Ever had a gypsy offer to tarmacadam your drive for a bargain price that suddenly quintuples when the job is done? In the racing world, it seems, it is a fairly regular hazard. One racing figure I know well was picked up by the throat by a 16-stone tarspreader who threatened to kill him when he refused to pay more than the £100 agreed for filling in a few potholes in his drive.
But sometimes the scam merchants get their comeuppance. Not so long ago they picked on the proprietor of an Epsom livery yard. She agreed to let them patch a few holes and came back to find the whole yard asphalted. They demanded thousands of pounds and accompanied her to the building society, where she was refused the funds, then back to the yard to discuss what happened next. What they didn't know was that the lady herself had a relative with a few unfortunate habits. At the time he was on the run, thanks to a little misunderstanding about the fact that when he had last popped into the bank to inquire about an overdraft he had been wearing a balaclava and carrying a shotgun. Just as the woman and her asphalter escorts arrived back at her yard, armed police in search of him came swarming over the back wall of the property. 'There he is,' she yelled, pointing at one of her tormentors. The gang evaporated and haven't been seen back in the district again.
The odds against that coincidence of timing must have been at least those of the 441-1 double achieved by George Margarson, a handler with just 16 horses in his Newmarket yard, in training the winners of the first two races at Newbury on Saturday. The first leg came with the grey A Touch of Frost, a six-year-old mare, taking the seven-furlong rated stakes in the hands of Martin Dwyer at 12-1.
Then came the prestigious Stan James Hungerford Stakes in which Margarson's decent handicapper Atavus was the 33-1 outsider in a field of seven horses, all with good form in Pattern races. Not only that, but Atavus was being ridden by the 31bclaiming apprentice Jamie Mackay in a race in which he was not allowed to make use of his claim. Mackay, who had talked the race through carefully with his agent, the former jockey Ray Cochrane, rode a peach of a race, letting his mount bowl along in front while the others idled complacently, then kicking on from three out as Cochrane had advised him to repel the late challenge of Tamburlaine, not long ago a top hope for the 2,000 Guineas. Atavus, bought for just 5.200 guineas at the Newmarket autumn sales, has now gained £.150,000 in prize money in four wins this year.
It was a nice case of loyalty rewarded. In a small yard the temptation to switch to a top `big-race' jockey must have been considerable and the trainer admitted to a 'brave decision'. But he reasoned that other jockeys might be put off by the scratchy way in which Atavus goes down to the start: 'Jamie knows the horse so well and he balances him so well.' Atavus certainly seems to thrive on his racing, and on his feeding. George says he uses him as a hack and that he had only cantered him since Goodwood. Atavus had a 31b feed prior to leaving Newmarket before 6 a.m. and then knocked off another helping of live oats within 10 minutes of arriving at Newbury.
With a record this season which takes him up among top names with twice as many horses, George Margarson deserves some orders to fill the 32 boxes he has empty. Few are so painstaking about the job. A Touch of Frost had been handicapping herself by coming slowly out of the stalls but he has put a lot of work into educating her out of that habit. He is a stickler for stable hygiene and has had a nutritionist prescribe individual diets for his horses. It all helps, but perhaps the key is that in a 20horse stable he has ten staff, a much higher ratio than most these days. 'We spend a lot of time with the horses,' he says.
Stable staff, so often forgotten, are frequently the key to racecourse performance and after Rajam had won the 12-furlong race it was nice to hear Alec Stewart give all the credit to work riders Mick Curren and Danny Young, and to Steve Lynch, who 'does' the horse. Rajam had arrived from Dubai with a serious temperament problem and rapidly broke three ribs for Steve when he dropped him one day. For two months they had had to hack him round the Heath and Stewart used to feel guilty every time he chalked up a work rider's name against Rajam. But 'while you still wouldn't want to pat his bottom', the horse has been reformed and is now just a regular guy in the string. Not just that. His form figures this season now read 211.
The class performance of the day at Newbury came from Barry Hills's Mr Combustible. Well ridden by Barry's son Michael, the lovely big Hernando colt ran the perfect St Leger trial. After the hardpulling Dalampour had ensured a good gallop, Mr Combustible, admittedly in receipt of plenty of weight, came comfortably up to Millenary, last year's Leger winner, and settled the issue in a few strides, taking the Stan James Geoffrey Freer Stakes in the end by an easy two lengths. Barry is convinced he will make a nice Cup horse next year.
Having tipped Mr Combustible for a Derby place this year, only for him to finish fourth, I will have mixed feelings about the race if he finds himself up against Nayef in the Doncaster Classic. One of this column's Ten to Follow. Nayef too ran an excellent Leger trial recently when he came home the five-lengths winner of the Petros Rose of Lancaster Stakes at Haydock. He has at last developed the strength to go with his frame.