Stratford’s new 2021 season opened under intermittent blue skies and a temperature slightly above the average for the time of year. But whereas one might have expected a buzz of anticipation around a season of summer jumps action ahead, or even the Cheltenham Festival the following day, the atmosphere remains subdued and professional.
The number of horseboxes in the car park outnumbered the volume of personnel at the course all engaged in going about the day-to-day business of horseracing. The nearest to a crowd was the smattering of walkers on the railway bridge overlooking the 2m start.
However, that didn’t take away from some interesting action on the course, with good ground appearing at last after a winter of wet and bottomless conditions.
The season began as it had finished, led by Warwickshire’s leading trainer, Dan Skelton in the juvenile hurdle, whose Stepney Causeway made all and won by 2 ½ l under brother Harry – further confirmation, were it needed, that the Skelton camp is in fine form approaching 28 of the best races of the year later this week. The Skelton run of form was compounded by the later win of Vision des Puy in the Handicap Hurdle, picking off long time leaders Glory And Fortune and Global Society 150 yards from the line.
In the Novices Handicap Chase, the well-known colours of Andrew Wates, whose winning record includes Rough Quest in the Grand National of 1996, were carried to victory by Kap Auteuil, picking up his second such race this year. The 22l victory under Harry Bannister, despite a hike of 12lb, shows there may be more to come and no-one was surprised if the 6/4 favouritism was any guide.
“Andrew Wates has been an immensely patient owner, and he’s had to wait a long time for this fellow to come good,” said trainer Toby Lawes afterwards, reflecting on his seventh winner of the term.
The West Country took home a winner of the following Novices Handicap Hurdle when Blazing Saddles was a competent if unspectacular winner from Isthebaropen and White Turf, under Matt Griffiths for Jeremy Scott, this the pair that enjoyed a heart-stopping success at Ascot in February when the Dashel Drasher won the Betfair Ascot Chase by the scruff of the neck.
And it was as far west again for the feature Handicap Chase over 2m 6f as Joueur Brasilien, another French-bred, took up the running from long time leader Orrisdale and held off the Skelton challenger Accordingtogino to win by 3 ¾ l, bringing success to west Wales and Rebecca Curtis.
I watched that race with trainer Kim Bailey, one of very few trainers to attend the fixture in person. And if truth be told, a trainer’s main raceday role being to chaperone owners, their absence is very understandable, especially among those with strong teams to despatch for Cheltenham during the week. The Bailey yard has enjoyed a tremendous winter with a fine run of form and a first Grade I for 25 years. Kim, however, confessed to feeling very stressed about his best Festival team in years, “Actually, I get stressed about every runner I don’t own myself,” he remarked. Such is the life of a top trainer, where expectation often exceeds reality. Not every ugly duckling turns into a swan.
One team this season where reality has exceeded expectation is Bailey’s neighbour across the Withington valley at Ravensbrook Farm – Fergal O’Brien. It’s next to impossible to keep the likeable O’Brien out of the headlines nowadays, and his momentum was maintained in the Novices Hunters Chase, appropriately enough for a track and a trainer that trade on their roots in the Point-to-Point field.
For a field that had seen more racing than most of today’s competitors put together, the field was most unruly at the start, wound up by 10 year old Golden Tobouggan, who sweated up and had to be taken to post early. No surprise therefore to see him and Alex Edwards make the running , but not before he’d sidelined another candidate in Maitre Express by kicking him at the start and forcing his withdrawal. The race itself was marginally less eventful, but at the business end, it was I’m Wiser Now who took advantage of the freewheeling style of Golden Tobouggan and Gottgottgetaway to take the inner berth up the straight and win by 5 ½ l. With the Point-to-Point season due to restart on March 29, it remains to be seen whether subsequent hunter chases will fill as well as those to date, but so far, they’ve produced some of the largest fields in recent years. Meantime, however, this notched O’Brien’s 86th winner of the term.
The afternoon had brought bright Spring sunshine to see out the Bumper to conclude the card, and with it, another local winner in the Charlie Longsdon-trained Parramount. Well backed at 6/4 favourite, he proved the second leg of a double for Champion jockey Brian Hughes, successful earlier for Rebecca Curtis. Hughes plans to swerve Cheltenham, and focus on the lesser fixtures during the week, where he can pick a hat-full of rides and consolidate his lead at the top of the Riders’ table. And whilst he may be ruing the modest challenge by northern-trained horses at this week’s Festival, that decision may give him the last laugh come the evening of April 24 when the season closes.