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.