Thursday, 26 August 2010

Yorkshire Oaks

York’s Ebor meeting, held last week, is one of the highlights of my flat racing season. As an unreconstructed professional Yorkshireman, I have a predictable affinity with this sublime, stylish and mature track that some refer to as the Ascot of the north (if comparisons must be made then surely it is that Ascot is the York of the south?) (And Guildford is the Wakefield of Surrey….). This year’s Yorkshire Oaks was a classic encounter of the nation’s top middle distance fillies. A favourite of mine, last year’s dual Oaks winner, Sariska was lining up against old foe and globe-trotting multi-grade 1 winner Midday, as well as the star of this season’s classic filly crop Snow Fairy.

Sariska was the star filly last year. Beautiful, graceful…..profitable.  She probably counts as one of my few genuine and unmitigated successes on the flat. She came to my attention during a listed event at Newbury where she broke poorly, slowly and late, but made up acres of ground to finish like a classic mug punters con-trick: the fast finishing fourth. Well, I took the bait. She went in to the mental notebook in Caslon Openface 16pt. bold.  Next up, her trainer Michael Bell, not unfamiliar with classic glory, put her in the Musidora at York, a famous Oaks trial. So I went in on the juicy betfair prices on a multi-lateral basis. A fiver on her Musidora odds and a fiver at her massive Oaks odds.

She won the York trial in - even at the time I thought this – convincing style. I was very optimistic about her chances in the Oaks in early June.

My partner in crime, Steve – user name Bacchy to my Davoski – had spotted the same thing.  We’ve made a number of memorable and mostly profitable appearances at Oaks day on the Epsom Downs across the years. But we’d been a little lax in attendance since the heady days of Casual Look in 2006. 2009 saw a return to form. Not before some full force griping about the new bloody stand though. Epsom’s redevelopment had produced the Duchess Stand, a £40m carbuncle designed to cosset even more disinterested corporate freeloaders in exaggerated comfort and service at the measurable physical and financial cost to proletariat punter: worse views, increased no-go zones, hiked entrance fees, deeper disgruntlement.  Scum bags.

Revenge, however, was swift, fortuitous and whiskey-soaked. I was pretty confident about Sariska’s chances. This is a feeling sadly not that familiar to me. Nevertheless, I was convinced that she had the best form on offer. Ultimately, I wasn’t disappointed. But not without a few solid scares along the way. Jockey Jamie Spencer had the filly well positioned gunning down the straight. She came to take long time leader Midday at the furlong marker and I honestly thought that would be all over. But Midday wouldn’t go away. Blimey, did she keep coming at Sariska. Exhilarating fireworks down the straight and a heart-stopping tight finish. The Michael Bell filly held on, but by a diminishing head.

Still, it was enough for me and Bacchy to leap around like demented idiots, safe in the knowledge of a perfectly executed coup. And then the dreaded ‘bing bong’ over the PA announcing a stewards’ inquiry. We watched the replay. A bit of scrimmaging over the final furlong, but nothing to worry about and we breathed a sigh of relief. But the inquiry went on. Word spread round the track that the incident of concern was way back on the bend. And it wasn’t Midday that was the victim, but the pre-race favourite Rainbow View. On-course TV finally dredged up the pictures for the big screen that showed Rainbow View squeezed for room on the bend and stopped in her tracks as she tried to angle out for a run. Sariska was clearly doing the squeezing. Or rather, jockey Jamie Spencer was when making made his bold move for home. After a good deal of increasing, confidence sapping tension, she kept the race. Cue more back slapping and glib ‘never in doubt’ comments. But it was close.

We headed for the drink sponsors’ tent. The bar had been drunk dry - no more free samples available. So, befitting the spirit of the occasion, a fine bottle of their Woodford Reserve bourbon was purchased instead. If not freebies, those kind salespeople were at least happy to supply us with two plastic cups. And the remainder of the meeting passed in a blur of sour mash and straight exactas. Happy days.

Sariska and Midday had locked horns on two further occasions with Sariska prevailing each time. The filly, Steve and I returned to the Oaks meeting this year too, together with our mate Bryn and his father in law Sid. Only this time we opted for the cheap seats in the Lonsdale enclosure. Sariska ran well in the Coronarion Cup against the boys. But couldn’t overhaul the impressive Fame and Glory for the all-powerful Aiden O’Brien yard. There were no bourbon-soaked celebrations of big wedge payouts. But we had a good day. Sid in particular enjoyed his first visit to the Oaks meeting in 40 years!

And so to York’s Knavesmire and the fourth meeting between the two. Sadly the fireworks were lop-sided this time. Midday was sensational. She confirmed herself at the peak of her form with her second Group 1 victory in three weeks. Sariska? She refused to leave the stalls!

Friday, 13 August 2010

In praise of Sea The Stars

Outside football I’ve had a pretty profitable Summer’s punting. (Cue lightning flashes and opening of gaping holes in the ground). But as a spectacle, the racing has not matched the nose-bleeding heights attained by the great Sea The Stars last year. But I firmly believe that was a once in a generation event. My pro-punting mate and Cheltenham accomplice Steve sent me a bit of heart-felt prose from a pretty hard-nosed gambling aquaintance of his. It’s lovely stuff:

Awful game this...
We get pissed off with how it's run. We get pissed off with those who run it. We get pissed off with clerks who can’t run a tap (or run it too much!). We chunter about bent races and question bad rides. It costs us an arm & a leg to go see it happen and when we get there it's crawling with drunks, way too packed and the traffic was sickening enough for you to swear you're never going again.....
You wonder why you bother?

In my case, I 'bother' because it's all the family have 'bothered' about since I was born. 
When I was little & the old fellah used to take me along to the races with him & I didn't really have a clue what was going on.
Gradually, I got to like it & took more interest in what was winning races & took notice of what the old fellah was backing. I wanted to find out more about it & started asking the old man.
The most interesting stuff was when he told me about the great horses. There were only two he kept going on about: Sea Bird & Vaguely Noble. Told me Sea Bird thrashed a horse at Epsom (Meadow Court) that would have been a decent Derby winner most years. Proper thrashed him. He'd seen great horses: Dante (got a photo of him with that one at home), Crepello, St Paddy, Nijinsky, But he never put any of those up with his 'big two'.

Over the years, I've seen a few good uns:
Alleged, Troy, Shergar, Dancing Brave, Dahlia, El Gran Senor, Oh So Sharp, Nashwan, Generous, Pebbles, Nureyev, Blushing Groom.
Probably more that I've forgotten about, but they made the study & wet days at Nottingham worthwhile. They (when racing's pretty much all you 'do') light up your life for a while. None of the above really passed the old man's 'litmus test' though & made me think "jesus, that's special".
 I thought that was it.

Then this one came along.
I'd known about him long enough. Final Furlong & Irish Whisper were all over him like a rash before his debut & told me he was something else. It took the Guineas win to convince me he could shift & I've been sold on him ever since.
I've only backed him once. In the Derby , & never had a moment’s worry.
He impressed me more at York after the race when he looked as though he'd done nothing more strenuous than had a bloody good shit. His opponent that day, Irish Guineas winner Mastercraftsman looked like he'd been in a collision with a truck.
He then wiped the floor with the Ballydoyle 'tag team' in the Irish Champion & set the seal on his true GREATNESS today when overcoming traffic problems that would have found out a whole host of 'best horses in the race' with the minimum of fuss.

My old man followed this sport for 55years.
The year he died (1987), he was still talking about the best TWO he'd seen.
That tells you how often these buggers come along.

I don’t think half of us would be doing this, but for the chance of horses like this popping up & let's be fair, when they do, the betting means nothing. 
Make sure you take all this in. Might be thirty years till you see another one!”

I never got to see Sea The Stars in the flesh. A shame. Nevertheless I have personal memories and thrills woven through this wonder horse’s spectacular six month reign-supreme. I backed him for the 2,000 guineas at, with hindsight, a generous 10-1. His turn of foot in the last two furlongs marked him out as something special. He was already being talked up for the Derby, where I backed him again in a race where Ballydoyle famously got the tactics wrong. With STS pulling Mick Kinane’s arms out of his sockets, Aiden O’Brien’s horses simply wouldn’t make the race a test of stamina. STS had never run beyond a mile. He was not a guaranteed stayer. Ballydoyle’s number one contender Fame and Glory certainly was. But he was tucked up behind STS. They had Irish Guineas winner Mastercraftsman in the race too. Three out, Kinane’s mount was travelling so smoothly. Like a dream. He picked off the Ballydoyle pacemaker and won without sweat; the Ballydoyle big two having not landed a blow between them. As the beast crossed the line, the camera cuts to his trainer Dr John Oxx. In a maelstrom of whoops, cheers, flung hats and punched air, John calmly looked into the middle distance and nodded briefly. A nod that said, “yes, job done. That’s what we expected”. My admiration of the dignified Dr Oxx grew as the season progressed.

By this time, I was also riding high in the Tote Ten to Follow competition, courtesy of STS, Sariska (thereby hangs a tail/tale) and a couple of other handy winners. Sadly that my appearance in the Racing Post leading entries column was not repeated. My prominence declined soon after, unlike STS who went from strength to strength. The horse’s 5th straight group 1 at Leopardstown in the Champion Stakes possibly his most devastating. Absolutely crushing a decent field, including older horses (as he had done in the Eclipse at Sandown and the Juddmonte at York. I didn’t back him for those, nor had I any intention of doing so for the Arc, likely to be his final race. But I was leaving a job in Camden and the crowd there bought me an ante-post slip for the horse in that race as my leaving present. I tell you I was filling up. What an inspired gift! Even more touching when I learned that Kiran and Miia had decided to place the bet in the local William Hill having never set foot inside a bookies in their lives! The good lady assistants there talked them though the transaction with, I hope, understanding and tact. For inevitably I knew them well!

So when Sea The Stars completed his perfect six having his most arduous passage and one again displaying that crushing acceleration, I had a sentimental moment all to myself.

He finished on the best possible note. Each time he ran I became more and more nervous. I’m so pleased his owner and trainer resisted the clamour to go to California for the Breeders Cup. I also say yah-boo sucks to the pundits attempting to pour cold water on his level of greatness because he won each time only by a comfortable distance and not the 20 lengths they need for their ratings analyses. Bollocks. He did what he needed to do with complete authority and confidence over different distances, underfoot conditions, tracks, countries and against all age groups. He’s the best thing I’ve seen on four legs since, er,  Lassie Come Home!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Moribund no more

So that statistic about 95% of blogs being abandoned within months of their creation is true. I see my last posting was way back in March 2008. Just another unloved and uncared for blog in a desert of social networking casualties. So much for it being a vehicle for witty and regular missives on the twists and turns of a shambolic mug punting career!

But no! Lazarus-like, this blog can be resurrected. I will truly aspire to lofty commitments of irregular, variable quality and dubiously sourced postings. Let it be so!

In a World Cup summer, it's no surprise that football punting has dominated my activities. But, sadly, only marginally profitably.

As a football spectacle most commentators agree that the quality of the action at this tournament was low. My take on this is that it continues a recent trend that declined sharply four years ago in Germany. Whilst South Africa saw (arguably) less blatant diving, air-card waving and general referee pressurising, there was a desperate rise in the level of well organised defences, negative tactics and cynical play. Technically proficient European coaches bringing about massive improvements to the defensive qualities of uninspiring African, Asian and Australasian teams is certainly part of the explanation. It is far easier to coach organisation, discipline and tactical awareness than it is to produce brilliance, creativity and invention in a squad of average footballers. Alchemy would be easier.

But that explanation does not extend to the World Cup Final. The Oranje tactics to break up slick Spanish passing and moving through bad tackles, obstruction and negative play (that's just van Bommel!) betrayed a lamentable disbelief in their own ability. Natural justice was seen to be done with a Spanish win. Personally I feel that the Netherlands A game could have given Spain a real fright.

But never mind natural justice. A Dutch win would have been financial justice for me. Big time. I'd invested a good few quid in various combinations involving the Netherlands winning. Their appearance in the final guaranteed me a small profit. But, oh, what might have been. In addition to plundering Betfair markets heavily, my mate has launched a new footie predictions website with some tasty prize money on offer. Needless to say, a Dutch win would have seen me pocket a tidy sum. Check out Three More Points. Oh, and I had the Netherlands in the office sweepstake too!

I tried to get the girls interested in the World Cup this year. At 12 and 10 I thought they were ready. So it was that Catherine and I were poring over the pull-out from The Observer in early June. "Who will you be supporting then Cathy?", I inquired, rather hopefully. She looked at the double spread before her. Pondered the fixtures. Glanced at the team names. "Group C", she uttered convincingly! Blimey, I still have a long way to go.....