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.