Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Breaking the silence

What happened there? Write a post in February, blink your eyes and the next thing it’s Halloween. The hottest Summer since 1976 proved to be a barren desert for this blog.  Arctic interludes are already muscling a benign Autumn out of the way and I haven’t yet dealt with the Spring festivals.

Picking up the baton from that February missive, I feel it is time to draw to a close the hairy tale of the Grab-a-Grand initiative. The deal, you may or may not remember, involved a work colleague investing a straight £1,000 with which I would gamble over the course of the Jumps season. In return, come April, I’d present him with a guaranteed £1,100. A six-month 10% profit margin that he would never secure in the High Street banks. My incentive was that any profit I made over £1,100 was mine to keep. An investment of a grand would provide me with the raw materials for bigger, bolder bets. I was confident of a 30-40% return on investment.

That February blog reported the notching of my worst ever, ever punting run: a 38-bet tale of woe in pursuit of profits on that grand investment. I also chronicled some Cheltenham ante-post action. Those two subjects intertwined neatly when the latter became my salvation in regard to the former. A barn-storming Festival, courtesy of decent bets on the gorgeous Shattered Love, the canny Benie Des Dieux and the tough Rathvinden, together with a more productive Spring campaign all round, turned my losses in to a profit.

Heady with this hard-won success, I offered Pete the chance to take his guaranteed investment up to a £200 return by October. Naturally, he bit my hand off. My greed, in turn, bit me in the arse. A double metaphorical masticating injury. I contrived to lose bucket loads of cash on half-hearted handicap plots and dithering pattern race punts. Keen to draw the exercise to a close, I paid up Pete’s £1200 in late August, thereby negating the chances of losing over the Summer everything I had scrambled to bank over the Winter.  

Building from my colleague’s £1,000 investment in October 2017, I had retained a profit of £274 by the time the transaction closed, down from £440 in April, meaning I trousered a puny £74 after paying over Pete’s guaranteed £1200. Pfft.

I have mixed feelings about the experiment. Clearly the profits were not what I’d hoped for. The mistaken Summer extension saw a return to lilly-livered punting on horses about which I had little opinion. Yet the NH campaign was a blast.  Even before the sphincter-busting 38-bet losing run had ended, there was a residual nugget of confidence that matters could be turned around.

The Festivals were a chance to have decent bets which topped up, for once, a profitable ante-post portfolio. In fact, I had very little ante-post betting before the middle of February. Activity began to ratchet up in the fortnight before the meeting, when value began to spill around. Some firms went non-runner, no-bet while others were still ante-post. Coupled with the clarifying of targets, there was opportunity to take a chance on some fancy prices.

I backed Rathvinden at 16/1 for the National Hunt Chase when Willie Mullins said in his stable tour that he was a likely runner (though as Tony Keenan said just after the festival, “that’s not a cast-iron guarantee, I’ll grant you”). Rathvinden won at 9/2. The same with Shattered Love, whom I backed at 14/1 for the JLT after Elliot declared her for that race (I gather 20s were also available). She won at 4/1.

And here we are at the start of the jumps again. Bacchy has circulated his Twelve To Follow competition for the season and markets are already forming around bankers for some of the Festival’s defining races: Kalashnikov for the Arkle? Samcro for the Champion Hurdle? Faugheen for the Stayers? And Altior v Footpad for the Champion Chase could be a modern-day classic.

I’m looking forward to seeing Monalee in open company, Black Op over fences and, at the other end of the experience scale, a couple of Fergal O’Brien bumper horses in Time To Move On and Strong Glance. Paul Nicholl’s novice hurdler Secret Investor was impressive in the Persian War a couple of weeks ago.

The boys have already had our say. Over the wreckage of an Indian Diner fantasy cricket curry, the unanimous shout was to entrust the remains of the whip money to the chances of Presenting Percy in the Gold Cup.

Cheltenham opened its door last Friday and the Charlie Hall meeting at Wetherby this coming Friday and Saturday sees the first high quality meeting of the season. Banish those Flat blues (and pay no more than cursory attention to the events at Churchill Downs this weekend), we are all about the jumps. And I’m ready.

Monday, 12 February 2018

A Grand Plan

Me and my mouth.

For some while I had been bragging to a work colleague that he should give me a straight grand to gamble with over the course of the Jumps season. In return, come April, I’d hand him back a guaranteed £1,100. A six-month 10% profit margin that he would never secure in the High Street banks or would struggle to match on the stock markets.

The incentive for me in the deal would be that any profit I made over £1,100 was mine to squirrel away. The grand would act as an investment, a pump-priming scenario. My staking is typically a lilly-livered affair because I never allow any bank of profits to build up. They are usually creamed off into the beer and kebab account, instead of fuelling a more structured punting strategy. I was supremely confident, based on my stats, that I’d land a few hundred quid’s profit.

I’d mentioned this offer to any number of people, but only Pete from the office took me seriously. Even then, the transaction took ages to set up. He never seemed to have a thousand quid lying around at the right time. Tsk.

Then a conversation in the staff room last October went something like this:
“Dave, is the betting offer still on?”
“What? The grab-a-grand? Yeah, though I’m maxed out with work at the moment. I’m not doing much punting. Could start it at Christmas?”
“Ah. Well I might not have the money at Christmas!”
“Oh. Ok then, let’s do it then!”
 I got home that night to find £1,000 nestling in my account.

It was time to put the money where my big mouth is. And through Christmas, cresting the New year, the plan was unfurling like a glorious route map to Cheltenham. I was up on the deal by a decent three-figure margin.

Then I embarked on the sort of crippling run that frays nerves, strips resolve and shreds reason.

38 bets struck since then, powered by £420 of stakes without returning a single winner. There were a few skinny place returns skulking away in the midriff of poorly constructed each-way Lucky 15s. These amounted to no more than £40. But not one bona-fide, first-past-the-post winner amongst them. It’s barely credible. Looking for the value inevitably means there will be gaps between winners, but my New Year optimism has foundered on a slew of dispiriting results. Soooo many seconds. I’ve hit the bar more times than Oliver Reed and George Best on a weekend bender.
The sequence was broken by Casse Tete on Saturday at Warwick, when he overhauled a tiring Kylemore Lough gunned for home too early by his jockey. Only 6/1, but I’ll take it. Re-set. Go again.

As an antidote to the mayhem in this struggling strategy with Pete, I’ve found myself casting an eye over the non-runner-no-bet markets for the Festival.

About time too.

I was impressed by Vision Des Flos at Exeter on Sunday in a listed novice hurdle. Much improved for the application of a tongue tie, I suspect, rather than the wind-tinkering -  declarations for which have proved to be no friend of the punter. As likely an explainer is the return to form of Tizzard’s stable after some deep mid-winter blues. Maybe the €270,000 investment in this beast is not yet wasted. He won by 30-odd lengths and was visually attractive in the way he pulled away from at least three fair-ish rivals. I’ve taken 1pt e-w at 25/1 for the Ballymore novice hurdle and a saver of 33/1 for the Supreme.

The record of Warwick’s Kingmaker Chase in setting up Cheltenham coronations is strong. Flagship Uberalles, Voy Por Ustedes, Cenkos, Finians Rainbow and Long Run all have this race in their ceremonial progression. The track demands a decent round of jumping. Five stiff fences in a line down the back straight provide a real test of rhythm and fluency. A test that Saint Calvados passed with A*s. His victory on Saturday was the sort of purring, classy demolition job that had me drooling. Yes, he’ll be up against many people’s banker of the meeting in Footpad. I don’t care. I want to be cheering on this brilliant jumper for the little guys. Who knows how he will handle the undulations of Cheltenham, or likely better going. If he comes close to finding the rhythm of Saturday, he will be a sight to savour.  8/1 win only.

I’ve burnt my fingers somewhat in the Champion Hurdle. I found the 5/1 on offer with Stan James prior to the Irish Champion Hurdle too good to resist. Of course, the bet still stands should Faugheen turn up at Prestbury Park. But the likelihood that he will and then go on to win seems remote. A great shame. Faugheen versus Buveur D’Air would be something special, though I’m sure Faugheen in his pomp would have seen him off. We can only speculate. And maybe reserve a little space for wishful thinking.

A bit of a punt in the RSA Chase. At 16/1 e-w, I’m putting a lot of faith in the view that Mia’s Storm hated the ground in the Kauto Star Novices Chase at Kempton over Christmas. Her two previous outings over fences were very good, including a smart win over Elegant Escape. The race has a more open feel about it than the market suggests, though this is far from a confident bet. This is a race I’ll return to.

I loved the performance of Time To Move On in his debut bumper at Exeter in December. Always travelling supremely well, Barry Geraghty brought her wide to find better ground, covering much more ground than his rivals. He still won by an eased down 10 lengths. I backed him for the Bumper at 16/1 only a few days before his return to Exeter on Sunday. There he carried his 7lb penalty easily, idled in front but still looked class. Happy enough. Only just wish I’d got on earlier.

Sticking with the irrepressible Fergal O’Brien, Poetic Rhythm was my first ante-post strike at 25/1 not long after the Challow Hurdle at Newbury. He caught my eye after what now looks like a half decent Persian War renewal back in October. He is not as classy as some but has guts and determination. He goes straight to the Albert Bartlett (I hope).  

Finally, a long shot for the Gold Cup with an old buddy who settled his debt with me in the King George at Christmas. Double Shuffle stayed on well to hurry up Mite Bite at 50/1 and I snaffled a decent bit of place money. I’m a big fan of Tom George’s charge whom I believe to be still on the upgrade, but who needs the right conditions. A truly run race on good/good-soft ground at 3 miles-plus is his game. Despite what most pundits will tell you, I don’t believe he was desperately flattered by his proximity to Mite Bite. They are just pissed off that so many good horses on paper misfired on the day. Double Shuffle is also entered in the Ryanair but I can’t for the life of me think that is the right race.

That’s it for now. Meanwhile, back to the Grand grind. I remain confident.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Three Gruff Goats

I'm delighted to be launching a new book this week. 'Three Gruff Goats Meet Some Unexpected Visitors' is my first children's book. (Well, how many books can one really write about losing money on the horses?)

The story takes a modern twist on the Three Billy Goats Gruff to provide mashed up fairytale for 7-12 year-olds and most adults too. The 30-page book is delightfully illustrated by the very talented artist and designer, Fay Ford.

It's available as a paperback here

...and as a kindle download here

My other books can be found in the Kindle shop here

Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Seasonal wrap

Christmas and New Year comes and goes, each of us observing long-held customs, traditions and conventions.

“I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us”

However, there are always firsts. For a generation and more, I had successfully swerved any public participation in karaoke and its various game-console offspring. Until this year’s office party - my first in the new job. I was undone by Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, a colleague with a shared penchant for classic grunge, and a handful of bottled Kentish Town IPAs. I fear the air-guitar moves with full windmilling, gyrations and screwed up eyes may bring a premature end to yet another promising career-move.

The karaoke quickly became a full-throated, impassioned group sing-a-long encompassing everything from ‘American Pie’ to ‘Mr Blue Sky’ via ‘Wannabe’ and the evergreen ‘Bo Rap’. I distinctly remember one of the tutors gorgeously crooning ‘Summer Wind’ with the girls providing a back line of smooth, improvised Fifties swing moves, whilst the boys hung out stage left raggedly choreographing nothing more ambitious than clicking fingers. 

My singing voice is tuneless growl at the best of times. Coupled with an inflamed larynx (bless) from a heavy cold (double bless), my unearthly howl over Nirvana’s finest moments was something even the hounds of Hades would have struggled to emulate. Later, I briefly diverted to the kitchen for a satisfying cough and retch, before rejoining the chorus line. “That’s better. Just wanted to get my phlegm up”, I said to my female co-worker, with as much honest northern charm I could muster.   She’d never heard a chat-up line like it.

The lovely northern charm quota was further boosted at home when Dad and Bruv joined us for Christmas. The anticipation of the season is always the best part and having them down a day earlier than usual afforded a chance to go over to Waddesdon Manor for their Christmas Light installation. Squeezing the last drops out of the National Trust annual membership was honestly only a very small part of the motivation.

Can’t knock the gaff, though. Waddeson was completed by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1885 as a mere Summer retreat in which to entertain extravagantly and show off opulent collections of art, ceramics, jewellery, furniture and the like. The architectural inspiration is pure Loire Valley chateaux. The plonk alone, bearing complicatedly calligraphed labels and stacked deeply in the expansive cellars, is priceless before you even consider the ostentatious buildings, manicured grounds and gilt contents of this ridiculous Gothic pile.

Getting to the house required the organisational effort of a D-Day beach landing. From the drop off point to car park to the ticket booth to the shuttle bus to the mansion itself.  We persuaded Dad that a wheelchair would be a good idea, so he could see more of the grounds. This was an inspired idea, until we took an unexpectedly ambitious route to the stable block. Lady Margaret’s Walk, though charmingly decorated with lanterns made by the enthusiastic hands of local primary school children, involved more of an off-road, all-terrain experience on the muddy track than we were anticipating. At one point the chair was sliding sideways towards an escarpment whilst I wrestled with the handles, gently tutting at the poor traction offered by the wheels. In the half-light Bruv came to the rescue with a sharp shove to the right.

After the light show projected onto the front of the house, we quietly returned the wheelchair to its berth by the bus stop, leaving the splayed-wheel, twisted-frame, mud-caked carriage for its next careful owner.

Christmas Eve afternoon in The George with CB-D and Jules has become a very enjoyable new Festive addition to the day’ traditional conventions (which also include Secret Santa, hot ham, cold pickles and single malt). On the other hand, when the Big Day arrived, there was no customary welcome into our house by Daughter No 2, who as long as can be remembered had always bellowed “It’s Christmas!” from the top of the stairs at 7.30am. Even as a 16-year-old last year, she had felt compelled to drag us from our beds as early as possible. But not this season. Not until 9.30am did the ‘kids’ get up. With the arrival of new traditions, so pass the old ones.

“That will come in handy” said Dad, admiring the present Mrs A had bought him and Bruv for Christmas, “…picture frame!” The frame actually held a fascinating monochrome photo of our family home since 1968, and indeed where my Bruv was born. Taken in 1935, the row of houses that contained our abode was still pristine and uncluttered, presented prior to the addition of disfiguring dormers, bays and porches. The trees opposite looked like fruit bushes compared to the size they are now; and a figure could be made out parking his bike in front of the long-closed corner shop. Anyway, good to know the frame will be useful...

And then another set of spectacular presents from Mr Fernie, who has an enviable track record in this department, it has to be said. T-shirts this year. A job lot of them requiring the construction of a 'what a difference a Dave makes' team photo. Ho. Ho. 

Board games get wheeled out, as befits yet more traditions, before the torpor of over-indulgence takes hold. That Christmas night it was simple Charades followed by more complex Rapidough. My Dad can be a bit unpredictable when it comes to these creative games. His picture of a ‘telephone’ in a round of Pictionary a few years back has become legendary, so far removed was it from any instrument of communication ever invented.  Once again, his Rapidough plasticine efforts did not disappoint. This was his glorious offering for ‘bikini’:

During Twixtmas (I can do marketing speak), Mrs A went to the Nutcracker with Jules, who observed my wife bursting in to tears on four confirmed occasions, with the suspicion of a good deal more unseen emotional moments. The ballet. That’s a right good night out, then.

Deeper into Twixtmas, we pitched up next door for a few drinks with an assortment of neighbours. I was chatting to a couple from up the road whom, being an active neighbourly sort of bloke, I’d never met before. In amongst the chit chat with them about the weather and house prices, they introduced their kids and remarked how tall they were growing. I launched into some Poirot-like interview, quizzing them about the possibility of tall genes within the family, parents’ siblings who were unnaturally tall and the like. I didn’t really notice Mrs A giving me a warning look. Neither did I pay any attention when she drew her finger repeatedly across her throat. I was relentless. “Funny how these things can skip generations”, I went on. My new friends smiled politely. Turns out that they adopted their children about 10 years ago… How was I supposed to know?

By the time New Year’s Eve hove in to view, we were creating a new tradition: year-end crazy golf. Yes, CB-D and Jules had spotted a great looking course on their way back from Stanmore one day and knew immediately the family who would want to join them. Daughter No 2 even pulled a sickie from work to come.

We were not alone. ‘Lost Jungle’ was humming. Many thrill-seekers were crawling over 36 holes of extreme adventure golf, crammed with jungle animals, island holes, Aztec tombs and lost shipwrecks all built on a man-made hill in suburban Hertfordshire. Once you’ve taken an easy par two on a hole behind a curtain waterfall, there really is not much left to achieve in the game.

New Year’s Eve was spent in The Old Mill, The Lamb and The George and then back home for London fireworks and the ginger busker’s massacre of ‘Layla’ on Hootenanny. We were not late to bed and on getting up to feed the dog next morning, Mrs A bumped into Daughter No 1 and friends returning from their NYE all-nighter in Hoxton. Except that they’d left Lucy on the train at Berko. She didn’t wake up in time and as they looked back, the doors closed with Lucy on the inside, condemned to a short detour via Leighton Buzzard. She arrived 30 minutes later and went straight upstairs to crash out beside Daughter No 1.

We strolled over to Aldbury with the dog later in the day, savouring the prospect of the walk and a quiet beer before the return to work. 

But people just can’t get enough in these parts. The place was packed. We discovered that there’s a tradition of music in the village on this bank holiday. The Valliant Trooper had Morris Men flayling their hankies and jangling bells in the beer garden; and over in The Greyhound, locals were turning up with guitars and violins for a session in the front bar.

We found the edge of a table in The Valliant Trooper for a bite to eat. The other corner was shared with a bloke called Alan and his wife. Alan was as chatty as his partner was silent. He had a lot to tell us. From shunting patterns in the Willesden Goods Yard to the recycling habits of his local pub near Hitchin. He had some photos of metal tomb markers taken in the village church yard that he was itching to show us. We felt it was probably time to leave.

That was a wrap.