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.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Saturday formula

There is a certain formula that guarantees a successful winter Saturday’s racing.

The perfect day has to start with a bit of a lie in. Nothing ostentatious. I’ll stagger downstairs, rubbing gummy eyes in time to pay only partial attention to The Morning Line. An ailing, safe preview vehicle these days, I’ll mostly be distracted by making some fantasy football transfers (like dropping Leroy Fer today just before he bags a brace against Palace) or following an England sub-continental collapse, ball-by-ball, on Cricinfo (having finally ditched the Sky Sports package on the basis of outrageous price hikes).

I’ll walk the dog - unless it’s raining - because I know there’s little chance of me doing so in daylight hours once the racing has started.

On return, I’ll feel like I’ve earned a toasted bagel with marmite, or maybe an English muffin topped with runny fried eggs.  Dammit. Maybe both.

By the time the second coffee is washing down the late breakfast, I’ll be deep into my form tools of choice: At The Races and the Racing Post online. Maybe if I’m feeling indecisive. I’ll be looking for good betting races, not just the big TV races. I’ll goggle at the spread of action across three or four decent meetings and I know I’ll struggle to wrap a staking strategy around it all. What might start with discipline and focus will inevitably descend into lob and scatter as the day rolls on. But that’s OK, because it’s a winter Saturday. Indulge. That’s the point.

I might even stroll out to the bookies to catch some of the non-telly action. There’s always punt-per-view with all the online bookies, of course. But sometimes I’ll prefer to pass 15 minutes or so with the hard core Corals massive down the High Street. Since I was there for Dave’s £60-grand Lucky 15 plot, there’s always someone with whom to exchange opinions.

Then I’ll wander back for a couple of hours in the company of Lucky, Fitzy, Richie, Graham  and Jim.  By the time the last race completes in fading light, I’ll be left to the mercy of Final Score and some assorted rugby internationals. 

These are the characteristics of a perfect winter Saturday. It can’t happen like this in summer. There are too many competing social, sporting and meteorological drivers. And the racing isn’t so cosy, personal or embracing either. 

Truth is, it doesn’t really happen very much in winter. A bit like George Orwell’s essay on the perfect pub, it is often just out of reach. There’s always something else going on. So when the stars align, I like to take full value.

Of course there’s a crucial element missing from this winning formula. Winners. Everything else is just prep. Set up. Context.

I’ve been working on a winning formula, as it happens. It remains a work in progress though. I needed something to inspire me across the vast, mediocre reaches of the flat season. I’d even taken to looking at tipster websites. Some were worth a read because at least there was some substance to the selections. Others were simply scams of one sort or another. That way lays ruin. Following other people’s tips is not where my passion for racing comes from.

I dabbled with a loose system to identify winning handicappers that were returning to underfoot conditions on which they had significantly better form. I played about with other criteria, which in my embryonic system I deemed were secondary but relevant – distance and track wins. Keep it simple.

The system paid its way over the fag end of the flat season. But it hasn’t had a proper test. It’s lacking what you’d call a statistically significant sample:  20 bets, 4 wins, 1 place. Net profit +£67 to £68 stakes, ROI 98%.

I used it to help find the winner of the Portland and the Cesarewich. The returns look great at first sight, but are skewed by a Lucky 15 combi on 4 qualifiers on the same day. The profit level would have been a good bit lower without the acca element, though I haven’t worked out how much lower.

But it’s encouraging. There’s something to work on. Isolating one or two factors can never provide a perfect system. But as one of a number of tools, used selectively, it should have a value. There’s very little to compare in racing to backing a big priced winner of a massive handicap. If this approach can put up me on to a few of those every so often, I’ll be happy. 

I’ve been licking my lips at the prospect of applying my new box of tricks to the jumps season. Guess what. It’s not working. At least not very well. Not yet. I need to refine the criteria around number of races completed and win ratios. I’m not finding enough horses who qualify. It makes sense that underfoot conditions are less of a significant factor than on the flat when there are additional variables to consider: fences and hurdles present an obstacle my embryonic system can’t yet grapple.

Keep tweaking. That’s the mantra. If there’s a reasonable ROI to report, after a bit more fussing, I’ll start posting records on here. If not, this discussion will never be mentioned again and the search for the ideal Saturday formula will continue. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

Home Front

Mrs A has been away visiting her sister in Tenerife again. It’s an oft repeated and enthusiastically enjoyed trip. She came back refreshed, relaxed and retanned having enjoyed some quality time with Auntie Sue and plenty of pleasant 28-degree November sunshine.

Each time she goes I write a post on here explaining that Mrs A calls the break a long weekend and I describe it as a short week. This time, even my barber agrees with me.

“Thursday morning to Tuesday night? That’s a week, mate. A week.” 

We have some great chats, me and Bardo. None of that bravura birds-and-football chat that Trump would call Locker Room Banter. Not at all. Bardo was soon showing me pictures on his phone of his a rabbit hutch that he had crafted with his own hands. Less of a hutch, more of a villa: three sheltered storeys and a large, enclosed run.

Bardo is quite a flashy name for a barber. He’s from Italian stock. His brother owns and also works in the shop. He’s called John, which is much more befitting. Odd that Bardo has such an exotic monicker. Maybe I’ve just misheard it and he’s really called Barry…

Whilst Mrs A was readying for departure on Thursday morning, I had bumped into J at Berko station. Our train’s arrival time began to slip ominously. It became apparent that overhead line damage just down the track would put at risk my meeting in Waterloo. J and I were eventually shunted to Platform 2 and squeezed on the first available train after a spate if cancelled ones. It was four carriages. Why does London Midland insist on four car units in the middle of the day? They are busy enough even before any incidents.

My furious texts to work colleagues declaring my lateness went unanswered. Then a response from the bloke who had called the meeting arrived. He was ill and still in bed. It was by then past the scheduled start time. Would he have mentioned his incapacitation without my prompting texts?

I left J to the rest of the journey and turned round at Watford. Another text pinged in. Mrs A this time.

“I thought I was flying from Luton but it’s Gatwick. And the trains are up the spout. Aaagghh.”

The following scrambled taxi and rail journeys got her to Gatwick with a little time to spare. Later, she texted again from Tenerife South.

“Arrived. Phew. Waiting to be picked up by Bootsie.”

“Did you tell him the right airport?” I quickly and wittily retorted.  No answer.

J is my allotment buddy. For 6 ½ years we’ve shared a plot off All Saints Road. We’ve finally given up on it this Autumn. The site has always been hard work with heavy clay soils and deep rooted thistles. The wildlife on this exposed spot has been a persistent challenge too. This season, even J, who is far more dedicated than me, said that enough was enough. This was after the fallow deer rampaged over the plots most of the Summer, eating everything edible and trampling the rest. We’ve had a succession of other incidents. Badgers ate my sweet corn, rabbits scoffed my cabbages, slugs polished off my lettuces and birds picked clean the currant bushes. There have been rumours of Gallapagoan racer snake attacks and Christmas Island-like red crab marches. I hear the final episode in Planet Earth II may be a special on our allotment.

By Friday night, pot noodles were earmarked as the dinner choice for Daughter No 2 and me. And pretty swiftly I was down to two clean mugs and one moderately clean pair of  ‘Where’s Wally’ boxers before anything got washed.

There was just me and daughter No 2 here all weekend. Not that I saw her much in between the job at Tesco’s and the boyfriend. She says I don’t write enough about her in these blogs. I’m flattered and moderately surprised that she reads them. The job at Tesco’s seems to be going well. There are a lot of hours to juggle with college, but she enjoys the wage packet. The company are not bad payers, despite other criticisms of them. She doesn’t even mind friends and family coming in to see her at work. Not even when Fay and Adrian waved at her maniacally through the window, dressed up in dinner jackets and cocktail dresses before our party. Everyone else in the store did a double-take, however.

Daughter No 2’s boyfriend is a good lad: plays lead guitar and wears classic metal t-shirts. We’ve met his Mum and Dad a few times. On the first meeting, we asked Tom what he wanted to drink.

“I’m Polish. I drink anything.”

We liked him immediately. On the second meeting he got me smashed up on ‘Polish tequila’ that by tradition had to be drunk in multiples of three shots. I think it was a vodka liqueur derivative. ‘If this is six’, I thought, ‘things will be messy’. It was 12.

I was back at Berko station on Saturday night. This time to watch the fireworks. Speaking to GC on the phone earlier in the day, in between my impatient shouts to the dog of “Wait!”, “Heel!”, “Come!” and “Oh, piss of then!”, he had suggested beers, fireworks and a chilli that night. Parts 1 and 3 of the plan went very well. There was a good few of us in the pub and it was only another round of beers making us late for the fireworks that prevented a successful part 2.  Instead, I make a quick trip up to platform 4 to access a nearby (free) vantage point. A couple next to me were doing the same thing. Or so I thought. When a London-bound train arrived, they got on and held the doors open for me.

“It’s OK, I’m only here for the show.”

Their looks betrayed nothing but contempt for a cheapskate.

Anyway, after a few more beers, we went back to Bex and GC’s place for a stonking (free) chilli.

Most of Saturday had been taken up with racing.  Uncharacteristically, I’ve been a slow starter this jumps season. The fixtures that afternoon featured some decent action from Aintree and Wincanton, plus the flat finale from Doncaster. Later that evening, after my night out, I watched the climax of Breeders Cup meeting from Santa Anita. An epic day with some thrilling races.

After a range of imponderable win, each-way and combination bets over a seven hour period, I finished £7.50 in profit. Daughter No 2 would scoff at that £1.07 hourly rate. Quite rightly. That was slave labour even when I was 16.

Racing has had a strange feel about it the last few days. Freddie Tylicki’s horrendous fall and paralysis, coupled with the death of Vautour who was one of the most talented horses and electrifying jumpers of recent years, has brought the gut-wrenching fragility of the sport to the surface.

But we go again. We will heel. Today is the start of the Open Meeting at Cheltenham, one of the crown jewels of the season. Sport is escapism and there’s plenty to be fleeing from right now. I wonder if Trump could outrun a racer snake?