Horse racing lost another leading light as Robert Darby Snr, known to all as “The Claiming King”, passed away on Monday, February 26.
Turfites know Robert’s magnificent accomplishments of the 1990s and that he was still active and producing outstandingly conditioned winners up to shortly before his passing. But it’s a little known fact that Robert didn’t get involved in horse racing as a trainer until he was 47 years old and was never an assistant trainer nor attended any trainers’ school.
Robert Darby Snr. was born in Rollington Town in 1944; attended Franklyn Town Primary; Vaz Prep, and Calabar where he worked hard to achieve sporting recognition, eventually keeping goal for Calabar’s Manning Cup team and going on, as a schoolboy, to be first string goalie for Cavalier under legendary coach Leighton Dixon who Robert credits as teaching him about the conditioning of athletes which he took to his late blooming career as a race horse trainer.
One day, while working at ICD, Robert was in a betting shop betting on and watching English racing when he was inspired to announce he intended to become a trainer. He was already an owner and learned the game from close associates like Neville Cousley (a neighbour) and yearned to try some of his theories developed from observation and reading about overseas trainers like D. Wayne Lukas and Vincent O’Brien. The betting shop erupted in gales of laughter and one businessman friend literally rolled on the floor.
On February 1, 1991, Robert Darby Snr became a licensed trainer and his first winner came a few days later from his first runner Windstorm. Robert went on to saddle more than 600 winners in a stellar career that saw him claiming Prince Akeem for $170,000 and conditioning him to run second in the 1996 Superstakes, beaten only by Trinidadian shipper Adoring Groom and relegating Triple Crown winner/Horse of the Year War Zone to third.
Robert broke all convention and risked becoming a laughing stock by bringing Prince Akeem to the exercise track on the morning of the Superstakes to trot him around and stride up the last 400m. He learned from experience that the horse tended to be heavy and needed the work and he’d been unable to work him Thursday or Friday as he breezed 600m on Wednesday.
He also trained Robin Hood to win 8 consecutive races from maiden to Graded Stakes; Jason’s Dream, another astute claim, who won a Grade 1 race and Master Blaster who broke the record for races won in a career.
“I love horses” was Robert’s motto “I love to see athletes and horses perform”. One of Robert’s proudest moments came in 1995 when he saddled 52 winners, nine more than Champion Trainer Philip Michael Feanny (the Trainers’ Championship is determined by Stakes won). In 1997, Feanny won again but saddled 62 winners. Robert Darby was third with 70 wins. Yet, in 1997, he stood 5th in the All-time Trainers list (Stakes won) behind only Philip Feanny, Wayne DaCosta, Kenneth Mattis and Allan Evans “Billy’ Williams.
Robert Anthony Darby Snr, patriarch of Jamaica’s most committed horse racing family (sons Ryan and Robert Jnr are both trainers), sportsman, deep sporting thinker and one of the all-time great Jamaican trainers, rest in peace. You will be remembered.
It’s time for our regular review of local performances based on REAL times.
Abbreviations: CT = “Corrected Time”; TV = “Track Variant” (a calculation of the effect of track conditions on official times to arrive at “real” or “corrected” times); TVs are in fifths of a second; “minus” means a fast track; “plus” means a slow track (e.g. -2 means fast by 2/5ths of a second). Variants beside individual horse’s names represent the difference between its official time and the grade standard.
On February 9’ I wrote about Orpheus:
“Orpheus (-11) seems finally ready to confirm early promise slamming a high quality field by 5½ lengths in 1:24.0!! His CT (1:24.4) equals the Grade 1 standard so he’s going places fast.” On February 28, he destroyed Open Allowance over 1500m beating Grade 1 winner Perfect Neighbour by 2 lengths at an overlay price of 4/5. Keep him onside.
There’s only been one “Clocked-in” standout since we last met:
March 3, 2018 [TV -0 (Rd); -2 (str)]
Western Legend (-10) improved on a high standard set on debut (Race 4; 3yo maiden condition; 1100m; TV-0) easily defeating “talking horse” debutante, Madam Secretary (-1) herself sure to improve next time especially over further. The winner’s CT (1:06.3) is 2/5th second faster than nw3. He’s a sprinter to follow!
Overseas Betting Opportunities (OBOs)
It’s all about the lead-up to Cheltenham Festival (March 13 to 16) and there’s some concern the ground mightn’t be as fast as is usual since climate change hasn’t spared the legendary venue. More snow than was anticipated and associated drifts have caused clerk of the course Simon Claisse and his team headaches. Claisse, who deftly balanced transparency with circumspection, did concede the possibility of some heavy ground for the festival with snow equivalent to 12mm of water already fallen and 15mm of rain forecast.
Speculation on the ground is likely to increase as the meeting draws near, especially if rain arrives. English bookies, having spent months getting their markets just right, based on the spring-ground assumption, have been scrambling as punters begin to lump on soft ground performers at long odds.
For example, Footpad, Arkle favourite since November, drifted alarmingly in the betting over the March 2 weekend, so much so that connections were asked to comment. They insist all is well so it must be professional punters are seeing softer ground as a positive for the likes of Saint Calvados rather than Footpad, who has shown himself better suited by typical spring ground.
The Gold Cup betting has become tight at the top as punters suspect that Hennessy and Welsh National winner Native River would derive more benefit on soft than early favourite Might Bite. My own ante-post Gold Cup selection, Our Duke is very ground dependent and wouldn’t be advised if the going stayed soft.
At a media event held at his stable on Monday, February 26, Willie Mullins said he’s fairly confident Douvan will run in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, setting up an irresistible match-up with Altior. But the two have managed a combined one run this season so punters shouldn’t make the mistake of expecting this to be a two-horse race.
Two long-time ante-post favourites were ruled out during the last week. First was Willoughby Court, winner of last year’s Ballymore, who was reported to have poison in his foot. Then Cracking Smart, the Albert Bartlett favourite was ruled out for the season.
Readers’ early Cheltenham Festival portfolio includes Copain De Classe; Diable de Sivola; Our Duke (advised February 9; Gold Cup entry); and Mind’s Eye (advised February 23). It’s time to complete the portfolio:
“BARNEY DWAN [7 b.g. Vinnie Roe – Kapricia Speed (Vertical Speed); Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase (1730 GMT; Tuesday)]
Most unlucky last season (slithering on landing and all but coming down after the last fence on chasing debut when 3l clear) he holds other entries but, on the figures, his best chance looks to be in the Close Brothers. He’s already shown he’s better over fences than hurdles; seems equally effective on either good or soft and has strong form at 2 ½ miles.
Oistrakh Le Noir [4yo b.g. Kentucky Dynamite – Linares Noire (Russian Blue); Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (15650 GMT Wednesday)]
This easy Market Rasen winner might be let in lightly off 124 (unusually for a juvenile, lower than his Racing Post Rating). Even his RPR of 128 is highly unlikely to represent his ability so he could have a real weight advantage.
The Young Master [9yo b.g. Echo of Light – Fine Frenzy (Great Commotion); Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase (1730 GMT Thursday)]
He finished third and sixth in Tuesday’s Ultima Handicap Chase at the last two festivals but a falling handicap rating means he’s entered for the Kim Muir this year. He had a wind operation after pulling up as favourite at Newcastle last month and, before that, he ran as if he retains plenty of ability. He looks value at around 25-1.
Flying Tiger [5yo bl.g. Soldier of Fortune – Ma Preference (American Post); County Handicap Hurdle (1410 GMT Friday)]
The County Hurdle is always one of the festival’s toughest races but Flying Tiger looks a very enticing bet still on a mark of 140 after finishing a close 4th in the Kingwell Hurdle behind horses now rated 161, 154 and 152.