Oh my head

Oh my head.

I went out for a couple of beers with the Year 7 Dads last night. Just a couple of gentle beers down the local. So why was I staggering home at 12.30am after some naughty after hours beverages, unable to enunciate the names of my drinking buddies as I tried to bid them goodnight in the middle of the road? Indeed I’d walked several houses passed my abode before they gently pointed me back down the hill.

It’s a while since we have gathered as a group and so there was a pretty good turn out. There was Martin reading out jokes from his iphone, most of which were far too near the knuckle to repeat in a jolly family publication like this, for instance, “I went to the gym this morning and found that there was a hole in my trainer that I could get my finger in. Anyway she’s lodged an official complaint ad I’ve been banned for life!” There was Dom who apparently has an even nicer shed than me. I’m puce with envy. There was Pete who’s just finished filming an Alice Cooper gig in 3-d. “Cabaret and pantomine in your face”, was his revealing description. Keeping the musical theme, there was Paul who’s just taken his kids to see a sweary Tiny Tempah at the O2. There was Ian, who’s dog Winston spent the night rolling over having his tummy tickled. And there were others. The last orders bell came and went. The evening disappeared in a blur of tall stories and taller beers. 

So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised to wake up with a churning gut and throbbing head this morning. I make a token effort to see the girls off to school and then go back to bed. By the time body and soul moves me to clamber out again, Ken Bruce is introducing the two minutes’ silence to mark Armistice Day. I pay my respects leaning by my bed with my dressing gown agape and the room gently swaying.

It is at this point that I realise the day has already all but gone, lost, dribbled away. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me”, I moan to Mrs A. “I think I do”, she chuckles, incredulously. Nothing remains but to tackle a restorative fry up at Brasserie Gerard and peruse the Racing Post for winners in this afternoon’s marvellous Open meeting at Cheltenham.

We are deep into November and as I’m dipping my toast into a golden egg yolk, the Racing Post tries to tell me that the Jumps season is only now “Open for business”. Pun intended. Tomorrow’s Paddy Power Gold Cup is undoubtedly the first of National Hunt’s crown jewels. But to ignore some top notch races like the Charlie Hall Chase, the Old Roan Chase, the Haldon Gold Cup and great early season meetings at Ascot and Down Royal is an unnecessary slight.

I also read that the Professional Jockey’s Association is still unhappy with new concessions to the whip rules announced only yesterday. I’ve taken a fairly hard line on this over the last month or so. Even through the fug of a hangover I still reason that racing needs clear rules on misuse of the whip and strong penalties to go with them. The issue is about consistency and it is, I’m sorry to say, about popular opinion too. It doesn’t matter how many times Ruby Walsh appeals to the punters at Aintree about reasonable whip use. He’s preaching to the converted. My worry is that racing will be forced into a minority sport as the views of society at large move on. The world is changing and racing needs to respond to different pressures, rather than to bleat that ‘these people’ don’t know what they’re talking about. Towcester racecourse is already planning an entire whip free meeting. The fact is that a horse being hit a dozen times and more in the last furlong of a race beamed to millions of homes is never going to play out well. How can you sell that image to a world with sensitive sponsors and advertisers? The BHA have tried to respond to this.

But they made mistakes. Launching the new rules and punitive measures in the build up to the much-vaunted British Champions Day, with jockeys unused to them, was a spectacular own goal. No surprise that the headlines were about Christophe Soumillon losing his 50-grand winners’ purse for one hit too many, and not about the otherwise superb ride he gave Cirrus des Aigles.

And maybe the punishments were out of proportion with the crimes. I concede that now. So I applaud these new relaxations and the introduction of some discretion for the stewards. These follow other revisions in mid-October and the whole saga is starting to look like Whitehall farce again. So surely that’s enough. A balance has been struck. Time now for the jockeys to stop bleating and knuckle down.

Christ, all that indignation hasn’t helped the hangover. I limp back home and start writing this blog as the action unfolds from Prestbury Park. I’m enjoying it too. The amateurs’ chase to kick off the card is won by Swing Bill under 16 year-old Tom Bellamy. Apparently someone got a quid on in-running at 438-1 when Swing Bill left a back leg in the open ditch. His young jockey gives a great interview to Alice Plunkett from the saddle, showing humility, passion and ambition. Shame he picked up a (now) 2-day ban for striking the horse nine times.

I back Keki Buku in the handicap chase, but it’s won smartly by Tanks For That who tanks up the hill for the irrepressible Nicky Henderson. He’s a master of these types of races.

And now I’ve seen a thoroughly enjoyable cross-country chase. No, really!  Instead of the usual painstaking crawl and sprint finish, Gullible Gordon takes the race by the scruff off the neck and serves up a proper searching pace. I’ve backed eventual winner Uncle Junior who has ground down the leader and even managed to repel Garde Champetre in a thrilling finish. This is the first time I’ve ever backed a winner of a cross country chase.

Next is the very decent Sharp Novice Hurdle. My fancy, Prospect Wells, has been pipped by Jessie Harrington’s Steps To Freedom in a terrific climax. Ericht, making a classy hurdles debut, was third. No reason not to think all these are very decent animals and will be back here for the Supreme come March.

The best looking race of the day is not on terrestrial telly though. The novice chase at 4.05 has been won in the past by the likes of Denman, Imperial Commander, Weird Al and Time For Rupert. This renewal features a wonderful clash between a top novice hurdler from last year, Cue Card, who ran out an impressive winner on his chase debut against Grand Crus, high quality staying hurdler only beaten by Big Buck’s last season. Even so, it’s not a straight head-to-head. Champion Court has good quality hurdles and track form in the book and has already won over fences. But the race doesn’t quite live up to the billing. Cue card departs down the back straight and whilst Champion Court serves up a solid enough effort, the impressive Grand Crus draws well clear.

A good day’s racing, then, dominated by the big yards. That northern analyser on Racing UK said something like, “The top-table trainers have turned up and parked their tanks on the lawn. Today we’ve seen three winners for Pipe, one for Henderson, one for Mullins and one for Harrington. Is there any room for the small trainers at the big festivals?” Interesting point of view.

Tomorrow could be different. Well, it certainly will be for me. For instance, I might actually do something, anything, constructive. I can’t take blobbing around like this for long. But I’m sure I’ll find a moment to catch the Paddy Power Gold Cup. 


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