Alan Potts, long-time pro-punter is publishing some reminiscences on The Racing Forum, and he kindly allowed me to reproduce this cracking tale
The crux of this story is a tale of two claiming races, and since the rules that applied to such contests then are important and rather different from those that apply now, I thought it would be best to get the explanation out of the way first.
In 2015, the claiming price set by the trainer when he enters his horse is the exact price at which any purchase by a claim will take place. If more than one claim is received, then Weatherbys conduct a ballot to decide who gets the horse. The current owner or trainer may make what is called a friendly claim in order to take his chance in the ballot and hope to retain his horse.
In the 1980s the claiming price set at entry was a minimum price and anyone entering a claim could offer a higher price than that minimum with no upper limit. If there was more than one claim, then the highest bidder wins and there was no option for the existing owner or trainer to enter a claim.
There’s one other rule which applied then and still exists today, which is that a claimed horse (other than a friendly claim) cannot return to the original stable for a minimum of six months. That is designed to prevent a trainer from persuading other owners within his stable to make a claim in order to increase his chances of keeping the horse, even if it then had a new owner. The only way this six month rule can be bypassed is if the new trainer enters the horse for another claiming race and the original trainer buys it back by making a claim.
The horse at the centre of this story was an unprepossessing gelding, of plain appearance, modest breeding and initially, very little ability. His name was Vagog, a 1985 foal by Glint Of Gold, who began his career as a 2-y-old trained in Yorkshire by Peter Calver. At the end of that season, Timeform rated him at 50 and described him as a modest plater and a poor walker.
The following year, he ran nine times on the flat in races from 12F to 2M and won a seller at Pontefract in early August. He won by six lengths from an even money favourite trained by Nigel Tinkler, who was sufficiently impressed to buy Vagog for 5,200 gns at the auction. In Timeform he’d improved to a rating of 52 and was now designated a fair plater and moderate mover. Tinkler mixed flat and hurdling for Vagog and on his second run over hurdles, he won a juvenile seller at Newton Abbot in a photo finish, with the first pair a distance clear of the rest. Once again the trainer of the runner-up took over the horse, Martin Pipe paying 8,750 gns for Vagog.
After three defeats at trips around 2M, Pipe stepped Vagog up to 2M 5F for a conditional jockeys novice hurdle at Wolverhampton and must have been surprised when he won by 15 lengths, as the SP was 20/1. Maybe Pipe thought that was a fluke, as a week later he ran him in a claiming hurdle at Towcester over the same trip, and this time he scored by 30 lengths and the SP was 2/1 on. He was promptly claimed by Bob Champion for £10,000, no surprise given the promise he was now showing given a test of stamina. But when Champion spoke to the press after his claim was successful, the reasons he gave were not what everyone expected.
Champion said that he’d long wanted to get hold of a horse that was trained by Martin Pipe, so that he could do an immediate blood test and use the results as a benchmark for tests done on his own horses to see how they compared. Presumably he did have a test done, although his subsequent training career suggests he didn’t gain any insight from the results. Then, in what was either a blunder of epic proportions, or a deal agreed between him and Pipe, he ran Vagog in another claiming hurdle at Huntingdon, which the horse duly won running in the colours of Andrew Reid. Pipe took advantage and got the horse back to his yard at a cost of £12,556, the re-claim allowing him to get round the six month rule.
Vagog continued to thrive and three weeks after Huntingdon, he won a 2M 6F novice handicap hurdle at Nottingham off a mark of 106 (shown as 31 in the form book as this was prior to the changes that added 75 to all NH handicap marks), followed that with a second at Newbury on heavy ground before a disappointing run at Ludlow on firm. At the end of that first season of hurdling, he was rated 122 by Timeform, who now described him as a small, rather lightly made gelding, suited by forcing tactics and sure to stay 3M.
Vagog remained with Martin Pipe for the rest of his career, which continued on an upward path despite the odd setback. His second season ended after just two races, the second of which was a win in a 3M handicap hurdle at Cheltenham on firm ground – in December! He was off for 13 months after that, but improved again as a 6-y-old, winning another staying handicap at Ascot off a mark of 124 and third under a penalty at Chepstow a week later. Another 10 month layoff followed before his greatest year, 1992.
He won the same Chepstow handicap this time, by 12 lengths, then returned in the autumn to win the 3M 1F handicap hurdle at Cheltenham on the Mackeson Gold Cup card by an astonishing 20 lengths, making all the running off a mark of 138. He tried the same trick off a 10lb higher mark at the December meeting, but found the 3M on the New Course an insufficient test of stamina, beaten by the very useful Sweet Duke to whom he was conceding 18lbs.
His last hurrah and his best came just eight days later at Ascot, when he stepped up from handicaps to the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle. In a race run at a strong pace thanks to Muse (D Elsworth), Vagog couldn’t adopt his usual tactics, but he got to the front when he outjumped Muse three out and never looked like being caught from that point – Sweet Duke couldn’t handle the quick return to action and finished tailed off, but he came back to win the race the following year. By then Vagog had retired, having pulled up lame at Haydock a month after Ascot. He was tried once more in the Stayers Hurdle at the Festival, but was never going and pulled up again.
That was the end for the ‘small lightly made gelding’, who had progressed over four years from a selling hurdle at Newton Abbot to a Grade 1 race at Ascot. He’ll always have a place in my memory as I backed him at 12/1 to win four grand that December afternoon at Ascot, the bet that turned my first year as a ‘professional’ punter from loss to profit. On what I’d seen at Cheltenham that autumn, the price was an insult to a smashing little horse that was as great a trier as I’ve ever seen over hurdles.
So did Bob Champion give away the horse that might have sparked his training career? Would Vagog have achieved the same level of success in his stable anyway? We’ll never know, but it was certainly one of the strangest stories attached to a claim that I can remember.