Sunday, 20 February 2011

Looking for clues

A gap in the diary meant I could rediscover the lost art of spontaneity by taking in the rescheduled Totesport Trophy meeting at Newbury on Friday. This was the meeting abandoned last week after the horrific electrocution of two horses in the paddock. Southern Electricity had dug up a chunk of previously dead cabling and had declared the site safe.

So off I set, eschewing the rubber soled wellies and instead trusting the reassurances of the course management.  It was an important meeting and very rare that a whole card is rescheduled. So credit to the course for getting it on. The prize money had taken a battering, in anticipation of reduced revenue on the day, but the card was still very strong and packed with horses needing an outing before Cheltenham.

They weren’t alone. I’d been off the track myself since June (The Oaks) and needed a good blow to get me spot on for Cheltenham. I was feeling rusty and I knew I’d come on massively for a trot round Newbury’s bookie pitches, Tote booths, bars and restaurants. A public schooling of my betting strategies would ensure my A game was ready for the Festival.  

Newbury's Berkshire Stand: very quiet
On the train over, I was sat next to a gaggle of journos, tipsters and media types. There was a bit of moaning about the early start. “Paying peak rate fares not my cup of tea. Tried to get out of this one. Would have preferred Sandown. Didn’t work. Bladdy hell”. I’d settle for a job covering the races, blimey! Miserable sods.

It was an early start though, it’s true. A crucial part of the restaging was securing telly coverage. Channel 4 came up trumps, but at the cost of an early finish so that Countdown didn’t get knocked off its usual perch. Breakfast at Tiffany’s had got the push from the afternoon schedule. No worries. I’d had Breakfast at Bagel Express.

It was battleship grey and low visibility at the track. And freezing cold. But the paddock had been repaired. Scarred but repaired.  At the very least, I’d like to think that’s how racing would be at the end of the day.
Parade ring showing the strip where the electricity cable was removed 
A decent handicap first up, won by 14-1 outsider, Stow. My selection was third, and hard on the steel two out, but ultimately well beaten. The winner was ridden by Aiden Coleman. Checking Twitter updates over a beer shortly afterwards, I noted his confident tweet “Job done at Newbury, now on way to Sandown”. Not misplaced confidence either as he rode a double there, including another 14-1 shot.

By now the crowd had thickened a little, but to no more than a respectable and understated gathering of weekday greys and browns, rather than a frivolous and colourful exposition of weekend celebration. With one exception….

Royal Ascot style at a grey and drab Newbury
This all meant that I had a perfect, uncluttered view of the beasts for the AON Chase in the parade ring. Odds-on favourite and potential Gold Cup combatant What A Friend looked a bit edgy, highly strung and fractious. Does that make any difference? Dunno. He’s part owned by Alex Ferguson, but there was no sign of the United manager amongst the suited and booted in the middle. I did see his trainer, Paul Nicholls and his able deputy, Dan Skelton though. The latter was being interviewed by Alice Plunkett from Channel 4. He’s a dashing lad and had our Alice was bucking and squealing behind the microphone like a two-year old racecourse maiden.

Fair Along caught my eye. From the Philip Hobbs yard, he was a little fella. Bit of a show-off too, tossing his head around and eye-balling everyone at close range. But he was tiny. How could he jump out of stodgy ground over those big fences for three miles? Then he had a big old turn out on his final circuit of the ring (I’m no expert, but they looked like healthy stools – definitely three weetabix for breakfast), so that might make the take-offs a bit easier. Dance Island was looking composed, compared to the other bunch. A big outsider too. So I fancied him to beat the non-stayers and make the frame. His trainer Ben Case helped jockey Daryl Jacob up into the plate. Immediately Daryl seemed more taken with the stable girl than with settling his charge. Worrying signs.

Good race, too. Noland made the pace fairly early on, jostling with Fair Along and the other outsider, Carronhills. My boy, Dance Island was nicely in touch for much of the race and I was fully expecting him to stay on past tired horses up the straight and chase home What A Friend. That’s what my Exacta said anyway. But the confirmed none-staying, ground-hating Noland galloped and jumped them all into submission. My lad clouted every fence down the back straight and was hung out to dry very early. Up the home straight, Noland was very tired. What A Friend began to get his act together, but was switched right by rookie jockey Harry Skelton and lost some valuable ground. Meanwhile Fair Along had sprouted wings and was flying up the straight too. He was relishing this tough test. Brave little horse ably demonstrating the value of a pre-race poo. What A Friend failed to get to Noland by a head, with Far Along ¾ length further back. Excellent finish, though, perhaps harshly, I’d say it has to go down as jockey error because of Skelton’s move after the last. Those Skelton’s eh? One flirting with the presenter, the other flirting with disaster. Hope Harry braced himself for the inevitable Fergie hairdryer. Dance Island lumbered in last.

Time to eat. 
Pick a seat....any seat

Special of the Day: Any pie, mushy peas and gravy. £4.90

The restaurants in the Dubai Duty Free Stand were completely deserted. I wasn’t complaining. This meant I had good sightlines right across the pie counter and was able to choose my chicken, leak and mushroom pie, mushy peas and gravy with unhurried precision and demolish with unhindered relish. Who needs Breakfast at Tiffany’s when you can have lunch at the Celtic Pie Co?  (Am I overdoing this now?)

French Opera was a treat to watch in the Game Spirit Chase. This gluey ground can’t have been ideal for him, but he looked like poetry in motion to me. Bags of ability. Could he be a threat in the Queen Mother at festival? Better ground would suit and I swear he’s still on the upgrade. I tried to get a photo on my poxy phone camera as they sailed over the water jump. Bloody shutter delay. Missed ‘em. I tried later in the novice chase. This time I tried to anticipate the glorious leap of Aighteen Thirtythree who jumped his rivals legless. But no. Too early this time. I scowled at the screen. Bloke next to me grins and says, “Missed ‘em didn’t you?” “Bloody technology.” I mutter.

Phonecameracockup - too late
Phonecameracockup - too early

Back in the Berkshire Stand, I was taking a leak in the well appointed gents. I came across a smug looking chap in a Ben Case Racing jacket. Well, I gave him both barrels for the lamentable performance of his horse Dance Island on the track today; and particularly the unprofessional attitude of his jockey. This lad might have been only eight years old, and possibly the son of Ben Case himself. But in my eyes he’s got to take responsibility at some stage! This jumps game is no game you know.

The Totesport Trophy was the day’s feature. Entries were down to 15 from Saturday’s original 23, but it was still a very competitive affair. Nicky Henderson was mob-handed with top weight Solix, Swinton Hurdle winner Eradicate and Triumph hero Soldatino. Walk On was favourite, heading a market stuffed with more plots than a suburban housing redevelopment. I was on two of them: Irish raider (had to be) Sweet My Lord from Willie Mullins’ yard and Bothy from arch-plotter Brian Ellison. The race was typical hell-for-leather. I was desperate for Solix to be given a bad ride so that I could say ‘jockey David Bass looks like a fish out of water, flapping around in the saddle’. But he didn’t, so I can’t. 

Bothy was up with the pace from early. Two separate incidents at the second last took out three or four contenders who were readying their challenges. Recession Proof came through to take it up at the last and seemed to have repelled Bothy. But he came back for more and they were both all-out to the line, with Recession Proof prevailing by a short head. Thrilling stuff though.

Upstairs in the Berkshire Stand lounge, munching on packet of overpriced hand cut (I just don’t believe it!) kettle chips, I overheard connections of the winner toast “To the County Hurdle!” There was 8 or 10 in the group, all turned out in their refined finest, and they’d had a great day. Good luck at the festival. I’ll be watching with interest.

I had a couple more close 2nds in the remaining races, but didn’t trouser any wedge. Ericht looked the real deal in the bumper, as a watery sun fleetingly broke through the cloud. Trainer Nicky Henderson was later quoted on the horse’s prospects in the Champion Bumper: “I hate the frigging race, but I suppose he’ll have to run in it!”  Yet another Festival clue on a day of top quality action when racing did indeed start to throw off its gloomy mood. Job done, as Aiden Coleman might have said. 

Monday, 14 February 2011

Royal Windsor Races

Such a gloomy racing weekend just gone. Bad news at every twist and turn. So I’m grateful to my mate GC who has unearthed some photos from a day at the races back in 2007.  They have momentarily punched a hole in the gloaming  with sweet memories of a rather splendid, perfectly executed, borderline classy trip to Royal Windsor Racecourse one fine August day.
Looking at the photos - GC, Bex, Mrs A and me all sparkly and bright in our smart-casual - I’m struck by the weather. Those azure skies, dazzling whites and lush greens just serve to emphasise the February murk I’m peering through from the window of my shed (I mean summerhouse) (I mean office) weighing down on and maybe even suppressing the spirit within. (Yes, I’m reading Jude the Obscure again).

Photos can be deceptive. As I recall, 2007 was a pretty miserable Summer. Indeed GC remarked to us, sipping a pre-race Pimms and fruit salad creation (and doing remarkably well to avoid poking himself in the eye with a sharp straw), “The wettest, coldest August in a generation and we organise perfect high summer weather for one day only? How does that happen then?” He was right. I composed a smug grin, the effect of which was only slightly tarnished by stringy pineapple bits and strawberry pips wedged in my teeth, left over from my own pimms & fruit punch encounter.

I may be over-emphasising on the literal detail of the summer cocktails here. But you catch the mood, I suspect.

Indeed that mood had been perfectly cast the moment we left for the track. No-one wanted to drive with those alcoholic fruit salads in prospect, and Silverlinking (RIP) our way to Windsor and Eton Riverside BR was always too convoluted for comfort. So the taxi alternative was an easy decision. But Mrs A and I were certainly not expecting the shiny Mercedes-Benz S class parked outside Bex and GC’s place, nor the grey suited, peak capped, leather gloved driver holding open the doors for us. This was no mere taxi. This was a chauffeured limousine! Turns out GC and Bex knew Rob the driver and had asked for the full works.

And that is precisely what we got. Apart from a couple of moments anxiety, trapped in the never ending, budget spiralling M25 road-widening works, we breezed  over to Berkshire. The highlight of the journey, I recall vividly, was being waved through the barrier by dayglo-jacket man as he peered through the windows of our Merc to see which celebs were being chauffered in.  We pulled up hard against the main entrance whilst the poor mugs in the hail-a-ride jalopies behind were tipped out at the barrier. I swear Mrs A crafted a regal twist of a gloved hand for the crowds as we cruised through.  

The champagne cocktails and pimms frivolities didn’t last long. Guinness (always my real-ale stand by), red and white wine were soon flowing faster than the adjacent Thames. Normal service resumed.
Winsdor has surprisingly few weekend fixtures. Most of its meetings are shoehorned into the increasingly popular end-of-work to end-of-daylight slots during Summer evenings. So it felt like the locals had made the effort to capitalise on this gorgeous day by turning out both in force and ├ęclat. There was enough exotic headgear to put the pimms fruit salads in the shade. Nice to see Mrs A and Bex easily surpassing the standard, though.  Blimey, they scrub up well (given a clear brief and sufficient lead in time, that is…)!

It wasn’t a day for serious punting. The four of us ponced around the paddock (or was that just me?), schmoozed through the bars, lingered by the running rail and joked with the oompah band….generally soaking up the vibes and bantering the day away. 

The racing was a good enough middle-ranking mix of handicaps and maidens, with one conditions sprint chucked in for a nod to quality. My nap for that race, Galeota came a fairish 2nd (and went on to win three times in the remainder of the season unburdened of my cash on each occasion). It was his first outing for 2 years having failed at stud after shooting jaffas! I didn’t get any closer with the straight bets, but I didn’t half give the placepot a scare. Smirfy’s Gold needed to make the frame to land me what I suspected would be a decent dividend. He was fast out of the blocks and gave me a real thrill before fading out of the places in the final furlong. A frameless 4th. The divi was £146 to a £1 stake. I had a wringing wet two-quid ticket welded to my sweaty little palm. A very, very, near miss.

GC had much better luck. We crossed to the far side of the track for the feature handicap. Nice perspective from there back to the packed stands. We watched the field flash past us at close quarters, to collective groans as we racked up more losers. But no, not collective. GC was grinning like a Cheshire cat! He’d only  bagged the 12-1 winner, Muhannak! Where had that come from? Fantastic!
After racing, we joined most of the other punters on the very pleasant boat trip back up the Thames to the town centre, passing giant riverside spreads with cruisers privately moored at the bottom of manicured grounds. The refined residents must have loved the bawdy and full throttle racket emanating from these ferries lurching their way upstream.


 Windsor really is a lovely spot and we unearthed a pleasant little restaurant for dinner tucked away and down a side street. (But was the writing on the menus just a tiny bit small?)
After troughing heartily we inexplicably concluded that another drink was needed. Of course! We’d only been on the sauce for about six hours! I remember winding up Castle Hill and stopping to tell Bex, GC and Mrs A about a waggamama restaurant that used to be a kebab house. I lamented the fine, hand-crafted produce that this place used to purvey. Last time me and the lads were here, Bryn had a unique thing called a kebab roll. I’d never seen anything like it before….a  flat bread and kebab meat creation with no salad. Fascinating. I turned round from staring in disgust at the new restaurant to find myself alone! Bereft! Those bloody fast-food philistines had high-tailed it off to the Horse and Groom. I soon caught up.
It got dark soon after and my recollection gets hazy. But I do remember GC flicking open his phone, saying something like “Beam us up Rob” and miraculously the Merc appeared right there, right then to teleport us home. Fan-bloody-tastic. I still don’t know how he did it. And then, we staggered out of the car straight into The Lamb, round the corner from our house. I don’t know why. I sort of recall the four of us lording it over the place, telling anyone who would listen that we’d had a top day at the races but that we’d only had one miserable winner to share between us. I also remember trying to square the debts of the day with GC at the bar. “Two tickets for the races equals half a cab fare plus a quarter of the dinner. I’ll see you and raise you.” We were in no fit state for such high finance. GC, mate, I still don’t know if I ever properly settled this one…..

The last photos present circumstantial evidence that  we ended up at ours, sinking into oblivion in the wee small hours. Probably. A fitting end to a very smart day out.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Bad day at the office


Desperate stuff at Newbury today. Two horses electrocuted as they paraded before the opening race. I knew something was amiss when I turned on Racing UK for the opener, but found an extended advert break. This was soon replaced by a sombre Nick Luck carefully reporting the story. Terms like ‘grown men crying’ and ‘never seen anything like it’, were thrown into the mix. His description of two horses writhing and crashing to the ground in separate incidents only seconds apart was stomach churning.  Marching Song and Fenix Two convulsed and died in front of bemused racegoers.

I’ve been less than convinced about the value of Twitter so far. Too many repetitive views and cliquey discussions. But today the medium really came into its own. Commentators at the track or better connected that I were tweeting the possibility of electrification in one or two parts of the parade ring, of two other horses that had received shocks, and of head lads and lasses that were picking up the current as well.

Cornelius Lysaght in particular was measured, direct and unflappable in the midst of some dire scenes. He was the journalist to confirm that the first race would go ahead and that the pre-parade ring would be used for the rest of the races.

Kid Cassidy was also withdrawn from the race having been partially affected by the incident too. The race was completed, but in a very subdued atmosphere. Quite rightly, the stewards and management decided to abandon the rest of the card. Twitter was buzzing with disturbing news of horses returning from the race with burned lips and mouths from where their bits had apparently picked up the current. This remains unsubstantiated and has as much to do with the more volatile, rumour-mongering side of instant reaction, as about hard reportage. There was plenty of anger out there. Lydia Hislop was demanding to know how and why the decision had been taken to run the first race.  Easy with hindsight, but from this distance that now looks like a mistake.

The electrocution theory couldn’t be confirmed by authorities, but seemed to be the most plausible explanation. As Newbury was emptying, Alastair Down and Alice Plunkett were interviewing a string of Newbury Racecourse great and good, as well as trainers and owners, all expressing genuine compassion for connections, regret for the abandonment and a need to understand what had happened.  Full refunds were offered and discussions began about moving the fixture to next week.

Meanwhile Twitter was alive with speculation of the tines of aerators having severed the electrical cable under the parade ring earlier in the week. Later on tough old jockeys who've been around the block a bit were tweeting of their distress at the day's events. 

The investigation remains in full swing this evening: the electricity board is at the track, the dead horses are having post-mortems and evidence from trainers, vets, managers, CCTV and C4 is being sifted.  

Over the Irish Sea, Leopardstown’s Hennessy Gold Cup meeting didn’t get away unscathed. Money Trix, a high class stalwart of the Nicky Richards yard, broke down and was destroyed.  Runner up Glencove Marina collapsed from a heart attack after his best ever run.

Today was another tough, sad, dark day for racing. Hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons in an already disjointed, unbalanced and troubled season. 

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Festival ante posts


Following quickly on the heels of a dewy-eyed and sentimental blog about a decade riding the Cheltenham roller-coaster, it’s time for a hard-nosed analysis of my festival ante-post folio.

Frosty receptions
This season has been a bugger to get to grips with. Desperate weather conditions have punched a hole the size of a cow in the mid-season fixture list. No wonder stuff (apols) of such vitriol has been written about the protection policies of some of our leading tracks. Too many high profile fixtures have been lost needlessly to the elements. Kirkland Tellwright, clerk at Haydock, was on the receiving end of some incandescent rage after his shambolic performance last weekend. His failure to deploy frost covers – which are now proven to work (c.f. Cheltenham’s meeting on Saturday)  - was widely interpreted as complacency and incompetence or, worse, a lack of commitment to meetings that are more profitable for the insurance payout upon cancellation.

Non triers
So there is hardly a dense network of informative, cross-tabulated form lines from which my festival ante-posts have flowed. Indeed - yes, another rant - it’s not just the weather that results in a paucity of evidence. Many trainers are now sending their main festival hopes to Prestbury Park in March with very few runs under their belts. Training facilities these days are so good that trainers often don’t need to get their best horses match-fit slogging around Chepstow and Ludlow. This applies in particular to the novice chase division, but can also be seen in thin fields for Class 1 chases and hurdles. The irony is that the Haydock card the other Saturday had pitifully shallow fields (outside the handicaps) supporting two or three bright stars. The dominance of Cheltenham is suffocating decent cards in the middle of the season.

Bring it on…
But I absolutely love Cheltenham. Yes, this is a contradiction. Its dominance is its very attraction. Just sometimes I crave a better balance. I don’t want to see the rest of the fixture list decimated.

This is a long-winded, bad-tempered excuse for putting together a festival ante-post roster that I don’t have shed-loads of confidence in.

This is how it shapes up as at 1st Feb 2011.

Tuesday

Supreme
I’ve never won the festival opener. A stat that I’m keen to dump. With Cue Card, quite rightly dominating the market at a short price, I’ve been looking for some value. My two ante-posts in this race are currently still alive. Megastar at 25-1 each way from Gary Moore’s stable and Irish raider Hidden Universe at 16-1 from master trainer Dermot Weld.

I like Megastar. He’s a fantastic looking horse, a massive stamp of a beast. He needs a sound surface and to improve his jumping a smidgeon. But he’s travelled nicely in defeat at top level when giving weight away and in the mud. I’ve seen enough to think there’s more to come, given good ground, at the festival. 2 miles seems to be his trip.

Hidden Universe won the Grade 1 Punchestown Festival Bumper very smoothly in April, he’s got gears and looks class. 4 from 5 in the jumps sphere, he won his first race over hurdles in some style. A tendency to jump right is something Weld is working on. On the downside, he was beaten out of sight by Cue Card, in the Cheltenham bumper. This has got to be a blip. He runs on Saturday in a Grade 1 in Ireland against another leading fancy for the race, Zaidpour. I backed Hidden Universe not long after his debut over hurdles and the price then reflected some doubt about him even lining up at the Festival, let alone whether this is his trip. Nevertheless, he’s now as short as 10-1. Saturday will tell us a lot more.

Arkle
I’ve got a better record in this mesmerising 2m novice chase. Nothing in this field has set the world alight yet. Finian’s Rainbow heads the market at 9-2 after two wins in, frankly, mediocre races. Hard to tell how good he is. The same can be said for next best in the betting, Ghizao (5-1) from the Nicholls yard. I’m on Realt Dubh, backed early in January at 25-1 e-w after his win in a heavy ground Gr 1 at just over 2 miles. I took a chance. Back then his credentials were a fraction sketchy and his best trip was unknown. His attitude, however, was of no concern.  Having won the Irish Arkle last weekend – admittedly with a dose of luck when the better travelling Flat Out fell – his price has crashed in to 10-1. I like him. He’s a real battler.

But there are still cards to be played in the Arkle line up and I’m likely to go in again. The picture is slightly confused because of the new Grade 2 2 ½ mile chase. It is an obvious gap on the card, but just adds another layer of imponderables for the ante-post punter.

Champion Hurdle
The festival used to have the most perfect opening combination: Supreme, Arkle, Champion Hurdle. What a beautiful sound. That went down the pan a couple of years ago when they brought the time of the first race forward. Now the William Hill Chase messes up the dream start. I’ll get stuck into that once the weights come out. But the Champion Hurdle is once again shaping up to be the most anticipated of the Festival. Hurricane Fly, Binocular, Menorah and Peddlers Cross have put down the firmest of markers. I’m in the Peddlers Cross camp and have been since I backed him in every race last year. He’s got guts as well as class. He’s also unbeaten. But this is such a strong renewal I can’t be confident. I’m on at 7-1 and again at 6-1 courtesy of a Christmas present ante-post voucher from my bruv. Now that’s quality!

Wednesday

Neptune Hurdle
My punt here may have hit the buffers. I liked Rock on Ruby after his win at Newbury over Christmas in the fog. I backed him at 11-1 for this 2 ½ mile grade 1. He ran well in defeat on Saturday at this trip. However, the concern is that he couldn’t go passed the winner, Bob’s Worth, after joining him at the last. Shocking ride by Skelton though. Missed the rail, involved in argey-bargey and dropped his whip. Nevertheless, connections may want to return him to 2 miles. The markets favour him for this – best price 9-1, as oppose to the Supreme at 14-1. But I’m not so sure. I’ve also backed Dare Me at a massive price to minimum stakes on Betfair. He needs to turn out and do something in a decent race before this is a live one though.

Bobs Worth, Zaidpur, Backspin, Habbie Simpson, Minella Class and others look strong. The Neptune’s another race that I’ll dabble in again soon.

RSA Chase
One of my bankers at the Festival. This year, Time for Rupert has gone from strength to strength. I went in early for Wymott at 18-1 after a good effort in November at Bangor. His subsequent race at Exeter was not particularly impressive, though he still won. In the meantime I’ve missed the boat on Time For Rupert. He looks the one to beat and I may involve him in some crazy combinations. The race has still to take shape though, and will change in complexion if the real Mikael D’Haguent turns up in Ireland this weekend. The new 2 ½ mile novice race messes things up of course.

Thursday

World Hurdle
Bit of a laugh this one. My only bet so far for Thursday has an air of comic farce about it. Spirit River is a horse I enjoyed following last year. When he won the Coral Cup he went in my notebook for this year. But his fencing has gone backwards. An unexpected fall on his debut followed by an atrocious round next time out has shattered his confidence.  This time last week I spotted that Henderson had given him an entry in the Cleeve Hurdle as well as the World Hurdle. So the yard was serious about giving him a go against Big Buck’s. I plundered a few quid of the 70s on offer on Betfair and felt very smug with myself. Next day, Tom Segal of the Racing Post puts him up as his value bet for the World Hurdle! He was backed into 20s….that should have been the time to lay off my outrageous punt on Betfair. I didn’t. He ran a shocker in the Cleeve and failed to get the trip. He’s back out to 55 now, but I’d be surprised if he turns up. This is a talented horse who seems completely out of sorts right now.

Friday

Gold Cup
A couple of wild punts here. I backed Denman at the arse end of last season when he drifted out to 16-1 with Ladbrokes. I thought that was an insult. After another epic Hennessy Gold Cup run, he’s shortened up to a slightly more respectful 8-1. But I can’t really see the old boy winning. It’s a sentimental bet.

The bet on Kempes is a long shot of a different nature. I backed him on Betfair before Christmas at 240-1. I kid you not. To pennies, admittedly. (I see someone has got a little bit of 420-1!) But he won a good ground G1 3 mile novice chase at Punchestown with some aplomb last Spring. I genuinely think he could be a Gold Cup contender. His run on bad ground at Leopardstown over Christmas went wrong when he unseated four out. But the truth is he had been travelling very strongly up to that point. Willie Mullins has had enough faith subsequently to enter him in the Gold Cup. He’s also in the Ryanair. The acid test comes on Sunday in the Irish Hennessy over 3 miles. Good ground is key, but time is running out and the Gold Cup is probably a step too far.