Monday, 15 February 2016

The end of the line

After a day at the races with Dad and Bruv, I waved them off and then picked up a TransPennine Express to my next destination. Cleethorpes: the end of the line.


There’s no doubt that I have a compulsive fascination with seaside towns out of season. And if they are faded glory Victorian resorts, so much the better. It appeals to some deep-seated romantic notion of decline and change.

That’s not quite what I got in Cleethorpes. After exiting the open-platform, unstaffed station at about 8.30pm, all the shops, cafes and arcades were shuttered up and bolted down. Padlocks rattling in the stiff westerly. This played to my expectations of run-down bleakness. Only the pavilion at the end of the truncated pier had lights blazing, against which I could see half a dozen couples propping up the bar in penguin suits and party dresses.

However, on Saturday morning, the town was alive. As I promenaded along the seafront I chuckled to see a woman swaddled in headscarf, parka and wellies at the head of a small train of donkeys. Each of the steeds had union flag saddle cloths and jauntily painted bridles. I thought I recognised at least a couple from my previous year’s Cheltenham ante-post punts. I gave them no more chance of gainful occupation on that chilly day than any of those forlorn Festival bets. By the time I came back the other way, there was a clutch of children enjoying donkey rides on the beach in front of the pavilion.

The accommodation had been top notch. The previous evening I had wandered in to a steaming pub - all bare floorboards, chipped varnish and fading wallpaper - but packed with boisterous Friday night revellers, thinking maybe I’d come to wrong place. After elbowing my way to the bar, I was shown in to the snug around the corner where the booking formalities were completed with my host Emily and the tardis-like qualities of the venue began to reveal themselves.

Off the cosy snug (well what other adjective could you possibly use?) there was a dozen or so drinkers and bar-snackers in the lounge. Upstairs was a more formal restaurant a million miles away from a traditional pub dining room. Two airy rooms with picture windows made the most of the view down the coastline. The décor was modern and recent, such that I could almost smell the gloss top coat; and the furniture and fittings were all comfortable and yet minimalist, giving a sleek environment I had not expected.

The bedrooms were on the next floor up. As a solitary traveller, I’m used to the single room that pretty much folds out of the wardrobe, squeezed in under low beams with a toilet block on either side. Not here: lovely room, with a huge bathroom and again the new, clean look.

“Sorry about the smell”, said Emily. “We’ve just redecorated.” 

That became clear when I tried to open the bedroom door after coming back from the snug later. Its thick edge had become welded to the newly painted (and clearly still tacky) frame. I had a mild comedy moment as I exerted a fraction too much pressure and skittered in to the room as the door gave way, looking back over my shoulder in case my Stan Laurel moment had been observed by other guests . If there had been a camera I would have looked straight down the lens, Oliver Hardy-like, tipped my bowler hat and scowled.

Earlier there had been the usual palaver trying to fill the kettle for a cup of tea: it wouldn’t fit under the bathroom tap (they never do) and I had to fill it by decanting water into and then out of the toothbrush glass via the kettle spout (having mercifully realised that using the shower head would have been an unsatisfactory solution); and then finding that the cord was too short to safely reach any of the sockets. I risked a scalding hazard with the kettle perched precariously on the desk plugged into a four-gang extension socket levered up on my rucksack after having disconnected the telly. When I made it to bed, I found a wall socket by the door, hidden behind the duvet. I really must get on to TripAdvisor about this stuff.

Stepping out from the hotel right onto the seafront next morning was a joy. The coastline was absolutely lovely. I knew it was the Humber estuary really, but everything about the place felt like the proper seaside. The sand was fine-grained and soft, the water smelt salty, and just past the sports centre, wide, verdant dunes stretched out into the foreshore. The brackish aspect has led to excellent bird and wild life amongst the mudflats and sandbanks. It has also attracted investment and protection: the area south of the town centre has a nature reserve, a country park, a boating lake, footpaths crawling all over the sand dunes, formal gardens with modernist sculptures, and a restaurant with a discovery centre and observatory upstairs.



The whole beach front was surprisingly busy for the last Saturday in January. Ramblers, amblers, dog walkers, joggers, kiddies' scooters (powered and manual) and cyclists. There was even a kitesurfing zone on the adjacent beach, though the gale blowing up the Humber had quite reasonably discouraged activity. The donkey riders are a much hardier type. Sadly the four-mile seafront miniature railway had closed for the season, otherwise I'm sure there would have been commuters too.

I stopped by a sign describing the history of the Humber forts. I scanned the estuary and yes, there they were. Two squat, circular concrete constructions in the river that I had not noticed until then. Haile Sand Fort just off Cleethorpes was the smaller of the two. This and Bull Sand Fort nearer to Spurn Point, were both built in World War I to guarantee safe passage for shipping convoys. They were garrisoned by up to 200 men and were decommissioned in 1956. If this was somewhere off the south coast they would have been turned into luxury hotels or private retreats by now. As it was they currently served as navigation aids through the tricky Humber tidal clearances.

Up by the pier, the seafront takes on a more traditional guise. The shuttered shops and arcades I’d noticed the previous evening were not permanently closed down or abandoned for the winter, as I’d assumed. They were nearly all open and doing a decent enough trade. I bought four sticks of rock for a quid to take back for the girls (even at 18 and 16 I know how to get in their good books) “What can you buy for a quid these days?” said the vendor. Indeed.   


Cleethorpes is a bit of an enigma. The seafront, as previously noted, is lovely. Even the area by the train station, though a bit run down and with a few nods to the brash and tacky end of the market, is pleasant enough. The walk down the prom and into the dunes and parks is very different in a refreshing and soul-filling way. Scarborough has this contrast as well, but on a much more startling scale.

I ventured into the Pier Pavilion, spied from the promenade last night. I was genuinely surprised. The bar was a well kept and recently spruced Art Deco gem: glass and chrome ceiling lights, high backed comfy chairs and a view over the wind-whipped sea. I settled for a hot cuppa to see off the chill breeze. The tea was served up in a two-dig white china pot with matching cup, saucer, milk jug and sugar bowl. It clocked in at a staggeringly value-laden £1.70. The omens were just too good, so I sat there and struck all my big-price-low-stake bets for that afternoon’s Cheltenham trials meeting on the old smart phone. Bargain hunting at the races.


Across the road from the pier, I spotted a café called The Leaky Boot, which seemed like an odd name. I checked out the story. The café is named after a statue of ‘The Boy With The Leaking Boot’. It was presented to the town in 1918 by a Swedish immigrant to Cleethorpes who had built up a successful shipping business. It was a copy of one in a Stockholm restaurant. That itself was one of about 20 cast in a New York foundry in 1873, of which about 15 stayed Stateside. 

Anyway, the statue is on display as part of a fountain in the Diana, Princess of Wales, memorial garden. It seems to be an unlucky statue of late. It was stolen and replaced in 2002 and then again in 2008. Then it was vandalised in October 2011. Then again in 2012, two youths were recorded on CCTV as they frolicked naked in the pond and destroyed the fountain. A replacement statue was made by a local garden ornaments manufacturer and installed with improved security later that year. It’s not just the statue that attracts problems. A nearby pub was named The Leaking Boot, but was destroyed by fire in June 2009. I decided to give the café a wide berth.


Like many seaside towns, the railways played a massive role in opening up this area. The Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company were the first to market Cleethorpes as an ideal holiday destination for bracing sea air and healthy pastimes.  The station was opened in 1863, but it was not until 1884 that business took off when the company developed the resort themselves, investing in the pier, pavilion gardens and Ross Castle, an ivy-clad folly on the prom.

That sense of enigma about the seafront extends to the rest of the town as well. I had earlier walked up Seaview Street, with my hotel on its corner, and wandered past independent coffee shops and bijou brasseries housed in handsome (if not grandiose) Victorian buildings. There were enough antique, arts and crafts emporia to pass a smug glance towards many higher profile picture-postcard villages. 

This is a deceptively isolated oasis though. The main shopping streets and surrounding area carry the whiff of limited ambition. Unpreposessing would be generous. Given the 19th century investment in the town as a health resort, there is a surprising absence of important buildings, fine architecture or imposing hotels. Neither does the town have medieval shambles or Georgian crescents to add historical oomph. Any signs of the settlement’s earlier life as fishing village were not visible. It is an almost entirely working class Victorian creation, but without the visceral statements that many northern cities, towns and ports made when they flexed their wealth through public halls, warehouses or merchants residences.

And then I emerged onto the seafront road back towards the station. Here there were Thai restaurants and pop up art galleries going toe-to-toe with amusement arcades and chip shops. The place is an intriguing mix of faded glory seaside and renaissance chic. The place has got plenty - if not quite everything - going for it.

The look and feel of Cleethorpes had me subconsciously pegging it as a red flag-waving working class stronghold through and through. But no. It has returned a Tory MP at every election since 1950, bar an aberration in Blair’s New Labour landslide of 1997. Cleethorpes was within the parliamentary constituency of Louth when that loathsome toe-rag Jeffery Archer won his first and only seat in the House of Commons.

One of the many financial controversies that dogged his parliamentary career ended that relationship with the east coast. Archer was a casualty of a fraudulent investment scheme involving a Canadian company called Aquablast. The debacle lost him his first fortune and left him almost £500,000 in debt. As a result, he stood down as an MP at the October 1974 General Election. That was before the resignation from the Conservative Deputy Party Chairmanship in 1986 because of the vice girl scandal; and also before his withdrawal from the London Mayoral race in 1999 because of a perjury trial where he was sentenced to four years in prison. It was, though, after he made up a military career for his father, incorrectly claimed he attended Wellington College; and was accused of fiddling his expenses as a charity fundraiser. Let's not mention investigations into insider dealing and into his Kurdish charity. Odious man.

Far better that the town associates with Nibbs Carter who was born in Cleethorpes in 1966, the same year Jeffrey Archer wed the ‘fragrant’ Mary. He followed a far more wholesome career as bassist with metal legends Saxon.

Back on the train home, I saw some of the industrial booty missing from Cleethorpes, just five minutes up the coast. The railway line snakes north-west and inland around the docks at Grimsby. Despite there being some signs of the previous wealth that the fishing industry created in the town, it has seen far better days. Formerly handsome Victorian fish processing sheds at the docks were beyond repair with caved in slated roofs and crumbling red brick walls. In front of them, rusting cranes and broken conveyor chutes that overlooked a marina with as many pleasure craft and cruisers as fishing boats. It was an odd mix. 

And then the train turned westwards, away from the Humber and hooked up with the mainline at Doncaster. I sat next to the window, and watched my Saturday bets fall over one after the other on the smartphone. I wondered what price I could get on those donkeys at Cleethorpes beach.









Friday, 12 February 2016

Just a click away

Alongside the exponential growth of on-line betting over the last 10 years has come the equally voracious spread of internet forums, tipsters and bloggers. Indeed, in some small way I am part of that virtual community.

Any amount of advice and information is (theoretically, at least) available if you are prepared to filter out the detritus; sieve through the rubbish; scroll through the pap. I recently left the Horse Racing Social group on Facebook because I got fed up with the amount of knee-jerk bellyaching, belligerent contributor-baiting  and bellicose conspiracy-theorising. Racing trolls, eh?  (Sounds like a new toy for Christmas.)

That’s not to say the site was bereft of occasional wisdom, insightful comment or the odd pretty photo. I even learnt some new insults. For instance, last week I had backed Paul Nicholls’ Stilletto to win a novice chase at Wincanton. The horse cruised around the home bend to lead, with his rivals toiling in the mud. Approaching three out, I could see Sam Twiston Davies stoking up Stilletto, but the horse just wouldn’t come up for him. He made barely any effort to jump the fence and came crashing down. I was sick. Up until that point he looked a certain winner. I wasn’t particularly blaming the jockey. One group member certainly was, however. Look away now to protect your sensibilities. “Sam Twiston Davies, you cock-juggling thundercunt!” screamed the post headline. A memorable epithet that made me chuckle. I’ll tuck that one away, ready to unfurl at the track…

There are plenty of good websites out there though. And it’s worth persevering. In early December a tipster was recommended to me who was offering up value punts on good quality 3m+ handicap mile chases and landing them regularly. So this is a big shout out to Josh Wright and his Racing To Profit set up. 

The lads and I were at Sandown’s excellent Tingle Creek meeting. It coincided with Aintree’s best fixture outside the Grand National Festival. Josh had put up an extensive analysis of the Becher Chase over the big national fences. His selections were Highland Lodge at 28/1 and Portrait King at 16/1. I watched the race unfold on a bank of TV screens near the real ale bar in the nether regions of the main stand. Nick was stood next to me. Josh’s selection was prominent from the off. I said,

“Some lad tipped this up this morning. Made a compelling case”.

The horse continued to fence with alacrity and rhythm.

“So are you on then? He looks like he’ll win!”

I coughed and shuffled my feet.

“No, I backed Thunder and Roses. I couldn’t see past his shocking recent form!”

Highland Lodge came home like a trooper, despite a little wandering on the run in. My horse was pulled up. I have not ignored his advice so glibly since.

Josh has gone on to put up the winners of many staying handicap chases over the winter, many at outstanding value: Last Samuri in the William Hill Chase (13/2); Ziga Boy (twice, both at Donny, and 9/2 and 8/1), Soll in the Veterans Chase Final (8/1), Russe Blance in the Betfred Classic Chase (a staggering 20/1); the North Yorkshire National (Lackamon at 14/1), Golden Chieftain at Wincanton (14/1) ), Cloudy Too in the Tommy Whittle (7/1), Le Reve last Saturday in the Betfred Masters (4/1). Many more. 

I’ve been on some of these and others I’ve left alone. I like to read Josh’s refreshing, honest analysis and then make up my own mind.  I shouldn’t bother with the last bit. If I’d followed him punt-for-punt I would have been far, far better off. His stats in 2016 to last week were 40 bets yielding 12 wins plus place returns giving a stunning +96.5 points profit.  

I’m a cynical old sod and I don’t endorse very much. But you could do a lot worse than get yourself over to his free site (though donations are welcomed) and check out the advice. 

As Josh candidly admits, this outstanding run can’t continue for ever. I only hope he can squeeze out a little more juice to help me in those murderous handicap chases at the upcoming Festival. My 15 year record in them is a mere four wins from 101 renewals, including no win at all, ever, in the Grand Annual, the Plate or the Kim Muir.  I kid you not. Every year I sweat cobs to land a few of the graded races and then try my damnedest to lose it all in those black holes, sucking the life out of my punting strategy. To be fair, I have learned the lessons from my stats; identified and acted upon my own trends. My staking is much lower in the both handicap chases and handicap hurdles (although I do have a better record over timber) these days. There’s no way I can leave them completely unpunted though. It is the Festival after all.


Maybe sticking with Josh’s advice will help me rescue those lamentable stats a bit. In the meantime, better get back to the ante-post markets.  Only 5 weeks to go, you know. Tick. Tick.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Ante-post bolstering

I’ve been scrabbling around busily bolstering the Festival portfolio by trying to unearth value in opposing Mullins. It is a thankless task. Ahead of a traditionally informative trials weekend here and at Leopardstown, it’s time for a health check.

My nemesis, the Supreme. I’ve sided with Henderson here. There’s a collectors item. The last one was Sprinter Sacre (3rd!) in 2011. In absorbing a good few shrewd observations that Min is far too short for the rubbish he has been beating; and that he shows a little too much green-ness, I’ve backed Altior at 7/1. It’s principally a price call to oppose Mullins with one that is improving rapidly. That said, I think I saw some of those behind Min have now come out and won. Ho hum.

I also had a dabble with Anibale Fly at a neat 225/1 on Betfair last month. He was then beaten easily by Bellshill over 2 ½ miles. I had been hoping that a step back to 2 miles would see him line up in the Supreme, allowing me to cash out my first Festival profit this season. Ha ha!  No. It looks like he’ll go down one of the handicap routes and I’d be surprised to see him in the entries tomorrow.

Very much looking forward to seeing a combination of (is it too much to hope for all of) Yorkhill, Bellshill and Tombstone in the Deloitte Hurdle this weekend. Just about the best yardstick for the Festival novice hurdle grade 1s of the season. I’ll be hoping to get a proper fix on them as there is still some mileage in the Supreme market.

No further action in the Arkle. I have Ttebbob who hasn’t been seen since pulling up behind Douvan at Christmas. Given that he goes well fresh, I assume Jessie will send him straight to the Festival now, if he goes anywhere. Hard to be confident about this one. Finding anything to oppose Douvan is a tough ask and I’ll probably park the bus until the day of race, now. Intriguing selection from Pricewise though. I had to look up The Game Changer as I couldn’t even remember his run in October! We are all scraping around for some angles.

In the Champion Hurdle, I have assumed Old Guard will not line up. I do not know what went on with the Nicholls team over Christmas. There was almost a whiff of panic about the yard as they sensed the ending of their Grade 1 production line. Chucking Old Guard in to the Christmas Hurdle after three swift runs was madness. Especially after the trainer had initially said the horse would have a break before the Festival. Immediately after his poor run, the talk was all about stepping him up to 2 ½ miles.  The vibes coming out of Ditcheat are uncharacteristically knee-jerk. To be fair, it was a rubbish ante-post bet anyway. It now hangs on yet another change of heart from Pumpkin Head.

So I’ve added Identity Thief to my roster at 14/1. Carefully brought along by De Bromhead, I’m suckered in by another deceptively progressive profile. That will do here. Nowt will get near Faugheen the machine.

Nothing yet in the Four-miler. I’ve been very much enjoying Lydia Hislop’s microscopic and entertaining Road To Cheltenham series. I was thinking about Onenightinvienna for this marathon novice chase until I read that Lydia had whistled up Philip Hobbs on the speed dial to ascertain running plans. We discovered that the stout stayer would not be appearing at the Festival at all. He was instead being targeted as a novice at the Grand National. So she promptly backed him for it at 50/1. Fantastic stuff.

I moved to get Yanworth onside at 8/1 for the Neptune the day before his serene victory in Saturday’s novice hurdle trial at HQ. Given the manner of his win and that he now rates as my Festival banker, I feel I should point out that I have witnesses to this apparently brazen spot of after-timing. Happy to provide usernames and instagram profiles as necessary.

Nothing else here for now. And nothing in the Albert Bartlet yet either. Novice work to be done.  

The RSA has an open feel this year. This weekend’s action will shake the market up somewhat, with excellent trials both here and in Ireland. I’ve played some low stakes at biggish prices around Andrew Lynch’s Zabana. I sat up and took notice of his smooth debut in December. He’ll run in the Flogas Novice Chase on Saturday and I have him for the RSA at 26/1 (Betfair) and the JLT at 23 (also Betfair). The plunge on the horse today for the JLT is presumably in response to stable talk. In to 10/1 in some places. The JLT does look like the best race for him. Even if he runs really well on Saturday, the worry is the lack of practice he will have under his belt for the RSA which is always a severe test.

In which case, I’ll be knotted brow over the cards for Saturday when the likes of Seeyouatmidnight, Blacklion, Black Hercules, Roi Des Francs, et al will lay down some more markers.

After looking at Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House Chase, I concluded, like others, that the only horse who can get near him in the Queen Mother is Sprinter Sacre. No rocket science here. After UDS ran so well, Henderson’s standard-bearer drifted out a point and I pounced with a startling turn of feline precision. Sniffing out value as like it was kittekat. (I’ve had a modest interest at 5/1…!)  Sizing Granite, though having a pretty poor preparation, apparently remains on course for this race. However, he’s left De Bromhead and now resides with Colm Murphy. He is still available at prices within the same county as the one I have: 33/1 from December. I don’t take a great deal of comfort from that.

JLT – see Zabana and also Sizing John who will go straight to the Festival now. I do like Killultagh Vic here, but I’m unlikely to play again unless/until my two are scratched.

I’m bereft in the Ryanair. As usual, it’s the Festival equivalent of The Inbetweeners, full of immature types who would rather be somewhere else. Five of the top six in the betting are unlikely to line up. The only one I like is Village Vic. On the one hand, 12/1 with a run looks a smidge short for what he’s achieved. On the other, if Vautour, Smad Place, Road To Riches and the rest of the Gold Cup gang don’t show up, he has the race at his mercy. But now I read that Vroum Vroum Mag has this an option, alongside the World Hurdle and the Mares Hurdle. FFS!  (This is like thinking aloud on keyboard). OK, that’s it. I’m in. Village Vic NRNB at 12/1. [Update: availed myself of the 16/1 NRNB offered by those generous souls at Boylesports. Much happier with that.]

The World Hurdle looked so open in December and when I backed Martello Tower at 16/1. I thought I’d be having a fistful of juicy double-figure ante-posts to go with. Then Thistlecrack came along and stamped his presence all over the race. Twice. He’ the real deal. In the meantime, Martello has gone backwards and I’ve had no other bets. This race is a now a bit of a shocker. I need to regroup and devise a new strategy. The old one didn’t work.

I’d backed Myska a week or so ago at 7/1 for the new Dawn Run Mares Novice hurdle. She ran a stinker on Saturday and was later found to have a cough. She is the only Mullins horse I have backed for the Festival this year and her participation has to be in some doubt now.

Sceau Royal at 16/1 was added to the collection in early January, after Adrien Du Pont came out and won a decent Triumph trial in style (on desperate ground). My lad had beaten him well before Christmas. He’s ‘done nothing wrong’ as they say, and King is a master with these types. His latest prep was a low key affair and he remains best priced 14/1.

Finally, I have made up my mind about the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Don Cossack was backed at 5/1 with the lumpiest bet in this ante-post ramble so far, before his run in the Kinlock Brae Chase. I had concluded that his ability to maintain a good gallop off the pace and kick on in the closing stages in top company were the sort of attributes I was looking for over a trip where his stamina would come into play.  The key pieces of form that frank this view are the Punchestown Gold Cup where he won well last April and the King George where he fell at the last but looked like getting up.

His run in that Kinlock Brae raised as many questions as it answered.  There has been a lot said about the lazy way he ran. Whilst it’s a worry, I do have some respect for Elliot’s view that better ground will make all the difference. I have to keep the faith now.

Don Poli is the rival I’m most concerned about. That was the case before Djakadam’s fall last weekend. Don Poli is a grinder with stamina to burn. Just the type for that hill. Djakadam now goes into the race with the following stat hanging about his battered frame: Of the 103 horses since 2006 that have come into the Cheltenham Festival off the back of a last time out fall, only one has won. I don’t tend to hold such stats in very high regard, but that one is a cracker.

Roll on the weekend. After which this lot will probably be smashed up and I’ll need to start again. Again.



Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Donny

En route to the station I walked past our local M&S where the external sign has been reading F OD HALL for sometime now. I attempted to engage a young man with a mirthful witticism. He was bent over a large vowel swathed in clear plastic which he was slicing off with a knife ready to re-attach to the sign above the entrance.

"Got any Os?" I lobbed.

The sign-smith gave me a look of total confusion. The appeal of the classic Two Ronnies sketch is clearly a generational thing. I didn’t think it was worth inquiring about fork ‘andles…

On the train to Doncaster, there were the usual shenanigans trying to navigate through prats in order to find my seat. For instance the dithering woman on the phone in front of me, blocking the entire vestibule at the end of Car C, and saying, "I'm so busy. I'm literally flying to New York on Sunday!" loud enough so that the passengers in Car M didn't miss her executive travel arrangements. “Literally”, I thought, “as oppose to what...? Metaphorical travels by first-class mind-palace?”

Donny is not the prettiest town in England. Considering its relative Victorian affluence and later railway heritage, swathes of the town are architecturally anonymous and barriered by road infrastructure. And yet there a whiff of ambition in the air. Robin Hood Airport, opened in 2005 on the old RAF Finningley airfield is a success; the new Keep Moat Stadium is home to Doncaster Rovers and a raft of other local pro sports teams; and the Frenchgate Shopping Interchange is a reasonably attractive and popular new shopping centre. I later read of plans to create civic and cultural quarters in the town centre and raised an eyebrow.

Alongside these worthy constructions, the £36m redevelopment of Doncaster Racecourse in 2007 is a lot closer to my heart. Although owned by Arena Racing, the Council earmarked work at the racecourse as one of its seven transformation projects to regenerate Doncaster. The project rolled out during a turbulent time for horse racing as the original and ground-breaking At The Races media rights deal collapsed and as internet betting began to take off.

It was delivered as a joint venture between Doncaster Council and Arena Leisure. The Council was very aware of the potential of a revamped track that would boast a state-of-the-art grandstand, exhibition and conference centre together with a new on-site stables complex, weighing room and accommodation block for racing professionals. Plans also included a four-star business class hotel. It never got built because the tumultuous betting industry backdrop to redevelopment soon gave way to a far deeper malaise in the economy more generally. Now, the mothballed project is being revived. The Council is talking to developers about building a 150 bedroom complex on the site of the former weighing room.

The three of us admired the new five-tier grandstand. It is an attractive, spacious and well appointed structure with excellent sight lines and plenty of seating both inside and out. The terraces provide thoughtful viewing areas and unlike many other new racecourse developments, the best bits of the stands are not just the preserve of VIPs, life members and corporate hospitality. Joe Punter is not squeezed into concrete cattle sheds here. I met Dad and Bruv in the Lazarus stand where we had acres of tables, large screen tellies in every direction and access to a split level outside patio. All that was missing was the hot tub.


In Town Moor racecourse, Doncaster has something of which to be genuinely proud. And this was my first visit. Unforgivable for a Yorkshire lad. On the way out to outside seating, Bruv gave a nod of approval and said "You can really tell the difference between a Grade I and a Grade II track!" Tired old Wetherby is their most frequently visited racecourse.

My appreciation of the place went up even further when I tried to find somewhere to dump my lumpy rucksack.

"Do you happen to know if there's a left luggage anywhere hereabouts?" I asked an under-occupied woman in one of the spacious Tote booths.

"I'm not sure. You could ask in the main reception."

She peered at me over her glasses, weighing me up.

"OK, thanks. I don't really want to lug this thing around all day."

I shook the backpack with a tired looking shimmy.

I was pleased to note that the Tote uniform has returned to its traditional bold pillar box red instead of the vile lime/grass green combination of recent years. Maybe they'll go back to recruiting all their staff from Newcastle and its environs too. Just like the 90s.

"Here, I'll take it." She had obviously decided I wasn't a terrorist. "I'll pop it down there with my coat. I'm here til 15 minutes after the last race".

I was touched and made sure to place all my Tote bets that afternoon exclusively with her.

All three of us backed Coozan George in the opener. A solitary Jefferson runner at Donny should not normally be overlooked. Maybe we should have done. The horse was given a quiet ride on his chasing debut before smacking the last and losing a lot of momentum. He did well to finish in the places. One to take out of the race. Just after that mistake, Bruv dug me in the ribs and shouted,

"He's coming, he's coming!"

"He's getting third!" I thought I was watching the wrong horse.

"No, for my placepot!"

Hardly reckless punters, Dad and Bruv have recently adopted a careful strategy of only backing in races once their Placepots are down. I scoffed insufferably until Bruv described his healthy strike rate. That shut me up. I have an appalling record.  

Landing the Placepot on that card seemed like a taller order than ever. Every race bar one had 16+ runners and there was a fair smattering of impossible handicaps and unfathomable maidens. So it proved. I made it to race 3. Something of personal record. The others faired little better. The pool eventually paid out £172 to a £1 stake.

That said, there was a lot of rubbish in the 18 runner novice hurdle and between us we had whittled it down the three live chances. Why we didn’t perm them I’ll never know. Two of ‘em came home first and second: Cyrius Moriviere for the upwardly mobile Ben Pauling and Moabit for Paul Nicholls. Dashing Oscar, whom I finally settled on, finished no-where.

My only winner of the day was Keith Reveley's Night In Milan. A twice winner at this track over fences, even Bruv couldn't put me off with his remark that the horse was being sent over hurdles today merely "as a Grand National prep, Dave". He came smoothly clear down the home straight and never looked in danger, despite my urgings towards James Reveley to “watch out and get flippin’ busy”. No need. 7-1 looked a steal after the event.


There was a nice moment after the race. George Moor had just seen his last ever runner, Wolf Shield, come home safe and sound. Moor was interviewed in the winners enclosure about his retirement after giving 31 years to the game. He went out with a couple of Northumberland Plates and a Royal Ascot winner under his belt. The horse my Bruv remembers best is Pagan Starprincess whom he managed to back at various odds between 7-1 and 28-1 on each of her hurdle wins.

All his horses have been moved on. And everyone he employed at the stable has been found a job. On the downside, there is no-one to buy his Middleham training facility which is being broken up and sold off in chunks. Much like Ferdy Murphy's state-of-the- art place was a few years ago. This leaves Micky Hammmond as the last credible jumps trainer in Middleham. Even that is stretching a point. The flat business is thriving in Yorkshire, but the jumpers are very much the poor relation. A sad decline which sees no prospect of reversal.

We went off to fetch refreshments, leaving Dad to mind the seats. "We'll try to bring the tea at the same time", we said to him as we headed for the sandwhich bar. "Don't worry", he called after us. "You can allas go back again. He! He!"

The five-runner 3 mile novice chase had the potential to be informative, with useful runners from Nicholls, Fry, Curtis, King and Richards. However, the race was over as a spectacle early when The Tourad Man fell. That hampered Saint Roque into a bad mistake who was pulled up almost immediately. Vintage Vinnie, whom I had backed at Cheltenham in October where he came down, jumped much better here and looked like giving favourite Thomas Brown something to worry about. The improved fencing didn’t last long though. Vinnie hit three out and Thomas Brown stayed on fairly well to win. Harry Fry’s yard has been bang out of form. They’ll take this result, although there’s a suspicion it was gifted to them. Safe to say there were no RSA Chase winners in this field.

We had seen Alex Ferguson’s chopper land in the centre of the track before racing. Now he and the rest of his entourage were attracting attention as they came back from the parade ring, passing the rails bookies. Fergie did his best to sign every autograph and pose for every selfie with something passing for good cheer. All he really wanted to do was look at the prices of the opposition to his horse, Rainy City, in the maiden hurdle. One of his crew sidled up to him and handed over a slip procured from Wensleydale Bookmakers’ pitch. I didn't see how much folding stuff had changed hands. Fergie was getting fed up with the attention by then and the gang headed over to the owners bar.  


Bruv and I watched this heat from one of the two remaining Victorian stands at the track, up by the one-furlong marker, where there is a great view back to the new stands which angle out into the sharp turn just past the winning post. Having the parade ring in front of the stands adjacent to the track is a simple way of engaging everyone with the theatre of dispatching the runners and greeting a winners back in without having to charge from behind the grandstands to the track. We need more of this.

In front of our stand was an attractive family enclosure, used primarily during the track’s extensive flat season. In 1992, Doncaster staged the first ever Sunday meeting on a British racecourse. Sunday trading laws prevented any on-course betting. Despite this, a crowd of 23,000 turned up. Many of them were families who brought their own picnic chairs, flaky sausage rolls and warm lemonade. The day played an important part in setting to the tone for family friendly Sunday fixtures that have since become a staple of the Summer.

It looked like Fergie’s appearance at the track was a sign we had failed to take. His Rainy City moved smoothly to lead at two out. However, he tired alarmingly quickly and Alan King’s Big Chief Benny asserted close home. I’d confidently napped Royal Milan who was being given his second start over hurdles by that nice Philip Hobbs. However, the anticipated improvement eluded him completely. Disappointing.

In the last race both Dad and Bruv found a rare jump winner from the Richard Fahey stable. In an ordinary novice handicap hurdle, Quill Art managed to make his previous experience tell and won a good tussle with the only other horse in the race who could claim any form at all, Mazovian from Neil Mulholland’s team. For my part I backed a Jonjo O'Neill rag on the basis that he had been saved for a handicap touch. I was very wrong.

Nevermind. With each of us claiming winners on the day and avoiding an utter mauling, we easily justified large haddock, chips and mushy peas from Whitby Fisheries over by the carpark. Lightly battered: a fair reflection on the day’s punting.