Friday, 30 December 2011

Stocktaking


My daughters’ kids paper First News plopped onto the mat this week and proclaimed in banner headlines, “2011. The Year When A Lot Happened”. What this rather unspecific statement lacks in journalistic sharpness, it adequately compensates for in catch-all accuracy. A lot did happen: The Arab Spring and North African civil wars; assassinations of Bin Laden and Gaddafi; deaths of Steve Jobs, Kim Jong-Il and Cheetah; a Japanese earthquake; enduring economic misery; newspaper phone hacking; a royal wedding; domestic riots; and the speed of light got faster.

Horseracing usually beats to its own drum and rarely troubles the consciousness of the wider world. Outside the red-letter days of the Grand National and Royal Ascot, the sport rumbles along in a parallel universe. But this year, I observed about half a dozen stories that spilled over into the mainstream, to one degree or another. Inevitably, some were negative, others bitter-sweet, and best of all a couple of shiny positive nuggets to warm the cockles.

Kauto Star has to top the bill. His upwardly mobile profile this year is more akin to the breakthrough of a six-year-old novice, not a battle-hardened chaser who turns 12 on Sunday. Despite the age burden, this wonderful son of little-known sire Village Star, ends the year with an enhanced reputation amongst a swirl of glittering accolades that an average Oscars’ night would die for. After mustering third in a memorable Gold Cup back in March and then pulling up in the equivalent in Ireland, many expected to be penning his racing obituary this season. I was amongst them. I respectfully wrote him off at Cheltenham, hailing the new Long Run guard. I shook my head and called for well-deserved retirement after Punchestown. Kept in training, and the subject of incredibly upbeat reports from Team Ditcheat, he reappeared in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November. Once again I argued (alongside many others) that it was a race too far. I didn’t want to see an ignominious end to a great career.

That was the start of the renaissance. After his thrilling victory – and I mean thrilling: jumping as an art form, front-running as breathtaking spectacle – connections revealed that they had considered retirement and that this race had been his Gold Cup. Nicholls had no option, swept on a tide of emotion, to take the King George route on Boxing Day. Like a killjoy naysayer, high on pooping parties, I again felt he couldn’t win. He needed longer between his races…..Long Run and other pretenders would be fitter….. I was wrong. The betting public was right. My mate Colin, a true believer, was right. Again Kauto put them to the sword. Long Run got much closer this time. But the result was the same. The outpouring of emotion was the same.

He’s proved he is the best over different distances, tracks and underfoot conditions. And, time after time, he proves people wrong. This horse is a sensation. The best I’ve seen in my life.

The other headline-grabbing horse was Frankel. A superstar of a different ilk, he proved simply unbeatable over a mile this Summer when he racked up four Group 1s and a Group 3. His trainer, Henry Cecil was knighted in the Queen’s birthday honours. He is fast becoming a national institution. 

The manner of Frankel’s destruction of the 2,000 guineas field in May caused a collective sharp intake of breath. At Goodwood, the boys and I were lucky enough to see him take Canford Cliffs apart in the Sussex Stakes. The latter was then found to be injured and was retired. But that took nothing away from the manner of the victory. It was a privilege to see him. The good ladies of Berkhamsted are not so charitable with their memories about that day, however. I was entrusted with the task of maximising the balance of their pub kitty on a couple of sure-fire Glorious Goodwood winners. I failed. The ladies have been much more careful since. They stay in the pub long enough to drink up the kitty now….

Illustration by Paul Hardman
Kauto and Frankel aside, there has been no shortage of touching drama this year. Carruthers winning the Hennessy Gold Cup was a great story for the industry. Carruthers is owned by Lord Oaksey who himself won the Hennessy as amateur Mr John Lawrence, on Taxidermist in 1958. Oaksey is a respected race writer, journalist and thinker. He set up the Injured Jockeys Fund with Brough Scott in 1964. The two of them dominated my formative Saturdays commentating on the long defunct ITV Seven. Carruthers is very much a family story. He is ridden out every day by Oaksey’s daughter and trained by his son in law, Mark Bradstock. Though John Oaksey is now unwell, he was apparently very well aware of Carruthers’ win.

And staying on the sentimental front, we wished Denman a long and safe retirement in November. The achievements of stable-mate Kauto Star since then have thrown into sharp focus their earlier epic duels. Also, handlers of the ultra-tough Lough Derg finally called it a day after his 55th hurdles outing. In a nice touch, Ascot named December’s Long Distance Hurdle named after him, a race he won in 2007. His regular jockey Tom Scudamore may have mixed emotions about the retirement. Lough Derg’s wins frequently came at the price of near exhaustion for his jockey who could be seen rowing away on the gelding from shortly after the tapes had gone up. But the horse never knew when he was beaten. And I enjoyed seeing sprinter The Tatling win his final race at 14 years of age, the veteran of 176 races under rules which yielded over 600 grand in prize money. Only 18 of them were wins.

Of those negative stories to have breached the mainstream media, one has rumbled on throughout the year and concerns alleged cruelty within the sport. This peaked with the Grand National coverage of the tragic deaths of Dooneys Gate and Ornais in the full glare of the public spotlight. Ballabriggs, the brave winner of this race had to be dismounted after the finish line and his jockey received a lengthy ban for whip abuse. The debate about racing’s track record of duty of care was not well handled. This is where racing’s separateness from the wider world can cause mistrust and suspicion. On one hand the ‘ignorant and uninformed general public’ were berated for jumping to conclusions about how racehorses are treated. On the other hand, ‘aloof and unsympathetic toffs’ were vilified for closing ranks. 

The Grand National will have altered, safer fences next year. However, other issues were not so easily resolved. The hastily convened whip review and swiftly implemented reforms did not lift the game out of the hole it had dug itself. Initially welcomed by all as valuable clarification, jockeys were soon protesting, handing in their licenses and threatening strikes. The word ‘draconian’ had not been bandied about as much since Slade guitarist Dave Hill’s fringe was last spotted. Successive revisions eventually took some heat out of the debate, but as the year draws to a close it still remains an open wound. Amongst the vitriol and opprobrium, I did spot an amusing tweet which suggested that Paul Carberry would be unlikely to ever pick up a whip ban on the basis that the tweeter had “…never seen him smack a horse seven times in a whole meeting, let alone one race”. Backers of Harchibald in the 2005 Champion Hurdle will chuckle, no doubt.

Another sour subject to break into the mainstream was the perennial Achilles heel of race fixing. In the year that three Pakistani international cricketers received prison sentences for spot-fixing bribes, British racing undertook the largest investigation of its type into suspicious betting patterns on a series of races in the Summer of 2009. Four jockeys, including girlfriend of Keiron Fallon, Kirsty Milczarek, received bans ranging from 6 months to 12 years. Trainers Maurice ‘Fred’ Sines and James Crickmore, the central characters in the scam, received 14-year bans. Five others – Nick Gold, Peter Gold, Shaun Harris, David Kendrick and Liam Vasey – were also found guilty of ‘corrupt or fraudulent practice’. What’s interesting is the nature of the reporting by the tabloids which focused on Milczarek’s relationship with Fallon and her ‘racy’ publicity photos, rather than the complexity of the case or the scale of the investigation.

The terrible electrocutions of two horses at Newbury’s subsequently abandoned Totesport Trophy fixture also created some unwanted headline publicity. Though in this case, the blame is attached to a freak occurrence linked to a previously inert electricity cable under the parade ring and not to human intervention, malicious or otherwise. If anything is to be taken from the grisly scenes that followed, it is that all those involved reacted with dignity and sense. Newbury’s officials, together with reporters, commentators, owners, trainers and jockeys took the right decisions about animal and human welfare, did a pretty good job of keeping people informed, and got the site cleared and checked. The fixture was restaged a few days later. On this occasion, a drama was not made out of a crisis.

One last widely reported and sad story to touch upon is the death of Ginger McCain. Ginger is a legend of the game, having won the Grand National four times with two different horses, including three-time winner Red Rum. He subsequently become the sort of character that everyone says we don’t get anymore. That healthy dose of character in-your-face was a handful for many TV presenters with his course language, unpredictable behaviour and controversial statements. He once said on air If Carrie Ford (female jockey) wins the National I'll bare my backside to the wind, and let everyone kick it!”

But it was still great to see his achievements given proper recognition. Fitting too, that he should be present at Aintree in April, only a few months before his demise, to see son Donald McCain Jr train Ballabriggs to win the National. A family affair.

Well-respected Arc and multiple Group 1 winning trainer Michael Jarvis and long time jumps trainer Roger Fisher both died this year too. I was lucky enough to stay in the latter’s cottage a couple of years ago when we holidayed near Ulverston in Cumbria. The family made us feel incredibly welcome. We saw their horse Mystified win at Cartmel during our stay.

My local trainer, Walter Swinburn quit the training ranks as well. Though in this case it is for a break, with the prospect of a future return. This has been on the cards for some time. There had been much local talk of disaffection and disharmony at Church Farm stables. This culminated in landlord Peter Harris dispering his racing stock last year and now divesting himself of his remaining assets. So here we have a fully functioning state-of-the-art training establishment with no trainer and a bunch of talented and dedicated staff with no jobs. The finances of horse racing still do not stack up for many.   

But I don’t intend to end on a negative note. This has been a belter of a year with some wonderful moments. First News is right, A lot did happen. The game faces its share of financial, public perception and governance challenges, certainly. The sustainability of the sport is not guaranteed. But at its core, there is enough talent, excitement, passion, inspiration and widespread support to convince me that there’s life in the old dog for a few more years yet.


Saturday, 24 December 2011

Festive fortunes

‘Got on a lucky one. Came in eighteen to one’
The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, Fairytale of New York

Shane MacGowan had the right idea. Never mind the Christmas orthodoxy. Sniff out the value amongst a turkey-free feast of top quality racing this festive season.

Boxing Day features 12 fixtures in Britain and Ireland. So here’s the first gift of Christmas: a punting guide to some of the best of the day’s action.

King George VI Gold Cup, Kempton, 3.10pm
Highlight of the Boxing Day Card, this race has seen some great champions down the years. I’m going to swallow hard and not launch into yet another eulogy about Desert Orchid. Because these days it is as much Kauto Star’s race as Dessie’s. Kauto had picked up four of these on the bounce until 2009 amongst a haul of 15 Grade 1s and counting. He returns here a fully-fledged hero after stunning the punters in Haydock’s Betfair Chase with an exhilarating round of exuberant jumping and front running. It gave Paul Nicholls his best day in 20 years of training.  At 11 years old, the dual Gold Cup winner would most likely have been retired if he’d given an indifferent display in that race. Instead he put current Gold Cup Champion Long Run to the sword. Emotional stuff. Not a dry eye in the house.

Can he repeat the trick six weeks later? The head says no. But then my head said no at Haydock too.  I’m saying no again because that day was his Gold Cup. Nicholls, brilliantly, had him as fit as he possibly could for that race. Long Run and the other Betfair Chaser to line up here - Diamond Harry – will have improved for the run. It was not their season’s number one target. And also because I believe Kauto needs longer between his races now. Still, if he’s ridden from the front again (as surely he must) it will be a thrilling spectacle and he’ll take some passing.

Nicholls’ other runner, Master Minded has had this as his target all season. He looked back to his best at Ascot in November and will be tanking round right-handed which is clearly his preference. Seemingly needing further than the bare two-miles now, he comes here with a very live chance. I do have some reservations about him getting home over three miles, though, in such hot company.  

Long Run will be favourite on the day. He’ll be hard to beat if he gets into a rythmn with his jumping. That’s the key to him. He didn’t quite nail it at Haydock and that was the difference between him and the Star. But he’ll be closer and better here.

At the prices, I’m tempted by Captain Chris. Last year’s Arkle winner should have an easy three miles within his scope and will be better than his sluggish outing in the Haldon Gold Cup. He unseated at the last when taking off a mile early with the race at his mercy. Dicky Johnson being bounced around the saddle and exiting the side door would have been comical had I not backed it. His jumping round here will need to be sharper and there will be some harum-scarum moments, but he’s my value pick here.

Christmas Hurdle, Kempton, 2.35pm
A small but select field. Five are forecast to go to post, of which three have live chances. Overturn and Binocular renew their Fighting Fifth rivalry from last month. Binocular will strip fitter and could reverse placings with the former. This will be Overturn’s fourth run inside six weeks and there’s every chance he’s going to the well once too often. I love him though. Tough as teak, fantastic frontrunner and could still be on the upgrade. But it will be no surprise if Rock On Ruby beats them both.  The form of his handicap hurdle win off top weight at HQ just gets stronger and stronger (third placed Raya Star came out to win The Ladbroke last week). One of the top staying novices last season, Ruby has been kept to hurdles and seems to have found new pace at the minimum trip. He could be Nicholls’ Champion Hurdle horse, but he needs to make the step up here. I think he will.

Feltham Novices Chase, Kempton, 2.00pm
Take out Long Run’s win in the 2009 renewal and this formerly top-drawer novice chase has had some thin and shallow renewals. Anyone remember Ungaro? Thought not. Last year’s race was snowed off. So it’s encouraging to see at least three good looking sorts take their chances here. Grand Crus has stamped a bit of class over the division already this season. Tidy jumping has seen him take two decent chases without being extended. But there are all the hallmarks of a vintage novice crop this season.  Bob’s Worth narrowly beat another good one in Cue Card last time out, receiving weight. He showed pleasing resolution to get back up to the leader in a messy race. He’s my idea of a serious chaser. I fancy him to get the better of Grand Crus over a trip that one of my shrewd mates says might not be the latter’s ideal. Silviano Conti presents a serious threat to these two and is not lightly disregarded. However, I’d assert Bob’s Worth on the basis of a vague form line through Cue Card and Mad Moose.

Roland Meyrick Handicap Chase, Wetherby, 1.45pm
Next, we’re up at Wetherby for their Boxing Day highlight, a 3m slog on bottomless ground.  This one is not for the feint-hearted. Typically for this race there is a good sized field and plenty of live chances. You have to go back to 2004 for a winner carrying more than 11st and the presence of Midnight Chase at the head of the weights knocks a further three out of the handicap proper. I like the look of Neptune Equester’s win at Haydock last time over 3f further than this. He’s got a nice weight, the right sort of progressive profile (how I wish I had a quid for every time I’ve said that…) and his handler Ellison knows a thing or two about getting one ready for a big handicap like this. He’s also in the Welsh National, so my hope is he lines up here instead. Halley is an interesting contender from Tom George’s yard. He has a good chase track record in France and tried only once here over hurdles and now thrown into this.

Racing Post Novice Chase, Leopardstown, 2.20pm
The first Grade 1 of Leopardstown’s excellent Christmas meeting. This renewal stars Bog Warrior who carved up a decent field at Fairyhouse earlier this month. Tony Martin’s charge has won every time he’s completed and looks hot. Blackstairmountain takes his chance after a low-key chasing introduction last time at Clonmel. The pick of his inconsistent form over hurdles should put him bang there, but Bog Warrior has the form in the book. There’s an English raider from my 40TF list. Notus De La Tour was put in his place by Walkon and a resurgent Zaynar at Exeter last time and now reverts to a shorter trip (which suits) but up in class (which doesn’t). He’ll like the ground, but I’ll only get interested if he’s a big price.

Boxing Day is just for starters. Other gems in the upcoming days include the Welsh National (I’ll be looking for Neptune Equester or Sona Sasta if they line up), The Dial-A-Bet Chase, (Big Zeb, Golden Silver, Noble Prince, the Wayward Lad Novices Chase (Peddlers Cross, Sprinter Sacre, Menorah), Istabraq Festival Hurdle (Hurricane Fly, Oscars Well) Lexus Chase (Quito De La Roque, Rubi Light, Joncol).

So, Happy Christmas, all. I can see a better time when all our dreams come true.



Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Posh weekend

It felt a bit like Christmas came early last weekend. Ascot’s Long Walk Hurdle meeting always seems to mark the start of festivities – the lads had our Christmas drink-up at the Friday of this meeting a few years ago. It was nice to see the race back at its traditional home though. The weather had put paid this fixture the last twice when The Long Walk was saved and moved to Newbury.

Pundits had Big Buck’s’ form under the microscope, searching for chinks in the armour. Could swinging away right-handed for the first time unnerve the juggernaut? Maybe a sharp pace could fatally expose his regular mid-race flatspot? Had Team Pipe found another Grands Crus to shake up the champ in the shape of Dynaste? These were merely half-hearted, if respectable, attempts to generate a betting proposition. Nobody really expected this machine (© Mr R. Walsh, circa 2001 and ever since about any horse he’s ever won on) to be beaten. And even when Ruby momentarily got after Big Buck’s to pick up off that anticipated lively gallop, we knew the scripted ending. Entering the home straight, bells were ringing. Literally. It was the side gate.  

A seriously harassed bloke from Yodel was poking a package through the bars of the gate whilst stood on the front steps. I confused him by opening the gate, so that he ended up at full stretch clinging on to the little black bag as it swung away from him with his feet rooted behind the wall. One extra tug on the gate and he would have been a gonner. That would have been cruel. I helped him down, performed that strange electronic signature trick and then took my parcel inside. I’d been waiting for this. It was a purple waistcoat to complete my party ensemble for Lizzie’s 40th birthday bash later that night. So whilst I missed the Long Walk Hurdle denouement, I was able to cheer on Our Island 15 minutes later in the Tommy Whittle whilst practising holding in my gut underneath the little purple number. Our Island failed to reel in Cannington Brook after being off the bridle for a lap and half. But I succeeded in fooling Daughter No 1 into thinking the waistcoat fitted me. 

Breath in....
So, a bit later, Mrs A and I were scrubbed up and attired for the party. Lizzie  and Rich used to live next door to us. But they managed to get away. Now they are round the corner, temporarily, in a house that will be redeveloped (once they’ve moved on to a house they’ve just bought up the hill) into about half a dozen tall, thin and bijou dwellings, each with 10 or so tiny rooms crammed in, many of which will overlook my garden. OK, slight exaggeration. But safe to say I am not a supporter of these redevelopment plans. And the potential overlookers will simply have to get used to my topless sunbathing. Peeping toms.

The party was a belter. “Dresses for the girls and jackets for the boys”, it said on the invitation. At least we got it the right way round. I liked seeing everyone dressed up and making the effort. A pleasant change. Except for the plonker in the Duffers hoodie. I was surprised he got it. Lax door policy in my view. Champagne cocktails and canapés were followed by retro grooves and sporadic outbreaks of Dad dancing. Rich had hauled his top-spec Technics DJ turntables out of the attic and indulged in some practised scratching, mixing, segue-ing. He played some records too. (Thangyoo. I’m here all week…) Every charity shop in Berko High Street had been emptied of its bargain-bin vinyl hoard. Rich and Lizzie are just that bit younger than us though, so their idea of retro begins with acid house and ends with beatboxing. But there was more than enough 70’s soul, 80’s groove and 90’s pop to keep everyone jiggy. In fact, by the end of the evening, it was a task in itself just to find space to shake assorted booty, such was the dangerous geography of discarded high heeled shoes, handbags and accessories. All this glamming it up clearly has a price. Top stuff, cheers guys for a great night.

Birthday girl Lizzie and champage. A winning combination
It was late when we rolled home and my feet ached so much. But the pace was relentless. We were up the next morning in time to catch the train into town. Only just time to check the runners, going and early prices on the Racing Post’s absolutely brilliant iphone app. I am seriously addicted to it. A bloody marvel.  

The plan was for us and the girls to whisk Granny away for her surprise Christmas present. It was the usual did-you-bring-your-wetsuit-I-need-to-check-that-the-frost-doesn’t-effect-the-parachute-jump-you-did-say-you-liked-snakes-didn’t-you lame and predictable wind up material on the way in. Never fails to amuse me. But it was an absolute joy to see Chris’s face light up when we strolled into the Royal Albert Hall for A White Christmas concert. Who could fail to be impressed with this magnificent arena. I think she was only marginally disappointed that the surprise wasn’t really crocodile-wrestling. The girls had never been here before and were suitably stirred by the place, particularly all dressed up for Christmas like that. It’ can be an odd venue, acoustically speaking. I’ve been here and been stunned by the likes of 10 000 Maniacs and later on Eric Clapton, in the middle of one of his never-ending residencies. And yet stuck up on the top balcony trying to pick out some tunefulness in a fuzzy and muffled Black Crowes set was just thankless.





The London Concert Orchestra backed up by the Capital Singers cranked out some festive favourites. And whilst this kind of gig isn’t my most natural territory, there was a particularly haunting Silent Night and a tremulous A Winter’s Tale to savour. During the latter the girls looked at each other and giggled “Why would it be open?” at the couplet “The night’s are colder now. Maybe I should close the door”! Good question. Basic home heating fail there, Mr Essex.


There were guest appearances from some West End crooners for the likes of Blue Christmas, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Mary's Boy Child and the like. The girls got interested at the appearance of Olivia Jade Archbold who is off Britain’s Got the American X Factor Talent, apparently.


I did just get time during a Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas lull to check the results on my lovely RP app from Navan. Prima Vista had drifted markedly in the betting for his match up with Zaidpour in the feature hurdle. And not without reason. Checking the result a couple of moments later, he’d trailed in a disappointing fourth of four. Noel Meade had said that he would need the run. Code for ‘don’t back him he ain’t fit’. I missed this nugget. More wedge down the drain. 

Still, there was more dancing to cheer me up. Turtle Dove impressions to 12 Days of Christmas, and some freeform shuffling to Merry Xmas Everyone. If Lemmy could have seen me then he’d have asked for his t-shirt back.

But it was cracking entertainment. And you can’t say fairer than that. We walked back via Knightsbridge to see the blazing Harrods and then later along Regent’s Street for the lights and the stunning Liberty’s atrium.





 Home then, and a Christmas pressie frenzy to wrap up a great weekend. Granny is away to the sun on Thursday, spending Christmas in Tenerife with Sue. So that was sufficient excuse for an early gift-exchange with her. I definitely came out on top. I’m now the proud owner of a stripy new dressing gown and burgundy slippers. I suspect the ever-practical Mrs A had a hand in this. I’m hoping for pants, socks and talc to complete set next Sunday…



Sunday, 11 December 2011

Tingle

Great racing at Cheltenham on Saturday and a couple of decent televised events at Doncaster too. It reminded me that I haven’t reported back on a cracking day out at Sandown last Friday for the first day of the Tingle Creek meeting. It was my seasonal debut. That’s a travesty. Because from the moment I strode into the grandstand betting hall I felt a little warm glow and a tingle of thrill in the pit of my stomach. I felt back home. Is that terribly sad to admit?




I was still feeling chipper by the time I struck my first bet on a debutant hurdler called Zamina in the first. I spotted the price I wanted offered by a demure looking lady in the second rank of bookies. “Hoho” I beamed, as I fished out some pound coins for a conservative bet in this trappy encounter. “It's only the first race and I'm using up my change already!” *Ting*. I flashed my winning Colgate smile. But greeted merely by derision. I should know better than to banter with a bookie.


There, as ever, was the Hog’s Back concession. Just like for the last 10 years. I sampled a pint of the lively, hoppy TEA for starters. “Dave! Hey Dave! See I told you it was him!” A mate of old, Bob was in the queue behind me. Andy and Stevie G were with him too, plus a few other faces I recognised from The Toast Rack at 2 Marsham Street. So for half an hour or so, it was 1995 in the DOE again.


The beauty of Sandown is that you can take your superior real ale and have a proper wander around the nooks and crannies of the track. I was here for one of those Whitbread Gold Cups. Mr Frisk in 1990, beating Durham Edition. The same order as that year’s Grand National only three weeks earlier.


The winner’s enclosure is overlooked by a superb life-size bronze of Special Cargo, the Queen Mother’s chaser that won the 1984 running of the Whitbread Gold Cup as well as racking up five military gold cups at the track. Bit too much like a trip down memory lane.



So it was time to get bang up to date and check out some potential for the future. Mooching about with my pint I was able to see Philip Hobbs and Nicky Henderson preparing their novice hurdlers Fingal Bay and Simonsig respectively. The horses finished in that order a few minutes later in arguably the day’s best race. Fingal Bay deeply impressed with the way he powered home. He’s good.




I had a small bet on outsider Sizing Symphony who looked fantastic in the parade ring and was far too big a price at 16-1. But the ground had gone against him and making the running off a shocking dawdle didn’t help either.  Ruby Walsh and Jump  City looked sharp in the paddock but was soon off the bridle and beaten in this decent race.



Next up in the Intermediate Chase, Golan Way led his pursuers a merry dance, jumping them giddy to win going away. This was a decent field too, featuring a Festival Grade 1 winner and decent prospect Royal Charm who needed to confirm some of last season’s early promise. He makes a nice enough shape here over the last in the home straight first time round. But he made a hash of one down the back straight and eventually crashed out at the railway fences. A bloke next to me was later asked how his bet on Royal Charm had fared. “It was doing all right and then it fell over”, was his succinct and accurate summary.

Later still I was at the Corals shop watching one of my list horses lose at Exeter. I was stood next to Channel 4 pundit Tanya Stephenson as she was scoffing a cheese baguette, looking shifty like she didn't want to be recognised. I was only standing that close in case she left some of her baguette. Walkon made a sparkling chase debut, and my lad was relegated to third. I moved on to the live action outside potless and hungry. 


In all I backed eight losers on the day including two at Exeter. Pretty impressive, even by my standards. Luckily it was a beautiful day and I admired the view from all angles. Did you know you can see the Wembley arch from here?



Monday, 5 December 2011

Finding a voice

This post is a departure from the usual escapist guff that is the meat and drink of my blog. I’ve done this before, when the mood takes me. But I’ve never wanted to write about my work before. I guess this is the exception that proves the rule.

Because I’ve spent the last couple of months working on one of the most topical, interesting and challenging projects of my career. Pause there. I’m not talking about hatching Palestine-Israeli peace before lunch and then solving the Eurozone debt crisis whilst waiting for Countdown to start.  But in the process-heavy, sometimes dusty world of social research and programme evaluation, working on a project to understand the riots that swept England last August has felt more immediate, more high priority and more, well, front-line by comparison.

Little did I anticipate that when I wrote a blog at the time of the riots asking why it was wrong to ask ‘why’, that I would soon be part of a team asking ‘why’. (Are you still with me?)

It’s a good team, too. With financial backing from the eminent think tank The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (amongst others), the team comprises academic and journalistic muscle from the London School of Economics and The Guardian who have initiated and driven this ambitious undertaking, together with my colleagues and me recruited as pavement-pounding, stairwell-dwelling, café-loitering researchers who have captured the diverse stories of those involved.

It’s a credible outfit. And it has to be. The results of the study, being serialised today in The Guardian and to be followed by an academic launch next week, will be challenged – indeed are already being challenged – simply because this is a politically, emotionally, racially, culturally, behaviourally and financially charged issue. I hope – I believe – that the study will be recognised as a valid and authoritative insight into what happened on those incendiary nights in August. For me it has already shone a light into dark, secretive corners to illuminate some disturbing causes and motivations. It is also pointing to some pithy public policy lessons.

A big chunk of the evidence base comes from hearing the stories of those who rioted. That’s what we’ve been doing. Tracking down rioters from our contacts and then getting them to talk. No easy matter. Some of my colleagues have been writing about this too. Check out these excellent pieces from tonyshoey on an interview that nearly happened and lexvulgaris about a few that did.

I recognise everything they say. Some of my experiences range from trying to hold a conversation through the bolted front-door of a seedy flat in north London with a very frightened, remorseful and tearful young French girl about her involvement in the disturbances through to an interview with a highly politicised activist arrested for obstruction after advising other rioters on their actions. Today’s headlines focus on tensions with the police. Slightly buried is the fact that the study identifies complex causal factors. My tiny slice of the research process confirms all that.

But two experiences stand out more than the others.

The first is a discussion with the mother of a rioter arrested in Brixton who told me about her son being ground down by his “oppression” (her word, not mine) by the local police. These are the sorts of statements that are being challenged today in discussion forums, twitter feeds and webchats. “….hand-wringing liberals excusing wanton violence, etc…” I don’t think so. This is about piecing together explanations. Not justifications. This particular mother quietly got up from the settee in her nicely appointed living room and pulled a family-size biscuit box from a kitchen shelf. She prised off the lid and showed me the contents. I saw three neat bundles of stop-and-search forms issued to her son. She had collected 75 from him in a three-month period. Her son would sometimes be stopped and searched three times on the same journey between the youth club where he worked and his home. With the most objective will in the world, this is simply not right. It may not be an excuse for a riot either. But it’s easy to see how resentment builds up.

The second experience was one of the interviews I did in jail. I’ve never been to prison before, so that was something new. I was interviewing a young man convicted of inciting a riot. He didn’t incite a riot. He didn’t even leave his bedroom. He made a foolish joke online. That was his mistake. Once it’s out there in cyberspace, it’s out forever. I’ll never forget his hollow, pleading eyes as he described his arrest, his sentencing and his prospects for when he came out. Bleak and grim. This isn’t justice. This is a young man caught up in a politically-inspired sentencing crackdown.

I talked to others who are at the other end of the scale. 18 and 19 year olds who have been arrested 15-20 times. If they weren’t inside for rioting, it would have been something else. Journalist Erwin James wrote at the time “Images on news bulletins showing mobs rampaging and looting their way through the high streets and shopping malls of the country's biggest cities make it hard to disagree with David Cameron when he says that anyone convicted of violent disorder should go to prison. But our prisons are already bursting at the seams. Conditions generally are such that rehabilitative activity is limited even in the best performing prisons; and in those that are failing badly the outcome for prisoners and, as a consequence, for society, is ominous.” That’s the nub of the debate for me. It’s hard to see that another bout of bird is really going to change much for these lads. The punishment needs to fit the crime - what chance restorative justice (the rest of James' article)  to make some kind of contribution here? And if you’re looking for swingeing public sector cuts, here’s an easy target: it costs £60,000 to host a young offender at her majesty’s pleasure for a year.
There have been some moments of levity too. Like during a particularly sensitive testimony from an interviewee during which I made to tweak my attentive body language by resting my elbow on a non-existent chair arm. The subsequent over-balancing act straight out of slapstick central caught the attention of the café and rather broke the tension. Or the moment in the canteen of a youth offender institute when I realised all my minders had departed and I was sat eating sausage roll and chips with no identification and a shirt rather too similar in colour to the inmates’ garb.  I think I held my rising panic in check when I meekly explained to the restaurant manager – who hadn’t seen me arrive – that I was a researcher and could he spare anyone to escort me back to the gatehouse please. “Haha, sonny. Nice one. We’ve heard ‘em all here, you know. Now get back in line…”  He didn’t say that, obviously. Infact everyone in the prisons was incredibly helpful.
So I’m looking forward to the rest of the Reading The Riots serialisation this week and to the ensuing, no doubt heated, debate over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, pass me the monitoring reports….back to the day job.