Piggott and Sturdy – quiet communicators
August 23rd, 2019 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News
I suppose this will be the last racing week I attend for a while. When work comes to an end, as it surely must at 70, the thought occurs that there will need to be quite a lot of winners to make up the shortfall. Whilst I frequently inhabit a fantasy world, I’ve never actually fooled myself that I could meet all my obligations by backing horses.
Therefore, York this week, Goodwood on Saturday and the Carnaby seller at Brighton will have to be it for the time being, a thought which occurred as Enable refused to give best to Magical on Thursday. This wonderful mare reduces Dettori to tears, which has quite an effect on the rest of us, as well. A third Arc triumph would be the perfect finale and she has all of September to prepare, though I thought she was made to work hard on the Knavesmire. The brilliant Zarkava passed everything in the Vermeille and won easily but had to find a lot more three weeks later. If Enable does indeed prevail it will make her one of the greatest racehorses of all time.
Gazing across the Knavesmire, I thought of the various changes over the past thirty-odd years. The smart hotel opposite the stands used to be called The Chase, then it was The Swallow and now it’s part of one of the major chains. When I first went in there before racing, no doubt seeking a lunchtime livener, there were priests everywhere, enough to make me wonder what the collective noun might be. I wrote about them in the Sporting Life and received a lovely card from Northern Ireland. “We were not priests but vicars fifty,” it said. I wrote back, expressing the hope that they backed winners plenty and that our paths would cross again.
I suppose we’re all bound to remember certain years more clearly than others. In 1970 I graduated from Cambridge and a few months later my father died. In between, Tintagel II ran away with the Ebor for Lester Piggott and Richmond Sturdy after an indifferent run at Brighton. My dad, an old Geordie miner who favoured ‘pit ponies’, as he called them, trained by Eddie Magner, only ever bet in shillings but I’d taken him to the races a couple of times and he especially enjoyed Alexandra Park, or Ally Pally as it was universally known. He smiled at the memory of one of Sturdy’s going into the bottom bend, invisible from the stands, in last place and emerging in front. Quite a lot went on in those days and I recall Epsom trainer John Sutcliffe telling me that tighter security, assisted by many more cameras, meant that certain ‘strokes’ could never be pulled today.
John, who went to live in Shrewsbury after looking for all the world like an ‘homme du monde’ who divided his time between Epsom and Curzon Street in Mayfair – he trained for Albert Finney, after all – was happy for me to write a piece detailing how an early-season winner, well ahead of the handicapper, was all set for the Newbury Spring Cup and the Royal Hunt Cup but the price in the former race wasn’t attractive enough for the owner. Anyway, you can piece together the rest and John even named the ‘job’ jockey on board at Newbury but I thought discretion the better part of valour, even several years after the affair in question, and left it out.
Now that I think back, I must have had fairly extraordinary stamina in those days. It was a Sunday and I drove from Bristol to Shrewsbury, where John was more than happy to continue the chat in his local, but I was bound for Leeds, where a very defensive-minded Southampton lost 1-0 in the last minute. Familiarity breeds not contempt but a weary acceptance of life’s crueller blows, especially when they are all there in the form book. I remember it seemed a very long drive home, though.
Brighton has been good to me this year and I remain optimistic that Solveig’s Song will be at her very limited best for the mile handicap on Monday week; she won it last year.
I’ve often wondered how Lester indicated to Sturdy that he’d be happy to ride Tintagel II in the Ebor because the pair of them said hardly anything at all and it must have been one of the shortest conversations on record. It was 6/1 favourite on the Knavesmire and bolted up. The great man kept the ride afterwards, as well, even when Tintagel – much in the news now, if you read your holiday supplements and King Arthur pieces – started to deteriorate. A couple of years after York, he was on board in the Eaton Handicap at the main Chester meeting and Tintagel II was quite well fancied, though not necessarily by trainer and jockey. Sturdy also saddled Pirate Bell, ridden by a young Steve Perks (who died tragically early) and sailed home at 14/1. It’s a funny old game, because Lester and Sturdy didn’t appear terribly disappointed. It’s only several years later that you realise certain things and Pirate Bell must have been very nearly a certainty, of course. Lester was more than capable of getting up on the ‘better fancied’ one for Ryan Price, as well, but that’s a story for another day.
I think it’ll have to be me that tells it because the great man’s quizzical silence remains as unrelenting and impressive as ever.