On the wings of a dove

February 17th, 2022 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

Knockabout Queen won my selling race at Brighton in 2019. She followed up at Bath and was too high in the handicap for a while but I followed her career closely and was rewarded the other day when she picked up a very modest  Class 6 at Southwell at 10/1, backed down from 18/1 quite late in the day.

In some ways I’d rather Rhubarb had won a similarly weak contest over five furlongs earlier on but I thought Richard Price was asking a lot of her after a good second in a rough race the previous week. Given three weeks off (and widely ignored, we hope) she may yet win a poor sprint at the same venue.

Richard raced the far superior mare Flakey Dove on a regular basis as well but she was very tough and rewarded him with a heart-warming victory in the Champion Hurdle of 1994. She’d previously finished third in the big Newbury handicap  –  the Tote Gold Trophy by then  –  and won the Berkshire Hurdle over two and a half miles before going to Cheltenham. Just eighteen days after her hour of glory, she was winning a conditions race over two miles on the flat at Haydock.

I found myself thinking about her during the Betfair at Newbury, a race which attracted only 14 runners this year  –  despite the bumper prize of £87,000  –   and bore little or no resemblance to the famous (infamous?) multi-runner handicap hurdle introduced by Schweppes way back in 1963.

Findon maestro Captain H Ryan Price, who wore his trilby at a rakish angle and nursed little regard for any sort of authority bar his own, won three of the first four and then, in 1967, came the remarkably easy victory of the stable’s Hill House, with Josh Gifford barely moving a muscle in the closing stages. The Jockey Club had taken the unusual step of promising an official inquiry if Hill House bounced back from a recent defeat, a ‘threat’ which Josh told me the Captain thought quite amusing. There was indeed a protracted inquiry which went on for months before it was decided that Hill House produced his own cortisol. Whether or not the findings were valid, the form book shows that this enigmatic character never won another race.

That day at Newbury I stood next to the man who shouted out ‘You won’t get your licence back this time, Price!’ (trainer and jockey were stood down when Rosyth showed remarkable improvement in 1964) and several years later I was in exactly the same spot alongside an ecstatic Mick Channon when Jamesmead completed a more routine victory. Mick’s first horse was Cathy Jane, shared with the feisty (he kicked people) Southampton inside forward Brian O’Neil. Cathy Jane, trained by Bill Wightman, visited the great man’s star sprinter Import, easily my favourite horse, and Jamesmead was the happy outcome, though he was trained not by Bill but by David Elsworth.

It’s a strange thing but in an odd sort of way my most poignant memory is of a year when the race fell victim to the weather. In 1985, Richard Price’s uncle Gordon still held the licence at Leominster and ‘the Doves’ were in full cry. Indeed, there were hardly any inmates which didn’t trace back to Grey Dove,  another part of the story being that the mares invariably produced filly foals when their time came.

I was working for BBC Radio and went to see Gordon on a freezing Friday, the day before the race, and we recorded a piece about Stan’s Pride, not related to the Doves but quite strongly fancied for the Newbury feature. We sat before a huge open fire and Gordon was charm personified. If I say so myself, I was proud of the piece we put together for the next morning’s Sport On 4 programme because it’s hard to convince hard-bitten producers where racing is concerned (true then and still true now) but the Doves reached everyone. Gordon’s lilting burr did no harm and, of course, listeners would have Peter Bromley calling Stan’s Pride home on Sport On 2 later on.

It was late when I drove back down the M4  –  we lived in Thatcham, three miles from the course in those days  –  and the bitter chill had given way to steady rain. I didn’t think too much about it and was encouraged when waking up to complete silence at 6am. Parting the curtains soon banished any optimism because the garden, together with the whole of Newbury racecourse, lay under an impressive covering of snow. No feature, no race, just a sad anti-climax.

A few weeks later Stan’s Pride ran in the Champion Hurdle. She was backed from 150/1 to 100/1 just before the off and you can see the closing stages on YouTube with commentary by Peter O’Sullevan. She’s only fifth or sixth between the last two flights but you simply know she’ll come between horses for third as See You Then goes clear. She was a grand little mare and, as Gordon said with a rueful mile in the unsaddling enclosure, ‘What a bet she’d have been in the Schweppes,eh?’

I saw John Santer afterwards. Dear old John, who was known as ‘the Bish’ because his near-identical brother was the Bishop of Birmingham. He worked for the Sporting Life and we’d had a similar each-way bet on the mare, who would surely pay well for a place. Which just goes to show how wrong you can be because, incredibly, she paid under 2/1.

Mind you, the race itself and finishing third meant more than the money, just as Dawn Run’s unforgettable Gold Cup triumph twelve months later was all about the moment. You had to be there and I watched that one with the Bish, as well. Sadly, he’s gone now. So too the Captain, Josh and Gordon. I used to say to John McCririck that there would come a day when only he and I remembered certain things, like ‘Additional Runner’, when a horse not even down to run in the papers turned up and won.

No one believes that but I can assure you it’s true. It’s just that I’m running out of people to confirm it. Maybe I’m the only one producing my own cortisol.