I’ve fallen back into a commuting routine, four days a week at least, for the last few months. Following contracts around like a blood hound. Journeys to work at this time of the year usually afford precious time for clear headed ante-post Cheltenham study. At the moment though, I seem to be getting distracted.
Too much commuting has cumulative impacts akin to sleep deprivation. As much as I like travelling, the daily grind into Euston and down the Victoria Line is not my ideal of frontier-pushing exploration.
Unless you count the occasionally unexpected vistas: I encountered a large, ponderous, duffel-coated chap in front of me on the stairs this morning, lumbering a large black holdall which caused a curious rolling motion in his gait. As I passed him on the platform I chanced a glance at his face and was confronted by enough untamed, thick black nasal hair spraying wildly from his nose to suggest the undergrowth you could only expect to see on an Amazonian trek. Has no-one told him?
Or impassable terrain: Trying to exit the train past the mountainous, unscalable, grit-edged aspects of Brompton folding bikes piled up in the doorways is a challenge even Shackleton would only have considered in his most forthright mood. I am genuinely in awe of this outstandingly clever piece of British engineering. But they do tend to breed rather quickly.
Some distractions are better than others. Bex celebrated her 50th last week and I was more than happy to set aside the failing ante-post portfolio and join in. First came the civilised birthday drink down the boozer and last came the knockout party up at the club. In between - we weren’t there for these - came (at least) the meal over at the gastropub, the lunch with the girlies, the trip to London and the family bash. Oh, and then the post-party debrief(s) back in the pub(s). Quite what she’ll do when she really has something to celebrate is anyone’s guess! Happy Birthday Bex you legend.
The Battersea Beer Festival was another welcome distraction. Mrs A and I are stalwarts of this ale extravaganza dating back to the early 90’s. This year its regular home at the Battersea Arts Centre was not available and so the Festival relocated - bottle, cask and crate - back down the hill to The Grand. This former Victorian music hall proved to be a more than adequate substitute. The bars were on the main stage, a fact not overlooked by our mate Clive. “I’ve finally made it!” he proclaimed, soaking up the three-tiered auditorium and gilt-highlighted boxes in a wide eyed stare. “Judy Garland played on this stage you know!” I couldn’t swear to that, but I do remember seeing The Kinks here in fine form one year; and indulging in a New Year’s Eve 80’s club night about which I remember slightly less.
And then there’s the dog. Distracting in the extreme. This new addition to our family was rescued from the mean streets – at least for canines – of Romania a couple of months ago. She chose us one bitterly cold Friday afternoon in a caged exercise pound with frozen grass underfoot and wind slicing across the top of the Chilterns with the precision of a filleting knife. We’d only popped in to drop of an expression of interest form, thinking that sometime in late Spring we might be ready to rehome a small, quiet, well-behaved pooch. “Great”, said the manager, after we’d explained something of our circumstances and our pet aspirations. “Maybe you’d like to have a quick look at a couple whilst you’re here?” That’s how we came to be sold on the Nuca, the frisky, friendly Tibetan terrier-cross that jumped and nuzzled us into submission in the space of 20 minutes. Ever been manipulated?
The girls gave their seal of approval the following day and she was home with us by the middle of the week. Now we are five.
She fits in well. Like the other females in this household, she has quickly learned to tolerate my ravings at the telly as Saturday horses falter; or more rarely, peacock strutting when one of them goes in. Nuca’s response is to cock her head on one side, flick her ears, lick her chops and stare at me intently. The others resort to outright laughter.
The festival prep is taking its customary knocks, then. Not that this has stopped me pontificating confidently to anyone who will listen, and many who won’t, about the chances of various runners. There’s a new sharp-quiffed young fella-me-lad started at my Camden base. Top bloke. Sports development is his business. He likes a punt too, mostly on the football, though he’s had a few decent days out at the races too. Well it didn’t take me long to start calling the odds with enough bravado to sow an insidious seed in his untarnished mind that I might know what I’m talking about. If that really was the case, would I be promulgating a first day four-timer constructed entirely around Willie Mullins’ barn?
But he’ll learn. This will be an important lesson for him. Yes it will be painful when his Tuesday acca of Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen and Annie Power goes down at precisely 1.34pm. But in the long run it will be valuable, hard-earned experience. I expect some collateral damage in the form of outright hostility come my return on 16th March.
Curiously, at the very moment yesterday afternoon that quiff-chap was asking if his acca was still safe and I was saying that the weak link was probably Douvan, Bacchy was sowing some mischief of his own. We were in the middle of a protracted e-mail transfer window for our 12 Horses To Follow stables. “Douvan doesn’t go in the Supreme”, wound Steve and cheekily sent us scuttling to Twitter and various racing fora. Nothing. “Wind up”, I eventually said to my young colleague. Bacchy had achieved his objective all the same.
Earlier in the week we had met up in the Willow Walk to talk proper racing and put the final touches to the logistical operation. This year Si and I are staying with some friends in Cheltenham who have shipped out their children to make room. Nev is berthed in the chocolate box Bourton-on-the-Water. And Bacchy… well, Bacchy’s staying at home. He confessed that he would, after all, not be joining us. As in other years, the working relationship with his wife has become an insurmountable hindrance to participation. She is his boss and they work in a school. No leave during term time. It’s an unbreakable rule (though one that seemed to be bent sufficiently last year to allow an appearance for Day 1).
Bacchy himself offered up the phrase ‘pussy-whipped’ to describe his predicament. A crude, distasteful, slightly alarming term. Though none of us could think of a more accurate description. We shook our heads and drank more ale. And then whiskies. And then Nev bought me the largest, most tabasco-infused Bloody Mary that has ever been mixed. It came in a vessel related to a goldfish bowl and contained enough ice to warrant cramp-ons and an axe. Nasty.
On the way home, Bacchy and I paid a visit to the rather fine kebab house on Vauxhall Bridge Road. I was still stuffing it in my face whilst stood on the tube. Bad form, I know. Needs must.
I became aware of this gorgeous young woman who had sidled up to me. She asked for a bite of my kebab. I chuckled and asked what was she offering in return. I realised she was with two conspirational chaps sat opposite who were egging her on mercilessly. So she started fondling her left breast. I value my kebabs pretty highly, so I pointed to the other one as well. Too bad the tube lurched into Euston at just that point.
Bacchy apparently had no such luck. He agreed that the kebab was indeed very good, but found that his body rejected it rather violently the next morning.
Si fared the worst of all. Claiming that he was assaulted by the fresh air assassin, he missed his train and ended up in the Victoria Wetherspoons with another pint. The last train home was delayed, then diverted and he needed a cab home. His phone had died by that point. When he awoke the next morning he found that his boiler was broken.
And this is just the preamble. Bring. It. On.