Friday, 23 January 2015

Festival 15: Progress on ante-posts: St Patrick’s Thursday & Gold Cup Day

St Patrick's Thursday

I very rarely stay past the first two days for Thursday's action. Like Al Ferof, I’ve tried the extended trip a few times, but recognise that I should really stick to something that doesn’t test my suspect stamina quite so ruthlessly. Persevering with the analogy, I refuse to rule out stepping back up at the right moment for the right opportunity.

It could be this year. Tickets never sell out for the ambiguously titled St Patrick’s Thursday, so the option is always there. It’s all about quality. This card looks like it’s shaping up nicely.

I’ve stoked up a little interest.

JLT

A fascinating race. Like the Neptune, the market for this intermediate trip has more questions than answers. For my ante-post porfolio, the nightmare scenario is that Gilgamboa and Valseur Lido both pitch up here rather than the Arkle and the RSA respectively. Given that turn of events I’d probably end up backing them both at odds shorter than ideal.

The market is now made by Vautour. He’s as short as 7-2 after Mullins tacitly nominated this as the prize following an uninformative race last weekend. The performance of Un De Sceaux on Sunday could still change all that of course. Vautour’s wins have come in bloodless schooling sessions. His defeat came in his only good quality race, when jumping was put under pressure. In mitigation, the trainer suggests last year’s Supreme winner was not right when Clarcam won so convincingly. Observers have also commented that he sweated less profusely on the occasion of his win last week. I was quick enough to back him for the Queen Mother after his fencing debut. I’m now swerving him in the much lesser quality JLT. How fickle is the reasoning behind ante-post punting. It’s all about the value.

Notwithstanding the Gilgamboa/Valseur Lido scenario, I’ve backed Ptit Zig. Hardly left field, and 4-1 is far from a give away. The bet is based simply on the best form I’ve seen so far at this trip. He’s unbeaten over fences, running up a sequence of four wins in which he has improved every time. His win at Cheltenham against decent yardstick Champage West was assured and confident. What can go wrong? [Pause.]

Ryanair

Hidden Cyclone is one of my 40 to follows this year and I always had it in mind to back him here, assuming he showed some promise after his tumble at Thurles in November. Interesting that Pricewise has put him up in the Champion Chase. His 2nd behind Twinlight over an extended two miles now reads pretty poorly after the latter was outclassed on Saturday. So I’ll stick with him at this 2½ mile trip. In fact, I had him down as a likely stayer a couple of years ago. A theory that has not been categorically bottomed in my view. Whether he can improve on his runner up spot behind Dynaste last year is open to question. I still believe he has not fully delivered on his potential. Others may think he is now exposed. Don Cossack’s excellent win last week makes the race suddenly look much tougher. I need Shark Hanlon’s stable stalwart to repay my long held, but increasingly fragile faith this time. 

World Hurdle

A really open, scarily inviting renewal this year. Even though last year’s winner More Of That is four points clear in the market. Despite his obvious class, the reigning champ is a risky proposition at the moment. Clearly wrong on his poor seasonal debut, there is still a cloud hanging over the form of inmates at Jackdaw’s Castle. I’m not saying Jonjo won’t have him right come the big day, just that I’m looking elsewhere. I like Beat That, but he too is suffering an interrupted preparation and backing him requires a leap of faith.

Saphir Du Rheu has a touch of class and the decision to revert to timber is a good decision after his two falls over the larger obstacles. If they have not left a mark, this could be the right race for him. Whisper, having also blotted his copybook over fences, comes into a similar category.

I haven’t bypassed Lieutenant Colonel either, after a great tussle with Jetson at Christmas. However, I may well bypass two of my old friends who will line up here. Zarkandar isn’t quite the horse he was and although there are positives to be drawn from his 3 mile races this year, I don’t think he has the engine on a sounder surface anymore at this level. Rock On Ruby I would love to back. What a warrior. Owes me nowt. I can’t shake the nagging doubt that he’ll struggle to get the trip. I’m more concerned about the stamina issue than the age stat that is being bandied around about winners of this race. ROR has not had a hard career and still shows plenty of zest. If he wins, I’ll be screaming the place down, but he’ll only have a sliver of my sentimental money on his back, if anything.

I backed Monksland at 16-1 after his 3rd place behind Lieutenant Colonel over  Christmas. There’s class about this Noel Meade charge and his potential hasn’t yet been fully tapped. Whilst he should have won in the mud yesterday at Gowran, I’m not unhappy with the way he travelled and jumped. That he got nutted on the line says a lot about Bryan Cooper on Dedigout and even more about my fella’s dislike of heavy ground. Assuming there’s no bog awaiting him at Prestbury Park on 12th March, he should go well.  

That said, this is shaping up to be a good race, and I’ll no doubt return for more action before the off.

Gold Cup Day

By 1.30pm on Friday, I will be part of a large and unruly gang of enthusiastic punters up to its neck in beer, whip money, 12 to follows, and the excruciating final stages of Fantasy Festival in the Barley Mow.

I’ll need reminding that I’ve had some ante-posts already. Many of which will may well be long dead. This is for the record.

Triumph

A race I used to target, but increasingly I’ve become a casual punter. Like the world and his dog, I loved Peace And Co’s easy win at Doncaster. This weekend will tell us more about him and the rest of Mr Munir’s strong hand of 4yos. I haven’t had a bet yet, but trainers often play their hands late in this division so I’m not ruling out a little dabble over the next week or so.

Albert Bartlett

Another of my favourite races. Bloody hell, aren’t they all? What an unrivalled feast of top quality fare! I’ve taken a view about Fletcher’s Flyer at 27 with Betfair. He hasn’t yet achieved as much as those at the top of the market. Harry Fly is nevertheless bringing him along nicely and he has won both his outings this year like a horse with plenty up his sleeve. He hangs a bit, which is a small concern, but with one more outing before th Festival, he should be spot on, especially with better conditions underfoot that he’s met so far.  

My other bet was a speculative punt (again) on Out Sam after the horse he beat at Newbury, Thomas Brown, came out and won well on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham. Then Tea For Two – also beaten by this lad – won the Lanzarote. I took a little bit of 45s with Betfair. Then I got the wobbles and backed him for the Neptune at much shorter as well. Even though my instinct was for the longer trip. So when Out Sam turned out last weekend I was expecting the odds to contract and for me to be sitting pretty. I thought I’d covered the angles. He won. But it was a tad scrappy to be honest. Then Hendo said they’d probably skip the Festival and head to the 3m novice at Aintree. Why? I can’t see much else that he’s got for this. Bastard.

Gold Cup

I started this series by saying in that I’d never won the Festival opener, the elusive Supreme. I’m closing it by saying I’ve never actually won the Gold Cup either. Terrible. Not with an outright bona fide win bet. I’m excluding a few combination place returns and other such spawn.

I’ve come close a couple of times. Maybe Road To Riches can get me over the line this year. His Lexus Chase victory had all the hallmarks of Gold Cup quality. The usual stuff: jumping, travelling, yawn yawn. What marked him out for me was the way he responding to a patient ride from the impeccable Bryan Cooper and found plenty when asked to go and reclaim the lead, staying on powerfully to the line. I backed him at 12-1.

He is second in the betting at about 8s now, behind Silviniaco Conti. Probably rightly so. That one’s King George victory was a joy. Slick jumping is his hallmark. I’m a little burned by his capitulation after the final fence in last year’s Blue Ribband when for all the world I was counting my cash. I couldn’t bear to be all over him in March and see the horse knuckle up the hill again. Cheltenham simply may not be his track.

Djakadem must also come back into the reckoning after a superb performance in the Theystes Chase at Gowran yesterday, Mullins pretty much said it left him no other option. He had a tough assignment under 11st 10lb and won in the way he needed to if he was to dispel concerns after his tame Hennesey run back in November. A lingering question mark is his ability to handle ground better than soft.

I don’t go a bomb on any of the others at this stage, though it’s a brave punter that excludes Lord Windermere.


That’s me then. The quivering mug punter in the corner, stealing glances between fingers at the shifting tales of horror on Oddschecker.


Thursday, 22 January 2015

Festival 15 - Ante-post progress: Ladies Day

Traditionally, my strongest day. And in many ways my favourite day, though not just because of the positive financial returns.

I love the staying novices better than anything. Save perhaps for the sight of a select bunch of two-mile top-notchers attacking fences with pace and skill in the Queen Mother.

Do I say this every year? Yep. But last year I missed this day. We left after the first day due to a number of dull reasons. It felt so odd, out of place, to be at home watching on the races unfold on the telly, rather than baying my head off on the rails. I’ll be back this year. I hear they missed me.

My punting action has been limited and unsuccessful this ante-post season. Just a quick round up then.

Neptune

A market that I habitually get stuck into, but this season is subject to the ebbs and flows of Willie Mullins’ impressive novice hurdle brigade and the shifting targets of other principles. It feels as though Parlour Games heads the betting almost by default. I haven’t waded in properly on this race yet. There are too many question marks. I did have a small covering bet on Out Sam before his last outing, but my main interest in him was for the Albert Bartlett. Both now look fruitless – but see later for more discussion. I’ll be back soon to stamp my calamitous opinions all over this race.

RSA

I have a long standing bet on Champagne West at 20-1, but it’s not a confident shout. I think he’ll need cut in the ground and that seems unlikely. I’d like to see Valseur Lido targeted here. Impressive winner of the Drinmore, he seemed to have bags of stamina. He’s a shorter price for the JLT though and I’m not keen to split my stake at these shorter prices. Gigginstown are less loathe to keep their best runners apart than Rich Ricci is, so it’s conceivable that Mullins could run both Don Poli and Valseur Lido in the RSA, with Vautour now confirmed for the JLT… I’m talking myself into this. If I can just find 14s somewhere.

Champion Chase

I suspect I’m not the only one struggling to know how to tackle this race. It’s complexion has changed markedly in the last few days. The welcome return of Sprinter Sacre was a big boost for the sport. The event has been widely covered and the consensus seems to be that there is some way to go to regain the electric invincibility in the six weeks that remain. Dodging Bullets is only third in the market for the race, which seems odd on the face of it. However, SS and Sire De Grugy cast long shadows, even with doubts about them both. I’ve followed Dodging Bullets to my cost in the big end of season meetings. He’s fluffed his lines plenty. This must also be a factor in his relative market position. Nicholls is convinced he is a reformed character, but I’m still nervous. Lydia Hislop said of him this week “The Sprinter Sacre of old would eat that horse for breakfast and go back for the jockey.”

Champagne Fever now seems to be targeted at this race and has been clipped in accordingly. Ruby Walsh feels that his horse was already beaten by Don Cossack when falling at the final fence in last Thursday’s Kinloch Brae Chase. Agreed. He also said that Champagne Fever never travelled or jumped as well as he had in the King George. That surprised me as I thought he cut decent shape out in front and put in some impressive leaps. I’m more interested in him at 2 miles than any other trip, but can’t quite bring myself to back him.

With so many doubts about the race, there must be some value here. I don’t see it in Al Ferof who can’t now have the raw speed at 10 years old to drop back in trip and win this. But I don’t really see it anywhere else, either.

I’ve had two little Betfair speculates. One was an ill judged biggish-priced punt on Vautour after his sparkling debut, when I imagined a plunge scenario on a race that could cut up, his other novice chasers sticking to that route and Champagne Fever in the Ryanair or Gold Cup. With hindsight, that is not really Mullins’ style. Ho hum. The other is still alive, but is an even longer shot. Mr Mole has a modicum of Davoski wedge at about 65 after his handicap win at Sandown. If he turns up in the Game Spirit and performs with credit, JP McManus, in the absence of any other live contenders, may be tempted to run him here. He’s quirky, but so is Dodging Bullets and the former’s price is much more attractive.

Though don’t be surprised if I back the latter as well. And Sire De Grugy, once there are signs he is fit and well. Oh dear. This race may well be my nemesis.

Festival 15 - Ante-post progress: Champions Day

Like a mud-caked cartwheel turning slowly out of the claggy mire, I’ve come full circle with my Festival ante-post punting. Returning to a decade old strategy of backing big priced Betfair outsiders struck to low stakes that I think I might lay off when the market turns my way.  I rarely did lay off. The markets too often drifted the other way, or I got greedy and hung on to my big prices. I can think of only two occasions when I laid off to a reasonable profit.

Once when Nicholls took over the training of Venn Ottery for the irascible Oliver Carter and I backed him at massive odds in the 2004 Champion Chase place market. Nicholls then coaxed four wins from five runs out of the horse who was almost as quirky as his owner. A shot at the Champion Chase became realistic and I laid off my bet. Ottery finished 5th and tired after cruising into contention at the top of the hill.

The other occasion was Sublimity in the 2007 Champion Hurdle. Again backed at huge odds, I laid off a significant chunk on the eve of the race.  This proved to be a mistake. He won a race run to suit, bouncing off the drying ground at 16-1. I collected nicely enough on the on the locked in profit, but it could have been so much better if I’d resisted the lay.  

I fell out of love with Betfair and wrestled with the logic of trying to manage down the scale of my ante-post punting. Then followed a flirtation with No Run No Bet and No Run Free Bet offers. Seemingly risk free betting became a thin veil for tying up loads of wedge and lop-sided each-way caution. False economy and folly. Even though I had a couple of successful Festivals, I’m now back to backing win only long shots and multiple selections in single races, at small stakes.

Of course there are increased elements of lottery compared to ten years ago, given the additional targets that now exist for runners, particularly in the novice ranks. This has its compensations and risks in the fluctuating markets. Investment values may decrease as well as increase.   

Enough preamble already. What damage has been inflicted so far? Here’s the grizzly word:

Supreme

I’ve yet to claim this race with a proper bet and it looks like another year will slip by. I’m not on Douvan. I wasn’t ready to plunge after his eye-catching debut at Gowran. I gave up after his demolition job at Punchestown. He looks a notch above L’Ami Serge who won a sub-standard Tolworth very well. It’s any price you like for the rest, with many contradictory form lines, particularly in Ireland. I’ve had a couple of quid or so on Sizing John at 51. You can get twice the price now. That seems crazy on the face of his Grade 1 win over Christmas. But that race has more form holes that a lump of gouda. And back in November, he was smashed to bits by Douvan, of course. De Bromhead is no fool though. Far from it. He’s keeping the horse fresh for a Spring campaign and I hope that he’s looking after an improver to send to Cheltenham where in an ideal world he’ll find Douvan on an off-day. Similar scenarios have played out plenty of times before in the Supreme: Cue Card and Dunguib most recently.  I’d been hoping David Pipe’s exciting Moon Racer would have made his debut over hurdles by now. He’s still in some markets, but looks like he’s being saved for the Bumper. Whatever, I’ll be back for more in this market, whether or not Sizing John lines up.

Arkle

Yes, Un De Sceaux, if he stands up after his exuberant over-jumps. Yes, Clarcam who looked quality in despatching Vautour over Christmas. But for me, yes also Gilgamboa who should come here instead of the JLT, in my humble opinion. He’s shorter for that race – generally 8s – and I have him in this at 12s. So the wager is not a Betfair flight of fancy, but a proper bet. His win at Limerick on Boxing Day was just what you want to see in an Arkle candidate. Slick jumping, easy travelling, and high ratio gearing when given a squeeze. This weekend’s Irish Arkle will be a compelling event, with many of that country’s best two-mile novice chasers lining up.  That will clarify the target for plenty in this division. Entries for this and the other novice chases are out later today.

Champion Hurdle

Statistically, my best Championship race: Sublimity, Punjabi, Rock On Ruby and Jezki.
Maybe I should be looking for a contender that fits this rhyming pattern. I’d have as much chance. Jezki will no doubt get his ground again this year, but 5-1 doesn’t seem much value in this make up. Hurricane Fly is winning more respect for his warrior status with every race he runs and 14-1 seems insulting. And yet unless it comes up soft, he won’t be winning this. The New One ran his best race in two seasons at Cheltenham in the old Bula, to my eyes. Jumping fluently, travelling strongly and quickening away. I finally started to see what he was all about. Credit to Twiston-Davies for running the horse in all the decent races. That’s why they are in training, Hendo. However, The New One’s Haydock outing last week prompted questions again. Jumping right, making mistakes and only nailing an inferior opponent late on, admittedly out of ground he hated. So that brings us to Faugheen who has not put a foot wrong and answered every question. At nearly evens, it’s no bet for me.

On the basis of unearthing some unlikely value, I’ve dabbled with Greatwood Hurdle winner, Garde La Victoire. 66-1 and it’s an each-way NRNB. Breaking new rules early here. He has improved all season but it takes a stretch of logic to see him progressing past Faugheen and co. If he did turn up in this race, it would be via a strange handicap route – then again, it’s something his trainer Philip Hobbs has done before. Remember Rooster Booster? My only real hope is that Diakali turns up so that I can continue the phonetic sequence…

Mares Race

Annie Power’s race to lose if she makes it to the tapes. I was taken by Carrigmoorna Rock at Leopardstown over Christmas. Real battling qualities and should improve for better ground. I took 12-1, but bigger prices are available now. Carole’s Spirit, whom I love, will be another to improve on better ground, but seems to have developed a tendency to jump right. Both Glens Melody and Aurora D’Estruval will make it interesting. It all hinges on Annie’s fitness.

Four Miler

I’ve long been a fan of Sausalito Sunrise. King’s Palace has put him in his place twice over three miles, showing up the Hobbs’ horse’s lack of killer pace. So the extra mile in this extended novice event should work out well at a track he likes. He was still in touch with Coneygree when falling at Kempton last time and it’s to be hoped there’s no confidence damage. I’m on at 22 with Betfair and covered him in the RSA at 25s as well, but to smaller stakes.

That’s enough grief for this instalment. Back with Champion Chase Day howlers later…


Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 - A racing snapshot

Arguably, as racing years go, 2014 was not a rumbustious cartwheeling of champagne moments or as packed with giddy achievements as some previous years. Neither did it attract so many damaging and controversial headlines either. Maybe a solid year is no bad thing. It was, however, thrilling, emotional, notable, absorbing and, yes, some dispiritng or concerning aspects too.

Here are a few of the peaks, valleys and plateaus that have contributed to the geography of my punting year.

Four good

Cheltenham 2014
I sometimes crab and scowl a little about this fair isle’s finest racing festival: too many amateur races, too much domination of the season, too few decent facilities… And yet it remains the pinnacle of my year. Rightly so. The Cheltenham Festival is a place to make memories and celebrate equine excellence. And maybe find a winner or two as well. Fitting then, that Edward Gillespie who spent 32 years as the managing director at the course has been awarded an OBE in the New Year honours.

This year, Jezki winning the Champion Hurdle was a personal highlight. Given an inspired ride from Barry Geraghty in an incident packed race, this classy hurdler didn’t get his due respect until beating the Fly again at Punchestown the following month. I still maintain The New One was never winning the Cheltenham day-one feature (but he looks better still this year!)

On the subject of respect, Jamie Moore and father Gary got full payback for some grudging early season comments when their superstar two-miler Sire De Grugy won the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He finished the season unbeaten. Wonderful scenes. And then drama as Lord Windermere came from last to first to win the Gold Cup, where Silviniaco Conti - leading up the hill - finished out of the frame. Five or more were in contention at the last.

Ryan Moore
Sticking with the Moore clan a moment longer, 2014 was the year when Ryan took his already prodigious success to a new level. His talent has never been in doubt and he now has the global achievements to frank it: Britain, Ireland, France, Japan and then going down under to win both the Cox Plate with Adelaide and finally Melbourne Cup, with the German-trained Proctectionist. He ended the season with 14 Group One winners. More than this, the quality of his rides has been the hallmark of his class. Invention, confidence, clear thinking and single-mindedness separate him from the pack.  He’s still ambitious too. In his Betfair column he gave his 2014 season a mere 8 out of 10! Moore’s ride on the Grey Gatsby to beat massively odds-on Australia in the Irish Champion Stakes was one of many highlights:


David O’Meara
A breakthrough season for Helmsley-based O’Meara who landed his first group 1 with G-Force in the Betfred Sprint Cup, followed by Move In Time in the Prix De L’Abbaye as well as a host of other big handicaps: the Ayr Gold Cup and the Cambridgeshire to mention two. It is heartening to see the ranks of good northern trainers swelled by such talent.  With 116 winners and £1.2m in prize money in 2014, O’Meara will soon be challenging Fahey and Johnston. If only he would turn his attention more seriously to the jumps, a division in which the North is embarrassingly weak right now.

Treve
It was hard to feel anything other than warmth and moist-eyed, tingly emotion at the performance of Treve in the Arc  De Triomphe. The style of her swooping victory was sensation enough, without the stellar training achievement provided by the resilient, faithful Criquette Head-Maarek. Treve’s fragile season had been well documented and to peak a horse in that manner was special. As a bonus the Treve team decided to keep the wonder mare in training next season, too. Any doubts about the horse’s constitution or concerns around the reported ‘kissing spine’ we were assured, could be managed through a careful training programme. The prospect of Treve returning to Longchamp in October at five is proper dreamweaver territory.

Four bad

Rules and Regs
The BHA had a few sticky moments in November. Firstly, after some sterling work by Simon Rowlands, aided by Google earth, the distance of the Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby was found to be a furlong short. Other races subsequently came under close scrutiny. And then trainer Neil Mulholland had one of the biggest successes of his career taken away from him because The Young Master was found to be ineligible for the Badger Beer Chase at Wincanton - only after he had been allowed to run. This is pretty basic stuff.


Wigmore Hall
The Daily Mirror quite rightly received opprobrium for printing pictures of Wigmore Hall being put down after shattering a bone in his leg at Doncaster. Outrage was focused on the sensationalist nature of the reporting and on the one-sided views presented about horse welfare. David Muir, the RSPCA’s equine consultant, suggested there was no case for the sport to answer. “I can’t see that the vet has done anything wrong, or the racecourse either”, he said.

Bans
Britain has thankfully seen less in the way of painful revelations about doping and horse abuse prompted by Al Zarooni’s steroid scandal of 2013. In Ireland, however, successful national hunt trainer Philip Fenton was banned last month for three years after illegal medications were found at his stable during 2012. Hardly a swift resolution. Elsewhere, Fergal Lynch returned to race riding 10 years after being banned for deliberately stopping a horse, in collaboration with a crooked owner. Journalist Greg Wood prefaced the moment when he wrote “a small stain will appear on the integrity of British racing as Fergal Lynch walks into the paddock at Ayr racecourse.” The BHA’s view that “Lynch has satisfied us…that he has successfully reformed his character” cut no ice with Wood who argued that “For the cardinal sin of deliberately stopping a horse there should never be hope or expectation of a second chance.”

Farewells
This is a bit predictable for an end of year round up, but it is only right to mark the passing of a number of stalwarts and luminaries of both the equine and the human world. Favourites I will recall with warmth and respect include former jockey and partner of Henrietta Knight, Terry Biddlecombe; head of the Scudamore dynasty, Michael; jockey and training legend Dessie Hughes; and Gold Cup winning trainer Toby Balding. Lochsong, See More Business, and High Chaparral also breathed their last.

Four even

Towcester
My local track has built a new £1.8m greyhound circuit inside the existing racecourse. Entry to the dogs – like to most of the racing fixtures – is free. On the face of it, this is a good move and increases my leisure options considerably. It comes as part of a £15m refurbishment at the track. What’s not to like? Well, the down side is that seven of the venue’s 17 current fixtures have been flogged off Arena Racing to help pay for the work. This includes its two prized dates of Boxing Day and Easter Sunday. I’m not at all convinced by this move away from a focus racing. Although, as owner Lord Hesketh sagely pointed out to the BBC, "If this place is going to survive and prosper, it's going to have to operate for more than 17 days a year." So maybe I’ll hold fire. The jury is out.

BHA
The new man at the British Horseracing Authority faces a tough assignment. Racing’s human resources department appointed Nick Rust, formerly of Ladbrokes, to replace the widely liked Paul Bittar as its Chief Executive. The link with the bookies did not go unnoticed by many social media commentators who predicted doom for the poor punter. Though this interesting piece by Greg Wood (again!) put the issues in perspective: 

Jamie Spencer
“As much as I love race riding, it is not something I want to do for the rest of my life and, while I am not necessarily ready to retire now, I feel at a stage when I am ready for a change.” This ambiguous statement from Jamie Spencer announced his surprise retirement from the saddle in the Autumn. He had been replaced at Qatar Racing by Andrea Atzeni and Oisin Murphy and there was more than a hit of sulky bottom lip in the words. Spencer apparently rode off into the sunset with an unplaced effort in the Hong Kong mile. And in one of the most expected u turns of recent months, he was back plying his trade under the Lingfield lights in December. Many more showboating hold-up rides to come, it would seem.

Frankel
Lest we forget the presence of the finest flat horse of recent years (if we ignore Sea The Stars), the first Frankel foal to sell (with his dam Crystal Gaze) at a special sale at Kensington Palace on the eve of Royal Ascot fetched a cool £1,150,000.  What does austerity mean, exactly?



Monday, 22 December 2014

Home Improvements 2 - The Christmas Special

So. We've ended up with a bunch of workman crawling around inside and outside the house in the already fraught Christmas run in. With the inevitability of Santa's once a year coming, the projects we'd foolhardily agreed to be done in December have overrun.

Madness, I hear you say, to willingly invite in such mayhem at this time of year. Well yes. And no.  The idea of having everything sorted by the end of the year is seductive, but we didn’t push for this. Businesses are only happy to overprogramme, leaving the tightest of margins. They can’t wait to get all the filthy lucre in their mits before the break.

I ran away at the end of last week. The house was filled with blokes spreading rubble and brick dust far more liberally than any festive cheer. I couldn't get past the ponderous patio man to my office and the dining room was livid with sooty wood stove fitters. Mrs A had the back room baggsied. So I fled to the sanctuary of the Double Six cafe on Eversholt Street, near my Camden employers to begin scribbling this blog. I found a table in the corner, hemmed in by the very breed of hi-vis clad fellows I was trying to escape at home.  

Our current log jam began with the boiler, installed back in November, which needed a few repeat visits by Alex to sort out various pressure and valve issues. To be honest, I became a little sceptical about some of the issues Mrs A was identifying. Our plumber is notoriously easy on the eye (apparently) and I sniffed an element of "yes, that bottle on the bottom shelf please", transplanted from the bar scenario to kitchen domesticity. "Ooh, you've got Alex have you?" admired friends and neighbours when Mrs A mentioned the sabotage (in my view) she was inflicting on the boiler and the remedial action thereby required.

Installing the wood burner has been the most intense and yet comic saga so far. Mick, the unreliable builder, has taken six visits to complete the two-day job of enlarging the existing hole in the chimney breast to make room for the burner. That's about forty quid's worth of sugar just for the tea drinking.

Nevertheless, he did uncover the dining room's original fire place behind about 10 black sack's-worth of brick infill. We were delighted with that. Experiencing the grinding down of just 2mm of 150 year old residue on the surface of these old bricks was a smidge less delightful. A thick, acrid dustcloud obscured one end of the room from the other for most of Thursday. Grit penetrated everything. It's an ingredient even Heston can’t translate to fine dining. I checked after seeing the state of the fridge contents.

Then Kev and his Mate came to fit the boiler. Then they went away again. They couldn't find two adjacent spaces outside the house for their van. Mick forgot to tell us this requirement. They came back the next day. We'd primed the neighbours this time and so were able to move cars around. Typically, a lorry came to haul away the skip full of garden rubble (more of this is a moment) at precisely the same instant. For about twenty minutes, the bottom of Cross Oak Road was like a game of Parking Mania meets Ice Road Truckers on LSD, involving one skip lorry, one 18 cwt van, two Ford Estates, three lines of frustrated traffic and four wheelie bin place-holders. I was too busy making rude asides to see what happened to the Partridge in the Pear Tree.

Kev and his Mate were irrepressibly cheerful. Cheeky banter and shouty mirth.

“There’s your burner”, said Mate as he dumped the Clearview Stoves box by the back door. “Merry Christmas” and he made to walk back to the van. “Excellent!” I replied. “Where do we plug it in?”

Later, Kev was cleaning the chimney, pushing his rods up the fire aperture, Dick Van Dyke style. Mate was barking instructions from the garden at the top of his voice. “A bit more Kev! Yep, keep it coming. Give it some oomph. More, more…” And then finally. “There she blows” as the brush popped out of the middle pot. “It’s a boy!”

And then some frankly juvenile stuff that had Mrs A snorting. Kev clambered onto the roof so that he could push the metal tube lining down the shaft:
“Is it in yet?” 
“It’s coming it’s coming…”
“I need more length…”
Etc after immature etc.
 And all the while, James was trying to lay the patio. Like I say, why does this all happen in the week before Christmas? James, a quietly spoken, careful and over-fussy landscape gardener didn’t naturally take to Kev’s supersonic chatter. He was also a bit uneasy about Mate standing on his carefully prepared hardcore bed, bellowing instructions to Kev. James seemed to have a suspicious relationship with Mick the builder too. Especially when Mick schemed to chuck the fireplace debris in his precious skip, rather than take it away himself.

Mrs A, on the other hand, thought James was looking for any excuse to take it easy. She wasn’t very sure about him at all. It probably didn’t help that she bore the brunt of his fastidiousness on the first day. Every few minutes there would be a little tap on the back door:
“I’m a bit nervous about the space for the skip? Can I talk to your neighbours about moving their cars?

“Shall I write some notes to put on the windscreens?”

“Can I tell you where I’m going to pile up the old slabs?”

“I’ll put the new materials down here. Is that OK? I may need to move your bins.”

“I’m just off to the loo if that’s alright…?”

Mrs A dubbed him Twinkletoes. Irony I suspect.

Twinkletoes will be back this week. He has to fill in his lovingly painted yellow outlines on flattened rubble with real slabs and real concrete. There’s a more than fair chance that he’ll still be there in the garden as we wake to open presents on the 25th. Mick is coming back before Christmas too, armed with his big gun to seal in the granite slab under the wood burner. We’ve reserved a Christmas dinner berth for him next to James.

But I don’t care, because the burner’s working. We’ve been lovely and toastie all weekend. And I had a perfect excuse to go and buy an axe, for which task I donned a thick check shirt and furry trapper hat. One has to get the details right. No one batted an eyelid as I queued at the till with my fine weapon, humming the Lumberjack song.

Tradesmen or no, one way or another we’ll be ready for the big day. Family gathered around us and counting our blessings. Every one.

Season’s greeting, all.