2017/18 Season at a Glance
The 2017-18 season maintained the momentum of recent years. The investment in additional space brought its own reward in terms of the number of horses running for the yard, and kept Down Farm in the top flight.
One of the great rewards of training steeplechasers and hurdlers is overseeing the development of young horses to reach their full potential. The promising youngsters of the previous season largely lived up to expectations and our older horses have held their own in handicap and graded company, often at the highest level. Excitingly for all the team there were 8 horses rated 150 or over in the yard last season.
Our bare statistics shine great credit on the team here. We sent out 356 runners, of which 195 won or were placed, a 54% strike rate. 47 winners was not a personal best, but our win ratio is consistent at around 13%, (over 20% in Maiden and Novice events) and those 34 individual winners racked up £964,237 in win & place prize money, enough to be self-sustaining in most instances. Although our prize money was slightly less than the previous season, the winter toll of cancelled fixtures played its part, and we still consider this a forward step.
Time was when a serious jumps trainer would pack his bags for the summer and ignore the country tracks that capitalized on holiday crowds, like Cartmel and Newton Abbot. How those times have changed. Whilst the sport remains focused on the three Spring festivals of Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown, the evolution of summer racing at those courses that can maintain good ground – even during this summer’s long hot spell – has allowed top-of-the-ground horses to compete at their best, often in quite hot competition. Just 4 years ago, Down Farm generated a pair of winners and under £20,000 in earnings during the period from May – September. This season, we are already on track to exceed last year’s tally; 12 winners and £146,000 before what the traditionalists would call the “proper” season has even begun. Small wonder then that courses like Perth, Stratford and Market Rasen have been happy hunting grounds for us.
That early start was assisted in no small part by Champagne City, a 5 year old by Tobougg out of City of Angels, who was amongst our busiest performers from nine runs, starting last summer with a hat-trick of novice hurdle wins at Kelso and Stratford twice. He graduated to handicap company in the autumn, and just this last July won a competitive hurdle at Newton Abbot.
Everyone who follows our sport knows that reputations are made (or lost) for owners, trainers, riders and horses, at the major festivals, particularly Cheltenham and Aintree. We sent one of our strongest teams to Cheltenham in March 2018, with runners in 10 of the 29 races. I cannot have been more proud with the results: Summerville Boy’s neck win in the Supreme Novices’, Black Op’s 2¾l second to Samcro in the Ballymore Novices’ and God’s Own’s third to Altior in the Queen Mother Champion Chase supported by placed efforts by Singlefarmpayment and Rocklander. Prize money garnered for Down Farm of £150,124 could so easily have been twice that figure.
Aintree has always been a favourite course of mine. We took a more select team of nine runners this year, and whilst the rain made the winner’s enclosure harder to find, Black Op did us proud in the Grade 1 Mersey Hurdle, The Worlds End distinguished himself for fourth in the Ryanair Stayers, and Bun Doran picked up prize money for fifth in the Red Rum Handicap Chase. Annoyingly Saint Are was brought down in the National, he has been a wonderful servant to the yard. Due to his stunning looks he is now being retrained as a show horse by Justine Armstrong-Small and Rebecca Court.
Of course, whilst these festivals are so important in terms of profile and indeed prize money, the season extends all year round. Last season we ran 228 horses in handicaps, more than any other race category, winning 28 races. 114 of those runners came home with prize money.
Sadly, we lost two stalwarts to fatal racing injuries. Sir Valentino, by Early March out of Valentine, competed at the highest level in graded company in 2016 winning the Haldon Gold Cup, second to Special Tiara in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas and third to the same horse in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham 3½ months later. He won 8 races in a 34 race career, earning £240,741. In November 2017 he won a £100,000 handicap at Ascot which was won by Sire Du Grugy the year before. We were all very sad to lose him in his next race, the Tingle Creek at Sandown. The Romford Pele ran only twice last season, winning both races which were valuable handicaps in the Veteran Challenger Series legs at Aintree and Leicester.
Others in handicap company worthy of note included 9 year old Baby King, with two wins from 6 starts, including a decent 0-140 handicap chase at Aintree in November. This son of Ivan Denisovich has been ultra-consistent off a mark of around 135lbs. Stamp Your Feet, representing the JP McManus colours, was another very consistent performer, winning once in a decent prize at Hereford from 7 starts, but rarely out of the frame. His handicap mark improved 12lbs to 135lbs by the season close. Boyhood, a six year old ran three times in handicap hurdle company and won twice, at Lingfield in November and Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. Rocklander, a 9 year old gelding by Oscar out of Rua Lass, who embarked on a Novice chasing career with victories at Ludlow and Newbury before graduating to handicaps with a 3½l third in the Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase that concludes Festival Tuesday.
No season summary would be complete without details on five horses that were mainstays of the season. Summerville Boy, the UK’s highest rated novice hurdler at 156lbs, and also its highest novice earner at £108,554, graduated from a competitive 9 runner Maiden at Stratford in late October to graded company at Cheltenham’s November fixture. He claimed his Grade 1 scalp first in Sandown’s Tolworth Hurdle, and subsequently franking the form with Kalashnikov in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’. He’s best priced at 16/1 for the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Black Op, our other Grade 1 winner, excelled himself in winning Aintree’s Mersey Hurdle. He’s another who started in a Maiden at Doncaster in January, but rapidly stepped up to Graded class in the Classic at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day, narrowly touched off by Santini, before finding the same runner-up slot at Cheltenham in the Ballymore, 2¾ l behind Samcro. He improved 24lbs during the season, he has schooled over fences and will now go novice chasing.
The Worlds End competed almost completely in Graded company off a mark of 149lbs. He distinguished himself in the Long Walk, Cleeve, Cheltenham and Aintree Stayers, without finding the bullseye. Unfortunately rain softened the ground in all his races last season which was against him. Once again he has schooled well over fences and goes novice chasing.
The top flight chasing division was marked out by three horses who have been newsworthy before now. Sir Valentino has been previously mentioned and will be much missed. Gods Own, a 10 year old now by Oscar out of Dantes Term, simply doesn’t know how to run a bad race. Competing at the very highest level over the minimum trip, he only failed to make the places on his opening start in the Old Roan at Aintree. Were it not for a division dominated by Altior, he would have been much closer than first appears in both the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Sandown’s Celebration Chase. His career earnings in six seasons run to £547,254 from 33 starts, in which he’s won or been placed 24 times. His races were often not on his favoured good ground due to the incessant rain oh, for a yard of Gods Owns! Double Shuffle, surprised no-one at Down Farm when running Might Bite to a length second in the King George at Kempton. He had previously run close seconds in handicap company over slightly shorter distances at Chepstow and Ascot. We considered him very capable of 3 miles at Kempton (his favourite track), and his runner up spot at Christmas was a big excitement. We sidestepped Cheltenham to target Aintree, but he didn’t quite strike the right note that day. He looks fabulous at present.
It would be wonderful to be able to write about every horse in the yard. Like a school master, I’m very proud of all of our horses. They provide us with huge fun, endless fervent anticipation, gnawed fingernails and often heartache, sometimes anguish. But we wouldn’t be without them. Owning racehorses emanates from all manner of motives – from horsemen enjoying the development of a youngster to those who like a tilt at the ring, and many who love the social ambiance of a day at the races or the yard. That we all share a common goal to reach the winner’s enclosure at any of the UK’s 29 courses, or further afield, is what gets us up in the morning.
If you’d like to learn more about any horse in the yard, or be part of Team Tom George, then please do get in touch. Meantime, enjoy your racing!