Friday, 25 November 2011

Wem-ber-ley

I was fortunate enough to get a quick tour around Wembley Stadium today. I’m doing some work with the FA’s Learning Zone and after our meeting, we got chance to have a nose round.

The arena itself is deeply impressive. I thought I’d better take a ‘look where I am, kids!’ photo for the girls. It didn’t work. I wasn’t quite striking the right pose when Charlie fired off the shutter! 
Not yet Charlie, this isn't my best side....!
I felt like a little kid myself, gazing out onto that arena from one of the executive suites. But the infrastructure behind the pitch and banks of seating is equally huge. Offices, meeting rooms, tours….I was surprised how busy the place was. The evocative Champions League gallery is really well put together and I loved the 1966 World Cup final crossbar outside the Atrium restaurant. We were with some Americans and I made ham-fisted attempt at trying to explain the significance of this now-twisted piece of metalware. “So did the ball cause that kink in the bar there?” I suspect I failed.

The architecture is absolutely striking, particularly so in the low winter sun.


















What’s interesting though is how the regeneration of the surrounding area has lagged behind the stadium. There is derelict land to the right and left of the site and the approach from Wembley Stadium station along a narrow road hemmed in by ugly hoardings is a bit depressing. The hoardings advertise the imminent arrival of ‘Wembley City’ shops, apartments and leisure opportunities which still seems some way off. The station has been renovated as part of the original £750m investment in the national stadium. And there was funding for the rebuilding of Wembley Central too. Though this appears to have ground to a halt.

Awaitng the arrival of 'Wembley City'

Wembley Central redevelopment
 The stadium and the stations feel like islands of regeneration floating above a sea of mediocrity. Wembley town centre doesn’t feel like it has too much going for it. I guess it’s difficult to retain the wealth created by the stadium within the local community. Although the FA have moved their HQ to the stadium, I didn’t see Trevor Brooking queuing up behind me in The American Charcoal burger and kebab house for his lunchtime shish.

Maybe that’s a bit unrealistic. And to be honest, if he had been there, he may have distracted me from watching the 1.40pm from Newbury. So just as well, because it was a belter of a race. Bob’s Worth got up to beat Cue Card in a very informative novice chase. Cue Card’s jockey Joe Tizzard has roundly been slammed for his ponderous ride. The only place he was behind was for a few strides either side of the winning post. But the winner is a thorough stayer and was receiving 7lbs. Cue Card emerges with credit, even if his gormless jockey doesn’t. And respect to trainer Colin Tizzard, who never shirks a challenge. Last season the horse was thrown into the deep end with seasoned Champion Hurdle prospects and this year he’s already had a crack at Grand Crus over the big ones.

Not meeting Trevor Brooking also gave me chance to peruse tomorrow’s cards up and down the country. The Hennessy, of course, rightly dominates the build up. Check out Bacchy's analysis here and see also a great run down the card from Good to Soft. I can’t do any better than these, save to say I’m compelled to back Wymott as he is one of my list horses. I’m surprised he’s as short as 8s. I may have a saver on Wayward Prince and wouldn’t be surprised to see Muirhead make the frame after a plagued run last time out.

I have another two 40TF horses out in the supporting races at Newbury. Both run off top weight in handicaps, which will impact on their chances of success. Our Island in the novice handicap chase has been going the right way this season, but I’m worried he’ll have too much to do here. So minimum stakes only. Rock On Ruby is a class horse and heads them all in the Gerry Feilden. It’s a limited handicap and so he doesn’t have to give too much weight away. I’m hopeful of a good run, though a tad surprised he’s here and not in one of the meeting’s better novice chases. Over at Bangor, Peddlers Cross continues his education over fences at an unbackable price.

The two big hurdle races of the day are hardly classic renewals. I’m of course looking forward to Big Buck’s stroll the Long Distance Hurdle. Sacrilege to suggest anything else. But where is the opposition in this shallow division? Up at Newcastle, there’s every chance that Overturn could nick the Fighting Fifth. He takes his racing well and last week’s win may not have left too much of a mark.

I’ll blame Trev if I draw a blank.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

An ethical bookmaker

I saw some interesting research published the other day about how betting companies are targeting poor areas and are “driving families further into poverty”. It’s not often that the substance of my day job runs head long into the escapist thread of this blog. But there we are. No blog is an island.

The issue has taxed me before. This report by NatCen, the Government-funded centre for independent research and the Responsible Gambling Fundconcludes that slot machine arcades are taking over vacant shopping centre and leisure outlets in places that have been worst hit by the recession. We are not talking about gambling on horse racing specifically, but more the general proliferation of ‘high density machine zones’ and gaming arcades that are thriving as the economic downturn forces the closure of shops and leisure outlets. But bookies contribute significantly to this as well: fixed-odds betting terminals (in effect ‘casino’ machines) and virtual sport betting are on the rising curve of bookmakers' profits.

This research seems to be saying that the gambling industry has been fast off the mark in plugging the gap in the high street entertainment business, particularly in depressed areas. In so doing it is said to be exploiting the inactivity associated with high unemployment in places like the Welsh Valleys, Barnsley, Halifax and parts of Glasgow. Harriet Harman, the shadow culture secretary, goes further. Last week she argued that in her own constituency of Camberwell and Peckham, betting firms were deliberately opening branches in poor areas, pushing families further into poverty and creating a link between benefit dependence and gambling. Labour wants new powers to enable councils and local people to stop betting shops opening.

But maybe bookies can be part of the solution and not part of the problem… How about an ethical bookmaker that is run as a social enterprise, re-investing profits in the local community in which it is based and from where the customers come. Or better still, run by them. It’s not that far-fetched. In my day job, I work with many community organisations who are refining their entrepreneurial flair to develop enterprises that can help to regenerate areas and offer tailored services to local people. An ethical bookmaker can have role in this world. As we have already seen, they have a deep reach into many of the most deprived areas in the country. Half an hour in any bookie off the Holloway Road would confirm that. A social enterprise makeover for the humble bookmaker could provide a gateway to other advice and support services in deprived areas, perhaps including help with gambling and other addictive behaviour. Profits would be harvested from responsible gambling and re-invested in community projects. I once suggested this approach in a ‘Dragon’s Den'-type competition held in advance of a conference promoted by my former employer. Sadly the conference was cancelled and my idea never saw the light of day.

It’s fanciful idea, of course. There would be moralistic arguments, amongst others, to overcome. Prospective investors in the model – likely to be public sector in reality – might be squeamish about basing a community policy that relied on encouraging gambling. On the other hand, we seem to have got over that problem when it comes to the National Lottery, often perceived as a tax on the poor. And now we have a new Health Lottery that has been criticized for creaming off too many profits for its operators.

I’m not the only one to have a similar idea. Keeping with the NHS angle, my good friend Crispin, whilst undergoing some pretty serious treatment at Kings College hospital earlier this year said via Facebook “Thinking as a patient, one of many things the NHS 'needs' is a betting shop in each hospital. Why not an 'NHS Tote', the 'People's Bookie' ?!” “Absolutely right,” I said, “Crispin, you've read my mind. For years I've been touting the concept of the socially-motivated, community re-investment bookmaker as a tool to resource urban and rural regeneration. Can't find a funder to back me though!”. He continued, “but it's definitely a good idea…..I have now posted this approach/suggestion - i.e. an NHS Tote - to the Dept Health 'consultation' whilst the Government 'pauses' to reflect on any changes to their NHS reforms ....”
Needless to say, neither of us have had any success in turning this half-baked idea into reality. I still think it’s a winner though. Just don’t put your mortgage on it.


Tuesday, 15 November 2011

'Head Honcho

Motorhead coming home to the Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday had been in doubt since Monday when Lemmy injured his hand. That night’s gig at Bristol had been cancelled. The cause of the injury to rock n roll’s ultimate anti-hero remains a mystery. I’m guessing it wasn’t a bizarre nail bar incident (“Would you like starburst pink cuticles with boar’s-head transfers, Mr Kilmister?”). But whatever its nature and extent, the outing in Norwich was also cancelled on Friday.

So as I was savouring an electrifying afternoon’s racing from Cheltenham, there was doubt about whether I’d get an electrifying evening to go with it. But not to fear. The Twitter-feed all clear came by mid-afternoon.

The famous Odeon. Or Apollo, possibly. 

Next crisis. What to wear? I had finally thrown away my vintage green collectors’ item Motorhead England t-shirt back in the Summer. The underarms, bleached and bobbly, hung down past my moobs; the fraying seams flapped past my nobbly knees. It was a touch on the large-ish side when I bought it back in the day. Now it looked like the threadbare nightie of a mad-house inmate. So I went incognito, sulkily wearing a shirt with a poppy in the button hole.

Nick and Doug were already in the pub, watching the England game. “What’s this attire?” exclaimed Nick. Clearly, I had fallen short of expected sartorial standards. Inevitably there was truckloads of Motorhead-ware on view, but also a surprising amount of UK Subs, Anti-Nowhere League and assorted punk clothing. Even Nick was bedecked in his best Clash t-shirt. I was shamefully underdressed.

Interesting choice of support bands. Arguably, there’s as much connection between Motorhead and punk as there is with thrash and speed metal or any of its successors. When Lemmy formed Mororhead back in 1975 he famously said that their music “will be so loud that if we move in next door to you, your lawn will die”. Love it.

Nick and I have experienced the ‘Head on a number of occasions over the years, but this was the first for his 16 year old son, Doug. Mind you, he had the right credentials – he’d already got Sum41 and Stiff Little Fingers on his r’n’r cv. And he’s taking guitar lessons. The future is safe.

We were in the stalls for the gig, where the seats had been ripped out to cram more punters in. Much better than the rows of cinema seats that were here when I was a more regular visitor in my 20’s. Nothing like the ebb and flow of a sweaty, cramped capacity crowd to keep alive that genuine rock n roll spirit. Particularly when it came to a bloke directly behind me, who had a seriously out of control beer gut jutting out at 45 degrees from his fat neck right into my back. He was trying to get a bit closer and every time he moved I could feel the sticky sweat from his solid belly permeate my shirt and push me further forward. As I say, nothing like it. In the end I manoeuvred my way out with a sneaky twist and jump that Beth Tweddle would have recognised. Not that I really want to be compared to Beth, but I don’t know any bloke gymnasts. He gave me an apologetic look and barrelled further into the crowd with his phone camera held high above his head.

UK Subs: poor
I’m getting ahead of myself. First we had the support. The UK Subs thrashed out a right old mixed back of street punk, oi! and sub-metal. All played fast, aggressively and for the most part badly. To be fair they had crap sound, save for a bass drum that was so tight it felt like a kick in the stomach. And the performance was a big ten for effort and energy. I think I even recognised a few: Warhead, maybe and Down on the Farm, possibly? The one thing I do know about UK Subs is that all their album titles begin with successive letters of the alphabet. So 1979’s Another Kind of Blues kicked off a staggering run of studio albums that has rolled on to this year’s Work in Progress. Three to go and its job done!

In the bogs, I got talking to a bloke down from Hull for the gig. He was moaning about the price of a drink. At £4.55 for a tin of guinness he had a point. Interesting looking guy. To accompany various piercings he had a shaved head with a long tattoo about three inches wide that started just above his forehead and went over the crown of his head to the nape of his neck. It was quite impressively done, with red-rose heads intertwined with thorns and snakes. He said he was down for the gig and would go to the Cenotaph in the morning for the Remembrance Service. “Make a weekend of it”, he said.

ANWL: jazz hands

Next up, Anti-Nowhere League. A league up from the UK Subs, I have to say. Lead singer, Animal has an amazing rumbling growl vocal delivery that would not be out of place in Paradise Lost, Cathedral or half a dozen other doom metal bands of the early 90’s. He had a commanding stage presence, all jazz hands, expansive gestures and open-arm embraces. A proper showman. They belted out a cracking version of their notorious standard bearer So What, a vile, profanity-laden track that appeared on the b-side of a their cover of Ralph MacTell’s Streets of London. Mrs A tells me that the EMI pressing plant refused to manufacture the record once they heard some of the lyrics. The good ladies of the Hayes factory simply downed tools, folded their arms and said a big no. They got their way, too. The record was pressed elsewhere. Metallica covered So What on Garage Days Revisited and it was a live favourite for a while. On one occasion, Animal was asked along by the metal megastars to guest on a live rendition with them. The story goes that he showed up at Wembley Arena and it wasn’t until he was in the wings that a reality check kicked in. “As I waited to go on it suddenly dawned on me I was just about to stand in front of 10,000 punters who didn’t know me from Adam and sing a song that I couldn’t fucking remember!” The set closer, inevitably, was a raucous and triumphant charge through Streets of London. Animal milked the applause like the true professional he is and they were gone. 

Show me some attitude

And so to the main event. Unlike a box of chocolates, you know exactly what you are going to get with Lemster and the boys. They did not disappoint. From the opening air raid sirens heralding a Bomber assault to the screeching feedback of Lemmy’s abandoned bass against his cranked-up amp at the end of Overkill, this was a trademark Motorstomp through a bludgeoning back catalogue. A barrage of classic metal came rampaging out of the banked up speakers as if bidding for freedom: Stay Clean, Iron Fist, Killed By Death, Metropolis, Going To Brazil…all just about as snarling, dirty and mean as ever. Only you have to worry about Lemmy’s vocals these days. He still looked the part: black shirt open to the navel, US Cavalry Stetson pulled tight on his bonce, monstrous Rickenbacker slung low over his shoulder. But the voice has properly gone now. It’s not even the characterful gravelly growl of yore. All that comes through is a distorted mush, an electronic fug. Mind you, that’s exactly what lifts the hypnotic Orgasmatron out of the ordinary. Lemmy lit green from beneath ala Blair Witch Project, looking and sounding possessed, spitting out lyrics like “I hold a banner drenched in blood, I urge you to be brave. I lead you to your destiny, I lead you to your grave”.


Blair Witch 

There was a bit of a lull in the middle. Mickey Dee’s drum solo and a couple of new tracks slackened the pace a little. Mickey has become the ringmaster of the band. A role he’s grown into: stood on his drum stool whipping up the crowd from behind his kit. He even straps on an acoustic guitar and strums along with Phil Campbell for the first encore, a plinky-plonky version of Whorehouse Blues. “You know how it works”, Lemmy had rasped at the end of the main set, “we play, you shout for more, we come back. See you in a minute”. Where’s the mystery, eh? He’ll be telling me Father Christmas is an illusion next.

Ace of Base. No, sorry, Ace of Spades

So we ended with Ace of Spades and Overkill. It’s the only way to go out.

There was time for a beer in the pub next door to chew over the gig. The verdict is pretty positive all round the table. Doug enjoyed his first Motorhead experience, but inexplicably, he reckoned the UK Subs were the best in show tonight. I take back what I said about the future being safe….!



Friday, 11 November 2011

Oh my head

Oh my head.

I went out for a couple of beers with the Year 7 Dads last night. Just a couple of gentle beers down the local. So why was I staggering home at 12.30am after some naughty after hours beverages, unable to enunciate the names of my drinking buddies as I tried to bid them goodnight in the middle of the road? Indeed I’d walked several houses passed my abode before they gently pointed me back down the hill.

It’s a while since we have gathered as a group and so there was a pretty good turn out. There was Martin reading out jokes from his iphone, most of which were far too near the knuckle to repeat in a jolly family publication like this, for instance, “I went to the gym this morning and found that there was a hole in my trainer that I could get my finger in. Anyway she’s lodged an official complaint ad I’ve been banned for life!” There was Dom who apparently has an even nicer shed than me. I’m puce with envy. There was Pete who’s just finished filming an Alice Cooper gig in 3-d. “Cabaret and pantomine in your face”, was his revealing description. Keeping the musical theme, there was Paul who’s just taken his kids to see a sweary Tiny Tempah at the O2. There was Ian, who’s dog Winston spent the night rolling over having his tummy tickled. And there were others. The last orders bell came and went. The evening disappeared in a blur of tall stories and taller beers. 

So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised to wake up with a churning gut and throbbing head this morning. I make a token effort to see the girls off to school and then go back to bed. By the time body and soul moves me to clamber out again, Ken Bruce is introducing the two minutes’ silence to mark Armistice Day. I pay my respects leaning by my bed with my dressing gown agape and the room gently swaying.

It is at this point that I realise the day has already all but gone, lost, dribbled away. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me”, I moan to Mrs A. “I think I do”, she chuckles, incredulously. Nothing remains but to tackle a restorative fry up at Brasserie Gerard and peruse the Racing Post for winners in this afternoon’s marvellous Open meeting at Cheltenham.

We are deep into November and as I’m dipping my toast into a golden egg yolk, the Racing Post tries to tell me that the Jumps season is only now “Open for business”. Pun intended. Tomorrow’s Paddy Power Gold Cup is undoubtedly the first of National Hunt’s crown jewels. But to ignore some top notch races like the Charlie Hall Chase, the Old Roan Chase, the Haldon Gold Cup and great early season meetings at Ascot and Down Royal is an unnecessary slight.

I also read that the Professional Jockey’s Association is still unhappy with new concessions to the whip rules announced only yesterday. I’ve taken a fairly hard line on this over the last month or so. Even through the fug of a hangover I still reason that racing needs clear rules on misuse of the whip and strong penalties to go with them. The issue is about consistency and it is, I’m sorry to say, about popular opinion too. It doesn’t matter how many times Ruby Walsh appeals to the punters at Aintree about reasonable whip use. He’s preaching to the converted. My worry is that racing will be forced into a minority sport as the views of society at large move on. The world is changing and racing needs to respond to different pressures, rather than to bleat that ‘these people’ don’t know what they’re talking about. Towcester racecourse is already planning an entire whip free meeting. The fact is that a horse being hit a dozen times and more in the last furlong of a race beamed to millions of homes is never going to play out well. How can you sell that image to a world with sensitive sponsors and advertisers? The BHA have tried to respond to this.

But they made mistakes. Launching the new rules and punitive measures in the build up to the much-vaunted British Champions Day, with jockeys unused to them, was a spectacular own goal. No surprise that the headlines were about Christophe Soumillon losing his 50-grand winners’ purse for one hit too many, and not about the otherwise superb ride he gave Cirrus des Aigles.

And maybe the punishments were out of proportion with the crimes. I concede that now. So I applaud these new relaxations and the introduction of some discretion for the stewards. These follow other revisions in mid-October and the whole saga is starting to look like Whitehall farce again. So surely that’s enough. A balance has been struck. Time now for the jockeys to stop bleating and knuckle down.

Christ, all that indignation hasn’t helped the hangover. I limp back home and start writing this blog as the action unfolds from Prestbury Park. I’m enjoying it too. The amateurs’ chase to kick off the card is won by Swing Bill under 16 year-old Tom Bellamy. Apparently someone got a quid on in-running at 438-1 when Swing Bill left a back leg in the open ditch. His young jockey gives a great interview to Alice Plunkett from the saddle, showing humility, passion and ambition. Shame he picked up a (now) 2-day ban for striking the horse nine times.

I back Keki Buku in the handicap chase, but it’s won smartly by Tanks For That who tanks up the hill for the irrepressible Nicky Henderson. He’s a master of these types of races.

And now I’ve seen a thoroughly enjoyable cross-country chase. No, really!  Instead of the usual painstaking crawl and sprint finish, Gullible Gordon takes the race by the scruff off the neck and serves up a proper searching pace. I’ve backed eventual winner Uncle Junior who has ground down the leader and even managed to repel Garde Champetre in a thrilling finish. This is the first time I’ve ever backed a winner of a cross country chase.

Next is the very decent Sharp Novice Hurdle. My fancy, Prospect Wells, has been pipped by Jessie Harrington’s Steps To Freedom in a terrific climax. Ericht, making a classy hurdles debut, was third. No reason not to think all these are very decent animals and will be back here for the Supreme come March.

The best looking race of the day is not on terrestrial telly though. The novice chase at 4.05 has been won in the past by the likes of Denman, Imperial Commander, Weird Al and Time For Rupert. This renewal features a wonderful clash between a top novice hurdler from last year, Cue Card, who ran out an impressive winner on his chase debut against Grand Crus, high quality staying hurdler only beaten by Big Buck’s last season. Even so, it’s not a straight head-to-head. Champion Court has good quality hurdles and track form in the book and has already won over fences. But the race doesn’t quite live up to the billing. Cue card departs down the back straight and whilst Champion Court serves up a solid enough effort, the impressive Grand Crus draws well clear.

A good day’s racing, then, dominated by the big yards. That northern analyser on Racing UK said something like, “The top-table trainers have turned up and parked their tanks on the lawn. Today we’ve seen three winners for Pipe, one for Henderson, one for Mullins and one for Harrington. Is there any room for the small trainers at the big festivals?” Interesting point of view.

Tomorrow could be different. Well, it certainly will be for me. For instance, I might actually do something, anything, constructive. I can’t take blobbing around like this for long. But I’m sure I’ll find a moment to catch the Paddy Power Gold Cup.