The Barbour brigade
Afortnight dousing oneself in the windy rhetoric of a US presidential election campaign brings on a severe bout of reporters' dyspepsia. I felt as the incompa- rable H.L. Mencken did about Warren G. Harding's inaugural address: 'It reminded me of a string of wet sponges. It reminds me of tattered washing on the line. It reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle, it is balder and dash. But I grow lyrical . . . '
Escape was needed, and where better than Wincanton racecourse on Badger Brewery Handicap Chase Day, with the clouds scudding clear over the surrounding hills? They are proper racing people at Wincanton, not pin-sticking Campari and tonic occasionals. Most, you feel, would rarely miss a local meeting and there were as many clustered round the saddling boxes as you would find round the bar at many courses. There is something comfortingly timeless about those no-nonsense Bar- bours, the brogues and the bolder ranges of tweed. And the men didn't look bad either.
The elements all seemed to be falling into line. The train to Gillingham was on time. No leaves on the line, with or without trees attached. The low November sun shone on a day that had in the past con- firmed the potential stardom of horses like Coombe Hill and Teeton Mill. And I was confident I had a decent-priced prospect for the first in Kim Bailey's Top Buck, rid- den by pink-faced 'Chocolate' Thornton. I had discarded the favourite Cruise Leader and paused only over Noel Chance's Silver Lake. The Roselier gelding clearly had class, having won half a dozen point-to- points in Ireland. But surely, I concluded, two miles over the smaller obstacles was not his kind of race. Backed down from 25-1 to 12-1, Top Buck came storming up the finishing straight, only to lose by a head to an even more storming finish by Silver Lake. That victory makes Silver Lake some prospect. As a beaming Noel Chance said after the race: 'A four-mile chase at Chel- tenham is more his objective. He'll stay all day. I didn't train him that hard for this. I only ran him to get him out.'
As I congratulated owner Alan Weller he was lamenting that he hadn't had even a tenner on his winner, who certainly won't start at 12-1 next time out. Anything that can run round a field in Ireland these days and jump a Swiss roll fetches a fancy price and Noel wasn't letting on what Mr Weller had paid for Silver Lake. He did suggest, though, that the owner could have bought a 500 Mercedes for less. A Mercedes 500, I guess, might get four miles round Chel- tenham. But it can't jump fences and Mr Weller will have a lot more fun for his money with Silver Lake.
I did get one back over the patron saint of bookies with Philip Hobbs's Arlequin de Sou, the 9-4 favourite in the handicap hur- dle. The horse had disappointed towards the end of last season and the owner's hus- band David Vann told us that the vets had found he was suffering from a perforated lung. A change to paper bedding had done the trick, although the vets had advised his races should be carefully spaced out. At that point we were joined by trainer Hobbs, who suggested the horse might go again on Friday . . . Well, vets don't know every- thing.
The big race, the Badger Brewery Chase, was keenly awaited as the seasonal debut for Ad Hoc, Paul Nicholls's promising young prospect who is on most people's Ten to Follow this season. Ad Hoc cruised up to the leader between the last two look- ing all over the winner, only then to take a tumble. Classy or not, you do have to jump them. Nicholls still took the race with Flaked Oats, the previous year's winner, who deserved the race for his gutsy front- running. That's what you call strength in depth. My money had been on Gingembre, trained in Lambourn by permit-holder Lavinia Taylor and her husband John, who are fortunately still talking to me despite my comment on their hairstyles in Valley of The Racehorse. Gingembre, said Lavinia, has been thoroughly tutored by jumping guru Yogi Breisner and they have high hopes this season. Sadly, not even Yogi Breisner can teach a horse how to jump over another which falls directly in his path and Gingembre was brought down at the first by the crumpling of Twisted Logic. I am sure they will win good races with him.
Jumping, too, proved the downfall of the hotshot Seebald, a hurdler bought in Ger- many by ex-jockey Graham Bradley for footballers Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler. Champion jockey Tony McCoy had flown on from Chepstow to ride him and despite being in good company Seebald was backed down to evens favourite. Alas, despite showing fine cruising speed, See- bald dived at the second last and, his confi- dence clearly impaired, he made a mess of the final hurdle. In the end Mister Morose was able to hold him off comfortably. Brad, who was there with the trainer's son David Pipe, said, 'He was looking all over the winner. AP had never moved a muscle, but he nearly went at the second last and that frightened him a bit.' (The horse, that is, not McCoy, who is frightened by nothing.) Those losses on Seebald are only lent. But I had lent rather more than I would wish to. Mrs Oakley's next trip to Le Caprice is temporarily on hold.
Robin Oakley's Valley of The Racehorse is published by Headline at £18.99.