Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Flat fortunes

About time. Here’s a chest-thumping, chin-jutting, pride-bursting moment of self-congratulation to mark my best run of winners on the flat since champion sire Galileo was still tinkering with telescopes.

And this comes after an abysmal Royal Ascot where I managed to link together a chain of losers long enough to anchor the Titanic.

So further proof, as if any is needed, of the fickle fortunes of racing. This is the game’s innate attraction. Without the lows, the highs would be meaningless. What is the point of me screaming the actual words “I am a genius!” at my laptop as it grudgingly dispensed a few pixelated images of Rose Blossom stoutly landing a listed event at Pontefract and so filling me with a sense of achievement, without the ricks and wrong-headed thinking of backing, say, a patently non-staying Wootton Bassett in a mile event, that provides the counterpoint and therefore the emotional raw material for such delirium? Anyone make it to the end of that sentence? Well done. I’ve been reading some Graeme Swift recently. Apologies, I’m easily influenced.

Other stars of the show? Well, the incorrigible Mick Easterby’s Hoof It, part owned by Lee Westwood which has generated some Group 1 Twitter banter; another sprinter, this time from Kevin Ryan’s yard, Masamah who when he wins, blasts in exhilarating style from the gates and hangs on for grim death; Drunken Sailor who’s slender advantage was won under the latest possible Keiron Fallon drive; Twice Over’s stunning return to form for Sir Henry; and Nathaniel, who started the streak by justifying faith in my own judgement after I saw plenty in the way he won earlier in the season.

So the stats. If I take my trip to Lingfield with Crispin on 20th July as the starting point (all-weather fixtures in the sample, I hear you cry – but a winner is a winner I shame-facedly respond) through to the last day of the Ebor meeting on 20th August then from 66 bets, I somehow bagged 16 winners at a strike rate of 24%, giving a points profit of 158 and a return on investment of 54%.

In truth, this ‘streak’ at only a month long, is a very small platform from which to project my boasting. But who knows when this opportunity will come round again? It also includes a poor 2nd day at Glorious Goodwood when I lost the good ladies of Berko their float. The irony of this blog-post set against that travesty is not lost on me. I am mentally preparing myself for the repercussions.

Neither does this snapshot stand comparison with my best season-long returns over the jumps in the earlier part of this century (to provide the correct historical context). Nevertheless, take out Royal Ascot and the winners across the rest of the season have stilled cropped up regularly enough. For instance, my 20 To Follow flat project is also showing a healthy profit at +55 points.

There’s still plenty of action left in the flat season and the 20TF project will rumble on for a couple of months. I’m confident there’s some more winners in there, with Snow Fairy, Bourne, Modun, Quadrant, Rose Blossom and Wootton Bassett possessing better than fair chances of picking up races. 

Before then, we will be back into the jumps. September is when I lovingly research 40 jumpers to follow that will sustain me through the winter months. After last year’s unforgiveable and painful slump in form, I’m looking to recover some ground and some credibility.

This season there will be no horses to choose from the Howard Johnson yard. Quite rightly, he’s retired. The four-year ban he received from the BHA is the minimum that could be expected for his crimes of doping some horses and nerve-severing others so that they could run through the pain barrier. The BHA said the 58-year-old trainer had ‘shown a reckless disregard for the rules so as to jeopardise the future welfare of a gelding in training and the safety of those jockeys and stable staff who were engaged to ride it.' Disgraceful and unforgiveable behaviour from a difficult character whose excuse of ignorance is as lame as his treatment of horses. HoJo didn’t appeal the decision and his immediate retirement was the only vaguely honourable act in a shocking play. The issue of welfare continues to undermine the sport. I applaud the BHA’s stance on this case.

HoJo’s principal owner, Graham Wylie described the retirement as a sad day for northern racing. He then distributed his powerful string of horses to Nicholls in the south and Mullins in Ireland. I’m sure successful northern trainers such as Donald McCain, Ferdy Murphy and Nicky Richards all applaud Wylie’s sentiments. Not.

But let’s not get bitter and twisted just yet. Plenty of mouth-watering action left on the flat, beginning with the Haydock Sprint Cup on Saturday. What price Hoof It, Masamah and Wootton Bassett to fill the frame? 

Saturday, 20 August 2011

80 not out

The madness began with Auntie Sue’s arrival from Tenerife on Thursday morning at about 2am. It didn’t subside until I scrabbled back home, dazed and confused, at 6.30pm on Sunday. And even then I knew it was only an ebb tide in an on-going torrent.

Auntie Sue had a plan. It involved whisking away the children on a secret mission to Berko, Hemel and all points in between to empty poundlands and gift shops of their party poppers, bunting, balloons and all stocks of assorted celebration-fare. Then she moved on to the children themselves: party dresses, footwear, haircuts, and French manicures. It was a blizzard of activity. I’d never seen anything like it. Not since the last party anyway. The girls loved it.

In amongst this whirlwind, Mrs A, Auntie Sue and the girls had made two trips to the airport to collect Auntie Betty from Florida. On the first occasion they lost her. Or, more precisely, Delta airlines did. They cancelled her flight from Boston and would give Mrs A no information (or they had none, I’m not sure which) about which flight she had been moved to. Eventually, after much pressing, they learnt that Auntie Betty was on an American Airlines flight arriving about 24 hours later. 0/10 Delta, you scumbags.

At least she was on that one and the welcoming committee was there for her. She’d had a good flight and had been put up in a decent hotel. By the time I  arrived home, Betty was lying out full stretch on the garden bench, supported by cushions, pillows and blankets. She was resting, aided by a second gallon of hot, sweet, milky tea.

“Dave! How’r ye doing? I just got here. They cancelled my foolish flight.  I like your new office – it’s not a doghouse anymore is it? Wow, it’s a palace, right! And what about this garden. Jeez, it’s like the botanical gardens, right? The girls are so lovely. I can’t believe how they’ve grown! I’m having a little rest now. I didn’t sleep for two nights. They put me in a bootiful hotel room though. A bathroom the size of your house.”

I hadn’t uttered a single word yet. There were stories emanating via friends in the States that Betty was quieter these days, after some treatment had improved her hearing. I’m pleased to be able to scotch those dirty rumours. Betty’s astonishing Irish-Floridian accent is still up at 11 on the Spinal Tap-scale, belying her tiny, frail 4’ 10” frame. More power to you Betty!

She was the surprise guest at her sister’s 80th birthday bash. Trying to keep this a secret was a nightmare. Every time Chrissie rang we had to get Betty out of earshot of the phone. Not easy, given her larynx was impersonating an F16 fighter with transatlantic afterburn. 

But eventually, party time arrived. Presents, guests, luggage, bedding and music were all rammed into the charabanc. No room for me though. I was packed off to the railway station. Nor the bedding, either. A hasty phone call from the car on route from daughter no 2 said simply ‘sleeping bags’!

To maintain the cloak of secrecy, we had all arrived at Chrissie’s together, minus Betty who had been dropped off at Bruv-in-Law, Chris’s. They would then bring her to the party once it was underway. Meanwhile a gang of us decorated the hall under Sue’s expert direction. Daughter-in-law Sharon had expertly procured from her work over 100 A4 and A3 photos of Chrissie spanning her full, packed, 80 years, which we gummed up on the walls. At the end of the night, friends and relatives were peeling them off and taking them home as souvenirs.

They’re a keen bunch in Old Stratford. We’d barely finished blowing up balloons and sound checking the singer (“two-two-two, scream for me Milton Keynes…”) when the guests turned up and starting necking the welcome fizz. The room was soon filled. Marcel, Rita, Paul and Clare and families – Chrissies nieces and nephews from Gloucester - had come up for the party and there were people dropping in from all over the place. She’s a popular old bird my mum-in-law.

I was in the side room ordering a few drinks when Betty arrived. I knew because I heard the screams. Infact I saw the screams when the sound waves ricocheted around the corner and popped the three glasses I was holding. The surprise worked a treat. Eyewitnesses describe Chrissie spinning in a circular jig “like a dog chasing its tail”, beaming like the North Wall lighthouse! Chrissie really did not know Betty was coming. She spent the next hour touring Betty round all the tables introducing her to every guest. Even those who already knew her. Fantastic scenes: the two remaining Moffit sisters in harness again at 82 and 80.  

Hardly worth stating the bleeding obvious, but that was one good night. Highlights? Well, almost too many to record…..Chrissie opening her ‘This Is Your Life’ photo album and passing it round the guests for them to sign, with Fiona doing a top marshalling job to get it moving around the tables……… the birthday cakes moment – there were two – where blowing out the candles took a full 5 minutes (where was she aiming?)……..

And then the inevitable singing later on as Peter the Turn was forced to share the mike with a succession of entertainers from within the family. First, bruv-in-law Chris marched up to the front and held together a surprisingly tuneful Dirty Old Town; then the birthday girl and Auntie Betty started a very cheery version of Sisters that went something like “Sisters, Sisters, There were never such devoted Sisters” “I’m here to keep an eye on her.” “No, that’s not the right line Chrissie what are you singing” “Well that’s the way I’ve been singing it for 50 years” It was quickly aborted in favour of Betty ripping out a stunning version of the Irish Rover. Finally, Chris, Chrissie, Betty, Frank and Peter did as much justice as it’s possible to do to the tortuous, lengthy and dirge-like Fields of Athanry. It’s always there isn’t it….

Back at the house, people were spilling out of bathrooms, bedrooms, in the garden, under the gazebo. I spotted Peter the Turn over in the corner at one stage, holding a cup of tea and being talked at by half a dozen revellers. He needed to get back to London that night for a gig the next day and was wondering how he would ever get out of the room.

By about 2am the singing started again. Maybe it had never stopped and I’d just been stuck outside with that big-eared bloke talking rubbish about Leeds Utd for longer than I thought. I had also considered it my Uncle-ly duty to check over my niece Robyn’s new fellah. He’s seemed pretty cool to me. Not exactly sure what Uncle-ly tools I had in the box if I didn’t like him, mind….

Back to the singing…I’d muscled my way past a couple of septuagenarians to assume control of the ipod flight deck. I found what we were looking for. Neil Diamond Song Sung Blue (everbody here knew one) and Sweet Caroline. Sue gave me such a hard time about that. “I hate this one” she mouthed through the crowd. I could barely hear her for the noise of the “bah-bah-bah” bouncing round the room. There was a bit of ole blue eyes, My Way and New York, New York. Chris (no, a different one - keep up!) and John had become good friends of Sue and Chrissie whilst in Tenerife. It was great to see them here. John was sat in the corner belting out New York, New York with gusto. I swear he was louder than all the rest, rumbustuously cranking out all the wrong words at the wrong time and in the wrong key. Fantastic! I thought it was just me. My kids had also been chucking their heads back and screaming “I did it miiiiyyyyy waaaaayyyyy” at full tilt. Great to these classics being murdered right across the generations. There was a bit of Presley, a bit of Cliff’s Congratulations and then a raucous round of Happy Birthday To You with Chrissie in the middle of the room. Great scenes.

At one point Joe, our 20 year-old nephew, elbowed me out of the way and scrolled through the ipod menu. Oh no I thought. If he finds the girls’ Olly Murs or JLS on there we are doomed. But no. Out of the speakers snaked a lithe and dangerous Walk The Line and Mr Johnny Cash. It’s OK folks, the future is safe.

 Later still, we had the ska revival. Chris’s moves to One Step Beyond were mind-boggling. Still later still, everything had gone properly pear-shaped. Someone had found the Val Doonican CD that I thought I’d hidden in the locked filing cabinet down the cellar behind the door marked ‘beware of the tiger’ (apols to Douglas Adams). The three Milner children, Chrissie and Betty and assorted others were rattling out the convoluted lyrical concepts of Paddy McGinty’s Goat, O’Rafferty’s Car and Father O’Flaherty’s Irritating Bowel Syndrome. Might have misheard the last one.  

By 5am, things had wound down. Most people had left and those that remained grabbed whatever berths they could find.

I surfaced about 10.30am next morning. Chrissie and Betty were already up and had gone to mass on about 4 hours’ sleep. Where they get the stamina from I’ll never know. I’ll be happy if I’m half as fit (but maybe twice as sane) as that at 80. 

Apparently Bruv-in-law, Chris had called earlier to see if I fancied a round of golf. Another with an iron constitution. Unbelievable. It was only a few short hours since he was giving the finest air-saxophone solo to Ghostown that I’ve ever seen. He’d had a bit of kip, apparently and woken with a raging thirst. He couldn’t find any cold soft drinks in the fridge and so resorted to another strongbow!  He gave me a shout a bit later. He’d turned up at the course with an inevitable massive hangover. “I couldn’t see the ball”, he said. “I took 24 shots on the first hole. I’ve had another couple of cans though and I feel fine now!”

Mrs A had been up a while and had brought all the presents back from the hall. The lounge was suddenly claustrophobic with gifts that were roughly themed around flowers and plants, chocolate and alcohol.  Only the alcohol would have been a surprise to the casual observer. Chrissie has never drunk much. (Heaven forbid. She really doesn’t need to!) But it’s become common knowledge lately that she likes a splash of Baileys Irish Cream on her porridge of a morning. Smoothes it up she says. So this fact accounted for the five bottles in three different sizes of the stuff now parked on the coffee table.

Chrissie and Betty opening the presents was a scream. But trying to work out who had given which gifts became a convoluted, repeating saga worthy of any Laurel and Hardy sketch. Catherine was attempting to write the presents on the cards as they were opened so Chrissie wouldn’t forget. It should have been simple. It wasn’t.

“I’ve got Clare’s card here. Where’s Clare’s present?” Granny looked confused.
“We haven’t got to it yet Auntie Chrissie”, helps Marcel.
“Is that Joan’s there. Well, see, maybe that’s Clare’s. What did you write on the card Catherine?”
“Pendant and chocolate, Granny.”
“On Joan’s card?”
“Yes, Granny. “
“Well where’s Clare’s then?”
“I don’t think we’ve got to it yet Auntie Chrissie.” Marcel again.
“Is that Clare’s then?”
“No that Joan’s. Still.”
“What’s this?” Chrissie finds a nice Cath Kidston-inspired bag. “’To Auntie Chrissie love from Clare and the gang’. There it is! We hadn’t got to it yet!”

Mrs A and I went out to return the crockery to the caterer. On the way we took a detour and stopped a while to ponder quantum physics and count ants. This was preferable to returning back to the chaotic system in the house too quickly. On our prolonged return, Elizabeth had taken over card annotation duties from Catherine who was now jibbering in the corner with a wet towel around her head.

“Now, where did I put…:
“It’s over there Granny”
“Is that the…”
The rubbish pile is here Granny”.
“Did you…”
“That’s the bag pile Granny”

Elizabeth had already perfected the eye-rolling and head shaking that many a grown-up would struggle to master. 

One barbecue cooked in the rain later (a Summer tradition…), we heard the ice cream van turn into Mounthill Avenue. Sue and Catherine popped out to grab one each. “Do you need some money?” says Chrissie.
“No, we’re fine”, replies Sue.
“They’re a pound each”
Sue was grinning when they come back. “Mine was £1.60 and Catherine’s was £1.40”.
“Oh!” chuckles Chrissie. “I always give him a pound. He never asks for any more!”
“Brilliant!” we exclaim. “Great approach. Does it work everywhere? How much did you pay for the telly? Tenner?”

The madness continues. The following week, we all took Chrissie and Betty ten-pin bowling for the first time. Those lanes really took a battering. We shuddered every time Betty delivered one of her over-under-arm launches. They are in Ireland now, raising mayhem around Killestre, Swords and Howth. Then, next week, on to Gloucester for a few days. The British Isles, merely pin-pricked by recent riots and bad weather, will cower and lick her wounds by the time Betty leaves in early September.

As Irving Berlin would have said (had he met them):

Sisters, Sisters
Lord, help the Mister, [family….friend….airline….innocent bystander…..anyone, really] who comes
Between me and my Sister

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

I (didn't) predict a riot

Anyone desperately trying to make sense of the appalling scenes that have broken out across England since Saturday, these are about the most interesting pieces I’ve read. The explosive fusing of pressure cooker tension and poor police relations with opportunist criminals and thug tourism comes through strongly.

But I’ve seen an equal amount of reporting that isn’t at all interested in making sense. Where there’s nothing beyond the immediate police response and the calls for retribution against the perpetrators.

The riots have to be stopped. What’s happening out there is sickening. It cannot be condoned. But asking questions about it is a valid response. Mass media coverage has been stuck in a mindset that condemnation is the only appropriate reaction and that trying to understand it is the act of an apologist, or even a supporter – witness the Darcus Howe interview on the beeb this morning. That is too simplistic to be true.

A big part of my day job is working with frontline organisations who are investing in their local communities to build cohesion, respect and voice; delivering training, skills, opportunities and enterprise in some of the most deprived urban areas of the country. Often successfully and with the flexibility and innovation that the public and private sectors would die for.

I was on the phone today, in conversation with an organisation about fundraising for a project to help older partially-sighted people in the borough who struggle to access locally any services and support. They feel disillusioned. He had to ring off because the centre was being closed early and everyone was being sent home. Trouble had broken out a few streets away by another bunch of apparently ‘disillusioned’ locals.  

The cost of the riots will run to millions; the impact on lives, homes and businesses probably immeasurable. For many community organisations, the price they pay is seeing years of effort, patience and investment go up in smoke, quite literally, in a few short days. Some of that investment is being thrown back in their faces by the very thugs they might otherwise be helping. But those scarce resources go to other vulnerable groups in these neighbourhoods too.

Now, all that work is at risk: whether for young people or old; crime diversion or childcare; drug rehabilitation or victim support. The backlash has started already. “Bleeding heart liberals take note: it just goes to show that all those billions of pounds thrown at inner cities has been wasted”, bleated one blog I read.

Well on the contrary – it hasn’t been enough. Whilst public spending cuts aren’t entirely to blame for this crap, they don’t help. The facts about inequality are startling. "Today, Britain is less equal, in wages, wealth and life chances, than at any time since the 1920s. Last year alone, the combined fortunes of the 1,000 richest people in Britain rose by 30 per cent to £333.5 billion" Daily Telegraph today. “A well ordered society cannot develop when a sizeable number of its members are miserable, and as a consequence, dangerous” Same article. (Did I ever see the day coming when I’d be quoting the Torygraph?)

If the knee-jerk reaction is to squeeze community sector funding even further, the consequences don’t bear thinking about. If anyone was in any doubt about the power of community action, even in the direst of circumstances, witness today’s spontaneaous Riot Clean Up efforts around London and tonight the citizens of Enfield, Eltham and Southall who are out on the streets to reclaim them from looters and thieves.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Duel on the Downs

The Duel on the Downs, splashed the Racing Post front page in 4-inch Times New Roman.  The eagerly awaited clash between Frankel and Canford Cliffs got the full “so it comes to this…” fight them on the beaches treatment. Bacchy was a bit sniffy. “Guff”, he said, pointing at Brough Scott’s flowery prose. “There’s no penetrative journalism in this rag any more.” He’s probably right. All the same, I do love a bit of overblown drama and sentiment, building up the big day with hyperbole and superlative. Alastair Down is the master. His piece the following day was anticipated with the slogan Down on the Duel. Ho ho!

Bacchy, Brynaldo, Ben and I were on a train crawling through ripening wheat fields, edging towards the 2nd day of Glorious Goodwood. The Sussex Stakes was indeed the jewel on the card. But the supporting races were taxing me more. I had been charged with placing two life-changing bets with the remnants of the kitty from Mrs A’s Berko Mums drinking gang. Sounds a bit seedy when I put it that way…

Not that I hadn’t had some useful advice from some of the Mums. Only most of it came after I’d circulated the selections. Wisdom such as  “I always back number 4 in the Grand National. It hasn’t worked yet”, “Would have been good to have something with ‘red’ in the name”, and “I have a problem with the colours” was all valuable in its own way.

So the plan was for two carefully honed assaults in a couple of handicaps which seemed to present the best chances of unearthing Sunseeker-buying, pamper-purchasing, national-debt-clearing winners. The Goodwood Stakes featured a big field of 19 runners over a marathon trip of 2 miles and 5 furlongs. This race has traditionally been cleaned up by hurdlers. Two of them were ante-post favourites here, Spirit Of Adjisa and Liberate. So I shunned them both for Bowdlers Magic, a longer priced stayer from the Mark Johnston yard. Later on, we had course specialist Four Nations in the very hot UBS Stakes, a race smoking with improvers and unknown quantities.  

But first we had to get to the track. The train was late and the shuttle bus was jammed in a queue snaking 6 miles back from Trundle Hill. It felt like the Duel on the Downs had put an extra 5000 extra punters on the gates and on the roads. Good for racing. Bad for us if we didn’t get in for the first race. 

We made it with few minutes to spare. Even Ben got in, somehow passing the stewards’ smart-casual test despite his distressed jeans and 80’s Harrington jacket combo, with, for God's Sake, a vest peeping out from under his shirt. A subversive in our midst. 

Just enough time to grab placepot vouchers, make the losing selections and queue up at rammed Tote booths to strike the futile bets that would crash in the first. Perfect.

Goodwood looked splendid, packed to the rafters with scrubbed up punters (Ben excepted) set in a widescreen landscape of sweeping, sun dappled South Downs (is this enough guff, Bacchy?) The track’s marketing line is “The World’s most beautiful racecourse”. A lofty claim. Surely the delightful ICI factory vista from the track at Redcar runs it close? Or the concrete A1 flyovers filling the near-horizon at Catterick? On balance, the Goodwood Estate possibly shades it.

We all drew a blank in the first, including the Berko ladies, I’m sad to say. I got one thing right. The race was won by a hurdler, but I didn’t expect it to be Micky Hammond’s Hollins at 20-1. Nothing in the formbook pointed to this.  Their (my) luck didn’t change in the next handicap either. Four Nations was prominent enough and came out of the pack down the hill, but without forcing his big frame into serious contention. I won’t be able to show my face in The Lamb after 8pm on the 2nd Tuesday of every other month, not including school holidays, ever again…..

That's green speck? That's Frankel that is.
The Berko bets bookended the best two races on the card. First, Bryn landed the odds in the Veuve Clicquot Vintage Stakes with Chandlery, whom I thought asserting pretty strongly from 2 furlongs out. Then we witnessed the duel that, in truth, became a tour de force. Frankel was masterly in the Sussex Stakes. Queally managed to hold himself together enough to give the horse the ride he deserved. The RP will say Frankel ‘made all’. That doesn’t do justice the pace and power of this consummate victory. The phrase “the term great is overused” is overused. Frankel is great. Worth the admission price alone. Especially as we’d bagged a two-for-one deal, hey hey!

The beers began to flow steadily after that. This fact assuredly contributed to at least one winner getting away. Bacchy was munching on a chicken tikka pizza, nursing a beer and watching his unbacked fancy Rakasa cruise to a comfortable win. He’d forgotten to get his wedge down, distracted by our unearthing, or so we thought, of a proper old plot. We were convinced Dandy Nicholl’s Scrooby Doo had been laid out for this one. Right idea, right trainer even. But wrong race. Dandy was cooking one up for sure, but it was in the last instead, where Aksaud bolted up. Mug’s game is this.

Potless again. Long faces.

SHOW me them long faces
One thing we thought we got right was to chill over a last pint in the boozer by the staion. That way the crowds heading back to town would disperse on earlier trains. Wrong. By the time we moseyed on to the up-platform, our train was already showing half an hour late. When it arrived, all those years of practice on the Cheltenham specials served us well as we ruthlessly bagged four seats at the expense of the sick, the frail and the jammy bastards who’d cleaned up in the handicaps. Joy was short-lived. One stop up the track and we had another 20 minute delay waiting for a driver. A driver! What happened to one that got us this far?

There’s always someone to jolly the troops along in situations like this. Here, it was an opinionated walking tour leader with an inescapable searing voice, penetrating through other conversations like a hammer drill. “Southern Railways have no strategic approach when it comes to delays”, “They can’t simply terminate this service at East Croydon! That’s just not an acceptable solution to the situation that they have created! We should rebel!”, “I’m meant to be at a concert tonight and then get back to Brighton!” It went on. He was nominally talking to a couple of his tour charges. They had rabbit-trapped-in- the-headlights eyes and, first chance they got, they bolted for a couple of seats at the back, turfing out another couple in the process. 

It was, though, a painful, protracted journey home which took a little of the gloss from a top day out. Bryn and I kept our spirits up in the usual way – by debating which would be the best junk food option between the station and home. There’s always solace in chicken curry and special fried rice. I’m sure the Berko Ladies feel the same way.