Monday, 21 March 2011

Festival cold turkey

Climbing off the Festival crazy train doesn’t mean I’m back to earth quite yet. Or that I’m done with funfair-ride metaphors. Just like blinking back into daylight after a twist on Disneyland’s Aerosmith Rock n Rollercoaster (the chair ride at Alton Towers wasn’t quite the imagery I was looking for…), re-acclimatisation is needed. The head has to stop spinning and the brain needs to recognise its surroundings.

The sun was out on a beautiful post-Gold Cup Saturday morning. Time to pause for breath.

For me, the relative success of a festival is judged by the interplay of a number of factors across the full four days: the ebb and flow of financial fortunes, the heart-stopping spectacle of the racing in the championship events, the mouth-watering illumination of potential in the novice events… and of course, the craic, the banter, and the company. Balancing all those criteria, I’ve never had a bad one. And this year was up there with the best.

On the wider stage, however, I recognise that the true barometer of success comes down to one race: The Cheltenham Gold Cup. Sat in the garden, welcome sunshine was making the newsprint of my Racing Post dazzle and glare. This was as much about the quality of the writing as the weather conditions. For a change. The RP exploits its dominance of the market place to dish up some pretty average, hackneyed, shallow and at times, I’d argue, partial reporting. But if there is a need to understand the significance of Friday’s Gold Cup to the industry and to the majority of the public, then it was writ large in this edition. I noted the sage remarks of Robert Whaley-Cohen, the owner of new champion Long Run,

“This is the greatest four days of jump racing, this is the most important day of the four, that’s the most important race of the day. What can be better than to win the best race on the best day at the best meeting.”

And if you have the stomach for unashamedly dramatic and touchingly sentimental race reviews, Alastair Down’s tour de force is an absolute joy. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But as a journo, he knows when to switch on the humility and needs no second invitation to go for the emotional jugular. In this piece he blasted both barrels in order to stake a claim for the race’s place in history.

“…at Cheltenham yesterday an absolute epic of a Gold Cup lifted our sport to heights you might dream of reaching perhaps once or twice in a lucky generation.”

But my own festival experience always has more twists and turns than this one great race. I was back home on Thursday morning easily in time for the first race of the third day. I can’t remember the last occasion I was at home for a day of the festival. At least 12 years ago. But I enjoyed the change.

I enjoyed the pattern of the afternoon: baying at the telly in the Jewson, urging the gorgeous and talented Noble Prince up that lush hill and away from the stout Wishfull Thinking to land me a win single and the last leg of an each way Lucky 15. Then having to open the door to the dining room and apologise to Mrs A and Steve for disturbing their important music businessing.

The pattern, sadly, became the baying and the apologising. Less so the winning: my hollering was insufficient to see Kalahari King collar Albertas Run in the Ryanair, nor to urge Fiveforthree to threaten the remarkable Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle.  “Sorry guys! Bit exciting in here”.

This wasn’t the only repeating pattern either. Both Albertas Run and Big Buck’s had won their respective races on the same afternoon last year. Buena Vista leading the field a merry dance in the Pertemps final – as he had also done last year – gave the day an eerie feeling of déjà vu. How I failed to back Buena Vista in that is a mystery to me. I was all over him last year and nearly chewed the long suffering Bacchy’s ear off about how thrilled and stunned I was to have finally cracked the Pertemps conundrum.

Fantasy Festival was warming up nicely about now. Nev, perennial bridesmaid, was desperate to win this year. He had backed Albertas Run and Big Buck’s to open up a £200 quid lead on the rest of us, but Colin, also courtesy of Big Buck’s was handy in 2nd. I was off the pace, but had notched the first leg of double through that lovely Noble Prince. Landing the 2nd leg would put me back in the mix. Nick was lurking. He’s good at that. Colin was  well aware of all this and was on the text to me:

“Who’s the second leg on, mate?”
“Sorry, not declaring that til tomoz afternoon. Adds spice don’t it?”
“I don’t want f**king spice in my afternoon!”

The banter on Facebook was quality. On Bacchy’s wall:

Bryn: “Nev will blow it, he won't be able to resist a hefty punt along the way and then the pressure and booze will get to him.”
Colin: “I will psyche him out, get inside his head space, take him to uncomfortable places.”

Uncomfortable places! What Guantanamo talk is this? Cracking stuff! With this chilling encounter in prospect, I arrived at the Barley Mow. Nick and Colin were already there and had baggsied the comfy leather sofas in front of the giant drop down screen. Nev was next and then the rest of the lads arrived and the action at Prestbury Park began to unfold.

Despite my own extensive personal punting strategy for the afternoon, Fantasy Festival always dominates this day. It’s not the money, it’s the pride, the thrill and the matey competition. The lead often swaps faster than a Coalition Government policy position. Indeed the psychological warfare that Colin and Bryn have alluded to is something that party strategists could learn a lot from.  

Zarkander bolted up in the Triumph. Lovely looking prospect. He was lung-burstingly roared home by me, Nev and Nick. Exposed to this full force wind tunnel, the gaggle of young ladies and gentlemen who had been sat under the screen quietly moved elsewhere. In the County Hurdle, Final Approach somehow managed to get his lovely nose in front right on the line with a very late lunge. I’d backed him, but wasn’t celebrating. I couldn’t see that he’d got there in time. Even the cameraman was focusing on Get Me Out Of Here. I was already bemoaning my luck to Nick, “Every punter groans about the ones that get away and there’s another one to go with Rock On Ruby. Tssk.” I was still whinging, when the result of the photo was declared in favour of my boy. Colin said he heard me shriek from the bogs. Two out of two. In the Albert Bartlett, red hot favourite Bobs Worth showed real class and smoothly ran out a handy winner. I was three out of three at that stage, including the second leg of my Fantasy Festival double. That put me right in the frame.

Heady stuff. And although I didn’t get another winner for the rest of the afternoon, I was delirious. Gold Cup Fantasy Festival manoeuvres were by now in full swing. Nick had now overtaken Colin and was seriously in the hunt. Nick has previous in this event. Harder to crack than Nev, too. Colin’s prophecy came true, though. Nev’s uncomfortable place was an ill-judged, wide-eyed grab for glory at £150 notes each way on the Commander. The reigning champ burdened with the leader’s hopes and fears at 4-1. Madness we all thought. Infact I think we tried to talk him out of it. “Shit or bust. You know me Dave”. And we do.

The race, of course, is already seen as a classic.  The brave old guard replaced by the new. The best horse in training landing an epic from two glorious ex-champions. Perfectly scripted. When Kauto Star led them out on the second circuit. Colin and I exchanged glances. “What’s he doing? This isn’t Kauto’s game!” But we were grinning. The 11 year old was serving it up to the field, pouring on the pressure. Imperial Commander was on his shoulder, Denman and Long Run tucked behind. Commander’s blunder at the fourth last provided the impetus for Denman to stake his claim. There was an audible gasp in the pub as the tank, absolutely flat to the boards, ranged up and past Kauto. “Gooo on Denman, Gooooo on son”, independent shouts of encouragement around the pub for this gutsy warrior that were inspired by sentiment, not profit. For a moment, we thought he might do it. And then Long Run swept through. He rose beautifully at every fence when asked big questions by his articulate, well-groomed and thoroughly likeable amateur jockey, Sam Whaley-Cohen. He sizzled up the hill and won in a track record time. We all knew we’d seen some race.

But only the briefest of respective pauses before we knuckle down again for the decider in the Fantasy Festival. Nev knew his chances had now gone after the Commander had been pulled up. This left me a tiny few quid in front with only the Grand Annual to go, the festival closer, at 5.15. Bacchy, architect of this Fantasy Festival feast arrived in the pub a little before the off. It was great to see him, his participation in the four days having been limited by a punishing work schedule. 

So, we were all in, all in for the decider. It's done by secret selection to avoid any advantage being gained by the leader. bad news for Nick. He and I managed to select the same horse and to the same stake. In a field of 23, this is some feat. it was a crusher for Nick, who now couldn’t win. In the end, none of our selections got close. Nev’s Anquetta briefly threatened, but the frame was filled with outsiders. This meant that I’d managed to cling on to the FF trophy by a few spawny pennies.

Late afternoon became early and then late evening in a blur of Doom Bar, Brakspears and celebratory double-Glenmorangies. Time to head home from this marathon session which has been, by turns, exhilarating, satisfying and shattering. At the end, we made big promises of a mob-handed return to the live action on course next year, just like the old days. Bacchy’s missed it achingly this year, and has square jaw-edly taken it on the chin (how much more can I mangle this beautiful language of ours? I’m nearly at the end now, stick with it…). So we’ll both be there next year. Bryn put his hand up for a couple of days too and did I hear Nev say the same? I reckon my Bruv will be back as well. So that sounds to be very much like a formidable army to go to war with next March.

Sitting in that Saturday morning reflective sunshine, I noticed an unread text message on my phone. I checked it out: “I love u 2 Davoski”. Oh no. Warning bells. A quick flick to the sent box confirmed it. Yep, sure enough, a raft of emotional, sentimental, guff-filled texts has been dispatched late the previous evening, presumably on the train back home. “I really love you guys….what a brilliant day……great comp….love your enthusiasm….wouldn’t be the same….” As I say, the festival is a roller coaster. I guess that was the nauseous bit!

As a post-script, the schedule of shame financial analysis, updated for the final time that Saturday morning, revealed a rather pathetic bottom line: £515 staked in 53 separate bets covering ante-posts, wins, doubles, each-ways, accumulators, Lucky 15s, exactas and placepots to give an overall PROFIT of £14. FOURTEEN QUID. Blood, tears, toil and sweat. Good research, bad information, ugly judgement. Near things, sure things, things can only get better. And some exultation, redemption and reward too.  Is it worth it? You bloody well bet it is!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Champion Chase Day

Dank, grey, impenetrable. Never mind the weather. This was my mood today after the Champion Chase. A pall of low cloud hanging over Prestbury Park was obscuring Cleeve Hill and cloaking everything in cold mist. Cue clunky similie…. !

We were only two today. Dad’s leg is playing up and he’s decided against putting it through the rigours of another circuit of the racecouse. He’s sportingly driven me and Bruv over here through fog and rain, and will return to watch the action back at our Stow nerve centre.

Betfair Biggles flying in
Approaching the track from the town centre is a very different experience to the walk through car parks from the north yesterday. Then we wove through endless Range Rovers tail-gate picnics of champers and smoked salmon, hosted by country couples wearing enough acreage of tweed and corduroy to carpet the home straight. Today, we dodge groups of lairy pint-pot screamers, fancy-dress debs and busking children (I kid you not). Bruv was unable to resist accepting a lovely yellow Betfair scarf handed out from a box in someone’s front garden!

The crowds seem thinner today. Yesterday was as busy as I can remember in the Best Mate enclosure, confirmed by the Racing Post which put the total attendance at over 53,000. Much more elbow room today though. We watch the first from the rail by the winning post. I take a photo for a couple at their first festival. She looks at the image on the back of the camera and exclaims “Oh, that’s not a very good one!” Her partner retorts, ‘Well why didn’t you smile then you daft tart!”I hand the camera back and beat a hasty retreat. I’d hate to be the cause of a domestic.

The early races are nothing short of carnage on the punting front and at least two are unsatisfactory on the racing front, too. The four-miler sees a convincing win for Chicago Grey, produced expertly by his amateur rider. Bruv collects a little, but is also getting excited about a horse we’ve both backed, Pearlysteps. Only he’s cheering on the wrong horse! Wrong colours, wrong jockey!

The Neptune Hurdle is one of my favourite races and one I’ve had a good degree of success in. Today, Rock On Ruby gets mugged right on the line by First Lieutenant. In truth, ROR might have been scrapping for 3rd had not Oscars Well and So Young both smashed through the last, stopping their momentum as sure as slamming the gear stick into reverse.  

My nap of the meeting, Wymott was up next in the RSA Chase. What a shambles. He was never travelling. Not interested. Spat out the dummy. He wasn’t alone. Red hot favourite Time For Rupert was lethargic and sluggish at his fences. And two horses fell when tanking along. This left Jessies Dream and Boston’s Angel to fight out the finish, with the latter prevailing under a gutsy, gritty and determined drive. Despite a shocking show from my team, I’m pleased for trainer Jessie Harrington who is a talented, self-effacing and engaging individual and who saw her charge, Oscars Well fluff his lines just now with the race at his mercy.

Champion Chase. Best spectacle of the meeting for me. Elite chasers fencing with accuracy and speed. But not any of the rags I backed. Sizing Europe wins well. French Opera is not up to this class. How could I ever think he was? What do I know? An ill-advised exacta perm is also a grubby little cash-grab.

I’m starting to lose reason, judgement and balance. And that’s not just a result of the emptied hip flask.  Bruv is having an equally bad time. Reflecting back on the first, he says, “Comes to something when the highlight of your day is cheering home an each way shout. And it’s the wrong horse!” Even through my dark mood, I raise a grin. He goes on. “You know you’re having a bad day when your get-out stakes is the Coral Cup!” I thought I’d cornered the pathos market.

 Carlitto Brigante taking the applause on
his way back to the winner's enclosure

Ah, the Coral Cup. 2 ½ miles and 27 unfeasibly handicapped runners. BUT NOT TODAY! Through very different reasoning and obscure circumstance we have both backed Gordon Elliot’s Carlitto Brigante in this minefield of a race. And he bolts home! We were celebrating long before the last hurdle fall of his nearest rival made the run-in academic. 20-1. That sounds lovely. Much high-fiving and back-slapping was set loose. We warmly applauded the horse home. (Just once, I’d like a winning jockey to doff his cap to the Best Mate enclosure. A small gripe, admittedly...)”.

Paul collected his wedge there and then and I had that particular little thrill later in the Ladbrokes in town where I’d struck the bet. I love race horses. These animals are beautiful athletes, trained to perfection, running and jumping with fluidity, grace and verve. But sometimes that poetry takes second place to an outpouring of baseless, charmless, shameless and ugly greed. Filthy lucre.

           Guilty as charged.

“I loved this horse last year and backed him in the Triumph.” I declare, swell-chested. “He’s been handled tenderly this year.” “Is that so,” says Bruv, “He first came to my attention because the Brigantians are the celtic tribe that originally settled in our part of Yorkshire.” What kind of intellectual approach to punting-by-names is this? “So what’s the significance of Carlito then?” I venture. “No idea, mate. Bounded up that hill though didn’t he?!”

That changed the day, of course. We prowled around the bookies having little ‘fun’ bets on the remaining two races and generally feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. Infact, nothing else went our way, but that didn’t matter.

We met Dad down the town. Back at the ranch, we wound down over a few beers and a medium rump steak with all the trimmings. We’re ducking out of the live action tomorrow and heading back home.

But the action merely cranks up and moves venues.  Bacchy’s Fantasy Festival Competition is hitting top gear. A good few of the lads have entered this inspired and original competition based on fantasy wedge to punt on four festival races per day. The e-mail banter has been electric and plenty of scores have been notched. Winner takes all come the heady, charged denouement in a Westminster boozer on Friday afternoon. 

But before then, I’ve got to pull some rabbits from a distinctly tatty looking hat that is tomorrow’s card:

Jewson: Wishfull Thinking, Noble Prince
Pertemps Final: Duke of Lucca (ew), Alfie Spinner (ew)
Ryanair – Gauvain (e-w)

No bets yet in the rest:

World Hurdle
Festival Plate
Kim Muir 

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

First Day Fever

The first day at the Festival is the best. Four days of fine racing lie ahead and the expectancy and optimism has not yet been punctured. It is a perfect scenario.  Alastair Down in this morning’s Racing Post captures the mood perfectly: “Over the next four days the tumult will build to a series of spectacular crescendos…..for sheer sustained ferocity of competition coupled with unbridled emotion, there isn’t a sport that can get within hailing distance of this cherished week”. Fills you up doesn’t it?

We are up and about early. There are some last minute additions to opening day portfolios. Bruv is jabbering away about bets that can only hint at the chaos going on inside his brain. “If Cue Card wins the first, well that’s the key and sets everything up. And menorah. Just can’t see him out of the first three. I can see Banjaxed Girl bolting early and leading them all a merry dance. Need to get ‘em in a combination.” These are classic signs of Festival Virgin Rambling. I know because I’ve been there. As a veteran of 12 years, I’m happy to watch Bruv grapple with the scale and the enormity of the thing. Desperately trying to resist backing every horse in every damn race of this puntathon, chasing the big money.

We head up to the King’s Arms on the Square for a quality ‘race-goers breakfast’, including black pudding, lambs kidneys and a free Racing Post (served separately). RUK is on the telly and presenter Stuart Machin is banging his head against a brick wall trying to get an opinion out of his studio pundit  Jonathan Neesom. This non-commital sage will simply not put his neck on the line in any race for anything. Isn’t that his job? At one point Stuart looks at the camera and shrugs “I can only ask the questions. What else can I do?”!

We hit the track early and find a good berth in the seats by the uphill fence. The track looks beautiful. The two festival virgins on my right are still trying to wind me up. “So that’s the famous Cheltenham hill is it? Towcester’s worse. One of these runners has good Catterick form. Are you going to mention that in your blog, Dave? Gaffe track bunnies. And there’s more behind. A smartly dressed welsh lad approaches his mates with a fist full of a placepot slips and cries “OK lads, who’s the joker who picked number 11 in a ten runner race? You Dai!” Hoots of derision. Earlier they had asked us what the minimum bet was on a placepot? “Can you do a quid?” Last of the high rollers from the low valleys.

And then that famous roar when the tapes go up for the Supreme. A bone shaker. We are graced with a finish to suit the occasion. Four in line at the last. Sprinter Sacre looks like he might power away from re-hot favourite Cue Card, then Spirit Son stays on passed him and finally Al Ferof screams home for the Paul Nicholls yard. Nicky Henderson’s horses 2nd  and 3rd. Cue Card out of the frame. Hear that? It’s the sound of a million combinations and accumulators being ripped up, accompanied by the riotous laughter of celebrating bookies. Another year, another loser in the Supreme for me. Still to break my duck.

The Arkle doesn’t disappoint either. Finian’s Rainbow is prominent and begins to turn the screw at the top of the hill. For a moment, I think he’s got away, but Ghizao momemtarily challenges. Eventual winner, Captain Chirs begins to stay on after some right howlers early in the race. My boy Realt Dubh also stays on, but doesn’t seem to have the pace up the hill to catch the leaders. I didn’t think the jumping of Captain Chris would hold together under this severe examination, but he’swon this well. Henderson 2nd again. As he is in the next when Carole’s Legacy can’t quite get to Bensalem in a stirring battle up the straight. Bensalem’s jumping is also suspect, but he managed to jump through all the holes that Reve de Sivola had punched in the fences. Much to my Bruv’s disappointment. 

I swear there was a respectful silence, a hush of expectancy across Prestbury Park before the Big One. Or maybe I imagined it as I wound myself up for the race of the meeting. It didn’t disappoint, even if the result did. I am so far into Peddlers Cross, I can see what he had for breakfast and I’m gutted he couldn’t nail this. The race panned out beautifully for him and there can be no excuses. Hurricane Fly found more on the run-in than I was ever expecting and he is a worthy champion. As they met the last together, Peddlers slightly the more fluent, I was convinced that my boy’s proven stamina would come into play and burn off  the Irish raider. But in a thrilling duel, the Fly dug deep and was actually going away at the line. Great race.

The cross-country event is perhaps an antedote to a great race. Though it does provide interesting obstacles with curious names such as the Aintree Fence and the Double Banks. It gives commentators plenty of material to play with. The contrived highlight must be Mike Cattermoles’ food-related quip, “One Cool Cookie runs out at the cheese wedges!”

The rest of the day was a mixture of small wins and near misses for the three of us. Quevaga was again imperious in the Mares Race. I was out of the money in 2nd and 4th. Dad got the placepot up, but only to small fractions, so he didn’t go home rich. We didn’t go home quickly either. Messy car park exiting.

But a few beers and a welcome fish & chips supper have enabled me to lick my wounds, reflect on a very good day’s racing, and reload. I’m recharged and ready for Day 2. 

So, looking at remaining ante-posts, running accas and new top ups, my recovery strategy (and I’ve been here many times before at the end of Day 1) involves: 

Four Miler: Pearlysteps (ew)

Neptune Hurdle: Rock On Ruby, Oscars Well, So Young (accas)

RSA Chase: Wymott, Time For Rupert (accas)

Queen Mother: French Opera (ew)

Coral Cup: Aegean Dawn

Fred Winter : Jubail

Bumper: Ericht

 Once more into the breach….

Monday, 14 March 2011

Festival Preface

We’ve been settling in to our base deep in the Cotswolds, readying ourselves for the onslaught tomorrow. Bruv has been hard at work, poring over the Racing Post to construct elaborate each-way Lucky 15s and accumulators. 

Our Festival bunker is in the hamlet of Maugersbury, tacked on to a spur of Stow on the Wold, overlooking gentle hills and wooded valleys. We have wi-fi, which is a pre-requisite these days. Bruv was checking the decs earlier and says “Ooh, Sedgefield tomorrow. I’ll just have a look. “Sedgefield!” I decry. “On the eve of the very greatest jumps meeting in the World, you are checking out sellers at Sedgefield?” “There’s some good racing at Sedgefield, I’ll have you know”, Dad pipes up. “On a par with Catterick.” Hmm. Damning with faint praise as far as I'm concerned.  

Stow is splendid. Handsome soft Cotswold stone buildings, pretty shops, fine pubs and restaurants. Looks like we’ll struggle for a greasy spoon first thing tomorrow!

The town is enduring an invasion of racegoers. We picked up our first festival tip 15 minutes after arriving here. In the Tourist Information, the Manager says, “Hi, are you here for the races?” We grinned back. “Do you follow the horses much?” We kept grinning. More nervously. Would she want a tip? “I had a trainer in here the other day, looking for accommodation nearby.” Now we were interested. “Yes, a Mr Harty, I think . Can’t remember his horse. “Captain Cee Bee” I said. “I think it’s Eddie Harty”, I offered. “Yes, I think that was him. He said his horse would win the Champion Chase on Wednesday!”

I’m looking forward to the action finally starting tomorrow, after months of anticipation. Sorry that Binocular isn’t lining up in the Champion Hurdle and even more disappointed about the way that Henderson and the BHA handled it.

The ante-posts have taken a hit over the last couple of days. The remainder, augmented by recent additions, give me a hand looking like this: 

1.30, Supreme – Hidden Universe, Sprinter Sacre
2.05, Arkle – Realt Dubh (e-w), Rock Noir (e-w)
2.40, Stewart Family Spinal Research handicap chase – King Fontaine (e-w)
3.20, Champion Hurdle – Peddlers Cross
4.00, Cross Country Chase – no bet (yet!)
4.40, Mares Race – Sparky May, Alasi (e-w)
5.15, Centenary Novice Chase – Premier Sagas

Peddlers and Realt are my most realistic chances of success. 

Into battle, then!

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Towcesting a birthday

I’ve mentioned my mate GC and his 50th birthday in a previous post.  The birthday present was to be delivered separately and later. When the time came, we left the precise details a little hazy. His instructions were clear: to arrive at our house (accompanied by the fragrant Mrs GC – Bex - who was in the know), attired in smart casual, prepared for the elements, no passport needed, and packing swimming trunks, just in case. The budgie smugglers were, of course, a complete red-herring (now there’s an image to play with), but would GC know that? Subtle, eh?

Much infantile mirth was to be had at GC’s expense about the likely birthday treat in store. This, er, hilariously, ranged from minding our girls for a day, to minding their Granny. The girls were with us and were to be collected by Granny. It has to be said that Granny is fearless. In her 80th year she has tried her hand at both canoeing and horse-riding for the first time. So GC was quite warming to the idea of accompanying Granny for the day. Sky-diving maybe. Or a crocodile wrestling?

The trunks made another verbal reappearance amongst the futile wind-ups as we passed a flooded gravel pit:

“It’s actually a wreck dive over there in Leighton Buzzard. Did you bring your wet suit, GC? No worries, you can borrow mine. Only I’ll be wearing it at the same time.”

“Not a problem, Mr A. Back to back or front to front suit you?”


We disembarked at Wolverton where there should have been one taxi with Granny inside, waiting to whisk the girls away and another waiting to whisk us on to the venue. There were none. Only a blustery rain-lashed car park. I looked at Mrs A who offered a supportive smile. We waited in an open fronted tin shack serving as a ticket office, avoiding drips from the leaky roof. Wolverton used to be home to the mighty BR workshops turning out rolling stock for the finest railway in the World. Most of it has gone now. Including, one dark night, the removal of the station roof and fittings. Pulled down, despite being listed, to save repair costs. It is a bleak station now.
Bleak. Imagine this wet and windy. 
I glanced at GC. Hands thrust deep into pockets. Trenchcoat collar turned up. Double woolly balaclava hugging his gnarled face. OK, I made the last bit up. He was gritting his teeth though. And I swear I could hear him humming ‘Happy Birthday to me….’. He surveyed the windswept scene and asked with a grin “Is this the bit where I say thanks for my birthday present?” How we hooted. Nervously in my case.

Just then, the SpeedLine taxi cavalry came over the hill and we were on our way again. I’d bagged the nice roomy front seat because I was in charge of directions. Very important. I looked behind as I uttered something witty (possibly) and noticed that, GC, a bit bigger than me, was slightly cosier. Elbows tucked in and hunching over, neatly wedged between Mrs A and Bex. A thorn between two roses? A fart between two cheeks? Hard to say really.

By the time we’d navigated the Old Stratford A5 roundabout GC had worked it out. “I think it’s Towcester races” he beamed.

I was getting worried about the rain. Squally showers kept bumping into each other, blowing in from the west on a sharp breeze. The ground at Towcester was already heavy. Many more minutes of steely stair-rods and we’d be flirting with abandonment. My jitters didn’t calm much as we scampered through rain bouncing off the tarmac to get to the Empress Stand.

But once inside I was happy. This was all new. Towcester is a track I know very well and love. But I’ve always been with the proles next door. Never through the ‘hospitality guests’ entrance. I ponced up to the reception, puffed out my chest and said, “We’ve got four reservations for the Empress Restaurant please”. 

Hospitality at last!
We were shown upstairs, through double swing doors and into an open plan, well appointed dining room. There was a bar at one end and a huge glass wall leading to private balconies at the front. Betting stations with TV screens were strategically placed around the edges. The dining tables were beautifully set and already had waist-coated waiters fussing around seated guests. We introduced ourselves and were shown to table 16, handy for the bar, the telly and the betting booth.

Balloon courtesy of our neighbour's table! 
I think GC was impressed. He didn’t stop grinning until his first race loss. He must have secretly been fearing an afternoon of pot noodles and fizzy lager on the steps of the wind-buffeted grandstand. I was impressed too - and a bit relieved. It’s not always clear exactly what you get in these circumstances. But I have to say, Towcester put on a top show.

What's the joke, Bex? 
 There was already wine on the table, but I went to the bar for some aperitifs. And received a verbal cuff on the ear for my trouble. “Take a seat, sir. We’ll serve you at your table”, said waist-coated lady, mildly surprised at my procedural gaffe. It was a young, fastidious chap called Mike who arrived to take our order. He looked after us wonderfully. And when the main course was a bit late, he brought us a complimentary bottle of wine and was full of apologies “I’m so sorry for the delay, the kitchen’s full.” We wondered what that meant, precisely. Cooks jammed in right up to the rafters, all vying for hob space? An explosion of expanding insulation foam, pinning an army of sous-chefs against the wall? The wine was a welcome, but in truth, unnecessary gesture. We were there all afternoon and would rather have good food cooked well than rushed. And indeed it was. Smoked salmon with a crab and coriander salad; chicken breast in mushroom, garlic and Madeira sauce with fondant potatoes, butternut squash and roast beetroot; followed by espresso panecotta with chocolate sauce and Viennese biscuits. (I guess they were all out of arctic roll…)

GC looking a smidge more camp than our betting rep!
Our betting rep was called BJ. He was also very attentive. “That’s a nice watch”, I said, dazzled by a glittery pink metal bracelet holding a face the size of an Olympic discus. “Fank you Sir, I left my gaudy one at home as it’s a Sunday”. BJ was a good laugh. He helped out Bex and Mrs A when they did that time honoured, doe-eyed ‘I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing–this-betting-is-so complicated’ trick, merely because they didn’t want to queue at the booth. Shameless. Mrs A thought she recognised something in his camp manner, his rolling gait, and his sizeable girth. “He would remind you of Peter Kaye in a not-remindy kind of way, don’t you think?” We all merely blinked back, trying to picture what that meant, exactly. 

Not that Bex and Mrs A needed any help on the betting! Bloody hell! Bex bagged the winner of the first, a lovely looking prospect called Whoops A Daisy, trained by Nicky Henderson. The horse glided through the mud as if on rails. And later she picked up again when Round The Horn cantered up by the length of the straight. A few near misses for GC and for me, but they don’t seem pay out much for those. 

We’d been watching the races from the private balconies running across the front of the restaurant, removing us from the hurly-burley of the steppings below us. Our vantage point provided a superb view to catch the races, but also opened up the vista over the track and down to Towcester town nestling in the valley. It may not be Goodwood on the Downs or Cheltenham in the Cotswolds, but this is still one of the finest aspects in racing.  Back at the table, just in case we were getting peckish – obviously a real risk - afternoon tea had arrived. Hardly seems a moment since the three-course lunch. Life is just such a struggle sometimes. I tucked into scones, jam and clotted cream with the gusto of a half-starved waif, ready for the next race.

Mrs A was sticking to her tried and tested strategy of backing long shots. So how did she miss Tuvalu who won the 2nd at 40-1? Because she was on already on Fantastic Morning at a slightly more conservative 25-1 is why. But there was no jeering and mickey taking when Tarabela won in some style at 28-1! Ms A went to collect her winnings from that nice BJ man in the Ladbrokes booth and she positively swaggered back to the table before slamming down the fattest wedge of crinkly greenbacks I’ve ever seen. Well, as fat as £60 can be, anyway. We declared that she was an absolute genius of the track and I was a bit worried she’d gatecrash my trip to Cheltenham. But only a bit. 

On a sourer note, the green screens went up around Panzer who had fallen after the last. This is always disturbing, and particularly so in front of packed grandstands. It usually only means one thing. But thankfully the horse was no more than winded and was soon led away, none the worse.

'That one's got four legs....'
And then it was time to go. Blink of an eye and all that. But we got our bets down for the last before heading for the taxi. SpeedLine were late and we had connections to make, so that was a frustrating. But it did mean we just about caught the race on the big screen. Bex ran over to give us a running commentary, but we couldn’t hear her properly back up at the gates. Whisps of ‘red hat’….’stripey top’….’over there’ drifted on the breeze, accompanied by random gesticulating and interesting facial expressions. We got the message, though. Mine and GC’s pick, our nap of the day Syndication from the Venetia William stable - a Towcester specialist - hosed up. The lucky last! The get-out stakes! Thank you very much!

So we all went home happy. 

We finished off the day with a few drinks back at GC and Bex’s and staggered home stuffed, watered, merry and rich (well, in experience if not exactly in money!). That really is the way to do it. Roll on 60, GC!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Festival ante-post update

Two weeks to go before the action rolls into Cheltenham town. Time to assess damage and report progress on the ante-post portfolio.

I’m a virgin Supreme winner. I know not the sweet pleasure of bagging the festival opener. And February hasn’t been kind to my bedpost notching chances. Megastar fluffed his lines in an easy 2 mile novice hurdle at Sandown. I’m discounting his Supreme chances on the basis of that form, even if he does show up at Cheltenham. He’s clearly a talented animal and will go much better on good ground. But I can’t see that he’s done enough this season to justify any more faith.

Almost the same can be said for my other punt in this race, Hidden Universe.  Stepped up in grade and trip last month, he ran well ‘til emptying on the home straight when beaten into 4th by the hugely impressive Oscars Well. Zaidpour stayed on for a laboured 2nd and I can’t see him being aimed at this race now.  I’d be more confident of HU’s chances over an even 2 miles, but that hill at HQ might find him out. And that’s if Weld commits him to the race. No word yet.

So I need to bolster my chances of a Supreme conquest.  Many have now come out and laid down a proper challenge. Of the Henderson mob I like the way Sprinter Sacre pulled Gerraghty’s arms out at Ascot. But I may wait a bit longer until the Irish raiders are clearer about their targets. If I’m to break my duck here, I might as well labour over it a little longer.

The bet on Realt Dubh still stands. Neither Finian’s Rainbow nor Medermit have convinced me. It looks a weakfish renewal and so I went in again for a bit of the 25-1 on Starluck a few days before he won his fencing debut at Huntingdon. Couldn’t believe I was getting that price as his trainer Alan Fleming had been very bullish about the target and he’s a classy horse. On the day of the race the ante-post price came into 14-1. After what I thought was a pretty good effort, he was clipped in to a best price 12-1, only for Fleming to say he wasn’t sure the Arkle would be the target after all! Gobshite! We’ll have to wait and see. Personally, I think he’ll turn up for this one. And if he doesn’t, well that’s the roller-coaster of ante-post punting.

Champion Hurdle
Nothing to report except a top-up on Peddlers when he drifted a fraction because those sages at Coral thought he’d idled in front when winning at Kelso. Ha! Mugs!

Doubled up the lovely Peddlers with (possibly mud loving?) Oscars Well at the same time as the above. Nothing else here. Targets of some of the principles in these novice hurdle races is still uncertain and may be my undoing. So Young is a massive danger wherever he turns up. 

Again, nothing new, save for a top up on Wymott. Aiteen Thirtythree is the one to have staked a recent claim. But I think that the form in the book of Time For Rupert gets stronger with every race. Will get him in a crazy combi at some stage.

Queen Mother
I was sufficiently impressed with French Opera’s win at Newbury in the Game Spirit Chase last week to take a bit of the 25-1 ew on offer. The key to him is good ground. But he also seems to need time between his races. I hope he gets to put his feet up and shake down a bit before he lines up. Master Minded and Big Zeb both seem vulnerable to me and I’m happy to take them on each way this outsider. He’s entered in the Grand Annual as well, like last year. I know Henderson has a mission to win the race named after his Dad every year, but surely they will go for the big one this time?

Somersby may entice me to part with some cash too. I feel he could go close if on one of his going days. Woolcombe Folly seems short for a horse plying his trade in handicaps. Golden Silver is an enigma: unstoppable in Ireland and shocking round Cheltenham. 

I’ve had a go at the Bumper, too! Someone tweeted “The winner of the bumper turns out for McCain at Wetherby tomorrow”. So I had a speculative tiny interest on Ebanour for fun at 34-1 on Betfair. Before the off he was down to 18s. Madness! I didn’t lay off, despite him touching an ante post 12-1 in running. In fairness he looks nice enough, though hard to say what he really achieved. He may end up at Aintree instead.

However, I was very impressed with Ericht at Newbury a few days later, who arguably beat much better yardsticks. He’s already short enough but visibly on my radar.  

One certain dead bet here. I backed Rackham Lerouge from Henderson’s yard before he ran in Wymott’s race at Bangor, expecting him to come on for the run. He didn’t and hasn’t been entered. He’s in the new 2 ½ novice handicap chase instead. I’ve also got a small bet on Rock Noir at 33-1 ew, but the horse really needs to improve. Captain Chris looked very good at Kempton last Saturday and I also like Wishfull Thinking from the same Hobbs stable over this trip.

World Hurdle
Spirit River out for the season, so another dead bet.

Triumph Hurdle
Here’s a joke. I backed Moose Moran at 16-1 ew before his hurdles debut at Sandown. I thought it was a fair bet that he’d convert his decent flat form to the jumps game. But he didn’t. He trailed in a well beaten and disappointing 4th. Henderson sent him out again last week at Doncaster. This time he got the job done nicely enough. He’s back to 16-1 for the Triumph in a couple of places….but 25-1 I others! He looks a horse of potential, though.

Albert Bartlett
I saw Our Island from Tim Vaughan’s yard win with some aplomb at Newbury the other week. He stayed on with attractive resolution from a decent sort, although it was only a little race. He’ll go well on better ground according to the trainer and I like him in a race that could easily cut up. 33-1 ew is good enough value for me.  

Also had a small sum on Willie Mullins’ Bishopsfurze at 25-1 ew, but his jumping needs to improve and he wasn’t desperately impressive at Thurles last week. He should stay all day though and he’ll shape better over this trip than in the Neptune on current evidence.

No action here until, at the earliest, the weights are published.  Nothing in the Ryanair either.

The moment has arrived to start plotting up some grab-a-grand Lucky 15s and life changing combinations to tiny stakes. My favourite time of the year, bar none!