While I am sure most of the seven readers of my long-lost blog are probably well over the mourning period for the afore mentioned and moved onto some copy far more engaging, entertaining and reliably produced, I have had the motivation recently to write about our season or year just passed.
The Covid19 year of no crowds, no cheering, no interaction, no normal.
The year of masks, cold, empty racecourses. The year of no clapping when the horses returned or atmosphere around a paddock. The unease in places through the winter of would it all continue?
Racing has faced many challenges this past year so I may shock plenty of you when I say that in all my five years as assistant, this is the one I will remember with most fondness.
I know it is odd but bear with me and I will do my best to make sense of that statement.
You see, during this pandemic-ridden dirt bag of a year that we have endured when separation, isolation and loneliness were commonplace, I do not think there has ever been a time when Paul’s often mentioned ‘Team Ditcheat’ has ever been so important to the people involved in that very team.
I am fully appreciative of the fact I, and everyone else working for Paul and in racing, that we have been incredibly lucky during the past 12 months to be able to get up, go to a job we love and, while things were not normal, we each had a purpose in life to wake up and carry on as normal as possible.
It turns out that is just about the most sacred thing you can have.
I think being part of something has made it easier for all of us and through it all I hope that everyone working in Team Ditcheat has felt we have stuck together and worked as a group to provide Paul with another fantastic season.
Numerically, from Christmas onwards, we felt that the magic number of 171 (up until then our best every tally) was there to be beaten, so we were all delighted when Threeunderthrufive ridden by Adrian Heskin won at Perth in the last week of the season to beat our tally. The clock eventually stopping on 176 after a fabulous three-timer at Sandown on the curtain closer.
This season though was not just about numbers, there were some truly memorable days scattered amongst the stream of victories and, like I did at this time last year, I am going to give you my top 10 moments from that season.
I will just add that these are not Paul’s highlights or the yards, they are just mine, things that meant a lot to me for some reason or another, moments that I enjoyed or got a kick out of – bigger than the one I do when we are lucky enough to have a winner.
I would also say that it is only when looking back at a season you realise this list could be 25 highlights long so 10 is the figure I reached hoping you would not fall asleep reading it.
10. Miranda goes up in Grade
I will start things off with a freezing cold January day in Doncaster. With such a great mares’ programme in the UK, having a nice mare in training can be lucrative so when the owners’ group syndicate purchased Miranda in November 2018 from Arqana in Deauville I am sure they did so in the hope her smart flat from would relate to hurdles. Happily, she took to jumping from the start and has enjoyed a good career ever since winning five hurdles’ races amassing just shy of 60 thousand worth of prize money.
Miranda is a charming mare with a fine temper when fresh, who can pull some snarly faces in the stable, but generally she has a wonderful personality and plenty of talent to go with it. Winning Graded races is always great but for a good-looking mare by Camelot this win in the Yorkshire Rose Mare’s Hurdle was significant for her future as a broodmare. I obviously hope we get to enjoy her for a good bit longer as a racemare, but when she does eventually retire to the paddocks she will do so with a good pedigree and that all-important black type which makes certain she will have a lovely home for life. Nothing short of what she deserves.
9. A January six-timer
Saturday 9th January, Wincanton, Kempton and a rearranged Chepstow. January is never all that busy for Paul, in fact up until this season he had never had more than 10 winners in the month. This Saturday in question though helped put that record right and gave me one of the finest days of the season. I headed to a freezing Chepstow where Pozo Emery and Storm Arising did their stuff, the Wincanton team got the job done with hugely promising Flash Collonges and Capeland while Harry and Paul headed to Kempton to win with Barbados Buck’s, Mcfabulous and Master Tommytucker.
It was one of those days that just when you thought it could not get better it did. Macfabulous has always been a horse I love so it was great to see him do the business but also fantastic for owner breeders Tony Fear and Louise Cabble to watch their Tommytucker win, despite giving everyone heart failure at the last.
We are lucky enough to enjoy doubles or trebles with some regularity, but a six-timer was very cool indeed.
8. Next Destination’s season
This highlight is not a moment, or a race for the matter, this is an entire season. In an earlier life, Next Destination had the world at his feet, placed in a Ballymore Novice hurdle he then went on to win the Grade One novice hurdle over three miles at Punchestown, stardom surely ensued.
Sadly for the subsequent three years, he was plagued by injury preventing him from racing at all in that period, so when Mr Denmark entrusted Paul with him in June it felt like one last roll of the dice with what is clearly a talented, but fragile horse.
It was very clear from the start, that we were dealing with a wonderfully natured horse who, despite a fair degree of rust, seemed to have retained all his enthusiasm and enjoyment for his work.
Paul and Clifford, along with Charlie who rides and looks after him, eventually found a routine for him that worked, a routine that included weekly sessions on the water treadmill combined with a different kind of work day including two steep hill trots as well as his hill cantering. Eventually he became ready to start.
A run behind British super mare Roksana at Weatherby started things off nicely before our lad notched a brace of Grade Two novice chases to add to his already impressive cv at Newbury and Warwick, where his bold, accurate jumping came to the fore.
He then went onto the Cheltenham Festival for the NH Chase where he found only Galvin too good in a race where a slightly faster pace might have suited. However, it was still a really good season that would not have been possible without a huge amount of a patience from Mr Denmark, a well thought out routine from Paul and Clifford, care every day from Charlie and hours of physio work from Theresa Dufosee.
Touching all the wood possible that the wheels remain attached, I have little doubt Next Destination will be capable of mixing it in some of the top staying chases next season. He is a fantastic lesson to a young wannabe trainer like me that flash homework from a horse is about as much use as a sunroof on a submarine.
Good lad Denis.
7. Harry riding breaking through the century of winners for Paul
If you are going to have a good season and train loads of winners, I find it is dead handy to have an excellent stable jockey. In my opinion Mr Cobden is just that. It is so easy to forget due to his impressive cv he is in his very early 20s. It was significant that on the final day of the season, when asked on ITV for a seasonal highlight Paul opted with the performance of Harry and how well he has done throughout the year.
During the year I have spent a huge amount of time in the car with Harry and he has become a really good friend, telling me about his farming, his personal ambition for his riding career and shooting, as well as offering the odd well-placed and timed moment of humour. Without doubt what I respect him for the most is his ability to stay level-headed.
I will just add that half the reason I am routing for him all the time is that if he keeps doing well he might get a new car. Sitting in the back of his current conveyance would be seen as a form of torture in some parts of the world.
It is a well-known fact that jockeys have a brutally tough way of life with falls an occupational hazard, not to mention the fact that even the best of them only win 20 or so percent of the time. Nothing remarkable about that I hear you say and there is not, but Harry throughout the year won and lost, was brilliant and not so brilliant, but he was the same guy at the end of every day, something I find really hard.
After Cyrname flopped in the King George he wandered out ready to ride in the next race and his first words to me wearing his big smile was “wasn’t that brilliant for B” same after Clan won at Punchestown, a text that evening saying what a fabulous result and how delighted he was for everyone.
It is a tough sport and he, more than anyone like every other jockey, desperately wants to win but his attitude in adversity is what I respect him for most. I also genuinely believe he is getting to be a better and better jockey. Sadly, the jockey’s championship dream did not work out this season but he will be back better than ever before too long.
I cannot write a jockey section without mentioning Bryony, Lorcan, Bryan and Angus who have backed up the main man all with great skill and success. Paul does his best to stick with his team when he can and they all ride plenty of winners. It is also nice on occasion that we can use Sam Twiston-Davies, Sean Bowen and Harry Skelton, three long-time friends of the yard.
6. Keep with the old and welcome the new
If you are being picky, then I have to say this is kind of two highlights, but they were both in December and they were both Grade One wins so work with me please. Any Grade one victory is special, and always provide memorable days, but the reason I want to talk about these two are because they came from two high-class horses at different ends of their careers.
Politologue has danced just about every dance, ran in more than his fair share of brutally tough contests and what is so wonderful about him is his sheer love and appetite for his job. He is a special horse in Ditcheat and as he galloped round Sandown jumping with his trademark pin-point accuracy, his ears permanently pricked forward down the back straight eyeing up his next jump – it was clear he was at his best.
He galloped up the Sandown hill that day under a Harry Skelton-drive to register his second Tingle Creek triumph and fourth open Grade One. Politologue is not the best horse to win the Tingle Creek but he is adored by those in Ditcheat and the Hales family who have enjoyed him for so long.
That day he was followed up the hill by a certain Greaneteen, who has improved beyond all recognition through the season to end up scooting up in the Grade One Celebration chase at Sandown on the final day of the season.
Bravemansgame’s success in the Challow for owners Bryan Drew and John Dance was another great day because for me this was a snapshot of what is to come from him. Admittedly, he was not good enough at Cheltenham and bumped into one at Aintree at the end of a long season, but this is a horse who, when he takes to chasing, will be wining plenty more Grade Ones.
Harry set a pace that suited him throughout the race and when he asked him for more effort up the home straight he galloped out really well. You hear it all the time the old ‘anything he does over hurdles’ type chat but with his physique and scope I am sure in the words of Frank Sinatra the best is yet to come.
5. Secret Investor’s Denman chase
Now I could talk about this lad all day long, Secret Investor. You would travel a long way and not find a better natured, kind or more wonderful horse to be around. He is a complete joy. Full of character, completely bomb proof around people or traffic, hilariously boisterous to saddle he is just one of those horses who if he were rated 80 you would not be able to help but adore him.
Throughout his career he has been a fine servant, winning plenty of nice races when the ground conditions are in his favour, the Denman Chase however was his day in the sun that he so richly deserved. When he is on song, for those of us that know him well, he’s a joy to watch, when things click and he bowls along with his handsome Kayf Tara head bowed, nose pointing out just to assure you he is doing his best, you know he’s going to take a bit of passing.
I know he beat a not fully-wound up Clan Des Obeaux, but for Clive and Joan Hitchens and Kate who looked after him it would not have mattered what he beat; Secret Investor won the Denman Chase, and even under the mask I could not hide my smile for a horse with a heart of gold and one that will always hold a place in my heart.
4. Frodon is the Christmas king
“So in conclusion Harry what’s your view, do you think he should run in the King George?”
“Absolutely Mr Vogt, if Paul and team are happy with him then he should absolutely run, he’s more than good enough to run in it, I know you’ve wanted a runner in the race for some time and whilst I cannot see him beating Cyrname and Clan Des Obeaux, he more than deserves his place”
Shows what I know.
That was a conversation Mr Vogt and I had a few weeks before Frodon and Bryony bossed a King George like only they could. Paul made no secret of the fact he was not the most fancied of our runners on the day but the thing is with this combination is they have a habit of springing a surprise and this was no different.
Of course, Frodon is a very high-class horse and, perhaps if he had not got stuck in the mud at Aintree three weeks before, he would have been half the price. Irrespective of that blip, Bryony got her best and most loyal partner in a fabulous rhythm out front and before you knew it they were in total control. His trademark kick from three out meant he got away from his rivals and he galloped home with his ears pricked to win the famous Christmas spectacular.
Mr Vogt is a wonderful man, whose patience and loyalty has massively paid off over the past few years and every time we have a winner for him there is not a person in the yard not delighted for him. I know he has suffered some personal tragedy this year and, while he is a private man, I am sure he will not mind me saying that I have no doubt at all that Frodon did her proud as he always does.
3. Bumper pack of young guns
To be honest, such is my passion for the yearly cycle of young horses in Paul’s care I could have quite happily written an entire blog on these bumper horses, but in the interest of not wanting my readers to fall asleep I thought I best keep it a little more concise.
In a nutshell they really did Paul proud this season. From being purchased two summers ago, broken in by Will Biddick, a man whose skill with young stock is unrivalled in my opinion, to joining “big boy” school, this year’s crop were always a lovely bunch.
From Stage Star who won in very taking fashion at Chepstow, Silent Revolution, Petrossian, Chavez and Gold Bullion all really good winners, Chavez a bit of a yard favourite due to his consistent and sustained effort to drop Angus on a daily basis, an effort that in fairness yielded plenty of success.
Shearer and Mr Glass, two of my personal stars winning three bumpers between them, Le Chiffre
D’or, Kandoo Kid, Rainyday Woman and Flemenstide all getting their heads in front too.
It was perhaps fitting then after such a brilliant bumper season that Knappers Hill topped it off by winning the Grade Two Aintree bumper under a superb ride from Meg. At this stage, Knappers holds the best form and his schooling has been excellent, but I am confident that all of these young horses will be very exciting novice hurdlers and chasers to appear in the coming seasons.
It is such a satisfying way of producing horses and Paul, I know for a fact, gets a great thrill from giving them time to develop and turn into future stars. He is not the only one. Not forgetting that Mcfabulous, Enrilo, Threeunderthrufive and Flash Collonges have all come through this system, so it is clear in the results that some lovely horses are being produced.
2. 12th championship for the boss
When you get to the sort of dizzy heights Paul has managed to achieve in his training career one may be forgiven for thinking that there is not much left to tick off. Well, in Ditcheat that is not really the way we see it. Paul being crowned champion trainer for the scarcely believable 12th time was a magnificent milestone for him as well as everyone that puts so much in to make it possible.
A championship cannot be done with a week of hard work or a few months for that matter. It is the sum total of a year of endless toil from a huge number of people to make it all happen, the summer runners, the isolation yard, the rest and recuperation yards, pre training, the farriers, vets, physio, feed suppliers, fencers, jockeys, stable staff, office staff, Clifford Baker and David Rochester our two head men, it literally cannot be done without everyone putting it in all year round and so, when Paul stepped up at Sandown to collect a trophy he knows so well, I smiled at a really good job done.
It was the second trainer’s championship I have been lucky enough to be assistant for and I am so delighted I was part of it. Sometimes working with him every day you would be forgiven for taking what he does for granted, but he will keep doing it in his restless, unrelenting, competitive I will not be beaten sort of way.
1. The final punch from Clan
Now before you say Punchestown was not really a part of last season I am aware of that fact.
It was however one of the best racing weeks I have ever enjoyed and while Bob And Co and his fantastic owner/rider David Maxwell were brilliant in winning the champion Hunter Chase on the Friday, this trip for me was made on the Wednesday by a certain Clan Des Obeaux.
Tremendous at Aintree 20 days before hand when winning the Grade One Betway Bowl, Clan went to Punchestown in excellent form with Paul and team expecting a big run on a track that looked sure to suit him. With a dual Gold Cup winner as your main rival you are never bursting with confidence, but we really felt that if Clan put up one of his best efforts we would be right there in the mix.
Of course, I am biased as we came out on top of a brilliant race, but what unfolded in the Irish Gold Cup is exactly what you desire in a high-class staying chase in my eyes. An unrelenting gallop with pressure on horses’ jumping where stamina and class comes to the fore.
Having watched it back now 784 times I am still struck by how brave a ride it was from super sub-Sam who kept pressing the pace throughout the race and was quite brilliant on Clan conjuring five of his best jumps at the last five fences.
Sam was so strong and committed approaching the last two fences and Clan bravely answered his jockey’s request. My dream is and always will be to be part of winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup, it is the race that inspires me the most and one day I hope I will be lucky enough to be part of that.
To be part of winning the Punchestown equivalent though was something I will never forget and in difficult circumstances I still felt the warmth of the Irish hospitality, hopefully we can go back there next year with a big team and enjoy a more normal year.
So there we have it, another year gone by full of great days, fun days, hard days, sad days, funny days, satisfying days, slow days, freezing bloody cold days and just about everything in between. As I said at the top of the blog, I have felt lucky to be doing what I am doing still in work and have something to wake up and do in such odd, uncertain and scary times.
May is always busy with plenty of racing still on the agenda and, rather excitingly back at base camp, a brand-new schooling arena to get right. There is also some other May-type jobs to do, as well as turning most of the horses out for their holidays – I am sure the month will fly by before June.
June is going to be my rest this year, a bit of Padstow, bit of golf, hopefully lots of cricket and some sleep. That will take us up to July and we will be ready to hopefully do it all over again.
Let us hope that come next winter we will all be able to go racing in a more normal world once again.
Until then however, thanks for catching up and go well.