A day of processions

It was a day for binoculars – an increasingly rare site on racecourses – but only the gauge the distance from winner to placed horses in a day of long winning distances for the most part, to see out Stratford’s season in the golden browns of a lingering autumn.

A mystery confronting punters before a horse had drawn breath was why Worcester and Stratford, sharing much the same audience, should be racing the same day, when only 24 miles apart. The quirks of the British fixture list would take more than one blog to explain!

The Rowe family has been the major shareholder of Stratford Racecourse for several generations, so it was entirely appropriate that on this day of aggregate winning distances of 88l, the closest finish should be fought out in the J H Rowe Memorial Handicap Chase. Bebraveforglory, under Adam Wedge, held off a rapidly closing Top Decision to win by a length for Evan Williams. Top Decision’s run just emphasizes the form of the in-form Sam Drinkwater, who scored a double earlier in the week, and a highly promising run from a horse that has seen a racecourse just once in 2 years.

Bebraveforglory and Adam Wedge [right] up with the leaders before victory at Stratford. 27/10/2022 Pic Steve Davies

That race aside, it was a day of processions.

The longest procession was in the opener, a four runner seller for conditional riders. Floating Rock, winning his eighth race, seven for his current handler Mark Walford, won as he pleased under Tom Midgley, pulling up, and attracted no bid at the subsequent auction. Stratford is an outlier nowadays in still staging sellers, but sometimes, they can deliver a great piece of additional theatre. Not today.

It’s long been said that it’s the height of bad taste to win a race you sponsor. Perhaps as well, therefore, that the multiple winner Pencreek, trained by the eponymous trainer, met his match in the Charlie Longsdon Handicap Chase, coming out a poor 29l third to the Skelton trained and ridden Midnight River. The winner needed to do little more than be shaken up to take up the running off the home turn, and put distance between him and his rivals very quickly.

Midnight River and Harry Skelton jump the last to win at Stratford. 27/10/2022 Pic Steve Davies

The Charlotte Cole Memorial Handicap Chase over a similar distance has been a standing dish for many years since the enthusiastic stable lass at Claire Dyson’s Evesham yard was fatally injured at work in 2012. Her parents were here raising money for the Midlands Air Ambulance that supported her retrieval. The result was a welcome return to winning form for Seamus Mullins, training Sheldon for Deborah Potter. Five of the trainer’s last seven runners have failed to finish, but this 12th winner of the term has him on target to better his recent performance. A mere 14l was the winning distance this time around.

Even J P McManus doesn’t know how many horses he has in training at any one juncture. The sport’s longest-standing owner remains hugely popular, despite having started life on the racecourse as a bookmaker. And in Gitche Gumee, he has a well-regarded youngster to take to Saturday cards under the expert eye of Barbury maestro Alan King. Taking up the running 2 out in the EBF Novices Hurdle qualifier, he soon asserted and won head in chest, 13l ahead of Swapped. Keep an eye out for third, Iceman Dennis though. He may yet earn connections a dividend.

Gitche Gumee and Tom Cannon win at Stratford. 27/10/2022 Pic Steve Davies

A muted welcome hailed the winner of the second, the 22/1 Copperfasten, who turned over warm favourite Fancy Your Chances from Philip Hobbs in the mares’ maiden hurdle. This wasn’t the strongest of races, but by comparison with others the same day, the 8 runner field and 4 1/2l distance at least presented a contest to raise the blood pressure.

Hereford’s Ryan Potter clocked up his fifth winner of the term in the concluding handicap hurdle with 7 year old Fazayte. Potter is a graduate of the Point-to-Point field, climbing the greasy pole of professionalism. Under an energetic and forceful ride from Kevin Brogan, Fazayte broke his duck at the 16th attempt, seeing off Guguss Collonges by 3 1/2l. No need for binoculars this time around.

Stratford is put to bed now until March, when one year in five, we are under water. That seems improbable given the driest summer since 1976, but the weather is about as predictable as British politics nowadays, so who knows.

Not so long to wait anyhow.

A little recouped, and much to anticipate

New recruit Hermes Allen repaid a little over 1% of his purchase price when winning the Maiden Hurdle at Stratford on Saturday, earning £4,084 toward his splendid £350,000 purchase tag. The Kirkistown maiden Point-to-Point winner of last November made a smooth Rules debut under Bryony Frost for Paul Nicholls and his power-team of owners that include Sir Alex Ferguson, Ged Mason and John Hales. This is precisely the role of our smaller venues in providing opportunities for the stars of the future to learn their trade, and star appeal was here in abundance.

Whilst the five runner field was hardly the cavalry charge of a Ballymore Novices in its heyday, the winner took control of the race from early, and never saw any danger, winning unopposed by 27l.

It was a day for the ladies, with half the races won by lady riders, and whilst it doesn’t do any more to draw attention to these coincidences, they still remain remarkable insofar as the odds remain stacked against women succeeding at the same rate as men.

The opening contest was a rare hurdle race confined to women riders, and drew the full range of expertise, from Bryony Frost and Gina Andrews, with 600 winners between them, to 7lb claimers. On this occasion, the latter won the day, when Thomasina Myers conjured up a last gasp run from Man Of The Sea between the last and the winning line to win by 3/4l from My Poem and Zamond. Thomasina was riding her fifth winner of the term, and seventh in all, for boss Neil Mulholland, also riding high with 33 Jumps winners under his belt.

At the opposite end of the card, Lilly Pinchin made all on David Dennis’s Flying Verse to land her twelfth winner of the season to date, and second in as many days, in the 2m6f handicap chase. Lilly is earning a reputation as a go-to conditional with Gloucestershire trainers like Ben Pauling, Charlie Longsdon, DJ Jeffreys and David Bridgwater.

Flying Verse and Lilly Pinchin [right] leads all the way to victory at Stratford. 15/10/2022 Pic Steve Davies

It was another Wiltshire trainer who showed his liking for Stratford when Milton Harris won his seventh race of the Stratford summer with four year old mare Aliomaana under Mitchell Bastyan in the Mares Handicap Hurdle. Harris has frequented Newton Abbot and Stratford with equal enthusiasm this past few months, and with pretty much equal success. This 28th winner of the term keeps him in the top flight whilst the big guns keep their powder dry.

One such, who hasn’t been fielding runners much this summer, is Kim Bailey. When the weather dried up back in the Spring, many of his horses were sent away on their summer break, but there’s evidence that they are fresh and ready to run in a couple of winners and promising form among those now reappearing. One example is Samatian, not likely to be one of Thorndale’s star performers, who nevertheless started his season in the best possible fashion with a 2l victory over Lazy Lover Boy in the William Hill Best Odds Guaranteed Handicap Hurdle. Just 40 runners have contributed to Bailey’s five winners, but on the basis of the past few richly endowed seasons, we can expect some higher profile excitement.

An eventful Pat Smyth 60th Birthday Handicap Chase saw thrills and spills in equal measure from the seven runner field as Nick Gifford celebrated a 40/1 winner in Fairway Freddie. Midnight Jewel, seeking a fourth summer victory under Lilly Pinchin, set a brisk pace which caught out Godrevy Point at the ninth, also bringing down Ahead of the Field. Thereafter, Pinchin appeared to have the rest of the field on the back foot, but James Davies harried her and Midnight Jewel all the way from the second last, and was able to capitalize when Midnight Jewel tipped up on landing at the final fence. Gifford’s horses are in good form; this was his second winner in as many runners, but Findon is sadly not the powerhouse of 25 years ago.

Fairway Freddy and James Davies [far] jumps the last with Midnight Jewel [about to fall] before victory at Stratford. 15/10/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Stratford bows out on October 27, so we hope you’ll join our swansong before the winter kings take over.

Winter kings assemble their troops

Autumn brings a changing of the guard in the Jumps game, where winter horses brought in from their summer holidays in July make their first appearances of the season as October breaks and the leaves turn golden brown. Generally, it’s a time when the bigger yards begin to assert with fresh, higher-rated horses raising the quality of racing overall, and with the advent of some big Saturday cards.

There were just some early signs of this changing of the seasons at Stratford on Monday afternoon, although still subdued. Winners for Dan Skelton (just 93 runners in the 4 months June – September) and Emma Lavelle (30 in the corresponding period) tell a story of the emerging chrysalis of a season springing falteringly into life.

If truth be told, this may not have been Stratford’s most memorable raceday with an aggregate 57 lengths separating first and second in each of the seven races. More runners than has been our habit indicated an encouraging sign of a growing horse population as summer jumper coincides with winter debutant, the first group by now well exposed, the second either re-awakened, or appearing for the first time. With just two further fixtures to run here, we’ve not long to see a horses that might be touted for the big Saturday races over the coming months.

One possibility however is Dream In The Park, a five year old from Emma Lavelle’s Ogbourne Maisey academy, who put a string of bridesmaid positions behind him with a 2 1/4l victory in a modest handicap hurdle over 2m 2f. Idling in front, he looks as if the win may teach him something, and his rating of 108 is probably an underestimation. A comfortable winner for Lavelle, her eighth of a slow-starting season, and 17th for rider Tom Bellamy.

Dream In The Park and Tom Bellamy win at Stratford. 3/10/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Alex Hales is another trainer not much given to volume entries in summer races, but his Jack Thunder made a winning debut over fences in the Re-Gen Waste Management Novices Handicap, beating favourite and persistent challenger Time To Bite1 3/4l under Harry Bannister, the second leg of a double for the rider. Hales is one of three trainers breathing new life into the famous gallops at Edgcote, where chasers of the standing of Spanish Steps were trained for the Whitbread family in a previous generation. That renewed racing association has also translated into a vibrant Point-to-Point racecourse, which is well worth a visit.

Not so long ago, Dan Skelton was a standing dish at Stratford, helping his younger brother to a first Jockeys’ Championship. The emphasis now is on higher quality horses for the core October-April season, and Skelton Snr is languishing in tenth position in the Trainers’ Championship with under £200,000 in winning prize money. Few can doubt that will change as the season gets into its stride, but it’s to our chagrin that this was Skelton’s first winner this summer at Stratford from just 9 runners. As our local big trainer, we must hope to see plenty more before the season closes on October 27th.

Meantime, juvenile Medyaf produced what may be his most facile winner of the term in a 7 runner hurdle, beating Oneforthegutter 35l after Le Breille tipped up at the last. It certainly wasn’t a fait accompli that Medyaf would have prevailed over the Richard Bandey – trained Le Breille, and there’ll surely be another race for him too.

Richard Bandey enjoyed better luck 30 minutes later when Master Dancer made a winning debut under Harry Bannister in the 2m novices’ hurdle. The French-bred came from Emanuel Clayeux in France, so has impeccable credentials. The second, Donaire, kept on well under Sam Twiston-Davies.

Twiston-Davies, Snr and Jnr had better luck in the middle distance handicap hurdle an hour later when Ballintubber Boy made all to win by 11l, the distance flattered by a last fence fall by Dynamic Kate. This son of Robin des Champs looks ripe for a chasing career although his 3 from 6 over hurdles means he’s no slouch over the smaller obstacles.

Ballintubber Boy and Sam Twiston-Davies win at Stratford. 3/10/2022 Pic Steve Davies

The day began with the arrival of the Shetland Bus, named after the clandestine ferry service of spies from the Shetlands to Nazi – occupied Norway in the Second World War. Under Luke Scott, Richard Newland’s German-bred stayer proved a good advertisement for the stamina of German bred horses on a weekend when Torquator Tasso was highlighting what the German bloodstock business does best at Longchamp, securing first place readily in the staying conditional riders’ chase. That the two races are separated somewhat in quality and value is immaterial. It’s a constant surprise that there are not more German-bred horses appearing in our Jumps races from a country where sprinters are virtually unknown.

If, as seems probable, Torquator Tasso heads for stud, Jump fans may hope his progeny enjoy the same level of dual success as Overton Stud’s Kayf Tara, recently retired. Four year old Kayf Legend, one of his last generations to appear, made a competent 4l winning debut in the closing bumper.

Upgrade on the cards for Hang In There

Here at Stratford, we make no pretence that our races are some sort of trial for Cheltenham. Our summer fare sets up competitive racing for best in class chasers and hurdlers from March to November. And whilst we love staging high value races as much as the next man, we recognize that a vast majority of horses in training are of a class that doesn’t merit running at Grade I courses, and our calendar caters well for them.

That said, every so often comes along a horse you can see is destined for the top flight. And at the time, or in hindsight, those that attended can say knowledgably that they recognized that latent talent in a modest race at Stratford.

Enjoying his fourth consecutive novice chase victory in today’s events from Newton Abbot is exactly one such example. Regulars at Stratford last summer will have enjoyed seeing Hang In There win two competitive handicap hurdles for Marlborough trainer Emma Lavelle. This is the sort of horse about which a trainer describes any hurdle career as “a bonus”.

Hang In There and Tom Bellamy jump the last to win the Jonathan Walker Memorial Handicap Hurdle at Stratford. 11/7/2021 Pic Steve Davies

To date, it’s difficult to fault his chase career. A second place on debut back in May, he has won his next four races by an aggregate distance of 108l. Emma would be the first to acknowledge that small 3 and 4 runner fields have presented easy introductory opportunities, but the style of victory has already got the handicapper rating Hang In There on 148, with the season barely underway. There is little to suggest the eight year old son of Yeats will not improve the 10lbs or so required to be able to win a Grade I like the Marsh Chase next March.

Talking to the Racing Post, Lavelle commented,

“He’s a decent horse, he just wants nice ground, he’s probably better than what you’d describe as a summer jumper,” Lavelle added.

“He’s had a straightforward summer winning these novice chases and more than earned the right to have a crack at a better quality race round a proper jumping track. I’d say we’ll look at the Rising Stars at Wincanton [November 5] as his target race.”

Modest in the extreme, Lavelle is hiding her excitement well. Her gelding is better than that for sure, and she knows it. But managing the expectations of owners Tim Syder and Andrew Gemmell, as well as the hype merchants of the Press is key.

We’re unlikely to see Hang In There back here for a novice chase this season, and if his season develops as anticipated, not for some time until the handicapper anchors him and his rating falls, but you can at least say, “I saw him here first”. Meantime, register on this site to check out your ante-post odds for upcoming big races as the autumn season gathers momentum.

Stratford – home for nurturing talent. Remember it well.

Pipe and McCain take advantage of O’Brien absence

Just 35 runners joined the party for what often identifies as Stratford’s first autumn fixture at a time where the top yards are beginning to flex their muscles. The long hot and rainless summer has left many yards on the touchlines however, awaiting some natural cut in the ground, so field sizes were again at a premium in front of a sizable crowd.

On a rare runner-less day for Trainers’ Championship leader Fergal O’Brien, it was the two snapping at his heels that continued their assault on the summer Jumps programme. The feature Keoghs & How Handicap Chase over 2m 6f was won by David Pipe’s El Paso Wood, justifying 7/4 favouritism under Tom Scudamore to win by 3l from Steel Wave after making all.

El Paso Wood and Tom Scudamore win at Stratford. 3/9/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Pipe’s 25 winners to date have him jostling for second place with Donald McCain, also successful in the opening limited handicap chase, in which just two faced the starter. Both the winner, Geronimo, and runner-up Pencreek, have been multiple winners this summer, cleaning up in largely uncompetitive small fields, including Pencreek back here in July. Brian Hughes elected to make the running on Geronimo and the order remained unchanged at the winning line, with 8l separating the pair. Hughes, runaway leader in the Jockeys’ Championship with 70 chalked up already, has enjoyed 5 winners at Stratford this summer, and rarely leaves without a winner on his visits here.

On a day for favourite backers, Sergeant put right his neck defeat of last month here with a 1 1/4l victory in the Duncan Potter Memorial Handicap Hurdle for Warminster trainer Milton Harris and weighing room senior Paddy Brennan. Ridden in rear, he took closer order two out, and looked all over the winner coming around the final bend. So it proved, as Lucky Lover Boy had no answer at the last to Sergeant’s late challenge.

Blaze A Trail continues to keep one step ahead of the handicapper, winning his third Stratford handicap in 6 weeks in the NAF Racing Handicap Chase for John Flint and Connor Brace. This was not a strong race, but who is to say that Blaze A Trail may not repeat the dose again after making all here. Flint will be making hay whilst the sun shines, or until some bigger guns appear to topple his game little champ.

Blaze A Trail and Connor Brace win at Stratford. 3/9/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Stratford is one of very few courses nowadays to stage selling races, but sadly the winner was not presented to auction after an eventful race for the Steve Wann 40th Birthday Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle. Baliyad, formerly an Aga Khan home-bred, but now running in the lowest class, made most of the running and held on to a narrow advantage over second, Persuer at the line. Pulling up, however, third-placed Stigwood rider Tom Buckley had lost his reins and contrived to jump the hurdle after the line. Baliyad, also pulling up, was also forced to jump it, unseated Ned Fox and fell.

If trainer Matt Sheppard was surprised by the winner, he was yet more surprised by the shenanigans after, and successfully withdrew the horse from auction.

The days of 20 runner bumpers seem well and truly over. In living memory, trainers were regularly balloted out of these races, but just four set off for the closing Andy Townsend Memorial Bumper, and the Jamie Snowden – trained Sea The Clouds finally got his head in front at the third time of asking for a smooth and accomplished length winner.

Twiston-Davies smartens up double-time

“Racing for the industry” was the phrase former Stratford Clerk of Course John Ford described mid week racing, but that was long before the era of summer jumping, which transformed the fortunes of courses like Stratford, Perth and Newton Abbot, willing and able to draw spectators to watch afternoon and evening cards from April to October. Our final evening fixture of the summer saw 44 runners spread across 7 races – enough for one or two scintillating finishes and a respectable crowd.

Your columnist spotted Nigel Twiston-Davies in Winchcombe last week searching for a haircut. Had I but known that our Nige was smartening himself up for a successful double-grab at Stratford on Monday, I might have acted on the Twiston-Davies attempt at sartorial elegance. That best-turn out feel however is largely reserved for the horses, and it shows. Four year old maiden Bagheera Ginge put two promising placed efforts at Uttoxeter behind him in a convincing pillar – to – post victory in the opener, where runners were sprawled behind in Indian file. 26l separated the first and third finishers in what might not necessarily have been the best contest. But Tom Bellamy looked admirably stylish in front to notch up his 14th winner of the term.

Flintstone wins at Stratford for Sam Twiston-Davies. 24/8/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Son Sam had to work rather harder for his riding fee an hour later when another juvenile, Flintstone, was perfectly produced to reel in long time leader Mutara after the last to win by the day’s shortest distance – 1 1/4l. Twiston-Davies has had a quieter summer than of late, running half the number of horses than last year, but the tally is much the same, and autumn is always a key season for the Naunton yard. Expect this sort of form to escalate over September and October.

Brian Hughes’ motto is “have saddle, will travel”, and he’s been a regular fixture at Stratford this summer, keeping his winner tally moving inexorably forward. Gary Hanmer was responsible for Monday’s Hughes winner in our feature Dominic Chapman Memorial Handicap Hurdle with 6/5 favourite Isthebaropen. Sadly the race cut up to just 4 runners, but there was little not to like about Isthebaropen’s attitude and comprehensive 12l winning margin. Whilst this was only Hanmer’s second winner at Stratford this season, he’s earned his way to a top 15 place in the Trainers’ Championship through 15 winners to date, and this sort of early season prominence is what aspirant trainers have to achieve to get noticed.

Another aspirant trainer not seen much at Stratford is John Flint, whose Monmouthshire yard is largely focused on the flat nowadays. Nevertheless, his Jumps runners are to be respected, and the all-Welsh partnership with Connor Brace produced Blaze A Trail, a winner here last month, to repeat that performance in the IJF South West Hub Now Open Handicap Chase, beating Polly Gundry’s Smith’s Bay 4 3/4l.

Blaze A Trail and Connor Brace win at Stratford. 22/8/2022 Pic Steve Davies

A small field faced the starter in the Grundon Waste Management Novices Handicap Chase, and in truth, there were only ever two in it. Commentator’s nightmare Punxsutawney proved the swifter of he and Neil Mulholland’s Cremant, the 7/4 favourite, to win by 1 1/4l. That said, it begs the question of what novice chasers are learning in small fields. If they ever stumble into a big 20 runner handicap, the learning curve may still be quite steep. Winning trainer Brian Ellison is highly successful on the flat and over jumps from his base on the top of Sutton Bank overlooking the Vale of York, but this was only his 20th runner over obstacles this summer, whilst attention is largely on the flat.

The Stratford Racing Club is a perfect example of the syndicate approach to ownership that brings more people into the sport. Another advocate of this approach is trainer Alexandra Dunn, in whose Devon yard you can own a small share from just £35 – no typo. That this inclusive approach is working was amply demonstrated by The Garrison’s 1 3/4l win in the Class 5 handicap chase, his first win for the yard.

No Stratford fixture would be complete without a winner for the self-effacing Fergal O’Brien, currently leading the trainers’ table with winnings of £432,000. Favourite backers were well content to see maiden Irish Point-to-Point winner The Galahad follow up on last month’s Newton Abbot success under Jack Hogan in the concluding bumper.

Holiday break a tonic for the summer brigade

The 2 week break from Jump racing was perfectly timed to coincide with the latest heatwave in our glorious summer, but it was as if it might never have happened as the leading proponents of Summer Jumping took the initiative once again for our first August fixture.

A total of 47 horses turned out for the seven race card on good ground, but it was an all – military affair that stole the riding honours for the day in the Walls & Ceilings International Ltd Handicap Hurdle over the minimum trip. Colonel Lesley, trained near South Molton in Devon by Claire Harris jumped his way into the lead two out, and held off a sustained challenge from the ranker Sergeant, from the in-form yard of Wiltshire maestro Milton Harris, winning by a neck. The pair drew 16l clear of the third, and gave the buoyant mid-week crowd a terrific buzz. Claire is only in her second full season, and already making a sound start, this her second winner of the term.

The metronomic winner machine that is Ravenswell Farm will have seen the August break as an irritating interruption of normal business. Fergal O’Brien has made a virtue of the little fish are sweet approach to early season racing and a first and last race double allowed him a short – priced advance to 49 winners. He is rapidly becoming the twenties answer to the prolific Martin Pipe back in the eighties. Eagles Realm was untroubled to follow up on his July win here in the opening Wildix Way Novices Handicap Hurdle, whilst 4 year old daughter of Kayf Tara, Leave Her To Me, had to draw on all of Paddy Brennan’s most forceful riding to get home by a length in the concluding bumper.

Eagles Realm was the first leg of a quickfire double for jockey Kielan Woods, successful 30 minutes later in the Stratford Racing Club Novices Handicap Chase with 14l winner Sea Prince, trained at Edgcote by ALex Hales. With three trainers now based at this historic racing estate, we should be seeing plenty more winners from this former home of Spanish Steps.

It’s a common misconception that Temple Guiting handler Jonjo O’Neill trains almost solely for billionaire J P McManus. That McManus has more horses in training than he can count is also another falsehood; the reality of ownership in the top flight is that you need to kiss many frogs to achieve the greatness of a Grade I winner. Six year old mare La Domaniale may not hit those dizzy heights for McManus and O’Neill, but it’s difficult to fault her development this summer with two wins at Uttoxeter and a 1 1/4l victory here sandwiching runner – up berths at Worcester and Market Rasen. She’s certainly good enough now to merit a rating for a decent handicap. O’Neill jnr has had a torrid time with injuries in recent months, but to be back among the winners is welcome.

La Domaniale and Jonjo O’Neill win at Stratford from Larch Hill and De Barley Basket. 18/8/2022 Pic Steve Davies

One man who knows a thing or two about riding winners is champion Brian Hughes. Rarely is a trip south wasted, and this one was no different. Rides for Donald McCain and the Pogsons may have fallen short, but Laura Morgan provided a 58th winner of the season on all-the-way winner Tardree, who never saw another rival, in the Walls & Ceilings International Novices Hurdle, with 16l back to the runner-up and a further 70l to the third. It’s a wonder the judge hung around that long.

Over the water jump in the National Racehorse Week Handicap Chase at Stratford won by Call Of The Loon. 18/8/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Longest – priced winner of the day came in the 3m3f handicap chase, when Call of the Loom reeled in long time leader Regaby to provide some cheer for Wales. Christian Williams is not best known as an exponent of the summer season, but under a busy ride from Jack Tudor, ran out a 6 1/2l winner of this Class 5 event.

Call Of The Loon and Jack Tudor win at Stratford. 18/8/2022 Pic Steve Davies

A lesson from Down Under: the All-Star Mile

Racing is in a fairly healthy position in the UK right now, particularly given the challenges of running a sport without spectators for large chunks of the last couple of years. Even allowing for a spate of small fields exacerbated by the low rainfall over the past few months, the sport retains a broad appeal across over 1,400 fixtures each year. But last month, the Racing Post launched a series of special reports under the banner, How Can Racing Broaden Its Appeal? And one of the key takeaways from the series of articles was that “Getting people involved is a major challenge for the sport.”

Of course, we have been here before. Each time there is a momentous performance on television – say, Rachael Blackmore’s heroics at Cheltenham and the Grand National – analysts talk about how it can drive engagement and appeal. Of course, it’s all well and good when saying these things after the Festival or Royal Ascot, but does it encourage people to attend the racing on a cold December night at Chelmsford? Or Stratford, for that matter, on the infrequent occasions when the sun is not warming our backs?

All-Star Mile has driven fan engagement

But there are ideas from outside the box that can drive fan engagement. An example is the All-Star Mile, which had its inaugural running in 2019 at Flemington Racecourse, the iconic home of Australian racing. If you aren’t familiar with the All-Star Mile, the main thing to know is that participation is largely decided by racing fans. To be exact, ten places in the races are allotted to horses who are voted in by fans. Five wild cards make up the rest of field. Of course, a bumper purse is offered to ensure owners are persuaded to let their horses run.

Zaaki, winner of the All-Star Mile 2022. Photo via https://twitter.com/allstarmile/status/1505047224132472834/photo/1

Now, if you really know your international racing, you might be aware that the Aussies nicked this idea from the Japanese. The fan-voted Arima Kinen race has been operating in Japan in some form or another since 1956. But the reason we chose the Australian version is that it shows how a good idea can ferment into popular culture quite quickly. Indeed, we would argue that the All-Star Mile has become a more engaging spectacle than The Everest, which was created in 2017 and is now the world’s richest turf race.

Perhaps our point is that the All-Star Mile is an example of where ingenuity trumps money. The Everest is a brilliant event, and it attracts some of the best sprinters in racing who look for a share of the £10million+ purse.

Race is rotated around Victoria

But the All-Star Mile attracts the casual fan, and one way it does this is through astute use of social media campaigning. The campaign reaches out to casual fans and potential fans, encouraging them to feel like they have a stake in the event. Indeed, before the 2022 race, TAB (Australia’s version of the Tote) ran a competition where one voter could become an “ambassador owner” of one of the horses selected for the race.

Another thing we like about the All-Star Mile is the fact it rotates. We mentioned Flemington earlier, but it will also go to Victoria’s other great venues, Moonee Valley and Caulfield. If such a principle was applied to the UK, there is no end of worthy venues that could host fan-voted races, including, of course, Stratford Racecourse. Imagine a concept like this through the Summer Jumps calendar at Stratford, Worcester, Perth and Newton Abbot.

Now, none of this is to say that UK racing should simply borrow the idea from the Australians (and Japanese), but it is the kind of concept that could yield dividends. One of the barriers to engagement with horse racing is the feeling that it is remote, particularly for those from urban areas. Campaigns like the All-Star Mile tear down those barriers through digital access on social media. The connection is there between fans and the selections in the race.

Something to think about.

Opposition folds in front of Cardboard Gangster

With 48 runners on yesterday’s 7 race card, Stratford bucked a trend of small fields by current standards during this dry summer, and the proximity to the River Avon and ability to apply liberal water to the track allows our popular summer venue to retain the confidence of trainers and owners.

At this time of year, good quality horses are hard to find around the limited range of Jumps courses able to combat the weather adequately. Class 5 steeplechases don’t often stir the soul, but the sport was still shown at its best in the Saige Handicap Chase mid-card, when turning into the short straight, any one of 5 contenders of the nine that faced the starter could have won. It was a driving finish from Tom Bellamy on D J Jeffreys’ Cardboard Gangster that got the better of a tussle with Flying Verse under the champion rider, just a 1/2l dividing them. This was a rare day without a winner for Hughes, who has been banging in doubles and trebles as if they were a Buy-one-get-one-free offer just recently.

Cardboard Gangster and Tom Bellamy jump the last to win the Saige Handicap Chase at Stratford. 28/7/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Local connections were again to the fore in the Martyn & Maureen’s Diamond Anniversary Novices Handicap Chase as Naunton newbie Ben Pauling led in another summer winner in French-bred 9 year old Pencreek. Pencreek has enjoyed a faultless summer; after 2 inconsequential chase starts last winter, his form figures for the last 2 months read 211, and whilst his official rating still hovers around 120, there will be other chases at this level to win. Rider Luca Morgan never really had to exert himself to shake up Pencreek to an easy 15l victory.

It was an all-Welsh affair in the last remaining chase over 2m 3f. There was little in the form figures of 4 1/2l winner Blaze A Trail to suggest his 14/1 wasn’t a fair reflection of his talent, yet the John Flint – trained winner, ridden by Connor Brace, held a comfortable advantage from 2 out, and never looked like getting caught. Flint is a more familiar face on flat courses nowadays, but his string look to be hitting a sweet spot, this being his second winner in as many days.

Just 6 faced the starter in the opening National Racehorse Week Novices Hurdle, but when the men and boys separated, it was only ever going to be a race between two proponents of the Summer Jumps game in Richard Bandey’s Give Me A Moment and Neil Mulholland’s Ike Sport. Give Me A Moment held the advantage under Harry Bannister, but Sam Twiston-Davies is never to be under-estimated, and saved his powder for a single devastating challenge at the last. It wasn’t enough however, and the Bandey representative made the most of his reversion to the smaller obstacles to pick up a second winner over hurdles and a 4th winner of the term for Bandey, who sports a 36% strike rate presently.

Retaining race fitness when you’re not riding much didn’t seem to trouble David Bass much in the Juvenile Maiden Hurdle. Bass’ main source of rides is Kim Bailey, whose summer runners are few and far between; in fact Bass has taken just 3 rides in the past fortnight, but made no mistake with Mutara, trained by Sean Curran, in what didn’t look the sharpest of races for our youngest entrants. The second, Graffiti, having a first run over obstacles, ran around some in the closing stages and may well improve when less green.

Lady Reset and Tom Scudamore jump the last to win the We Are IDP Mares’ Handicap Hurdle at Stratford. 28/7/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Second in the Trainers’ Championship, David Pipe might have considered yesterday an excellent means of keeping tabs on Fergal O’Brien. However, whilst there was no great surprise in Lady Reset’s 7l win in the Mares Handicap Hurdle mid-afternoon in a 4 runner field, a second winner was denied when Defi d’Oudairies, despite winning the closing handicap hurdle by a short head, lost the race in the stewards’ room. This seemed a somewhat harsh judgement given that neither rider stopped riding at any juncture, but margins were tight and “Rules is Rules”. The records will show a winner for Sam England and rider Tom Midgeley. What a breath-taking finish to close our day.

Kielan Woods sets Stratford alight with treble

Ladies Day at Stratford this year took on a matinee feel as the races were pulled forward to cope with the heatwave. And if truth be told, light frocks were still too much in the sweltering heat. However, as always, the horses were first in the queue, with plenty of water, assiduous teams managing their welfare and some competitive racing as a result.

The biggest prize of the day was the £25,000 Roger Wytton Stanley Memorial Handicap Chase, which saw a third course win for Larch Hill, determinedly ridden by our champion rider Brian Hughes for Charlie and Adam Pogson. Three of the select field of five were still in contention turning in, and despite a sustained challenge from the Nicholls – trained Mick Pastor, Larch Hill summoned up additional effort to pass the post 2 3/4l ahead. That’s three notches on the Stratford bedpost since September last year, emphasizing the truth behind the “horses for courses” adage.

Larch Hill and Brian Hughes [left] jumps the last with Mick Pastor before winning the Roger Wyton Stanley Memorial Handicap Chase at Stratford. 17/7/2022

Time was when you could regularly embarrass yourself in racing mixing one brother up for another, or in the case of the Hills brothers, talking about horses they’d never ridden! One man whose success currently means he may well need a double is Ben Pauling. If you know your Cotswolds, you will at least acknowledge the similarity in looks between him and affable estate agent Tom Hayman Joyce, to whom I chatted amiably and erroneously about horses for 3 minutes last weekend before he gently corrected me as to his identity! The real Ben Pauling’s horses are running very well presently, and another hit the line in front in the second of the three chases on Sunday when Serjeant Painter won his third consecutive chase under Kielan Woods for the Ben Pauling Racing Club, by a comfortable 2 3/4l. He looks very capable of continuing this winning streak, idling in front.

Woods was back in the Winner’s Enclosure 90 minutes later to complete a double when Ayr of Elegance struck a blow for the western side of the Cotswolds, scoring a fourth winner of the term for D J Jeffreys, who trains just outside Evesham. Leading from flagfall, the mare was kept up to her work by Woods, as she was in front a long time. It wouldn’t have taken much for her to drop her bit and lose momentum.

A good day at the office was not yet over for Woods however, with a booking for the Alex Hales – trained Queens Highway, who retained her unbeaten record in the concluding bumper – another sign of the resurgence of the location so famous in racing circles that is Edgecote, where the likes of Spanish Steps were trained.

Lambourn trainer Oliver Signy has been sparing in his Jumps runners over the summer, but few can fault a 50% strike rate, and winner of the second race, the Ardencote Spa Handicap Chase, Etat Major Aulnes, has been the contributor toward all of those 3 victories from 6 runs. Given the temperature, the trainer and his rider Gavin Sheehan will have been glad merely to ride him out for a 3l untroubled victory.

Etat Major Aulmes and Gavin Sheehan win at Stratford. 17/7/2022

A Fergal O’Brien/Paddy Brennan winner is a standing dish at Stratford, and so it turned out with Pop The Champagne, who took the fizz out of another prospective winner for Alan King when getting up in the last 100 yards of the Kerry Lewis Freelance Florist Novices Hurdle, but it was another Gloucestershire trainer who began the afternoon well.

Adrian Wintle knows Stratford well as a rider in a polished amateur career, and his select team of flat and national hunt horses deliver winners regularly for his owners. Jumps winners have been slight in the past year or so, with easier pickings from inexpensive horses discarded from bigger stables and aimed at handicap company. Twelve year old Ennistown was a runner-up here back in May, but went one better here in the opening Allan Atkinson Memorial Handicap Hurdle over 3m 2f to give Wintle his virgin winner of the term under the guidance of Tom Bellamy.

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