Sunday, 23 April 2017

Short tales about long odds

This is just another shameless post of self promotion. 

Mug Punting and Smug Punting have both been republished and relaunched on Amazon at a new special price. Available in paperback and e-book formats.

"Horseracing is a sport of passion, opinions and failed bets on the whole - and all of these aspects are excellently captured and conveyed by author David Atkinson in his latest set of punting ramblings." 
Racing Post review of Smug Punting, July 2016.





"An eloquent, funny, well-written affair that will ring true and sound familiar to so many who spend their time trying to unravel the intricacies of horse racing."
Peter Scargill, Racing Post


Monday, 17 April 2017

Pains in the Trossachs

Picture the scene. Three innocent chaps up from the big city, gazing out hopefully from a remote bank on Loch Lomond, scanning the steely grey surface for signs of an approaching ferry from the opposite shore.
I see no ships...
We looked again at the map. ‘Ferry P (summer)’ declared the text below the dotted line from an unmarked, unpopulated spot on the eastern shore (our location) to Ardlui (our aspired destination). This was a cool day streaked with rain in early April. A poor ‘Summer’ offering by anyone’s definition.

We had initially been reassured by Ben’s research that morning, over a fine Scottish breakfast, that suggested The Ardlui Hotel – the ferry operators – believed Summer in these parts began on 1st April. And that the afternoon service ran from 3.30pm. Stood there by the rickety landing stage in the middle of nowhere and with only an inflatable bollard on a flagpole to communicate with the far bank, it was easy for doubts to creep in.
mobile phone anyone?
Nevertheless, optimistic types that we are, the chipped orange bollard – it would remind you of something that had fallen off the hull of a fishing smack in about 1972 - was raised up the flag pole by means of a frayed length of sail twine and tied off in my best double-hitch. And we waited with an air of mirthful scepticism.  

It seemed improbable that such a low-tech solution could work. Where was the Facetime connection? Or at the very least a two-way radio? Was the ferryman really sat in his boat, waiting for the flagpole to twitch into life? Or – even if he existed – was it not more likely that he was in the hotel bar knocking back a dram of warming single malt on a quiet Thursday afternoon…

And yet after 6 minutes – Bryn had timed the wait – we spotted a small white launch sliding through the water towards us. I swear my heart jumped a little at the prospect. I lowered the bollard (only after being certain that the boat was really heading towards us and not just out for a pleasure trip around the headwaters) and we climbed aboard with big grins. We had caught the ferry by the slender margin of 6 days and one hour. Simple pleasures.

Loch Greg LeMond
More simple pleasures were on offer in the bar of the Ardlui Hotel, overlooking the calm waters and sun-dappled hills. We deserved a couple of beers on completion of our outward expedition from Crianlarich. The walk had initially followed the western side of Glen Falloch on the old military road on the downslopes of Breadalbane, where we ploughed and slopped through enough Highland cattle crap to fuel a small methane power plant.


Later on we ran in to a small herd of tough looking goats. They were sprawled over the path and were tucking into grass as wiry and unappealing as themselves. We got eye-balled a couple of times and they seemed unperturbed by our presence, necessitating a wide berth around them. I noticed that Bryn and Ben had were happy to let me take the lead.

 The valley had broadened out and we crossed over the West Highland Railway and then the River Falloch to follow the eastern side of the glen towards Loch Lomond. The landscape around us changed from epic screes to undulating upland with more vegetation. The river gurgled by our left hand side overhung with bare birchwoods coated in moss and lichens.  Gorse was just about coming into flower.

These had been the best views of the day. We had ascended and then rounded Cnap Mor to be rewarded with a dramatic reveal of the loch. The aspect had summed up our trip in one sweeping image. Bright sunshine picking out ridges in the rock and ripples on the water, either side of a backlit rain shower blowing in from the north west falling from a big sky of blanket cloud vented by light blue and blinding white.


Back in the pub, we were contemplating our next move. Walking back seemed like an effort too far after the day’s leisurely, but sufficiently taxing 10 mile hike. The rail link back up to Crianlarich was broken because of a landslip outside Glasgow two days before. There followed some web-based double-checking, firstly to make sure our return sleeper service was running that night and secondly to find the time of the rail replacement bus service.

Internet connections were mostly OK on this trip, despite the well-publicised problems in rural UK. I managed to send in my Fantasy Cricket team to Danny in Whitehall two hours before the deadline, despite an intermittent signal, an un-navigable database and a phone with a smashed screen. My first attempt only had ten players. Apart from that small glitch, I thought I did pretty well. Later, Ben paid his child minder via electronic banking from a bleak spot five miles from civilisation in the lee of Derrydorach’s sheepfold. We have the technology.

Waiting for an Uber
Stood in the lay-by outside Ardlui station – no more than a raised platform with a small shelter and a bike rack – it occurred to us that if the train service had resumed, we would have no way of knowing. The station had a total absence of any current train service information, either electronic or personal. So Ben posted himself at the entrance ready to leap up the stairs and hold up any train that should decide to arrive on the up-line.

Then a bus lumbered in to view. The driver saw Ben and flashed lights at him in various combinations. The bus pulled up in the road at the front of the station. Not, of course, in the lay-by where there was a proper bus stop.

We gathered at the door. It didn’t open. Ben could see the driver gesticulating and flapping in animated fashion. Eventually the door swung open and we were blasted by ‘Edelweiss’ from the PA at a goodly volume. He quickly turned it down and pointed to knobs, buttons and dials on his console.

“I could-nae find the door opener! It’s like the star ship enterprise here!”

“Best buckle up”, said Ben. I don’t think he’s ever driven a coach before!”

He managed to find the CD knob again though. Soon we were swinging through the glen on a crooning wave of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and other popular classics. We were the only passengers and he dropped us right outside the hotel.

“Are you going all the way to Fort William?” I enquired.

“Am I buggery!”

Chortles all round.  

“Dalmally. That’s me!”

The Crianlarich Hotel had served us well. Arriving off the sleeper on Wednesday morning, we had abluted in the loos, stored our kit in the drying room and scoffed mountainous breakfasts, replete with haggis, black pudding and potato scone. Deeply conscious of high running Indyref2 feelings I had blurted out ‘cooked breakfast’ for my order, narrowly avoiding a ‘Full English’ diplomatic incident. Of course, ‘Full Scottish’ would have been more accurate and I was better prepared the next morning. 

Bryn had been initially hesitant about piling in to the fry up. Whilst Ben and I were awoken early in our berths by a stirring strong black coffee, it became apparent that Bryn had already been up and pacing the corridors. By then he was back on his bunk and unmoving. The whisky sweats had descended.

The previous evening had seen us celebrating the journey with a few beers in the buffet car. As we sped through the Midlands and lumbered through the industrial North-West we had gradually outstayed the other passengers. It was time for a nightcap and the extensive malt whisky menu was consulted.

It had been tricky to make selections. Whether the Auchentoshan 12 year with its “nose of still-warm Christmas pudding”; the Balblair 2003 Vintage “with the enticing pull of apricots, butterscotch, honey and citrus luring you in for further inspection”; or the Bowmore 18 year’s “freshly split oranges, damp wood and a hint of warm, sticky lemon”.  Who writes this stuff?

 In the end I went for a Dalwhinnie 15 year which seduced me with hints of fruit salad and custard that gave way to flavours of “manuka honey and vanilla sponge”. Not any common or garden honey, you understand…

However, it was the Old Pulteney 12 year, matured in old bourbon casks, that did for Bryn. The medium finish evoked fewer of the “memories of a coastal fire with hints of burning oak and spice” and more of the spinning-sleeper-compartment and thumping-frontal-lobe sensations.

Nothing that the brekkie and walk up Strath Fillan didn’t easily sort out, though the first map crisis of the day can’t have helped. We hadn’t even found the West Highland Way before we were looking at a roundabout that refused to be correlated with Explorer Sheet 364. In the end, we decided it was a new relief road around Crianlarich that the OS hadn’t yet caught up with. We ignored it and headed for the hills.


 The first part of the walk was through upland pine woods with glimpses of views towards  the north-east and the dominating hulk of Ben More, together with his brothers and sisters.  The path was cut through with lively streams before we crossed over the more substantial River Fillan, past the ruined Kirkton Priory and then to a coffee-and-cake pit stop at the Auchtertyre campsite.

All the while, at least it seemed that way, Ben had been relating the grisly details of his recent vasectomy.

At first I thought our hero of the snip was using Bryn and I as a kind of therapeutic intervention. Unloading his pain – of which there was quite a lot – in order to staunch the flow (as it were) and move on. Certainly, graphic analysis of the procedure – pubic shaving, elastic bands, distracting holiday conversation, tube incisions, burning cauterisation and subsequent bruising - had a cathartic quality about it. But the level of interest shown by Bryn went beyond casual interest or sympathetic understanding. Whilst Ben had introduced the subject over those single malts on the train the previous evening, by the next afternoon it was Bryn who keen to pick over the minutiae. He’s next I reckon.

Anyway, it made us vividly aware of any strenuous effort Ben made in ascending the various peaks in our path. “Do you need to give your nads a rest, Ben?”, “Don’t strain over that boulder”, “Are you wearing the right waps?” and other supportive comments were freely and regularly offered. Indeed our buttressing went beyond mere words. At one point (and I even I hesitate to relate this), Ben made use of my ‘Glide’ anti-blister stick on his chafing bollocks to ease his passage up a sheer slope. The stick had last been used on my fomenting feet a few months previously, so I couldn’t see what real harm it would do…

We had chosen a peak above Tyndrum as our off-piste climb. The hitherto nameless mound became known as hill 534 in respect of its metreage. It swiftly became known as many other, less-printable names too, as ridge upon successive, boggy ridge gave way to yet more false summits. The view from the top back down the valley, ultimately, was worth it. We took many top-of-the-hill pics, Ben re-arranged his sack and then we struck westerly to find sheltered spot in which to scoff our sarnies.



It had been less fun getting down the hill into Tyndrum. Barbed wire seemed to be hemming in our descent at every turn. Trying to find a crossing point from a Forestry Commission plantation over the West Highland Line proved challenging. Eventually – and this time the map proved to be accurate – we found and made use of a disused iron footbridge. Like the goat herd the next day (and indeed the raising of the ferry bollard) I noticed the boys hanging back a little as we surveyed the decrepit construction before us. So I blundered onwards. The bridge was fine, though the rail tracks could clearly be seen between its creaking, moss-covered iron ribs under our feet. We had more wire to negotiate at the other side and one wonders why the bridge was still there. Lucky for us that it was.

Tyndrum wouldn’t be the most picturesque stop off in the Highlands. But it just might be the smallest village with two railway stations. Neither of them could help us get back to Crianlarich, though. Trains seemed sporadic in the late afternoon and as we enjoyed a couple of pints in the Tyndrum Inn, I had thought I’d found bus to get us back. Off we toddled to the bus stop. And waited. And waited a bit more. There was no bus.

We asked at the café about a taxi. The waitress said,

“Och, the taxi is coming for me at 5 o’clock when I finish here.”

That’s THE taxi, then.

“But I’ll see if he’ll take ye as well. Are ye three?”

So that’s what we did.

The trip back on the Sleeper was as efficient as on the way up. Although we had travelled in the Easter holidays, the trains were not too busy. On the journey north out of Euston, the train manager had put the three of us two adjacent cabins with the door wedged open. A sort of sleeper knock-through. As Bryn put it, Ben and him were had one set of berths and I shared the other with his giant red wheeled suitcase had the other.  Ben’s little in hard shell suitcase with plastic wheels wasn’t much better. I felt very smug with my pukka rucksack swinging from my shoulders as they rattled and clattered their suitcases through the quiet streets of Crianlarich at 7.45am. Tourists. Little did they know I’d had to let out the waist strap to the loosest possible setting just to get the thing round my expanding girth.

On the way home, the train manager again sorted us out. We had taken the cheap-skate option and booked seats instead of cabins. We boarded the train and made our way through the buffet to the seated carriage.

“Coach S?” we enquired.

“Sorry, it was too cold in there and we’ve had to close it”

We looked at each other in some confusion and the train manager paused.

“I’ll see if we can find you some berths”, she eventually said.

And she did. She found us adjacent cabins, as on the journey north, but the connecting door was locked this time. This deprived me of the chance to read excerpts to the boys from my book, ‘Greatest Train Journeys of the World”. 


So I’m taking my revenge here with some choice cuts about the West Highland Railway, which pretty much sums up the majesty of the trip we were about to complete:

“The 100 mile West Highland Railway begins at Craigendoan Junction where the train turns abruptly north along a ledge with broadening views over Gare Loch. The diesel engines growl up the bank through leafy Helensburgh, while ships ride at anchor in the estuary, before disappearing behind loch-side woods.

The views along Loch Lomond are some of the finest of the journey , the railway running along a shelf cut into the hillside above a dense canopy of trees. The country becomes wilder as the train starts the climb up Glen Falloch. After heavy rain, not unusual hereabouts, waterfalls can be seen scoring a ribbon of white against the dark rock.”

Same time next year, boys?



Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Cheltenham wrap

Cheltenham town is increasingly transformed by the Festival with each passing year. Walking down the High Street on the second morning felt like visiting a charity fete on steroids. For raffle tickets, think Paddy Power’s cheerleader girls handing out racecards; for the village choir, hear beat-boxing and street rap; and for the fancy dress show, see the brazen Ladies Day outfits and St Patrick’s leprechauns. Try telling the bloke air-walking in the zorbing ball at 11am that a more traditional thrill might be apple bobbing on the green. In fact that giant plastic bubble was a perfect metaphor for the Festival. An event suspended in time and space, isolated from the routines and rituals of day-to-day life.

Looking back from over the horizon of another week simply accentuates that feeling. Everything has returned to normal. It is hard to recall the intoxication of Monday’s pre-festival triggers: unfathomable declarations, head-spinning bets and stomach twisting anticipation. The Festival is like another world. A parallel universe.

I was so worked up in mid-afternoon the day before the action started that I had to go and walk the dog. Anything to bring my hyper ventilation back under control. On the way to the station the next morning, bags packed and wagers staked, I saw a friend on the other side of the busy road.

“Hi Sue”, I waved manically. “Off to the Festival!” Pause. No reaction. “Cheltenham Festival!” Glimmer of recognition. “Want any tips? Hahahah!” Too much. She smiled politely and skittered away, keeping the Berko Mum’s whip money safely under wraps. I marched onwards, ignoring the curious glances of passers-by who had witnessed the exchange.  The Festival is a mind-melding mood changer.

Packed

If the town groans under the weight of Festival activity, then the course doubly so. Having missed all the action at Prestbury Park in 2016, the increase in numbers since 2015 is palpable. Over 260,000 pairs of oxfords, slingbacks and other assorted footwear crossed the threshold over the four days this year, including a record attendance on Wednesday. This had traditionally been the quietest day. Not anymore. Si and I mosied over to the turn after the home straight where there is a good view over the track from either the rail or the open temporary grandstand. Not anymore, again. There was barely a seat to be had in the newly roofed stand. Instead we found a spot by the sea of picnic tables (another recent addition) to cheer home the cosy win of Cause Of  Causes in the cross-country.

This was Si’s first winner of the meeting, coming after race 12. The Festival is an unforgiving place when there is no winning to be had. The last time we were here together, I had to wait until the Bumper, race 14, before I had a victory to celebrate. Si took it all on the chin and muscled his way back in to the game by Friday.

My punting in this Iron Man of extreme betting heats went the other way. A healthy position at the end of Wednesday was squandered by Friday and I made a loss. A festival balance sheet in the red is thankfully a rarity these days, after the bad old days of the noughties. Hard to take all the same.

Buveur D’Air, imperious in the Champion Hurdle, added a touch of gloss to my reasonably buff record in this race; and Apple’s Jade was a stout winner in the best renewal of the Mares Race I’ve yet witnessed.  If Wednesday is quieter for attendances, it screams value to me in the betting ring. Yet again Champion Chase day, or Ladies day as it is now marketed (quite effectively it would appear) saw my best result. Willoughby Court held on at 14/1 in a thrilling finish with favourite and many people’s Festival banker, Neon Wolf. Shouting him home down by the packed rail, I was swimming against the flow of animated punters on the Wolf. And then I was literally a-leap, as in the upstreaming salmon, when the Court prevailed by a neck. At least I have that. An overall loss, yes, but I have my Festival moment.  

The crowd control seemed to struggle under the weight of extra racegoers. The queues for the shuttle bus up to the track from Cheltenham Spa were long, tortuous and impossible to understand. Those at the course coming back were simply chaotic and bad tempered. We walked on Wednesday instead and spotted Lee Westwood with a small entourage in front of us. He looked very dapper in speckled sports jacket , Peaky Blinders cap and black longwing brogues. He’s a chunkier bloke than you might imagine though, cutting a tough profile with his bulging eyes and rough stubble. Westwood is part owner of Augusta Kate and he was there all week, no doubt, looking forward her run in Friday’s Albert Bartlett. She finished 6th after an indifferent round of jumping.

Being able to ignore the shuttle bus scrum on Day 2 was bliss. Just one of the many luxuries afforded us by staying with our friends Chris and Laura. Luxuries like relieving us of our bags whilst in that initial, interminable bus line; like a chilled glass of chardonnay on arrival on the first night; like whistling up a chilli as we collapsed back at the house before our train journey home. And in return we gladly corrupted their eldest into the nefarious ways of Festival punting and offered up crap tips. Thank you guys. Legends.

Top class hosts
A carnival atmosphere took over the packed town centre streets after dark. We found a couple of decent and quietish real ale boozers off the main drag, eschewing the wall-to-wall party in the Queens Hotel this year, and bumped into a party in the road instead. A young Irish lad with a footballers haircut – short cropped sides and a floppy bleached blond mop on top - had become tailed off from his main group. He was becalmed in the middle of the road where an Audi had juddered to a sharp stop inches away.

He pointed in turn with outstretched arms at the lady driver, as if he was doing a slow-motion front crawl. “Oi you” (Arm change) “I’ve already lost all me money today.” (Arm change) “I don’t want to lose me legs as well!”

Off he staggered with a leer across his chops into the Wetherspoons where a bad Van Morrison cover band was scratching out Brown Eyed Girl.

By the time I hit the Barley Mow on Friday, I was counting the cost of 6 runners’ up and two well-placed late fallers on Wednesday and Thursday. I’ve been around the betting block enough to know that when you are hitting the target, you need a couple of bullseyes because the phase never lasts long. So it proved. The crossbar was my nemesis and Friday was luckless.

But this is the day when real punting gives way to excitable Fantasy Festival action. I gave the comp a real scare too, with a third place in the deciding Grand Annual when a winner would have given me the pot.  Mellish, stood next to me in the bookies as I became animated and then deflated, was the long-time leader and eventual winner of Bacchy’s genius tenner-in-winner-takes-all competition. “You woz getting quite excited there for a minute”, he observed, barely turning a hair. I don’t think he was ever worried about me nicking his prize in that desperate last.

Sizing John. Classy winner of the Gold Cup
On the phone next day, Bruv told me that he’d won some cash in the Daily Telegraph Cheltenham competition. “£100 for winning the Twitter league!” That’s hilarious. He’s never used Twitter in his life. Receiving a text from him is a Red Letter day.

The jumps game is too hard. I’m spent. Roll on the flat.





Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Festival controversies

I received an interesting e-mail today from those nice people at SBAT about the 10 biggest controversies at the Cheltenham Festival.

Interesting departure, I thought, from the usual Festival build up angles. The infograph is below in full. 

Some of these controversies I remember well. No 10: I was at the rail for the £50m fall when Ruby Walsh asked the wonder mare Annie Power for a big one under absolutely no pressure at all, and took a crashing fall. The air was filled with the confetti of shredded betting slips. 

I do not believe for a moment that this was part of any conspiracy theory. However, it is interesting to see the scrutiny under which Walsh’s last fence blunders have now come. Kevin Blake from At The Races undertook some excellent research to split the myth from fact around Ruby's final fence choking. His exhaustive analysis found that: 

  • Ruby Walsh’s mounts fell or unseated him at the final obstacle more than twice as often as the average of the mounts of the other nine top riders examined here; and, 
  • Ruby Walsh’s mounts fell or unseated him when leading at the final obstacle almost four times as often as the average of the mounts of the other nine top riders examined here.

The bottom line is that the % of those final fence falls, whilst more significant than other comparable jockeys, is still very small at 5.27%. I wouldn't put anyone off backing one of his horses at the Festival on the basis of these findings alone.

No 4: Interesting to be reminded about the Foot and Mouth calamity of 2001. The cancellation of the Festival was a real kick in the teeth. Our gang had already done the pub lunchtime sessions to pick out the ante post value. The Festival tickets were safely pouched and we were licking our lips at the prospect of the mighty Istabraq attempting to take an unprecedented 4th Champion Hurdle victory. 

F&M gripped the country in an ovine paralysis. It's easy to forget how quickly panic spread through rural life and how we became regularly exposed to TV pictures of smoking pyres of burning carcasses. Sports fixtures were culled equally dramatically amid jostling from sports administrators, politicians and pressure groups. It was only a matter of time before the Festival also fell victim. Bacchy and I, in the aftermath, resolved never again miss a single day of the Festival. And whilst it remained a three-day festival, that's what happened. 

No 6: I laughed at the Paddy Power reference here. These days the bookie's crass adverts are more likely to wind me up as make me giggle. However, the ambush marketing at the 2010 Festival was a brilliant coup. Hollywood-style giant white letters spelling out the bookmaker's name sat proud on Cleeve Hill overlooking the track. Some farmer had been bought off for the stunt and the meeting's preferred bookmakers went absolutely nuts. 

Wikipedia tells me that sign was at the time the world's largest free standing advertising board. It stood 50 feet high, stretched 270 feet wide, cost tens of thousands of pounds and needed 1000 man hours to create it.

There are a couple of controversies in the list that are new to me. No 9, The banning of the Racing Post from the Festival from 2012 just seems bizarre and shrouded in a hint of obscurity. Money? Influence? Offence? We may never know. And, No 8, the attempted banning of the Festival per se in 1829 because of prostitution and pickpocketing just goes to show how tolerant we have become! Ha! Although the new rules (No 2) on early closing of hospitality bars are probably no bad thing. 

The most sour notes on this list are, of course, the equine deaths at No 5 and No 1. The deaths of horses at the Festival remain a blight on the championships. The 2016 tally of 11 is a horrendous toll. It is a fact that on average one horse a day dies in training or at a course. That’s pretty harrowing. 

But we need to look at this in context. There are about 17,000 racehorses in training in the UK. They are bred to race. Without racing there would be significantly fewer horses full spot. They are beautiful, magnificent animals that grace their surroundings and it is a privilege to see them in full flight. The vast majority are incredibly well cared for with excellent facilities and devoted stable staff. The authorities are incredibly hot on trainers who abuse or mistreat their horses. And casualty rates are declining, too, despite what Animal Aid will have you believe before the upcoming Festival. Racing is always going to present risks to man and beast. It's about managing that risk as sensibly as possible.

Whatever your Festival aspirations next week, have a blast and stay controversy free.

Top Ten Cheltenham Controversies - SBAT

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Diversions

I have unconsciously switched into full slack-jawed-Cheltenham-babble mode. I know this because of the reactions of Mrs A. Only this morning I was criticising the inaccuracy of the weather forecasts and how difficult this made analysis of the likely underfoot conditions at Prestbury Park a week on Tuesday; and that the watering policy of clerk of the course Simon Claisse was so unscientific that the whole scenario all but precluded rational thought anyway.

On glancing up from the sink where I was vigorously swirling mugs in soapy water as if they were entirely to blame for this sate of affairs, I noticed Mrs A had adopted an expression somewhere between distracted mirth and shrug-shouldered tolerance.

“Am I wittering on a bit?” I inquired.

“Don’t worry dear. I’ve had twenty years of this, I know what to expect come early March”.

As I said to a mate earlier today, I reckon she’s currently ignoring roughly 75% of everything I say (as oppose to the usual 50%).

Luckily, there have been one or two other diversions this week to keep me from agitating about the Festival too much.

Last Sunday Mrs A and I went to Ronnie Scott’s for a classy night out at the monthly Blues Explosion residency. I’m a fan of the leader, Marcus Bonfanti and saw him electrify the Borderline with his own band a couple of years back.

All class at Ronnie's
 This night was courtesy of a mate’s very generous birthday present. But why we don’t go more often is beyond me. The venue takes its music seriously. It only books decent acts and even goes so far as to insist that babbling chatter is cut out so that the musicians can be heard by everyone. This is a real gripe for me, especially in small venues. You’d think punters, having forked out hard cash, would have a bit of respect for the bands. If you want a natter and a laugh all night, stay in the pub or the bar.

But not in the restaurant. Mrs A and I had something to eat in Muriel’s Kitchen beforehand, where the background music was so loud we were shouting at each other across the distressed beechwood table. The world’s gone mad, I tell you.  Nice place to eat, otherwise.

If Ronnie Scott’s was all about smooth blues and refined quality, my next gig was something of a polar opposite. On Thursday, I took Daughter No 1 back to uni in Southampton, where I had been offered a gig to cover for GRTR at the Engine Rooms.

“Fancy coming to the gig?” I said to her. “Bit of father-daughter bonding?”

“Well I’ve got nothing better to do!”

So that was settled.

One of the attractions of Southampton as a university town, from a parental point of view, is that it isn’t too far away. So why did our train journey take just shy of four hours? I can’t even blame, even in my grumpy-old-man pomp, the fragility of Southern Rail. No, this was all timetabled dawdle. We got to Clapham Junction easily enough. But rather than following our Rail Planner-suggested cheapo-non-London route via Winchester, Daughter No 1 spotted an earlier direct service from Platform 9. So off to the subway we went, carting four bags of kit between us and dived on to the packed service from Victoria. As we were approaching East Croydon, the guard ran through the list of stations we would call at. I lost count after Cosham and the will to live after Fareham.

So 2hrs and 20 minutes later, we pulled into Southampton Central after a gentle meander through the South Downs and then a slow swoop west from Chichester. The last few miles perfectly described the circuitous nature of the journey. We first rumbled north from Swanwick up the eastern bank of the River Itchen before crossing over about four miles upstream and then crawling back southwards on the opposite bank in to Southampton. I ask you.

There was just about time for a decent curry in the Coriander Indian Diner before we went to the gig. I had been trying to tell Daughter No 1 that hard rock was just important for the future of music as it had been in the recent past. She looked round at the audience of the warehouse-like, modern venue and took some convincing that the handful of long haired twenty-somethings, amongst a considerably older, even more hirsute majority, really held the future of rock ‘n’ roll in their sweaty palms.

The gig was good though, and we both enjoyed it. To different degrees, obviously. The Answer are a solid band and have taken to shaking up their mainstream classic rock riffs with some inventive Celtic influences, the odd folk melody and some fine acoustic moments. There was enough there for everyone.

I was staying in a cheap hotel on the other side of town to Daughter No 1’s digs. The thought of kipping in a student flat, where the party only really gets started at about 2am didn’t really appeal to me. (As if I’d have been allowed to stay anyway…). She told me that one night, she had come over all sensible and stayed in to get a decent night’s sleep for a change. She gave up on that idea sometime in the early hours and joined the throng in the kitchen who had come back from a club.

“Hello”, she said to a guy clasping a large vodka mix.  “I don’t think we’ve met?”

“Oh, I’m just the Uber driver that brought them back. I got invited in!”

Star Hotel. Never a dull moment. 
As it turned out, a 3 o’clock party might have been preferable. My wing of the hotel seemed to be hosting a three-way, endurance slanging match in which my room occupied the centre ground. I had to admire the stamina of the participants. The first bout was at 1am-ish when the door of the room on my right smashed open and a woman brayed on a door to my left until it was opened. She went in and slammed it behind her before giving vent at full volume to the significant number of issues she held about the attitude of the occupant of the room. Earlier misdemeanours in the evening appeared to be the cause of the grievances.

I don’t know how she was breathing because the vitriol that poured forth was seamless and unending. I heard the bloke grunt inaudibly a couple of times, but every word uttered by the young woman was piercingly crystal clear. The first assault ended with the bizarre claim, “AND I CAN WEAR MAKE UP IF I WANT TO!”

Then another door opened and second woman rapped on the other door and went in. Things calmed down for a bit, though there was a lot of door opening and closing. She was obviously the peace maker.

Or not. There followed a little scene of “sha’ ap”, “no you sha’ ap” back and forth that wouldn’t have been entirely out of place in the sing-a-long section of the gig earlier.

I lost track of who was in who’s room. Then I heard someone brush against my door and for an agonising second I thought I was going to get dragged into things. The moment passed and I got back to enjoying the show.

Later the three of them were in the corridor again and I could smell cigaratte smoke. ‘Great’, I thought. ‘Next the fire alarm will go off.’ It didn’t and a few minutes of peace ensued.

The final, classic moments played out when after about an hour, the antagonist again burst from her room and hammered on door of her nemesis, screaming “And another thing…!”

Drifting off to sleep (eventually), I thought I heard a male voice emit a gurgle/scream, in what I feverishly imagined was the grisly ending to the exchange. But nothing else happened and next morning the breakfast room was as calm and civilised as an Edwardian B&B.

We rounded off the week with a visit to our friends in Warwickshire where the late night/early morning entertainment was a little less dramatic. In fact, my main troubles were self-inflicted.

“Mind the shower in the morning” said Clare as I went to bed, “the pressure is a bit high right now”.

A 21st Century instrument of torture 

I even remembered this advice the next morning. When I climbed into the cubicle I noticed the little side hose beneath the main drench head. Cunningly, I put it on the floor nozzle down, out of harm's way. ‘Play it safe’, I thought, through a slightly fuzzy head. Messing about with the controls (never one of my strong points) I did exactly what Clare had warned me against and cranked up the pressure too far.

The hose jumped like a snake poked with a stick, flipped over and blasted my face with a high velocity jet of  super-heated water, whilst I groped blindly at my feet. I ducked out of the way. The pressure was such that the jet was hitting the exposed, restored 19th century beams of the bathroom ceiling and ricocheting out of the cubicle onto my towel and clean clothes, as well as running all over the floor. Just as Clare had warned me it would.

No more diversions, thanks. I think I’ll squirrel myself away now and unravel the mysteries of the Kim Muir Chase.





Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Oil wrestling

Three weeks before the Cheltenham Festival and the ante-post strategy remains light touch. Unprotected exposure has been largely resisted. That’s not to say I haven’t unfurled the greenbacks in support of those kindly bookies who have put up refreshingly early festival insurance offers. Some risk-free, if reckless, positions have certainly been taken. But the only bets dancing on the cliff edge without a safety net are those struck with Betfair back in January.

Petit Mouchoir is now the most attractive of those early shouts. The 9/1 looks a good price in the turmoil of the Champion Hurdle market. New favourite Buveur D’Air rates the chief threat, having beaten my lad twice, including a thumping in the Supreme last year when both were well behind Altior and Min. Buveur looks classy and travels supremely well. A line through Irving would make him the form pick. Mouchoir has improved shed loads in his last three runs and that gives me some comfort. It should be a good clash, come 14th March.

I can’t have Yanworth as a Champion Hurdle 4/1 shot. How his price was ever clipped in after a laboured, sloppy performance in Saturday’s Kingwell defies logic. His fitness (offered up by King as a potential excuse) is not an issue as much as his rank hurdling. Mullins will still have a hand in the shape of this race too. Will it be Yorkhill (maybe); will it be VVM (no); will it be Footpad (yes); will it be Nicholls Canyon (no).

Some Plan, backed at 34/1 is now a general 20/1 shot having completed his Arkle prep as the last nag standing in the Irish Arkle. He didn’t jump or travel with his usual zest and Royal Caviar was cantering all over Some Plan before Ruby decked his mount at the last. Maybe Davy Russell had a little something left up his sleeve, but whichever way you stack it up, Some Plan won’t be beating Altior any time soon, without a mishap.

I had high hopes for Saturnas, backed at 23/1 with Betfair for the Neptune. Then he fell apart so spectacularly in the Deloitte Hurdle that it is impossible to know what to think. No idea where he will turn up next. I have to assume that this is a dead bet. Remedial action in the portfolio is needed.

The remaining Betfair punt is the small stakes affair on The Storyteller at 55/1 in the Albert Bartlett. Not much to report here. He’s not been seen out again and is a much shorter price for the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle. Guessing game.

Of the money-back bets, it looks like I might have a fair bank returning to me come race day. Sizing John is tentatively being nosed towards the Gold Cup, not the Ryanair. Trying to get on the right side of this horse is like grappling with an oil-wrestler. I’ve never managed it yet, pouring good money after bad season after season. I believe the Ryanair is the right race. The Irish Gold Cup was not a vintage renewal and Sizing John surely cannot win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Jessie H appears to think differently, citing the fact that ‘he was not stopping at the line’. True, but there are a further 2 ½ furlongs at Prestbury Park and at least four horses with more obvious credentials.

Indeed, I prefer Outlander’s chances at 12/1 and have backed him accordingly. The Lexus looked like a stronger race than the Irish Gold Cup and Gordon Elliot’s charge registered his best race to date in an upward trajectory.

Much more ill-judged than the Sizing John scenario are a slew of rash punts on horses whom I hoped would come out, smash up their prep races and thus have tumbling odds for their Festival targets. This is a common trait of mine at this time of year. Horses to have unknowingly failed this stern test I set for them are Calett Mad in the RSA Chase (didn’t stay the trip at Doncaster), Le Prezien in the JLT (jumping fell apart) and Most Celebrated in the Triumph (ran like a three legged dog). Crap bets.

The markets for all three of those races present a whiff of value opportunity before the next declaration stage. The JLT has already cut up once and may well do again if Yorkhill gets redirected. I like Whisper here and have gone in at 10/1. He loves Cheltenham, he loves the 2½m trip and seems to love jockey Davy Russell best of all. I hope the dry Corkman keeps the ride.

The RSA is a conundrum. I’m leaning towards American and, with the NRNB offers, regret not getting in early. But in truth I haven’t sorted out the form here yet. So I’ll wait. Same goes for the Triumph. This used to be a good race for me, but since the introduction of the Fred Winter, I’ve struggled.

Finally, we come to the curtain-raiser. Having slain the Supreme hoodoo last season, I have confidently punted up Movewiththetimes in recent days. Impressed with his Betfair Hurdle 2nd and with improvement to come, I think the 16/1 offers sound value. I’ll probably back Moon Racer too. In an open looking market, these two arguably have the best form on offer. It’s all about the form, stoopid. 

One last bet: Vosne Romanee at 25/1 NRNB in the County Hurdle. Mug punt. I read on some dodgy blog (can’t trust ‘em) that the good Dr Newland had sent him to the sandy climes of Dunstall Park for his final prep. He duly dobbed up. Next stop the County Hurdle Well why not.  It’s all about the whispers, stoopid.

Here’s the state of play:  

Supreme    
Arkle                     
Champion Hurdle
Neptune     
RSA Chase
JLT Novice Chase
        
Ryanair Chase
Triumph               
County Hurdle      
Albert Bartlett
Gold Cup
-       Movewiththetimes, 1pt win, 16/1 win NRNB
-       Some Plan, 0.5pt win, 34/1
-       Petit Mouchoir, 1pt win, 9/1
-       Saturnas, 0.5pt win, 23/1
-       Callet Mad, 0.5pt e-w, 33/1 NRNB
-       Whisper, 1pt win, 10/1 NRNB
-       Le Prezien, 0.5pt e-w, 16/1 NRNB
-       Sizing John, 1pt win, 8/1 NRNB
-       Most Celebrated, 0.75pt win, 16/1 NRNB
-       Vosne Romanee, 0.5pt e-w, 25/1 NRNB
-       The Storyteller, 0.5pt win, 54/1
-       Outlander, 1pt win, 12/1 NRNB

After a self-imposed break from the festival last year, I am itching to get back this March. I thought, in some misguided sense of maturity and emotional control, that the time had come to sit back and enjoy the festival from a distance. What a load of bollocks that was. I hated not being there on Champion Hurdle Day 2016. I won’t be doing that again. Tickets and accommodation have been booked, and I’m getting stoked.

Watching ‘Being AP’ last night on the box got the juices flowing nicely. Great biopic, I thought. Apart from the brilliant racing shots, the film was a pretty good insight into McCoy’s insanely driven nature; tortured mind and body; and the impact of all that on those around him. Hard to envisage there will ever be another quite like him.


Friday, 27 January 2017

Breaching the dam

The prospect of such a good weekend of racing coming up has finally pierced my cloak of ante-post self-denial. Granted, I’ve hardly unleashed a torrent yet. Bets have trickled rather than gushed into the reservoir.

The stats tell me that my ante-post book rarely pays dividends. The plan this season was always to rein back from the scatter gun approach of previous years, engage in the game little later, and lop out much of the each-way element. 

This week has seen entries for the novice chases made on the back of earlier championship entries, together with some decent trials earlier in the month. I’ve been spurred into action. So this is the first tranche.

Arkle Novice Chase

Some Plan - 1pt @ 33/1 win, Betfair

I had been impressed with his engine when tanking along in the Arkle Trial at Cheltenham in November. He fell at the last before he had been asked a question. Next time at Naas, the jumping was generally more assured and he showed a willing attitude. Worth a punt at the price before a real test in Leopardstown’s Arkle trial on Sunday. He could end up in the JLT, of course, though untried at that trip and nothing yet says the step up is needed.

Sunday’s race also features Identity Thief, Royal Caviar and Bleu Et Rouge in a traditional small-but- classy affair. I really like the latter too, but Mullins has messed about with his trip and I’m not ready to get stuck in yet. I’d be interested in his chances in the JLT, but first need some clue that he will head that way. I'm shying away from the risk just now. 

Champion Hurdle

Petit Mouchoir – 2pts win @ 9/1, Betfair

Easy to say with hindsight, but I really switched on to Petit Mouchoir in the Fighting Fifth when travelling strongly, before coming down in a horrible fall at the last. A speculative punt then would have been interesting. The Ryanair Hurdle win was convincing, though the horse needs to settle better. Elliot has improved this horse by the spade full and he is now a genuine Champion Hurdle contender. By prevaricating, I’ve seen the price contract. Even more so after the scratching of Annie Power last week. The price drifted to 9/1 this afternoon and I struck like a cobra… after the horse has already bolted. That price could be double again in 48 hours if Faugheen comes out on Sunday and picks up where he left off in the race last year.

Neptune Novice Hurdle  

Saturnas – 1pt win @ 22/1, Betfair

Improved markedly from a relatively pedestrian 2nd behind Airlie Beach in the Royal Bond to a comfortable win at Leopardstown over Christmas. He was keeping on well to the post and judges better than me think he will stay further. The price has tempted me in, though it is not yet clear where this one sits in the Closutton pecking order, nor what his target will be. Speculative. He has an entry in the Deloitte next month.

Neon Wolf looked fantastic last week, but I’ve missed the price if, as seems likely, he runs here rather than the Supreme.

Ryanair Chase

Sizing John - 2pts win @ 8/1 NRFB, William Hill

I’ve been on the wrong end of Sizing John’s defeats to Douvan since I was in short trousers. The case to step him up to 2 ½ miles has been compelling for ages. Not only to avoid the imperious Douvan who has scalped John seven times, but because the extended trip should suit. He has usually stayed on well in his races, it was just that Douvan has been about half a lap ahead. John’s only attempt at the trip was last season at Aintree when it is likely that another pounding three weeks earlier in the Arkle at the hands of Mullins’ flying machine had left its mark. Needless to say I had backed him for the JLT at the Festival.

Now with Jessica Harrington, Sizing John looks like he will be campaigned properly at this trip. The Kinloch Brae last week was evidence enough for me.

Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle

The Storyteller - ½pt win @ 55/1, Betfair

He’s not done too much so far, but clearly rated by Gordon Elliot and beat Festival Bumper runner up, Battleford fair and square at the weekend. Looks like he’ll stay this far, so I’ve taken a punt at decent odds.



Ah. That feels better.