Sunday, 5 January 2014

A little scene setting

The Christmas festivals and festivities have sped by like a Mitchell Johnson bouncer and I haven’t been able to raise a Mug Punting post since early December.  

It’s hard to lay my distractions entirely at the door of the cricket though. The Ashes were prised out of England’s grip in 15 painful, sorry days. The debacle robbed me of far less sleep than anticipated. My early morning telly loyalty was betrayed too many times by the tourists’ careless batting and inconsistent bowling. ‘Prised’ might be a charitable term for the way Cook’s lightweights have capitulated on this tour.

Some signs were well noted in England last Summer: the resilience of Haddin, the resurgence of Harris and the resurrection of Rogers. It pointed to a closer Ashes series this Winter. Credit to Johnson, sure. He’s a confidence player, and has found his mojo on the fast, hard and bouncy pitches of Australia.

Mitch the moustache: sizing up the oppo.
But that still shouldn’t have added up to humiliation.

Clarke’s quirky decisions last Summer look like captaining genius this Winter. Such is the power of perspective. Exposing Carberry round the wicket, two mid-ons for Pietersen’s leg-side flip; becalming Root. Clarke has formed a strong bond with coach Lehmann and the swagger and confidence was palpable from day 1. So was the antagonism and aggression on the pitch. Not one single player has given the tourists an inch. In their face at every opportunity.

And if that seems excessive in the context of Trott’s illness and departure, I would argue that it is simply a response to England’s negativity in style and attitude last Summer rolling on Down Under. I don’t like Cook’s captaincy. It is unimaginative, unbearably cautious and motivationally bereft. The divisions that were well reported in the Aussie dressing room last year seem to have been replaced by fragility in England’s this: Trott returning home; Swann selfishly spitting the dummy out after series defeat; lack of faith in Panesar; Pietersen’s increasingly detrimental self-interest.

Stokes is the one bright spot. A genuine all rounder has been unearthed. Root will be back and Broad still has plenty to offer (and possibly Anderson, though in racing terms he is fully exposed). But there are yawning holes in the top order, mighty doubts about wicket keepers, a threadbare pace attack and no spinner.

Australia have very obviously advanced, but not as much as England have retreated. It has been a calamitous tour. Worse, as a spectator, than Flintoff’s tourists that handed back The Ashes 0-5 in 2006-07.

Move on.

Part of the reason for the blog free zone in December has been nosey-grindstone, wall-to-wall work. Not a bad thing for a freeloading freelancer such as me. Indeed, very welcome in comparison with leaner pickings 18 months ago, or so. Though I’d be hard pushed to say I’ve been flailing myself as much as Mrs A.

Granny - her Mum - is not well, as earlier blogs have highlighted. Diagnosed with tracheal cancer in the Summer, as so often, the treatment has been worse than the symptoms (so far). This resilient octogenarian with a spirit more fierce than a Mitchell Johnson bouncer (yes, there’s a theme here) is sustained through a liquid feed directly into her stomach. The tube through which food is pumped has caused problems. It can move, clog or detach. And whilst it is too easy to take pot-shots at an under-resourced, over-worked NHS, the local hospital has not covered itself in glory.

During her current stay, Granny has suffered through miscommunication by disinterested consultants and through borderline incompetence with sloppy treatment. Worst of all, she was left in A&E with no triage for over 5 hours. She had called the ambulance herself on that occasion in late November because the feeding tube had become loose. Reconnecting it is a simple procedure – if one knows what one is doing. But no-one that night knew what they were doing. Not even close.

Mrs A has been visiting, organising and worrying on a daily basis. After many delays, setbacks, needless procedures and infections, Granny emerged on 2nd January after about eight weeks ‘inside’. She returned home where she now has a full-time carer. That she made it back home is a significant achievement.

One recent night, the hospital rang and suggested Mrs A should come in. She and her brother gathered at Granny’s bedside. Vital signs were weak and infection was smothering her lungs. Nursing staff recognised the situation and prepared family for the worst. There were mutterings about calling a priest. But Granny seemed to stabilise at about 4.30am. At 7am she woke up, sat up and looked around. “What are you lot doing here?” she whispered.

Whatever tungsten-based compound forms her spirit needs to be smelted off and drunk in steamy medicinal draughts by England’s middle order.

So we are looking forward with a cautious, short term optimism.

There are other, blatantly selfish, reasons to look forward too. For instance, let’s hear it for the flying 40 To Follow project!

Silence?

After Sire De Grugy’s facile win in the Desert Orchid Chase, the project was +31 to a level £1 stake and steaming along at +175 point real punting, back pocket profit. The best mid-point high water mark for almost a decade.


Grugy!
October had been excellent, November less so, but December roared back. I’m picking out the Hobbs trio as highlights. Champagne West, The Skyfarmer and especially Sausalito Sunrise don’t look like they have finished winning yet. Carole’s Spirit is quality in the novice mares division. 

However, Annacotty has to take top honours for an exhilarating round of jumping in the Feltham on Boxing Day. Lit up like a Mitchell Johnson fireball by first-time blinkers, Martin Keighley’s new stable star landed big odds and is now being aimed at the Festival’s RSA Chase. Lofty ambitions considering his start to the season. I don’t think Cheltenham will play to his strengths particularly, but we’ll see. Owes me nothing now.

A small town in Limerick or a potential RSA challenger?
And of course, at this New Year watershed, thoughts do turn with metronomic regularity to the National Hunt Festival in March. I’ll continue to take a low profile approach to ante-post punting. Not a dogmatic stance, but a focused, insured (non-runner, free-bet) approach designed to balm the scalding reversals of the 2013 Festival. Pain is etched into every entry of my Schedule of Shame and seared into the bottom lines of the secret offshore bank account.

There is also a share in another form of betting insurance to buoy Mug Punting into the New Year maelstrom. The lads have accumulated a very decent £236 punting pot since the Autumn, with which we are going to war. The Festival is an obvious target in one shape or another.

It all started with the whip. Or more correctly, it all stared with beer. Like it always does. After the last knockings of the pre-season fantasy cricket curry night, we scooped up the kitty left over from the boozer and as usual we decided to have a bet with it.

We once had a decent run in the Rugby World Cup by reinvesting whip remains in Argentina each round. We had built up a tidy enough amount but got greedy and took fancy prices about their semi-final with the All Blacks final. They got smashed up like Alistair Cook’s off stump after leaving a Mitchell Johnson inswinger.

After Cheltenham this year we lumped the kitty on some no show in the Grand National.

So whilst this was familiar territory, no-one had any hesitation in following through on a tip from Bacchy. A greyhound. A ‘kin greyhound! The owner was part of his online betting community. I probably looked aghast. It's my standard reaction when anyone talks about punting up the dogs.

The mut was called Butts Mott. It hosed up first time in a pup's race at 7-2. The whip moved smoothly to £22.50. Apparently the bitch was something of a decent prospect. Bacchy circulated some commentary from the syndicate that owned her:
“The plan is to go for the Angel of the North, the northern oaks at Newcastle in about 4 to 5 weeks. She has now won 8 on the trott. The good news is we should get a price ante post.  The final is on sky so lets hope we get through so we can all have a good nights viewing.”
We caught up again at the post-season curry night and watched her progress in the Angel of the North trials via Nev’s smart phone. A couple of days later, Bacchy took 5-1 ante-post for the big one.

Connections again:
“Hope a few of you have got a few nice ante post vouchers in your hands and hopefully Tuesday Butts does the biz again. She has won the last 9 now,10 would be memorable.”
 And then a day or so later:
“Right guys tomorrow is D day as they say. We’ve been discussing the draw and have both come to the conclusion that Butts will have to be on her very best game to get herself in a good position out of the 4 box. We really could not have had a worse draw. The worry is that the 1 dog Bridge Ruth might move over to the right as she comes out of the box as she is generally a middle runner.........In my opinion there is going to be trouble at the first bend and someone is going to suffer, hopefully Butts might trap a bit faster, the 3 pings out goes over to the rail and does the 1 and 2, leaving us a bit of racing room. The dog with the best draw of all is the 6 dog. And the 5 might be in front of us at the bend as well. One thing is for sure - Butts has developed great track craft and if there is a gap and a way of winning she will take it. Hopefully we don't get squeezed and lose the race at the first bend.”
This analysis proved to be more accurate than a mouthful of Mitchell Johnson sledging. The first bend produced the absolute carnage predicted by connections. Somehow, maybe that track craft they had seen, the beautiful Butts avoided the worst of it, slammed round the track and held on by a breathless, thrilling 100th of a second.

Bacchy the next day:
“The lovely BUTTS has served us up a 26/1 dble, so a whip that wouldn't have bought a brace of Doom Bar now stands at £135.”
The best looking bitch in Newcastle: La Mott!
This prompted an interminable e-mail that debated what to do with the winnings. Tortuous and argumentative, but very amusing. Only Nick remained consistent in his approach. “Drink it”, he implored every time options were aired.

Some ridiculous split-stake doubles and savers on England’s Autumn World Cup qualifiers were mercifully avoided. Eventually we settled on the Tingle Creek Chase. Most of us would be there at the track and Colin, who couldn’t make the trip, put up Sire De Grugy as the bearer of our whip. Good shout.

The Tingle Creek meeting has been one of our regular events for years. I met Tim at Watford Junction. He was nestling over the Racing Post. “Real racing starts at 7.20 tonight”, he remarked, looking at the Wolverhampton pages. He wasn’t joking.

None of us had much luck. The first loser of the day was Ben, whom we found at the station-side entrance to the track, forking out for a South West Trains penalty fare. And Bryn had his Grandstand ticket but was already inside, prompting some logistics texting action.

Not a great start. Although Nev got the forecast up in the first. How does he do that? 
Nev. Or Samuel L Jackson's Dad? Er, Grandad? 
I had a winner at Chepstow, which I’d just about glimpsed on the Ladbrokes screen in between pints of Hogsback T.E.A.  I was busy celebrating enthusiastically before I clocked the long odds-on price. That took the wind out a little.

The magnefique Sire De Grugy didn’t let us down though. Bacchy had scoured the rails bookies and found a bit of 2-1 for the slice of whip we had agreed to stake – an even £50. Jamie Moore had the horse in close to a couple of railway fences and the horse had looked plenty more fluent round here on other occasions. It didn’t matter. The class kicked in and just before the last he reeled in Captain Conan and came up the home straight tidily enough. That was a special moment.

Nick did the honours collecting the hard cash from Cecil Howells. I was acting the fool, taking photos and generally whooping it up. The bloke behind Nick was grinning at me. “We don’t win very often!” I excused and then took his photo as well.


Racing finishes ridiculously early December. This means the drinking starts dangerously early. Pre-race beers before the first at 12.20 through to a post meeting session kicking in from about 4pm in the Wheatsheaf on the green. Such things take their toll. On the way home, Si, Pete and I were able to give convincing accounts of how we were vigorously and persistently chatted up by the attractive, merry, female remnants of a pub Christmas party. What is beyond unsubstantiated claim is that Bacchy found a quid on his way out, which he donated to the whip.


Thus the fighting fund for Cheltenham stands at an attractive £236. Roll on the New Year.

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