Reflections on this past year

Reflections on this past year

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Kempton thoughts

The most important thing in the aftermath of the horrific four-horse pile-up at Kempton last monday are that our thoughts and prayers are with Freddy and his family. I wish him and his family all the best at this tough time.

While not seeking to condemn Kempton for what happened - it was an accident, and they can occur at any time - I have long thought that action needs to be taken to lessen the likelihood of the horses packing up like sardines on the inside round there, and that’s the reason why I am writing this article.

When I was riding at Kempton I believed that it would be beneficial to all concerned if the inside of the all-weather track was dug deeper down the back straight to even things up.

All American tracks ride that way. You don’t see American jockeys all bunched up on the inside because there is no bias which renders it vital for them to stay there.

Everybody knows that in races over seven furlongs and a mile at Kempton - and at Wolverhampton too, for that matter - there is a draw bias in favour of those berthed low.

You cannot win a Kempton maiden over those two distances unless you are drawn low, jump quick, and take up a prominent early position.

Every jockey is competing for the inside with the result being that after 100 yards you have a situation where as many as 16 horses are bumping off each other and most riders have nowhere to go, particularly when a top jockey such as Ryan Moore or Frankie Dettori gets to the front and pulls the pace up to suit them. Nobody wants to be three wide turning for home there.

Kempton is a lovely, wide track, but there is too much of a rails bias and that should be alleviated as much as possible by slowing the inside down along the back straight. If it was deeper on the inside jockeys would have no hesitation in going down the middle.

Much of the traffic problems at Kempton, Wolverhampton and Lingfield are caused by the turn into the short straights.

Those problems, of course, don’t exist at Newcastle’s all-weather track, which seems to be working a treat.

In most races in Britain - whether they are on turf or all-weather - you will see horses begin to fade at around the two-furlong pole. That’s where the trouble often begins.

In seven-furlong races on the straight courses at Newbury and Newcastle, for instance, the horses tend to come up the middle of the track and there is plenty of room on either side when runners begin to fall back through the field.

That’s not the case at Wolverhampton, for example, where the two-furlong pole is halfway round the bend.

Much of the all-weather racing at Kempton, Wolverhampton and Lingfield is for low-grade horses, and low-grade horses tend to hang in there longer, with the inevitable traffic congestion ensuing in behind. Low-grade horses find it difficult to separate from each other.

The Kempton incident on Monday was nobody’s fault, and I would like to stress once again that I am not writing this as a result of what happened that afternoon.

However, I do think it is time that minor adjustments were taken to improve safety on these turning all-weather tracks, and digging up the inside of the back straight at Kempton would be a sensible policy which the jockeys would welcome.

All the track staff have to do is drop the prongs one inch on the harrow.

Reflections on my first full season

This is my last column of the year before I hand over to Sam Twiston-Davies for the winter, so it’s time to take stock of where I find myself a year after moving to Weathercock House.

Generally things have gone as well as I could have hoped, and I have been very happy with our results.

Richard Hughes the trainer has now sent out 41 winners in Britain, a total which gives me plenty of satisfaction.

When I started out in my new career I was under no illusions about how hard this game was going to be.

People remember Richard Hughes the jockey often riding the guts of 200 winners each year, but I was never going to start out at that level as a trainer.

Don’t forget I began as a rider at the age of 15, and only won the first of my champion jockey titles when I was 39. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

It took quite a while to reach the level that I eventually did as a jockey, but I hope my progression as a trainer is a little bit quicker than that.

Most of our winners this year have been with handicappers, many of them in low-grade events.

However, we have a lot of nice horses to look forward to next year, and I am confident the overall quality of our runners will improve.

Paco’s Angel is one to look forward to over the winter. She won at Windsor and Goodwood before finishing a close fourth to Poet’s Vanity in Newmarket’s Group 3 Oh So Sharp Stakes.

Nathania, another promising filly, is also one to look out for in 2017.

I have to admit, though, that my whole world caved in when Paco’s Angel was beaten on her second start in a Lingfield median auction in June.

I went to Lingfield that evening believing I had a nice filly and fully expected her to win. Plenty of others must have felt so too as started 11-10 favourite, but she was spanked by three and a quarter lengths.

Jonny Portman, who trained the 33-1 winner, turned to me afterwards and said, “is yours any good?” I replied, “I thought she was” and rushed off to sulk!

The winner’s name, of course, was Mrs Danvers, who went on to land all four of her subsequent starts as a juvenile, including the Weatherbys Super Sprint and Group 3 Cornwallis Stakes at Newmarket! Being beaten by her wasn’t so bad after all.

Nigel was another of our standard bearers, winning three races. He did us proud, as did One Big Surprise - winner of two races and placed on another eight occasions in 2016 - and Russian Realm, winner of a valuable handicap at my beloved Goodwood in April

Having said all that, it’s undoubtedly been a very tough year for everyone, including the staff, who have all worked tirelessly.

My name is just on the licence and I get to choose which races the horses run in. I couldn’t do it without the tremendous team behind me.

My wife Lizzie has put up with murder from me, particularly during the time when the two-year-olds were sick for around two months beginning in May - even though they didn’t show any medical symptoms of being ill.

I have put myself under a lot of pressure since I decided to take out a trainer’s licence, and have felt emotions that I never did when I was riding.

I consider myself a good judge of when a horse is ready to win and, as you will know from reading this column, wear my heart on my sleeve. When I expect a horse to run well I will tell the owner.

I have never known a feeling like it when a horse you expect to run well underperforms and falls out the back of the television.

It feels as if somebody is piercing a dagger right through your heart and then drags it out when a horse runs badly.

I have often woken up in the middle of the night thinking about horses, and the irony is that now I am able to eat a proper breakfast I rarely feel like doing so!

Looking ahead I expect to have a team of up to ten to run on the all-weather over the winter, but am keen to save a few of my bullets for the turf next spring.

Hopefully I will be able to get away somewhere for a holiday with Lizzie and the kids. I have been very selfish over the past 12 months, and my family have had to put up with a lot.

Setting up a new business isn’t easy. You need eyes in the back of your head at all times. Fortunately I have a wonderfully supportive family, some terrific staff, and am blessed to have great owners.

I have learnt a lot in my first year as a trainer, gained valuable experience of many situations, and am sure there will be good times ahead.