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Monday, 17 November 2014

This sporting life

A fistful of facts and truths I learned this weekend:
1. Under the right circumstances, the amount of sport I can soak up from my settee is only limited by the hours in the day.  
The circumstances do have to be right, however. The lovely Mrs A is away this weekend, visiting her lovely sister in Tenerife. That’s one contributory factor: an invitingly clear diary. It’s hot in the Canaries apparently. It is wet, dank, dark and gloopy here. That’s another explainer: why go out?
I was clear on Friday and so could devote myself, guilt-free, to the three-day feast of televised action from Cheltenham’s Open meeting. Punchestown was a more than decent side dish. The raft of footie European quarter-finals were timely snacks littered through the weekend. Autumn rugby internationals the thick icing on a cartwheel of Victoria sponge the cake. ATP tennis action a mere amuse-bouche amongst the main ingredients. Topless darts on Eurosport at 1am on Saturday night was probably a weffur theen meent too far.
Potential Olympic sport?
2. TV football commentators are massively more positive than their radio counterparts.
Take the England game on Saturday. Danny Mills and Alan Green were ripping ‘tedious’ England apart in the second half – which, curiously, was when all the goals occurred and contained the only real quality of the game.  I watched the first half on the telly, where the ITV commentators were unduly sympathetic to England’s ragged industry. Why is this? Do the telly folk see themselves marketing guys for the product? Convincing us that we should be buying in to an unrivalled entertainment package? Maybe. And if so, does this mean 5 Live are fulfilling a counter-balancing gritty, honest, warts-and-all analysis? Danny Mills was so full of criticism about tempo and fluency that I thought his bile duct would split. Alan Green’s coruscating criticism is becoming increasingly unguided and wearing thin. Bring back Fanzone. OK, maybe not. 
Green: gobby
3. The Open meeting has put my season back on the tracks. 
The three day fixture remains one of absolute quality - that’s hardly news – and one that has proved a relatively happy hunting ground for me over the years. Nevertheless, I can’t remember the last time I watched and bet on all the principal races across the entire party. In doing so, I was also able to establish these nuggets:
  • Wins for Champagne West, Uxizandre and Garde La Victoire from my 40 to follow list put me back in profit after a poor early season.
  • Sausalito Sunrise and Blue Heron from the same list ran encouragingly well in defeat and are feeding my fragile optimism.
  • An above average number of front-runners bagged big decent wins, mostly accounted for by dictating a slow pace on bad ground. These circumstances show the admirable Dickie Johnson to good effect because he doesn’t have to worry too much about other more subtle tactics.
  • Simon Claisse is a prat. Dolling off four fences in Friday’s staying novice chase was questionable enough – looking at the shadows across Prestbury Park, I’d wager that the alignment of sun and fences didn’t warrant such action. (I’d like to know if it was the jockeys that demanded this action. I suspect not.) He then introduced a heavy dose of incompetence by trying to get the time of the following day’s showpiece event changed less than 24 hours before its start. The chaotic, farcical incident was stutteringly and unconvincingly reported live by the otherwise excellent Lydia Hislop and sidekicks at RUK, handicapped by disjointed and incomplete information. Not the game’s finest hour.
Johnson aboard Garde La Victoire: drive
4. Dessie Hughes will be missed. 
I caught a whiff of the seriousness of his plight when his son Richard Hughes collected the Flat Jockey Championship gong last week. In paying tribute to connections, friends and inspirations, he could barely speak when prompted to mention his father. Hughes Jnr was simply too choked and quickly moved on with a quip and a forced smile. 
I don’t remember Dessie Hughes’ exploits as a jockey very well, but landing the Gold Cup/Champion Hurdle double is a pretty special achievement. He surely surpassed that in training feats with the wonderful Hardy Eustace. A three time Festival winner, Eustace won the first of his Champion Hurdles at 33-1 in 2004. I backed him that year. For the Stayers…! His victory the following year when chinning Harchibald still goes down as one of the most remarkable Champion Hurdles of recent years. Harchibald, all over the winner, found nothing in the shadow of the post after a ride of extreme patience from Paul Carberry. 
Hughes should have been able to enjoy the achievements of another of great talent in Our Conor. This special looking horse won the Triumph in 2013 but was tragically put down in last season’s Champion Hurdle after a fall. Our Conor’s jockey, Bryan Cooper said Hughes was "one of the greatest trainers that we've ever seen and by far the best mentor and friend anyone could ever ask for". Amen.   
Dessie Hughes
5. Science is wonderful. 
I’ve been following the unfolding exploits of the Rosetta satellite and the Philae lander with the enthusiasm and wonder of a small child.  I’ve been looking for updates more regularly than changes to the Paddy Power ante-post market. I’ve been staggered by the vision of a programme that was conceived 15 years ago, launched 10 years ago and delivered almost exactly as planned from last Wednesday.  
This is one of those pinch-yourself moments.  With technology getting on for a generation old, this satellite blasted 510 million km to track a lump of ice and rock hurtling round the outer orbit of Venus. It then jettisoned a small spindly-legged probe to land the right way up on the spinning comet 67P, send back some breathtakingly beautiful photos and enough data to rewrite a library of science books.  Epic. Almost on a par with the finish of the Paddy Power. 
Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

And now Monday is unfolding and I am feeling trepiditious about emerging from my cocoon to blink into the half-light of a new week. Roll on the weekend. Already.



Monday, 10 November 2014

UK Blog Awards nomination

Ha! Recognition at last! Some fool has nominated Mug Punting for the UK Blog Awards. I'm flattered indeed to be included on the shortlist in the lifestyle, individual/freelance category. Though having checked the nomination page, I suspect the definition of the term 'shortlist' has been stretched a little...

Never mind.

If you feel moved to vote, you will earn my undying gratitude and respect.

Thank you in anticipation. Voting closes on 1st December.

Blog Awards - Mug Punting voting page



Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Home improvements

Time for a post that is not about horse racing. Because the gee-gees continue to misbehave.

Good job I’ve got some Don’t-Do-It-Yourself projects to partially distract me. The house has been in neglect for some while now and finally we’ve decided to do something about it. 

Starting with a new back door. A lovely new wooden framed all-glass portal for the back of the house, manufactured with care and fitted with precision by my mate GC. (All enquiries to http://www.compasstimber.co.uk)

I thought getting rid of the old one might be a little tiresome. In fact the thing had about 40 watchers on E-bay and went for a tidy £40, including pick up. The best result I’ve had since G-Force won the Sprint Cup in September. Seriously.

Arthur and Lisa from Wendover had bought to door. Lisa texted me to say they would be over on Sunday morning to collect it.  After a late night, screaming Toast Of New York down the stretch in a sun drenched Santa Anita Breeders Cup Classic (another taste of seconditis for me, but what a run, what a race…!), I flicked open Sunday morning curtains to grizzly rain.

The phone jingled into life and Arthur was seeking last moment directions in a thick Glaswegian accent. A few minutes later, his neighbour’s blue Ford Mondeo pulled up with Welshman Pete at the wheel. Arthur explained that they were hauling the PVCu half-glazed door and frame back home for their new lean-to. A few moments late, under battleship-grey skies and siling rain, Arthur and I were at either end of the reject door, blocking the pavement at a rather jaunty 45 degrees, edging it towards the awaiting jalopy.  

Pete was obliviously ensconced in his warm, snug driver’s seat. Arthur raised his eyes heaven-ward. “Pete, Pete! For God’s sake! Open the boot!”. He looked at me. “Just knock on the back window will you.” I did and Pete appeared at leisure, a short and sprightly 83 year old. He lifted the boot door to reveal a space ranged with useful (on other occasions, perhaps) car maintenance equipment. I looked in despair at the back seats still upright, the rear shelf in place and felt my arms lever from my shoulder sockets just a tad more.

Arthur issued some instructions to the hapless Pete and said to me “I don’t want to put the door down now I’ve paid for it. Don’t want to break it. I’m a Scotsman you know.” “Ha!” I mustered some jollity. “Well, I’m a Yorkshireman. You know what they say about us: Scotsmen with the generosity squeezed out!”

He liked that. “I used to be a Redcoat at Butlins”, he boasted. I felt my affable grin wane a little. I felt a Scotsman-Welshman-Yorkshireman gag coming on. Not quite, though.  “Do you know how copper wire was invented?” Pete was rummaging around in the boot and shifting seats around. “Go on?” I moved us carefully towards the yawning saloon and glanced up at Arthur, his glasses slipping down his nose. “Two Scotsman fighting over a dropped penny!” I chuckled and lodged the frame on the lip of the boot. My muscles squealed with relief.

We pushed the door further in, scraping against plastic mouldings and tearing at the seat covers. It came to a halt on the headrests with the front seats pushed as far forward as they could go. “You’ll be sitting with your knees up by your ears, Pete!”

The bottom of the door was sticking out of the back of car. Arthur and Pete pulled down the hatch and wrestled with a couple of bungee wires until the door was dubiously secure. Arthur was still on his red coat re-enactment. “Did you hear about the Scotsman who was so tight-fisted he had varicose veins in his knuckles? Ha!”

I waved them off clutching £40 in my own knuckles, determined not too put too much of it on Eduard in the 3.45pm at Carlisle. This proved to be a wise decision. Nicky Richards unexposed prospect mustered only 2nd, unable to concede weight to the very fine Many Clouds under that one’s ideal conditions.

The next part of our home improvement project was to the replace the boiler. It was on its last legs two years ago when our plumber shook his head in that way that tradesmen do, before coaxing a little more life out of it. Alex the plumber, no mean looker, according to Mrs A, pitched up at 8am with a brace of lean, fit young men to do the job. I jumped out the door and in to London thinking that at least Mrs A would enjoy an attractive side-show as they ripped the kitchen apart.

The plan was for Mrs A to join me in London that night. We’d booked a couple of preview tickets at a fringe theatre in south London close to where I work that I’d been really keen to try. Of course it was bound to go wrong. The boiler job took longer than expected and then the gas pressure was inadequate, so we had chatty National Grid Man pay us a visit to crank up the cubic metre-age, whilst asking Mrs A to complete the customer questionnaire so he could get a certificate to show his kids.

Mrs A pretty much manhandled Alex (any excuse) out of the door at 6pm, and somehow we made it to the bohemian Union Theatre bar by 7.20pm. A couple of stiff Rioja rojos and she was back on an even keel. The theatre was a 55-seat off-West End gem built into the arches of the viaduct carrying the Waterloo East line to Kent. We were invited into the auditorium, clutching our drinks, in batches of 10 to sit where we chose. Dry ice and moody lighting gave a whiff of Dio-period Black Sabbath gigs. Maybe it was expecting too much to hope the score of this Howard Goodall-penned fringe-musical would pack the same doomy punch.

Girlfriends was hugely enjoyable though. And not just because there was a surprising amount of shagging. The narrative was a little deliberate and a fraction na├»ve in its portrayal of  WRAF girls on a bomber base during WWII. Nevertheless, the performances were excellent and the production innovatively suited to the small space: because there was no sense of division between stage and seating, the audience was drawn right into the heart of the play. Although not into the shagging. Obviously. Everything else was going on all around us. I think we were both more intrigued by the staging than the musical itself. A perfect antidote to Rhythm Star being unsighted in the 1.20 novice hurdle at Uttoxeter.

By calling in to check on the girls, we contrived to walk past the best restaurants in Union Street and ended up eating the worst Thai ensemble I’ve ever tasted. I was up half the night gargling water to dilute a caking of salt and garlic in my throat deposited like a layer of basalt from the alleged ‘green curry’. But I don’t like to moan about a tiny blemish on an otherwise top evening.

Such Metropolitans. We were back in town for Fiona’s birthday brunch bash a mere few hours later. Penkull & Barnes is in Shoreditch which remains resolutely upwardly mobile. You can tell by the number of eateries and bars that pretend they are in cooler-still Hoxton the other side of Old Street by liberally misappropriating the word ‘Hoxton’ in their names. Good afternoon though. Top class Bloody Marys and scrambled eggs til 5pm. Nothing wrong with my system after that lot. I know how our radiators felt after Alex the plumber’s power flush the day before...

Next on our home improvement checklist is a new patio. The existing one was dug out and placed there by me about 10 years ago. The cracks between the broken slabs are now so wide that they could be mistaken for the holes in my punting strategy. We are starting to lose small children (and, worse, crisps and olives) to their cavernous clutches.

James came round to price up a replacement.  He seemed to spin a convincing yarn about what needed to be done, but I was so entranced by his Rasputin-like beard that he could have pitched for a house extension and I’d have tamely nodded.

Our neighbours have had some building work done at the back. From our kitchen window, where we previously gazed on fields, trees, wide sunsets and small herds of impala, we are instead confronted by a brick wall. To be fair, it is a lot better than I feared when I first saw the plans. James the Beard ran his landscaping hands over the brickwork and nodded appreciatively. “Nice job. Good pointing”.

He said it would be great to complete the edging of my new patio with matching bricks if there were any spare. So I asked the builders next door and they said they’d just chucked half a pallet in the skip out the front. James left and I spent the next hour digging into the skip to retrieve 80 reclaimed house bricks and stacked them neatly behind my shed. The power of the beard. Just waiting for the quote now.

We’ve had a long term plan to put a wood burner in our dining room’s empty fireplace. After abandoning ambitious plans to link one with a new boiler and create an eco scheme that would dwarf the Eden Project, we settled on a nice model from a supplier in Chipperfield. The sales woman was quiet, low pressure, informative and just very nice really. She booked us an appointment with the installer, her husband Kev.

Kev arrived one Saturday morning and you would have never put the two together. He bounced in, flexing wide, tattooed biceps and a wider, tombstone grin. He didn’t stop talking for half an hour. Loud, quickfire, repetitive stuff about the width of the fireplace, the length of the flue and the size of his family. Entertaining. He was a man’s man and spent twice as long talking to me directly as he did Mrs A. I found myself involuntarily imitating his style. “WELL YEAH, WE THOUGHT THE JOB COULD BE DONE, EASY LIKE. NO PROBS. BUT THAT AIN’T ‘ALF A SMALL OPENING. SMALL HOUSES THESE VICTORIAN TERRACE JOBS, YEAH.” Going with the flow, I could even feel my shoulders start to roll.

So we await the builder later today to tell us the extent and price of the fireplace widening. Potential for this to be the death knell of another project. Is nothing easy? Hope he arrives after the 2.15 from Exeter. Haldon Gold Cup. Special race. I wouldn’t want to miss another loser.

We also want some outside lighting for the expansive new patio that beardy James has probably sold me. Can I get an electrician to look at a job that’s less than a full house re-wiring? No. Anyone know a decent sparky?

One with a few racing tips would be especially welcome.





Saturday, 18 October 2014

A right good go

I was ready to bemoan the quality of Champions Day and hark back, again, to the balance of the pre-2011 Champions Stakes fixture that also boasted the Cesarewitch and the Dewhurst. Not least since the defections of Australia, Kingman and The Grey Gatsby had taken some gloss off the day.

But I’ve been around that particular nostalgic hamster wheel before. We are where we are. I have warmed to the Qipco series, even though some of the divisions are a little thin. Overall, the programme deserves this end-of-season climax. If only the weather would oblige a little more often.

So what of the quality of the racing? In this well thought out piece, Jamie Lynch of Timeform poses the question “is British Champions Day the best laid plan?” and answers with, “under the circumstances, yes. It might not do what it says on the tin and, related, it probably doesn't have the right name, but as a day, a draw and a definition for British racing it's a work-in-progress that's both working and in progress.”

This will be the richest day’s racing ever hosted in Britain. Churlish then to sit on my hands. Particularly as I appear to be plunging down the vertiginous slopes of a punting trench the depth of the Marianas trench. I’ve forgotten what a winner feels like.

Yesterday, the latest episode in a pattern of choking muggings unfolded when Present View chucked away a winning position by slamming into the last hurdle at Cheltenham. The vital momentum he sacrificed gave Sam Twiston-Davies aboard Vicente all the encouragement he needed. Not for the first time in this fledgling season that Twiston-Davies has impressed from an apparently forlorn position. It could be a big year for the carrot-topped stable jockey to the champion trainer.

Back to the flat then, for the season showstopper. Only one way to combat a losing streak. Stand square-jawed and resilient in the face of adversity and get stuck in. I’m going to give the card a right good go.

1.45 – Long Distance Cup
At 5-2, I’m happy with Leading Light. He’s by far the best horse in the field and should go as well as anything on the ground. It’s unlikely that Joseph O’Brien will ride as bad a race again as he did in the Irish St Leger (although he also rode a shocker the day before aboard Australia when he was comprehensively out-ridden by Ryan Moore piloting The Grey Gatsby). Forgotten Rules seems short on the basis of what he’s achieved, but will like the ground. I like Pallasator on this ground too.

2.20 – Sprint Stakes
I’m a big fan of G Force. He had been unlucky in running over a couple of good 5f races before the step up to 6f made all the difference in the Haydock Sprint Cup. There is reason to believe he won’t be massively inconvenienced by the ground. I can’t abandon him now (even if 7-2 is tight enough) although others may go better through the slop: Gordon Lord Byron, for instance, whilst some of the other mudlarks look too far out of form: Maarek and Jack Dexter. Viztoria looks more of a threat, as does Eton Forever. I’m relying on the class of O’Meara’s charge to get him home.

2.55 – Fillies & Mares
This has a wide open feel about it. At the prices, I like Cubanita, who seemed to run well at Newbury last time after a break and has Group winning form on heavy. That could be key, with question marks about the others, though it will need a career best from the Ralph Beckett inmate to take it.

3.30 – Queen Elizabeth II Stake
The first of the day’s two super-big races and it is a really good one. 2000 Guineas winner Night of Thunder should be popular with ground conditions likely to suit and a good run last time out in France. There are others I want to back though and I’m struggling to pin it down. Custom Cut still looks massively progressive and has a great attitude, serving up the big questions from the front. Integral won her last race that way too. Take out her poor performance in Deauville when in-season and she too looks a serious improver. A doubt might be around her ability to dominate against the chaps and with others who like to cut out the pace.  I really like Tullius on this ground as well, but this is tough and may be beyond him. Graphic is almost certainly out of his depth, but this is so, so his ground and at silly prices I’ll take a place only bet. Tough call, but the win wedge piles on Custom Cut on the basis of his visually impressive win at Newmarket.

4.05 – Champion Stakes
And so to the day’s biggest race, a mere £¾m to the winner. Almost a no bet race, though. Everything seems to be in place for the wonderful Cirrus Des Aigles who comes here in imperious form and on a surface that will suit. I don’t like the price, of course, and I may just have a small interest in Ruler Of The World instead. He ran well in this last year and is arguably better over 10f than 12f. Not convinced about the ground, but at a best-priced 8-1 I’ll have a nibble.

I haven’t even mentioned the decent card at Cheltenham. Changing of the seasons. I’ll probably have a right good go over there too.



Sunday, 12 October 2014

Slump

All that late Summer flat smash-and grab-seems like a long time ago. Tiggy Wiggy, G Force, Nafaqa. Ah, splendid stuff. Now in the fag end of the season, confidence has leached away like a Tory safe-seat majority. The list horses are dispiritingly uncompetitive and I’ve inevitably hung on to some for too long. Over-a-cliff-itis. My Achilles heel. A twitter compatriot made me laugh the other day when he said his "nag-me’s" were coming through and now all he needed to do was work out why he had put them in there in the first place. I know the feeling.

Outside the mini-projects that keep me interested throughout the flat, I’m finding that I’m off the pace in the big handicaps too; and properly struggling in the graded pool. Arc weekend was a washout in punting terms.

Though it’s hard to feel anything other than warm, moist-eyed, tingly emotions at the performance of Treve in the big one. 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 has been well documented and to peak a horse in this manner is special. You want icing on the cake? Well, in a positively received u-turn for which Mssrs Miliband, Cameron or Clegg would willingly have pawned their black hearts, the Treve team decided to keep the wonder mare in training next season.

So any doubts about the horse’s constitution or concerns around the reported ‘kissing spine’ can, we assume, be managed through a careful training programme. The prospect of Treve returning to Longchamp in October 2015 at five is proper dreamweaver territory. A prospect to entice, though to treat with the requisite caution, of course. Lots of water to pass under the bridge, etc., etc

The only possible loser is stud-stallion Dubawi who will have to wait another year before he girds his loins before Al Shaqab’s pride and joy. I imagine he will have other business to keep him out of mischief in the meantime.

That this decision is the exception rather than the rule for the finest flat performers is a source of constant angst amongst racing fans. It is precisely the stud fees commanded by the likes of Dubawi, as well as the prospect of lucrative broodmare offspring, that curtails many a glittering career. Coolmore fees for their top-rated stallions have barely dropped from pre-recession levels; and the investment required for a pop of Galileo is not even publicly declared.

I suspect this is an overly simplistic, reactionary view. I’m intrigued by the economics and statistics around this and plan to explore a bit further. At least that way I’ll have less time for daft bets. Because I’m making a ham-fisted start to the jumps campaign too.

I’ve dabbled ineffectively in a couple of half-decent races at Chepstow, Newton Abbot and Market Rasen to little effect. Maybe I should take comfort from the fact that Taquin Du Seuil looked as far off the pace as me on Friday in Devon. He’ll be back once he loses some condition. Let’s hope the same can be said for me.

The early days of the jumps season are increasingly phoney war territory. Years ago, I had a very fixed view that Tipperary’s decent card in early October marked the launch point. The Tipperary Hurdle – now the Istabraq Hurdle – was the first meaningful Grade 1 of the Autumn and it traditionally threw up Champion Hurdle contenders. Istabraq, of course, farmed it, and others to go on and figure prominently at Cheltenham were Back In Front, Harchibald and Intersky Falcon.

The race was down-classed to a Grade 2 in 2006, Since then, Go Native has been the only winner to emerge as a genuine Champion Hurdle candidate. That was in 2009. This year’s renewal lacked any strength in depth. Rebel Fitz is a useful horse, but he’s unlikely to be in the Champion Hurdle mix next March. A sign of the changing times, though Ireland still presents the best racing over the obstacles this time of year. There is the odd decent race over this side of the Irish Sea but the quality doesn’t really ramp up until the last couple of weeks in October.

Nevertheless, a couple of my 40 follow chaps and chapesses are out today at Ffos Las. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Fergal O’Brien’s The Govaness in the maiden hurdle. Plenty of interest to be gleaned from low profile Autumn cards, despite the paucity of top class action.

Oh, and a quick explanatory PS. Anyone who read my post about the Champion Hurdle earlier this week might have detected an slight variation from the usual Mug Punting style. Truth is I took the King’s Shilling and succumbed to the offer of an advertising fee in return for an article with links to a well-known bookmaker. (Other bookmakers are available…) Well, one has to earn a crust somewhere along the line. Not sure I’ll be repeating the experiment though.