Tuesday, 23 August 2016


The phrase 'shocked and saddened' has been overused in this year of death and demise to the point of numbing emptiness. Bowie, Prince, Ali, Lemmy.... Too many to dwell on.

When I read that JT McNamara had died, somehow the armour of de-sensitivity was pierced. He won't be remembered as the most iconic figure to pass this year, but on a personal level, though I never knew him, I am shocked and saddened.

I was there at Cheltenham on the day he fell from Galaxy Rock in the Kim Muir. The uncharacteristic quiet only broken by the arrival of the air ambulance. My mate Chris, with whom I had stayed overnight, was walking the path adjacent to the perimeter fence at the time, showing his young son some of the action. He witnessed the incident and heard a crack as rider and horse came down. His relief at the sight of the horse getting up was immediately replaced by concern that the jockey had not moved. The green screens were erected to shield the view from the stands – but curiously not from the perimeter fence – and as my mate saw medical staff and ambulances arrive, he realised it was time to move on.

Three years later and he has lost his fight. Maybe I'm shocked because I had assumed he was getting better. Saddened because it has been such a cruel three years.

At his funeral, people were describing him as one of the finest horsemen they had ever met. His victory aboard Rith Dubh in the 2002 National Hunt Chase has gone down in the annals of racing as a perfect demonstration of coaxing a winner up the famous hill.

I was there that day too and in an ancient blog I attempted to capture the thrill of that race. In its naive and simple narrative, it now serves as a tribute to JT McNamara.
"We've had a big, black blank day. Steve needs some space. I, too, need time to reflect. Brynaldo takes a look at me and thinks I may be gutted, an empty shell, a broken man, wrecked, all washed up. He’s only partly right. I’m also hungry.
I stomp off in search of a large pork and apple sauce bap. Comfort food at a time like this is a basic requirement. The plan is to give the next race - another amateur hatchet job with plenty of scope for disaster - a miss and meet back by the Guinness enclosure. But I can’t get within twenty yards of any of the superior junk food emporia. They are mobbed.
My mood darkens. So I sidle off to the parade ring and watch the horses emerge for the National Hunt Challenge Cup. Rith Dubh, a gelding as big and dark as my mood skitters onto the track with an aloof air. The jockey wears JP McManus’s famous colours. I swear the horse winks at me on his way past.
Right then. I can take a hint. Real or imaginary. That junk food failure has sent me over the edge. I’m all steely determination and bloody mindedness now. I find the best price on offer and slap down double my maximum win stake at 10/1. This is no time for strategy.  I go off in search of the lads by the last fence and swallow hard. Can’t find them in the melee. I’m on my own for this one.
It’s a marathon 4 mile trip and plenty begin to drop away. But Rith Dubh is held up in mid division. He’s jumping like a stag. As he flashes by me with a circuit to go, he's picking off his contenders one by one.
Coming down the hill for the last time, there is barely a fag paper between three or four very tired horses. At the last, Rith Dubh is there, he flies it and challenges for the lead. It is surely too late though. I can’t breathe. I catch the finish on the big screen. It’s bloody close. Rith Dubh is a canny old bugger - a shocking idler in front. JT McNamara is aboard and asks him for more. He doesn’t want to hit the front too soon. But, again I say, it is surely too late? They stretch over the line. Looks like Rith Dubh to me from a furlong away. But the commentator calls a photo. More agony.
I switch from scanning the crowd for the lads to fumbling for my race card. 
'Come on 19, come on 19.'
Christ I am really shitting myself. Here it comes - (the photo result, not the bowel movement).
'1st number 12, 2nd number 7.'
'What? WHAT?' I politely enquire of my neighbours. Rith Dubh not even in the first two? I think I’ve spotted Steve’s ten-gallon hat and I move towards him. 
'Correction. 1st number 19, Rith Dubh. 2nd number......'
'Yeeeeaaahhhh. You fucking beauty!' They actually called the number wrong! I can't believe that.
I hurl myself at a rather surprised Steve in spasms of ecstasy. He deals with it very magnanimously. Safe to say I’m rather pleased.
I try, but can’t wipe the insane grin off my chops, especially as the bookie is counting out those juicy tenners in to my hot little mits. My jaw is starting to ache
What a ride..."

Rest easy JT.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Ghost of Jimi Hendrix

Essaouira has plenty enough going for it already. Formerly known as Mogador, the city has a beautifully preserved medieval walled town crammed with souks, art and craft shops, cafes, riads and a maze of lanes in which to get blissfully lost. It is set on a perfect half-moon west-facing bay, carpeted in soft yellow sand. It is cooled by a sea breeze which takes the edge off the burning sub-Saharan sun.

Nevertheless, the local tourist board likes to add in to this heady mix a soupçon of myth and legend: Jimi Hendrix once visited briefly in the 60's and you would be forgiven for assuming that this is the most important incident to illuminate the settlement's two-thousand year history. 

Arriving at the newly constructed airport was a relaxing treat compared to the dehumanising experience of low-budget departures crammed together in 10 minute slots at a Luton terminal undergoing a complete rebuild. Stress levels had subsided on the flight. Waiting in the brief passport control queues, Daughter No 2 spotted a pen-portrait of La Hendrix on a four-foot square tablet above the main door. It was in a series of pictures alongside Orson Welles, Bob Marley and the current Moroccan King, Mohammed VI. Interesting company.

In a few short minutes, we were on our way to the hotel. The taxi was a Merc saloon circa 1978 painted blue and white. This was no Cuban style classic car relic though. The badly fitting front doors were replacements for the originals and were painted a different shade of blue to the other battered bits of bodywork. I pulled the seat belt across my body, only to find the buckle was missing. I grinned at the driver and let it dribble back up the stanchion. He grinned back at me.

The hotel was a different matter though. If there was ever any benefit to be wrung from our girls taking GCSEs and A levels in the same angst-ridden Summer, jetting off to a posh gaff before the prices sky-rocketed in the school holidays was it. Sipping mint tea on comfy sofas and then offered hot towels whilst completing the check-in formalities was a small part of the 5-star experience I had unknowingly been craving all my travelling life.

Most of the other guests were either Moroccan or French and, notwithstanding a modest spike of visitors over the weekend, the hotel was pretty quiet. The resort is a popular with those who reside in the hotter, steamier inland areas of the country. We had access to a private beach: a rectangle of sand segregated from the main beach by a low, white picket fence which enclosed hotel branded beds, recliners and towels. It was policed by G4. Seriously. However uncomfortable I felt about this rampant commercial elitism, we were happy to avail ourselves of the facility.

The Medina, for all its crumbling charm and Portuguese, French and Berber architectural influences, was a bit of an eye-opener on the first night. We had all overestimated the percolation of western culture into this still isolated part of Morocco. The girls, with their fair hair, fair skin and a modest areas of bare flesh on display attracted plenty of unwelcome stares, winks and gestures. Daughter No 2 predictably met this behaviour with outrage. "I'm not a piece of meat! Stop looking at me! They can't behave like that!" Daughter No 1 was more circumspect and prepared to ignore the attentions, however uncomfortable.

We had many conversations about clash of cultures, respect for women, male dominated society, respect for other people's views, the significance of dress and so on. Both girls worked out ways of dealing with attentions, though for good reasons they were never happy. Humour helped. Daughter No 2’s boyfriend, via her messenger app, implored me not to sell her, even though I was offered diamonds. She had understood the going rate to be camels and was a little flattered.  On another occasion when I was hagglingfor some trinkets, the trader complimented me:

“You have a lovely family. Lovely girls”. Implying that I alone was completely responsible for this perfection.

"Have you met my wife?" I tugged on Mrs A's arm. "She's for sale too."

Poking around the old town's narrow by-ways and snickets became a regular daily adventure. 

Apart from eating breakfast, buying tat, scaling bastions and drinking, there was plenty of Jimi Hendrix spotting to do. We bagged a portrait in a cafe circa Band of Gypsies; and a pock-marked mural on an alleyway off the main drag.

Such a male dominated culture, in the odd moment, can throw up some surprising mutual understanding. The three women in my life were helping me to buy a souvenir t-shirt, my usual habit on holiday.

"That design is best"

"No, not that colour."

"Are you sure you don't need extra large?"

Mrs A was holding the shirt up against my back whilst the others were generally making fussy hay. The shopkeeper looked at me and smiled.

"Are you happy?"

"Not really!"

The place played to the strengths of my five-word multilingualism. Though I did struggle pin down in which language I was trying to communicate.

“Hola!” I cried, passing a shop stuffed with wood carvings.

“Hola!. Are you Spanish?” replied the trader in English. For the life of me I have no idea why I said ‘Hola’.

“No, English!” I shrugged and moved on, leaving both his bemused expression and Daughter No1’s cringe/laugh, in my wake. 

Down by the harbour, crammed with tiny fishing smacks and more substantial boats, all manner of fruits of the sea could be purchased from stalls set up right where they were landed. 

We pottered along the massive ramparts built in the 18th century to protect the port. Moroccan youths posed for photos of each other next to cannons and on the battlements striking macho shapes in, frankly, homo-erotic behaviour. If you cupped your ears against the wind, you could almost hear them asking “Do you like gladiator movies?” So I struck a bold shape of my own, just to show we Westerners can go all butch too. Only mine didn’t seem to carry the same gravitas…

The enterprising Moroccans never missed an opportunity to maximize their tourist income. One afternoon, we thought we would take the ‘petit train Mogador’ around the harbour. This open four carriage convoy was hauled along by a tractor disguised as a loco. There were no other visitors on the train. I asked the ticket collector when we would be leaving. He made that now familiar non-commital shrug and said maybe five or ten minutes. Within a moment he added. “If you give me one-hundred, we leave now. And you have train to yourself! Spread out! You enjoy, yes?”

Deal! It was the best 100 Dirhum we spent all week. Not only did we get a tour round the harbour, but right along the seafront as well, as far as the end of the built up parts of the settlement. I thought about booking it for the trip back to the airport. We had walked past the tourist train every day at the Medina gates. It was always there. And now as we snaked through the streets behind the bay people waved at us like they had never seen it before. I wondered exactly how many times the train was used on an average day… 

I never struggle to wind down on my breaks. People have said to me in all earnestness that they go away for a fortnight because it takes them the first week to get into holiday mode. I suspect this is a myth created by those weaving a web of self-importance about how busy and irreplaceable they are.

 After a few days chilling in the sunshine, I was so laid back I became incapable of performing basic tasks. Like ordering lunch for instance. Anwar, our friendly pool bar waiter was on his day off. I didn’t strike the same bond with his replacement, although I felt reasonably confident that I’d accomplished the task reasonably well. I joined the family on the covered day-beds. As you do. The waiter came with five plates of heavily laden food. The four of us just smiled politely and I simply ate two lunches. We played it cool. He surely didn’t suspect a thing.

The food was pretty good on the whole, though variety wouldn’t be the area’s greatest selling point. I might not be tempted by tagine for a little time to come. We found a great spot for breakfast overlooking a square in the old Medina where we were serenaded by a gaggle of wandering troubadours. Much better than the saucepan-lid wielding racket that accompanied a terrible meal in one of the rooftop restaurants we found one evening.  (John Dory like old boots, crepes like latex and boiled cous cous like, well, boiled cous cous).

Local food and local music weren’t always on the menu though. A fabulous Italian restaurant had a performer dishing out a jazz influenced ‘Purple Haze’ and on another evening there was a rendition of ‘Hey Joe’ by a decent band in another rooftop bar. It was almost as if Jimi Hendrix was there. In spirit at least.  

All that lazing around made me restless for an expedition. We decided to visit Jimi’s dunes. At the far end of the bay, over the River Oued Ksob and close to the village of Diabat, a series of fescue and grassy sand dunes tumbled into the bay. Just beyond was Borj el Baroud, a ruined fortified watchtower that becomes visible and accessible at low tide. This, according to local folklore (well, a couple of travel websites anyway), was the inspiration for the Hendrix track ‘Castles Made of Sand’ on the Axis: Bold As Love album. As anyone who has the merest passing acquaintance with rock ‘n’ roll chronology knows, this album hit the racks in 1967. Jimi didn’t check in to the pink-walled city until 1969. The local tourist board surpassed themselves with this one.

Our adventure had intended to take in a pool/bar complex at the far end of the bay to cool off over lunch. We couldn’t find it (though later I realised we were very close to the Jimi Hendrix hotel in Diabat!) Instead we found ourselves on an unused track skirting around the back of the bay, past a few abandoned buildings. The immediate prospect did not look too promising. No matter. With my innate geographer’s skills, I instinctively took charge. We negotiated the dunes, rocks and water hazards with ease. Not without some dissent from the troops behind though.

“This is the Sahara. This is the actual Sahara! What are we even doing here?”

“That’s a skeleton. Like an animal’s died here from exhaustion. It’s a warning sign!” (It was a dead gull…)

“I’m hallucinating! I can see a lake!” (The shimmering vista was the River Oued Ksob)

“I’ll be alright. I have half a bottle of water. I’m not sharing though.”

And so it went on.

We crested reed-anchored dunes to see the entirety of the glorious bay laid out before us and the base of Jimi’s ruins lapped by gentle waves. “I have led my people to salvation!” I declared. More groans of derision. Daughter No 2 fell to her knees and looked skywards. Relief, thanks or exhaustion: we may never know. A croque monsieur and a bottle of pop in the nearby ‘Beach Friends’ bar seemed to restore spirits. Life on the edge.

Beach activities in Essaouira didn’t actually extend to sandcastle-making, despite Hendrix’s tenuous contribution to the subject. I saw a poor attempt at a boat carved in the packed sand with a stick, but that was about it. If this was Britain, there would be curtain walls with crenellations, motte and baileys, and moats filled with seawater every few yards. Maybe now we are in Brexit mode we should build real castles again to fortify against the dreaded continental invasion. That way I’d get even better value out of my English Heritage membership. I knew there would be a Brexit brightside if I looked hard enough.

And with that cheery thought, we headed back to dear old Europhobic Blighty.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Destination Perth

It was all a bit mad really: A day trip Perth races. An idea conceived one morning with Tim on the shuttle from Clapham Junction to Esher for the Tingle Creek meeting. I had always fancied a trip to Britain’s most northerly racetrack. Tim was a regular visitor to the June meeting when he and his other half visited her in-laws in nearby Dundee. ‘I’ll join you!” I boldly declared.

By the time Spring arrived, I was still committed to the trip. I had some half-hearted squints at B&Bs and timetables, but I was already fondly recalling my sleeper journey of a few years previously to Fort William. Eager to recapture something of the earlier experience, I duly booked up the sleeper either side of the Perth meeting, arriving Edinburgh early in the morning and heading back down south late the same evening.

The Yorkshireman in me couldn’t sanction the outlay on a cabin for what would be a much shorter journey than the Fort William epic; and with much less in the way of attractive countryside upon which to feast my reddening eyes. So I plumped for a seat instead. My decision to slum it almost backfired.

The Caledonian Sleeper web portal has a handy carriage plan so that you can book your preferred seat (and at no extra cost, please note EasyJet). I'd paid particular attention to booking a single seat next to the window in airline configuration, with the double seats on the other side of the aisle. I didn't want to disturb anyone, nor them to disturb me.

Well I messed that one up. Maybe the seat directions were wrong on the plan. Or more likely I just wasn't looking properly. I matched up my ticket reservation with the badge on the baggage rack and my shoulders drooped. I was wedged at the end of a car where a thin bloke with legs like beanpoles and an array of bags at his feet was looking back at me from his seat. "Cosy isn't it?" he observed.

I returned a thin smile and shuftied my feet around until he moved one of his holdalls to the rack above. After we left Euston (bang on time), I found an empty seat behind him in my preferred airline set up and settled in for the journey.

The sleeper car had a strange atmosphere. Most people were solo travellers and once the lights were dimmed, there was a sense of intrusion on other people’s habits. The old chap across the way from me said he’d been sent in error to King’s Cross to pick up the train. He had two seats to himself, but even this luxury was insufficient, judging by his twitching and restlessness. At various intervals, I’d catch glimpses of his deep red cords in a new angle in, around and over the reclined seat.

Before we departed, a young businessman in an expensive open necked shirt with glinty cufflinks and sporting eye-catching brogues in two tones of brown was talking on his mobile phone just loud enough for us to hear about his day. This had involved meetings at which Richard Branson had talked about trade options in Brexit fallout-World, before he was whisked off to meet Theresa May. I did wonder what such a high-flying executive was doing in the sleeper cheap seats. Anyway, after Watford, the guard tapped him on the shoulder and off he went. A spare cabin had presumably been found.

A middle-aged American lady, travelling slowly around Europe, was going back to Edinburgh to hook up with friends she’d met on a previous journey. She fell in to intriguing conversation with a Polish woman with whom there was a shared interest in whisky and face creams. The latter was heading up to Islay to start a new job in a distillery.

For my part, I had something in common with King’s Cross Man. Others around me were fast asleep in exactly the same position as they were sitting. Feet neatly tucked away, arms folded, head back. Me? Fidgetting and squirming. I accidentally kicked my M&S bag, full of discarded plastic food wrappers. In the muted sleeper carriage it sounded like a cat in a waste bin. A few people glanced over, even lifting up their blindfolds (thoughtfully provided by Caledonian Sleeper, together with yellow earplugs) to check what was the noise. Then I snapped down the little metal footrest with too much vigour. It clicked into position with a resonant clang. More looks.

Eventually I nodded off for a couple of hours, stirring as the first fingers of morning light were spreading from behind dark clouds. The last time I took the sleeper, soft early sunshine played delightfully in the mist rising from Loch Lomand. Here, a few tentative rays illuminated a deserted and bleak Preston station where a train of car transporters was rumbling though on the adjacent freight line. I hate Preston. Always have.

We rolled into Edinburgh Waverley bang on time. I took the chance to wash and brush up in the loos, once the concourse geography had been navigated: this is the only station I've ever been to with more roads than platforms and more vehicles than trains.

Edinburgh is a handsome, stately place; known as the English City to the independence- & EU Remain-seeking Scots. Although a while since my last visit, I wanted to explore a new district and so caught the No 22 fuel-hybrid, wifi-enabled Lothian Transport bus out to Leith. Breakfast was next on the itinerary.

Leith used to have a seedy, crime-ridden reputation based on its declining ship building and dock-related activities. Like many British ports, since the 1980’s Leith has seen significant renewal, regeneration and repurposing of maritime infrastructure. The fine granite warehouses that lined Leith Water now house gastro-pubs, galleries and gift shops. At the end of the bus route, Ocean Terminal has a top-end shopping centre with the Royal Yacht Britannia moored alongside.

I ambled around the handsome buildings and over bridges that criss-crossed the Water, before settling on the Clock Café, a former pub, for a top quality fry up. The exact level of that quality had to be established in real time via facebook photos and commentary before a tough jury comprising Colin, Bryn and Bacchy over 400 miles away.

The docks are connected to the city centre via the mile-long Leith Walk. If ever a street told the story of recent waves of immigration, this was it. Many of the Victorian edifices that form the backbone of the walk remain – converted factories and workshops, protestant churches, gin palaces and the Central Railway Station, saved from demolition and given a new lease of life. However, building signage gave away a more recent history. Early 20th century Asian cultural centres, money shops and food stores have made their mark. Then Turkish community’s late 20th century stamp is seen in a few places, notably to my eye, one take-away sign declaring ‘The Best Kebab Shop’. No geographical or temporal delineation necessary. Simply the best. Except that, rather confusingly, three doors up stood ‘The Original Best kebab shop’. I was picking up mixed messages. A little further down the road, the story was brought up to date where the most recent settlers had opened a collection of Polish shops – a large deli called ‘Polonia’ and a few other a groceries and newsagents.  

There was even a racecourse here until it moved to Musselburgh in 1816. It’s been there ever since. Talking of racecourses, it was time to make my way to Perth to meet Tim and Sarah.

The train journey took me across the Firth of Forth, a stretch of water that is to bridge building what the M42 is to junction remodeling, only much more attractive. My four-car unit felt like a pawn in a giant game of Sim City. The line then took in an oversized arc from south-east to north-east around the coast, through Kirkaldy, Markinch and Ladybank, whilst Google Maps showed a much more direct route north along the line of the M90…

Anyway, I arrived eventually and Tim and Sarah were waiting in the garden bar of the rambling Victorian Station Hotel. It was full of ladies in strappy shoes and stringy tops ready for the races. I tried to photo bomb their selfie in the loo corridor, but was too slow. Someone should tell them that this is Perth, the most northerly racecourse in Britain. Not Ascot.  We saw them later, staggering out of the dining marquee towards the rails bookies, high heels sinking into the grass like knives into butter. Highly amusing.

We boarded a London routemaster bus, chartered by the track for the shuttle from the town centre, and enjoyed some expansive views of the Tay whilst trapped in a line of traffic heading up to the track. It was highly tempting to ring the phone number on London Transport sign left over from the vehicle’s last days in active service to complain about the delay.

Perth racecourse had been on my radar for some time. I enjoy the three-day Spring festival that comes hard on the quality meetings of Aintree and Ayr. The track doesn’t offer up anything like the same level of prize money as those, but the races are always supported by some good trainers. Last season Willie Mullins dispatched Up For Review to land the decent novice hurdle on the same card. At the time he was in hot pursuit of Paul Nicholls in the British Trainers Championship. That April Festival is the first of its season of Summer jumps fixtures. It had been a while since I last went Summer jumping. Probably Newton Abbot in 1982 on a Torbay family holiday before I was old enough to gamble. So it doesn’t really count.

The track didn’t disappoint. Set in the stunning parkland grounds of Scone (that’s ‘Skyooon’ - I learned quick) Palace, the racecourse sits above the city and grand has views to encircling hills. The racecourse buildings suit the landscape and help to create the welcoming atmosphere: modest, characterful stands with the accessible parade ring at the back.

The beer tent was a little gem. Real ales from a few different local brewers served up by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic patron. Ossian from the Inveralmond Brewery was amber and sharp; whilst Head East from the Strathbraan Brewery a couple of stops further up the line at Pitlochry was smooth, fruity and dry in the finish.

The finishes of each of the seven races on the card were drier still. For me anyway. I barely troubled the frame all afternoon. Meanwhile Tim was hoovering up, and not just with his customary 25p each way online bets either. Folding stuff came out of his wallet at the rails bookies on more than one occasion. I was left regretting the missed opportunity of some serious form study that a broken night’s sleep on the train should have presented me. I did not even take advantage of some basic facts. Such as Gordon Elliott and Richard Johnson being top trainer and top jockey at the track. Together they took the opener with Faraway Mountain at a perfectly respectable 4/1 and then landed another one each.

"Arrested for shit tipping" said Sarah. Ho.Ho.
The racecourse is good for viewing. It’s configuration is a little like Doncaster’s teardrop shape, except that the narrow end was close to the stands, affording some fine sights when the fields navigated the tight bends. Taking photos on the rail was literally as near as I got to a winner all day.

Back in the Fair City after the races, we stumbled seamlessly off the shuttle bus and into Dickens on South Street. Perth’s premier malt whisky bar was a top place: a sustainable mix of back street local and welcoming tourist joint. Like much of Perth, low on pretension but high on impact.  

My eyes goggled at the choices. The top rail of the bar was lined with whisky bottles of all shapes and sizes fighting for attention. Thoughtfully, the handy A4 menu on the table detailed alphabetically each of the staggering 100-plus malts on offer. We all began carefully with sensible choices of medium-proof shots. I was even allowed a couple of begrudged chunks of ice with my Highland Park. We were unable to stay on an even keel for long. Last thing before we bailed for the curry house across the road, we were supping some fearsome concoction of peat, heather, bog water and naked flame from Islay known as Bunnahabhain 18-year-old. Wow.

A curry really was the only option by that stage of the evening. Tim and I were rolling and I don’t think Sarah was far behind, though she was sharp enough to keep taking photos for the running social media commentary of our day.  Another nice venue. The main room was a high ceilinged, elaborately mullioned and moulded affair that may once have been a chapel. Not that architectural badinage overwhelmed enjoyment of the fare laid before us. Not at all. I was also full of appreciation for the rogani naan that accompanied my karahi: flatbread made with egg yolk. A day full of new experiences.

I was done in by then. We parted at Perth station and I headed back to Edinburgh drifting in and out of sleep. That became the template for the rest of my night. After a head clearing stroll along the beautifully lit Princes Street and Royal Mile, fitful probably best describes the journey back to Berko. I wasn’t so lucky in my seat alignment for the return trip and there was a little footsie with the young man opposite me before we fell into a mutually agreed but unspoken personal space arrangement. To be fair, he was always going to be on the wrong side of the argument. Apart from my involuntarily twitching feet emanating 98%-proof bromodosis, I was also giving off a proper acrid whisky-sweat and a fine blend of garlic and lime pickle fragrance oozing from most of my visible pores.

I jumped off at Watford in the early morning drizzle and was home in bed for some proper shut-eye by about 7am.

Quite the day trip.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Chasing losers

In an avalanche of follow-them-over-a-cliff misguided loyalty, my early season flat profits have been largely eroded.

Royal Ascot was a shocker. The one bright spot was Profitable about whom I have been on the right side of the argument in his three wins this season. He obliged on a stunning opening day in the King’s Stand.

That was it. Nothing else. Part of the trouble was backing a few near misses in the preceding weeks. Encouraged by selections that ran well on the undulations of Epsom Downs, I pretty much blindly backed Architecture in the Ribblesdale (left her race behind in The Oaks), Haalick in the Jersey (outclassed at that level), and Make Fast in the Sandringham (possibly unlucky).

Other ill-judged Ascot allegiances included sprinter Suedois in the Diamond Jubilee on the basis of a good run in the Duke of York; Muntahaa in the King Edward VII after an impressive maiden win; and most woefully, Pallasator in the Gold Cup after his Henry II Stakes win on good ground, ffs!

My niece Robyn went to the Royal meeting on Prince of Wales Stakes day. She asked me for some advice and after a little thought, I duly offered up a whole bunch of losers.

“Hi Dave, thanks so much for the tips”, she messaged, “unfortunately I didn't have any winners but did make some back on a second!”

That would be Al Johra, beaten a country mile by Wesley Ward’s bullet, Lady Aurelia.

“A fantastic day out though!!” she continued “We had the hats and afternoon tea. Then to finish it off I saw the Queen!”

“Sorry about the rubbish tips I replied”

“No, thanks for those. I'd have had no idea what I was doing otherwise!”

So touching to be thanked for finding some losers. Like she couldn’t do that by herself. Sharp quaffed boy in the office didn't see it that way when I also offered him some dross. I shouted out Suedois for his girlfriend who was Royal Ascot-bound on the Saturday. He had asked for a pointer or two. This one ran well, but, was still a well beaten 7th.

There were no thanks from quiff-boy. Robyn could teach him some manners. He simply questioned whether I had ever given him any winning tips at all. Ever! I protested that this was miles away from the actuality. When my mate Tim's cousin Paul Stafford who is a trainer in County Dublin sent over three runners to a mid-week Musselbrugh, I told the boy that one of them would win. It's not my fault he steamed in to the wrong one. I also devilishly encouraged him into the famous Mullins' four timer at Festival 15, when Annie fluffed the last. Three winners out of four, right there.

A few of us caught the last knockings of Gold Cup day in Billy Hills after watching England v Wales in the pub. The only bright spot in England's desperate Euro 16 campaign. I was steaming that afternoon. Not just because we were ordering double rounds resulting from the five-deep scrum at the bar; but also because the informal fanzone created by the manager had us shoe-horned in front of the telly, shoulder to sweaty shoulder with dozens of others. The beers flowed and the sauna cooked.

I've got a couple of footie bets still alive. Poland outright at 50/1 each way is probably worth laying off now they are down at 18s. Part of me thinks they will give Portugal a game, so I might sit tight. Belgium outright at 12/1 also looks like one with which to enjoy the ride. Other combos, top scorers and group winners went out with Croatia’s last 16 exit.

The other big event on which I've been on the wrong side of the argument is of course the EU Referendum. On a strict value play, the Leave market was clearly the rick in the market. For once, I couldn't bring myself to bet against my better judgement. Leaving the EU seems wrong on so many levels.

Even a week later, by turns, I’m still numb, confused and angry. Quite apart from the crushing negative ramifications for the economy, equality and social justice, I also realise just how little I have in common with the majority of English people. A stranger in my own country. Ironic. That so many people voted to leave in the areas receiving the greatest amount of EU aid was baffling. The protest vote was pointless and misdirected. The racism underpinning the immigration row was vile and has unleashed hate crime on British streets. The lies peddled by Johnson, Gove and Farage were unforgiveable.

A mate commented that his solitary protest would be not to give up his seat on the bus “to the old folks who have messed up our future”.

And the bright spot? Like they have at the end of the news? Well, I drew Iceland in the office sweepstake..!

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Four blokes at the Oaks

I’ve now been in every enclosure at Epsom racecourse. Granted, as bucket list-ticks go, this would rank a little below hang-gliding down the Grand Canyon or slamming a Ferrari around Silverstone. But then again I’m not very good with heights and I don’t drive.  

Ladies Day at the Derby meeting is a favourite day out and one with a rich history for the lads. Catching the Oaks card from the Lonsdale Pedestrians completed the nap hand at this fine track. The enclosure was a right bastard to find though. None of the stewards had a clue. First I went under the track via a foot tunnel, then sent left past the funfair and into a gravelly coach park. That was clearly all wrong. I retraced my steps and struck determinedly right, which was right. Eventually I snaked my way round the back of various pavilions and found the entrance that was no more than a gap in the chain link fence, policed by a steward with a cash apron round his middle. Very low tech. I put away my contactless credit card.

The Lonsdale, it became apparent, was really where all the vintage open top double-decker buses parked up. They had disgorged corporate jolly-seekers into private gazebos erected at the front, with pretty trestle tables straining under the weight of prawn vol-au-vents, cucumber sandwiches and high-end picnic food. I was taking in this charming scene, strolling down the side of the track when the lads hailed me with chuckles of derision at my lack of alertness. Bryn, Nick and Bacchy had been there about twenty minutes and I was soon joining them in Doom Bars.

The enclosure had a strange aspect. The ground fell away towards us from the main stands on the posh side of the course, continuing the uniquely testing adverse camber up the home straight. This meant we were looking up at the track. I commented that you’d be able to see the horse’s knackers, such was the odd angle. Bacchy muttered into his pint a derisory comment about “the Oaks being for fillies, Davoski”. Yes, yes, I know.

We were in good company over here. A dead ringer for Kid Creole and at least two of his Coconuts wandered past a few minutes later. Floppy fedoras, white tailored jackets and bright neckties. Maybe they were the lookey-likey entertainment in a corporate tent later. They left before the last, accompanied by tuneful strains of ‘Oh Annie, I’m not your Daddy’ from our approximate location.

The Doom Bar bar was housed in a polished aluminium airstream caravan conversion and stood next to it was a little two-wheeler extension purveying German sausages. Perfect to wash down the beer, though the frankfurter and chilli combi I opted for was perhaps unwise. The bratwurst would have been a better alternative.  

Later on in the afternoon, Bacchy unveiled his carefully honed technique of minesweeping unwanted and discarded corporate booty. His first sortie turned up a bottle of Faustino IV vino tinto from under the noses of a gaggle of lairy city bankers. I couldn’t for the life of me work out how he was getting away with it. After the last, I played his wingman, stood as a diversion near a bin full of expense-account fizz, pretending to text. I was so engrossed in my role that a good few seconds had passed before I clocked that Bacchy had rejoined the other two with a half-full bottle of Prosecco sticking out of his jacket pocket.

There was no such smash and grab on in the races. A winner in the first on the head-bob for me and Bryn suggested the makings of a good day. That was as good as it got. I’d shouted out Legendary Lunch as the winner about two furlongs from home. Ridiculously early. Blue Jacket screamed down the outside  and looked for all money  like he’d won. The replay confirmed that it was the Hannon horse that had held on by a lucky short head.

The rest of my selections ran to a similar script in so far as they made much of the running, but unlike the Lunch they failed to hold on. Muggings aplenty. What About Carlo, Custom Cut and Stamp Hill in the last all fared similar fates. Most achingly, Architecture, my nap of the day, was beaten in similar fashion. Frankie pulled the Hugo Palmer filly out wide with two to go and set sail. Once again I was screaming her home as the winner way too soon, jumping around like a skittery novice. The odds on favourite, Minding had met early trouble. Once Ryan Moore got her organised she mowed down Architecture with alacrity. Bacchy looked at me and said, “What’s the matter with you Davoski? Calling these horses the winners too early?” I shrugged. "Still in national hunt mode. Everything happens too fast on the flat for me!”

If I was in near-miss territory, Nick was smashing in to the bullseye. “Imshivalla will like the soft ground” he declared, nose firmly in the RP give-away supplement. Richard Fahey’s charge galloped home unopposed at 25/1. Sensational scenes. Bacchy was at it as well. Smuggler’s Moon taking the Surrey Stakes at 14/1, eased down before the line. 
Imshivalli on Oaks day
By the time we left, we were all a little wobbly. Nevertheless, I was staggered that no-one wanted to go to the funfair beautifully and invitingly laid out before us on the heath. We had been talking up the rides so much, I just thought it was a given. I struck out across the grass and realised no-one was with me. “I don’t really think it’s a good idea, do you?” said Bryn, with his sensible parent face on.

Instead, Bacchy and I headed for the curry house whilst Bryn and Nick went off to Epsom BR. A curry made not have been a good idea either.

It started off so well, chatting to other racegoers about the day. I even gave the manager a pukka tip for the Derby. “Harzand”, I said. “Dermot Weld is serious about this one.” Hope he remembered. Hope Bacchy did, or I’m gonna be on the end of some more aftertiming slander.

"Harzand will win the Derby?"
The arrival of the food, bizarrely, inclined us into a steep dive. I contrived to knock the naan bread onto the floor as I reached over for the lime pickle, which Bacchy had typically been hogging. Being the gent he is, Bacchy attempted to retrieve the naan. Still sitting in his chair he lunged and tipped in one smooth motion. A fall flat on to his face was narrowly avoided by him planting a spread palm on the floor. That hand was now supporting the weight of his entire body, tilted at a geometrically pleasing 45 degrees. He was trapped. One move of his hand and he’d be over.

Once I stopped laughing I stood up to help him. I tripped on the metal naan bread tray and lurched forward into him, almost knocking him out of the chair. That’s when the waiters came to rescue us. Not even offering up the winner of the Dash would have saved us then.

We made it safely to the right train, going the right way. A minor achievement, though as Tattenham Corner is the end of the line, conditions were overwhelmingly in our favour. Bacchy, sorry to report, had completely zoned out by this stage. He muttered something about an ambitious plan to meet his wife and daughter in town. A long odds-against scenario, I reasoned clearly (even in my inebriated state). I looked up, and after a bit of frenetic texting, Bacchy was soundly asleep with his head resting on the back of the seat in front.

He didn’t move until Clapham Junction. At which point I had to wake him so that I could clamber passed and get out. “Top day Davoski. Christ I’m wankered.” His blurry, half open eyes struggled to focus on me. The crimson blotch on his forehead  where he had been leaning on the seat completed a particularly debonair look for a classy Epsom Oaks day.

For my part, Mrs A tells me that after I landed home in a wide-eyed state, I announced in a booming voice, with animated gestures, at many and regular intervals, how lucky I was not to be too pissed after all the alcohol consumed during the day.

The next day, I registered through fuzzy receptors that Harzand did indeed win the Derby and that I had expunged the various betting and sundry expenses of the previous day. It remains unlikely that I’ll be back to Chillies Contemporary Indian Diner of Tattenham Corner to crow about the result.