Friday, 24 December 2010

Round Robin



Some of the most unexpected tingles of pleasure at this festive time are provided by those touching family round-up missives that occasionally drop out of Christmas cards. You know the ones: photocopied bits of A4 offering saccharine sweet glimpses into the cosy world of friends we don’t see (for some reason) very often. I love those scanned photos of grinning children on ski slopes; chuckle along with middle class ho-ho-ho-ing about busy lives; and gently scold myself at reminders to those who’ve forgotten that the family has moved (but not to worry because mail is still being forwarded from the old address). Sometimes, there’s barely a hint of self-satisfied smugness dripping from the pages, which might otherwise dampen my (clearly anticipated) eagerness to devour the updates. I was worried that facebooking might have dealt the traditional round robin fatal blow. Obviously not.

So I now see that this blog provides a perfect platform to spread some Atkinson love at a time when our thoughts turn to friends and family.

There’s so much to say too.  Time has simply flown. I honestly cannot believe I’m sitting here penning a few lines about our wonderful year when it literally seems like only yesterday that we were literally gathered round our little Christmas tree, adorned in chunky festive knitwear, literally singing carols and eating mince pies.

Trinny, our ginger Siamese was there with us too. We miss her loads. That perhaps wasn’t the best start to the New Year. At least those horrible people at Saigon Garden were finally prosecuted.

My first New Year greeting was a lovely text message from Stan James (as usual), “Happy New Year, Dave. We are best odds about Can’t Buy Time in today’s Victor Chandler Chase from Cheltenham”. Sweet.

The year has seen the children really progress academically. The Pupil Referral Unit has brought out the best of them and they stand a good chance of rejoining mainstream education next year. Daughter no. 1’s pyromania is down to the odd spark now and Daughter no 2’s shoplifting is so sporadic as to go virtually unnoticed.  We are pleased to see that they both have such a healthy extra curricular appetite. Sometimes we wave to them and their friends in the bus shelter as we get the taxi over to the pub.

We’ve done loads to the house. My Racing Post room is coming along nicely, now that I’ve got my 62” wall mounted plasma screen, superfast broadband connection and bank of macbook laptops and smart phones. The children don’t seem to mind sharing a bedroom again. I’ve had a couple of the betting accounts closed down and have had to e-bay Mrs A’s Irish silver heirlooms. But I’m sure it’s a temporary glitch: another big winner is just around the corner, I can feel it in my water.

We always say that doing those lovely little things across the generations is what makes a wholesome family: simple picnics, walks by the river and group visits to the tattoo parlour. We’ve been able to do much more of this since Granny’s probation order came through.

Mrs A’s burgeoning music business empire keeps us all busy, what with the constant stream of demanding rockstars needing a piece of her. Manfred Mann’s rythmn guitarist called from a phone box only the other day, cross that the Greatest Hits CD in the bargain basement basket at Lidl. Her high-octane criss-crossing of the country and pressurised contract wheeler-dealing only occasionally cracks the air of calm reassurance. But it’s usually OK: we’ve found a great recreational drug supplier dealing from a barge on the Grand Union Canal. Mind you, the shocking shortage of parking in our pretty, but narrow and hilly, Victorian street means the tanker supplying red wine direct from Bulgaria only rarely finds a berth right outside the front door. Only a minor inconvenience, though.  

So, all in all, a great year!

A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our readers. 

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Radio Silence


White out. Blizzard Berkhamsted. I swear we get more snow here than can be justified for a soft, southern, home counties location. Bulbourne Valley seems to act like a beacon for the white stuff: fat, snow-laden clouds homing in on my house with unerring accuracy. Is it just me that takes the weather personally?



Last year about this time I was chiselling packed snow off the pavement and road out the front. The subzero temperatures had spot welded solid sheets of ice onto the freezing ground in a near permanent seal. I distinctly remember hacking away laboriously with a shovel, trying to clear enough space for the kitchen fitter to arrive. We had a half finished new kitchen in the week before Christmas and the weather was threatening to keep it that way until after the big day. Not a pleasant prospect.

This year the snows have arrived bang on cue. Another white Christmas in prospect. It’s beautiful out there.


So not much horse racing reportage with which to crackle the airwaves. Apart from two cracking days at Cheltenham last weekend a belter from Fairyhouse on Wednesday, the turf season has run into a snowdrift.  Hope it’s back on track for Boxing Day.   

The closest I’ve got to any racing recently was a good old chinwag with Walter Swinburn’s all-weather gallops maestro at my mate Gordon’s 50th birthday bash last weekend. Dave has worked with Swinburn and his Father-in-Law, Peter Harris for nigh on 30 years at the stables in Aldbury. He was full of great stories about Walter courting Arab Princes and financiers for investment in the stable. He wants to move away from Peter’s syndication philosophy and the small-time owners. Dave told me that Walter is an ambitious perfectionist. His mantra is ‘We don’t want to be known as just an all-weather stable, do we guys?’. Dave shrugged his shoulders. “Tell the truth,” he said, “most small-time owners just want to see their horses run. I bet you’d be happy to turn up to Wolverhampton every day if you thought your horse would be turning out, wouldn’t you mate?” I grinned and glugged some more ale. If I was in horse ownership, I can’t think of anything worse than cheering on the sand donkeys somewhere near Sandwell.

Church Farm has had a good season. Stable star Stotsfold brought some precious Group class success and they had over 50 winners. Though sadly, Stotsfold has since died. Dave, a big bloke with an open face and more than his fair share of tombstone teeth, is very loyal to the Swinburn team. “He’s a genius. Just look at his record as a jockey”. Despite the changes, he  clearly loves his job and the horses. It’s a nice insight to the local yard. I’ve been promised a tour round.

Gordon’s party was a cracker. Two local real ales on draft, authentic paella served up in a massive cast iron dish that wouldn’t look out of place at Jodrell Bank and good company drawn from every stage of Gordon’s 50 packed years. It was a night for hearty blathering and rib-tickling banter. However. The disco was a bit of a let down. Despite my pleading, I was allowed nowhere near the set list. As a result there was precious little Motorhead, no Metallica and a shocking absence of Obituary all night. It didn’t stop a rash of exuberant Dad Dancing around the midnight hour though. A vote of confidence for any party.

I’ve been to that venue before. The Hockley Club at Cow Roast recently hosted a comedy night in which a gang of eight of us indulged. For rural comedy, I have to say the standard was very good. The compere, Mary Bourke was excellent. A softly spoken, dry as dust, Irish comedian with a killer put down. She’s on the way up.

That particular night ended in carnage afterwards at Becky and Gordon’s. A duet with Becky for the full 8 mins and 28 seconds of Paradise by the Dashboard Light; throwing some collective bad lead guitar shapes to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of Heard it Through the Grapevine; and a throaty massed voice chorus of Ultravox’s Vienna were probably the lowlights of an unsolicited outbreak of singalongasadness.

This ice is making us housebound. Could be time to reach for Abba’s Greatest Hits.


PS. Good luck AP McCoy in tonight’s SPotY review. I’d love him to win, if for no other reason than as a lifetime achievement recognition. But that might bring Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor into the reckoning as well!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Hyperbole

Train wreck. Disaster zone. Highway to Hell. Car crash. Calamity. Carnage. A selection of juicy hyperbolic terms often used inappropriately to amplify mundane incidents and inflate banality with exaggerated importance.

Which is exactly the way I intend to report the sheer and unadulterated devastation that is my 40 to follow project.

Approaching the end of November I am languishing on –25.3 points. My worst ever start to the season.  Bruv is over the horizon with some long shot, high profile winners and even Dad is kicking up a dust cloud for me to choke on. Don’t believe the guff that the non-believers dish out about storm-in-teacup, only-a-game, escapist-nonsense. Because this does matter. I am weeping.

It’s desperate stuff. I could claim near misses, but I’m kidding myself. The veneer of bad luck - three place finishes last Saturday and another today - is a mere fig leaf decomposing under a ruthless analysis: they were all completely stuffed by the winners. Thursday was a new low, though. Always nice to explore unchartered waters.  Except this is like a trip to murkey depths strapped to a ticking depth charge. The catalyst for this outpouring of self-loathing was the performance of two horses, Swincombe Rock and Foynes Island. They brutally highlighted the ineptitude and gutlessnesness of the bunch of losers in my stable. They each lacked appetite, ambition and ability round the even and fair Newbury circuit.

The crushing realisation is that I have picked all the wrong horses for all the wrong reasons.

Nearly.

Today, I have concluded, was the turning point. Newbury’s Winter Festival is another jewell of the jumps season. It was the only turf meeting to survive the current cold snap. This meant that the Fighting Fifth transferred from Newcastle. Good marks to all concerned for getting the thing rescheduled, but presumably sponsorship interests stymied televising this top class event on C4? Rubbish. See below. However, it made today’s card even more glittering. So the turning point? Well, Peddlers Cross. My favourite horse in training, a star in the making and now the only horse in the 40tf to win at better than 2-1!

In the Fighting Fifth he stepped out of novice company for the first time to beat reigning Champion Hurdler Binocular and the talented and improving Starluck. The performance showed fluency, speed and above all, tenacity. Boy did he dig deep! Binocular didn’t. McCoy never got really serious with the champ and he’ll be back in the Spring. So will Peddlers.

I almost missed the race, though. I was up at Mrs A’s Mum’s and facing a bit of a struggle to get the Openzone working on the laptop and plug into RUK. (Not on terrestrial telly, see. See above.) This involved three discussions with BT’s subcontinental call centre, two password changes and one piece of quick and sensible advice from the fourth, presumably UK based adviser (“nah mate, you don’t need the @btwhatever bit, just put in your user name”).  I got there by 30 seconds and it made the race more sweet. And the girls were treated to the full-on screamadelica, huggy, heart-beat-y race climax floor show. I know they loved it.

The 40tf is a one-point stake, straight win competiton. Outside those tight confines, I’ve started to have some success with e-w and place punts. Restless Harry last week and Vino Griego today, both at nice prices, have helped. And punting beyond the 40tf altogether is OK too. Aigle D’Or yesterday on a rare going day off a low weight; and the hugely impressive Tocco Ferro (again) today.

For most punters, though, today is Hennessy Gold Cup Day. Or What’s Up Boys Day to me. WUB was my first ever ‘value’ win when he landed this race in 2001. (So overcome was I that whatsupboys became my password for every betting account I’ve ever opened*). It’s a race with wonderful provenance. Today lived up to - and in some ways, surpassed – the billing. Denman, carrying 8lb more than his monumental, thrilling victory last year, was favourite and faced a raft bantam-weighted, progressively-profiled 2nd season chasers.

He couldn’t prevail, in the end, but he went down all guns blazing (©, Clichés R Us). Denman and the deeply impressive winner Diamond Harry went eyeball to eyeball round the last circuit, attacking fences like spawning salmon up Aysgarth Falls. Bloody marvellous. Denman tired under his burden and Burton Port came out of the pack to close down Harry. But the leader dug deep, found more and was going away at the post. A very, very good win. Some guys were tweeting about short prices for the Gold Cup just afterwards. (The twittersphere is quite vibrant amongst racing professionals and punters alike.  It’s just the brevity I struggle with. 140 characters? Pah!) Denman was greeted like a hero in third and did nothing but add lustre to his towering reputation.

In racing terms, this day was one of affirmation. The entire card at Newbury delivered quality racing, tingling excitement and burgeoning talent. And a nice bit of passion too. I’ll stop whinging about my 40 to follow after this.

*Of course, I would never reveal my passwords in such a public sphere. So I’ve changed them all. To Peddlers Cross, naturally. 

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Slo Mo


So I’m three weeks into this moustache-growing extravaganza known as Movember.  It’s all for charidee mate. But I can’t say it’s too much fun. As with many charitable enterprises it is humiliation that unlocks the donations. Some fund raising activities are based on achievement: marathons, climbs and swims all spring to mind; others are about rewards: auctions, competitions, raffles are the standard fodder of garden parties and school fetes up and down the country; and then others are simply about making a prat of oneself in return for support. I guess Children In Need and Movember both fall into the latter category. Funny that I should be attracted to this one. Here's My Movember donation page

I nearly joined in last year. But not quite.  A couple of mates were doing the mo thing and I said I’d go for it. Then I lost my nerve. I landed a project interview early doors in November with clients I’d never met before. I bottled it! I couldn’t face up to dishing out my usual high-grade unadulterated tender-speak with a malformed hairy slug under my nose. I didn’t like the prospect of squeaking in a self conscious little voice, “Erm, sorry about this look. Hehe. It’s a charity thing, honest!”
Week 1

So no messing about this year. I’m in. A bloke on the BBC is writing a diary of his Movember challenge. "Who grows a moustache these days?" Patrick Heery's blog Mrs A calls him my soul mate. Maybe that’s about right, because I share Patrick’s grief. My moustache refuses to grow with anything like gusto. It is not a bushy, even, profuse coverage of tawny bristles. Sad to say there are holes and gaps. And it is taking for ever! I put it down to my Viking blood, being a good northerner. The Scandinavians don’t shave much. Or is that just a myth?

Week 2
The slow grow is compounded by odd coloration. Ginger. Black. Mousey. And lots of grey. “Blond!” I defiantly claim. Hoots of derision from Mrs A and the daughters. If the mo is not really growing on me, then it is certainly not growing on them. Mrs A won’t come anywhere near me. The girls have an occasional rummage which is more often than not accompanied by a shivered spine and a curled lip. Theirs, not mine.  Like Pat Heery, my beast itches too. I sit in meetings or in front of the telly, stroking my top lip, massaging my chin and kneading the unruly bristles.

Week 3
Perhaps my choice of ‘tache hasn’t helped either. I had in mind a kind of James Hetfield (Metallica), Robert Plant droopy cowboy moustache. Not quite sure I’ve pulled that off. (I didn’t anticipate the intricate shaving skills required, for a start!). Comments have veered from Lemmy to Peter Sutcliffe via C&W check-shirt good ole boy-ness. Ho ‘kin ho!

But the bottom line is people have been fantastically generous. And it’s a good cause for prostrate cancer awareness and action. Some 36,000 men are diagnosed with this cancer every year and more than 10,000 die from the condition.

So, for that reason, this month has to be worth the curious glances and puzzled looks (…”you’ve got something on your…oh  no, I think it’s a…. is that a moustache?”). Two weeks and counting. 

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Thick Of It


It’s all go now. Not just the punting. Everything. I looked at the wall calendar this morning (in these electronic, virtual times I am strangely reassured that synching and sharing our household appointments is still physically delivered with thick indelible ink). It is filled with school fairs, concerts, landmark birthday parties, Christmas parties and assorted social engagements. I’m not moaning. These will all be top notch events (with the possible exception of the girls’ violin concert for the old folks. I don’t know who to feel most sorry for. Bless ‘em). But there goes Christmas.

We’re kicking off tonight with my bruv-in-law’s 50th. It’s a surprise. (I don’t think he reads this…..) My sis-in law is home especially for this, from Tenerife where she’s lived and worked for 20 years. That’s the surprise. This should be a good laugh.

But before we leave for revelries in Old Stratford, I have Day 2 of Cheltenham’s Open Meeting to savour. This is how we know we are in the thick of the jumps season. The Paddy Power Gold Cup Chase is about the first real crown jewel of the season. Good line up today. Long Run from Henderson’s yard is a class horse and will go off favourite. I like Mad Max from the same stable, with Barry Gerraghty up top. Massive beast, Mad Max. Closer to a dray horse than jumper. And acted like one in some of his races last year when he went through fences rather than over the top. But he got his act together in considerable style at Aintree in the Spring. The Pipe yard has Great Endeavour, Nicholls and Nigel NTD have three each and there are Irish raiders. This will be super-competitive. Tanya Stevenson has been tweeting her titbits this morning. (I’m digging the racing twitterati now.) “Nine of the last 12 winners came from the first three in the betting”, “No horse aged over nine has finished in the first three since 1992.” And perhaps less helpfully, “Since Fondmort won in 2003 Nicky Henderson’s last 9 runners have been beaten.” I’ve also got Cannington Brook in the 3m novice chase 1.20pm. That should be a good race, too.

Loved yesterday’s action from Prestbury Park. Day 1 of the Open meeting. Traditionally, the lads would blag the afternoon off work to base ourselves in the Jugged Hare and shuttle to the Laddy’s next door. This is the first meeting to feature in the precious Ten To Follow competition, run by the Racing Post and Tote. Inevitably, we have our own off-shoot comp with local rules. Bacchy runs it. This day used to be the beer-soaked, bravado fuelled great unveiling. We’re scattered to the four winds now, but the comp is still alive and well. I got off the mark with Cue Card yesterday, a seriously impressive novice hurdler and winner of last season’s Champion Bumper. It later transpired that Nev did too. And Brynaldo scored with the classy looking Time For Rupert in the belting staying novice chase last on the card. The day was a jolly for me after Rustarix went in at 16-1 in the opening amateur riders chase. Rustarix is a horse I’ve followed for a couple of years and he repaid all his debts with a beautiful round of jumping and the best attitude he’s ever shown up the hill.  

Monday night will be a belter too. Another of those calendar-busting social engagements. It’s our Fantasy Cricket Curry Night. Yes, one more piece of evidence for the prosecution’s allegations of anorak sadness. Well, guilty as charged. Because this year I’m the winner! Not only will I bag some CASH and retain a nice silver(ish), engraved (possibly) trophy to put on my shelf (Mrs A is delighted. It will be hidden, no doubt, behind the casserole pot that we never use next to the Fantasy Festival trophy that I also hold. Ahem.) But we will also be settling a few curry side bets too. This means I don’t go home hungry. I will be insufferable all night (what’s new). And I’m starting right here! 

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Tricky Harry

Maybe it’s dangerous to think I’ve turned the corner. But three wins from three bets yesterday cannot go unremarked.

Wymott, one of my forty to follow tips, put in a sparkling performance in a novice chase at Bangor. It was a warmish race too. Nice to see a decent line up for a cold Wednesday afternoon outside the Grade 1 tracks. Tarablaze for Philip Hobbs was rated highly over hurdles; Alfie Sherrin, bought out of Paul Nicholls’ yard at the Harry Findlay dispersal, was well thought of; and Silver Kate is an honest front running mare who ran in the Grade 1 staying novice hurdle at the Festival last year. But Wymott, from Donald McCain’s yard, was deeply impressive. He jumped confidently from the front and settled the issue with three furlongs to go, Jason Maguire expertly pushing him out. I was too busy luxuriating in the prospect of the horse turning up in the RSA Chase next March to actually get my arse into gear and avail myself of the fancy prices available in running for that very race. He was 18-1 by the time I’d got on.

Half an hour later the same McCain/Maguire team landed the odds again in the shape of Fiendish Flame. The style was the same bold, front running demolition job, too. “Jumped them ragged, galloped them silly” said commentator, Jim McGrath. Marvellous stuff.

But the strangest winner of the triple header was Harry Tricker at Huntingdon. Medermit, favourite for the Arkle, was making his second appearance over fences. At a forecast 1/5, this was far too short for me. I’ve been a fan of the horse for a couple of years. But his round at Aintree previously was not all that smooth where he clouted a couple. So, casting sentiment aside with steely logic, I opposed the horse on grounds of price and form. He jumped off bloody well, though. Some early leaps were quite beautiful. And then bizarrely, out of nowhere, the horse refused to jump a fence down the back. Very naughty. He pulled himself up in a few yards and ran out. No obvious explanation, nothing seemed to be amiss. 


So with the skinny favourite out of the way, I was counting my money. Harry Tricker was looking pretty confident out in front. At the second last he seemed to overjump – almost took the fence too well – and pitched on landing. He sprawled a bit, but Jamie Moore managed to sit tight and keep on going. This provided the impetus for the pursuing Sergeant Pink. Harry Tricker had lost momentum and the two were now side by side. But Tom Scudamore was having a shocking struggle to keep Sergeant Pink on the straight and narrow. All the way to the last, which Sergeant made a horlicks of, and then up the straight, he was lugging right, straight into mine. I was in the bookies at this point, shouting at the screen. Just before the post, both horses had to snatch up as Sergeant Pink was carrying them off the track. He managed to squeeze home first past the post. I was muttering “Stewards! Stewards! Bing bong!” in a plaintive little voice around the bookies, returned only with blank faces and unseeing eyes both behind the counter and from the punters. Even the studio announcer called the result as if nothing was amiss. I flounced out of the bookies, indignant, but resigned. It was true. When were decisions over the jumps ever reversed by the stewards?

Well, today. That’s the answer. Twenty minutes later, I checked the result on the RP website and Harry has been given the race. Cue a scramble for my jacket, knocking Mrs A out of the way to the cupboard under the stairs, to see if I’d held on to the ticket. I had. That old punter’s never-say-die instinct had saved me.

That’s the first time I’ve ever collected on the jumps courtesy of a stewards’ room decision. Turns out that Sergeant Pink’s saddle was slipping and that the award of the race to Harry was controversial. Not in my eyes, though. Dramatic race all round. Cornelius Lysaght on Twitter said that the jockey reported Medermit getting distracted by some ground staff just before the fence. Hmm. Not so sure. But he’s been pushed out to 16-1 for the Arkle. That’s not a bad price if this was just a blip.

There are a few trainers, jockies and commentators whom I now follow on Twitter. Chris Bealby’s a bit of a laugh. He used to train the horse – Dashing Charm – that I had a tiny share of once. He tweeted the other day “Powder King is an interesting runner in the Junior Bumper at Huntingdon tomorrow, very well bred Darley reject, should handle soft...”. He didn’t. The next day, Bealby tweets “Powder King too free early on and refuses to settle, did run on well in the closing stages, jockey says that he will be ok !” Yeak right. Sounds like some of my pathetic bleating on this blog! To be fair, at least he’s putting them up. He’s saying more than he did when I tried to get some views about my horse all those years ago. “Chaser in the making, probably”, he clichéd. That’s my line in the parade ring when I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Mug Painting


My mate Pete – he of the damning verdict on my waning rock n roll credibility - is turning into a bit of a barometer for my fortunes. In a comment about this blog down the pub recently he said, “Yeah, I saw your link. ‘Mug painting’, I thought ‘Why’s ole Dave writing about painting some crockery?’ I mused. Funny, never had you down as the artistic type. Then I wondered if it was a sort of DIY self-help group.” Straight as a dye. Dry as a bone. “Oh, mug punting….yeah, horse racing…” Sometimes I don’t know how much leeway to swing by these blindies. Ever had your plonker pulled?

It might as well be mug painting. Or punting by numbers. This has been a pretty poor start to the jumps season. The project, that is, the forty beasts of burden selected to carry my colours this season, is looking badly planned, poorly managed and lacking in vision. In short, I seem to have picked all the wrong horses. October’s return is pitiful. -8.29 to a 1 point stake. From 13 outings there have been 5 winners (38%), but, and here’s the clincher, only one of those has been at better than evens. And that one – Weird Al on Saturday – finished dead-heated at 5-2. Not too many of those to the pound over the big ones. Early days for sure, but there’s no escaping the observation that those I picked as outsiders and long shots are looking, well, a bit crap. Nothing that a yankee permed from  class, guts, ability, fitness and talent couldn’t sort out, I’m sure. If there’s any compensation, it is that Dad (-3.8) and Paul (-2.4) are both in the red. Straws. Grasping.

I also note with some irony that the alternative of my two theories about Monet’s Garden came to pass. He was not past it. He did jump with vim and vigour. The house was duly brought down. Well done the flying grey.

I turned a corner on Saturday though. Two great cards at Ascot and Wetherby. Nice to see quality fields at the latter for their Charlie Hall Chase card. The course has suffered badly since a track realignment three years ago brought significant problems with firm going on the new ground. Road-widening of the adjacent A1 ate into a chunk of the course. For some trainers, the going on the new strip felt more like the motorway hard shoulder than traditional good-to-soft. Poor, thin cards followed and every fall or injury was magnified. Hopefully the course is back on track now. The north can’t afford reputational damage to one of its better jumps tracks. But it was in the south where I bagged my winners. Both involved close finishes. Tocca Ferro for Emma Lavelle looked comfortable in a listed handicap hurdle off a feather-weight, until idling in front and giving me palpitations. He prevailed by a generous neck. And the fine Massini’s Maguire (ex-Hobbs, please note Bacchy) enhanced his trainer’s massive reputation for getting one super-ready after a long lay off. Maguire jumped beautifully on the whole and travelled classily throughout. He was joined at the last by Take The Breeze and I feared the worst, but my lad dug deep – not always his strong point - and surged up the hill. That’s better.

On the gig front, I have to say that the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain were pretty damn good the other week. I promised a review. No genre or style is safe from the Ukes’ strumming re-interpretations. We were exposed to foot-stomping renditions of Back in Black , Wuthering Heights and Teenage Dirtbag delivered with the energy and spark of a truly diverse mix of innovation and skill (even the harshest critics wouldn’t contemplate the word traincrash, surely?).  Even the fidgety, minstrel-scoffing, coke-swilling, hair-twiddling, hoarse whisperer in front of me momentarily lost herself during a climactic balalaika-driven Russian dance epic that – I kid you not – wove in George Formby’s ‘leaning on a lamppost’ chorus for good measure. Top entertainment.

Nevertheless, after Tasmin Little (lead violin) and the Ukes (lead ukeleles) I was looking forward to some electrification this week, courtesy of the Manic Street Preachers (noisy guitars). Sadly,  James Dean Bradfield (lead vocal) cried off with a poorly throat. It will be better by January, apparently. In the meantime, I can restore the balance a little with Wilko Johnson at the Islington Academy on Thursday. This guy is a legend. Once Dr Feelgood’s driving force, he remains mercurial, manic and enigmatic: the most unique and under-rated r ‘n’ b guitarist in the land.  I’ll take my ceramic paints and best china for the quiet bits. 

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Exacting

I’m looking for a boost. The punting action has been pretty miserable since the last update. I got Cheltenham and Newmarket all wrong on Saturday. Indeed my only result was tipped up by Bacchy commenting on the ‘seasoning’ post here. “By the way, La Vecchia Scuola for the Cesarewitch”, he said. “Thank me later”. The horse came late with a screaming finish. A rattle and hum on the outside of the pack. It was close. But he couldn’t go by long time leader, Aaim To Prosper. Agonising. Half a length in it. But at 40/1, the outcome was some (frankly, welcome) place wedge and a nod of deep respect to Bacchy for a glorious shout. How much more glorious might it have been, though? Don’t go there.

Lots to interest us over the jumps today. Cracking card at Aintree. The venerable Monet’s Garden, a distinguished 12 year old, plies his trade in the Old Roan Chase. An event he has made his own. He loves this track: Ruby Walsh once said that he gets lost outside Liverpool. And he’s always gone very well first time out. I just feel his age will catch up with him this season. But if the flying grey blazes from the front, pinging every fence like a 6-year-old, I won’t begrudge him a moment of the rapturous ovation he will certainly receive. This race has exacta! written all over it: Poquelin to deliver some of the hype that surrounds him, chased home by Albertas Run who won’t like the ground much and has to defy top weight, but should be too good even for Tartak’s feather-weight (jumping problems) and the rest.

Other Aintree highlights include a mate of mine, Medermit tackling fences for the first time in what should be a penalty kick; and some good ole boys like Cornish Sett, Royal Rosa and Character Building featuring in one of these increasingly popular veterans chases. At the other end of the experience spectrum, tomorrow’s Aintree card sees the debut of Cue Card over timber. This exciting prospect from the unsung (indeed, gently mocked in some quarters) Colin Tizzard stable bolted to glory in the Champion Bumper at the festival by a country mile.

Over at Chepstow, early season pointers for the staying novice hurdlers are usually unearthed in the Persian War at 3.35. Captain Chris will be short but I’ve got for Lidar at a big price whom I followed last year and seemed to be crying out for a trip. Later, I’ve got two of my 40 to follow beasts taking each other on in the Silver Trophy handicap hurdle. I hate it when that happens. Restless Harry and Luska Lad will both be close to the head of the market, so I’m slamming into some heady exacta perms again.

Later still, Mrs A and I will be sampling the delights of the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain in concert at the Ipswich Regent in a gig put on by her company. Now, some have begun to question my rock n roll credentials after Tasmin Little recently and now this. In the pub earlier this week, Pete was a little taken aback by my current gig list. “Ukeleles? That George Formby territory, mate. What’s going on?” I mentioned a little timidly their haunting rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit

But that didn’t seem to regain my lost ground. Later, when he saw me in the packed bogs, he blurted out “Hey Dave, Bryn tells me you like that Duffy bird. Is that true?” I sensed a little fidgeting and sideways glancing from my companions at the trough. I had nowhere to hide. Full UOoGB review to follow, natch.

Anyway, next week I’m off to see the Manic Street Preachers. That might recover some of my lost respect. Mind you, we’re upstairs at the Brixton Academy. Seats! It will be nice to have a bit of a sit down. Bryn’s bringing the flask of tea and blankets. 

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Seasoning


The changing of the seasons is in full swing. I can tell this for two reasons: firstly, the racing action holds as much interest over the obstacles as it does on the level; and secondly I have a streaming cold.

From a punting point of view, I love this time of year. The flat season has still to squeeze out some more sweet groups 1s and big handicaps like the last pips from a plump satsuma. For instance, the Newmarket meeting this coming Saturday features the Cesarewich and the Champion Stakes. Both classic races and two of my faves. And the jumps game is starting to whet the appetite, too. Next Saturday also marks the Autumn debut of racing at national hunt’s HQ and all round Mecca, Cheltenham.

So for a few delicious weeks we have a sit down buffet of jumping hors d’oeuvres presaging a long season of nourishing action, jostling for space with the last pieces of the flat game’s prime fillet main course. Only being chock full of cold, I can’t really taste any of this. So I’ll park the corny food metaphors over here by the hostess trolley.

Our 40 to follow competition has started. Brother Paul has been fast out of the blocks with an 8-1 winner at Kelso the other Sunday catching the eye - La Pantera Rosa. Dad and Paul went to Hexham last weekend for some decent enough racing on the Saturday and a Hadrian’s Wall visit on Sunday. Not many winners, it turns out, but at least they had some nice masonry to admire.  

I’ve had a shocking start to the comp. At Bangor on Saturday, my nap of the day didn’t get past the third fence. Donald McCain’s Tara Royal, was sent off favourite, but may not have caught Robinson Collonges even if he hadn’t dumped his jockey on the turf. Paul Nicholls charge won like a good prospect. The field also featured an old mate of mine, Otage de Brion whom I followed to the brink of bankruptcy two years ago. He seems to have found some form since, but not enough to land a blow in this.

Champion trainer Nicholls had his horses out in force. Over at Chepstow, where a couple of races bore ole Pumpkin Head’s moniker to advertise his new Betfair column (bet that upset the Racing Post marketing boys), the stable landed a couple of winners. But this did not include the day’s talking horse Gullible Gordon who predictably went off favourite in the competitive handicap chase. He was well beaten by fast improving Ballycarney for Emma Lavelle. My each way shout, Le Beau Bai was off the bridle a long way out and was just slow. The RP says he needs ground ‘barely raceable’!

In keeping with the cross-over of the seasons, I had a couple of punts on the flat, oop north. I’ve been to last weekend’s fixture at York on a couple of occasions. Most memorably about ten years ago when my 10-1 shot Polar kingdom got chinned on the line in an impossible handicap that if he’d won I would still be talking about now. (!) That meeting remains an absolute handicap nightmare with about a million runners and double that in plots and scams. In the sprint, I was unwisely attracted to an outsider, Manassas, who ran well enough without landing the proverbial blow. Later, the progressive Kathleen Frances raced my pulse a little before getting outstayed into third behind the only favourite on the card to land the odds. Prices of the other winners were: 8-1 (twice), 9-1, 5-1, 14-1 and 33-1.  

To round off a miserable punting, snotty nosed day, I was persuaded to go and see some violin impresario in concert locally. Tasmin Little is classical mustard apparently. And quite a coup by the Berko Musical Society to get her here, I understand. Our attendance is linked to the potential benefit it will bring to the girls’ fledgling violin careers. Not with my hacking and wheezing accompaniment to Bach, Grieg and Tchaikovsky, I feared. In the event, I was able to restrain my outbursts and the performance was surprisingly enjoyable. My request for Cotton-Eyed Joe didn’t go down too well though. 

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Arundel Masters IV


Fantastic stuff yesterday afternoon, listening to the Ryder Cup denouement on Radio 5 Live. They are calling it Monty’s finest hour. But what a year for nerves-of-steel G-Mac. The US Open, Welsh Open and now the winning hole in Ryder Cup. Not a bad hat-trick. Loved it.

I wasn’t alone. I gather another 28 million others tuned in to events at Celtic Manor. Johnny Inverdale was the ring-master, whipping up the atmosphere and encouraging his audience to skive off work a bit longer. That’s what you get for a Monday finish. He was also responsible for classic piece of radio journalism early in the day. John was queuing up for a bacon butty and indulging in a bit of open mic vox pops. “Hello Sir, can I ask you how you managed to get here today? Have you come far? Do you have an understanding boss? inquired our intrepid reporter. “I’m a marshall here actually”, came the straight faced reply. We can only hope for John that he wasn’t wearing his da-glo high-viz jacket with ‘MARSHALL’ stamped across the shoulders in six inch letters.

All this tension and drama is remarkably reminiscent of the golfing high jinx manufactured by the lads and I at our annual Arundel Masters tournament. Only last week we were to be seen ripping up the fairways (best to take that literally) at Avisford Park in a quiet corner of Sussex. This event is a now fixture in our Autumn diaries after its initiation as (one of) the stag weekend (s) for Bryn ‘Briny Baird’ Reynolds four years ago.

The golf might be short of quality, but the competition is never short of needle. This year, there were six of us. Slightly down on the high water mark of 2007. Paul ‘Azinger’ Leutchford and Nick ‘Nicklaus’ Jenkins were unanimously voted in as team captains for the Saturday Texas Scramble. That was the easy bit. Sorting out their supporting cast involved a bit of jostling and manoeuvring on account of Paul being head and shoulders better than the rest of us, Nick being clear next best and the need to balance the fully sighted players with the partially sighted lads – Bryn, Pete and Ad - or blindies. Forgive this apparent affront to political correctness. It is a term of affection (mostly) used by the guys themselves. We eventually settled on a six shot handicap for Paul – or so we thought - and his team of Bryn and Ad.

Out we strode into a gusty September morning, fuelled by a monstrous fried breakfast and Nick’s single malt-filled hipflask. Pete, Nick and I were up first. At this moment, every year, we pray for just one break: to get a good clean shot away off the first tee. In truth, anything over the ditch a mere 80 yards away would do. It’s not much to ask. But there’s a lot at stake here. This comp means a great deal to all of us. Poulter’s fist pumping and heart thumping would not be out of place here. So, inevitably, all our first shots were a pile of right old cack. One spannered left field, another barely limped past the ladies tee and the last slammed into the ditch on a trajectory never more than six inches above the turf. It is destined to be this way forever.

Still, Steve ‘Seve’ Clarkesteros, arguably the best amongst us (having once held that mystical stamp of greatness - the handicap mark) sets the highest standard on this hallowed first tee. In our very first year here, when the tension was tightest, the nerves most taught, Seve had us in raptures. His confident address of the ball using a vintage wooden wood, his poise over the ball, and his perfect description of an arc with his smooth backswing all had us purring. And then howling. The outcome was a beautiful, clinical and absolute air shot. No contact at all with the little white ball sat smugly on its tee. The club face whooshed through the remainder of its beautiful arc accompanied by hysterical hoots and the sound of apprehension bursting. I’m sure he’s delighted to be reminded of this highpoint.

So we were away, stutteringly, for the Arundel Masters IV. And it was the usual mix of sporadic encouragement in the form of acceptable drives, chips and putts completely overwhelmed by a litany of duffs, tops, slices and shanks. Nick bravely led our threesome from rough to scrub to bunker, just about holding the round together. Hole 13 is the biggest challenge. It’s only a par three but between the tee and the green lays The Ravine. The Chasm.  The Gaping Canyon. We have variously christened this hole – with only the barest hint of melodramatic overplay – the hole of doom, the valley of gloom, and that f***in’ 13th. We lived up to its billing. Cap’n Nick went right, I hit a tree and Pete scooped into the bottomless pit. We took a painful drop under the sheer cliff face of that impossible green. Our disintegrating game was only cheered up by the grim looks on the faces of Paul’s team behind us. Knitted brows, stony stares, barely audible banter. We took a few more nips from the hipflask and warmed ourselves with thoughts that they were having more of a mare than us.  

Back at the nineteenth, we pieced together the result. Paul had had a shocker on the outward nine but found his mark and had burned the fairways on the way home. Paul, Bryn and Ad finished in five shots fewer than us.  I was a bit crestfallen and then Nick says “Excellent. We’ve won by one!” Yes, of course! The six shot handicap! Just shows how accurate the penalty was. Just one shot in it. But Ad was not having it. “No, that wasn’t serious. You can’t have that. We’ve won. Stop bleating.” I starting protesting. He turned round and taunted me with a “Diddums” rasped in my ear. I didn’t like that. I fear my face curled in to an ugly snarl as I responded with a heart felt “Back off Ad. I mean it!” It was the Azinger/Ballesteros Brookline ’99 incident all over again. After a tetchy stand off, I think Bryn conceded us the game. I think!

The bar in the hotel is OK, but it’s still a sterile hotel bar. Bitter like dishwater, prices like holy water. We’ve visited the Black Horse boozer just down the road in previous years. I say just down the road. It’s a busy road in the dark with no speed limit and no footway. And half of us are half blind. And often half cut. So that’s always an adventure. The Black Horse has been the scene of some amusement in years passed. Bryn being lined up for the two gay landlords on his stag night springs to mind. As does an evening verging on the farcical, spent entirely making up new names from footballers merged with drinks. Lowlights included Lomana KahLualua (genius Brynaldo) Highland Park Ji-Sung, and Boddingtony Adams. I think we even strayed onto planets at curious stage (JuPeter Schmeichel, Marc OverMars). Dread to think what we came up with for Uranus. Help me out here boys…this just doesn’t seem so funny when it’s written down. Come to think of it, Nick didn’t seem to find it so achingly belly-laughable at the time either. Nevertheless, Monty should have called us in for some motivational talks before the Ryder Cup singles finale. 

Anyway, sad to report that after our dice with death down Yapton Lane last weekend, the pub is now shut. Not closed down, thankfully, just not open on an evening. Clearly one night’s bustling business per year built around subtle word play is not a sustainable business model.

I seem to recall that night ended with an epic bits and pieces pop quiz in mine and Nick’s bedroom. Rock and Roll is not dead. Avisford Park Hilton had thoughtfully provided each room with a complimentary 1/3 third bottle of cheap red wine. After the bar had been drained, the lads brought theirs along. I think three of us had done the name-that-tune tapes and Nick had brought his ghetto blaster along. So, fuelled by thin cab sauv we identified our way through snippets of Motorhead, REM, Kylie and God only knows what else until the night porter brought events to a swift close. He’d had had enough of complaints about crap 1980’s europap emanating from room 213. I think it was late. A few short hours later we were more or less woken up by urgent thumping on the door and shouts of “Morning lads. Sleep well!” Our neighbours leaving early, I suspect. No-one made the golf course that morning.

Unlike last weekend. Three of us turned out on Sunday morning for our third round of the weekend. No visible improvement from Friday though. This rubbish about getting better with practice is obviously just that. Monty’s successor needn’t send scouts out to Avisford Park for his wild cards next Ryder Cup. But we’ll be there just in case. 

Thursday, 30 September 2010

40 to follow

Every year I pick 40 sturdy steeds to bear the burden of punting wedge through the winter months. It’s previously been a successful project and I’ve turned a profit every year bar one since 2002. Some years are better than others. Last season was a bit marginal.

For the last two years, my Dad, my brother and I have pitted our 40 to follow lists against each other. 1point stake per run, win only. Dad’s cleaned up both years.

The competition runs from 1st October to 31st April. Here is this season’s stable:

1.             Alfie Spinner             Nick Williams
Decent prospect for good quality 2 ½ m novice chases. Best form on soft. Good hurdle campaign with progressive profile. Represents up and coming trainer.

2.             Alasi                           Paul Webber
Another with a progressive profile, although not too many wins in the book. This mare could go novice chasing up to 3 miles.

3.             Babysitter                  Nigel Twiston Davies
Classy on best form, though capable of howlers. Sure to get plenty of early opportunities over fences from the prolific NTD.  2 ½ m likely to be the trip.

4.             Bally Wall                    IR Ferguson
3 miles won’t be far enough for this dour stayer from tiny Northern Irish yard.  Capable of landing a nice handicap. No obvious ground preferences.

5.             Barizan                         Evan Williams
Top season as a juv hurdler, trailblazing from the front. Pipped in two Grade 1s before landing the spoils at Punchestown. Will be tough this year but is so game.

6.             Benny Be Good           Keith Reveley
Unexposed hurdler last year likely to be sent novice chasing this term. From a shrewd yrd. Will probably want 3m on soft.

7.             Cannington Brook        Colin Tizzard
Went close in top staying novice hurdles last year after switching from fences. Future lies back over the big ones. Could be a big year for the Tizzard stable. 

8.             Coastley                        David Carr
Still relatively unexposed handicap hurdler with scope to improve. Good ground up to 3m around northern gaffes.

9.             Dance Island                 BI Case
star of small string from midlands handler. Scope to improve in staying chases on soft.

10.             Dare Me                       Philip Hobbs
Bright prospect from very decent trainer. Impressed as runner up in April’s quality Aintree bumper.

11.             Diamond Frontier       Howard Johnson
Handicapper who might spring a surprise or two in 2m chases in desperate ground around northern bogs. 

12.             Duke of Lucca             Philip Hobbs
Another lovely prospect from a powerful yard. Consistent in staying novice hurdles last year. Could go chasing.

13.             Foynes Island              Philip Hobbs
Interesting novice hurdler showing plenty of potential in a couple of outings last year. Another from the Hobbs yard. Hobbs Monkey? Me?

14.             Hidden Universe          Dermot Weld
Apart from a blip in the Cheltenham bumper this classy beast from a shrewd yard has an exceptional profile. Sure to go well in novice hurdles.

15.             Jubail                             Alan King
Low profile juvenile hurdler from a trainer who knows how to bring them on. Encouraging signs in seasonal debut last week.

16.             Kempes                         Willie Mullins
An old favourite. Very consistent last year except in one run on atrocious ground. Never stopped improving and did best when stepped up to 3m.

17.             Luska Lad                      John Joseph Hanlon
Tough as old boots on soft/heavy ground in top quality 2m novice hurdles last year. Should make his mark this season.

18.             Megastar                        Gary Moore
Winner of the Aintree Bumper in April. Looks a strong renewal. One to look forward to in novice hurdles.

19.             Michel Le Bon               Paul Nicholls
Impressed in novice chases before injury curtailed his season early. Assuming full recovery, will do well up to 3 miles.

20.             Mister Marker                Nicky Richards
Quiet season for Nicky Richards last year, but this one was 3 from 5 in handicap hurdles. Fancied to go on this season.

21.             Omix D’Or                      HJ Evans
One for mid-division marathon staying chases on bottomless ground. Will never set the world alight but could still be on the upgrade.

22.             Overturn                         Donald McCain
Exciting prospect for top quality 2m hurdles. Made his mark this Summer on the flat too.

23.             Peddlers Cross              Donald McCain
All quality. Unbeaten. Graduate from last year’s 40 TF list. Could be anything this year from the Champion Hurdle through to the RSA Chase. Bring it on.

24.            Praxiteles                         Rebecca Curtis
Bit of a long shot. Good form in low-grade Summer novice hurdles. Needs to step up.

25.             Rackham Lerouge          Nicky Henderson
Henderson has a powerful string of novice chasers again. This one cut the right profile last term.

26.             Restless Harry                Henry Oliver
Had a blinding season last year before crashing out in the 3m novice hurdle at the Festival. All about guts. Should be interesting to follow this year.

27.             Sa Suffit                           JPL Ewart
Consistent sort on soft ground in handicap chases from an up and coming Scottish yard.

28.             Silver By Nature              Lucinda Russell
Another for staying handicap chases on bottomless ground. Progressive profile, though the slight worry is the handicap mark will find him out this year.

29.             Spirit River                       Nicky Henderson
Lovely, quality 2 mile hurdler. Lightly campaigned last term. Could be another contender for the Champion Hurdle to add to the stable’s riches in this theatre.

30.             Somersby                         Hen Knight
Classy novice chaser last year handled tenderly by the increasingly flakey Henrietta Knight. Could be campaigned for the Gold Cup.

31.             Summit Meeting              Jessica Harrington
Quietly campaigned novice hurdler from classy stable expected to go on this term.

32.             Swincombe Rock             Nigel Twiston Davies
Bright prospect for 3m staying novice chases.

33.             Tillietudlem                       JS Goldie
Ran up impressive sequence in handicap hurdles last term before reverting with success to the flat this summer. Good ground essential. May be given a break.

34.             Tanzanite Bay                   Lucinda Russell
Low profile, but encouraging outings in bumpers last year. Long shot but could be interesting in novice hurdles.

35.             Tara Royal                         Donald McCain
Impressive jumping debut in the Spring and could develop into decent prospect with good yard.

36.            The Package                       David Pipe
Bit of a risk, this one. Quality, improving horse, but if he’s campaigned for the National he’ll be no betting proposition until then.


37.             Vino Griego                        Gary Moore
Another graduate from last year’s list. Never really delivered his potential then and given another chance here on the basis of scraps of form. 

38.             Whipperway                           Sheena West
Ran away with an average juvenile hurdle in September. Looked stylish, but much bigger tests to come. Genuine stable.

39.             Weird Al                             Ian Williams
Looked seriously good in staying novice chases before injury curtailed his campaign. Assuming full recovery could be a quality prospect.

40.             Wymott                              Donald McCain
Good form last year and will be aimed at staying novice chases this. Another from the McCain team.



Sunday, 19 September 2010

Bigger than the Pope

Freddie Flintoff has retired from competitive cricket. This is no surprise. Last Summer, Fred traded the remains of his gladiatorial test match career for some time and surgical expertise that might eke out a one-day future at the highest level. But it was not to be. His crippling knee injury is not improving and on Friday he took the advice of his medical team to call it a day.

In some ways it is an old story. When he left the Ashes stage in September last year for another knee op, not many of us believed he would be back. So it was a mild surprise to see such blanket coverage of this decision last Friday. In fact the Metro declared it to be more significant than the Pope’s arrival in Edinburgh. Based on trend analysis of tweets during the day, Freddie knocked the Pope into a cocked mitre. Freddie Flintoff is bigger than the Pope. It’s official. Well, in the Twittersphere at least.

There can be no doubting Flintoff’s hero credentials, though. The epic Ashes series of 2005 produced, without doubt, the most sustained high quality drama I’ve witnessed anywhere on a cricket pitch. Good test matches have their ebbs and flows, their moments of glory, skill and passion. But that series had enough adrenaline and emotion to make the X Factor look plastic. (What? It’s not for real?) Never mind u-turns, plot twists and shimmies to make Eastenders look prosaic. Not to mention enough comparisons with greatness to exhaust a hackneyed purveyor of similies (that’s me). Just one more similie, then: that of a heavyweight boxing match where two world-class fighters at the peak of their powers slug it out, toe-to-toe over the maximum distance, neither knowing when they are beaten and both conjuring up more big shots when each looked floored.

This prompts to me relive right now, in unapologetic partiality, that golden Summer of triumph. Duck out now anyone who is wincing at the prospect of overblown sentiment and nostalgia.

Twenty20 was a fresh, untried format in those days. (It has since been shamelessly over-exposed, the ECB yet again killing the golden goose.) When England  beat the Aussies in this exciting new competition early that Summer, we dared to hope that something good was on the cards. We were drinking in The Phoenix, round the back of Buckingham Palace, and watching the encounter on the big screen. The Phoenix became the backdrop to our Summer. Me, Nick, Bryn and Steve, amongst a cast of thousands, engineered late lunches and early departures to ride the rollercoaster.

The Aussies’ comfortable win at Lord’s in the series opener was enlivened by Harmison genuinely striking the fear of God into their top order. But was otherwise grim viewing. England bounced back in some style. At Edgbaston,the sight of Trescothick bludgeoning Lee and co to the four corners of Birmingham on the firs day had the pub reeling and goggled eyed. That positivity led to the first 400-run+ day in the history of the Ashes. It set up a strong position for England. The final day saw Australia defy and yet again defy England’s victory charge with low order batsmen repelling missiles from Freddie, Hoggard and Harmison. Bret Lee was stood firm with first Warne and then Kasprowicz. Only a few deliveries remained when Harmison forced Kasprowicz* into evasive action with yet another brutal throat-ball. It popped up to the slips and England had won a rip-snorter. The scenes of victory included the now iconic (an over-used term, but possibly appropriate here) image of Flintoff consoling Bret Lee with a word and a gesture which captured forever those fleeting moments of poignancy in combat.

At Old Trafford, we were treated to a majestic first day ton from Vaughan. England dominated, though Warne took his 600th test wicket (cue a generous standing ovation), as well as a first innings 90; and McGrath ripped out another five-fer. By the last day, Monday, we piled down The Phoenix to watch as much of Australia’s chase as possible. They needed a further 399 to pull off a World Record 423 winning run chase. England needed 10 precious wickets. The pub was packed. This series had ignited everyone’s imagination. 20,000 were locked out of the ground that morning. I think they must have all got on the train and emptied into our pub.  The Polish barmaid, bless her, was overwhelmed and perplexed. Nothing in her career thus far had suggested a slow Monday lunchtime in a Westminster would unleash a blizzard of business. We tried to explain the significance of the quickly unfolding events. We failed. England failed, too. But only marginally. Australia were nine down as the overs ran out with Brett Lee – again - and Glen McGrath fending off Steve Harmison and Freddie at full throttle. Thrilling stuff.

One-one then, and on to Trent Bridge. England again off to a flyer. This time Flintoff hit a blistering ton, and England forced Australia to follow-on  for the first time in 17 years. Matty Hoggard and Simon Jones reverse swung England into the ascendency on a peach of a Sunday afternoon. That left England with 129 to win. Which, in the spirit of the series, became a nail-biter. Hoggard and Giles saw England nervously home. We counted down the runs single by single. 

That was a great day all round. Nick and I had taken our families to Aldburgh in Suffolk for the Bank Holiday weekend. Great weather, great apartment, outstanding company. On the Sunday morning we informed the girls we’d be playing golf and that it would be great if there was Sunday lunch on the table when we returned. Well, sure enough, after a great nine holes at the wonderful Aldburgh golf club we tucked into delicious roast beef and all the trimmings. There was a bit of giggling and knowing looks from the wives, yet we thought nothing of it. But as soon as the plates were licked clean, they shot out of the door with a barbed “OK boys, see you later.....maybe!” and disappeared, leaving us with a mountain of washing up and the kids in need of entertainment. Turned out they had ensconced themselves in a beach-side pub with a bottle of wine and spent the afternoon tittering about their perfectly executed revenge.

Well, the flip-side suited Nick and I perfectly. Once the DVD was running on the other telly and a few cans of Boddies had been acquired, we blissfully rose and fell on the tide of England’s fortunes in Nottingham. The perfect outcome for all concerned! The beers were for us, not the kids. I’d just like to be clear about that.

The decider at The Oval caused some family tensions of a slightly higher order. Ben had speculatively e-mailed the lads back in March about desire for Sunday tickets at the Oval. Ben was a bit apologetic because Sunday was the only day available. A bunch of us signed up thinking that either the series or the Test Match, or both, would be dead by then.  It was nice, for a change, to be spectacularly wrong.

The tensions arose when I dug out the tickets to find that Sunday 11th September was the day of daughter number 1’s 8th birthday party. She was having about a dozen hyperactive friends over for a couple of hours of cake eating and screaming. “Got anything on that day, Dad, or shall we move it to the weekend after?”, said Mrs A, sometime in mid-August. “No, no that’s fine. Can’t see what else would be happening then”, I blithely replied. I can even remember thinking that the cricket season would be well over by then.

Just to put this in context, tickets for this match, the decider in the finest series seen in a hundred years, were changing hands on e-bay for a minimum of £500. I did a shameful thing. I sold my ticket for a grand. No I didn’t! I went to my lovely daughter, put a comforting arm around her shoulders and said “Would you mind if I didn’t come to your birthday party, darling? I’d only get in the way.” See? Shameful!  “No, that’s OK, Daddy. I think Granny and Grandma are coming”. Helen looked at me with narrowed eyes and a thin smile. “You’ll pay!” she murmured. I still am. In many ways. My act of familial betrayal is aired every time we turn our attention to planning Elizabeth’s party.

Because of rain interruptions, the match was finely poised by the time Sunday 11th September came around. Me, Nick, Bryn, Ben and a couple of his mates took our seats in the Lock Stand and soaked up the atmosphere. Team England had risen to the occasion. Vaughany and his troops bounded on the pitch to the rousing thump of Jerusalem. The day belonged to England. Early and timely wickets from that man Flintoff and Hoggard stopped the Australian charge in its tracks.

By mid-afternoon, England were batting. Shortly after Strauss was bowled by Warne, the umpires conferred in the middle under glowering clouds. The light was offered to the batsmen and they headed straight for the pavilion. The place erupted. Never have I known the crowd rapturously cheer a decision to suspend play. The irony was not lost on us and we couldn’t shake the grins off our chops. Every minute was precious and this was a key moment. Play resumed for only a short session later in the day. Hysterically, the Aussies – Warne and McGrath most notably - came out wearing shades and sun cream to hoots of approval from the crowd.

The next day we were predictably down The Phoenix as early as possible. My boss was there. His boss was there. Everyone was there. The place was stuffed. We coaxed Pieterson to his maiden ton, willed Warne to spill the one slip chance that came his way (“Warne’s just dropped the Ashes”), and cheered England to a position of safety. The match was drawn and we won the Ashes 2-1. Cue the clichés: Epic, thrilling, heroic, intense, once-in-a-lifetime. And profitable: I’d backed the correct series outcome at 12-1. The reaction was, in truth, a little over the top. MBEs all round, open-top-bus-ticker-tape parade. But at the time I lapped it up.

And Freddie was Man of the Series. He had embodied the talent, tenacity and team spirit of the encounter. He had lived it large on the field and off.  This was to be his finest moment. Those injuries mounted up and he never hit such heights again. But who could? England lost (2007) then won back the Ashes (2009), but Freddie and the quality of the competition were not close to the level attained in 2005.

So, bigger than the Pope? Well, my Mother-in–Law wouldn’t think so. She got up at 1.30am this morning to board a coach and battle through multi-tiered security checks so that she could sit in a field in Birmingham this afternoon to squint at a giant screen of the Pope preaching to her and 80,000 others about a dead vicar.  I don’t think Freddie quite commands that devotion. But for a time in 2005 he was pretty close.

*... and not Lee as previously stated. Colin, ta. As you say, schoolboy error.