It was last autumn in my Star column that I predicted 2019 would be a transitional year and I wasn’t at all confident that it would go well.
We had lost the cream of the kennel strength though injury last summer and I wasn’t sure where the wins would come from.
The first big break came in March in a phone call from Damien Matthews. Towcester Story had just been narrowly beaten in the Golden Jacket Final and the family had decided that there weren’t enough opportunity for stayers in Ireland. Were we interest in buying the dog?
Now I realise that a lot of people would be a bit hesitant about buying from the Matthews family. Their dogs are always in superb condition and the likelihood of finding any improvement was virtually zero. But we have got to know Damien and Plunket really well in recent years and I trust them completely. My concern was that we would be priced out of the market.
Virtually all our kennel stars have been bought for between £8,000-£10,000 and we probably average about six new dogs a year. We have had a really good success rate with those type of dogs and very few failures. I don’t want the £20-£30K dogs because they come with a lot of pressure and seldom work out.
I feared Towcester Story, who was the best potential stayer in Ireland, would be a £40K dog. In fact, the price was £25K. It is a lot of money, but the dog ticked a lot of boxes and didn’t look overpriced. He was in great form, only just over two years old and proven in absolute top class company.
By then, Nic Jeal had already told me that he was keen to buy a top class stayer. When I mentioned Towcester Story to him, he knew the dog and had no hesitation in snapping him up.
It took the dog, now called Antigua Fire, a little while to settle in. But probably since Derby time, he has really come into his own. To win the Kent St.Leger final last week, his first Cat 1, was vindication that he was a great buy.
It just proved what a great dog he is, when four days later and first look at the track, he did the fastest run in the first round of the Doncaster St. Leger.
He has now won 12 of his 22 races for us, on five different tracks between 630 and 714 metres, and will probably stay further.
The Doncaster event will take a lot of winning, there is some real quality in there, but if all goes to plan, hopefully the St Leger at Perry Barr (710m) will give him more opportunities later in the year.
We have four through to Wednesday’s semi finals including Aayamza Express, who won her re-run heat on Saturday.
I am particularly proud of her achievement in winning the Champion Stakes because we thought her racing career was over before she had joined us.
She had shown great ability as a youngster reaching the Irish Oaks Final. Then, the decision was made that she should contest last year’s Irish Derby. She badly damaged a tendon and then came into season.It didn’t look good
After several months off, trainer Karol Ramsbottom trialled her back and she came off ‘okay’ but after she came over, we spent a lot of time treating the tendon before we dared risk her. So to see her win at Romford felt like a huge bonus.
The Doncaster trip was unknown territory for her, but she seemed to stay on comfortably, so Perry Barr also looks on the cards for her.
Brigadier Bullet will also be off to Doncaster and his is a different story. He was bought, with his sister Baroness Bullet by Billy Boyle, who is an exceptional judge of greyhounds. Billy is a ‘£8-£10k kind of buyer’ and seldom gets it wrong.
At the end of last year, Brigadier was in outstanding form and was beaten favourite in the Essex Vase. He began 2019 running well and ran third in the Coronation Cup, but then his form trailed off. At one stage, he only had one win in 15 races.
We had him checked over and could find nothing wrong. So I took the decision to keep running him until he came back to form.
Now he is not in the class of Antigua Fire – or his sister Baroness Bullet whose career was finished by injury – but he finally gave us a bit of encouragement with a win a semi of the Kent St.Leger and then ran second to Fire in the final.
We had a very similar experience recently with Saleen Ash. He went 13 races without a win and looking a shadow of his former self. There were discussions about retiring him and then he produced a 35.14 run at Romford recently.
Sometimes, you just have to accept that dogs are simply not at their best. There is nothing physically wrong with them, they are simply running below par.
I realise that there are people who questioned whether we should still be running Brinkleys Poet after his return from a lengthy injury.
It is true he only won two of his first 14 races back, but I was more convinced that his style of racing had changed, rather than him suffering from any injury.
He seemed to have lost a yard of early pace, but he is getting on a bit now and seemed to be running on so much stronger.
He has now won each of his two outings over the 540 at Crayford and will be entered with Chubbys Caviar and probably a couple of others, in the Gold Collar next weekend.
Whether Poet beat the likes of Roxholme Dolly – who looks an outstanding find – we can only guess at. But I think the decision to keep him in training has been vindicated.
With all those mentioned above, I have been confident that they would eventually come good. But sometimes I get caught out too.
Two recent examples are Coolavanny Messi and Have A Brandy – who quite frankly, I have virtually given up on.
Messi had won his first race for us, in a comparatively slow 27.90 at Henlow and then had been beaten in his next nine. We then sent him off to Yarmouth and he was a changed dog. He won the heats and final of a sprint competition, won back at Henlow and then beat Droopys Verve in an open at Monmore.
Have A Brandy had a losing streak of six, but has won his last three in a row at Romford and is improving with every run.
(Coolavanny Messi was beaten 0n Saturday night by Fitenwell, though that was far from a disgrace. Emma Richards’ dog is an absolute flying machine and a serious contender for next year’s Derby in my opinion).
When breeder John Marriott told me that he had produced his best pup since Adago Bob, that was all I needed to know.
John had been plagued by people trying to buy the big 38 kilo youngster and he could have taken more money. But he agreed to sell him to Nic Jeal and he is now called Antigua Breeze (Zero Ten-Santro Cruz, Mar 18).
I thought he was exceptional in the Seasons Scaffolding Puppy heats at Hove on Thursday showing great attitude and tremendous early pace. The 490 is as far as he wants at the moment, but he is still very young. I love everything about him.
How good is he? The last dog to excite me so much was a young Blonde Snapper.