Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Oil wrestling

Three weeks before the Cheltenham Festival and the ante-post strategy remains light touch. Unprotected exposure has been largely resisted. That’s not to say I haven’t unfurled the greenbacks in support of those kindly bookies who have put up refreshingly early festival insurance offers. Some risk-free, if reckless, positions have certainly been taken. But the only bets dancing on the cliff edge without a safety net are those struck with Betfair back in January.

Petit Mouchoir is now the most attractive of those early shouts. The 9/1 looks a good price in the turmoil of the Champion Hurdle market. New favourite Buveur D’Air rates the chief threat, having beaten my lad twice, including a thumping in the Supreme last year when both were well behind Altior and Min. Buveur looks classy and travels supremely well. A line through Irving would make him the form pick. Mouchoir has improved shed loads in his last three runs and that gives me some comfort. It should be a good clash, come 14th March.

I can’t have Yanworth as a Champion Hurdle 4/1 shot. How his price was ever clipped in after a laboured, sloppy performance in Saturday’s Kingwell defies logic. His fitness (offered up by King as a potential excuse) is not an issue as much as his rank hurdling. Mullins will still have a hand in the shape of this race too. Will it be Yorkhill (maybe); will it be VVM (no); will it be Footpad (yes); will it be Nicholls Canyon (no).

Some Plan, backed at 34/1 is now a general 20/1 shot having completed his Arkle prep as the last nag standing in the Irish Arkle. He didn’t jump or travel with his usual zest and Royal Caviar was cantering all over Some Plan before Ruby decked his mount at the last. Maybe Davy Russell had a little something left up his sleeve, but whichever way you stack it up, Some Plan won’t be beating Altior any time soon, without a mishap.

I had high hopes for Saturnas, backed at 23/1 with Betfair for the Neptune. Then he fell apart so spectacularly in the Deloitte Hurdle that it is impossible to know what to think. No idea where he will turn up next. I have to assume that this is a dead bet. Remedial action in the portfolio is needed.

The remaining Betfair punt is the small stakes affair on The Storyteller at 55/1 in the Albert Bartlett. Not much to report here. He’s not been seen out again and is a much shorter price for the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle. Guessing game.

Of the money-back bets, it looks like I might have a fair bank returning to me come race day. Sizing John is tentatively being nosed towards the Gold Cup, not the Ryanair. Trying to get on the right side of this horse is like grappling with an oil-wrestler. I’ve never managed it yet, pouring good money after bad season after season. I believe the Ryanair is the right race. The Irish Gold Cup was not a vintage renewal and Sizing John surely cannot win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Jessie H appears to think differently, citing the fact that ‘he was not stopping at the line’. True, but there are a further 2 ½ furlongs at Prestbury Park and at least four horses with more obvious credentials.

Indeed, I prefer Outlander’s chances at 12/1 and have backed him accordingly. The Lexus looked like a stronger race than the Irish Gold Cup and Gordon Elliot’s charge registered his best race to date in an upward trajectory.

Much more ill-judged than the Sizing John scenario are a slew of rash punts on horses whom I hoped would come out, smash up their prep races and thus have tumbling odds for their Festival targets. This is a common trait of mine at this time of year. Horses to have unknowingly failed this stern test I set for them are Calett Mad in the RSA Chase (didn’t stay the trip at Doncaster), Le Prezien in the JLT (jumping fell apart) and Most Celebrated in the Triumph (ran like a three legged dog). Crap bets.

The markets for all three of those races present a whiff of value opportunity before the next declaration stage. The JLT has already cut up once and may well do again if Yorkhill gets redirected. I like Whisper here and have gone in at 10/1. He loves Cheltenham, he loves the 2½m trip and seems to love jockey Davy Russell best of all. I hope the dry Corkman keeps the ride.

The RSA is a conundrum. I’m leaning towards American and, with the NRNB offers, regret not getting in early. But in truth I haven’t sorted out the form here yet. So I’ll wait. Same goes for the Triumph. This used to be a good race for me, but since the introduction of the Fred Winter, I’ve struggled.

Finally, we come to the curtain-raiser. Having slain the Supreme hoodoo last season, I have confidently punted up Movewiththetimes in recent days. Impressed with his Betfair Hurdle 2nd and with improvement to come, I think the 16/1 offers sound value. I’ll probably back Moon Racer too. In an open looking market, these two arguably have the best form on offer. It’s all about the form, stoopid. 

One last bet: Vosne Romanee at 25/1 NRNB in the County Hurdle. Mug punt. I read on some dodgy blog (can’t trust ‘em) that the good Dr Newland had sent him to the sandy climes of Dunstall Park for his final prep. He duly dobbed up. Next stop the County Hurdle Well why not.  It’s all about the whispers, stoopid.

Here’s the state of play:  

Champion Hurdle
RSA Chase
JLT Novice Chase
Ryanair Chase
County Hurdle      
Albert Bartlett
Gold Cup
-       Movewiththetimes, 1pt win, 16/1 win NRNB
-       Some Plan, 0.5pt win, 34/1
-       Petit Mouchoir, 1pt win, 9/1
-       Saturnas, 0.5pt win, 23/1
-       Callet Mad, 0.5pt e-w, 33/1 NRNB
-       Whisper, 1pt win, 10/1 NRNB
-       Le Prezien, 0.5pt e-w, 16/1 NRNB
-       Sizing John, 1pt win, 8/1 NRNB
-       Most Celebrated, 0.75pt win, 16/1 NRNB
-       Vosne Romanee, 0.5pt e-w, 25/1 NRNB
-       The Storyteller, 0.5pt win, 54/1
-       Outlander, 1pt win, 12/1 NRNB

After a self-imposed break from the festival last year, I am itching to get back this March. I thought, in some misguided sense of maturity and emotional control, that the time had come to sit back and enjoy the festival from a distance. What a load of bollocks that was. I hated not being there on Champion Hurdle Day 2016. I won’t be doing that again. Tickets and accommodation have been booked, and I’m getting stoked.

Watching ‘Being AP’ last night on the box got the juices flowing nicely. Great biopic, I thought. Apart from the brilliant racing shots, the film was a pretty good insight into McCoy’s insanely driven nature; tortured mind and body; and the impact of all that on those around him. Hard to envisage there will ever be another quite like him.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Breaching the dam

The prospect of such a good weekend of racing coming up has finally pierced my cloak of ante-post self-denial. Granted, I’ve hardly unleashed a torrent yet. Bets have trickled rather than gushed into the reservoir.

The stats tell me that my ante-post book rarely pays dividends. The plan this season was always to rein back from the scatter gun approach of previous years, engage in the game little later, and lop out much of the each-way element. 

This week has seen entries for the novice chases made on the back of earlier championship entries, together with some decent trials earlier in the month. I’ve been spurred into action. So this is the first tranche.

Arkle Novice Chase

Some Plan - 1pt @ 33/1 win, Betfair

I had been impressed with his engine when tanking along in the Arkle Trial at Cheltenham in November. He fell at the last before he had been asked a question. Next time at Naas, the jumping was generally more assured and he showed a willing attitude. Worth a punt at the price before a real test in Leopardstown’s Arkle trial on Sunday. He could end up in the JLT, of course, though untried at that trip and nothing yet says the step up is needed.

Sunday’s race also features Identity Thief, Royal Caviar and Bleu Et Rouge in a traditional small-but- classy affair. I really like the latter too, but Mullins has messed about with his trip and I’m not ready to get stuck in yet. I’d be interested in his chances in the JLT, but first need some clue that he will head that way. I'm shying away from the risk just now. 

Champion Hurdle

Petit Mouchoir – 2pts win @ 9/1, Betfair

Easy to say with hindsight, but I really switched on to Petit Mouchoir in the Fighting Fifth when travelling strongly, before coming down in a horrible fall at the last. A speculative punt then would have been interesting. The Ryanair Hurdle win was convincing, though the horse needs to settle better. Elliot has improved this horse by the spade full and he is now a genuine Champion Hurdle contender. By prevaricating, I’ve seen the price contract. Even more so after the scratching of Annie Power last week. The price drifted to 9/1 this afternoon and I struck like a cobra… after the horse has already bolted. That price could be double again in 48 hours if Faugheen comes out on Sunday and picks up where he left off in the race last year.

Neptune Novice Hurdle  

Saturnas – 1pt win @ 22/1, Betfair

Improved markedly from a relatively pedestrian 2nd behind Airlie Beach in the Royal Bond to a comfortable win at Leopardstown over Christmas. He was keeping on well to the post and judges better than me think he will stay further. The price has tempted me in, though it is not yet clear where this one sits in the Closutton pecking order, nor what his target will be. Speculative. He has an entry in the Deloitte next month.

Neon Wolf looked fantastic last week, but I’ve missed the price if, as seems likely, he runs here rather than the Supreme.

Ryanair Chase

Sizing John - 2pts win @ 8/1 NRFB, William Hill

I’ve been on the wrong end of Sizing John’s defeats to Douvan since I was in short trousers. The case to step him up to 2 ½ miles has been compelling for ages. Not only to avoid the imperious Douvan who has scalped John seven times, but because the extended trip should suit. He has usually stayed on well in his races, it was just that Douvan has been about half a lap ahead. John’s only attempt at the trip was last season at Aintree when it is likely that another pounding three weeks earlier in the Arkle at the hands of Mullins’ flying machine had left its mark. Needless to say I had backed him for the JLT at the Festival.

Now with Jessica Harrington, Sizing John looks like he will be campaigned properly at this trip. The Kinloch Brae last week was evidence enough for me.

Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle

The Storyteller - ½pt win @ 55/1, Betfair

He’s not done too much so far, but clearly rated by Gordon Elliot and beat Festival Bumper runner up, Battleford fair and square at the weekend. Looks like he’ll stay this far, so I’ve taken a punt at decent odds.

Ah. That feels better.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Kempton and all that

Despite hilariously sensationalist reporting of thundersnow forecasts this week, it is the jump racing world that has seen significantly more turbulence.

The Jockey Club’s announcement on Tuesday of plans to hive off Kempton Park for a housing development heralded a hailstorm of reaction.  The proposals seemed to come from nowhere, which is quite a novelty in this super-sensitive age of spin and counter-spin.  The move would see racing cease at the track by 2021 and estimated revenue of £100m from the sale of the vast site re-invested into facilities and prize money at other tracks. That package would be boosted by further £400m secured from its other investments. An all-weather track would be built at Newmarket and the King George moved to an upgraded Sandown.

Opinion amongst commentators and the racing community has been wide ranging. The most numerous and dominant voices have been pouring opprobrium and invective on the Jockey Club for sacrificing a Grade 1 racecourse and for laying naked profit before jump racing heritage and legacy. The populist concern has been for the sanctity of the King George VI and associated memorials to the race rolling down the years since 1937. Desert Orchid will be forever associated with the race. His ashes are buried under the statue overlooking the parade ring. Kauto Star’s statue is in the winner’s enclosure and half of his remains rest at the west London venue. The Sun had a field day. “The Jockey Club is prepared to desecrate the memory of the nation’s favourite racehorses”, screamed the scandalous red top.
Last of its kind? I love and have kept this Injured Jockey Fund Christmas card from 2010.
Entitled ‘Kings of Kempton’, it depicts all the King George VI multiple winners up until that point:
Desert Orchid, See More Business, Kauto Star, One Man, Wayward Lad and Kicking King.

Nicky Henderson, Oliver Sherwood, local councillors, the area’s MP and plenty of others have lined up to denounce the plans from racing and planning points of view. Journo of the year, Tom Kerr let fly with passion in today’s RP. The Jockey Club, erstwhile guardian of the sport, he said, was a “gamekeeper turned poacher and the poacher has turned up at the estate with a barrel of napalm to burn the place to the ground. Each and every person associated with the decision should hang their heads in shame. How can they claim this is for the good of the sport?”

There have been some more reflective views. Alastair Down’s surprising piece on Thursday took a polar opposite position and praised the most far-sighted and ambitious project he had ever witnessed in his years in the game. John Ferguson saw plenty of merit in the investment in jumps racing and Ruby Walsh has also put his weight behind the idea.

I initially see-sawed on the issue. I pondered whether losing Kempton Park would be such a blow when the quality of the racing outside the two-day Christmas Festival is poor. Most of the staple all-weather fixtures are poorly attended low grade fodder. The best flat races disappeared as soon as the cat litter track went down. The jumps programme is a shadow of its former glory. Take tomorrow’s fixture. The Lanzarote was once one of the premier hurdle handicaps of the season. The winner of the 2017 renewal will take home less than £23k. For a race with such provenance, that is a poor offering. The handicap chase that precedes it is a listed race and has attracted a mere four runners for a winner’s purse of £17k.

Then I realised that this was the point. The Jockey Club’s investment plans should have Kempton right at the heart, not to offer the place up as a boil to be lanced; an asset to be stripped. The argument about prize money was precisely made by Alan King earlier this week. Cheltenham has ramped up the pot at the Festival by another £190k. King said, "We need to look at where the funds are going. The extra purses will make no difference whatsoever at Cheltenham, just as having a £1 million Grand National is a complete nonsense. You'd get the same field at Aintree if the race was worth £500,000 and what's the point of boosting prizes at the festival? Hundreds of horses get balloted out already."

King wants to see increased prize-money further down the ladder. He rightly highlighted the ridiculous situation last week where a Grade 1 at Naas was worth €53,000 to the winner, “but we were running around for just £22,00 in the Challow Hurdle. Races like that and the Tolworth should be worth more. It makes it even worse that the winners get Grade 1 penalties to make it harder for them in the future."

The Jockey Club points to its half-a-billion long-term investment plan as a game changer. Great. Really great. This needs to be apportioned carefully to support and nurture the sport away from its privileged strongholds and to bolster the fixture list as Alan King has sagely suggested. Not to build an all-weather track at Newmarket. Fuck’s sake! 

Invest in Kempton and promote the venue as an iconic destination track. We are not talking about Folkestone or Hurst Park here. Even Hereford that closed three years ago has been resurrected this year.

The place does not need to be sold. The £100m price tag that will unlock investment in racing is a red herring. The Jockey Club has already found £400m in its coffers from other business and commercial interests. The old boys club is loaded, dripping with capital. Tom Kerr again:

“Perhaps the Jockey Club could look to some of its considerable non-racecourse assets, which encompass 4,500 acres of land at Newmarket, 550 acres of land at Lambourn and 90 properties, including the Jockey Club Rooms, which turned over just £1.24m in 2015. The art collection that adorns these rooms alone is worth tens of millions of pounds. That is an almost priceless piece of racing's heritage, just like Kempton, but unlike Kempton it is enjoyed principally by the rich, powerful and well-connected. The Jockey Club Rooms is a private members' club.”

That’s where the argument turns for me. If there was ever an injustice to rekindle the fire in my belly, it is the shameless exploitation by the haves at the ruthless expense of the have-nots.

This storm is far from blowing out. Indeed it is only just gathering strength. Whether or not the Jockey Club expected to be engulfed in this way is not clear, nor whether it will prompt any reconsideration. Beyond that, if there is any remaining shred of credibility left in the planning system, this proposal shouldn’t get past the first hurdle in the back straight. It breaches every Green Belt regulation ever penned.  Even Spelthorne Council appears to have been taken aback by the audacity of the plan. But we all know this is an environment where sense is not king. The developers’ profit juggernaut has destroyed countless landmarks and iconic venues in the past. You just wouldn’t expect the Jockey Club to be behind the wheel. 

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Party fever

‘Tis the season… when once a year drinkers get jolly. And then get smashed on vodka-spiked punch at the office do. And then fall over on my train home. When respectable professionals pee on the tube and puke on the platform.

Not that I’m entirely innocent in this regard. I may not be a once a year drinker, but I do remember an unfortunate incident on the train after a launch party the week before one Christmas. Posh do at the RSA’s swish gaff just off The Strand. I thought the RSA was the financial company that sponsored the gruelling 3 mile novice chase at the Festival. Who knew there was another RSA? One of the pre-eminent drivers of creative enrichment in the country, apparently. (That’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, since you ask.)

After too much complimentary bubbly and not enough fiddly canap├ęs, I felt a little queasy on the train home. The champers was clearly to blame. It’s not my regular tipple. I calmly picked up my rucksack, placed the laptop and various documents together in one compartment of the bag and carefully threw up in the other compartment. I zipped it up, wedged it back under the seat and closed my eyes until my stop. I did not once look at any of the other passengers sat opposite me.

Sometimes I’m on the receiving end. On one late night Christmas Special out of Euston, the train was predictably packed and about 6.5 on the lairy scale. I was stood between the seats. There was a drunk lad wedged in the doorway, legs curled up beneath him, burping uncontrollably. Classic signs of discomfort. Then, sure enough, although quite discreetly, he vomited on his trousers. The bloke stood nearest to him didn't spot it straight away. When he did he glanced round at me and others with a helpless expression and tried to edge away.

The train emptied out a bit at Watford Junction and I got a seat. I was horror struck to see sick-bloke stagger over and spill into the seat next to me. I passed a very tense few minutes with him losing his balance from his sitting position and grabbing my leg instead of the armrest. He was burping again and mumbling and twisting and looking at his watch in that way that meant he really, really wanted the journey to end. I know. I’ve been there too many times.

At Berko, with a giant effort, he hauled himself up and out. I lost him on the stairs, but then spotted him again on the edge of the car park tucked into the back door of the chippy. Bent double. Shoulders heaving. Not pretty.

Our Christmas parties have been reasonably vomit-free this year. Even the trip to the Tingle Creek meeting in early December, my first real seasonal bash, was a relatively civilised affair. Hipflasks were well to the fore, of course. Watching the races in the grip of winter whilst taking a few nips of radiating malt whisky is an indispensable part of the experience. I brought along the Lagavulin 16-year-old, received as 50th birthday gift. It is just about the best whisky I’ve tasted. Peaty but smoky too, with lingering warmth in the finish. Laphroig used to be my favourite, but this smooth, complex distillation has displaced it.  So 2016 hasn’t been all bad.

The flasks always get passed around the gang and there were some fine spirits to sample. Even Colin’s 40% proof apricot brandy found a satisfying niche. Though Bryn rather disparagingly suggested it could best be used to give his cappuccino a sweeter edge.

Mrs A’s work party needed a similar amount of stamina. It was hosted by Steve and Di in their splendid Jacobean former vicarage in a quiet corner of Suffolk, made all the more atmospheric by prevailing mist. 

It is within striking distance of Fakenham racecourse too. I really must try to get over there on our next stay.

The guests began assembling from about 1 o’clock. Following a superb Christmas lunch and then a ham and turkey supper at 8ish, the hard core were still going at 3am. On this occasion, I was not part of that core. Mrs A’s crowd are music biz players. I qualify to attend because through Mrs A I’ve known Steve for decades. I think a couple of gig and CD reviews I wrote have snuck me over the line as well.

However, I knew it was time for bed when the brandy and whisky bottles were sloshing around the table and the music took on a challenging ‘60’s hue. The conversation was surely from a yet-to-be-commissioned nursing home sit-com. The material wrote itself:

“Ah, this is one of the absolute classics. ‘Ghost riders in the sky’”.

“No mistaking the quality.”

“You should hear Johnny Cash’s version.”

“This is Johnny Cash!”

“No this is Frankie Laine. Listen to the bass player”.

“Didn’t The Doors do a version of this?”

“That was ‘Riders On The Storm’.”

“Oh yeah. I’m thinking of Tom Jones”.

Get’s up. Shuffles to CD player. Bends down and lodges right ear against speaker.

“That’s Johnny Cash is that. Unmistakeable”

One of the guests had been in the business for years and used to know well the hard-as-nails northern Working Men’s Club circuit. He told a story about the flat-hatted entertainment secretary of a social club in the north west who had introduced a new act in the early 1960’s by saying,

“I don’t think you’ll like this lot very much. Four darkies from America.”

The band was the Four Tops! Hard to picture them on that tough circuit. And probably not the first time Levi and the soon-to-be Motown legends had encountered blatant racism. Different times I suppose, but outrageous all the same.  

More gentle was a gathering of friends up the road where, in casual conversation, Mrs A and a new acquaintance discovered they had gone to the same school together over 45 years earlier and yet had never met. It emerged that they also had shared neighbours in common from Mrs A’s home village in Northants.

Whilst this uncanny connection was at first humorous, I soon began to doubt the sanity of Mrs A’s new friend. She showed us a series of photos of her dog taken to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas (although her set of 12 was scheduled to end on Christmas Eve, which seemed to be a flagrant conflation with Advent to me, but maybe I’m just splitting non-secular hairs). In each pic, the dog’s outfits became more extravagant. Day 8 saw the hound concealed in a wraparound elephant costume, with only its skinny legs peeping out to identify it as a dog. I despair to imagine the garb Ronnie will be squeezed into on the 24th.

 Of course, the real party happens at Kempton on Boxing Day. Thistlecrack v Cue Card in the King George has to take top billing. The field is small, Tizzard’s headliners having frightened off the Irish raiders, but the clash is fascinating. The small field will suit Thistlecrack, but Cue Card’s relentless galloping will put the former’s jumping under the severest of examinations. Massive respect to connections for running them both. This is what the fans want to see. Take note Mullins.

The Christmas Hurdle is a similarly small and fascinating field. Market leader Yanworth is very classy, but looks more like a stayer and a resurgent The New One will make life tough. Hard to fancy My Tent Or Yours, even on the likely more suitable better going. Ch’Tibello is a big improver but has a lot to find on the face of it.

In the third of the meeting’s head-to-heads, the picks of the Feltham (as was) look to be Frodon and Anibale Fly. I’m going for the latter, but this will be a good race.

Leopardstown joins the get-together too. Keeping up the one-on-one clashes, Boxing Day sees Min take on Identity Thief. Although visibility was poor, Identity Thief seemed to put in the more convincing fencing debut last month. Min remains the talking horse and maybe there’s a touch of value in the 9/4 about the De Bromhead chaser.

Then over the next few days, some or all of the big guns will come lurching into view, carrying their token bottles of prosecco and banging the door down: Douvan, Sire De Grugy, Altior, Djakadem, Valseur Lido, VV Mag and maybe even Faugheen.

Party central.

Happy Christmas and thanks for following the blog this year.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Tingle Revised

I was going to write a new blog about our annual expedition to the Tingle Creek meeting. Then I found that with a little bit of handy, writers-block relieving track-change manipulation, most of last year’s effort will suffice. This is the first time I’ve plagiarised my own stuff (as oppose to anyone/everyone else’s) and I’m quite pleased with the initiative.

(black – last year’s words; struck through – last year’s deleted ramblings; red, this year’s amendments)

This meeting has become a fixture in our punting calendar. For years we came on the Friday; a lower-profile card which still has a couple of decent races. Sneaking a day off work was part of the attraction. One time when the fixture was frosted-off we instead went 10-pin bowling at the Trocadero and drank all day.

Since switching to the main event, attendance amongst our unruly gang has grown. Fourteen Sixteen thirsty souls answered Bryn’s group booking invitation this year: thirteen sixteen lads and one lass.

At one point in the week before the meeting, we allowed ourselves to think that an epic Tingle Creek Chase was about to unfold. Willie Mullins had committed to the race the brightest star in the current two-mile division and reigning Arkle hero, Douvan, as well as last year’s Arkle hero, Un De Sceaux. Henderson had also pointed two of his stable stars in the direction of Sandown Park. Scintillating Sprinter Sacre had been nursed back to something approaching his best and another sick note, previous Arkle winner Simonsig was also back to form.

Shame on us for allowing ourselves such high hopes. The increasingly nervous Hendo decided that Sprinter was not yet ready for another bout, citing possible heavy ground (it rode genuine good to soft on the day); and. The unfathomable Mullins revealed that Douvan Sceaux was “not as good a traveller as Un De Sceaux. a little flat in himself the last two days." Bless. On the eve of the race Simonsig was also pulled out with a new injury. Sad to say that neither Sprinter (retired), nor Simonsig (destroyed) lined up this year either, though Sprinter paraded for the crowd and Bacchy took a fantastic picture of the legend.

This all prompted hearty twelve- ten to-follow chat about those numpties who had dropped Vibrato Valtat picked Douvan, some as star horse - and others a couple of weeks previously to bring in the Sprinter who had shamefully made no transfers at all.

We set out from various points of the south east regional compass. Bacchy offered a spread on people left at the entrance without their allotted ticket at 2-3. “Are you a buyer or a seller?” he asked. Another potential wrinkle was the mayhem caused by crap trains across the entire south west London region, meaning Bryn, Nick, Ad and Pete missed the first; and Bacchy resorted working out his placepot on the phone. An impossible task. I imagine he ended up with the default fav in every race. A further potential trap was  the number of punters who copped a penalty fare at the track-side exit form Esher station. It is beyond zone 6 and the ruthless Southern Railway enforcers set up camp just off the ramp to pounce on hapless incorrectly-ticketed punters. Bryn was alive to this, though and had warned about their tactics in his final briefing to us all. Top admin. Give that man a finance job. Thankfully, the rail enforcers were having a day off. Maybe it was their Christmas party. Or maybe they didn’t fancy the wrath of thousands of punters made late by their useless services.

Bryn’s expert planning was rewarded with the arrival of the Gang Of FourSix(teen), bearing shiny, happy, optimistic faces within a few moments of the appointed hour at all sorts of random times both before and during racing. The first concern was the lack of real ale. “Where’s the Hogsback stall?” said virtually everyone. Even the lager drinkers.  Turned out they’d been booted out of the grandstand (just like last year) into the farthest reaches of the car park enclosure for refusing to pay inflated concession fees.  In the meantime, Nick found a the real ale bar underneath the Esher Stand in the family area just adjacent to kids’ pantomime stage had also gone. Instead, the Christmas market had grown exponentially, spreading its gaudy stalls of gingerbread animals, German tree decorations and smelly candles into every nook and cranny. They don’t make it easy for the beer drinkers. Top work that man.

Fuelled by ale and increasingly animated banter, the actual racing part of the day disappeared in a rising miasma of punts, horses and pees. I do remember one or two highlights:

-       Gary found five three winners from seven races. Outstanding. He backed Li’l Rockerfeller because it was similar to his Mother-in-Law’s cat’s name. Or some such. Danny, on the other hand, brought his Sandown record to 0/12 across two years.
-       Bacchy We all proclaimed me a the genius for of finding locating some bogs with no queues over by the parade ring Hogsback Bar. A sign of the relative priorities amongst men of a certain age.
-       Nev not landing any forecasts. At all. (Unless I missed them)
-       A big No surprise in the Henry VIII novice chase as Gary Moore’s Ar Mad Nicky Henderson’s Altior won at 14-1 a canter in a six four runner field. No-one backed him in our gang, despite Moore running up six winners across the two-day meeting the class of the beast. The odds of 2/7 rightly proved too prohibitive, even for Bryn.
-       Everyone ignored my winning nap on Simply A Legend in the handicap hurdle bad tempered bleating about backing a brace of fast-finishing seconds in the opening two handicaps and then me ignoring everyone else’s nap of Carole’s Destrier who took the last tried to get in on my act when Tim instigated an impromtu Smug Punting book signing. All that was missing was the trestle table and a stack of books...
-       Some saucy action away from SW London saw Colin tip a 33-1 runner up Bacchy get his 20/1 shot Highland Lodge at Aintree chinned by a canny ride by Tom Scudamore up his inside; and me back a spawny 6/1 winner at Chepstow (my solitary success all day). Bacchy expecting to land a cheeky treble at Navan only to find it had been abandoned, despite the bookies taking his bet.

The most controversial sublime moment was easily Special Tiara getting stopped in his tracks by Sire De Grugy in the finish to the Tingle Creek. The enquiry went on forever. There’s something wrong somewhere when the common consent at the track was that Special Tiara would have won the race but that the stewards would never reverse the decision. Colin noted the transformation of Darren during this moment, discarding his 'Happy Days' banter in favour of apoplectic rage when SDG kept the race. "Even if his jockey had've shot my fuckin' jockey, he still wouldn't have been fuckin’ disqualified! Fuckin’ fix!"  Un De Sceaux held on from a rejuvenated, heart-on-his-sleeve Sire De Grugy, with God’s Own fair screamimg up the rail and Ar Mad suddenly back in contention after looking well beaten. That’s the order in which they passed the post, but for the last couple of furlongs, the bellowing coming from our party betrayed the closeness and brilliance of the finish. Un De Sceaux made a howler at the last and for a moment Grugy had his noble head in front. UDS pulled out a little more to repel all comers. SDG held God’s Own for second by a neck. Proper racing. The best Grade 1 race I’ve seen all season.

Dark days at Sandown. By 3.45pm the lights were on and we groped our way to the station. By 4.15pm we had commandeered a corner of a cosy pub in Surbiton.

Colin pulled out after one a couple of pints and a half-hearted offering up of round of full blooded his belly for a raspberry blows. Gary exhorted him to stay, “Go on, just one. A half. A short. A coke. A bag of crisps?" Nick was next. The hipflask had been drained and he ran up the white flag by texting Den to come and pick him up. ‘s mate Jamie, new to the races, was swiftly initiated into this bewildering ceremony.

After a few more beers, there was an overwhelming need to find a curry house. Things fractured a bit at this point. I remember getting a train to Wimbledon and standing outside a shut down restaurant as if our very presence would spark it back into life. We were then turned away from another because it was full. The group splintered again and I then went home to slake my curry obsession with a take-away from emporium just down the road.

A whole new world of recycled blogging has just opened up. Given our predictable behaviour, I may well write next year’s Tingle Creek meeting right now.