Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Better than Christmas

This year, for the first year, we based ourselves in Cheltenham. Naturally, this is the aspiration of any regular festival stalwart. However it is harder to pull off than you might imagine. Securing a berth in the hallowed heart of this Regency gem is either an exorbitantly expensive or frustratingly booked-up undertaking. Had Mary & Joseph pitched up here for the virgin birth, the only way they would have found a stable would have been to part-own the favourite for the Supreme. In which case any Irish landlady would have willingly thrown open her doors.

There is another way. What you need is some very good mates who are happy to convert their splendid abode into a 5-star b&b for the duration. Best result of the week.  Chris and Laura, impeccable hosts, looked after us wonderfully. And it was not without some risk on their part. Yes, they knew me. And I could vouch for Si. But they had never met Nev before… Still, the behaviour benchmark was fractionally lower than we had anticipated. “Have they been sick on the carpet yet?” had asked Laura’s Mum.

Nev only joined us at Chris and Laura’s on Wednesday morning. He had booked into a tidy spot in Bourton-on the-Water before the Cheltenham opportunity became available. He made his mark though. Within half an hour, he was hammering away at our hosts’ generously lent laptop, trying to find and then print his Wednesday ticket. Because he’d lost it. Honestly, what sort of total prat would do such an idiotic thing?

Well, me for one. A few years ago I spilled out of the first day, exhausted and winner-free, saying to Bacchy that I’d avoid any confusing ticketing issues by ripping up that day’s expired voucher and chucking it away. I realised the next morning that I had, naturally, trashed the 2nd day ticket by mistake. That was an expensive tout-job to get in.

And Bryn for another. After leaving our Tewksbury base for the track at our very first three-day adventure, he realised he’d left all our tickets back at the ranch.  

Nev was unable to recover the e-mail with the all important pdf attachment. Neither could he wring any support from the Jockey Club. After getting a runaround from their sales team that would make the Cross Country course look like a 5 furlong sprint, he gave up. Laura had already done so, having dashed out of the front door some minutes earlier with a yoga mat tucked under her arm. Peace for body and mind. Si and I thought about joining her.

Approaching the collection booth up at the track was a lot more fruitful. Nev decided on a tête à tête with the ticket lady. Literally. He stuck his head so far through the half-window that he was on tip-toes with his backside in the air. “Go and do something funny with Nev”, said Si, priming his phone camera. I demurred. There are enough of those kind of photos of me in circulation already…

This in-yer-face approach worked. Nev got his ticket re-emailed, which he then downloaded to his phone so it could be scanned by the man with the magic machine at the turnstiles. 

Faugheen was the highlight of Ruby Tuesday. We were stood by the rail in glorious sunshine watching the tactics unfold on the big screen. It was hard to judge the pace but when The New One and then Jezki came almost alongside to lay down a proper challenge, the excitement was palpable. And then, easy as you like, at top of the home straight, Ruby let out a little bit of Faugheen’s tight reign and whispered “go”. Did he go! The roar from the stands opposite, in all my 16 festivals, was the loudest, most spine-tingling sensation I’ve ever experienced. I’ll probably say the same next year. 
l-r: Arctic Fire, Jezki, Kitten Rock, Vaniteux, Faugheen
Faugheen and Ruby Walsh take the plaudits
This was the third leg of the famous bookie-busting four-timer that never was. The opening leg was my first Supreme win ever, Douvan. However, that status remains in some doubt because the wager was struck with William Hill as a qualifier for a free bet in their massive Supreme give-away. “Does it count?” I texted Bacchy. “Does it fuck”, came the reply about three seconds later. Fair enough.


By the fourth leg, Nev had found himself in a deep (but fairly one-sided) conversation with a broad scouser, made more unintelligible still by his level of intoxication. Nev was trying to explain that his three timer rested on Annie Power winning the mares race. Scouser dribbled something back that involved a fair amount of “eerrrraaaarrrffkkkknnncchhhhhhhhhh” running into “fffkkkkkcccccchhhhhhhuuuaaarrcchhhh”. I’ve never seen Nev silenced. He couldn’t understand a word. His jaw was hanging loose. Si always has a canny ear for an accent and translated. Between them they informed Scouser that it was “a mares race…lady horses”. Scouser looked askance and then responded (after translation) “I don’t want a fucking education and I want a fucking winner!”

When Annie Power overreached at the last flight and triggered a ticker-tape storm of spent fourfold slips, there were immediate cries of bookie collusion and thrown-race allegations around us. Punters always want someone to blame. The fantasy could not have been better scripted if Fleet Street hacks had authored it themselves. News stories later in the day about bookie share prices falling sharply and then rising again just added to the drama. Great stuff.

Sharp quiffed young fellah-me-lad in my office had a bit of good natured grief for me when I returned to the office last week. I’d put him on to that four-timer in a rash moment a few weeks before the Festival. He’d shown his slip to a few mates and they had followed him in. To be honest, I think he had rather enjoyed the ride and the sense of being part of something big.

Si is the handicap King. No question. Coming in to the festival he’d punted Ebony Express (33-1) in the Imperial Cup and Violet Dancer (20-1) in the Betfair Hurdle. Across the four days he found The Druid’s Nephew in the 3 mile chase on Tuesday, Kilultagh Vic in the Martin Pipe on Friday and a good few placed horses besides. He also had Quantitativeasing bustled out of the way by Toutancarmont in the Cross Country when being wound up by Nina Carberry for a decisive thrust.

New stand taking shape
For my handicap contribution, I found Call The Cops in Thursday’s Pertemps Final after being impressed with his easy win two weeks before at Doncaster. Bacchy, in his fantasy festival update to the lads saw it another way:
“Three years ago Davoski collected a stack when Call The Police finished a remote third in Bobs Worth's RSA Chase. So naturally he backed Call The Cops today. Finding easy winners like that - it's what life's all about.”
 Cheeky bastard. So much for blood, tears, toil and sweat.

It wasn’t just the handicaps that fell prey to Si’s killer touch. He was feasting everywhere: Windsor Park in the Neptune; Vautour in the JLT; Martello Tower in the Albert Bartlett. He also had Moon Racer in the Bumper. But I didn’t mind that because I was on myself at a reasonably good ante-post price. My biggest winner of the Festival. I celebrated by smashing my half pint of guiness into the ground in front of the big screen and taking a bow. A bloke in a fluffy-hooded parka came up and wrapped his arms round me. “Did you win or lose?” he shouted. Really?


All that winning took some serious celebrating. This is where our exquisite pad in Cheltenham came into its own. And where Nev’s in Bourton didn’t. Fed up with paying £40 taxi fares, he headed home after racing on the last bus. Conversely, with the knowledge of only a short stagger home smugly tucked in our exit plans, Si and I picked up the craic in town. A few beers and a tasty curry were on the agenda.   

We smashed the former and utterly bombed on the latter. The highlight of the boozers was the Bath Arms at the end of the night. The stars of the show in this intimate local were not the assorted festival goers, but a revelling birthday party crowd who took turns to dance on the chairs and tables. One of the lads trying to elicit the affection of birthday girl slapped down some eye-popping moves reminiscent of the helicopter dance by the beanpole in the Ladbrokes’ advert. Si thought we could do better, but thankfully, we decided against putting that assertion to the test.

Finding a curry proved to be a challenge too far. The first restaurant was full of loud xenophobes; the second turned out to be a basement bar; and the third was rather too fine dining in price. The greasy chicken kebab and cardboard chips we ended up with from a takeaway joint was a total fail.

Nev was with us the next night when we celebrated our winners in the Queens Hotel, the legendary, almost mythical base of JP McManus and venue of the finest party in town: witness the gentleman on dance floor who could have passed for John Gosden in his heavyweight cashmere overcoat, navy Italian suit, silk tie, flapping members’ badge and flashing black brogues, giving the Kaiser Chiefs large and punching the air with each Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby belted out by the band; or the group of young guys in front of us who had quite clearly clubbed together to buy the company of a couple of escorts for the evening and were awkwardly groping their way around their trophies who discreetly wagged fingers and whispered the rules when the lads went too far. All human life…

We shipped out early on Thursday morning. My call. Si was well up for another day at the track, but the bookies were laying evens that my liver would pack up fractionally before my wallet, well ahead of the Kim Muir amateurs’ race.

Chris gave us a lift to the rail station. Above and beyond. If they had put their gaff on TripAdvisor, we would all have given it the full five blobs. There was further ticket trouble for Nev. This time the return rail ticket. He had to upgrade to an off-peak ticket from a super saver just to get through the barriers.    

Uxizandre was my biggest winner on the Thursday, though it should have been bigger. The Alan King inmate is in my 40 to follow for the season, but I had lost confidence in this exuberant jumper and had only backed him to small stakes. I thought he had lost form. It was good ground he was waiting for. And a galvanising ride helped. McCoy at his brilliant best aboard his last ever Festival winner.

The star of that electric Thursday was not Uxizandre though, but Vautour in the JLT. Ruby was buzzing after he climbed down from one of the cleanest, boldest most exhilarating rounds of jumping seen at the track by a novice in a good few years. It reminded me of Master Minded winning his first Champion Chase when audible intakes of breath greeted some of the breathtaking leaps that day. A dream Gold Cup renewal in 2016 is already being plotted by commentators that involves a triple-handed Mullins with Vautour, RSA winner Don Poli and this year’s blue ribband runner up Djakadam taking on stunning all-the-way novice winner Coneygree.

All-the-way winners were a real feature of this classic Festival. Eight or so horses made all or nearly all to win big Grade 1s and handicaps alike. The usual win-strike rate for front runners is two or three across the entire piece. It’s probably not a new trend, rather a mark of the quality of horses we’ve been treated to this year in a high-class exhibition.

£9.58. That was my total profit after 27 races and months of agonising. Head above water. Barely. There were some near misses though. The big one that got away was Road To Riches in the Gold Cup. My most confident bet. Landing that would have been a game changer. Whilst better ground would have been ideal, there are no complaints. He ran his race and was beaten by a tremendous horse on the day, who did not put a foot wrong.

I’m not sure that is how the Ladies of The Lamb saw it though.  Earlier in the week, a certain Ms Johnson had e-mailed the good ladies and said:
“With a combination of the Cheltenham Festival and a boozy lunch at the Atkinsons in the offing, you should really know better than to leave me with the kitty.  Let’s just say, after a few beers and glasses of wine it again seemed to be a good idea to get Mr Atkinson to put the tenner to good use by turning it into lots of tenners using his enormous skill and judgement. 
Dave – please would you let us know which ‘sure thing’ we should cheer for on Friday as, I hope you realise, the hopes and dreams of the Ladies of the Lamb are resting on this.”
Sadly, Road To Riches proved to be more like a cul-de-sac for the ladies’ ambitions as well as my own.

Fantasy Festival was an epic this year. Played out once again in the pressure cooker of the Barley Mow. Doubles had been landed all week to set up a dramatic final day. Running up to the Gold Cup, my Bruv was holding a slender advantage over Bryn. For some inexplicable reason, he decided to go all in on Silviniaco Conti, rather than playing a canny hand going in to the final competition race, the Grand Annual.  Shedding his usual cloak of caution, Bruv predictably went down in a glorious ball of flame, handing the trophy and £170 notes to Bryn. 

Bruv has crashed and burnt
Many beers and then whiskies were consumed and yet it was probably a more restrained affair than last year. Certainly in the sense that we didn’t descend into arm-wrestling competitions; most people got back to their actual homes as oppose to other peoples’; and Col didn’t blow as many raspberries on the exposed bellies of variously assembled punters. Col remains the most enthusiastic and committed cheerleader (minus pom-pom) of our involvement in this monster Festival and its associated competitions. He landed a spectacular acca on that final day and strolled out of the pub declaring the week to be “better than Christmas”.

It was inevitably Nev who brought the curtain down this year, via e-mail the following Monday: 
Just another week to forget - had to pay yet another taxi to get home on Saturday morning as I awoke late somewhere. It might have been Canning Town. Only twenty notes this time...” 
Until next year.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Festival prep

I’ve fallen back into a commuting routine, four days a week at least, for the last few months. Following contracts around like a blood hound. Journeys to work at this time of the year usually afford precious time for clear headed ante-post Cheltenham study. At the moment though, I seem to be getting distracted.  

Too much commuting has cumulative impacts akin to sleep deprivation. As much as I like travelling, the daily grind into Euston and down the Victoria Line is not my ideal of frontier-pushing exploration.

Unless you count the occasionally unexpected vistas: I encountered a large, ponderous, duffel-coated chap in front of me on the stairs this morning, lumbering a large black holdall which caused a curious rolling motion in his gait. As I passed him on the platform I chanced a glance at his face and was confronted by enough untamed, thick black nasal hair spraying wildly from his nose to suggest the undergrowth you could only expect to see on an Amazonian trek. Has no-one told him?

Or impassable terrain: Trying to exit the train past the mountainous, unscalable, grit-edged aspects of Brompton folding bikes piled up in the doorways is a challenge even Shackleton would only have considered in his most forthright mood. I am genuinely in awe of this outstandingly clever piece of British engineering. But they do tend to breed rather quickly.

Some distractions are better than others. Bex celebrated her 50th last week and I was more than happy to set aside the failing ante-post portfolio and join in. First came the civilised birthday drink down the boozer and last came the knockout party up at the club. In between - we weren’t there for these - came (at least) the meal over at the gastropub, the lunch with the girlies, the trip to London and the family bash. Oh, and then the post-party debrief(s) back in the pub(s). Quite what she’ll do when she really has something to celebrate is anyone’s guess! Happy Birthday Bex you legend.

The Battersea Beer Festival was another welcome distraction. Mrs A and I are stalwarts of this ale extravaganza dating back to the early 90’s. This year its regular home at the Battersea Arts Centre was not available and so the Festival relocated - bottle, cask and crate - back down the hill to The Grand. This former Victorian music hall proved to be a more than adequate substitute. The bars were on the main stage, a fact not overlooked by our mate Clive. “I’ve finally made it!” he proclaimed, soaking up the three-tiered auditorium and gilt-highlighted boxes in a wide eyed stare. “Judy Garland played on this stage you know!” I couldn’t swear to that, but I do remember seeing The Kinks here in fine form one year; and indulging in a New Year’s Eve 80’s club night about which I remember slightly less. 

And then there’s the dog. Distracting in the extreme. This new addition to our family was rescued from the mean streets – at least for canines – of Romania a couple of months ago. She chose us one bitterly cold Friday afternoon in a caged exercise pound with frozen grass underfoot and wind slicing across the top of the Chilterns with the precision of a filleting knife. We’d only popped in to drop of an expression of interest form, thinking that sometime in late Spring we might be ready to rehome a small, quiet, well-behaved pooch. “Great”, said the manager, after we’d explained something of our circumstances and our pet aspirations. “Maybe you’d like to have a quick look at a couple whilst you’re here?” That’s how we came to be sold on the Nuca, the frisky, friendly Tibetan terrier-cross that jumped and nuzzled us into submission in the space of 20 minutes. Ever been manipulated?

The girls gave their seal of approval the following day and she was home with us by the middle of the week. Now we are five.

She fits in well. Like the other females in this household, she has quickly learned to tolerate my ravings at the telly as Saturday horses falter; or more rarely, peacock strutting when one of them goes in. Nuca’s response is to cock her head on one side, flick her ears, lick her chops and stare at me intently. The others resort to outright laughter.

The festival prep is taking its customary knocks, then. Not that this has stopped me pontificating confidently to anyone who will listen, and many who won’t, about the chances of various runners. There’s a new sharp-quiffed young fella-me-lad started at my Camden base. Top bloke. Sports development is his business. He likes a punt too, mostly on the football, though he’s had a few decent days out at the races too. Well it didn’t take me long to start calling the odds with enough bravado to sow an insidious seed in his untarnished mind that I might know what I’m talking about. If that really was the case, would I be promulgating a first day four-timer constructed entirely around Willie Mullins’ barn?

But he’ll learn. This will be an important lesson for him. Yes it will be painful when his Tuesday acca of Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen and Annie Power goes down at precisely 1.34pm. But in the long run it will be valuable, hard-earned experience. I expect some collateral damage in the form of outright hostility come my return on 16th March.

Curiously, at the very moment yesterday afternoon that quiff-chap was asking if his acca was still safe and I was saying that the weak link was probably Douvan, Bacchy was sowing some mischief of his own. We were in the middle of a protracted e-mail transfer window for our 12 Horses To Follow stables. “Douvan doesn’t go in the Supreme”, wound Steve and cheekily sent us scuttling to Twitter and various racing fora. Nothing. “Wind up”, I eventually said to my young colleague. Bacchy had achieved his objective all the same.

Earlier in the week we had met up in the Willow Walk to talk proper racing and put the final touches to the logistical operation. This year Si and I are staying with some friends in Cheltenham who have shipped out their children to make room. Nev is berthed in the chocolate box Bourton-on-the-Water. And Bacchy… well, Bacchy’s staying at home. He confessed that he would, after all, not be joining us. As in other years, the working relationship with his wife has become an insurmountable hindrance to participation. She is his boss and they work in a school. No leave during term time. It’s an unbreakable rule (though one that seemed to be bent sufficiently last year to allow an appearance for Day 1).

Bacchy himself offered up the phrase ‘pussy-whipped’ to describe his predicament. A crude, distasteful, slightly alarming term. Though none of us could think of a more accurate description. We shook our heads and drank more ale. And then whiskies. And then Nev bought me the largest, most tabasco-infused Bloody Mary that has ever been mixed. It came in a vessel related to a goldfish bowl and contained enough ice to warrant cramp-ons and an axe. Nasty.

On the way home, Bacchy and I paid a visit to the rather fine kebab house on Vauxhall Bridge Road. I was still stuffing it in my face whilst stood on the tube. Bad form, I know. Needs must.

I became aware of this gorgeous young woman who had sidled up to me. She asked for a bite of my kebab. I chuckled and asked what was she offering in return. I realised she was with two conspirational chaps sat opposite who were egging her on mercilessly. So she started fondling her left breast. I value my kebabs pretty highly, so I pointed to the other one as well. Too bad the tube lurched into Euston at just that point.

Bacchy apparently had no such luck. He agreed that the kebab was indeed very good, but found that his body rejected it rather violently the next morning.

Si fared the worst of all. Claiming that he was assaulted by the fresh air assassin, he missed his train and ended up in the Victoria Wetherspoons with another pint. The last train home was delayed, then diverted and he needed a cab home. His phone had died by that point. When he awoke the next morning he found that his boiler was broken.

And this is just the preamble. Bring. It. On.


Monday, 9 February 2015

Ante-post unravelling

The 2015 ante-post portfolio is now littered with enough wreckage to fill the next expletive-packed series of Scrappers. This was, of course, entirely predictable. I’ve been re-ravelling with barely enough pace to combat the unravelling. (In the pantheon of blunt metaphors employed by this desperate blog, I think that may be the first time I have drawn upon knitting.)

The previously rock solid Gilgamboa was the first to bite the dust. All the promise of his December win evaporated in the Irish Arkle, when beaten out of sight by Un De Sceaux. Connections are talking about the JLT now. He’ll need to improve again, wherever he goes. In looking again at this race, I had thought about getting stuck into Vibrato Vivalt, but prevaricated on the basis of what he had actually achieved. Which is most unlike me in these markets. It’s all about potential, stooped. He who hesitates is lost, of course. The horse is now as short as 5-1 after a convincing win in the Kingmaker. That price doesn’t appeal much right now, although I expect to be on his side nearer the day, in some shape or other.

On the same card as Gilgamboa’s reversal, Carrigmoorna Rock inexplicably folded like a pirate’s hat in a mares hurdle won smartly by Morning Run. She must now be a massive doubt for the Cheltenham race.

And what of my nemesis, the Supreme? The bloody Supreme. Picking the winner of this looks to be as far from my grasp as ever, despite some of my finest rage-punting. During last week, I concluded that Nichols Canyon had been overlooked because of his fall last time out, and that the form of his previous Royal Bond win was more than solid. 16-1 was good enough for me and a decent showing in the Deloitte – the best Supreme trial going – would be enough to ensure his participation. I got the first bit right. In a Deloitte not lacking depth and potential, Ruby pushed Canyon out in front and pretty much dictated the race. The extra two furlongs here are a splendid test for the finish at Cheltenham. His price duly contracted and then Mullins started with this sloppy talk of running in the Neptune instead.  He’s now favourie for the 2 ½ mile race and third best for the Supreme. Second guessing the Mullins’ barn is a dangerous game. Is it any wonder that on those occasions when I come out of Cheltenham ahead of the bookies I feel like dusting myself down after a dog fight?

Dabble, tickle, flirt. I also had a small interest on Fascino Rustico at some fantastic Betfair odds on Saturday. A bit of fun. If he had shown well in that afternoon’s Betfair Hurdle handicap, I might have been sitting on a decent Supreme outsider. He did indeed run well, but fell when looking like he would make the frame. He is an improving horse but his fragile jumping will no doubt persuade connections to find an easier target. I also still have Sizing John, but no sign from the yard that he is a live Festival contender.

Champion hurdle: Garde La Victore did nothing to harm his chances by beating the very progressive, Supreme-bound Jollyallan in the trial at Sandown the other week. Neither did he set the world on fire with his hard fought win. My 66-1 is OK on paper, but reality he’ll most likely head to the County Hurdle. NRNB to the rescue. This effectively leaves me without a proper bet in the Champion Hurdle. Unheard of.

To complete the Day 1 misery, Sausalito Sunrise is a dead bet for the 4-miler. I already have him for the RSA at a better price. I doubled up here because I got nervous when Kings Palace smashed him up a couple of times at the shorter distance. Hobbsy though. Bold as brass. He’s clear about where the animal’s  strongest chance lays and didn’t even enter him over four miles. We’ll see.

Whilst we are rattling on about the RSA, I’ve had to put a line through Champagne West as well. He was found to be injured after falling in the Scilly Isles Novice Chase and is out for the season. My main bet in the RSA remains Valseur Lido. But even that is a doubt. He ran very well over 2m5f on Sunday, beaten half a length by Apache Stronghold. To me, he looks like he’s ready for the step up to 3m. If only ante-post punting were so straight forward. This is another Mullins conundrum, wrapped in a Michael O’Leary enigma. The horse’s true target is about as well signposted as the Elephant & Castle underpass right now. And I’m about to gag on the stench…

Still nothing in the Neptune, beyond confirmation that Out Sam will not turn up. Another damn fool dead saver. Pull your act together, Atkinson. Out Sam remains an entry in the Albert Bartlett, where I have a more lucrative bet,  (plus an interest in the drifting Fletchers Flyer) and I await elaboration from connections about their initial plans to swerve Cheltenham. I could always back Nichols Canyon here. However, I’m not ready to capitulate on the Supreme bet yet. Not at those prices. 

Better news in the Champion Chase. After Shark Hanlon declared Hidden Cyclone for the Tied Cottage Chase over two miles last week, I realised he must have read Pricewise’s positive column about his chances in the big one. So I took the last bit of Betfred’s 25-1 NRNB for the Champion Chase. He won very well and Hanlon confirmed that the Champion Chase was indeed the likely target. I’m in the odd position of having a decent ante-post token about a horse in a race which I think is the wrong target! Dynaste’s injury opens the door in the Ryanair, and if the Cyclone takes up that option instead, I’ll no doubt back him on the day.

The other positive development in a Champion Chase that is cutting up faster than a Turkish barber on piece rate, was Mr Mole’s victory in the Game Spirit. I’d outrageously backed him at 59 on Betfair after the Sandown victory that Master Minded also took en-route to Champion Chase glory. So I’m smugly touting around this 58-1 token to anyone who will listen. He is clearly a player in the Champion Chase now.

Only one other development. I backed Djakadam for the Gold Cup at 16-1 after his eye-catching win in the Thyestes Chase. He remains a general 16-1 shout so this is not a particularly inspired bet.

But there we are. Good money after bad. It’s inevitable.




Friday, 23 January 2015

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

St Patrick's Thursday

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

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

I’ve stoked up a little interest.

JLT

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

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

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

Ryanair

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

World Hurdle

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

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

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

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

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

Gold Cup Day

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

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

Triumph

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

Albert Bartlett

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

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

Gold Cup

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

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

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

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

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


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


Thursday, 22 January 2015

Festival 15 - Ante-post progress: Ladies Day

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

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

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

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

Neptune

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

RSA

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

Champion Chase

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

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

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

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

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