraghty: ‘It was dazzling and breathtaking. Good horses make themselves known and that’s what he did at the second-last.’
But while racing’s public image, especially at Ascot, remains one of elegant outfits and popping champagne corks Saturday’s racing was a reminder, too, of the other end of the racing spectrum, the life of daily grind for little reward, of mucking out on freezing mornings, of constant anxiety over meagre prizes and unpaid bills. In the race that preceded the Clarence House, a handicap chase over 2m 5f, the French-bred Domaine De L’Isle came clear with long-time leader Bennys King and won the race to the line by a neck to complete a three-timer after seeing his handicap rating rise by 20lb. Bennys King’s trainer Dan Skelton has some 150 horses in training. Domaine De L’Isle’s trainer Sean Curran has just ten in his Highworth yard, more of them running on the Flat than over fences.
Sean, whose grandfather and father both worked for the great Paddy Mullins, rode 150 winners over jumps including winning the marathon Eider Chase for that great racing character the late John ‘Mad’ Manners for whom he also partnered Killeshin to finish sixth and seventh in the Grand National. After a hideous schooling accident in which he split his liver, punctured his stomach and suffered a collapsed lung Sean turned to training. But despite winning the Scottish Grand National with the 66–1 Iris De Balme he found that he was putting in more and more hours for ever less reward. Even an owner for whom he won six races scarcely managed to break even over the season. A disillusioned Sean surrendered his licence in 2011 and though you would scarcely call his a hod-carrier’s physique he went to work on building sites. The racing urge remained, however, and he worked his way back via a horse transport business and began again in November 2018.
This year he boasts ten winners from 35 runs, as good an average as any of the big boys, and though the handicapper will certainly penalise Domaine De L’Isle even more he will surely win again, perhaps even a race like the Welsh National, as he strengthens up. ‘I’ll be back to shovelling shit on Monday,’ said a realistic Sean, but it was good to see him collecting a £35,000 prize. Talking to him was a happy reminder, too, of the irrepressible John Manners, known on occasion to mow his lawn at midnight, allegedly stark-naked. Domaine De L’Isle’s jockey David Bass also rode for Manners and both he and Sean tell similar stories of the master of Highworth asking them to hold a mare on a string and disappearing behind a barn. The next thing they knew a stallion was steaming around the corner to have his pleasure, with Manners roaring ‘Sex, sex’ behind him. Racing does seem less colourful without him.
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