Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Post festival flat spot

Every season around this time, I free-wheel out of the Cheltenham Festival mayhem like Lance Armstrong down the Alpe D'Huez, before gently coming to rest in a flat spot wider than the Nevada Salt Lakes. Becalmed in the doldrums in between the festival, Aintree and the start of the flat season proper. No mans land.

This usually means it's time to over-analyse my festival punting.

Surprisingly, the first batch of Cheltenham ante-posts published here in January stood up reasonably well. This is not always the case. Not that they got off to a flyer on the first day. Silverburn never made it to the Arkle, so that long shot hope was dead long before the tapes went up: but maybe I can take crumb of a moral victory from the fact that he ran in the SunAlliance chase over a mile further AND PATENTLY DID NOT STAY! Ergo, he should have turned up in the Arkle! Marodima, from the same Paul Nicholls stable did turn up, though one would have been hard pushed to notice. He ran very freely in the early stages and went out like a light. Amaretto Rose was retired to brood mare duties before the festival after a single very below par run in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton behind eventual Champion Hurdler Katchit. This bet proved to be a second-guess too far.

The bets for Wednesday showed a little more promise. Trafford Lad was a game third in the renamed SunAlliance Hurdle (now the Ballymore), but backing Lead On for the Sun Alliance Chase proved to be a mistake. I had him down as a three-miler, and his trainer Philip Hobbs begged to differ! He was campaigned over 2 1/2 miles and never really had this race on his agenda. As it happened he jumped pretty poorly in the Scilly Isles novice chase, a recognised festival trial, and would have struggled to make his mark.

So where are those ante-post successes? Nothing on Thursday. Friday was pay day though. Nenuphar Collonges proved to be my best bet of the festival, particularly as I topped up at the still-attractive prices a couple of days before the race. After Black Jack Ketchum and Wichita Lineman in previous years, the Spa Hurdle is fast becoming my most successfully punted race at the Festival.

Subsequent ante-posts had a distinctly mixed flavour. I seemed to do much better on place bets this year than in other years. Snap Tie broke my duck in the Supreme when he stayed on for 3rd, but this is the festival curtain-raiser and I'm desperate to win it and not to be bleedin' bridesmaid. I also got place returns on Junior (Coral Cup - well pleased with that) and Kazal (World Hurdle); but shocking ante-posts on Special Envoy (flattered to deceive in the Autumn), Harchibald (primadonna), Ring The Boss (inexperienced), Twist Magic (hates the track) and Kicking King (sentimental bet) crashed and burned big time. 

This pegged pegged me back to a modest overall profit for the festival, taking into account day of race and other assorted bets (such as an outrageous Lucky 15 that would have grabbed shed loads had it come in and was worth the stake simply for the ridiculous grin that adorned my chops as I struck this ridiculous bet!). Ultimately, I'll settle for that.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Cheltenham 2008 - The return of the three dayer

The festival is always special: the highest quality racing in one of nature's great amphitheatres played out in front of a raucous crowd packing the stands to the rafters and gambling their every last penny. But the festival is a test of endurance too. In the days of the three day festival I would collapse in a heap on the train home after the County Hurdle wrapped up proceedings feeling knackered. I would be emotionally drained, physically shattered, mentally overwhelmed and usually finacially bankrupt. The full four day festival has always been one-day further than I have been prepared to go. I know my limits.

So this year provided an interesting return to the three-dayer. After a full day's helter skelter action at Prestbury Park cheering home a new Arkle hero in Tidal Bay and a new Champion Hurdler in Katchit, we awoke on Wednesday morning to find Champion Chase day had had been cancelled. Or at least postponed, dismembered and put back together in some crazy Frankenstein's monster of a race meeting. High winds had whipped up a good deal of frenzied action at the course early on Wednesday morning. Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham's Chief Executive had been on the Morning Line by 8.30am reporting danger everywhere: flying debris, collapsing roofs, and tented village mayhem. So the racing was off for the day, tickets would be refunded in full and all the day's races would be rescheduled for Thursday and Friday, grafted on to the rest of the festival programme. Bloody hell! That meant 10 races on Thursday and 9 on Friday.

John Randall, the Racing Post resident historian, archivist and anorak, texted the delicious Tanya on the Morning Line to say "The Gods have spoken! It is the return to the three day festival!".

I didn't have tickets for the Thursday yet. We had planned to pick them up at the track early on Wednesaday. Now I'm thinking, 'Oh no, everyone will want to be here the see history being made'. But I had nothing to fear. We were at the course in plenty of time to bag a ticket for the following day. But it was a tingly moment. I clasped the ticket in my sweaty hands and let out a little yelp of joy at the prospect of this monstrous card of Grade 1s, 2s and stunningly competitive handicaps from dawn till dusk the next day.

So there was time to poke about the racecourse for the morning. We wandered through the National Hunt Hall of Fame for an hour, soaking up some nostalgia (Dawn Run nicking the Gold Cup from Wayward Lad) and reliving past glories (Michael Dickinson's 1-2-3-4-5 in the '80s). There was plenty of folk about doing the same as us, too. The Course was all dressed up with nowhere to go: the bars were open, the bookies were taking bets on Huntingdon and Southwell; there were enough yellow-bibbed security guards to demand the wearing of sunglasses; the Centaur conference suite was playing the Best Mate Story on a giant screen to a three-parts empty room of disinterested punters shuffling around aimlessly. The enclosures were off limits (back to the dangerous winds), but we snuck a peak through the gates near the Best Mate enclosure at a deserted concourse just before 2pm, the scheduled off-time for the Ballymore Hurdle. Surreal.

Cheltenham town centre was similarly ill at ease with itself: 40-odd thousand punters had to

go somewhere. Every pub was rammed. The bookies were overlflowing. I even struggled to get a cup of coffee in the back-street Starbuck's. At the station a fleet of double decker buses were parked neatly in line by the entrance waiting to shuttle hordes of eager racegoers that did not turn up.

Next morning, Edward Gillespie informed us on the Morning Line that everything was OK for racing. Early start though. First race was 12.30pm. It seemed to have an impact on the attendance, too. It was a distinctly thinner crowd than Tuesday, but the roar that accompanied the tapes going up for the first race was no less deafening than usual, though was it tinged with a little irony, or was that just my imagination?

The day didn't disappoint. Right from Old Benny's grinding win in the opening 4-miler, through to a thrilling finish when Cousin Vinny gave Willie Mullins yet another bumper success in a race completed in near darkness and through streaming drizzle. Master Minded delivered an absolutely remarkable performance in the Queen Mother. This, year after year, is my favourite race: seasoned chasers streaming over fences with pinpoint accuracy at high cruising speeds. Master Minded left the rest of the field for dead today. When jockey Ruby Walsh eased down his mount coming home, the horse was still pulling away from the game but outclassed Voy Por Ustedes in 2nd. Ruby's pixelated face, magnified ten-times on the big screen, betrayed astonishment. This was a breathtaking display. But for emotional intensity, what about Inglis Drever landing his third World Hurdle crown? A feat never achieved before. And how he had to work for it. On ground softer than ideal, hitting a longer flatspot than usual and boxed in between Kazal and My Way de Sozen, Inglis somehow raised his game, jinked out from the hole and outstayed Kasbah Bliss back up the hill. Not a dry eye in the house, I swear. Marvellous scenes.

And what else? A first, overdue, festival success for Sue Smith with the evergreen Mister McGoldrick who absolutely bolted in at 50-1; a first Grade 1 for Our Vic who donned blinkers for the first time at the ripe old age of 10; and a first festival winner - of many, no doubt - for Evan Williams with High Chimes.

Me? Nine losing races out of ten..... Kazal's 3rd in the World Hurdle saved me a complete blow out. But I was in serious debt after 16 races. So going home after only two of the three days still felt as draining as a full three festival. The prospect of settling down to watch the Friday extravaganza in a comfortable pub in front of a big screen was very welcoming.

It took me every one of the nine races on Friday to get myself back in profit. But I ended this bizarre meeting back in the black. The sight of Nenuphar Collonges plugging on up the hill to claim victory in the 3 mile novice hurdle when every other beast was treading water will stay with me for a very long time. That was the big winner I was searching for. A couple of tasty place bets helped me through too: Trafford Lad was game in the SunAlliance Hurdle, but he was behind an epic struggle between Venalmar and FiveFourThree, who were absolutely hammer and tongs over the last few furlongs, with the latter just prevailing under a driving Ruby Walsh ride. An exhilierating start to the day. The Coral Cup was alsmost as close. Ferdy Murphy's Naiad Du Misselot somehow got up to beat Kicks For Free on the line by the new distance of 'a nose'. Junior was third to land me some place wedge.

So by the time the Gold Cup came round I was quite relaxed. I could enjoy the spectacle. And I did. Watching Denman gallop Kauto into submission was awesome. The horse is simply relentless. A juggernaut. Maybe it wasn't quite the race some envisaged. There was no dramatic moment as Kauto Star cruised up to Denman's shoulder. No opportunity for the nation to hold its breath for six seconds and wonder what would come next. But it was no less impressive to these old eyes.

Bagging a 33-1 winner in the Foxhunters was just sheer spawn. I remembered Amicelli as a decent novice chaser for Philip Hobbs. So a few quid on him for that reason was enough. I don't think I even looked at the rest of the card. And up he trotted. Easy as you like.

Another marathion day of punting ended in a blur of London Pride and dodgy kebabs. That was about the only predictable part of this particular Cheltenham Festival when, with apologies to the Spice Girls, four became three.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Progress on ante-posts


There are only five weeks to go before the Horseracing Olympics get under way in the shadow of Cleeve Hill at Prestbury Park. The Cheltenham National Hunt Festival is just around the corner.

I've been going every year since 2000. Each year, at about this time, I start to worry, agitate, stress about the state of my ante-post bets. These bets are usually struck months ago to keep me warm through the dark days of Winter. Bets to pull from my kit back during the festival like precious gems. Cheering on horses that I've backed at double figure prices months ago that trot to post as short priced favourites. It is the stuff of dreams. Every so often these big, ambitious bets pay off. Just now and again a horse backed at a massive price sometime in October on the basis of gentle tropt round Exteter can pay off. These are the moments you live for. The moments that keep the dream alive and also lull you into overconfidence. Down the years I remember the big pay outs, the smug feeling as the bookie counts out the wedge into my graspings paws. But I also know that the other side of this deal is about horses that end up a bigger price on the day than when you backed them, or worse, horses that don't even make it to the hallowed event - dead, injured or simply not good enough. And bottom of the barrel are those outrageous ante-post doubles where the first leg is a loser. These bets simply get forgotten about. Too embarrassing to own up to.

This year, I've taken a different approach. I've been disciplined, measured. In control. I've tried to focus on the Championship races where I know I'm strongest.

Here is the list, and my assessment of their chances.


Arkle Chase: Marodima at 25-1 each way. Thought this was a sound bet when I struck it just after Christmas. He trounced a couple of decent types like Mahogany Blaze and Moon Over Miami round Sandown. Came out again last week and tried to win a race at breakneck pace on bottomless ground. Finished down the field, well beaten. His trainer Paul Nicholls says he's unlikely to be aimed at Cheltenham now. So one down already.

I've also taken an outrageous price about Silverburn in the same race. Also a Nicholls horse, I backed him on Betfair (thank the Lord for Betfair) at about 94-1 just before Christmas when he was still being thought of as a three-miler. Something about his form last season made me think he wouldn't stay and so it proved when he ran in the Feltham Novices Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. Whether he'll actually make it to the Arkle line up is another question (he has an entry and the talent). He may end up running at 2.5 miles. But a moral victory for me if nothing else!

Champion Hurdle: What a race this is shaping up to be. The old guard (Hardy Eustace, Brave Inca, Macs Joy) got blitzed last year by new kid on the block Sublimity (one of my successful ante-post punts). He has headed the betting for a long time this year, but then Osana stamped a massive claim to be taken seriously after an impressive win in the old Bula and next Sizing Europe - who beat Osana in the Greatwood Handicap at Cheltenham earlier in the saeason - came out and demolished a select field at Leopardstown to leap to favouritism. I missed the race , but all the commentators were blown away by this effort. I'm on Amaretto Rose from Nicky Henderson's yard at 33-1. She's not been out this year, so another risky one. Due to make an appearance on Saturday. That should tell me whether the 33s is value or not!


Ballymore Properties Novice Hurdle: I'm on Trafford Lad at 16-1 each way. I'm happy with the price on the basis of what he's done in Ireland, but the form for this race is a bit sketchy. Also, the addition of the 3 mile novice hurdle on Friday messes up the minds of ante-post punters. It's now even harder to guess which race the top trainers might be aiming their horses at. I've backed Crocodiles Rock at 28-1 but he's a Jonjo O'Neill horse and he likes to aim his stayers at the three-miler. Very much the case this year I suspect. Could be another duff one.

SunAlliance Chase: A race I always get involved in months before the off. Can't help myself. Every season I see a decent staying novice chaser win well and I want to back it immediately for this race. So I've shown some self-restraint this year and backed a nice prospect of Philip Hobbs', Lead On at about 27s on Betfair. And now I hear the trainer thinks he's best at 2.5 miles and may go for the Jewson. Trouble is, in my heart of hearts, I knew this too. The bet is a bit too speculative. This is another race where some trainers still have cards to play. I also think that I haven't seen any superstars in this division - with the possible exception of Glencove Marina who's is now out for the season - so it could still be wide open come the big day. I'll get involved agian before then though!


Nothing yet! See, I said I was being strong! The World Hurdle would be my main play here and I will get involved soon. Inglis has come out and franked his class again and again this season so he's really hard to oppose. But if My Way de Solzen is aimed at this race after bitterly disappointing over fences this season, he could still be value as a former winner. We'll see.

The Ryanair over 2.5 miles is also one I will be looking at more closely over the next couple of days. This race is fast becoming a festival favourite and has now been booted up to Grade 1 on the basis of a couple of strong recent renewals.


Spa/Brit/Bartlett Hurdle (whatever it's called this year!): I've followed some of the form this year and there has been an interesting group of races involving Souffleur, Nenuphar Collonges, Carruthers and then some decent Irish form to chuck into the mix, so this is shaping up nicely. I'm on Nenuphar from the Alan King yard at 18-1. Not exactly given away, but he'll love the trip and I think there's a bit of class about him. He's actually a chaser, but has been given a hurdle campaign this year, oddly enough.

The Triumph is always a massive ante-post bonanza. But this year I am staying clear. I always get suckered into backing a bunch of outsiders for this one and they never go anywhere near. So I'm learning the lesson of my stats which tell me that I can't read the form of this one to save my ante-post life. So I'm out of it until much closer to race day.

So that's it for now. I expect the decent cards at Sandown and Doncaster will, no doubt, put paid to a few more of these!

Friday, 11 January 2008

Towcester Races April 2007

I want to use this blogspace to record my trials and tribulations being a small time mug punter: having a bit of a laugh following the horses, sometimes winning, usually losing, but always making the most of it. For my first blog entry I'm going back to last April to record a top day out at Towcester races......

......Today I am going to Towcester Races. The day has broken blue, clear and gorgeous: a clean Spring day with hot Summer temperatures in a climate changing world. I do a spot of gardening before making for the track. Potting on the poppies sowing the sunflower seeds before reaping a harvest at the races. Well, that's the plan.

I go by public transport to Towcester, but the bus connection at Northampton lets me down so I end up flagging a taxi. Cabbies are always worth a laugh. This one is no exception. “Gambling, eh?”, he says. “Gambling. I went in that casino last month.” He nods over the road. “ 'Do you wants some chips?' says this girl in a short skirt. 'No thanks', I say. I've already eaten! Harrharrharrggghhh!” Everyone's a winner. It turns out that he's studying for a psychology degree and he wants to work with autistic children. Never judge a book, as they say.

Towcester Racecourse has been running a fantastic free entry policy for the last couple of years and it has paid off handsomely by increasing the attendance threefold in that time. Today is no exception and there is a good crowd here in time for the first race. The gaggle of girls by the running rail in skimpy outfits and high spirits could be mistaken for a hen party if it wasn't a Monday afternoon in the middle of Northamptonshire.

The racing is admitedly poor, however. In the first race a rank outsider called Chain wins in what the race announcer describes as 'dramatic fashion'. That's dramatic as in Laurel and Hardy to my eyes. First the leader blunders the 4th last, leaving his pursuer clear in the lead until, with two fences left to jump, he ejects his jockey via the side door. The new leader is the favourite Carthy's Cross who is miles clear coming up the hill for home. But he begins to lose interest all by himself and, despite the frantic urgings of his jokey, he virtually stops. The hitherto tailed-off Chain suddenlt scents an impromtu victory. He closes down Carthy's Ctross and snatches the race with 200 yards to run, accompanied by cries of anguish from the legion of punters who have backed Carthy's Cross.

This sets the tone for me really. Not only do I fail to find a winner in any of the six races, but I also manage to squeeze vinegar all over my burger. An easy mistake. Who would expect a brown squeezy bottle to contain anything but brown sauce? Even a pint of John Smith's Snmoothflow, purchased from the well-appointed, newly constructed grandstand bar can't swill the taste of acetic acid from my mouth.But the weather is fine, the crowd in hearty voice and the racing entertaining. This is better than working!

So I head for home after the final race and pick up the number 502 to Northampton station a little poorer in pocket but much the richer in spirit.