For country folk summer arrives, I suppose, with the hedges and the duck ponds springing into life. Townies tell it more by the first chiming of the ice-cream vans around the tower-block estates and seeing girls in T-shirts on the Tube again. For me summer really starts with Newmarket's Sagitta Guineas Festival. Snaking through Six Mile Bottom with Mahalia Jackson at majestic full blast and the Racing Post read, marked, learned and inwardly digested, my senses began to quicken. By the time the 2000 Guineas contestants were parading for the year's first Classic with the sun glinting off their gleaming flanks I was well and truly ready for a new season's sport, even if the cold wind did keep blowing off the Rowley Mile.
The 2000 Guineas provided just the tonic racing needed, a quality performance by Golan, who has always looked Derby-bred rather than a Guineas type, and a return in triumph for Kieren Fallon after last season's devastating shoulder injury which nearly finished his career. As trainer Sir Michael Stoute said, his stable jockey has been truly resilient. 'He had some brutal criticism when he came back but he stayed cool because he's known within himself there is no problem. He was a bit ring-rusty — he's the first to admit it — but it was just a matter of getting the muscles activated.' The crowd applauded Kieren's first to last performance with real warmth, recognising what restrained mastery he had
shown in giving his horse time to get his action right before he stepped on the accelerator. Trainer and jockey were vindicated and there was a sparkle in Kieren's eyes as he handed his silver victory memento to his daughter. As for Golan, both Kieren and Frankie Dettori declared that they had seen a horse make up ground like that in a handicap but never in a Classic. Bred for longer distances, he is a worthy Derby favourite.
As for poor Nayef, my recommendations for that and other Classics at the start of the season, I am afraid the curse of Oakley has struck again. He went with the leader from early on but merely stayed on at one pace when the others turned on the tap. In the paddock Nayef looked superb, so much so that I went away to increase my antepost bet on him. And thereby hangs a tale. Meeting me in the unsaddling enclosure the sage Ivor Herbert jocularly inquired 'What is it to be in this week's column? Another disaster story of how you came to the races determined to back one horse and allowed others to put you off, only to miss a winner?' Well, no, not this time, Ivor. The curse of Oakley may have struck poor Nayef but this time it left me Oakley unscathed. Would you believe two winners, paying respectively £26.70 and £42.40 on the Tote? Sadly I can claim only one of them as my own judgment.
When I went to boost my stake on Nayef I wrote down his race number, 12, correctly but stupidly entered the race number as five instead of four. Realising my mistake, I went back to the Tote Credit office to see if I could get the mistake rectified. But the ticket could not quickly be found and the lady in green advised me, 'Go on, stick with the bet, you might be lucky.' I repeated my bet on Nayef, correctly entered this time and held on to my ticket for Rushcutter Bay, No. 12 in the fifth. By the time of the off I had convinced myself he had as good a chance as my original selection Rambling Bear, especially when I saw Mick Kinane had been booked to ride No. 12. Rushcutter Bay ran out an easy winner at 20-1, paying even better on the Tote. Trainer Pat Gilligan was probably surprised by one press man's enthusiasm for Rushcutter Bay's success on such a big day. But it wasn't just my accidental wager which inspired it: it is always good to see one of those brave souls who handles a small string among the big battalions at Newmarket bring off such a success, particularly when this was Pat's first runner in a Group race. Mind you, I am glad I did not hear about Rushcutter Bay's bleeding problems and bad back until after the race.
My Newmarket day had not begun well. I went down heavily in the first, having plunged enthusiastically after Barry Hills had told me the week before of his enthusiasm for Rudder, who trailed in a mystifying seventh of seven. I had then sunk further into debt when a distinguished friend on the Channel Four Racing Team, who is not in the habit of doing such things and who will remain nameless provided he repairs things with a better tip next time, urged me to go and put my life savings on a 33-1 outsider in the 2 o'clock hurdle at Haydock hurdle.
After Rushcutter Bay had improved both my respect for Tote Credit ladies and Mrs Oakley's chance of getting the housekeeping this month, there was, I am chuffed to say, another success, this time down to me. I was convinced that John Akehurst's Marsad had a good chance in the other sprint handicap, just the kind of race his father Reg used to win. I could not believe he was being allowed to start at 20-1 and I played up some winnings. I was even more amazed when the Nanny paid out not at 20-1 but with £42.40 for a £1 stake. I am unlikely to have such a day again this year. But for me summer has arrived with a bang.