Harry and Power shine in the fog
Ben Linfoot reflects on a festive, but foggy, day at Ascot, where Unowhatimeanharry stole the show in the Long Walk Hurdle.
The runners disappear into the fog during the first at Ascot
"And your guess is as good as mine," groaned course commentator Ian Bartlett, as he had no choice but to admit defeat when the novice hurdlers in the first made their way down the back straight into the thick fog. It didn't get any easier to see the action throughout the afternoon.
The horses only appeared at intermittent intervals, to regular ironic cheers from the crowd. But while the pea soup that engulfed Ascot might have caused frustration to our narrator, it did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the audience.
How could it? This card is a Christmas treat and no expense is spared from Ascot when it comes to the festive theme. The 'Ascot Brass' pump carols around the place from the heart of the grandstand, where Mrs Christmas has a mail room and her husband a workshop.
There are quite a few merry Father Christmases on show, actually, the whiff of roasted chestnuts and mulled wine adding to the ambience, too. Even Frankel, the statue, had a Santa hat on at one point.
At least the Christmas trees and the golden decorations were sparkling inside, when outside it was anything but. Not a fleck of anything glimpsing through the thick, grey, blanket that denied us a full view of some cracking contests.
But did we see this year's Thistlecrack in Unowhatimeanharry?
Harry Fry's horse went into the fog under Barry Geraghty disputing the lead, he came out of it clear and won by four-and-a-half lengths in the end. He's now 3/1 from 9/2 with Sky Bet for the World Hurdle and there is no disputing he deserved such a cut.
Harry's story, horse not trainer, is a remarkable one. He won one race in 13 starts for his previous handler, Mrs Helen Nelmes, and that was on debut. Rated 123 when he turned up at Fry's, he went into the Long Walk a 165 horse, on the back of six wins in a row for his new yard, and he'll come out of it a bit higher still – unless the handicapper has been on the Christmas sherry.
"It's extraordinary," said Fry afterwards. "You couldn't ever hope for this or predicted it. But that's what is brilliant about National Hunt racing. Sometimes these horses come along and they keep finding and progressing unbelievably.
"He's got in the winning habit. And sometimes when horses get a bit of confidence you never know where they'll end up. It's a brilliant day and we'll keep dreaming for the rest of the season now.
"The journey goes on. The dream goes on. A proper test today as it was always going to be. Barry's come back in, we're relying on the jockeys today to tell us exactly what's going on, and he says he's really had to fight for him four out, but then he only does what he needs to. And he's very much like that at home, if he keeps doing that we'll be happy.
"We'll let him come out of this, we'll speak to the team and see what we want to do. But we'll probably look at the Cleeve Hurdle at the end of January and hopefully all systems go for the big one in March. We'll enjoy today first, it's a big one in its own right and a memorable day for sure."
"Maybe the plot was much more in the present than that, however. Maybe they were laughing at Regal Encore's price of 20/1 when it flashed up on the big screen ahead of the Lavazza Jolie Silver Cup Handicap Chase."
Lil Rockerfeller chased him home in second, the five-year-old trying his heart out once again under Unowhatimeanharry's former jockey, Noel Fehily.
You couldn't see in the fog, but trainer Neil King reported that he got too far back before staying on nicely and he too, like the winner, will be campaigned towards the World Hurdle, for which he is a 16/1 chance.
"I'm over the moon with his run," said a delighted King. "He's improved again, that's a career-best there and it's just a shame he got so far back in the race as he had a lot of ground to make up. He's closed all the way to the line and run a smashing race.
"I'm not sure what we'll do now, we'll go home and have a think, but the National Spirit at Fontwell will appear on his agenda, as will the World Hurdle, but it's just a case of whether we do anything with him between now and the National Spirit.
"Ever since he was a juvenile we said stepping up in trip would be the making of the horse and I'm glad we were patient and waited until this season before stepping him up to three miles. You're now seeing the real him."
Team McManus – Frank Berry, AP McCoy, JP himself and Jonjo O'Neill – were having a good laugh in the parade ring after Unowhatimeanharry's victory, probably cooking up some long-term Cheltenham Festival plot, I thought.
Maybe the plot was much more in the present than that, however. Maybe they were laughing at Regal Encore's price of 20/1 when it flashed up on the big screen ahead of the Lavazza Jolie Silver Cup Handicap Chase.
Minutes later Geraghty recorded a green and gold double on the horse, anyway, for trainer Anthony Honeyball.
It was a good day for another of McManus' trainers, Nicky Henderson, as well, although he was doing the winning for Isaac Souede & Simon Munir with Top Notch, and then for Michael Buckley with Brain Power, who beat Henderson's, and McManus', Consul De Thaix in the feature handicap.
Earlier in the afternoon Henderson's Captain Conan came to grief and somebody asked him if he had found his horse yet, to which the answer was a taut 'no', as he sauntered into the weather to find him.
But there was no such search needed for Brain Power. The fog lights of the cars carrying the cameramen picked him out, fully five lengths clear of his stablemate at the line in what was meant to be a competitive Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle.
This day wasn't just about the big guns, though. Having said that, it's probably unfair to describe Dr Richard Newland, Grand National winning trainer, as anything lesser than that, and he landed the opener with Desert Sensation.
The visor made a huge difference to this horse as he came from an improbable position, to say the least, when he won at Exeter last time. He traded at 1000/1 in-running that day, but didn't go bigger than his 6/1 starting price this afternoon. It is presumed Sam Twiston-Davies gave him a cracking ride from the front.
"We had a plan about two months ago, we got invited to Olympia tonight, so I got hold of Ian and said 'if we can have a runner at Ascot this day it would be great' and about a month ago he comes to me and says 'there's a race for him'."
You had to presume a lot on Saturday, and the first one poor punter, in front of me, saw of his selection, Pull The Chord, was when the jockey-less beast emerged from the mist in front of the stands halfway through the BGC Partners Handicap Chase.
The winner of that contest was the well-backed Poker School. Trained by Ian Williams and owned by a syndicate including Chubby Chandler and Lee Westwood, he was ridden by young jockey Donagh Meyler, over to ride Golden Spear in the closing Wessex Youth, and he gave him a peach of a patient ride.
Chandler said: "He always runs at the back so it didn't matter we couldn't see him at the front and then he comes nicely at the end. We had a plan about two months ago, we got invited to Olympia tonight, so I got hold of Ian and said 'if we can have a runner at Ascot this day it would be great' and about a month ago he comes to me and says 'there's a race for him'.
"He says 'I'm not sure how competitive he'll be but there's a race for him'. He sits on the fence a bit, he doesn't blow his own trumpet a lot. Adrian Heskin schooled him last week and he would've ridden him if he wasn't up at Newcastle. Ian asked him who he'd suggest to ride him and he came up with Donagh Meyler, with Adrian highly recommending him. He gave him a brilliant ride.
"We're really good mug owners, it's our only hobby and that's our 20th winner this year from about eight horses."
That doesn't sound very mug-like to me. Like Unowhatimeanharry and Brain Power and Desert Sensation, it was a good bit of training. That, at least, was plain to see, on a day when it was otherwise difficult to see anything very clearly at all.