Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Mug Punting - the book

Well it's taken a while, but I've finally got round to editing and cleaning up Mug Punting the book. This mighty tome (!) is now available through Amazon on kindle here. It's really the forerunner to this blog and collects some early, cringeworthy stories of punting misadventure and mishap. 


Hope you enjoy it. Any comments welcome. 


As flavour, here is one of the penultimate chapters about my first foray into horse ownership...


The Charming Dash
The horse that I own a tiny fragment of, Dashing Charm, is belatedly making his seasonal debut. Connections (technically, I guess that should include me!) have settled on a low-key Huntingdon Sunday fixture. He’s running in a bumper, the second race of his career. 

Finding a race for him has had more false starts than your average General Election campaign. Set backs have included a cough, a cold, weather too wet and weather too dry. Talk about wrapping him up in cotton wool. You’d think this horse was a full brother to Shergar. Frustrating, but the animal’s welfare comes first. I accept that.

Then we had a farcically protracted campaign to find the horse a suitable race. The fixture list has been pored over and the form booked thumbed through. Multiple entries have been made in bumpers and novice hurdles at some of these fair island’s most far flung locations. Dashing Charm’s emergence into the limelight has been a tantalising ‘will he, won’t he’ soap opera for the last six weeks. I even rang the club’s hotline during Cheltenham week because there was a chance the beast might turn out at Sedgefield the day before the Champion Hurdle in some dodgy egg and spoon race. He didn’t make the cut. Just as well. 

Given this fixture/fitness epic, I feel I really should see this race at Huntingdon. Just to clock the horse actually on the track would be a victory of sorts. The next hurdle (even though this is only a bumper) is getting an owner’s ticket. After all, what is the point of horse ownership - even on this club membership basis - without an owners badge? But no joy. I do not get through the ballot. It makes me wonder how many members there are with a share in this beast. There are ten tickets up for grabs and I don’t get one.

But I resolve to go anyway and be a paying punter in the cheap seats. It’s not an easy decision. There are competing pressures at home. For instance, daughter no. 1 has a ballet exam. But this was Mrs A’s Christmas present to me and she too wants me to get some value out of the membership.

I e-mail Mike at the club in the hope that someone pulls out and I can pick up the spare. At about 5.30pm, my luck changes. Mike calls.
            “Hi Dave. Are you still planning to come racing tomorrow?”
He’s got a ticket for me, I reckon. But he wants me to commit before he offers it up. Canny bugger.
“Yeah, definitely. I’m looking forward to seeing the horse.
“Good, because I’ve got a free owners ticket for you. One of the club members has had to drop out as the family have come down with chicken pox”
“Oh that’s such a shame.”
Ouch. Was it only three years ago that I irresponsibly deserted a chicken pox-infested household to go to my first three-day Festival? I’m so shallow.
            “But good news for you if you want the ticket. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
            “Yeah, that’s fantastic. I’ll take the ticket.”
And then the immortal words….
            “Just go to the Members entrance and there will be a ticket for you there.”

Right. Sort out the logistics. Huntingdon is OK to get to. Usually. Straight down to Euston, short stroll to Kings Cross taking in the modernist British Library edifice and gloriously gothic St Pancras Station en route, followed by an hourly 50-minute shuttle into rural Cambridgeshire. But the infamous West Coast Modernisation, a lumbering and painful, overblown and overbudget rail engineering project with an unspecified completion date, is causing protracted havoc with the service from this corner of Hertfordshire.

Weekend services are particularly prone to carnage. Sure enough, a quick check reveals that emergency engineering announced only yesterday will sabotage the service tomorrow. I try to assemble a straight story from the incomplete information provided by three separate calls to National Rail Enquiries. It seems that the works are due to be completed by lunchtime. Or I can get down to the next station on the line - Hemel Hempstead - and pick up a regular service from there. This is taking more planning than Cheltenham.

Whilst I’m on the web, strangling screams of frustration at the rail system, I do a bit of research. Last time Dashing Charm’s trainer, Chris Bealby, had a winner at Huntingdon it returned at 66-1 in a bumper. And the jockey booked for tomorrow’s ride is Paul Maloney who rode a cracking double at Towcester when I was there earlier in the week. Hey hey! Good omens.

I’m reassured. After a cosy night’s kip, dreaming of the winner’s enclosures around the country, I awake refreshed and ready to take the first steps on the road signposted ‘Ambition Fulfilment. This Way’.

The family even has time to squeeze in a traditional Sunday morning outing to the Supastores. B&Q for some patio furniture and Curry’s for a washing machine. It’s this kind of time honoured, established activity that keeps the fabric of families as tight as a snare drum. But we’ve bonded for too long over the white-goods counter and we have to shift a little to get round to the station in time for the first train.
“See you later, girls. Good luck with the ballet, Elizabeth. Catherine, be good for Mummy. Thanks for the lift Helen. Byeeee”
“Good luck Daddy. Where are you going again?”

This is where the shit hits the fan. I’ve been drip-fed duff information. Stitched up like a kipper. There are no trains to London. Buses all the way. I make enquiries of one of the many luminous green-vested Silverlink attendants about the next bus. My gaze follows his jabbing finger in the direction of the last bus just turning out of the car park. Preceded by wife’s car. Bollocks.

12.40 is the first train of the day. I curse again. No chance of getting to Huntingdon for the first race. The arrival time of the train starts to slip a little. And a little more. My stomach tightens. The TV display has given up the unequal struggle and resorts to blinking ‘delayed’ in fat yellow letters instead of an estimated arrival time.

A care-worn, harassed Australian customer services rep snaps shut her mobile phone and swaps it for a mega phone.
            “The train is delayed. I don’t know when it will turn up. We’ve found another bus. As an alternative to the train, anyone who wants to take the bus to Euston, it will be leaving from the forecourt in about five minutes.”
 They’ve found a bus? I bet they don’t have this carry on in Bendigo Springs. I bet she wishes she’d taken the safer option to work with her country-folk in an Earl’s Court pub.

Reluctantly I leave the platform with everyone else, casting a longing look down the empty track. Cold rails to hell.

The coach shuttle is a disaster. The driver doesn’t know the way and he takes a wrong turning in Watford. We do a complete circuit of the Mirror Print Works on the outskirts of town followed by a tour of myriad side-streets trying to find the railway station. After 20 minutes stuck in traffic near the by-pass there is open hostility on the coach.
“If he don’t know his fuckin’ way round the A41 he shouldn’t be doin’ the fuckin’ job”, is one of the more constructive remarks.

Another guy blowing his top at the inept driver is with his family trying to get to a West End matinee performance on time for a birthday treat. I shuffle uneasily in my seat.

The bus sits outside Watford Junction station waiting for new customers. The coach driver has disappeared and a couple of the more irate passengers get off to find out what’s happening. It is they, rather than the driver that come back and tell us that the trains are now running from Watford and the bus will be going no further. Bastard. I knew it. I should have stayed at Hemel. Wrong decision.

I charge through the barriers and up the stairs. I never move this enthusiastically when I’m commuting. Unbelievably, a train is just departing from platform 9. It isn’t even full. Surely the platform manager must have known that there was a coach full of people in the car park waiting for trains? I swear and actually kick the guard-rail running round the waiting room. It hurt.

I’m starting to lose heart now. The train info suggests tentatively that the next direct London service might be 1.55. But it appears to be running late already. It’s about 1.15 and I begin to wonder whether I should just turn round and go home. There is a train on Platform 10. It goes to Brighton via Harrow, Kensington and Clapham Junction. At least it is vaguely the right direction. I leap on just as the doors are closing. This is harum scarum stuff. I’m not even in London yet.

I’m trying to catch my breath. In my mind’s eye I see the last couple of minutes as something out of a Western. I’m Clint Eastwood and I’m looking at the train indicator, weighing up what to do. Maybe I’m chewing resolutely, but calmly on a piece of old gum. Maybe I’m distractedly spinning my shiny pistol around the fingers of my left hand. I take a long look at the London platform and narrow my eyes. Then a long look at the Brighton train. With a quiet nod I coolly board the Brighton train. The doors sliding shut immediately behind me ruffle my poncho but not my pose. 

In reality, I’m more like Manuel out of Fawlty Towers. I’m stood in front of the train indicator dithering and dallying. First I take a few hurried steps towards the London platform before I stop and grasp my head in frustration. Then I move towards the Brighton train before halting and blaspheming.
            “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck”
I go back to the train indicator and search for some illumination. I have the deepest scowl burnt onto my features.
            “Meester Fawltee. Whata you wanna mee todooo now?”, I should be asking, droopy moustache twitching with nervous tension.
Then at the very last moment I plunge for the Brighton train like the manic waiter from Barcelona and scramble aboard by the skin of my pinny, grin unnervingly at the other passengers and prop myself up against the opposite door, slipping as I do.

I have some quick decisions to make now. I pull out my Betfair diary and consult the tube map at the back. I need to get to King’s Cross from this train which cuts out central London. Clapham Junction involves too many changes. There are no tubes from Olympia and West Brompton on a Sunday.

No choice then. I get off at Harrow and Wealdstone to get the Bakerloo line which will take me right into Zone 1. The train I’ve just exited pulls away at the moment I’m reading the tube map info. It tells me that Harrow doesn't currently enjoy a Sunday Bakerloo line service. Trains into London start further down the line at Queens Park today. That’s handy then. Boy, have I cocked this one up.

I’m still running through options in my increasingly crowded and dark brain when I notice a bit of movement on the platform. People shifting around like they are getting ready for a train. I spin round to see a Silverlink Metro service arriving. Hallelujah! My first piece of good luck. This is a tortuous stopping service all the way to Euston. I need to be on the 2.20 from KX if I have any chance at all of seeing some racing today. It will be tight. I count down every single stop, willing the doors to bleep-bleep as soon as the train comes to a stop. It’s torment.

Next thing, I’m skittering down Euston Road, hurdling rough sleepers and leap-frogging concrete bollards. People jump out of my way as they hear my laboured breathing and heavy footfall approaching behind them. I’m no athlete.

But I’ve gained a bit of time and I clamber in to the Cambridge train with a Racing Post, a racing heart and a beetroot face. I hope there aren’t rules about deportment in the Owners Enclosure. 

Throughout this chaotic journey, I haven’t had chance to look at the form or check what the RP says about my horse. I flick to page 73 and cast my eyes over the runners for the 5.10 Hemingford Grey Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race (Class H) Winner £1,876. Hmm. Don’t think my share of the prize money is going to make me rich, then. 

Dashing Charm is Number 4, resplendent in red colours with a blue stripe. He gets an RP rating of 69. This isn’t good, though there are two others with an even lower rating. The spotlight analysis is crushing.
            “Left toiling in rear on run for home when tailed in off fast ground Worcester bumper last June; cannot fancy.”

The journey out to Huntingdon is in marked contrast to the last few hours: calm, quick, pleasant. I jump in a taxi out to the track. It’s not long before I’m directing the taxi down the track marked ‘owners and trainers’. I leave him a healthy tip and he shoves off. I’ve got too smug. This entrance is for the trainers, grooms, head lads and the like. Pukka race folk who have a proper job and proper connections. I trudge off before I make any more howlers. I find the main entrance and more accommodating ‘members, day members and owners’ gate. This is me.

            “Hello. You should have a badge for me. David Atkinson, City Racing Club. Bit late. Ha ha. Train trouble. I’ve got a runner in the 5.10.”
I wince. That last bit I couldn’t deliver with any confidence. It’s the sort of thing I dreamt of saying. When it came to the delivery, it sounded weak and made up. If I was a proper owner I wouldn’t need to emphasise the point.
            “Oh yes, here you are Mr Atkinson. And a complimentary race card. Have a lovely day.”

Oh yes. I will. Oh Yes.

I fumble with the strings attached to the badge, trying to attach it to my jacket. In doing so I almost stumble into Nicky Henderson who is leaving the parade ring to watch the next race. Oh my God. I’ve only been here 30 seconds and I’m already mixing with the game’s premier trainers. This is too much.

I’m in time to see the 3.40. The day’s exertions have rattled me and I decide to have a bet and watch the race before meeting the Club members. I need to regain some composure.

I back Nicky Henderson’s runner Late Claim. Rude not to after our introduction just now. We are almost mates and this is practically a tip. It’s a 2 mile novice hurdle, but this doesn’t stop the horse fading badly in the last half mile. There is a very close finish and I couldn’t call the winner between Stolen Song and Tai Lass as they flash past the stands. Stolen Song prevails.

OK. I’m steeled. The club members are meeting in the owners’ bar of the main grandstand. I swear my chest swells as I stride in. The doorman (who would not be out of place at The Ritz in my eyes) clocks my badge flapping freely in the Spring breeze and pushes open the door. I breathe deeply. Smells like any other bar in the world. Stale fag smoke, flat beer and recycled air conditioning. But this is my bar. The owners’ bar.

Mike told me that he and the other club officials would be wearing red jackets. I easily spot a group of four - two blokes and two girls - who fit this description, mingling with half a dozen people who I assume are the other members. I wander over and introduce myself. Mike’s on the phone and the other red-fleeced clubbers point at him and say it’s him I need to speak to. Not a trace of a Geordie twang. Clearly it’s just the Tote red jackets that bring out this curious trait.

I fall into conversation with Bill from the club. I say I’m late because of my train nightmare. He takes one look at me and says,
            “You look like you need a drink! The bar is over there.”
He knows me for all of 30 seconds and he’s worked me out! He’s bloody well right. I must looked frazzled after my ordeal. The journey out from Peterborough was calm, but clearly it did not give me sufficient time to disguise the trauma of the first 3 hours of the journey.

I return with my pint and I do actually feel more relaxed. Bill is a quietly spoken, stocky bloke in his late forties at a guess. He tells me he’s only working with Mike because he’s at a loose end these days. He comes along on race days to help with all the bits and pieces that need sorting out. He knows Mike from their Army days years ago and hooked up with him again after his own engineering employment which had taken him as far afield as the Falklands had run into the ground.

Bill is so laid back. He doesn’t know much about the horses or about the game. He doesn’t bother about a bet. This is all about a day out, being involved and helping out a mate. He is a very engaging, thoughtful chap and contrasts markedly with Mike. Mike is finally off the phone and is scurrying around each of us shaking hands, nodding the odd comment and making himself busy. He’s quite a short guy, clipped blond hair and looks a few years younger than Bill. After a few minutes, Mike gives a sort of school-teacher like chat about Dashing Charm, known by everyone here as ‘Tickle’ and today’s events.
“He’s been working well at home and Chris is pleased with him. He is still only young and we are looking forward to a long career with him. Today’s race is a bumper. That means there are no fences and it’s just a flat race. He has taken on some hurdles at home, but he won’t be trying that today.”
Hmm. This is hardly a Racing Post analysis of his prospects.
“Is the plan to step him up to longer distances after today?”, I ask.
“Yes. We already think he will stay 2 ½ miles and touch wood, after today, he’ll try that distance over hurdles.”

That’s about it before Mike issues some instructions about meeting up before the race and slips back into his phoning/handshaking routine.  I grab a couple of words with him. He seems like a buzzed-up teenager, not able to hold his attention on anything for more than a few seconds. He’s very enthusiastic which is great to see and he cares deeply for the horses. He rides out Tickle most days.

The owners who have shown up today come from right across the racing spectrum, hence Mike’s very general pep-talk a few minutes ago. I’m chatting to a young couple who bought each other shares as Christmas presents. They’ve never been racing at all before. First time. They remind me of giggling teenagers, arm in arm, pointing and laughing at anything they have never seen before. Another couple, much older and looking well off, go racing regularly and seem to have an interest in one or two of the club’s horses. Eric - big bloke, blingage, camel hair coat and booming gor-blimey voice - tells me all about his best bets and how to pick a winner at Leicester, his local track. He must be a used car salesman. He’s a good laugh, at least in moderation, and I watch the next race with him and his quietly spoken, demure missus from the grandstand.

I don’t get a sniff of a win in the race, but at least my blood pressure has returned to normal and I’ve stopped spitting barbed wire about Network Rail. I have a good look at the course. There are a couple of decent races here each year. The Peterborough Chase, synonymous with Edredon Bleu is probably the pick. The circuit is quite small and even in 2-mile events the field comes past the stands twice. I crane my neck to see them round the tight bottom bend. Rarely, for a course these days, there is no giant screen to concentrate on when the field is down the back straight. The course is not exactly top drawer in terms of quality and quantity of facilities, but the environment is lovely here on the outskirts of town and the track has encouraged an open and accessible policy. There is plenty of room to move around and explore, fostering a relaxed atmosphere. The facilities must heave under the pressure of a Peterborough Chase crowd though.

I decide to explore the facilities in more detail and plunge nose first into a thai chicken concoction from a van near the horse walk back to the unsaddling enclosure. Wonder if it makes the horses hungry. I’m standing near the winner’s enclosure when Terry Biddlecombe squeezes under the rail and passes within a foot of me. For a moment I think he’s going to steal my noodles. But he simply passes an enquiring glance and heads off to the stables. No sign of Hen Knight today but the stable has a couple of runners here today. Mixing with the stars, me. I’m getting to like this owner’s stuff.

I bump in to Bill just as I’m binning the mangled remnants of the Thai extravaganza. It only gets 5/10. If you read this, Terry, go for the chippy instead! I tell Bill that I’m having a great day and that I’m surprised how many top trainers there are here. He says that’s good but I don’t think he really knows who Terry Biddlecombe and Nicky Henderson are.

The novice chase is a reasonably good looking race and I back Bill’s Echo. It’s the first decent fancy I’ve had so far today. Bill and I settle on the rail beyond the winning post for this one. He talks lovingly about the grace of horses then surprises me when he says that his first love is really motorbikes. He also tells me about a fantastic walk he did across Northern Spain as part of an international challenge. He ended up staying on for months after the walk had been completed. We went there on holiday there last year and he knew the bit the stayed in, Cantabria, well. He loves the people and I think he left part of his heart in La Coruna.

Timmy Murphy left part of Bill’s Echo at the last fence. My bet was coming to take the race, I’m convinced, under a typically late, driving finish from the in-form jockey. But he clouted the final obstacle and went down in a heap. 

We join the rest of the team by the parade ring for Dashing Charm’s race. Mike is still buzzing about, but there’s not much to be seen yet. I meet the other two red-jacketed club officials. Kate and Lynn are the stable staff. Both teenagers who love horses and are charged with looking after Tickle. Mike is organising a collection for Kate who is the horse’s groom. She’s been with him up until recently and is more excited than any of us about seeing him in the ring.

Mike points out Chris Bealby, the trainer and not long after Dashing Charm, or Tickle, whichever you prefer, comes out of his box. There are too many of us to go into the ring with Mike and the trainer. Shame. I’d have enjoyed that part as well. Maybe next time.

Tickle looks very well. He’s a chestnut colour, quite big and appears quite fit enough to my uneducated eye. But this is his first run since June last year, so is bound to need a sharpener. He’s big enough compared to the other runners. I think I actually do say “chaser in the making” to someone in our group who nods back at me with a knowing expression. Some traditions need to be kept intact. 

Jockey Paul Maloney receives the briefest of final instructions from Chris Bealby before mounting our horse, pause there, ……our horse…., and cantering onto the track. Chris joins us in the grandstand which is great because I really wanted to have a bit of a chat with him. At least he’s making the effort to join the members and is an approachable sort. I ask him about long-term plans for the horse.
            “Yes, we think he’ll go chasing. Seems the right sort. See what happens today though. Needs a bit more experience.”
He speaks in clipped tones from a giant height. I’m on the step above him in the stand and I’m still peering up at him. You can tell he’s a trainer a mile off. He wears a check flat-hat pulled down low over his eyes. He’s wearing a grey barbour zipped up half way with regulation brown v-neck pullover and contrasting shirt/tie combination peeping out from underneath. But the give-away must be the crazy mustard cords keeping his pins warm. Where do they sell this gear?

I don’t get chance to congratulate him on his tremendous bumper record at Huntingdon or to ask whether he’s expecting a repeat. He’s been collared by Mike again who clearly feels he’s the only one qualified to engage the trainer in proper racing talk. He’s probably right. 

I need to get a bet on and I bag 66-1 each way on the Atkinson beast. Ha ha. They are at the start by the time I join the gang. Bealby has his bins focused on the field. I do a double take at the size of his hands. They are like shovels. Absolutely massive. He’s obviously bred from solid farming stock.

As the race gets underway, Bryn fires me a text to say he’s watching the race and the Charm looks well placed in mid Division. Indeed he is. The field passes us with our boy held up sensibly in the pack.
            “Go on Tickle. You show ‘em.” It’s the stable girls next to me.

The race kicks on a gear down the back straight and Dashing Charm is quickly outpaced. He can’t stay with the leaders and Maloney is barely asking him for an effort. Henrietta Knight’s horse Racing Demon comes away to win the race, but all of us are still looking down the track. Dashing Charm stays on well and picks off a few stragglers to finish a well beaten but not disgraced 10th at 40-1.

The stable girls are bitterly disappointed and desperately trying to see the bright side.
            “At least he wasn’t last”
            “Yeah, but this was a decent race, remember. Lots of good stables were represented here”, I offer.
            “Yeah, that’s right”, they leap on my solace. In a manner of speaking.
            “And he hasn’t run since last June. He’s bound to be rusty.” I almost believe the excuses myself.

There’s time for a group photo and a bit more chat before I decide to make for home. Bill tries to buy me a pint, but given the histrionics involved in getting here, I see sense and head for the courtesy bus back to the station. This has been some day.

Think I’d better call home.
            “Hello Daddy.”
            “Hello Elizabeth. How did your ballet test go?
            “Oh, it was OK. Wendy said I did well.”
            “Brilliant. Well done.
“Hello Daddy. I’ve been a good girl today.”
            “Hello Catherine. That’s really good.  Is Mummy there?”
“Yes, I think so”
Long pause.
Longer pause.
“Hello? Dave?”
“Hiya. It’s me. What sort of day did you have?”
“Fine. I didn’t know you were calling. I just walked in to the living room and the phone was off the hook!”
“Cheers Catherine!”

They’ve had a top day anyway. And they even saw the race.
            “Which one’s Charming Dash, Mummy?” had asked Elizabeth.
            “That’s Daddy’s horse”, had said Helen, pointing at the red and blue clad jockey, “Dashing Charm.”
            “It doesn’t look like Daddy”, she had replied. Helen looked a bit perplexed before she worked out what our eldest meant.
            “No, no he’s not riding it, honey. He’s just gone to watch it with some other people.”
I think she was a bit disappointed.

The club are quite pleased with Tickle’s run, apparently. I checked the website for any follow up, and not only is there a picture of us all by the parade ring, but the price for shares in the horse has been put up by another £50 quid or so on the strength of this performance. There’s optimism for you. 



No comments: