It’s a question many ask, in Chester, across the racetracks of the UK and even in the training establishments of Ireland. In each case the answer is probably different but important it is.
To the average Chester resident this three day festival of racing, which has been running since 1766, is a time that signals the end of winter and Chester people coming out to play. In fact, such is the popularity of the meeting that in a recent economic impact survey the festival was said to be worth a staggering £10 million to the local economy. Sadly, this week, the first year the event will be staged behind closed doors, those numbers won’t be achieved and the city is much the poorer for it. However, I have no doubt, around the city, in open marquees outside public houses, many a person will be watching on the big screen, betting on their phones and drinking more than the odd bottle of pink bubbly to compensate.
For the UK racing community, Chester is the first major meeting that gives an indication of what horses might be successful in the second and arguably the most important of the classics for the Year, The Oaks and of course The Derby, held annually at Epsom. Many believe, wrongly, that racing is about betting; racing is about the pursuit of the perfect horse. The Thoroughbred breeding industry spends million and millions every year in pursuit of a horse that can win either of these two classics, races that date back to 1780, with the first Derby won by Diomed, owned by Sir Charles Bunbury. The criteria for winning hasn’t altered. You must be an entire horse of 3 years to be eligible to run in the Derby and a filly of the same age to run in the Oaks. This is the new generation of “world beaters” and this is their showcase and the hopes of the breeding industry for this generation rest on their shoulders.
On Tuesday we kick off with the Wetherbys Cheshire Oaks, which has been won by none other than the best racehorse in the world, Enable. This year might just reveal which 3 year old filly will follow in here illustrious hoofprints. Light Shift, Enable, Diamonds and Rubies and Magic Wand have all excelled after winning this race, either at Epsom, Ireland or in America.
Derby success, having won this years Tote Dee Stakes on Wednesday, will see the winner emulate Shergar in 1981. Keiran Fallon would ride in both the Dee Stakes and The Derby to replicate the feat on Oath in 1999 and then Kris Kin, given a peach of a ride by Fergal Lynch in the Dee, only to be replaced by Fallon in the Derby, was another to do this famous double in 2003. More recently Ruler of the World in 2013 won both for Aiden O’Brien, Golden Horn was 2nd in the Vase in 2015 and went one better in the Derby. In 2016 US Army Ranger would win the Vase only to be narrowly defeated at Epsom, Venice beach won the 2017 running of the vase but had to play 2nd fiddle in the Derby to the horse he beat at Chester that day, Wings of Eagles. In the most recent running, Sir Dragonet was beaten less than length at Epsom having won the Vase.
It’s safe to say that since 2013, if you wanted to find a horse to run well for you in the Derby, then there was no better place to look than the Chester Vase and there’s a reason for that. Quite some years ago Mark Johnston, the UK’s most successful trainer numerically, with over 4,000 winners, believed that the unique challenges of Chester’s tight, left handed circuit, not only taught horses a huge amount about racing but that it required the skill set of a class horse to be successful. They go hard from the gate at Chester in order to get good track position, they are then on the turn for six of the 8 furlongs that make up the track and the pace they run races at means you have to genuinely stay, whatever trip you are competing in, to win. Over the years he has brought almost every promising 2yo to Chester to find out how good they are, not just for the experience on the track but to experience the huge crowds (Chester averages over 20,000 people per meeting per year). If they can perform at Chester, they are normally top notch. This was something spotted by arguably the Worlds Greatest Racehorse trainer, Aiden O’Brien, who has been bringing his team of talented middle distance horses to Chester now for almost 20 years in an attempt to prepare them for the rigours of Epsom, itself a unique twisting, turning, undulating track. He and Johnston were both right and O’Brien has plundered the Chester trophy cabinet and in doing so become one of Chester’s adopted favoured sons and this year looks no different with no fewer than six entered for the Tote Vase at the 5 day stage.
On the final day the stayers take centre stage with the running of the Tote Chester Cup, formerly the Tradesman’s Cup, a race staged at Chester since 1824. This 2mile 2furlong handicap is the first major staying test of the year and with a maximum field it has been fiendishly difficult to find the winner. In the last ten years only one horse has started shorter than 10/1 and that was Magic Circle at 8/1, for Dr Marwan Koukash, who saw his famous silver and gold colours streak clear in the final furlong to give him his 4th Chester Cup win, an astonishing record for one owner and one of the main reasons that his horses are so heavily backed at his beloved track. The good Dr loves this meeting and sends a full contingent to the festival so make sure his entries get the respect they deserve when you are weighing up a race. They are not there just to make up the numbers!
Whilst those three key races are the centre piece on each day you would do well to keep on eye on the other races as well. I did a piece of work a couple of years ago that showed that over five years, horses who placed at Chester and then ran in the York Dante Festival, two week later, returned £34 to a £1 stake. The quality of racing at Chester is that strong and the form simply carries well to almost any other course.
Over the coming days I will put up a daily preview of races with a couple I expect to run well in each race. We may not win them all and the state of the ground will determine our success, of that I am sure, with rain forecast on and off all week. If we do get a lot of rain then we only have the ghost of Lady Trawst to blame – let me explain. You see Chester Racecourse is called the Roodee – a corruption of the word Roodeye, meaning Island of the Cross and in the middle of the course you will find a sandstone statue; only small but it is there. The reason? Apparently, it marks the burial site of a statue of the Virgin Mary. A statue, that when, Lady Trawst, wife of the Governor of Hawarden, a village just 6 miles from Chester, was praying in her church for rain, the resultant thunderstorm was so severe that the statue fell from on high and killed her. The statue couldn’t be burned or destroyed as that was sacrilege, so it was thrown into the river, washing up on the racecourse where it was deemed a miracle. The moral of the story, which should apply to all your bets this week is of course, be careful what you wish for – even, if it is for a miracle!