Sky Sports Racing's Alex Hammond remembers Trevor Hemmings and previews Champions Day in her latest blog.
Last weekend we celebrated the start of the jumps season proper with a wonderful couple of days at Chepstow, but just a few days later we are mourning the loss of one of the most passionate NH owners the sport has been lucky enough to call one of their own.
Much has been printed about Trevor Hemmings and his achievements in business and on the track, but I wanted to share a few of my stories of a man whose primary aim in our sport was to unearth a Grand National winner - he found three.
I was fortunate to be acquainted with the man I knew as Mr Hemmings when I was starting out in my career in horseracing and as any wise person knows, you learn more by keeping your ears open and your mouth shut when being in the presence of someone who knows what it takes to be successful. Trevor chatted to me about the path I’d found myself on and offered a few words of advice. I have kept them with me, and over the years that have followed, I’ve thought of them often.
Many years later I was lucky enough to ride for Trevor in a charity race at Ascot and what an experience that turned out to be. Sometimes in life you make a memory that stays with you, and from the beginning to end this was one of those special days. I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember the date, but that’s irrelevant. In the process of preparing for the race I’d ridden the horse out at the famous Jackdaws Castle, home of his trainer Jonjo O’Neill (again apologies to the racehorse in question, but his name escapes me) and that work morning was all part of the experience.
I lived near Swindon at the time, so Trevor had arranged for him and his team to pick me up at an aerodrome near Chiseldon. From memory it was a field with a couple of large barns, but that might be doing it a disservice. I started chatting to a man who worked there and told him that I was heading to Ascot to ride in a race and that I was excited as I’d be getting a lift in a helicopter (I felt like a proper jockey, sadly that’s as close as it got!).
After a few minutes a tiny chopper came into view, and he asked me in a strong west country burr if that was my ride? My response was that it was unlikely that was my lift and a few minutes after that low key arrival, the thud of something significantly larger approaching could be heard. As nonchalantly as possible I said, “I think this is me”, and it was. We whizzed to Ascot and on arrival Trevor and Jonjo took my saddle and bag, and we were driven into the track. I can remember bits and bobs of the race itself, but the overriding feeling was one of joy and privilege to have been part of such a wonderful day.
The last time I bumped into Trevor was at the Cheltenham Festival a few years ago. I spotted him in the paddock and strode over to wish him luck in the race but didn’t check to note who else was in his entourage. To my horror I interrupted a conversation with The Princess Royal. In typical Trevor style, he introduced me with no fuss, I wished him luck and slunk away. So, I was incredibly sad when I heard the news of Mr Hemmings’s passing at the age of 86. I will remember him fondly.
As the National Hunt season cranks up a gear, we are on the brink of celebrating the end of the Flat season with Qipco British Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday. Aside from the top-class racing, we also have a jockey’s championship that is going right down to the wire. At the time of writing there are just two winners separating leader and current champ Oisin Murphy and pursuer William Buick. Buick has been on the charge in the last few weeks, and it may well be decided at Ascot on Saturday. What odds another tie to emulate 11th hour Doncaster decider between Jamie Spencer and Seb Sanders back in 2007?
There are four Group 1 races, a Group 2 and a devilishly difficult handicap on the day and unlike in some years, the ground conditions should be palatable for these Flat stars after a warm and settled spell of weather. Owing to heavy overnight dews it’ll most likely be on the dead/slow side, but certainly not soft enough for any mud lovers. Does that mean that the likes of Addeybb in the Champion Stakes and Trueshan in the Long Distance Cup won’t be seen to their best effect? Sadly, I think that could be the case.
Let’s whizz through some of the races in chronological order then, starting with that Long Distance Cup.
Trueshan’s trainer Alan King thinks the ground on the round course at Ascot will be fine for the horse, so who am I to argue. He is bidding to retain his title in the race he ran away with last year. The wonderful Stradivarius is also under consideration for the race, but despite that ding dong battle to win the Lonsdale at York, his years seem to be catching up with him. It could be the last time we see him on a racecourse. Dermot Weld’s Search For A Song is a dual Irish Leger winner and a real threat given the manner of her win at the Curragh last month, she’s been primed for an autumn campaign. But the horse that I’m going with here is Hamish. This will be his first try beyond 1m6f, but he’s bred for a test of stamina, has plenty of ability and owing to a previous tendon injury is lightly raced for a five-year-old. He wouldn’t want the ground any faster mind you.
The Champions Sprint looks worthy of its Group 1 status, albeit none of the protagonists have broken their duck at the highest level. No horse would deserve that more than Dragon Symbol who was demoted from first place in the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot for causing interference with runner-up Campanelle. He’s gone from strength to strength this season and could be a crucial winner for Oisin Murphy on the final day of the season.
The British Champions Fillies and Mares Stakes has cut up after Free Wind, La Petite Coco and Love miss the race, the latter as Aidan O’Brien isn’t satisfied with her pre-race vet check, so dual Oaks winner Snowfall will line-up here instead for the stable. Snowfall could be very tough to beat now.
The QEII looks superb with last year’s winner The Revenant back again for Francis-Henri Graffard, last year’s leading miler Palace Pier tries again (only third in this 12 months ago with excuses), Sussex Stakes winner Alcohol Free is in there, along with some other familiar names.
It’s the new kid on the block Baaeed that I think can put these established stars in their place on Saturday. He has an unbeaten record to protect, but when you consider what he has achieved and he only set foot on a racecourse for the first time in June, there should be so much more to come. He won his Group 1 in the Prix du Moulin at Longchamp last time out and whilst he’s no superstar yet, this could be the race that propels him to those lofty heights. I love him. It could turn out to be a good day for his trainer William Haggas who saddles Hamish earlier in the day.
From that absolute cracker to the Qipco Champion Stakes, the final Group 1 of the day. William Haggas will be hoping his luck doesn’t run out with Addeybb and Dubai Honour in the line-up.
The former needs softer conditions, but the latter catches the eye as a progressive 3-year-old that has flown slightly under the radar. He is one for my shortlist, but still needs to improve to beat an on-song Mishriff. Derby winner Adayar was only fourth in the Arc last time and drops back to a mile and a quarter for the first time since finishing second in the Classic Trial at Sandown back in April. Given his free going style of racing in the Arc, a drop back to 10 furlongs might allow him to settle, so he’s not one to dismiss lightly either. Given the manner of his win in the King George in the summer I’m inclined to give him a go at this trip as he looked like an absolute monster that day.
So, some serious quality on show at Ascot plus the added excitement of a jockey’s championship going right down to the wire. I can’t wait to be there and hope you’ll tune in the Sky Sports Racing to enjoy it with me.