Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Flat Out: Take Twenty 2011

After the utterly abysmal performance of my 40 to follow jumps team, it has taken some serious external prompting to rouse my enthusiasm for a similar venture on the flat. The winter months have not been kind. To my eternal grief, the project briefly crashed beyond the -100 point  barrier of shame. A mug punting low for a campaign that has previously seen seasonal profits as plump and regular as the bowel movements of a high fibre diet. The late season rally that saw me stagger and belly flop back to double-digit negativity offers no comfort.

Explanations? Excuses? I can identify horses with progressive profiles who simply did not progress; I can point to a string of big priced placed horses and a run of near miss seconds; I can cling to rain, frost and snow interventions that halved the appearance of my better horses. But the bottom line is that I also picked some rank dogs, donkeys and trees. The likes of Dance Island, Mr Marker, Whipper Way, to name but several, should have been nowhere near the list.

So much for public self-flagellation. It’s taken some warm sun on my back, an hour or two of therapy on the allotment and a restorative trip to Epsom’s derby trial meeting last week to bring me into line for the flat. Epsom was a joy. Gorgeous spring day, good quality racing, top company and a redeeming win in the lucky last! Suddenly I’m bobbing along with empty-headed, starry-eyed zeal for the season ahead. Worrying signs.

My approach to the flat is different to the jumps. Fewer horses and a (theoretical) concentration on quality. This is largely to generate some season-long interest in the regular highlights of Group 1s and the festivals that stud the months through to October.

This year I’ve gone for 10 entered in the Tote Ten To Follow comp, supplemented by 10 others to be aimed at more diverse targets. I’ve got decent early season form in the TTF, even hitting the leaderboard on a couple of occasions, but have never been able to sustain a challenge.

Tote Ten To Follow

FRANKEL – Henry Cecil: Of course. Whose list would be missing this potential superstar. Just like nobody’s list was missing St Nicholas Abbey last year…..

PATHFORK – Jessica Harrington: Lovely, lovely trainer. How could I not include her unbeaten colt in this list? She seems to be taking the flat much more seriously these days.

RODERIC O’CONNOR – Aiden O’Brien: Inevitable inclusion of one of the Ballydoyle hotpots. This one is a sly entry that I’m hoping will be Guineas and Derby bound for double bonus race chances.

HOORAY – Sir Mark Prescott bt: Backed her a couple of times last year and was impressed. The term ‘canny’, could have been coined for this entertaining, larger than life trainer. Hooray should turn up in the 1,000 guineas despite his handlers assertions that she’s not coming to hand.

HAVANT – Sir Michael Stoute: Rock solid form last year and potential Guineas and Oaks filly.

CANFORD CLIFFS – Richard Hannon: Will have the 1m races at his mercy….er, unless Goldikova turns up!

CAPE BLANCO – Aiden O’Brien: Absolutely electric over 10f on good or better ground. Sometimes. Should win a few this year.

SNOW FAIRY – Ed Dunlop: The new Ouija Board for her former well-bred handler? Not quite. But on her day has a startling turn of foot.

SANS FRONTIERES – Jeremy Noseda: This one to step up in quality and possibly in trip. My outsider for the Ascot Gold Cup

TEMPLE MEADS – Ed McMahon: 3yo sprinter with potential. Unproven at the top level though after his saddle slipped in the Middle Park Stakes at the end of last season. Can he really take on the Budapest Bullet?

Another ten to follow

ROSE BLOSSOM – Richard Fahey: pure front-running speedball. Best work on good or better at York. More to come.

WOOTTON BASSETT – Richard Fahey: Tough and talented unbeaten juvenile last season, giving Fahey his first Group 1 success. Due to appear later this Spring.

BOURNE – Luca Cumani: Had to have an improver in the list from the high class handicap King.

SARAFINA – Alain Du Royer-Dupre: Loved this filly last year, 3 wins and two places. Mullered in the Arc when in with a big shout. Looking forward to this one.  

HOOF IT – Mick Easterby: Sublime to the ridiculous, classy filly to a lumpen handicap sprinter who should improve with shrewd handling.

MONSIEUR JOE – Walter Swinburn: Wanted one from the local yard. Finding one with prospects that won’t be targeted at the sand was a challenge. This sprinter fits the bill.

LAAHEB – Roger Varian: Who you ask? Me too. He’s the former assistant to the now retired Michael Jarvis who takes over the reins at Kremlin House Stables this season. Laaheb is a friend from last year with a touch of quality.

QUADRANT – Brian Meehan: well thought of Highclere colt who made a satisfactory debut in a maiden last week.

BOSAMBO – Alan Swinbank: Improving 3yo likely to pick up a couple of handicaps around gaff northern circuits. Just my type.

MODUN – Sir Michael Stoute: Eye-catcher at Newbury last week, winning with plenty in hand and likely to be aimed higher and further.

OK, I’m tooled up for the Summer.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Tapas and tipsters

It was Bryn’s 40th birthday last Friday. By Sunday he was facebooking about buying seeds, gardening gloves and knee protectors ready for an afternoon of horticultural indulgence. By his own admission, the transformation from zestful youth to bucolic middle age had been meteoric. A mere two-day pupation.  

His birthday bash was a good laugh. Brynaldo had taken over the ground floor of a tapas bar in Putney and filled the place with family, friends and an ipod’s worth of poptastic 80’s grooves. Some rather more pop than tastic. Was that really Belouis Some trading aural blows with Kylie, Queen and Kim Wylde? 

We were staying over at Nick and Den’s and had left the four children to fend for themselves in Worcester Park for the evening.  We kept disturbing visions of lasagne and dib-dab fuelled teenage mayhem at bay by drinking too much and turning off the mobiles…. This was Mrs A’s birthday bash too, in lieu of the previous day, Bryn having kindly avoided a clash and enabled us to hijack a small part of his celebrations. The last time the four of us were with Bryn and Debs was at their wedding. Den remembers most of that occasion really well. Right up to the point she passed out in our hotel room, rioja-crocked, and Nick - with eyebrows so knitted he could have made a cardie - took her home. Partly in disgust and partly in relief that it wasn’t him for a change. 

We were all much more civilised on Friday, catching up with Pete, Ad, Paul, Andy, amongst others. Ben and Clare arrived and the six of us set ourselves up in the corner, plundering the magnificent tapas fayre produced at regular intervals. Cheers Bryn.  

Ben and Clare are a little younger than us and have a gorgeous 11-month old daughter. Sometimes, the age difference/lifecycle thing around the table was palpable. At one point, Mrs A and I were engaged in some mildly humorous and sustained insult trading, whilst Nick was farting for England and getting some deserved grief from Den. I glanced up at Ben and Clare who were sitting close to each other, holding hands and calmly taking noting our behaviour. I could read Ben’s mind. “Oh, Christ”, he’s thinking. “This is going to be us in ten years time!” No worries Ben. You couldn’t wish for finer role models!

Ben and I had a good chat about blogs. He’s a proper blogger with an excellent line in left-of-centre education politics and a sizeable, burgeoning following of active commentators. Check out pencil and paper test. At that moment, Bryn popped over, hung an arm around my shoulders and said, “Davoski, There’s someone here wants to meet you after reading your blog!” Fantastic! I turned to Benaldo and tried to say something like, “Scuse me, Ben. My public awaits. You have your thousands of followers, I simply get asked for personal appearances.” But instead I just whooped something incoherent like “Wehey, Hahaha. Bloody hell!” 

The evening drew to a close. Bryn was looking reasonably chipper when he departed. We’d had a top night and headed off in a 6 seater taxi on one of those two-destination rides with protracted debate about splitting the fare at the end.  Nick’s house was first call and he gave Ben a £15 quid contribution. 
“Is that about right? Blimey, I’m not sure.”
“Yep, no prob” says Ben
“Did you give Ben £15 as well”, said Nick to me, outside the cab
“No! Shit! Should I have done?”
“I dunno” 
“No, your right.” I fumble for my wallet and tap at the back seat window.
“What’s up guys?” inquires Ben
“We need to give you some more wedge”, I say.
“No, don’t think so, that’s about right”, responds the Boy Benaldo.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re gonna get clobbered otherwise. Er, here’s….a fiver! Does that make it about right?”
“Don’t ask me! Stop chucking money about!” 
“How much did you give him?” asks Nick.
“A fiver”, I say, doubtfully.
“Sounds about right.”

And they were gone. Whisked away by a cabbie, wearing a care-worn, see-this–farce-every-Friday-night expression. 

After a late finish, it was some time before we all surfaced in Nick and Den’s superb new kitchen extension, with a fridge big enough to sleep in that dispensed three sorts of ice. By then, I’d been out for the Racing Post for it was Grand National Day. 

The Jenkins’ served up a stonking full English to soak up the previous evening’s excesses. And then it was time for some serious National study. The four children came up with, on the face of it, reasonable picks not without a chance. But not Mrs A, who stuck to the tried and tested formula of backing the biggest outsiders to the smallest stakes on the nose. She regularly reminds me of the year I laid off one of her ridiculous fancies, Sonavafushi, on Betfair just before the off at half the price I’d backed it hours earlier. This rag was still leading the race with a circuit to go and I was evacuating breeze blocks by the score! I’m pretty sure my lovely, forgiving wife would not have called in her £550 debt if Sonofavushi had prevailed. Pretty sure. 

The racing at Aintree on the previous days had been excellent, though not without incident. The papers were full of pictures from the Topham Chase in which there had been spectacular falls. Miraculously, horses and jockeys had all got up and walked away. We were looking at one photo of Buffalo Bob rolling over Sean Quinlan. “Blimey”, exclaimed Den, “it’s amazing they survive isn’t it really?”. “Yes”, I said, though they all wear body protectors as standard these days”. “What, the horses..?” We all looked up at howled with derision. “….Oh, you mean the jockeys, then!” Images of  strapping 17 hands high geldings prancing around with their torsos wrapped in carbon fibre vests played around our minds. Briefly. 

We bade farewell and scooted back round the M25 to catch the race at home. Neighbour, Hellie joined us because her telly was on the blink. She’s an Austrian who has lived in the UK for about 60 years but refuses to shake off the accent. The running commentary she served up during the race reminded me of an old Peter West incident when this most dignified of cricket presenters was sat atop a shaky TV gantry with his head highly adjacent to an old-style loudspeakers. Just as Peter was about to interview two tea-time guests, the PA crackles in to life with details of second IX fixtures for August, or somesuch. Barely audible above the din, Peter says, “Yes, I suppose there was always a danger that would happen!” (Check out Sports Review 1980 0.38 mins in) Hellie provided us with a similar experience: 

“Denis, my husband, you know he larffed zis race. He liked ze flat so match betta, but he alfays vatched zis race as vell. Vee haff neva been to zis race zo. All zose peepel. Too many yoo know. And zay say zere is a recession on. I can’t see it. Can yoo? Zey are probably all on benefits anyfay. 

Look, zat is my horse. Oscar Time. And zat fon. Niche Market. I sink zat is Niche Market…vot are ze colours again? And zat is mine too, I just heard him mentioned by ze commentator. It’s hard to hear. Vot is he’s saying? Speak up man! 

Off course I haven’t put any real money on any off zeez. I’m just vatching it for Denis. He vud never haff forgiven me if I didn’t vatch it. God rest his soul. I sink zat is mine in ze lead now, vat do yoo sink? Eh? Ballabriggs? Ok, I sink I haff been looking at ze wrong horse.”

And so it went. Hellie if you ever read this, my biggest apologies. We love you dearly, but I sincerely hope you see the comedy value in this.

There was precious little other comedy value in a race marred by the deaths of two horses. Not long after the horrific Newbury electrocution incident, dying horses were once again filling TV screens. This time projected into the living rooms of millions of families watching the nation’s biggest race. Press, Twitter and blog reactions provided a range of negative views from ridiculous, knee-jerk calls to ban the race through to one sickening article which likening the Grand National to bullfighting. This is an absolutely farcical and borderline libellous claim. The point of bullfighting is to kill the bull. The point of the Grand National is to win the race. They are light years apart.

Nevertheless, this sensationalist rubbish still highlights a contention about cruelty that racing finds difficult to shake off. Indeed one which racing has been slow to address thoroughly and reject with articulation. There were two deaths in this race. There have been ten in the last ten runnings. Is one death too many? Is ten acceptable? I don’t know what is an appropriate measure of such things. But I do know – or believe – that exposing horses to a small element of managed risk does not represent animal cruelty. Such arguments always run into the debate about compulsion versus freewill. Would the horses run and jump if they knew the risks in store? Well, we can never answer that and so it should be taken out of the equation. Trainers, owners and jockeys; rulemakers, equine vets and racecourses make those decision on the animals’ behalf. This is the very sphere in which the sport can and must improve: by providing the best care, the highest standards, the strongest governance. There’s still some way to go to reduce and manage the risk; to improve and develop aftercare. These surely are the next steps towards marshalling the pro-racing argument. 

Blimey, got a bit heavy at the end there. Happy 40th Bryn. Hope you correctly assessed the risk of your gardening expedition. Knee protectors, yes. Body protectors, no! 

Friday, 1 April 2011

Stiff Little Pooh Sticks

Bryn has asked for a review the doner kebab I scoffed last Friday night. Understandable. Brynaldo’s been a connoisseur of decent doners as long as I have. He introduced me to the inspirational kebab roll (not a gymnastic move, rather a revolutionary way of serving everyone's favourite take-away classic rolled up in a tasty flatbread) in Windsor many years ago and has joined me in tirades against Nick’s insistence upon eating a doner with a knife and fork accompanied by…. mayonnaise. I despair.

In a seismic shift from accepted practice, we consumed our kebab before - rather than after - the Stiff Little Fingers gig, and ergo, before a skinful of beer. Was this wise? Would the full flavour of chilli sauce and raw onions be too much for a system lacking the usual sense-dulling alcoholic insulation?

To be honest, Bryn, the whole thing was a bit of an anti-climax. You know how we have become clone town Britain these days? Uniform high streets pandering to a population playing safe with comfortable chains and recognisable brands….everything tending to the average. Well the same trend is afflicting doners. Gone are the days of locally prepared and cured spikes of lamb, unique sauces and condiments and accessible presentation in carefully folded plain paper wrapping. Your bog standard kebab house now purveys mass produced and lorry delivered drums of stacks of meat slopped with standard garlic/chilli sauce all served up in a ubiquitous polystyrene box. I yearn for the good old days. So this kebab was perfectly acceptable, mate. The meat was tolerably moist, the salad was acceptably fresh, the sauce was sufficiently piquant and the sweet chillis retained a soupcon of crunch. But that’s about as far as it goes.

But I think Bryn was really looking for a review of the Stiff Little Fingers gig. The kebab house was next to the Forum in Kentish Town. I was with Mayonnaise Nick and his son, Doug, plus Nick’s mate Graham and his son Sean. Doug and Sean are 15 or so, but have already got a commendable number of gigs under their belts. Something I’d have died for in rural Yorkshire at their age.  

We caught the support act, Neck. A bunch of Pogues wannabees who came across more like a tribute act than the real thing. Mind you, they were plagued by an atrocious sound. Only once did they get the electric guitar, fiddle, tin whistle and banjo to sound remotely like they were dishing out the same tune. But they were very enthusiastic and clearly enjoyed their (overly) generous 50 minute slot.

The place filled up nicely for SLF and we even spotted a few punters up in the usually deserted balcony. And it was a good gig. I’ve seen SLF a couple or three times now and they ply an honest, no frills trade, hammering out a string of punk classics interspersed with some, to be honest, ropey material from later collections. Jake Burns still bestrides the stage in a proprietorial manner and has plenty to say. But the fire burns with a little less incandescence. “I got the shirt from Willy Nelson. Just before any of you smart arses asks!”, says Jake of his white piping and metal-tip collared spanker.

‘Tin Soldiers’, ‘Barbed Wire Love’, ‘Wasted Life’, ‘Fly the Flag’. One by one, shards of pithy Ulster punk tore up the night. It’s a shame though that standard pop fare like ‘Listen ‘and ‘Guitar & Drum’ remain in the set.  New one ‘Full Steam Backwards’ didn’t stir up too much primeval angst either. But these are minor quibbles. ‘Suspect Device’ was a raucous set closer.

At this point Doug says to his Dad, “I wanna go down the front.” Nick hesitates for a moment and then goes, “OK, come on then!”. Well, I’m not letting them have all the fun. So I follow them down. Sean and his Dad hung back on the terrace and I can feel Sean, 15, thinking ‘who are these sad git old men pretending they’re 18 down the front…’ I lose Nick and Doug in the melee somewhere. Although it’s a bit tame to start off with. ‘Johnny Was’ is a nice little reggae derivative, but for me doesn’t work as an encore. But for the next one, all hell broke loose. A full throttle and mashed up ‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won’, bled into the SLF standard bearer ‘Alternative Ulster’. There is no following that.

It's more impressive in real life! Honest!!

I thought I’d escaped the mosh unscathed ‘til I spotted a mysterious bruise on my arm a few days later. It’s still there.

Maybe the beer anaesthetised the impact a little. Graham’s a big bloke and puts plenty away. Nick’s no slouch either. I think I was trying to keep up (cider made an appearance at one point). Mrs A and the Mother in Law were still up when I staggered in. I imagine there was some hearty chat and I was obviously given clear instructions on sleeping arrangements because I woke up in daughter No 1’s double bed. “Daddy, you snore!” she said and dug me in the ribs. A-ha, she was in there as well.

Later, we made the pleasant trip over to Wallingford to visit our good friends and former neighbours, Fay, Adrian and the boys. The plan was to launch a carefully crafted assault on the World Pooh Sticks Championship at Little Wittenham the next day. High octane Rock ‘n’ Roll and global sporting endeavour crammed into the same weekend. The possibilities are boundless with a little imagination!

Our generous hosts had done a top job on the organisation. Not content with wonderful hospitality (including the small matter of a stunning chilli con carne), competition entries had been made in advance and instructions received: the children formed one finely honed unit, The Berko Bouncers, and the adults another, slightly less honed, The Mugpunters (of course!).

The Oxfordshire World Pooh Sticks Championship has been held on this idyllic sweep of the River Thames since 1983 and this years’ event drew over 500 entries from far-flung corners like New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands (according to BBC Oxford) and Hertfordshire.

Fancy dress was optional.
Adrian sagely reported his friend’s observation that the Environment Agency had a facility just up stream and would have been calculating optimum flow channels into the early hours. What chance do we mug punters have?

Despite best laid plans, we almost blew our appointed slot on the bridge. In using up vital nervous energy by eating cake and milling about in two separate waiting areas, both at the wrong time, we contrived to miss our cue. It was with some relief that a smiley Rotarian spotted us on the hill and said, “What are your team names?” I was quite flattered that he could identify that we were competitors. Something to do with our swagger and steely determination, I mused. “I think it was the pink entry forms we were clutching”, pointed out Fay.

I must confess that the actual dropping of the sticks business was a tad confusing. It became clear that we had missed a crucial piece of briefing in our random milling-ness earlier. But it didn’t take the children long to work out the process. We quickly fell into line: moving across the bridge for each of the four drops, thereby cancelling out any optimum flow advantage. They’ve thought this through!

Uptake wasn’t the only thing the children were cuter at than the adults. The Berko Bouncers immediately surged to the upper echelons of the leader board after their well-timed drops. Mugpunters nowhere. Zippo. Doodleysquat. In the end the bouncers finished a more than respectable 5th.  That’s 5th Best Pooh Sticks Team In The World 2011.

So a celebratory late lunch was in order back in Wallingford and then time for goodbyes. Until the cowpat wanging international in Aldbury, that is…..