Friday, 30 September 2011

Forty to Follow: Jumps 2011-12

Forty beasts of burden for the jumps season approaching. Follow at your peril.

1.    Alfie Spinner - Nick Williams                                   
Still only a 6 y-o and shaped nicely last year in staying handicap hurdles, albeit without picking up a win. Sure to land a nice prize if, as expected, he keeps ahead of the handicapper.

2.    Ambion Wood - Victor Dartnall                                   
Won a Uttoxeter bumper in some style and rates a good prospect if converting that promise to hurdles.

3.    Anychancedave - Alan Swinbank           
Been given a good education by Swinbank in bumpers and stuck on gamely to land a double at Market Rasen. Likely to be seen to best effect in staying novice hurdles. Not picked just for the name. Honest.

4.    Best Lover - James Ewart                                               
Injury-prone horse, but with bags of talent. Curtailed season after good chase win. From a canny, careful Scottish yard and has prospects if can be kept fit.  

5.    Blazing Tempo - Willie Mullins                                               
Typical Mullins improver. Ran well in the Jewson at Cheltenham and will be gradually stepped up in trip over the season. Don’t be surprised to se him line up in the Gold Cup come March.

6.    Bobs Worth - Nicky Henderson                                   
Excelled at 2 ½ to 3 miles over hurdles as a novice last year. Expected to be even better over the big ones. Henderson has an incredibly powerful yard this season.

7.    Broadbackbob - Steven Crawford                                   
Decent bumper form, including good effort in the big Aintree bumper. Small Northern Irish yard will campaign him smartly.

8.   Captain Chris - Philip Hobbs
Looked ungainly over fences in October. Looked untouchable in April. Massive improvement and bags of talent, so one to keep the right side of as the top flight 2m – 2 ½ mile chase division opens up.

9.    Dare Me - Philip Hobbs                                                           
Last season curtailed by injury when he was two from two in little races at Exeter. Looking forward to seeing him extended this year.

10.    Diamond Harry - Nick Williams                                   
Another whose season ended prematurely after winning his only start, the Hennessey Gold Cup, in superb style.  Will take high rank this season.  

11.     Dover’s Hill - Mary Hambro                                   
Been tenderly handled by the Hambro team. More to come in handicap chases. 9 y-o but still improving.

12.     Granville Island - Jennie Candish                                   
Encouraging bumper debut win at Bangor-on-Dee. Showed turn of foot and resolution.

13.     Hidden Keel - Charlie Longsden                       
Improving handicap chaser from yard with a good strike rate. Could step up in trip.

14.    Hinterland – Paul Nicholls
The only juvenile in the list this year. French import from the legendary Macaire yard. Could be one of Nicholls’ Triumph horses.

15.    James De Vassy - Nick Williams                                               
Lanzarote hurdle winner who looks to be still on upgrade. Likes soft ground.

16.    Make A Track - David Arbuthnot                       
Dual bumper winner and looks like one to follow from another shrewd, small yard with a high strike rate.

17.   Matthew Riley - Kate Walton                                               
Very impressive 2nd in Aintree bumper after a solid season. Could continue his education around low-key northern tracks.

18.   Montbazon - Alan King                                   
Aintree bumper winner already schooled well over hurdles. Stable form is a worry though. This yard should have built on its My Way de Solzen/Voy Por Ustedes success a few years ago but appears to have gone backwards.

19.    Mourad - Willie Mullins
Still only six and won’t need to come on that much to sweep up in staying hurdles in Ireland (depending on how the stables star hurdler Quevega is campaigned). Will need to improve about a stone to beat Big Buck’s, however.

20.   Noble Prince - Paul Nolan           
Classy Cheltenham winner who blotted his copybook with a fall next time out at Fairyhouse. Assuming that has left no mark, he will be a real force at about 2 ½ miles.

21.    Notus De La Tour - David Pipe
Front running handicapper who likes soft ground, but has not won since 2010. Still only 5 and scope to land a big handicap.  

22.    Our Island - Tim Vaughan           
Quietly developing staying novice hurdler last season. May not set the world on fire but likely to make his mark in novice chases.

23.    Oscars Well - Jessie Harrington           
Big fan of this yard. Three from five over hurdles last season, plus a final flight blunder that probably cost him victory in the Neptune at HQ. Big staying prospect over fences this season.  

24.    Oscar Whisky - Nicky Henderson           
Reappearance in this list after a year out. Improved again last year and should be one to follow over extended trips if kept to hurdles.

25.    Peddlers Cross - Donald McCain Jr           
Been crying out for jumps. Likely Arkle type, though will stay further. Top class horse only found out by Hurricane Fly in a blood and thunder Champion Hurdle. That race left it’s mark when reappearing at Aintree in April.

26.    Prima Vista - Noel Meade
Unlucky to lose at Fairyhouse in May when stepped up to 2 ½ miles. Went the right way all season and will do well in top hurdles races in Ireland this season.

27.    Quwetwo - Paul Nicholls                                   
Should fulfil his potential now with a decent trainer, after transferring from the discredited Howard Johnson for a novice jumps campaign.

28.    Realt Dubh - Noel Meade                                               
Will be a strong contender in 2m chases in Ireland. Stamina should stretch as far as 2 ½ miles at the top level. Has admirable qualities though this is a competitive division in Ireland with Sizing Europe, Big Zeb, and Captain Cee Bee.

29.    Recession Proof - John Quinn                                   
Did nothing but improve last year, though met his match in the Supreme. Will be a force in handicap hurdles.

30.    Red Rocco - Donald McCain Jnr            
Transferred to McCain just as the season begins. Previously brought along very steadily by George Moore, improving each time in bumpers. Ready for low-key novice hurdle campaign this term. This list is investing heavily in bumper horses who have yet to jump in public. It’s all about the potential!           

31.    Rock On Ruby - Paul Nicholls                                               
Expecting big improvement from this high-class hurdler now switched to fences. The risk is that he’ll bump into others on this list.

32.    Salden Licht - Alan King                                               
Steady improver. May have a flat outing and then back to hurdles before eventually novice chases at around 2 miles.

33.    Shop DJ - Peter Fahey                       
Should hold her own in Mares novice chases

34.    Silver Kate - David Richards                       
Lovely type. Front running mare with a preference for soft ground. Should win her share against her own sex.
                       
35.    Sire De Grugy - Gary Moore                                               
Ran very well at the Grand National meeting over hurdles and should make his mark over fences.

36.    Spirit Son - Nicky Henderson                                   
Most impressive of the 2m novices last year. An obvious one with whom to take on Hurricane Fly.
                       
37.    Swinging Sultan – Keith Reveley
I had two other Reveley horses in this long list that have received the chop because they’ve come out before October. So this one is still fresh having finished 2nd to Anychancedave in his debut bumper back in February. 

38.    Topolski - David Arbuthnot           
Good handicap hurdles at about 2 miles will be on the radar after landing the Top Novice hurdle at Aintree. 

39.   Via Galilei - Gary Moore
Handicap hurdles will be his game after three wins in an extensive campaign that saw him rise a good few pounds in the ratings, but trusting that his trainer will find openings for him. 

40.   Wymott - Donald McCain Jr                       
Looking for this horse to redeem his bad festival showing and pick up his assured early season form in staying novice chases. Good handicaps and better should be in range.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Breakfast Club

One of the benefits of a working week based mostly at home is the opportunity it affords to pop out for breakfast now and again. I find a good fry-up in a neutral space promotes thinking time, provides reading room…..and encourages Racing Post study.

Berkhamsted is surprisingly well endowed with breakfast options, ranging from greasy spoon tradition to gastro pub exuberance. So what is the best breakfast experience in Berko? Which establishment provides the perfect balance between a top fry-up (I consider myself to be an expert) and an honest environment in which to scoff it? I intend to find out.

My artery-clogging mission begins at The Crown, a Wetherspoons pub opposite Tesco’s. I’ve had more breakfasts in here than anywhere else in town, so it seems reasonable to begin the odyssey here. This is where I first discovered the delights of lingering over the racing pages in the middle of the morning, feeling like a naughty schoolboy bunking off lessons. I’ve met others down here too. Nick and Pete have all joined me for a fry-up on the odd occasion, to set themselves up for the day. So I know the breakfast routine well. Take a seat, note the table number order at the bar, collect the condiments from the sideboard.

There’s nothing very sophisticated about the Wetherspoon’s philosophy. Heavily influenced by the Tesco’s mantra pile it high, sell it cheap the breakfast formula is straightforward. It is big: two sausage, two bacon, three hash browns, two fried eggs, two toast, beans, half a tomato and a choice of mushrooms or black pudding. And it is a bargain: £6.74 with a limp cappuccino. Pick the bones out of that!
Big Breakfast. The Crown
But let’s get down to brass tacks. This breakfast experience is good, but it isn’t a Rolls Royce job. Squishy sausages, watery mushroom, sauce in sachets (brown sauce test: fail. See below) and – to be picky – the butter is served up in cold foil-wrapped pats so that I can’t spread it on the toast. What about the environment? Again it’s that formulaic approach. One Wetherspoon’s is as faceless as the next – especially out the back in the dim recesses of the extension where the carpets are sticky and the early morning drinkers are already in to their 2nd pint of £1.55 Carlsberg. That never feels quite right.

So this is a good solid start. I’m very full and pretty satisfied.

Where next. Back out to the top of the town for the Yeovil Café to take its chance. This is the greasy spoon end of the market: school chairs and formica table tops. It’s about half full this morning. The other punters are mainly white van men and most seem to be regulars, “Dorofy, splash a bit more tea in that mug will ya luv? Ta”.
Yeovil Cafe
I order my brekkie from the crowded menu board behind Dorothy. Option two at £6.55 including coffee. Option one (£6.90) seems to have a bit too much ingrediential repetition for me, and option three comes with tinned tomatoes. Unforgiveable.

I grab an empty table. Pinned up on the wall is a laminated copy of a vaguely amusing story about a Manchester taxi driver. I notice there is different one at every table. Odd, but perhaps an attempt to add a bit of individuality. The surroundings are fine, but perhaps it could be a bit cleaner. Little globs of egg yolk and bacon bits are on the floor. But the tables are spotless.

First off, the brown sauce test is passed. There it is ready on the table in a brown squeezy bottle. No hiding it away behind counters or in cupboards as if an unwelcome guest, brought out only on request. Flowery B&Bs do this when they pretend they are small hotels and think that removing sauce distances them from the local caff. This pretentious behaviour must be stamped out.

 A big oval platter of top nosh arrives. Nice to see the plate is not swimming in beans. I love the black pudding. The egg is very tasty too. There are, however, a few too many fried potatoes here, piled up as if to bulk out the serving. Oh, but there’s no bread and butter here! Mistake. It should be in there as standard. 25p extra to order a couple of slices. I don’t bother, it’s too late now.  

But I polish off the lot and I’m full. Job done. A solid enough start. Good on quantity and quality overall. Couple of niggles but OK and surroundings and service all fair enough. Onwards, then.

Feeling sprightly, despite my increased grease intake, I pitch up at Berko’s Café at the bottom of Kitsbury Road. This is a small establishment with high tables running down either side of the one room. It’s empty when I walk in, but a couple of others arrive after me and it starts to feel full already. I’m at the big window looking back up the High Street. Great for people watching. On the other hand, I feel a bit on show, too. So I plug in the laptop and the free wifi works like a dream. No crazy registration process. I’m online looking at the form for the July Cup in two clicks.

Here I plump for the Double Fry Up, which with a coffee is £6.80 all in. There’s a bargain fry up on offer at £3.95. But I can see from the menu that this wouldn’t have been enough to get me through til tea-time. I’d have been munching chocolate hob-nobs well before the 4.30pm fillies maiden.   

OK, so this place has no pretentions. That’s good. The condiments are all on the bar in original bottles. Full marks. And neither do the see-through white melamine cups in any way try to hint at fine bone china. Or even basic artisan pottery, to be fair. 
Note the hi-spec melamine mug
I’m not waiting long before an attractive-looking platter arrives. The toast is already spreaded. Don’t think its butter though. There’s fried bread as well. I don’t like fried bread. But that’s just my foible. At least there’s toast here as well. On the other hand, fried bread and toast is starting to smack of imbalance. Nice pile of tasty mushrooms. The plate looks bean-heavy from the pic, but actually it is fine. The black pudding is a fraction overdone. It’s a bit crispy and so loses some flavour. I end up not finishing the second round. Squishy sausages betray their cheapness. Everything else is proper good.

So I leave full and satisfied, having had a pukka fry-up experience. The environment is a notch up from the Yeovil café, too. It’s picking up.

Next up, I haul my spreading girth to The Olive Tree on the High Street. This is somewhere between a traditional caff and a restaurant. For instance, I’m treated to table service, which is quick and friendly. The flip side is the amount of noisy kids here in the garden with their Mums who are doing cappuccinos.


It’s a straight fiver for a 'traditional' and an extra 80p for a filter coffee. The cheapest so far. We are moving upmarket here: the milk has arrived in a separate jug; granary bread sliced on the premises and served on it's own plate. But nice to see the HP there proud in its bottle. 

beans...
The fry-up is pretty good on quality but marginal on quantity. A solitary and lonely sausage, no mushrooms, no tomatoes, no black pudding. But the best bacon so far and lovely fried egg with beautiful yolk. And lots and lots of beans

So better presentation here, but the end result is a little deflating. A fraction style-over-substance I fear.   

Onwards, then, with cholesterol-fuelled verve and vein-hardening resolve to Berkhamsted’s branch of the small chain Brasserie Gérard based in the gothic Old Town Hall.

The petit dejeuner anglais weighs in at £6.95, which isn’t so bad, but the whopping cappuccino I indulge in takes the bill up to a round tenner by the time I’ve left my stingy tip. So we are into a different league here, pricewise.

And that’s reflected in the clientele. No white vans parked outside. This isn’t all human life in here by any stretch of the imagination. No great leveling going on in here. That said, I can’t fault the feel of the place. There’s some low-key jazz oozing from the surround-sound and I get on to the wifi after a relatively simple registration process.

Soon the mountainous coffee sighs on to my table, rising out of the mini-soup bowl like a muffin, it’s head slathered in thick chocolate sprinkles.

Mount Cappuccino
 It’s a very well presented fry-up too. Especially when, although there is no sauce on the table, I ask for some and it arrives in the HP bottle. The sausages are beautiful. There is a hint of spicy piquancy beneath their firm exterior. But it is not overdone. The beans are delivered in a separate pot. I don’t mind that. I can put them where I want ton the plate. Flavour-packed tomatoes. Massive slab of butter with the thick toast. The sweet cure bacon is lovely. Oh my God, this is unexpectedly brilliant. Absolutely no complaints. This sets the standard.

The business

Views. And pictures. 
Just as well, because my ante-post favourite for the breakfast gong is up next. The Attic Cafe occupies the top floor of Home and Colonial giving great views over Berko. It’s just that negotiating those three flights of narrow stairs with my new, rounded profile and handy, shelf-like, cantilevered stomach extension takes some care.

The place has a wonderful atmosphere. Non matching wooden tables and chairs; distressed wooden cupboards bearing afternoon cakes hidden beneath glass cloches; unobtrusive light jazz and soul on sound system. I’m surrounded by antiques and paintings for sale. This is about as far from greasy spoon as it's likely to get. And yet I’ve been here when dispatch riders have peeled off layers of leathers to sit down next to blue-rinse Mother’s Union volunteers and tuck into proper fry-ups.

So I’m all set. I’m anticipating the dog’s bollocks. The full English is there loud and proud on the menu. £8.15. And a pot of tea for one at £1.80. Unsurprisingly, it’s the most expensive yet. The tea is an unconfined joy. Look at that.

Yes, a tea strainer!
Expertly non-matching cup, sauce, milk jug and tea strainer. (Tea stainer…yes, real tea!) The knife, however does seem to be from the same set as the fork. The napkin is paper. Not cloth. Is that a point off? Churlish.    

The strap line on the menu is “fresh not fast”. I agree with those sentiments. But I’m getting ravenous here. And here it is. No brown sauce, but I ask and it arrives in a bottle. Test passed.

The butter for the toast is already warm and served in another little dish. It’s these touches, you know.  

Well, let’s get stuck in. Loads and loads of mushrooms….is that the merest hint of garlic? Good halved-tomatoes, served in their skins. The plate is a fraction bean-swimmy. Excellent firm sausage from Eastwoods, the town’s multi-prize winning independent butchers.  Two slices of bacon, if I’m honest, too much on the crispy side. Hmm. that’s a bit more than a hint of garlic on the mushrooms too, now that I’m ploughing in with gusto.

Garlic mushrooms? 
I’m a fraction underwhelmed. Despite absolutely top marks for décor, environment, service, the view, attention to detail…in the end the quality of the breakfast is letting the place down. There are just too many beans. I need either another sausage or some fried potatoes of some description to soak them up. And the garlic infused mushrooms are simply too much. Garlic is not needed in a fry up. I left some.

For lunch, afternoon tea and just about any other occasion this place would be untouchable. But when all said and done the fry up doesn’t quite cut mustard today.

I’m still going strong, relishing the challenge. However, my turning circle is a little wider than it used to be. I’m wheeling around, taking out a few pensioners and small children as I do, and heading back up the High Street to Cafe Rouge. “Hi Dave. Cool fat suit” says a mate.

Café Rouge is another chain going for a similar market as Brasserie Gérard.  A few people are in having morning coffee and croissants and the feel is relaxed enough. I don't feel hurried or harassed and that is important. Still can't see an 18 stone HGV pilot making this his first port of call though.

And what this that intrusive showbiz crooning blasting out of the lo-fi above my right ear. Not needed.

Here comes the super-sized cappuccino berthing like a container ship at the shallow end of the table. It’s not quite the Gérard muffin-ice cream affair, but there’s a big slab of frothy milk and chocolate here to coat my top lip stubble. £2.40 for a regular.

I’m offered a three-way choice of eggs, which is a nice surprise. I opt for poached for a change. That is always going to be a mistake and I sense it as soon as the words are uttered.

What  a load of old tut
The price tag is £7.50 for Petit Dejeuner Anglais. For the first time, the brown sauce test is failed. There is not a drop to be had in the whole damn place! Big minus points. I'm offered ketchup in a little pot which I accept graciously but with a thin smile. The butter is presented in cold pats.  One mushy sausage. No beans. Why no beans? Baked beans in tomato sauce are the glue that binds together the egg and sausage, mixed with brown sauce, it opens the pearly gates to savoury heaven. At the very least. The bacon is an insult. Scrappy, shriveled and tough. The mushrooms are OK, but the poached eggs are rubbery. That was always the risk and I only have myself to blame. They are not inedible but they are no great culinary masterpiece either.

Now I'm being picky but I swear the toast was made with yesterday's bread. It’s like pieces of charred cardboard.

The piped music is worse getting worse too. Dreary crooning has given way to an accordion and mandolin work out with an undercurrent of Gallic nasal mumbling to accompany the limp juices of the mushroom and tomato reduction on my plate. Fitting.

And the damning verdict is, even though I made a decent fist of this second rate breakfast, that I am not full. That’s criminal. Especially at these prices. £9.90 with the coffee.  And they'll expect a bloody tip! Safe to say I won't be back for here for a great British breakfast.  

I’m waddling down the other end of town to the Kings Arms next, stopping only to prop my expanding girth in a Tesco trolley as I wipe sweat – tests reveal a dangerously high lard content – from my dripping brow.

The Kings Arms was taken over by the Oakman Inns last year who run the Akeman in Tring and the Red Lion in Gaddeson Row. This bright morning it is busy enough without being mobbed and I’m seduced by the pleasant and relaxed atmosphere (open fire, original beams, etc).

I order the fry-up at the bar, a la Crown, but this is a much plusher pub. More expensive fixtures and fittings that aim to carve out a gastro market. £8 buys a full English and a hot beverage. Good value.

I could do with me tea now. Parched.

We’ve been in here a few times of an evening. It’s OK, but sometimes the atmosphere can be rank with the smell of burger fat, burned steaks and chips which wafts over to the restaurant from the open kitchen. Design fault. But this morning it's fine.

Still no tea.

Whilst I wait, I’m overhearing snippets of other people conversations. Always a laugh. One well-dressed middle age lady remarks to another, between sips of latte, “….and her Yorkshire's were awful, terrible...”. Round the corner , there’s a gobby businessman giving a smarmy, dramatic and noisy pitch to a long-suffering, largely silent client. This man is bigging himself up and dropping enough names to make Jonathan Ross look diffident. 

The tea arrives with an apology and a smile.  That’s a top quality ensemble there.  Milk goes in before the tea. But only when Mrs A’s not looking.  

I’m impressed with the main event too. I have to ask for brown sauce but it comes in the bottle and with great service. Again, first class presentation. Little cherry tomatoes on the vine! What’s that all about? Absolute taste explosion though. They are little balls of culinary dynamite, all sweet and sun-flavour packed. Thick rashers of griddled bacon. Firm, peppery sausages. Two nice fried eggs (oo-er, sounds like a naturist beach) and simply the best juicy and earthy mushrooms. Brown and White toast on the side, supported by butter in warm pot. Only one fault. No beans. Again.



I’m putting this feast away with alacrity. Really lovely. Finished off by wiping my dribbling chops with a cloth napkin. All in all, a top brekkie in lovely surroundings. I can almost forgive the absence of beans.  

OK, it’s the final push. Deep breaths, gritted teeth and a fixed stare propel me to the very ends of the earth. The Old Mill is located on the outskirts of Berko by the canal. I arrive at about 10.30am and once the staff have resuscitated me with an oxygen mask and reassured the customers that they have not just witnessed a total eclipse of the sun, I wedge myself into a nice bench for two.

It’s moderately busy. I’m surprised to see the big function room near the door is rammed with plasterers and brickies on some kind of special deal. In the bar area at least half a dozen tables are occupied: business meetings over coffee, mums and pre-school brats doing their post-NCT thing.

The Old Mill is a gastro-pub these days. Trying to bring a London feel (and London prices) to the outskirts of Berko. Largely, it gets away with it. We’ve had some good meals here, but – certainly in its early days – a few disasters as well.

The Full English – order taken at my table - is £8.75. With a cappuccino the bill weighs in at a hefty £11.15. The coffee comes with sugar cubes in a syrup tin and Smarties in a glass! Ha! Nice touch, but not sure all that sweetness will add anything to the fry up.



Apparently they are out of black pudding, but I’m offered the option of something else instead.

I’m getting proper mardy about the music these places offer to accompany my breakfast. Here, I’m being subjected to Bob Dylan. Think I prefer the maudlin French Crooners in Café Rouge. Almost. That’s better, they’ve turned it down a bit. The two blokes on the next table are still wincing though, trying to block out Whitney Houston from joining in their conversation about punishing gym routines. “Yes, they’ve got this belting new rowing machine. See what it’s done for my triceps”.  “Eyyee-aaa willll alwayyyyyyys-aaa lurrrrvvvve yooooohhhooooooo”.

The brekkie arrives and I’m a bit disappointed. Two strips of tiny bacon with lots of fat. Fried bread (ugh), one – admittedly fat – sausage. Small fried egg, toms, mushrooms. No beans. Again, again. What have beans ever done to anyone? OK, I can think of a few things in my time. But still, with the breakfast it’s a must surely?  

The sausage is good though and tasty mushrooms. But I’m really struggling with that fried bread. It’s not their fault that I don’t like fried bread. On the other hand, the menu just says Full English without listing any of the wide-ranging ingredients and permutations encompassed by that generic description. If fried bread had been specified I would have had the opportunity to ask for toast instead. And I would have been happier.

But only marginally.

Even with toast this would have been disappointing. I’m not really satisfied. The quality of the fare on the whole was good. But not enough. It’s overpriced for what it is and I’m left thinking that the coffee experience was the high point.

So, my breakfast marathon is over. And the winner is…. Being strictly objective, balancing quality and value of the fry up as an overall experience, this is the ranking:

1.    Brasserie Gerard (Can’t fault it)
2.    The Kings Arms (Good. But no beans was the deal breaker)
3.    Berko’s café (That overdone black pud)
4.    The Crown (Good quantity, quality needs to improve)
5.    The Attic café (No to garlic mushrooms and cardboard bacon)
6.    The Olive Tree (Just a bit more imagination needed)
7.    The Old Mill (Drop the pretentions)
8.    Yeovil café (Clean the floors)
9.    Café Rouge (Where to start….)

Ok, I’m off for my gastric band fitting now, before I tackle the take-aways….

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Birthday Boy

Little did I know, in tipping up a bunch of losers for Alex’s trip to Newmarket last Saturday, that I’d be there myself.

Mrs A had a proper birthday treat in store for me: only a trip to Newmarket Races (the posh enclosure, mind!) and a sleepover in a rather lovely little B&B tucked away in the side streets.

I’d never been to the Rowley Mile course before. I’ve been to the July course at the other end of the same track a couple of times. But not to the home of the season’s first two classics and a host of other top class races.

Small kerfuffle in trying to get in. We had tickets for the 17th but the badges accompanying them were wrong. They were for the Cambridgeshire meeting next week. I’d have been happy to come then as well, but sadly, officialdom insisted we must have the correct purple ones instead.

Birthday boy
But look at me, look at me. I’m at the home of racing! 

Me and the legend
That’s Eclipse that is. (The one on the left). Legendary sire. Spawn of the Gods. 80% of modern day racehorses can be traced back to his fertile loins. I learned this at the National Horse racing museum the next day. More of this later.

We were quite enjoying smooching around this well-appointed venue. This is one of the track’s lower profile fixtures, so we didn’t have to elbow hordes of people out of the way to sample the atmosphere from the top of the Millennium Bar and Lounge, in the Birdcage Bar, from the head-on stand, in the Paddock Bar…. Don’t get the wrong impression. Considering we were celebrating, I think Mrs A and I were actually quite restrained in our alcohol consumption. A few red ones and dark ones to soften the blows of repeated losers, certainly. But you know, it could have been much messier.

Posh bird in the posh end...
Not that the inconsistent drinks policy helped. From the premier enclosure we were forcibly stripped of our drinks before being allowed outside (OK, maybe it was more of a civilised reminder…) Later on, pure farce. I was drinking a frothy cappuccino (oh yes, I can appear sophisticated when in the mood) and was moving from the grandstand back to the premier enclosure when I was stopped at the entrance and asked to put a lid on my drink! WTF (as common parlance has it)? Lidless coffees are not acceptable in the posh end?

But a minor quibble. No more than that. Of greater concern was our startling absence of winners. It was my birthday. You’d have thought he horses would oblige really. No winners in the first three races. Although Mrs A did change her mind about one that then won. Never change your mind. Everyone knows that…..

No close finishes and no trail-blazing leaders. I was starting to get nervous in case I bumped into Alex. Surely he wouldn’t have taken my tips literally? Mind you, Julie did. Her book-group was enjoying stunning views over the winning post at Newbury from their box. I know because she sent us a picture. She was also texting us winners she’s backed that I’d mentioned to her, albeit vaguely, in my dispatches. Do they count as bona fide tips? I’m getting desperate!

Our view over the track was pretty good too.

Rowley Mile. That dip looks a bit flat from here...
Looking back to the straight mile start, it looked like a pretty much down hill track. Until it sank into, then rose from the notorious ‘dip’ in the final two furlongs, cutting through the track like a fault-line across the heath. The straight is actually 1m2 furlongs and the track is named after Old Rowley, a favourite hack of Charles II who used to watch the races from the bushes that we could still see about a furlong from the finish. I found this out at the National Horse racing museum the next day. But more of that later….

Finally I roared home a winner! Qushchi landed the spoils at 5-1 with a perfectly timed run up the rail. This in a race where the tip I gave Alex was a non-runner. He’s never going to believe me is he? Then Mrs A skins the bookies in the lucky last! But what style! Caution to the wind saw her select two fancies for this sprint handicap. One of them, Murura fairly romped up, his jockey looking assured and stylish in the plate. Something else I was to pick up later at the horseracing museum…..We stopped by the paddock to cheer them into the winner’s enclosure.  

Let’s hear it for symmetry. Our winners almost exactly paid for the day’s punting. No more, no less. There’s plenty of sad occasions at less salubrious fixtures when I’d have killed for such a result.

The track is close enough to the town to walk back. And so we did. Across the gallops used daily by powerful yards in the Newmarket area and over Hamilton Road, one of the many training nerve centres in the town. The place simply drips with racing connections. The sport is its lifeblood. Of 20-odd thousand residents, almost 5,000 owe their living to various aspects of the racing industry. (Thanks due, again, to that racing museum.) Even our B&B hosts are former jockeys and trainers. I checked out Conrad Allen’s training record. Whilst there’s nothing much very spectacular there, he did win over £100 grand in prize money in a couple of seasons and was active for nearly 15 years.

It was a cosy B&B. And there we were without the kids. Well it wasn’t long before the earth was moving. Oh yes. Quite literally. A juddering thunderstorm broke over the house, rattling the blinds and blowing the curtains in. We had been incredibly lucky with the weather all day. Our luck held again because half an hour later we were back out in the dry, heading for a Turkish restaurant at the top of the High Street.

The grub could not be faulted. Nor the service. And there was a nice big telly over the bar, too. I’d been looking at it on and off for about 10 minutes before I realised this dull and slow moving drama set in a large, sterile kitchen was actually the back room of the restaurant where we could see our kebabs being prepared.

There was still time for a post-meal drink and we were on the look-out for a comfortable little establishment in which to unwind for a while. The wine bar attached to the Rutland Arms looked more appealing than a when full of diners a couple of hours ago, so in we went. Empty, save for a couple of ladies over by the window, leaving a choice of plump sofas for us. I left Mrs A at the bar ordering my G&T whilst I went to loo. By the time I returned, she was involved in a complicated transaction for a bottle of Rioja with one of the ladies we’d seen on our arrival. The other shouted out ‘Happy Birthday’ in jolly tones from the other end of the room. I’d only been gone a minute.

Tash and Sarah had also been at the races today. It had been a spur of the moment decision to come up from London. They were a scream; a gregarious double act mixing enthusiasm, exuberance, airy confidence and riotous humour. We spent a fun couple of hours chatting about racing, music, food, jobs, men (I took a back seat on this one) and Lord knows what else over a few drinks, injecting a bit of life into the moribund hotel. We inhabit different worlds, but we parted the best of friends and staggered home.  

After the traditional B&B full English (7/10 – no beans, no black pudding), we set off to the explore the town. Top of the list was the National Horse Racing Museum. This was a bit of exploitative birthday opportunism. I couldn’t really see Mrs A getting much out of this. Infact, we both loved it. From fascinating nuggets of info (as I’ve already displayed), stories and features through to art, costumes and exhibitions. Easily the highlight was ex-jockey Bill’s stewardship of the practical workshop. Bill, now 78 years old, was sporting braces on both arms, a number of false and had enough pins, screws and plates in his body to arm to keep airport security on full alert. Medical opinion had finally forced him out of the saddle at 72. On his retirement he had the honour of a race at Newmarket named after him. So he’s here now. Demonstrating to tourists and schools the various saddles, bits, feed and grooming that make up the training regime. And there’s also a horse simulator. Well, I couldn’t resist this.

Crank it up my son. I can take it!
Look at that style. I tell you I’m an absolute natural! Bill was cranking that handle up to 11 on the Spinal Tap scale as well. “Are we near the finish line?” I breathlessly uttered, thighs burning like the coals on last night’s griddle.  “You’ve just left the parade ring at a canter!” The man’s a wind up merchant.

Dead ringer for Willie Carson
Newmarket the town is a strange old mix. There are plenty of other places with strong racing connections – Middleham, Malton and Cheltenham spring to mind. But I’ve never been anywhere that has racing etched into the very shape of the town. Two racecourses on the outskirts, extensive gallops enclosing the northern-eastern and southern-western approaches, strings of stables and studs right through the spine of the town; an equine hospital; farriers, feed merchants, saddlers and tack shops; a sales ring; and, I swear, every pub name has a horse connection. There are some fine buildings: the Jockey Club’s Georgian pile, Palace House and stables (currently being restored), even the horseracing museum. And yet I was expecting a bit more grandeur and affluence. A bit less car-crash 1970’s architecture.

There was just time to linger over a (so-called) coffee (“This is possibly the worst instant dregs I’ve ever drunk”,) in the beautiful and unexpected late morning sunshine. 
Crap coffee in the "& Horses"
Then we left. En route, we stumbled upon the grandeur and affluence that I thought was absent. We crossed the famous Severals and Limekilns gallops and drove along Bury Road, gawping at mansion house after mansion house with associated acres of training facilities. Wide-eyed, I pointed out to Mrs A the brass lettering for Freemason’s Lodge, Sir Michael Stoute’s base, affixed to a rather impressive gatepost and Godolphin’s massive spread at the end of the road. She feigned mild interest, but I think she was at racing saturation point by now. I’m not complaining. That was a fantastic weekend and a great birthday present. How do I return the compliment come April?  

Friday, 16 September 2011

Padding Up


I had an interesting conversation with Euston lost property office today. This was as a result of leaving a pair of cricket pads on the 5.05 arrival at Euston last night. I realised I’d left them behind only when I arrived at The Oval (excuse me, The Kia Oval, following on the heels of the Brit Oval and before it the Fosters Oval – where my mate once went up to the bar and said “Hi. What lagers do you do?”) ready for nets and thought something was missing. Ah yes. The pads! This was before the beers that invariably follow a net session. So not even alcohol can be blamed.

It took a few calls (and even some tweeting) to find the right phone number. The conversation, eventually, with the lost property office went something like….

“Hello. Euston lost property.”
“Hello, I left a pair of cricket pads on the train last night just gone 5 o’clock”
“What is this cricket pads?”
“You know, a pair of white padded leg guards?”
“Leg guards?”
“Yes. Do you know cricket, the game?”
“No. Cricket? No.”
“OK, well, they’re these white things that have sort of ridges up and down them. They start at the ankle and go up past the thigh. They’re padded. Pads, they’re called.”

At this point I’m actually holding my ankle with one hand and the mobile in the other. A bloke overtakes me on the footpath hooting with laughter.

“Were they in a bag?”
“No, no bag. They were strapped together.”
“Straps?”
“Yeah, I didn’t mention the straps did I?”

She thinks I’m some right kinky saddo now. I’m starting to squirm.

“Sorry, we have nothing here that matches this description. Maybe you could try again in three-to-five days?”
“Three-to five-days? But they were at Euston last night. Platform 8. Really near your office.”
“But it sometimes takes three-to-five days for things to arrive with us. Maybe you try then. Thank you.”

In between my incident packed, pad-chasing day, I’ve been called upon to provide some tips for one mate going to Newbury and another going to Newmarket. Mugpunting is really on an upward curve here, buoyed by outstanding success at both Leger meetings last week. Word must be spreading! But no. Julie never reads this blog and is merely humoring me. And Alex asked everyone he knew. Including those who were only asked so that their tips could be disregarded. I’m not sure which camp I’m in.

Nevertheless, I can never let an opportunity like this pass. So here’s the muddling, mealy-mouthed advice I,ve forved upon them in the hope it will help them while away their afternoons.  

NEWMARKET

Julie’s book circle are clubbing together and bought themselves a box for the day at the Berkshire track. Absolutely inspired move. Sounds like they’ve bagged a bargain too. And what a fixture they’ve picked. A couple of belting conditions events, including a good sprint, a top-notch handicap and a decent showing from the juveniles. Hopefully interesting enough to divert them from animated discussions about the latest Katie Price novel for most of the time.

“Julie – here’s some info:

1.25: First up a maiden race that presents a real challenge. Only three of the 16 runners have ever seen a racetrack before, let alone won. These boys and girls are horses for the future and with an array of top trainers on view, this race will undoubtedly turn up a good one to follow next season. None of that helps us at all in trying to unearth a winner here. So I'll fall back on some trusty stats. Richard Hannon is currently banging in winners from his two-year old stock at the rate of 23%. That's good. And far better than any of the other trainers represented in this race. As if to underline this statistical methodology, Richard Hughes has ridden 12 winners from 52 starts in the last fortnight. The two Richards pair up on Varnish in this heat. So that simply must be the answer. Get stuck in to provide a glossy start to the day. It's not as certain to win as is the appearance of more bad jokes in this analysis, but should give a run for your money.

2.00: A trial for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe next month and an attractive race in its own right. Green Destiny smashed the opposition last time out to land the Strensall Stakes at York. He's come through the handicap ranks to win 5 from 7 starts. A blot on his recent form back in July is probably explained by a dislike for the undulating Goodwood track (which has enough adverse cambers to look at home in the never-ending M1 junction 13 roadworks). On bare form, Dangerous Midge sets the standard. He won this last year and landed a Group 1 at the Breeders Cup meeting last November. But he flopped badly on his return in March and has been off the track since. Forecast going of good to soft would also count against him. Next best is Passion For Gold who was too bad to be true last time out and has something to prove now. So it's hard to see beyond Green Destiny, even though he will be a short price. If odds-on prices make you squeamish, it might be a good race for a forecast bet (ask the nice gentleman/lady who will be attending to your every betting whim for an 'exacta' slip)

2.30: Mill Reef Stakes. One of the better 2-year-old events on the racing calendar. Sadly, the juvenile races are not my forte. I saw Casper Netscher win his last race in good style, but I haven't seen many of the others and I don't simply want to put up another favourite. As an alternative (or, indeed, in addition) to Casper, Otto The Great is going the right way and is a powerfully built colt with plenty more to come. He's also from Walter Swinburn's yard at Aldbury, so it might be worth waving the local flag at a decent double-figure, each-way price. 

3.05: The day's big handicap. This is a really tough race to crack. But I've got to stay loyal to an old mate of mine, Our Joe Mac, who stuck his neck out resolutely at York last time to squeeze a good race. He's gone up a few pounds for that and sits proudly at the top of the handicap. That means he has to improve again to win this. But there's a good chance he can. He shows all the hallmarks of a progressive sort and at a good double-figure price, he's a solid enough each-way shout. You'll get 4 places in this race. 

3.40: If the action wasn't already sufficiently top-drawer, here is a sprint to quicken the pulse, dry the mouth and boggle the senses. This is a Group 3, but features several horses who have competed at the very highest level (Group 1). Deacon Blues comes here seeking a fourth straight win and is in the form of his life. The ground should suit (assuming it doesn't dry out too much more) and he's the one to beat. But at a skinny 7/4 I find myself not entirely enthusiastic. Looking down the card, I like the chances of Night Carnation at a more respectable 5-1 or so. He's 3 from 4 this season and been campaigned shrewdly by Andrew (sister of Clare) Balding. Another progressive type (my favourites, as if you hadn't guessed), he won't mind any ground and I'll put him up against Deacon. If Masamah wins my screams of anguish will reach you crystal clear deep in your hospitality berth. After backing him in his every race this season (including two wins) I am baling out after two poor runs. I'm convinced he can't win this on this ground after a tough season, even though he’s back to his best trip. I pray I am right. (But I may weaken as the off-time approaches!)

4.15: Division 2 of the maiden race that kicked off the action at 1.25. Again I struggle to offer a cogent argument for or against any of these maidens, beyond the statistical approach used in race 1. I imagine you'll plump for Buster Brown using the tried and tested alliteration rule. I have nothing more grounded to offer in opposition. In fact with Fallon aboard and a place finish on his debut, he makes some appeal! 

4.50: Another juvenile race. At least here's some form to guide us here. Take out Key Ambition's last run where he reared in the stalls, and the form looks pretty solid. There may be a bit of value here to take on the trio of Hannon runners who will, no doubt, head the market. Assuming he settles in the stalls OK, he has a solid shout. 

5.25: If you are still searching for a winner at this stage, a 7-furlong, 19 runner impossible handicap is not what you want to see! Tentatively, I suggest that Mrs Greeley ticks most of the boxes needed to get into the mix.  She has a win already over this intermediate distance, carries a nice weight and appears to be in the middle of a decent spell of form. Don't put your pension on it though. 

Have a good day and enjoy the books.”

NEWMARKET

Alex has a child-free trip to his local track to enjoy. Normally child-free would be good. But in this case it’s not so clear cut. Last time I was at the races with Alex, his daughter Emily – then six years old - picked four winners out of seven races.  

“Alex. Had a quick squint at the Newmarket card tomorrow. Lots of two-year old races, which is not really my bag. Nevertheless, in the first, Sir Henry Cecil is currently steaming along at a win rate of 28% from his two-year old runners and Epoque looks well bred here. Likely to be a short price though, so could be unbackable. As an alternative, Richard Hannon is also solid with his 2yo stock.

The next two 2-y-o events are sales races and worth a lot of money. These are a bit more exposed than in the first. In the girls race (2.20), Silver Marizah may be worth a chance at an each way price after shaping well on her debut but running out of gas. So a step down in trip might help. The boys race is harder to fathom. Mehdi is the tentative selection, but wide open really.

The 3.30pm is much more interesting. Marathon trip 2m2f, its a trial for the very valuable Cesarewitch next month. Some useful contenders here. Lots of horses bringing good form. The favourite is likely to be Palazzo Bianco right at the foot of the weights. But my eye is inevitably drawn to a raider from a jumps stable at the top end of the handicap. Big Occasion has been off the track for a year and has transferred to David Pipe in the interval. When last seen he was a very useful horse. Pipey is well capable of getting one absolutely spot on after a lay-off and has a great strike rate in these kind of flat handicap smash-and-grabs. This one should relish the trip too. Should get about 7-1.

4.05: Named after a horse I've won shedloads on, Notnowcato. Nothing so reliable in this line up though. On Her Way from Luca Cumani is going up in the weights but has been consistent all season. Looked like she needed further on her last start and so this extra 2 furlongs should suit. At 10-1 or thereabouts she should be in the mix. May be an each way shout.

4.40: 1m handicap. Another tough one. Couldn't you have picked an easier meeting? Take out Master Mylo's last run on the sand when he was too keen and the form has a much more progressive look about it. Because of that last run he may be overpriced at about 10-1 and could be a nice each-way punt.

5.15. If you haven't had a winner by now, this impossible 20 runner handicap is not going to help. [Readers, you may detect a theme to my last race analyses!] No selection! Bacchy is a sprint specialist, so if he does nothing else, see if he can plot one up for you in this one.

Have a good day and keep the stakes low!”

I’ll try to pick the bones out of that lot on Sunday morning.