Monday, 31 October 2011

Octoberfest

Is it just me? Or has Hallowe’en suddenly become nearly as big as Christmas? It was pretty low-key affair when I was a kid, growing up in North Yorkshire. Instead, we had an evening of mild naughtiness and monkey-business called Mischief Night on the eve of Bonfire Night. Hours of fun we had, ringing doorbells and running away, smothering door handles in treacle and tying up gates. The tradition was all about marking the slightly darker intentions of the Gunpowder Plotters back in 1605 when Guy Fawkes’s mischief was to plant 36 barrels of explosive under the House of Lords. This prelude to Bonfire Night didn’t seem to be indulged much outside God’s Own County. As I discovered at college, not long after leaving home when trying to involve some bemused would-be conspirators in some tyre-deflating tomfoolery, or some such. ‘What is this Mischief Night of which you speak? Imbecile!” The tradition had quite clearly had not made the journey from the broad acres of my youth to the Potteries of my higher education.

The regionalism of Mischief Night has its roots in the fact that Guy Fawkes was born and educated in York. But now, it is in decline. Dastardly misdemeanours of one historical celebration have been all but swallowed up by the sweets with menaces demands of another. 

(Thanks Andrew)
The burgeoning festival of Hallowe’en seems to be everywhere. The girls have been to two parties, been dressed as witches for the whole weekend, and left us with enough pumpkin seeds to feed a battalion of hamsters. (Do hamsters come in battalions?) (Or eat pumpkin seeds?) But our near-neighbours have taken the celebration to a whole new level. Their weekend Hallowe’en party is legendary. It was still rocking at about 3am on Sunday morning and had long since spilled out into the spooky garden where Edgar Allan Poe and MR James could be seen swapping stories by the licking flames of the fire pit. Possibly. The front of the house is a riot. It resembles the entrance to a ghost train-ride. All week, passers-by were stopping to take pics. I did the same! (I can’t wait to see the Christmas lights.)

















Much like Hallowe’en’s celebration of the closeness of the physical and supernatural worlds, October sees a closeness, and indeed an overlapping, between the jump and flat codes of the horse racing worlds….. (A quality link! C’mon, you know you love it!)

Arc weekend and Champions day have dominated October and the jumps season has been slow to make its mark. Small fields, low key fixtures and unremarkable performances. But Wetherby on Friday and Saturday pressed the accelerator, supported by a great Saturday meeting at Ascot. We are in the fast lane now.

My 40 To Follow list has seen 4 wins from 13 starts. But only one winner at better than 2-1 means I’m still showing a -4 balance. Negativity already. But it’s a better start than last year. Over the weekend, I had one odds-on shot go in (Notus de La Tour, who looked a natural over fences) one close second (Via Galilei pipped by Brampour who picked up nicely and was given a confident ride. VG might be difficult to place now) and one – in the same race – who was uncompetitive. But it was the horses from last year’s list that did the business.

I was so pleased to see Restless Harry’s scintillating victory in Saturday’s Grade 2 John Smiths Hurdle. Campaigned at the highest level last year, he never looked like landing a decent prize. I dropped him from my list. But a good Summer on his back and some TLC seems to have done wonders. Trainer Robin Dickin will send him chasing now. Lovely to see his emotional post-race interview. The horse clearly means a lot to him and betrays what a hard road it has been since his Grade 1 win at Aintree in April 2010.

And then Weird Al in the Charlie Hall Chase. Another quality horse who appeared to have lost his way, plagued with breathing problems and injuries last year. At 7-1, there were plenty of doubts in the ring about his robustness. But the switch to McCain has worked and his new trainer had him right for this. A lovely, patient Timmy Murphy ride and some very sound jumping puts him in the top division now. King George next, anyone? I’m not having the Hennessy.

My Bruv was at both days of the Wetherby Octoberfest. He’s leading the 40TF easily, at +19. He’s pleased – and so am I - that the track put on a good show. This fixture was in danger of losing its status. Poor track management over the years had not helped and last month’s bizarre and needless yellow-flagging of a race that led to nine jockeys getting banned seemed to be another own-goal. So I’m hoping this marks the start of a brighter future. Bruv left me with a tip, after the weekend’s action. “Chicago Grey for the Grand National. You heard it here first”. Hmm. Might have too much weight for my liking. But I’ll end with a tip, too. Make A Track, off my list, continued his unbeaten form with a classy novice hurdle win for Charlie Swan last week. Transferred to Ireland from David Arbuthnot’s yard in the Summer, this one has got to have the Neptune at Cheltenham in his sights. (But I’m a greedy git and I want something bigger than the 20-1 Vic Chandler is offering!)

Monday, 17 October 2011

Counting the cost

It was good to see British Champions Day at Ascot rise above the whip ban controversy. Albeit briefly. The BHA and the jockeys have been around the table today trying to thrash out their differences. The issue has been kicked back to the review group for an urgent revision. There will be an inevitable watering down now. And I thought this was something the BHA had got right for a change.

Frankel buffed up his already gleaming reputation with a ridiculously easy win in the QEII Stakes to seal his place with the legends. And fantastic news that he remains in training next year. Frighteningly, he could get better. My fancy Immortal Verse might have been nearer if at her best, but she will never be a match for this one. The competitive Champions Stakes was hugely enjoyable. Maximum respect to Soumillon for wearing down So You Think aboard Cirrus Des Aigles. A great ride. The form seems to frank the Arc result with 3rd and 4th there filling 3rd and 2nd here. Nathaniel in the end was a poor bet. Drawn wide, as Gosden feared, he was ridden too handily to avoid sliding out on the bend, and arguably the ground/trip was not in his favour either.  

So my fevered punting returned one win (Deacon Blues) and two places (Gertrude Bell and Snow Fairy) from seven bets, showing a tiny profit. But before I get carried away with my thruppence winnings, there is the small matter of a couple of losers on the jumps up at Kelso that plunged my day into the red.

It’s also time to review the 20 to follow flat project. I’m winding it up for the season as we approach the end of October, though a couple may still have another outing before the month’s end. It shows tidy enough profit at +61.08. I’m happy with that, overall. As usual, some sob stories and near misses (as well season-long no-shows), but I’m also aware of a couple of dodgy win-doubles and place tokens that have bulked out the bottom line. So all in all, a good result. Details below, for the hardy:

BOURNE – Luca Cumani
6 runs, 1 win: -26.39
Started the season as a live Ebor candidate and went out with a whimper in Italy. Flattered to deceive too many times.

BOSAMBO – Alan Swinbank
3 runs, 1 win: +4.65
Disappeared half way through the season after finishing last in a Newmarket handicap. Possibly injured.

CANFORD CLIFFS – Richard Hannon
3 runs, 2 wins, 1 winning bet: +5
Wonderful victory over Goldikova in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot. Injured against Frankel at Goodwood. Only backed him once, and then it was in a spawny exacta with the French mare.

CAPE BLANCO – Aiden O’Brien
5 runs, 3 wins: +33
Inauspicious start in Europe but then won three Grade 1s on the bounce in the States, winning his last race whilst injured and now retired to stud.

FRANKEL – Henry Cecil
4 runs, 4 wins (since selected), 1 winning bet: +8
Lived up and probably surpassed the hype. Not a betting proposition most of the season, but I did pick up a small win at Goodwood amongst an afternoon of big losers.

HAVANT – Sir Michael Stoute
2 runs, no wins: -9
Two poor runs in the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks and her season was over.

HOOF IT – Mick Easterby
6 runs, 3 wins: +66
Wonderful season, improving through handicaps, landing the Stewards’ Cup under a record weight, to compete in Group 1s, unluckily missing out on the Sprint Cup by a bumped whisker.

HOORAY – Sir Mark Prescott bt
6 runs, 1 win +14.1
Generally disappointing. I managed to double up his solitary win in June at Epsom with St Nicholas Abbey to achieve an undeserved profit on the horse this season.

LAAHEB – Roger Varian
3 runs, 0 wins: -15
Simply didn’t go on from last season’s progress at all. In fact, went backwards. Hard to explain, especially given the excellent start his trainer has made to his career.

MODUN – Sir Michael Stoute
5 runs, 1 win (since selected): -10
Series of near misses for this horse. A bit like his trainer. Hit the mark twice (once whilst selected), but it could have been so much better. Now transferred to Godolphin.

MONSIEUR JOE – Walter Swinburn
4 runs, 0 wins: -18
Another that has gone backwards. Also a bit like his trainer. Looked out of sorts since his first run back from Meydan. By October I’d learned my lesson and left him alone. His trainer packs up at the end of this season.

QUADRANT – Brian Meehan
5 runs, 2 wins: +7.55
Started well enough winning a maiden he was subsequently disqualified from because of a banned substance in his system, but not before I’d pocketed the winnings. Lost his way a bit, gelded, then picked up another maiden, legally this time, but looks to be no more than average.

PATHFORK – Jessica Harrington
1 run, no wins: -3
Muddling performance in the 2,000 Guineas and then met with a series of setbacks so not seen again this season. Shame.

RODERIC O’CONNOR – Aiden O’Brien
5 runs, 1 win: +2.5
Odd season. Nicked the Irish 2,000 Guineas from the front at a good price, but never competitive again and indeed used in Ballydoyle’s increasing bizarre pace-making operations on a couple of runs.

ROSE BLOSSOM – Richard Fahey
8 runs, 1 win: +15
Highly tried this season and took a long time to hit the mark. When she did I’d managed to get a good price and had a decent bet. But she never got on the scoresheet again. Shade disappointing.

SANS FRONTIERES – Jeremy Noseda
0 runs:
Not seen after a couple of early season niggles.

SARAFINA – Alain Du Royer-Dupre
4 runs, 2 wins, 1 winning bet: -1.50
Barely backable in races before the Arc and then given too much to do in the big one itself. Still remains a very high quality mare.

SNOW FAIRY – Ed Dunlop
5 runs, no wins, 2 winning place bets: +5
Admirable mare, pretty much been thereabouts all season without getting her bonce in front. The penny dropped for me in her last two races and I spawned some handy place money on the Betfair markets.

TEMPLE MEADS – Ed McMahon
0 runs
Slow to come to hand, apparently, and the trainer then remarked that three year old sprinters are hard to place. So this one has been kept for next year, I assume.

WOOTTON BASSETT – Richard Fahey
4 races, no wins: -22.50
Possibly the most disappointing horse on the list. Never came close to recapturing his two year old form, despite attempting a variety of distances and going conditions. The yard appears to have become frustrated and have packed him off to stud.


Thursday, 13 October 2011

British Champions Day

There’s a new climax to the flat season on Saturday. Racing fo Change has been slowly trying to regenerate racing and broaden its appeal for the last couple of years. One of its initiatives is this: a showstopping card of premium racing in the style of the Breeders Cup, with new race names that offer more than a doff of the cap in that direction too. RfC has recognised that the sport lacks compelling hooks for the population at large and needs to create a series of premier events to entice them in. Cramming a card with quality races has never been done here quite like this. Most of our landmark features are spread across three, four or five days at Festivals that eek out the quality with handicap quantity, marshalled by a TV schedule allowing time for only three or at best four races.  

So here we have a grandstanding fixture that has involved behind the scenes negotiations to secure live terrestrial TV coverage for five of the six races that total over £3m in prize money. It is the richest fixture ever staged in this country.

Pulling it together has meant dismembering the previous Champions Stakes card run at Newmarket and grafting on some reworked standards.  

The old Champions Day card had a lovely balance about it. It was a meeting I always fancied going to, but never made it. No chance now. The bewildering Cesarewitch and the big juvenile races have been pushed forward in the racing calendar and were run for the first time last week as part of the ‘Future Champions’ meeting at Newmarket.

But I’m no sourpuss here. I really like the look and shape of this new fixture.  Looks like the owners and trainers have got behind it, and I’m supporting it too.

British Champions Long Distance Cup
We get underway with a Group 3 two-mile stayers’ event known in previous years as The Jockey Club Cup and run at Newmarket. Opinion Poll sets the standard here. Consistent all season, his good  - rather than great - level of form means that Frankie Dettori rates him his best chance of victory on the card. Frankie also said, in Sky TVs interesting Armchair Jockey preview that Opinion Poll is a lazy horse and the new whip rules may count against him. More of a worry is the likely good or better going at Ascot with no further rain predicted this week. Fame And Glory will be challenging the Godolphin first string at the head of the market. On bare form, there is a case that his season is in decline. As evidence I submit his surprising defeat in the Irish St Leger prep and his bigger beating in the real thing too. My fancy for this race is Times Up. Old master John Dunlop has given him a sensible campaign and he easily won his first try at this trip in the listed Jockey Club Rose Bowl last month.  He needs to find a bit on form with proven group 1 campaigners, but Time’s Up is going the right way and will love the ground. Meeznah will be a very lively outsider in this or in the Fillies and Mares if she’s pointed that way instead.  

British Champions Sprints Stakes
A 6f sprint previously known as the Diadem Stakes. A week ago, this was shaping up to be a stunning race. The defections of Hoof It (dodgy hoof) and Bated Breath (Canadian appointment) take some of the gloss off. The James Fanshawe pair Deacon Blues and Society Rock figure prominently here. Bones, surely the thinnest trainer in racing, has been saying all week that Deacon Blues does the best work at home, but he doesn’t want the going too quick. Blues is four wins from five outings at around the Group 3 mark this term, two of which were on good.  No such ground worries for Society Rock who loves it round Ascot, and has proven Group 1 form having landed the Golden Jubilee at the Royal meeting. That one is held though, on a strict reading of form, by Moonlight Cloud. Her Deauville Group 1 was over 7f on very soft going. Freddie Head’s classy filly is stepping back to 6f for the first time in her eight-race career. Those slight concerns tempts me to plump for Deacon Blues. I’ll also have a small place on Hooray, one of my flat list horses, at a big price.

British Champions Fillies and Mares
Renamed from the Pride Stakes and switched from Newmarket, this will only be the fourth running of the race. Sir Michael Stoute’s Crystal Capella lines up again having won two of the previous three. This renewal is fascinating. She has a live chance here again, though the balance of her form this season suggests something to find against the likes of Dancing Rain and Vita Nova. The former is enigmatic, having nicked The Oaks from the front and then not having the race run to suit in the Irish equivalent. From that we can assume that she’ll be running handily on Saturday and sure to be much closer than at the Curragh. Vita Nova would have won the Lancashire Oaks but for a slipping saddle and was then subsequently beaten less than a length by Blue Bunting. Elsewhere, Ferdoos from the impressive Roger Varian in his debut season is a lightly raced sort and has been targeted for this race since her Haydock win, beating Vita Nova, in May. These are good form lines. I’m looking to another lightly raced type from John Gosden’s yard. Gertrude Bell has taken time to come right after a setback last season. She was the beneficiary of that Vita Nova saddle-slip in July, but has since been kept fresh for this race and at a good double figure price is my fancy.

QEII Stakes
The afternoon’s first Group 1 sees the return of Frankel following a lay-off since July. Frankel is obviously the horse of the season and probably of many other seasons as well. I loved being there at Goodwood to see him demolish Canford Cliffs. Imperious stuff. And here he will be unbackably short. But it is arguably the horse’s toughest assignment all season. He will have to be at his best to win. I simply have to oppose. I backed Immortal Verse at Deauville in August when she beat legendary miler Goldikova with a bit in hand. That win came on the back of landing an admittedly weak Coronation Stakes where she nevertheless showed the most devastating turn of foot I have seen this season. She’ll need that all day to get near Frankel here. But at 9-1 I’m happy to take my chances on the best miling filly in Europe. Excelebration is improving too and can expect to be closer to Frankel than when they met at this track in the St James’s Palace Stakes.

Champions Stakes
Saving the best til last, this is a good line-up with plenty of strength in depth for the day’s premier event. So You Think has the class to win this over possibly his best trip. Top drawer all season, his eclipse in the Arc has been blamed by connections on the draw. My only concern is the quick reappearance after a hard race at Longchamp two weeks ago. But he could be tough enough and its been done before, though this would be his 6th outing. Nathaniel is next best in the betting and another favourite of mine after I backed him in the King George. John Gosden wants an inside drawer for him and quickish ground.  He skipped the Arc for this and Gosden is a master of preparation for the big ones. The horse he has a compelling profile and I’ll side with him again. Dig deeper and it’s still more fascinating. Twice Over has won this twice before and seems to be coming here perfectly primed after two class performances. Stablemate and all round admirable filly Midday brings enviable Group 1 credibility, though she has been on the wrong end of a few too many close finishes this season. Green Destiny takes another step up after progressing through handicaps to win a couple of recent Group 3s. But this is surely a step too far. Cirrus Des Aigles has racked up bone-hard Group 2 & 3 consistency in French middle distance races, having run every few weeks since April. Respect. But I’m just not convinced. Snow Fairy would be interesting if lining up. The same argument about quickly reappearing after the Arc applies to her too. But she’s had a lighter season and seems to be getting better as the year winds on. If she turns up I’ll be looking for some good each-way value about this lovely filly.

This will be a good day and I wish the sport well with its new venture. And that, pretty much, will be that for the flat. There’s a little matter of the Breeders Cup in a few weeks, of course. But I’m already casting my eye over a few interesting novice chasers and hurdlers, some of whom may just divert my attention momentarily from this juicy action when they appear at Jumps HQ on Saturday….

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The new office

The old summerhouse has served well as an office for the business these last few years. But the truth is it's too hot in Summer and too cold in Winter. 

It was bought with the profits of one of my best ever value punting jumps campaigns in 2003. A sentimental connection. 


But its time for an upgrade. 



From the ashes of the old emerges the new, architect designed office. 
Get that insulation! 



Look at that cladding!
(Never mind the junk round the back. Got to find a new home for that now.) 



View from the new porch. Hammocks and rocking chairs? Maybe not....



Starting to look good. Only there's a bit of a delay on the delivery for the glass. So I'm working like some troll in this darkened cupboard for a couple of weeks. 



Until the skylight goes in....



....and a bit later still, the window glass...



....and yet later still (weeks not days. Grrr), the door glass. 



So, finally, here she is. Stained and furnished
(Yes, that's a telly. Man gotta have some respite, no?)




.....and with a finishing touch, courtesy of Bex & GC. 


The old place? 

Miraculously transformed and given a new lease of life by Nerys & Paul. (Photo swiped from Mrs Cheese's wonderful blog) 

Looks far better than it ever did in my garden!