Pam Sly is enjoying a red hot streak of form presently, the latest indication of which is a winner in today's conditional jockeys handicap hurdle at Huntingdon with Takeit Easy, ridden by Paul O'Brien.
Takeit Easy was one of just four individual winners for the yard last season, in which Eileendover had the sages talking of the Champion Bumper briefly. The six year old has enjoyed a good summer, winning at Ludlow in late May, and just missing out at Stratford the following month, both when ridden by Gina Andrews.
But when a yard runs into form, sometimes even the most surprising horses will win. And by anyone's standards, Pam Sly is in red hot form right now with four winners from six runners in the past fortnight. Winners at Pontefract, Leicester and Yarmouth may not raise the pulse of TV Viewers looking for clues to this weekend's Qipco Champions Day, but they advertise the claims of this much understated senior trainer in Newmarket.
Also this week, Sarah Humphrey continued her reacquaintance with winner's enclosures around the country. Last month, we reported on Railway Muice providing a first winner in more than 700 days, and on Tuesday, the same 8 year old gelding continued his streak of form with a third winner in the racingtv.com Handicap Hurdle at Huntingdon's second fixture. Making all under Nick Scholfield, he went clear at the second last and maintained a 2l advantage over the runner-up from the vaunted yard of Jackdaws Castle.
The A14 is an infamous road that has held up many a racegoer, jockey or trainer en route across the Midlands, and so it was as I made my way yesterday from Gloucestershire to Norwich. A crowded highway thins out beyond Newmarket en route through the picturesque Thetford Forest, a horse I well remember winning a Sun Alliance Hurdle trial staged at Warwick's mid February day back in 1992 before following up in the middle distance novices' championship now known as the Ballymore the next month for Oliver Sherwood.
The reason I mention this ghastly road is that I was sorely tempted to abort my mission and stop off at Huntingdon for their opening fixture of the autumn. Road improvements sadly mean the A14 no longer passes within view of the racecourse that I first visited in 1987, but spectators will likely appreciate that all the more. It never failed to quicken my pulse en passant.
East Anglian trainer Sarah Humphrey was prominent among the winners, when winner Railway Muice, who we touted for further honours only last month after his victory at Market Rasen plugged a lengthy winnerless gap for the trainer. The eight year old, still owned by his trainer, will surely have a new name in the owner column after once again hitting the sweet spot in the Clive Graham Memorial Novices Handicap Chase, by a winning margin of 2 1/4l that would have been more had the race carried on someway further. The Humphrey yard is evidently running into some sort of form.
I might be an old grump, or a bit long in the tooth, but this seemed a particularly poor contest to attribute to one of racing's great race callers. Old Etonian Graham partnered the peerless Peter O'Sullevan as paddock commentator on BBC TV for 25 years until his death in 1974. Some of you may even remember when the BBC covered horseracing!
The concluding race of the day saw a familiar face in unfamiliar circumstances as Archie Watson, winner of nearly 450 of Flat racing's finest contests worth nearly £4.5m over the past five years, tried his hand in the Jumps game. The gelded Alazwar, a Hannon cast-off, ran out a comfortable winner of an 11 runner bumper to set some hares running for next year's Champion Bumper.
Is Alazwar catching pigeons on the Lambourn downland? Let the bush telegraph do its work!
Meantime, it's welcome back Huntingdon. We've missed you.
Cambridgeshire handler Sarah Humphrey got her Jump season tally off the mark when 8 year old Railway Muice notched his first handicap chase since at Market Rasen yesterday. The impeccably-bred son of Yeats was striking for the first time since joining the yard earlier this month from Kilbeggan-based Paul Flynn.
That's one from one among Sarah's chase runners, although her runners over the smaller obstacles haven't been troubling the judge to the same degree.
The lower ranks of the Jumps game includes plenty of handlers like Sarah, whose overall competence to train is not in question, but whose owners don't run to the more spectacular excesses of the public bloodstock auctions. Keenly purchased, or cast-offs from large stables discarding remaindered stock provide the occasional gem that generates winners for these small handlers.
That Sarah achieved 24 winners 10 seasons ago tells you that with application, there are races to be won here following this strategy, but patience is key. Not just in seeking out the rightly-priced horse, but also in sweetening up horses that have often become disenchanted with racing after life in a large impersonal yard.
The Humphrey outfit, spawned from a life in equestrianism, followed by a spell training Point-to-Pointers for husband, Tony, has grown into a dual - purpose yard in Thurlow country, at West Wratting, not far from Six Mile Bottom. And a 22% strike rate between the flags is solid proof those horsemanship skills have been successfully applied.
With Tony long retired, it is son William whose is riding winners. Five Pointing winners in the 2018-19 season have been an excellent launchpad into the flat. Four winners this year, whilst riding for 22 different trainers have offered him good experience, and the Humphrey yard a go-to rider for its sparing forays into the flat.
Meantime, the ease of Railway Muice's victory in the admittedly modest quality Harvest Gold Handicap Chase at Market Rasen suggest that the next National Hunt strike may not be far away. For a yard that eschews the summer months of the sport, this is a timely fillip after the best part of sim months winnerless.
Newmarket trainer Martin Smith doubled his score for the season at Uttoxeter yesterday afternoon when Nick Schofield ran out a 2 1/4l winner of the 3m 2f handicap chase on Friends Don't Ask.
The winner looked to have something in hand over runner-up Montanna, from Peter Bowen's yard in South Wales.
Newmarket has a dearth of Jumps trainers presently. The flagbearer last season was Lucy Wadham, with Pam Sly in hot pursuit. But with Nick Littmoden having upped sticks to Metz in France, Jumps handlers are thin on the ground. Welcome then to Martin, whose two steeplechase winners this summer have come from just 5 runners, a very creditable 40% strike rate over the larger obstacles.
Meanwhile, East Anglia continues to provide more than its own fair share of up and coming horses, riders and trainers from the Point-to-Point scene. Whilst stalwarts like John and Mel Sharp will admit they've been around too long to mention, youngsters like Will Featherstone, established riders and trainers like Bradley and Nigel Penfold all contribute toward a rich interest in the sport.
The trend toward early season fixtures continues. The East Anglian season will begin in the absence of Cottenham with the Waveney Harriers fixture at Higham on Sunday November 21st and the Thurlow on New Year's Eve.
ick Littmoden, formerly training in Newmarket's Hamilton Road, took his whole enterprise, lock, stock and barrel, to France in March, where he trains at the training centre on Hippodrome de Moulins-les-Metz, in Alliers, central France. He's one of a growing band of British trainers frustrated at the poor returns and either moving or running satellite yards on the other side of la Manche.
Moulins is a thriving training centre in which the local société and mairie has recently invested over €1m in new facilities to accommodate the 130 or so horses in training there. Nick is one of three trainers on the site, which also include some 70 trained by Augustin Boisbrunet, one of France's leading Jumps trainers. Nevertheless, it doesn't explain eschewing the uniquely brilliant facilities and centre of excellence that is Newmarket for a different territory where both the culture and language represent obstacles to incomers.
So why does the trainer of over 600 winners on the Flat and over Jumps with big wins in the Windsor Castle and Flying Childers find it necessary to start afresh in a foreign country? I caught up with Nick in a call this week to explore.
So Nick, the first question I suppose has to be why? It appeared you'd been a successful trainer over here. What changed?
I'd trained successfully for many years, latterly on the Hamilton Road, but I took a break when the problems associated with running a yard of 80-100 horses made the job a chore. My family moved out to Norfolk, where I enjoyed developing a breaking yard, but I was spending as much time delivering horses back to trainers in Newmarket whose methods I considered inferior to my own that I rented a yard in Newmarket with a handful, continuing to commute from Norfolk each day. It was impinging on family life and we (Nick and wife Emma) had often considered abroad, so we set about searching. I didn't want to repeat the mistakes of growing a large yard in the UK a second time, and other areas of the UK didn't appeal.
Why the Auvergne?
I'd been asked to train abroad a few times previously, but the timing hadn't been right. Emma and I found a property on the web but because of Covid travel restrictions, we were unable to visit. Peter Jones, who'd bought horses for me regularly in the past checked out the property for us, and told us its equine credentials were perfect. We are in an agricultural area, but also surrounded by other horsemen: Emmanuel Clayeux is about 20 minutes distant, and we are within a few hours of virtually every track in France.
So you're not just based at the racetrack?
No, I actually run two yards. The racing yard is based on the training centre at the racecourse, where we have around 15 horses in training.
Back at home, we own a 30 acre site with an 800m round gallop with a spur to extend its length, a horsewalker and equine pool, as well as numerous turnout paddocks. It's always been alien to me to keep horses in all the time given they are ruminant animals.
Moulins Racecourse has everything one could possibly need to train horses, nor is it crowded. The recent investment has made it very viable.
Did your owners and staff come over with you?
Some of my owners did follow me to France, but interestingly, I've picked up a few French owners since arriving here. One is a breeder, another an accountant. I guess my early success here helped oil the wheels a little. We're not promoting ourselves other than through Facebook at the moment.
As to staff, some staff helped me settle the horses in, but work permits are no longer straightforward since Brexit, so they largely returned. I employ 4 French lads full time to support the business.
What are the obstacles to training in France?
For starters, the language is a major impediment, but not one that cannot be overcome. I relish the challenge of learning a language on my daily commute into Moulins each morning!
There are issues around winning your residency permit which have been made easier by the fact that I am growing a business employing local labour. But for any trainer already licensed in the UK or Ireland, a BHA or HRI licence will provide a 3 month temporary authorization (this is what the likes of Tom George has been using).
What is the process of getting to train in France?
You need to demonstrate sufficient experience as a trainer already in another jurisdiction, or take the equine trainers induction course, which lasts 6 weeks and is comparable to what happens in the UK.
You also have to get an acceptable grade in the TCF (teste de connaissance de langue française), a language test to allow you to integrate into your chosen community.
And like in the UK, you have to illustrate a business plan to France Galop and financial stability.
For anyone thinking of copying you, what are the advantages of the French model?
Put simply, the overheads of training in the UK are a major disincentive. The sale of our property in Norfolk allowed us to buy a larger, more desirable property in the Auvergne, where the costs of property are much lower. Add to that lower training costs. For example, gallop fees to use the training centre at Dragey are just €45 per horse per month. So overall, my costs are much lower.
Add to that better returns from running horses and a generous annual travel allowance (a "prime"), means I don't have to train 100 horses to make a living. I wouldn't train again in the UK, I'm afraid.
The prize money does vary between courses depending on whether they are running Tiercé races tapping into national and international betting pools or not. The idea of two-tier racing is not viewed here with the same horror as in the UK, and even a modest bumper winner can win €5,000.
How is the family fitting in?
They've embraced the move whole-heartedly and I wouldn't have done it without their buy-in. Emma was right behind it from the off, whilst my daughter Grace (13), is now riding work and enjoying her new school. They've sensibly dropped her a school year to allow her to catch up on the language, but she'll be fluent long before I am!
Everyone has been very friendly, and helpful.
The positive results of the move are there to see. So far, from a move in March, 8 winners have resulted from 35 runners, generating 5 individual winners and gross win & place prize money of €106,863.
It would appear the Littmoden skills haven't lost their shine by crossing la Manche.
There is clearly a lot of excitement surrounding this week’s York Ebor Festival. Crowds have been flocking back to racecourses for a while now, but the four-day event at the Knavesmire is the first truly blue-chip festival to take place with crowds allowed back as normal. A successful festival is important. Not just for the organisers at York, but for every level of British racing, including Point to Point racing.
And while there is plenty of buzz around the festival, which has been lifted by news of £4.7 million in prize money (more than double last year’s amount), there have been a few hiccups. Most notably, the withdrawal of St Mark’s Basilica from the festival’s flagship race, the Juddmonte International Stakes. That takes a lot of star power away from the Knavesmire this week, as the Aidan O’Brien trained 3-year-old is currently rated as the joint-best racehorse on the planet.
Stradivarius goes for third Lonsdale Cup
Nevertheless, the four-day event is about much more than one horse and one race, and even those with a casual interest in flat racing will see a familiar name on the racecards and tips for Day 3 of the Ebor Festival – Stradivarius. The 7-year-old record-breaker is the favourite for the Lonsdale Cup, and it would surely take the roof off the place if Staradvarius can take at least one more big win in front of a full house as he winds down one of the most storied careers in modern racing.
Stradivarius, who is trained by John Gosden, has basically done it all as a stayer, and then some. Three Ascot Gold Cups, four Goodwood Cups, and a three-time Cartier Champions Stayer are among some of the accolades. Frankie Dettori usually rides (and will on Friday), and the wily jockey will know that a record third Lonsdale Cup on Stradivarius is within his sights. Dettori will make his own bit of history with a win, becoming the first jockey to win the Lonsdale Cup six times (he is currently tied with Pat Eddery on five).
Dettori a big factor in the betting
Dettori clearly loves riding at the Knavesmire (his list of big wins at the Ebor Festival is too long to print here), and bookmakers reported to the Racing Post pre-festival that the Italian legend is a big factor in the betting patterns. Put him together with a big name like Stradivarius, and you can appreciate why bookmakers will be losing some sleep on Thursday night.
On the downside, it feels more and more likely that we will not see Stradivarius take on Trueshan, the horse that now holds Stradivarius’ Goodwood Cup crown. Trueshan’s trainer, Alan King, clearly prefers testing conditions for the horse, and the going is likely to be good on Friday. Nonetheless, Stradivarius would represent a hugely popular winner regardless of who he lines up beside at 2.25 on Day 3 of the festival.
Despite his favourite status, it’s no given that Stradivarius will take that record-breaking third Lonsdale Cup. His powers have perhaps waned somewhat over the last year, exemplified by a 4th place finish in the Ascot Gold Cup in mid-June. However, Dettori claimed that Stradivarius was denied a clear run on the home bend in that race, which ultimately went to Subjectivist.
He has been called the “rarest of horses”, and we might see him again in the Ascot Gold Cup next year. But then again, given his age, we might not. This week could be one of the last opportunities for the crowds to see one of the modern greats in action – they should relish the chance to see Stradivarius try to break yet another record.
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