Ben Linfoot: QC on the AD
In this week's column Ben Linfoot chats to trainer Graeme McPherson on juggling occupations and his Cheltenham hopeful Ami Desbois.
Ami Desbois (right) leads Wholestone at Cheltenham in December
Question: Who is the only trainer to have won both the St Leger at Doncaster and the totepoolracing Follow Us On Twitter Handicap Hurdle at Wetherby?
Answer: Graeme McPherson.
Okay, hands up, this is only true on a technicality. A legal loophole if you will. McPherson acted as the QC for Qatar Racing when they successfully appealed against Simple Verse's dramatic demotion in the world's oldest Classic in 2015. So he sort of won the Leger, in the courts of law.
"It's the only time I'm going to win a Classic," said the dual-purpose trainer and racing-specialist barrister, who is in the unique position of spending most of his time either at the races or in the courtroom.
It sounds chaotic, but McPherson says he enjoys the logistic challenge and that he is backed up by a strong support team both at his Upper Oddington yard and at his offices in London.
"It makes for a lot of fun, certainly," he says. "It works well 95 per cent of the time and then occasionally I find myself going off to court when I should be going racing or vice versa.
"With my legal hat on I've worked in racing for about 15 years. I've represented a lot of trainers, a lot of jockeys and then there was the Simple Verse case."
McPherson wasn't joking, really, when he said it's the only time he'll win a Classic. Dual-purpose he might be, but he's top-heavy with National Hunt horses. 84 Flat runners in the last five years versus 693 over jumps.
That's not surprising considering his base, at Stow-on-the-Wold, half an hour's drive down the B4632 to Cheltenham.
But while winning a Classic is pie in the sky, winning down the road at the Cheltenham Festival is another matter. The dream is very much alive.
Ami a lively one in the Albert Bartlett
It's been the best season of McPherson's training career so far however you gauge success; record number of winners (23 and counting), winning strike-rate (17 per cent) or record earnings (just shy of £150,000). But a Cheltenham Festival winner would be the cherry on the cake.
And Ami Desbois, winner of the aforementioned Wetherby race at the weekend, is no forlorn hope for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at the Festival on Friday March 17.
The seven-year-old has earned his status as stable star this season thanks to a collection of form that just keeps on working out.
On his seasonal reappearance he won a handicap hurdle at Haydock from Desert Cry, a horse that has won twice since. Then he went to Cheltenham for December's Albert Bartlett trial and was beaten a length by Wholestone, who won on trials day, with West Approach in behind. After that he was third to Messire Des Obeaux in the Grade One Challow Hurdle at Newbury over an inadequate two and a half miles. And after those fine efforts in graded company he was left on a mark of 137 for that Wetherby handicap over three miles on Saturday.
McPherson was delighted with the assessor's leniency.
"I was genuinely surprised he was left on the same mark. When Wholestone won last weekend and then No Hassle Hoff of Dan Skelton's went up and finished second in the River Don the same day, I thought 'oh crikey, we'll be going up now', but thankfully he [the handicapper] left us alone.
"Hopefully he's shown now that he has been rather underestimated and in fact he's a much better horse than people have been giving him credit for. But I was very happy to take advantage of him being underestimated, let's put it that way.
"He goes straight to the Albert Bartlett. He had a hard race off top weight on Saturday, he saw it out well and he was pulling away at the end, but he was a tired horse Sunday so he'll have a very quiet week and then we'll get him back for March."
Ami Desbois is 33/1 for the Albert Bartlett, but Wholestone, who narrowly beat him in December, is the general 7/1 second favourite for the race along with West Approach, Colin Tizzard's half-brother to Thistlecrack, a horse that has improved since but one who was beaten almost seven lengths by McPherson's charge at Cheltenham.
"If he was from a bigger yard he wouldn't be 33/1," McPherson added. "I think he's very good value at that price compared to a lot of the horses that are half those odds.
"I think he'll act on spring ground, but he benefits from soft ground simply because he copes with it very well when perhaps some others don't.
"When he won first time out it was only a Hexham maiden but that was on decent ground and he bounced off the top of it, he was absolutely fine.
"It won't bother him, certainly not over a stiff three miles."
Another one for Cheltenham?
Ami Desbois formed part of a Wetherby double for the McPherson yard on Saturday, with Skipthecuddles landing the first leg in the totepoolliveinfo.com Novices' Hurdle.
He might have Cheltenham aspirations too.
"He's got entries in the Neptune and the Albert Bartlett and it'll be interesting to see how his form works out. Although he finished second behind Keepers Hill at Hereford nothing has really come out of that race since. Likewise, on Saturday, the favourite disappointed quite a lot so it's difficult to know how good he is.
"I think he'd need to improve from Saturday to be considered proper Cheltenham material, but if he improves the way he did after Hereford I certainly wouldn't rule him out."
One To Watch
There's one to look out for called CAPTAIN McGARRY who will run for the first time in two or three weeks. He's going to be a nice one for the future. He's proper National Hunt bred, so he's probably not one to look out for in a bumper but when he goes over hurdles he'll be a nice horse. I'd be disappointed if he's not a decent novice hurdler over 2m6f or three miles, but he's going to be a three-mile chaser in time.
What we won't be seeing on poor old Skipthecuddles anytime soon is a first-time tongue-tie.
"We brought him in last summer, he'd been on the walker for about 10 days and we found his tongue on the floor of the walker. It was pretty unpleasant. I'm not just talking an inch off the end, I'm talking eight inches of tongue on the floor.
"The vets said if he learns to eat and drink he'll be fine, if he doesn't learn to eat then he's in trouble. Fortunately, he's a nice greedy horse, he's had three runs this season, he looks in immaculate condition and he really likes his food and it doesn't seem to bother him at all. He's mentally a bit backward and I'm not convinced he's noticed it missing yet."
Blanco has Betfair claims
Seventh in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, Kayf Blanco had a brief fling in a beginners' chase at the start of the season but returned to hurdles on his next start, at Sandown, where he was third behind subsequent Ascot one-two Brain Power and Consul De Thaix.
Then he went to Exeter on New Year's Day where he was a slightly disappointing fourth, but he had excuses that day, and McPherson is happy with him again now.
"He was a bit disappointing at Exeter last time out, but a horse [Lord Of The Island, who won at Sandown on Saturday] fell in front of him three out and he got quite badly kicked. He needed stitches after the race and I think that probably knocked him sideways.
"He's over that now and he seems to be in good order at home.
"We finished behind the two of them [Brain Power and Consul De Thaix] at Sandown and obviously they went and ran crackers at Ascot just before Christmas.
"I don't think he's particularly well handicapped, but nor do I think he's unfairly handicapped. There might be a few pounds there that he's got to play with.
"I've always thought of him as a low 140s horse and he's off 136 at the moment so there might be five or six pounds in hand.
"He ran a cracker in the County Hurdle and he's a real slick jumper, so it was unfortunate they didn't jump the last that day. He's run on to finish seventh, beaten just six lengths for third, so he's a proper horse.
"Soft ground won't do him any harm on Saturday, just to slow some of them up a bit. These days, two miles on a stiff track is absolutely perfect for him."
The future is bright
The odds say a Betfair Hurdle win is unlikely and you can say the same about the Albert Bartlett too, but, arguably, factored into those prices is a bit of 'small-yard syndrome'.
It's helped McPherson attain a not-too-shabby £1 level-stakes profit of +79.38 this season, perhaps the most telling stat among a sea of healthy numbers.
"We've had a fantastic year," McPherson said. "Last year was good and we set a target at the beginning of the season thinking if we could beat last year's number of winners, we're already well ahead of that and up around 17 per cent.
"When we started it was all about trying to get nice young horses in to see them develop and we're seeing them develop this year. The ones that we bought as three and four year olds a few years ago are now winning their novices and they are turning out to be nice, good-rated horses."
It's unlikely McPherson has a better one, yet, than the talented Ami Desbois. The affection for him shines through and the reason for that is the feeling that there is so much more to come.
"He's a massive horse with bags of scope. You see the way he jumps his hurdles and he's very quick and efficient at those and he's just the same at fences as well.
"We thought we'd keep him back one more year to go hurdling. A year older and a year stronger next year, I think he'll be a better chaser than he is a hurdler. And he's a pretty decent hurdler."
McPherson makes a good case for his stable star. As you would expect.
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