My betting activity on the horses this season has been so frugal as to be insignificant. Consequently the returns have been meagre too. But getting out-punted by my two teenage daughters and their friend at Newmarket recently was still hard to swallow.
I seemed to drift away from the gee-gees about the time that Royal Ascot wrapped up this Summer. I’ve traditionally been an advocate for and disciple of the winter jumps. In years past I had often struggled to maintain a consistent interest in the mediocre fare outside the big flat festivals. More recently, I’ve shaken off such cherry-picking and become much more indiscriminate. Indeed my flat stats bear favourable comparison with their national hunt brothers. …Though there’s no call to hang out the bunting.
That I’ve been distracted by other ‘stuff’ is no real defence. It wouldn’t happen in the jumps season. Never too late, last week’s Ebor meeting jolted me into action. Telescope’s win so full of promise in the Great Voltigeur, Tiger Cliff’s emotional victory in the Ebor and surprises in the Nunthorpe. And now, like an Aiden O’Brien lightly raced three year old, I am primed for an Autumn campaign.
Saturday at Newmarket’s July course would have been an appropriate place to mark my (re)start. Lovely course. Half decent card, including one listed sprint. Only I blew up. Clearly needing the first run after an extended absence, I was feeling the hot pace too early and folded tamely. I may need my sights lowered and to find a more appropriate target. (Though I’m drawing a line in the sand well before the desperate prospect of Wolverhampton’s artificial surface.)
We counted ourselves mildly fortunate to see any action at all. During the week, weather forecasts had stubbornly predicted heavy rain for southern and eastern England on Saturday. I heard the slap of precipitation against our bedroom window early that morning. For the next few hours I monitored the grey skies leaking moisture that alternated between downpour, stair-rod and bucket. I kept checking the Racing Post website, but there were no hints of an inspection at Newmarket (though Redcar had already been abandoned).
So we set off, grimly determined. Me, Mrs A, daughters no 1 & 2 and their friends Callum and Zoe, repeating the racing and music trick that we had pulled for the girls in two previous Summers: Kempton and Olly Murs, Sandown and Jessie J. This year McFly would provide the musical port and cigars after a feast of racing.
The M25 was nose to tail and there was so much rain and spray that it resembled driving through a car wash. The M11 was worse. A bad crash on the southbound carriageways had caused a major tailback on our northbound route of rubber necked ambulance chasers slowing down to get a good look at the carnage. We missed the first race, a 2yo maiden. But as we climbed from the trusty Zafira in the car park, the rain had subsided to a drizzle. The atmospheric and metaphorical gloom were both lifting.
Being a generous sort, I funded the younglings at £2 per race and they could keep their winnings. And that’s what they did. The three girls cleared over £50 between them, backing 7 winners in total. Callum, in many respects my protégé, had brought his own stash to top up my contribution. He loves a day at the races. We discussed jockey bookings, the impact of the rain on the going and some of the finer details of form. He told me that he often didn’t pick a horse just on the name anymore. His plan was to keep some of his stakes back for a big bet on the lucky last. Marvellous stuff. “Mug punting indeed!” I beamed. “Isn’t that the name of your website?” he asked. He went home potless. As did I.
Zoe, on the other hand, was a revelation. There were six runners in the 2.45 nursery handicap, so we did the sensible thing – backing one runner each. Zoe picked Safety Check who held on soundly from Callum’s Ticking Kate. It was as near as he got all afternoon. Zoe was overcome with joy and leapt around the enclosure, bucking and squealing like a yearling . She had never been to a meeting before and expressed surprise that there were so many races. “But when the Grand National is on there’s only one race”, she said. Interesting perception from a teenager about the prominence of the race in a really good three-day meeting.
Though everyone missed out in the next, a valuable class 2 handicap (the kids all wanted to back Mankini – not on form logic, I suspect – and were disappointed to see him declared a non-runner), winners came thick and fast for the girls for the rest of the afternoon.
The best race of the day, a listed sprint, was savaged by defections as the ground changed. We walked over to the parade ring, decorated with hanging baskets and shadowed by the thatched roof weighing room. Zoe was applying some thought to the afternoon and wanted to make an informed selection based on gait, gleam and girth width. I wanted to look an old friend of mine in the eye and see whether she still had what it takes. Mince was sensationally progressive as a three year old last season but seemingly had not trained on. I was sorry to see she also was a late withdrawal. I didn’t get my heart to heart.
Tropics landed favouritism by a comfortable length and it was daughter no 2 that benefitted this time. I’d been backing outsiders all day and Master Of War was just about the best run I got out of any of them. A decent third and one for the list for the rest of the season.
Zoe was back on track with Lancelot Du Lac in the next and after studying the card she observed “That’s the second time that jockey has won on one of my horses today.” She was right. Mikael Barzalaona was in fire. “Also Zoe”, I added, “he won the first race before we got here”. The three girls’ eyes lit up and they scoured the card for his next ride. “Here it is! Greek war!’” she declared. “I’m following Zoe”, said Daughter no 1. “Me three!” joined in Daughter no 2. And so it was that Charlie Appleby’s charge was roared down the centre of the final furlong by three teenagers purple in face and hoarse in voice to land their healthy 6-1 spoils. They were delirious.
Mr Barzalona had no mount in the final race, but the girls’ attention was already drifting. No sooner had Peace Seeker crossed the line then they were off to find a pitch front and centre for the McFly boys.
Callum, Mrs A and I wandered over to catch a few numbers from a more modest distance. The band plied a perfectly respectable brand of energetic guitar pop with some catchy vocal hooks and assured delivery. There were plenty of Mums and Dad’s happily foot tapping and shimmying their approval too, though the predominant register when it came to end-of-song screams was definitely high end. Dogs ran screaming. Thankfully the drinks glasses were plastic. If you see what I mean. They were a massive hit with the girls, evidently.
The rain returned only towards the end of the set and it seemed like we had cheated the weather. The Guardian carried photos the next day of extreme flooding in Essex. We had had a lucky escape.
So all that remains is to enact my autumn revival. Starting with Sandown on Saturday. Definitely.