Monday, 27 January 2014

Another good 'un gone


Uncle Gerry died on Saturday. Another good ‘un gone.

Gerry, Dublin born and bred, loved his racing, as I found out on a family holiday to Ireland a few years ago. My mate Bacchy had been put on to this horse called Down To The Woods. One of the best two-year-olds in Mark Johnston's Middleham yard at the time. We had won on the colt more than once already.

So, come late August, I'm telling Uncle Gerry about this in his local bar in Raheny, a decent enough suburb in north Dublin.
“Oh yes, it's running at Doncaster tomorrow.”
“Is that so, now?”
“It's already won there, so it should go well.”
I've had a Guinness or two so the bullshit is beginning to flow quite nicely.
“As long as the ground doesn't come up too soft it's a real contender.”
You would really think I knew what I was talking about. I frighten myself sometimes.
“D'ye hear this, Michael? We have a tip for the races tomorrow.” 
The landlord leans over and pours us another smooth one.
“Ah, I like a bet myself on the horses from time to time. What's the name of yer fancy?”
 I was purring now. Seamlessly shifting though the gears like a Bentley.
“Down To The Woods, Doncaster. Two-thirty. Can't lose. I know the partnership that owns it”.
A needless flourish. But I think I got away with it. There was a metaphorical wink and tap of the nose. I wince just to think about it. 

Gerry was one of the most quietly spoken, gentlest and understated guys I knew. Possessing enormous integrity and naturally garnering respect. We had a good banter in his local that night. There was a lot more to him than met the eye. It was obvious from the tone of the conversation how highly he was regarded by his friends. Passionate lover of Gaelic football, he talked me through the subtleties of the game; former golf club captain, we reminisced about Ryder Cups.

I’d not spent much time with Gerry away from his lovely wife and he was more animated than I'd seen him before. Like he’d been let loose. Aunty Carmel is spectacularly generous and warm-hearted. She does like to talk, though. These facts are not unrelated, I suspect.

Gerry sidled up at breakfast, next morning. In no more than a whisper, he said,
“Now David. Would you be thinking of having a little bet on that there horse you mentioned?”
 Ah. I’d forgotten about the big talking holiday punditry, fuelled by good Guiness and better company.
“I’ll check to see if he’s a runner”,
...and nipped out to buy a paper. Down To The Woods was declared alright and in no time at all Gerry whisked me down to the local Ladbrokes. As if by telepathy, Michael from the boozer was in there too. I grinned and he exchanged knowing glances with Gerry.

Gerry played it cool. I had no idea how much he and Michael put down. I wouldn’t have dreamt of asking. But I got a tad nervous. My credibility was at stake here. Wish I'd kept my gibbering stout-loosened tongue still.

The family and I were off to a holiday cottage in Wexford for the week, so I knew I wouldn’t see the race. We bade farewell and struggled through heavy traffic heading south out of Dublin. Soon I realised why. We passed Leopardstown. The place was mobbed with punters queuing to watch Giants Causeway edge another epic struggle in his glittering career. Today was Irish Champions Day. I could see the towering Grandstand from the car. My thoughts turned to Doncaster, but I couldn't pick up anything on the radio.

Hours later we saw the other extreme of Irish racing as we snaked past the ramshackle Wexford racecourse perched on a rise overlooking the coast outside the town.

The cottage was a few miles down the road and was fantastic, set next to a ruined castle overlooking a perfect horseshoe harbour. And the telly had teletext! Down To The Woods won at a miserly 2-1. The morning prices were a touch more generous. I was saved! “Pissed it”, Bacchy told me later.

Sometimes the smallest victories are really the biggest.

Gerry said I was welcome back any time and especially if I'd got some red hot tips. There was free Guinness in his bar whenever I chose to collect.

We met a few times since, but I never did quite manage to cash that one in.

Rest in peace, Gerry. Much respect.   

 
 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Fallout

Celebrating the true spirit of track changes, here is an unvarnished, rambling verdict on yesterday's runners - marked up in red!

blog My 40 To Follow stable has, by and large, been tucked up in cosy boxes during January, snuffling warm hay and ignoring the sodden countryside. Today it feels like the dam has burst. Not only because Haywards Heath and Tewkesbury are under water, but also because I've got eight, EIGHT, of my lads out today. That's 20% of the whole project. I suspect there are more waders and snorkels declared amongst this lot than cheekpieces and hoods.

In fact Ascot, which drains well except for the damp patch down by Swinley Bottom, rode well. Horses were getting through smoothly enough and at a sensible pace. The turf didn't appear too loose or sloppy. Even Haydock which was forecast to sit under hammering showers blown in by a moody jet stream seemed to escape the worst of it. Heavy - yes, but raceable - absolutely.  

Cheltenham is round the corner and the representatives out today will all have Festival aspirations to one extent or another.

Today has the feel of a make or break day and I could be at any point on the whooping-weeping continuum come 4.15pm.

Trustan Times - 12.55 Haydock
Has underwhelmed so far over hurdles and last season's form may have flattered him. Back to fences here (novice chase form is sound enough), he might be able to exploit the lower mark in the graduation chase. This is where he should be. Benvolio is serious opposition but I'll take some of the 3-1.

TT's performance lacked any sparkle and featured some indifferent jumping. No evidence of progression from last season and whilst Easterby will no doubt look for a decent handicap opening, the sense is that they turned to chasing because they had nowhere else to go over hurdles. Frustration rather than strategy. 

I watched this one in the Coral's on the high street and had a chinwag with Eddie, an Irish builder, a regular in these parts. He once delayed repairing my garden wall mid-brick-line to spend the day in the bookies. It was during the Oaks meeting at Epsom and I was there. He said at the time "Sure, I thought it would be fine if my boss was at the races too!" Eddie's always worked solo. I don't think he could ever find a partner to handle the pace...  

O'Faolain's Boy - 1.30 Haydock
Had the beating of the smart Easter Day on his fencing debut before he ran out of gas. He made a lovely shape over the obstacles and I like him. Four runners here. The money will be for Taquin Du Seuil on his favoured deep ground and at a more suitable trip. His jumping is not without wrinkles though and I fancy Rebecca Curtis's charge to be competitive at 2-1.

I'd nipped out to Gregg's to buy a cheese slice between races. This branch is closing down in March because the lease is up and the landlord has got greedy. No doubt we'll get another coffee shop or nail bar. Big need for those in Berko, obviously. So I'm getting my yearly quota of pastry products in while I can. 

I'd been looking forward to this race and was inevitably disappointed with the run. As the RP pointed, out Rebecca Curtis is in woeful form right now. As soon as Geraghty looked for a decent jump down the back straight, O'Faolains emptied immediately. A dirty scope was identified after racing. Plans on hold for him and a cloud settling over me. Not a great start to the action.

Carole's Spirit - 1.50 Ascot
Robert Walford's novice mare has been a star this year and has progressed smoothly with barely a false step. However this listed mares event is serious stuff. I'll be playing at 100-30 or so and I'm sure there's more to come. Ground and trip seem fine. But both Mickie and Highland Retreat look quality though, and this is a tougher assignment.

0-3 after this, but the gloom inside and out was lifted a fraction by this excellent race. Carole's Spirit came off the bridle for the first time in any of her races and I was fearing the worst. She found plenty though and coming to the last flight I thought she was the likeliest winner. I had assumed my usual position crouched over the telly screaming helpful advice to the jockey in machine-gun delivery. It didn't deliver the results on this occasion. 

Highland Retreat stayed on in determined fashion and was a creditable winner. Carole's Spirit comes out of the race well and slightly better ground will help this smooth travelling horse next time.  

The Skyfarmer - 2.25 Ascot
Rates one of the classiest novices in the project this season. Hobbs is taking him down the handicap route. Very impressive handicap win at HQ last time sees him shoved up to 140 (17lb) against tough opposition like Thomas Crapper and Irish Saint. Can't be overly confident, especially in the mud. 9-2 is probably fair. We'll know where he stands after today.

"You're in then!" said Mrs A sarcastically from the dining room. I thought I had the house to myself when urging Carole's Spirit onwards. Her return had gone unnoticed as I became wrapped in the race. My screaming at the telly is not rare on a Saturday afternoon. 

No screaming to be done in The Skyfarmer's race. Before the race I'd have said this lad was the better of the two Hobbs' novice hurdlers on show during the day. But this event was too much for him, despite being sent off one of the market leaders. Cutting out the fractions early, he soon folded and the ground must take some of the blame. But maybe a little too much too soon with the big weight rise he was carrying. Still a decent horse.

Melodic Rendezvous - 2.40 Haydock
Haydock's Champion Hurdle trial isn't overly endowed with graduates who claim the big one. Rooster Booster was the last in 2004. I still cling to the notion that Melodic Rendezvous might be another. Bitterly disappointing in the Fighting Fifth, he comes here with questions to answer. Possibly he didn't like the ground, although that would surprise the trainer, who has said good ground would be better for him. Nick Scolfield thought he just wasn't right that day. Whatever, we do know he likes this ground and I expect to see a bold showing. Don't. Let. Me. Down.

0-4 so far and the pain-pleasure continuum counter had moved smoothly to convulsions and sweats. Melodic Rendezvous was my biggest stake of the day. Palms stroking thighs, snatched breathing, dilated pupils. But time to turn off the dodgy porn movie and focus on the racing... Joke. Obviously. 

And it was never in doubt. I happily accepted trainer Jeremy Scott's explanation of the torn hind-quarter muscles in the Fighting Fifth. Rendezvous won this with authority. Mostly. Booting down the 2nd last hurdle meant Scholfield had to get busy on top. But this was a comfortable enough win. He's good enough to line up in the Champion Hurdle, though hard to see him denting the frame. I'm still not convinced by the argument he needs it hock deep ground either. A planned outing before the festival may shed more light on that. 

Off and running.

Katenko - 3.15 Haydock
Katenko is exciting to watch and has good form in big chases last season. Going well when coming down 4 out in the Hennessy, Venetia turned him out a week or so later at Aintree. That was a lacklustre performance. Given a break since and with the mud flying, he has to have a strong chance today in the historic Peter Marsh Chase. Just than nagging doubt that the Summer colic operation might have left its mark.

Katenko is clearly not where he was last season, although this was a much better run. Despite not travelling smoothly or jumping with style, he rallied well in the home straight and finished a close up 4th. I was never confident at any point during the race. I'm an optimist though, and maybe there are signs here of a return to some form. 

Sire De Grugy - 3.35 Ascot
Lovely horse. Picking up some very valuable pieces in the absence/illness of Sprinter Sacre. SDG is remarkably consistent, but there were signs at Sandown that he wasn't at his absolute best. He may need to dig deep to win this. Hidden Cyclone is beginning to show the form this season that I hoped would be there last when he was one of my 40 picks. It could be exacta time.

Wow. I mean wow. The Grugy didn't need to dig deep at all. This was a thrilling round of jumping. The best since he won the Celebration Chase at Sandown in April. I landed the exacta. Somersby departing early helped. I had a straight win bet too. Finally, following the success of the lads' Butts Mott/Sire De Grugy whip investments, I was encouraged to do the same with the remnants of a Berko Dads drink kitty on Thursday night.

Champagne West - 4.05 Ascot
Another impressive novice from that nice Mr Hobbs. Champagne West has been a bit of a slow learner and looks awkward over hurdles, despite recording a double - last time in a competitive handicap. He's got a penalty for that and though I'd like to see him go left handed because of his jumping, he should still have enough in hand over his rivals here.

The other Hobbs novice was deeply convincing. Jumped like an arrow this time. Clearly improving quickly. Where The Skyfarmer floundered in the ground, Champagne West seemed to relish it. He's a good 'un. I hadn't been very confident and was left ruing my conservative stake. Hindsight, etc. 

I was back in the bookies for this one, collecting the inflated whip money on behalf of the Dads. Eddie was still there, jaw protruding slightly further, mouth stretching into a grimace rather than a smile as I nodded goodbye. He'd had a poor day. 

I'm also getting in behind Grandioso in the Sodexo Handicap at Cheltenham (3pm). I think there's a touch of quality there. I backed him in the December Gold Cup at Cheltenham where something was obviously amiss as he was pulled up early. Ground a slight concern, but 8-1 is a value price.

Grandioso ran well enough, but Fehily got a splendid tune out of Bury Parade. 

This could be a bank-breaker. Batten the hatches...

So 3/8 for the project and I scraped home with a little profit, thanks in spades to Melodic Rendezvous and Sire De Grugy. I have to be grateful for that. Yet with so many of these runners holding strong chances, the bottom line seems a fraction below par. Never happy. 

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Pieces of eight

My 40 To Follow stable has, by and large, been tucked up in cosy boxes during January, snuffling warm hay and ignoring the sodden countryside. Today it feels like the dam has burst. Not only because Haywards Heath and Tewkesbury are under water, but also because I've got eight, EIGHT, of my lads out today. That's 20% of the whole project. I suspect there are more waders and snorkels declared amongst this lot than cheekpieces and hoods.

But Cheltenham is round the corner and the representatives out today will all have Festival aspirations to one extent or another.

Today has the feel of a make or break day and I could be at any point on the whooping-weeping continuum come 4.15pm.

Trustan Times - 12.55 Haydock
Has underwhelmed so far over hurdles and last season's form may have flattered him. Back to fences here (novice chase form is sound enough), he might be able to exploit the lower mark in the graduation chase. This is where he should be. Benvolio is serious opposition but I'll take some of the 3-1.

O'Faolain's Boy - 1.30 Haydock
Had the beating of the smart Easter Day on his fencing debut before he ran out of gas. He made a lovely shape over the obstacles and I like him. Four runners here. The money will be for Taquin Du Seuil on his favoured deep ground and at a more suitable trip. His jumping is not without wrinkles though and I fancy Rebecca Curtis's charge to be competitive at 2-1.

Carole's Spirit - 1.50 Ascot
Robert Walford's novice mare has been a star this year and has progressed smoothly with barely a false step. However this listed mares event is serious stuff. I'll be playing at 100-30 or so and I'm sure there's more to come. Ground and trip seem fine. But both Mickie and Highland Retreat look quality though, and this is a tougher assignment.

The Skyfarmer - 2.25 Ascot
Rates one of the classiest novices in the project this season. Hobbs is taking him down the handicap route. Very impressive handicap win at HQ last time sees him shoved up to 140 (17lb) against tough opposition like Thomas Crapper and Irish Saint. Can't be overly confident, especially in the mud. 9-2 is probably fair. We'll know where he stands after today.

Melodic Rendezvous - 2.40 Haydock
Haydock's Champion Hurdle trial isn't overly endowed with graduates who claim the big one. Rooster Booster was the last in 2004. I still cling to the notion that Melodic Rendezvous might be another. Bitterly disappointing in the Fighting Fifth, he comes here with questions to answer. Possibly he didn't like the ground, although that would surprise the trainer, who has said good ground would be better for him. Nick Scolfield thought he just wasn't right that day. Whatever, we do know he likes this ground and I expect to see a bold showing. Don't. Let. Me. Down.

Katenko - 3.15 Haydock
Katenko is exciting to watch and has good form in big chases last season. Going well when coming down 4 out in the Hennessy, Venetia turned him out a week or so later at Aintree. That was a lacklustre performance. Given a break since and with the mud flying, he has to have a strong chance today in the historic Peter Marsh Chase. Just than nagging doubt that the Summer colic operation might have left its mark.

Sire De Grugy - 3.35 Ascot
Lovely horse. Picking up some very valuable pieces in the absence/illness of Sprinter Sacre. SDG is remarkably consistent, but there were signs at Sandown that he wasn't at his absolute best. He may need to dig deep to win this. Hidden Cyclone is beginning to show the form this season that I hoped would be there last when he was one of my 40 picks. It could be exacta time.

Champagne West - 4.05 Ascot
Another impressive novice from that nice Mr Hobbs. Champagne West has been a bit of a slow learner and looks awkward over hurdles, despite recording a double - last time in a competitive handicap. He's got a penalty for that and though I'd like to see him go left handed because of his jumping, he should still have enough in hand over his rivals here.

I'm also getting in behind Grandioso in the Sodexo Handicap at Cheltenham (3pm). I think there's a touch of quality there. I backed him in the December Gold Cup at Cheltenham where something was obviously amiss as he was pulled up early. Ground a slight concern, but 8-1 is a value price.

This could be a bank-breaker. Batten the hatches...


Sunday, 12 January 2014

Mad as a Moose

The New Year seems to bring a step change in Cheltenham Festival counting down. The crunching sound you hear through your laptop speakers is the mangling of website gearboxes. Electronic media seems to have cranked from 1st to 5th in an urgent drive to pump out Cheltenham stories. I’ve lost count already of Festival stories about jockey bookings, vague and uninformative running plans, Championship race entries and betting offers.

So here’s my preview…

Not really. (But I am weakening.)

In amongst the Festival focus, I was intrigued by the reporting of BHA’s decision to ban Mad Moose from racing.  Nine months, at least, on the sidelines for the 10-year-old who has made a habit of refusing to race. The BHA said Thursday's ban was put in place to protect punters.

He blotted his copy book most recently at Sandown during the Grade 1 Tingle Creek Chase in early December. We were there. I have to say, a couple of our gang backed him at the outrageous prices on offer. It was a bet to nothing. A bet on whether he races or not, more than whether he wins or not. The Moose’s reputation goes before him and we all knew the deal.

Sam Twiston-Davies, aboard the horse trained by his Father, made every attempt to get Mad Moose to take part, as did the handlers down by the tapes. Although the recalcitrant racer did eventually make a move, he hung outrageously and fought every yard.  He was pulled up before the first and the reaction in the stands was one of hilarity and amusement. No one around us was tearing up slips and turning purple with rage.

This was his seventh offence (i.e. refusing or being reluctant to race, and being significantly tailed off at the start) in the previous 14 months. But he’s also won seven times.  

Sam Twiston-Davies, who has ridden the horse to win five races, has subsequently criticised the decision.

"It's sad he's got nine months off when a horse who takes steroids only gets seven months”. Fair comment is that. “[The BHA] said it's because of the punters but everyone knows Mad Moose. If you were to back him you'd only be having £1 each-way in the fact he might jump off at a massive price."

And that, for me is the nub of the argument. Betting is a gamble. That’s the point. 

Twiston-Davies draws an interesting comparison in punishments between blatant cheating on the part of connections and simple (or perhaps complicated) bloodyminded horses. As one punter has commented this week, “A lot of the argument from animal libbers is that horses don't have a choice. Mad Moose is a good example that a moody horse will do as it pleases.”

Protecting the punter might actually be a spurious argument. Coral’s James Knight makes the point that Mad Moose’s loyal backers recorded a healthy profit of +£20 to £1 level stakes in 2013.

James, in his weekly column, goes on to say:
“Rather than ban the horse, why don’t the BHA simply follow the lead of the tobacco and alcohol industries and provide people with a health – or in this case a wealth - warning about the horse. 
All it requires is for horses who have tried the authority’s patience on, say, three occasions to be flagged up on the racecard as potentially dodgy betting propositions. 
The only issue is finding a suitable letter to denote such an animal – a big, bold capital X on the card should give people enough of a clue.”
If protecting the punters really is the motivation of the BHA, it should treat these moody dogs and feisty rogues as non-runners. When horses refuse to start, face the wrong way or are left in the stalls, punters should get their money back. It would mean a change to the “under starters’ orders” rules. But nothing insurmountable for a body so adept at rule mongering and bureaucratic verbiage as the BHA.

Sariska lost me a few quid (as well as winning plenty in that rough old Oaks of 2009) by refusing to come out of the stalls towards the latter end of her glorious career. Even then, there was a modicum of comic value in Jamie Spencer wriggling and flailing for all his worth on top of a mare stood stock-still and disinterested in her berth. By anyone’s understanding, that is a non-runner.

Bookies might moan a bit about lost revenue, but is the massive value really, undeniably on offer to compensate for the risk of horses adept to plant? Yes, of course with a beast like Mad Moose. Yet Sariska was 85-40f and 7-2 on her last two non-starts. I’ll do some research…

Whatever. Horses refusing to race are not new.  Somewhere on my phone I have a text from my mate Bryn who smashed out an expletive ridden, mis-spelt volley of abuse after Bellator didn’t fancy the King George at Kempton one Boxing Day. He had done that once before and did the same next time out. It was his last race.

James Knight also unearthed an excellent blog from Chris Cook highlighting some frustrating racehorses. Not all none starters. A few of these are none finishers too. 

Delighted to see Quixall Crossett heads the list, the famous never-winning horse to whom Mug Punting is dedicated.

And also a favourite of mine from the late 80’s, Vodkatini. “At Kempton he gave up 20 lengths at the start but still managed to hit the front by the third-last.” Legend.

Don’t ban them. Let’s keep a little of the humour and unpredictability in the game.



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.