It was one of those days that smelt of wet labrador. The grey damp hung in the air over Swinley Bottom, the churned turf sucked at your shoes as you strode over to the saddling boxes and pink-cheeked couples cupped their hands round paper coffee-cups as they studied the form sheets outside the Tote Credit office. In short, it was a perfect day at Ascot for the winter sport and while I spent most of the time emptying my pockets it mattered not.
I filled my pad with notes on some future stars. both in the saddle and underneath it. With the champion jockey A.P. McCoy having opted for Warwick instead, it seemed a wise move to invest in cross doubles on his mounts there. Alas, the only two he steered home in first place were at 4-6 and evens. Then there was the little matter of Goshin's Lad at Lingfield. After the style in which he won a seller there a couple of weeks ago, I advised readers to take an interest next time out. I hope some of you did, because he won at 7-1. Unfortunately, I was so busy for CNN that day reporting on the euro that I failed to invest on him in any currency. Seeing him still reasonably weighted in a handicap last Saturday, and backed down to 13-8 favourite, I simply had to have a go. But, alas, it proved a case of once too often to the well.
Then there were the Noel Chance runners at Newcastle. Lambourn was insistent that two were strongly fancied. I joined the high-diving lemmings in the rush to back them and got wet again as Sea Ferry and Glenmore both failed to make a showing. At Ascot on Victor Chandler day Hitman's 20-1 victory in the first was a triumph of perseverance for Mark Pitman and the horse's owners. Hitman, once with Henry Cecil, broke down on coming off the flat, then last year had problems with a suspensory ligament. 'Last year he showed me he was a good horse when I couldn't train him. This year he hadn't been showing me as much when I could train him,' said Mark. But I'm thrilled it all came right at last. He's beaten some good horses.'
So he had, one of them being the Queen Mother's First Love, trained by Nicicy Henderson. Calling him a 'big baby' and literally rubbing his hands at the chasing prospect he'll be next year, Nicky was delighted with First Love's speed over the hurdles, saying 'the winner was always one of those who was going to come good some time'. The trainer was equally happy with Got One Too, winner of the handicap hurdle in the hands of the stable's number two John Kavanagh, who is deservedly getting more outside rides these days. 'He's an amazing horse,' said Nicky. 'He's really only a novice. He'll be some chaser next year. You don't forget those words when they come from the master of Seven Barrows. Got One Too will probably win next time, too, if they tell him he'll get another kiss if he does from one of the leggy blonde Chandler Girls, whose severe black suits gave them something of the air of the untouchable maidens who escort Bond movie villains.
The handsomest sight of the day for me though, and not just because he was my one betting success, was Nicky's Artie Jack, the 3-1 winner of the three-mile novice chase. A big fellow who had disappointed the stable when falling at Haydock and struggling to win at Folkestone, Artic Jack did it in fine style, running out an 11-length winner and winning the tribute from his trainer: 'He looked a proper horse today,' The feature race, the Victor Chandler Chase, went north again, being won by Tim Easterby's impressive Turgeonev. Jockey Richard McGrath managed to get the nervy Turgeonev to settle and had him jumping beautifully. There was an enterprising performance in the same race from Rupert Wakley, who set them all a task with his riding of outsider Wave Rock, a talented horse who seems to be on the way back. Perhaps it was a good thing that A.P. McCoy did give Ascot a miss for once. With Barry Fenton's win on Hitman (the first time he had sat on him), Henry Oliver's victory with Il'Athou for Simon Sherwood and a bold 'catch me if you can ride' from Rodi Greene, one of the Pipe stable's regulars, who dashed his mount Tresor de Mai clear before the final bend to take the handicap chase, it was a healthy reminder to all that there is plenty of strength in depth still among Britain's jump jockeys.
Finally, a little late, let me record a longawaited victory. Readers may recall my frequent hopeful references as a syndicate owner to our Rhapsody in Blue, later sold on and now owned by a group called Bricks, Bills and Beer, comprising a builder, a publican and 20 post office workers from Liverpool. At the 15th time of asking Rhaps" has finally made it to the winner's enclosure. Admittedly, it was only a three-mile selling hurdle at Taunton, but we all have to start somewhere. Congratulations to Cheshire trainer Richard Ford, who has done well with some very cheap horses, taking on 'other people's bleeders'. With 12 victories under his belt this season he is steadily upgrading his yard. Rhapsody, says Richard, really deserved his win, even if he did make it look hard work when he got to the front. The horse tends to keep a hit up his sleeve, he says. What a pity, though, that the handicapper's reaction to Rhapsody in Blue's first win has been to put him up a whopping eight pounds. Spoilsport.