Racing: Astonished shocks the bookmakers

Doncaster St Leger meeting: Handicapper with Ramsden connection turns big sprint into procession on first day
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IT FELT like a scene from Dickens in the winners' enclosure here yesterday, as the Ghost Of Gambles Past swept in from Chantilly in the shape of a young chestnut gelding called Astonished.

There was no hint of it on the racecard, but as everyone on Town Moor yesterday knew very well, Jack and Lynda Ramsden take a close personal interest in his progress. Retired and living in France they may be, but the merest mention of their name can still make a bookmaker jump three feet into the air.

Small wonder, then, that the bookies took on the role of Scrooge after Astonished dashed up by four lengths in the Portland Handicap.

It was the performance of a horse who is not just ahead of the handicapper, but going further clear, and though he will carry a 7lb penalty in the Ayr Gold Cup on Saturday week, it is hard to imagine that it will do much to stop him. He was a 20-1 chance in the ante-post lists yesterday morning. Twenty-four hours later, 9-2 is the best price around, and even that may not survive the day.

The only real surprise about yesterday's performance was that Astonished drifted in the on-course market, from 4-1 out to 11-2.

If the Ramsdens backed him, the money did not find its way back to Doncaster, but the horse certainly won as well as any of their famous gambles down the years. Astonished travelled like the winner throughout, and as soon as Kieren Fallon engineered some running room close to the stands' rail, his 20 rivals were racing for second place.

Neither Ramsden, nor John Hammond, Astonished's trainer, were in the enclosure to welcome him, leaving David Brotherton, his owner and breeder, to try to seem, if not astonished, then at least a little taken aback.

"That was very sweet," he said. "I didn't expect him to win as easily as he did, though John said he'd been in good form at home.

"He's only been running in conditions races in France, and I thought that running against experienced handicappers this afternoon might find him out, but he ran a wonderful race. I'm very lucky to have a horse like this, and to have bred him as well."

Brotherton has other horses called Surprised and Amazed, named, so he says, because he could not believe how much success he has enjoyed in the game.

Luck with horses runs in his family, though. Brotherton's mother owned Freebooter, who won the Grand National in 1950, "when I was a nine-year- old in shorts." He listened to the race on the radio, "and apparently, when he won, I jumped for joy. I feel like doing the same right now."

And so, presumably, did Ronnie Arculli, a steward of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, when he heard that his colt Sheer Hamas had won yesterday's St Leger Yearling Stakes.

Indeed, since it was almost midnight in Hong Kong when the runners set off, he may even have had the unusual pleasure of waking up to find himself pounds 150,000 richer than when he went to bed.

It is a lot of money for a race which does not carry even Listed status, since only graduates of the St Leger Yearling Sale are eligible to run. It represents very good business, though, for Arculli and Barry Hills, the winning trainer, who bought Sheer Hamas for just 20,000 guineas.

Hills said: "He has not had a lot of racing and that may have helped him against horses which have been around for a while. He will make a better three-year-old."

Hills had already won the nursery handicap with Out Of Africa, and completed a 2,889-1 treble when Ex Gratia won the last.

It was a less rewarding afternoon, however, for his son Michael, who chose to ride only Ex Gratia - John Reid was on the others - and was banned for two days after causing interference on Valentine Girl in the Park Hill Stakes.

The winner here was Mistle Song, who had taken until the end of last month to get off the mark, at the eighth attempt, in a Ripon maiden.

"That was probably because of weakness, and she will be a real factor when she strengthens up," Clive Brittain, her trainer, said.

"She will make a nice staying filly with probably something like the Yorkshire Cup as a target." Brittain, of course, is famous for his optimism. For once, though, it does not seem misplaced.