Wednesday, August 22, 2018
The Dubai Duty Shergar Cup has treated me well over the years. I rode eight winners on the day between 2001 and 2014, I was fortunate enough to claim the Silver Saddle twice and now I'm sending George Of Hearts to Ascot, hoping to have my first success at the meeting as a trainer.
People tend to love or loathe the Shergar Cup. For my own part, it was always a day I enjoyed and it's one that certainly creates a different sort of atmosphere. That said, there are a few things I would change.
Perhaps most radically, I'm not sure it needs to be a team event. For me, it would work just as well if it was simply an individual jockeys' competition, like the one they have at Happy Valley during the Hong Kong International Races week.
I know staging the event as a team competition sets it apart, but, at the same time, I just don't get it. Even when I was riding I didn't really fall in love with the team aspect. There was one year when a little skulduggery went on, specifically because jockeys were wanting their team to win as much as they wanted to win themselves.
I'm also not a fan of some of the razzmatazz that goes with the day, not least the cheerleaders in the paddock. It feels too gimmicky for my liking. I believe you have to respect that this is a horseracing event - and horses are not supposed to be in that sort of environment. We all want to encourage young people to become interested in racing but it surely makes more sense to do that by showing them what a real race meeting is like, as opposed to showing them what only one race meeting in the whole year is like.
For racegoers and jockeys the Shergar Cup is a different sort of experience. The Shergar Cup Sprint is going to be a different sort of experience for George Of Hearts, as we're dropping him back in distance after he finished down the field over a mile at Ascot on King George day.
After he blatantly didn't stay on that occasion - something I had warned might happen in the column - we thought long and hard about his future career. We could, of course, have dropped him to 7f but it would be better for him, and for me, if we could make him into a sprinter. He would have more options, he could have more runs, I could target races more easily and training him would be easier.
Sprinters need less work than other horses, which is good news. There is less strain on their legs, so it follows they have less chance of sustaining injuries. Sprinters last a bit longer than other horses because they're having to do less at home.
When you bring a horse back to sprint distances it's really all about channeling speed. Until recently we had been training George in behind horses in an attempt to get him to settle and increase his chances of seeing out a mile. That's all changed now. What also changes with a reinvented sprinter is how the horse looks.
George is naturally quite heavy at 540 kilos. Before his other races I had to have him as trim as I could get him, which meant he had to be trained quite hard to keep the weight off him. Now his training can be much lighter because as a sprinter he can be slightly heavier and more rounded.
We haven't started feeding him more, it's simply you can get away with giving a sprinter less work, partly also because you want them to go to the races good and fresh. Jack Taylor, who has done really well for us in sprints, does the least work of any horse in the yard. When you ride him out in the mornings he is like a timebomb, which is exactly how you want a sprinter to be, full of energy and ready to explode. Conversely, you wouldn't want stayers like Stanley or Golden Wolf to be too gassy, otherwise they would never get two miles.
Think of it as the difference between Usain Bolt and Mo Farah. Bolt was full of muscle and would have hit a much bigger number on the scales than Farah. That's because sprinters are the bulkiest and heaviest of all the track athletes. The same is theoretically true in horseracing.
I'm sure George is fast enough to be a sprinter. When he won his 6f maiden at Chelmsford he clocked 1min 11sec, which is good - you can't do that time if you're slow - while the horse who finished second, Promising, is now rated 100. It's true he'll probably get better at sprinting the longer he does it, and this race is going to be a new test, but in his favour is he'll be one of only ten runners.
He was put in the race after the original entries closed. I had been looking towards a 0-105 handicap at Newmarket next Saturday. That is also worth £45,000, but when the Ascot contest failed to attract enough entries I rang the owner, Danny Waters, and pointed out we would only have nine horses to beat at Ascot. If we wait a week until Newmarket we might have 19 to beat.
I'm hoping that by tonight I'll be saying, why on earth did I ever run him over a mile? I'm very happy to have been proved wrong up to this point - although in my defence there was previously nothing to make us believe we were doing the wrong thing by upping him to a mile.
You obviously can't pick your jockey at the Shergar Cup. The fact I don't know Per-Anders Graberg doesn't really worry me. All the jockeys taking part on the day have to be talented riders. Moreover, in a ten-runner race over six furlongs the identity of the jockey ought not be much of a factor.
Just as I don't know the jockey, I don't know for certain George Of Hearts is a sprinter. I think he will be, though, and I'm hoping to see confirmation of that at Ascot.
By the time you read these words Mark Johnston could well have become the winningmost trainer in British racing history.
I will be sad for Richard Hannon, whose record Mark is about to break. It's worth remembering Richard reached his total in an era when there wasn't as much racing as there is now. If the fixture list continues to expand someone will probably do to Mark's record what Mark is doing to Richard's total.
I always found it easy to ride for Mark. You definitely weren't told to make the running. It was simply a case of don't push and don't pull.
It seems to me any good trainer or business has a good system. Mark has a very good one indeed. Most effective systems are based on repetition, which I imagine is a key to how Kingsley House operates.
Mark is always striving for improvements. He is a real forwarder thinker, which must have been in his favour as well. I admire him enormously and send many congratulations.
I've already written in the column this year about starting stalls incidents following what happened to Harry Angel at Royal Ascot.
As such, I won't dwell too much on the six-month ban given to Classic Seniority after he refused to load for the Stewards' Cup consolation race.
I do sympathise with trainer Marjorie Fife, because it must be so frustrating and annoying for her and the owners. However, you have to draw a line somewhere, especially if you're dealing with a big-field sprint handicap.
You can't please everyone in a situation like this. Trainers with horses who have issues at the stalls will often ask for those horses to be loaded last. However, that means all those horses who behave well and don't cause any trouble have to wait around in the stalls for the longest. Is that fair on them?
The undeniable truth is we need more stalls handlers. I can say without doubt that if we had more of them there would be less trouble at the start.
Regular column readers will know we love Stanley to bits at Weathercock House. He is such a great servant to the yard and we're looking forward to giving him his second run over 2m at Newmarket on Saturday (5.30).
A pretty well-handicapped horse beat him into second at Goodwood last time. However, Stanley had won his start before that at Salisbury and he is going into this race in great form. A few showers would probably be ideal as he goes on most ground and would never want it firm.
Our third runner of the day is Kath's Lustre. She goes in Lingfield's 6f handicap (7.45) under young George Rooke and she won't mind the rain, either.
I said lots of positive things about David Egan last week, so it was nice to see him reward his Uncle Richard by riding his first winner for me aboard Sunsprite at Chester on Sunday.
Jaber Abdullah's little horse only ever just does enough, as he proved when scoring at Salisbury on his previous outing. He has now completed a hat-trick, and although the last two victories have only been achieved by a short-head, I think much of that is just because he isn't the type to win by far.
We have him entered in the GImcrack and if we get plenty of rain between now and then he'll go to York. I know he hasn't ever run on soft ground but I believe we'll eek more improvement out of him when he gets some cut in the ground. He breezed very well on a testing surface at Doncaster before going through the ring and I'm confident some ease will be in his favour.