Sunday, 30 December 2012

Rein in the year

A winning team
As a serious horse racing fan I’m always intrigued to see how the game is perceived by the wider sport consuming public. If this year’s Sports Personality Of The Year extravaganza was the barometer, I could be forgiven for thinking I love a minority sport. Cheltenham, Royal Ascot and The Grand National are the perennial mentions, though I did appreciate the longer linger on Frankel and his great trainer, Sir Henry Cecil. It’s a shame neither could have been there. I’m sure the latter would if able, however the former is a little pre-occupied at anything up to £100k a pop just now.

Nevertheless, I indulgently wallowed in this enormous Olympic SPOTY fest, beaming at (the now beknighted) Wiggins’ left-field contributions and cringing at Linekar’s shallow Spanish stunts. Of course, the programme can never be a true reflection of the breadth and depth of the nation’s sporting achievements, although it increasingly sits awkwardly with the institution’s shrinking live output. I was staggered and thrilled that AP McCoy won the main gong in 2010 (after a well engineered campaign and in a fairly quiet year), but remember its reporting being massively overshadowed by David Beckham’s lifetime achievement award. And now live racing coverage has left the beeb too.

Having re-read my stock take of 2011 I'm struck by how many of the themes have remained current in 2012.

Black Caviar. Fast and heavy. 
Frankel’s ascendancy last year reached the firmament this Summer. Five straight group ones including, to my tired old eyes, his visually most impressive win in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot when annihilating Excelebration and in the Juddmonte International at York when effortlessly stepping up in trip. The debate still ebbs and flows about whether he is the greatest ever, but in the context of the Spring tendon injury that briefly threatened to retire him prematurely, I’m grateful that he so brilliantly graced the season at all. The conservative nature of his campaign – mostly at a mile, and never outside the UK – surely means it is impossible to say he’s the best of all time. It would be churlish to pick holes in the form (never set a track record, beat one horse four times and another twice in his last 10 starts), but it is a shame he didn’t line up in the Arc, for instance. Or more wistfully, a 7f match against Black Caviar, whose owners I absolutely respect for their resolutely international campaigning of the wonder mare. 

For my money, I can’t help wondering what Sea The Stars might have achieved as a four-year-old. He didn’t win races in the spectacular, dominating style that Frankel did. But the turn of foot he displayed to win the 2009 Arc is one of the most exhilarating spectacles I’ve seen in racing.

But Frankel was massive box office wherever he went and it will be a very long time before we see his like again. And there’s a human side to this story which probably helps to explain the campaign. Sir Henry Cecil has visibly taken strength from Frankel in his fight against stomach cancer. “I am so lucky to have been allocated Frankel to train. He has been an inspiration and challenge, which I really needed so badly”, he said in October. The trainer, now established as a national treasure, visibly declined over the Summer and was too weak to travel far. Trips to Paris or California were never likely and this must have had an impact on decision-making. He made it to the Ebor meeting at York in August after being absent from the paddocks since Royal Ascot. I know how much the ardent northern racegoers appreciated that gesture.

It was good to see John Gosden pick up his first trainer’s championship in a year when Aiden O’Brien routed four British Classics and was less than a length away from landing all five. Respect to connections for running Camelot in the St Leger. The Triple Crown hasn’t been won for 43 years. It’s a ridiculously tough and peculiarly idiosyncratic challenge, and it could be another generation before the feat is even attempted again. The Classic generation has not fared well in the final ratings analysis so it’s relevant that O’Brien still considers Camelot to be the best that has passed through his hands. If he’s right, this is a mouth-watering prospect for 2013.

What Kauto might do next
Like last year, Kauto Star was the national hunt horse that captured more headlines than others. But unlike 2011, none of this was about winning races. Firstly there was a fall in the Spring whilst working that put in doubt his Gold Cup participation. Then the race itself in which he was pulled up, followed by further speculation about his future. This was finally confirmed in October: retirement for the greatest steeplechaser of the modern era. But that was not the end of the Kauto drama. Clearly the relationship between master trainer and single-minded owner had been deteriorating for some while and spilled in to the public arena with a row over how decisions had been taken that gave Kauto a new career in dressage. The spat was quite entertaining and served to underline the unique power relationship that exists between owner and trainer.

Nicholls bagged the trainer’s championship for the seventh consecutive season. The margin of victory over Nicky Henderson was boosted by landing the Grand National. Without that, it would have been nip and tuck. Henderson swept all before him at Cheltenham and has continued where he left off in the first half of this season. There is an unprecedented concentration of Grade 1 talent at Seven Barrows and he is now long odds-on to wrest the championship away from Team Ditcheat in 12/13. It would be his first win since 1986/87.

A downside of such riches stuffed into one stable is that they rarely line up against each other. This leads to fewer high quality races before the big festivals in the Spring. The success of Cheltenham also has a real impact on the quality of cards across the season, where horses are ‘saved’ for the big races. This is particularly acute in the novice chase division. Despite rule changes, trainers are still reluctant to commit horses against a good one for fear of a punitive handicap mark. Bookies pricing up the races don’t help to make them competitive either.

Higgs boson. Possibly. 

These few gripes aside (well, there had a to be a couple) the quality and depth of jumps racing is in rude health. Kauto will be deeply missed, but there is a host of established and emerging talent to make this season a scintillating spectacle. In the wide open champion hurdle division, Hurricane Fly looks back to his best but Darlan may have the equipment to push him all the way. Grandouet and Zarkander will be no mugs come Cheltenham either. However, the injury to Big Buck’s (note the odd apostrophe) will mar the stayers races. Of the chasers, Sprinter Sacre is starting to fulfil his enormous potential, Bobs Worth (why no apostrophe?) is stepping up on left handed tracks and Silviniaco Conti could be very special. And against massive odds, Nicholls has found the key to the enigmatic class of Tidal Bay and honed him into a consistently high performing animal. Word has it that the Higgs boson  team dropped in to Ditcheat to revise their methodology before discovering the God Particle.

Osborne in PR disaster
A third theme from 2011 that couldn’t quite be nailed this year is that of horse safety. Interestingly, the incendiary whip ban issue seems to have been successfully doused. New rules originally introduced in October 2011 were about as popular with jockeys as George Osborne was at the Paralympics. A new set introduced in March, which followed a lengthy series of tinkerings and adjustments, have now begun to make a difference. By October, the number of whip offences in Britain had fallen by 34% compared with the same period in 2011, whilst the occurence of weal marks on horses had virtually disappeared. This is overdue, but nonetheless very welcome news.  

However, the high profile casualties and bad press generated by the Grand National do not look likely to go away any time soon. Deaths of the Gold Cup winner Synchronised (after which McCoy said “I cried, I was in a mess, I didn’t ride for days”) and top handicapper (and a big favourite of mine) According To Pete in the sport’s biggest TV event leave a massive welfare and PR problem. More fence modifications, following clearly unsuccessful changes after deaths in the 2011 race, and changing the start to slow runners down may work. There is plenty of evidence that reducing the field size would improve matters, but this has been left alone for the moment.
The race remains a thrilling spectacle, underlined in April by a photo finish in which Neptune Collonges prevailed by a snotty nostril. But even this wasn’t enough to convince long-time sponsors John Smith’s to hang around. The brewer’s current deal will be pulled from 2013. How much public perception played into this decision alongside commercial considerations is not known, but it will be interesting to see how easily Aintree can whistle up a new and lucrative sponsorship package.  
Folkestone winner's enclosure
Whilst the continued economic downturn has the nation restrained in a public spending straight-jacket, the impacts on racing are more mixed. 2011 actually saw an increase in the total number of people turning up at the tracks. BHA figures show that attendance at all racing was up by about 400,000 on the previous year at 6,151,282. Well over 600,000 of those were recorded at Ascot and over 400,000 at Cheltenham. However, two tracks closed in 2012: Folkestone where an average of 1476 hardy punters attended each of 24 fixtures and Hereford where a measly 1337 passed through the turnstiles at their 19 meetings. Only Leicester and Wolverhampton have smaller average gates. Perhaps it is no surprise that the tracks were in danger. The gap between the haves and have-nots in this sport became a reality for these two tracks. Bloody hell, I sound like an old socialist. I’m a big supporter of local courses. Racing doesn’t have to be all about corporate entertainment and fashion accessories. My local course, Towcester, runs free admission at most of its meetings and averages over 3,300 punters per fixture. That’s not bad for gaff-track racing. Free admission means punters slapping down bigger bets, swilling more ale and demolishing extra hog roasts. I’m sorry to see these two historic tracks disappear. Local people do go to local races. It does matter and it can pay.

Some changes are for the better though. The BBC’s live TV coverage of racing has passed to Channel Four. It’s tenure ended in ignominious style. The last live broadcast was meant to be the Welsh National meeting the day after Boxing Day. However, the fixture was abandoned after most of the track was underwater on Christmas Eve and has been rescheduled for 5th Jan when the shiny new C4 team will show it instead. The BBC’s coverage has been painful to watch in recent years. By turns comic, flippant and complacent, (excepting the impeccable Clare Balding who has been carrying the inarticulate Willie Carson for too long), I am not mourning its passing. The Telegraph was even more scathing. Of Carson’s swansong at Ascot it exclaimed, “And so it ends, Flat racing on the BBC, not with a bang but with a dementedly high-pitched cackle in Surrey to shatter bulletproof glass on the outskirts of Istanbul.”

Don't hold back now...
At this point you need to imagine Emile Sande whining a nasal funereal dirge sat at an oversize grand piano in front of a screen with flickering images of those the sport lost this year. Lord John Oaksey, who had been ill for some time, passed away in September. His impact on horse racing reaches from selfless work establishing the Injured Jockey’s Fund through to broadcasting, owning, breeding and training. Much respect. At the other end of the career span, 21 year-old jockey Campbell Gillies, drowned whilst on holiday in Corfu. The jockey was a rising star, based at Lucinda Russell’s yard. The horse he partnered to their best win, Brindisi Breeze in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham, died in a horrific accident only a month before. The horse had jumped out of his paddock and was hit by a tanker.

I was also sorry to note the passing of Kris Kin who gave me one of my best Derby winning bets on the back of an inspired Keiron Fallon ride. Other losses I noticed (and I will have missed many) include Go Ballistic, Garde Champetre, Bellvano, Scotsirish, and most recently Cristal Bonus.

Lee after one of his many jumps spills
Cheer up at the back there. Has there been a more uplifting story than that of  Graham Lee’s transition to flat racing? A jockey of both determination and skill over jumps, he landed many big winners for Graham Wylie and Howard Johnson and had a great association with Inglis Drever. His subsequently battered body could take no more of the jumps game and his career was in decline. I didn’t hold out much hope for the switch to the flat and even my untrained gaze could see his early efforts looked clumsy compared to his tidy contemporaries. But what did I know? Any technical issues were smartly ironed out and his partnership with Jim Goldie has flourished. Lee recently rode his 100th winner of the season and has landed almost £1m in prize money, including a hefty stash aboard Hawkeyethenoo in the Stewards Cup. In typically self-effacing style he commented that he was “making a go of it in a second career and not many get that chance".

To continue a hackneyed theme of swings and roundabouts, Frankie Dettori has had a less uplifting time. The six-month ban from racing for cocaine abuse caps a miserable year for the star jockey who had slipped down the pecking order at Godolphin, culminating with his departure from the operation this Autumn. As bad as this is, my money is on the irrepressible Italian bouncing back in some shape or form. Whether this is in an unspeakable reality TV show or as a freelance on the track remains to be seen…

Legendary racing commentary
I continue to enjoy the banter that Twitter can add to the racing experience. Immediate (but not always accurate) observations and reactions all add to the cut and thrust of an afternoon in front of the box or at the track. I did spot some humorous material under the hashtag #ohgrowupnaughtytittermongers in relation to the French bay filly Tossof (by Slickly out of Tossup) when running at Maison Lafitte in September. Comments such as “beaten off”, “was pulled” and “double handful” were enough to reassure me that the legacy of Derek and Clive is alive and well.

Here’s to an inspirational and rewarding 2013.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Photos of 2012: 52 weeks

The Guardian's Flickr group ‘52 weeks’ draws to a close this week. I've just uploaded my final photo. What a great project. A feature on the group recently appeared on the Guardian’s website and the group’s closing request is for members to offer some reflections on the year. So here goes.

I looked back at my half term report and am pleased to see that early enthusiasm for the project grew at about the same rate as the challenge of finding new, inspirational material. I have tried to use the group’s aims of sharing images that mark big events, personal stories or world news in 2012 as a guide. But there is also hefty doff of the cap to pragmatism when those landmark moments fail to materialise and the week was suddenly running out, leaving me to conjure a worthy snap from the garden, the sky or the street.

Surprisingly as tough was the challenge to limit the choice to only one each week when the subject matter was stronger. During the Olympics, for instance, or at a personal favourite event, the Cheltenham Festival.

Many of the subject themes are pretty predictable (in that they match my interests) and are planned or anticipated: horse racing, landscapes, sun/moonsets, architecture…

Berko Common - January
Berko Common - November
My 52 weeks slideshow is here. I thought about doing something clever with the ordering to reflect recurring subject themes – of which there were surprisingly many. But the main point of the project for me is simply to record the year in weekly photos. On that basis, the only way to view the topic is as a chronological journey. I used to organise my LP collection by genre, sub theme, alphabetically and release date. But I’m feeling better now.

But the beauty of the project has been that it should not and can not be planned. And so there also many spontaneous shots or the ones taken because I’m running out of time. Someone famous once said that “The best camera is the one that you have with you”, which is absolutely right and plays so much to the strengths of the smart phone. More than half my snaps are collected when an opportunity presents itself. Including when inching our way up the A64 in a screaming blizzard one night in Autumn when I demanded of Mrs A, behind the wheel, to “put the lights on full beam, I think I can get a great shot!”

A64 blizzard through the windscreen
Some images I hunted down with the zeal of a missionary. I had spotted a series of striking graffiti tags on the side of a disused carriage near Willesden Junction from my train. I had failed to capture it on many ocassions: too much reflection; too much speed; too much self-conciousness in a packed commuter car to put the lens up against the window… The image I ended up with wasn’t quite as good as the one rattling around in my head. But it is odd what can be picked up in the Flickr community. This became a multiple addition to the photostreams of ten or so graffiti artists around the capital whom I suspect were collecting evidence of their own work!

Graffiti train, Willseden
I’ve loved experimenting with the apps and learnt loads from the other members of the group. If you’d asked me to tilt-shift in December 2011 I would have attempted some yet-to-be-invented yoga manipulation. I have since become au fait with this and many other sassy moves. I am a full-on snapseed drama groupie. Perhaps that’s the theme of the year – the massive growth of phone and tablet based filters, editing tools and photo sharing. Who could have predicted eighteen months ago that Instagram would be sold to Facebook for $1 billion?

Nevertheless I still found myself returning to my point-and-press compact camera and back to the bulky, but trusty, DSLR when there was a particular shot I was measuring up. 

The group sharing has been the key to the success of the project. I have shamelessly stolen approaches and techniques from many other members and can only aspire to many of the great collections in the group. I’ve long admired the soft themes and brilliant use of light in Helen Ogbourn's photos; Daviocious captures incredible colours and detail; and check out Scouser_Steve's great scope.

My collection seems scattergun and eclectic by comparison. But that’s OK. I have felt able to stretch out and test ideas here. If not all have worked, well then that’s just part of the learning curve. There are a few here I’m really pleased with and ultimately this serves as a tremendous personal record of the year shared with others who have the same or similar ambitions.

Roll on 52:2013…

Saturday, 22 December 2012

A waiting game

I’m hammering away at the keyboard here almost as hard as the rain is hammering down on the sodden ground outside. The chances of the cards at Haydock and Ascot even getting underway are slimmer than a stickman on a diet, never mind completing. It’s 9.30am and its still dark.

We had some friends round for a pre-Christmas drink last night. It was a reasonably civilized affair, although the lopsided pyramid of dripping Doom Bar bottles outside the back door is evidence of a solidly sociable occasion. And the CDs piled up next to the stereo are cast-iron retro fodder: Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Bob Dylan, ELO, John Lennon, The Black Crowes, Ian McNabb. Nothing there that troubled the charts this century. Yes, we still play CDs. How passé! The Christmas party season starts earlier and finishes later, I swear. The good thing about being self-employed is the regular flow of Christmas events I get invited to. For the last three Mondays I've bumped into Patrick who lives up the road after I've stumbled off the train in varying degrees of festive cheer. Uncanny. We can go months without an encounter. "See you next Monday" we now cheerfully call on parting.

This Monday's bash had a neat twist on the Secret Santa idea. Instead of a name pulled out of the proverbial hat, we each had to make up a party cracker from a kit and insert a suitable gift. So after getting everyone in the house to help with my pathetic cracker preparation, I shot off to Corals to buy my gift. A win bet on Al Ferof for Boxing Day's King George. All the crackers were mixed up on the day. Eva won my gift and was delighted. "Inspired" she said. "Predictable" she'd have uttered if she knew me better. I won couple of pink geometry protractors. They'll come in handy...

Eva wasn’t supposed to know who the gift was from. Secret and all that. Except that she was sat opposite Julie, our Director, whom I’d bumped into the previous Saturday on Clapham Junction platform 10. I was going to Sandown for the Tingle Creek. She was going to an ice skating show with grandkids. There was a moment of mutual hesitation as we struggled to put familiar faces into an unfamiliar context. How we laughed. Anyway, when Eva was I querying the identity of the gifter, Julie nodded in my direction and said "David might know". What my Director thinks of her charity fundraiser's gambling habit is yet to be recorded.

So the very next morning, of course, Al Ferof was declared a non-runner. I told Eva and she was disappointed. I said I’d swap it for another runner. She doesn't need to know that Corals weren’t offering non-runner, no-bet (season of good will). And so I was quids down before the five-day decs were out. Eva will now be cheering on Cue Card. I hope she’s got powerful enough lungs to see him over the last half mile. Still, there are a few doubtful stayers in the field this year. I do think Cue Card has a good chance. As I did Al Ferof. But if Sir Des Champs turns up, he’s the one they all must fear. Long Run and his dodgy jumping included. They will both like the heavy going, but the whole field will need aqualungs and flippers if this rain continues to beat down with such ferocity.

I’m reading that clerks of the course at Ascot and Haydock are now uncontactable because they are slithering around their respective tracks, sinking in the mud and looking heavenwards. Abandonments move a step nearer, I fear.

Last week was one of dramatic highs and lows for Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls. His quivery emotion in an interview with Alastair Down on Saturday after Unioniste won the big handicap was all to with the unseemly and very public row with Kauto Star’s owner Clive Smith. The toothy Mr Smith had chosen a dressage career for the now retired legendary chaser, and this had upset the trainer and his team. It is the owner’s right to do as he wishes with the horse, of course. That’s not something old pumpkin head was disputing. Though it seems the way the decisions were made and subsequently announced had wound up the champion trainer beyond measure. He packed off Kauto to his new home with Laura Collett, a dressage rider of some repute and promptly stuck his bottom lip out.

The subsequent volleys of accusation and counter charge were highly entertaining. Who discussed what with whom…Where was the best home for the horse… Who loved him the most…it all added a touch of drama to an obviously emotional set of circumstances. Nicholls blubbed to Alistair Down about how embarrassed he was at the turn of events. And I believe he’s genuine in this. It highlights a unique power relationship between an owner who is often very distant but with ultimate control and a trainer providing constant attention and decision making but shorn of final responsibility. Mind you, plenty in racing will tell you that the power balance can often feel like it’s the other way round.

And then the news on Monday from his stable that both Al Ferof and Big Buck’s will miss the rest of the season. Never mind the King George, this throws the World Hurdle wide open as well. What is interesting about the withdrawal of the Nicholls’ duo is that neither of them budged an inch on betfair. The stable played it absolutely by the rules and didn't lay off either horse in the Long Walk or King George markets. BB was trading at about 1.57 at the time and would have been a simple target.

Compare this with behaviour of Henderson's yard where the price of his horses can ping-pong faster than a heart monitor before any word from the trianer. In Spring this year, Spirit Son drifted like a deflating lilo in a North Sea swell on rumours that he would not make the line up for the Champion Hurdle. Only when some bookies started suspending markets did Hendo declare Spirit Son a likely non-runner saying something like "it comes to something when the exchanges force one's hand". Charming, affable and twinkly he may be, but clearly the long suffering punters are well down his list of well-connected priorities.

Some tweets from the track just now:
“Never seen rain like it here in Ascot...don't know how the meeting is going ahead.”
“I’ve never seen the car parks in such a state.”
Due to going concerns Santa has withdrawn both Vixen and Prancer from delivery duties. Elf of the course says deliveries will still go ahead.”
The Tingle Creek meeting the other week was a scream. I can’t say much proper punting was done. Partly because of sundry odds-on racing certainties and small uncompetitive fields. But mainly because of the rapid emptying of hip flasks and regular flow of refreshment from the Hogsback bar. I do recall collective sharp intakes of breath when Sprinter Sacre cruised up to Sanctuaire who had been cutting out a pretty nifty pace and slipped by as if cantering on the Seven Barrows gallops. Earlier we had started to debate the chances of Captain Conan giving Simonsig a race in the Arkle after the former had bolted up in the novice chase. But then someone found some more tokens left over from our Winter Warmer package and it was back to the bar.

Having just slagged off Henderson’s approach to the betting exchanges, I am nevertheless staggered at the talent he is currently masterly nurturing in his barn. Apart from the three mentioned above, Bobs Worth and Long Run retain serious Gold Cup hopes; Finians Rainbow and Riverside Theatre can win Grade 1s at intermediate distances and there is evidence of a slew of good novice hurdlers.

So with no official word from the tracks, I’d better start looking at the cards, even though I fear they have a theoretical air about them. The Forty To Follow project continues to wash its face with three good winners this week – Sustainability, Benheir and Melodic Rendezvous (though Up To Something was outclassed yesterday by the massively impressive Puffin Billy). Today, She Ranks Me and Arctic Ben would have good chances at Haydock should the card get that far. Smad Place takes good form from last season into the Long Walk Hurdle, though has never run in conditions more akin to scuba-diving before. And Urbain de Sivola will love this ground in The Ladbroke.

It’s a waiting game today. I still fear the worst.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Tingle of anticipation

I popped into the bookies for 20 minutes in my lunch break yesterday. It was time well spent. First I watched a three-year-old chase from Pau, in the shadow of the Pyrenees,  run over the craziest switchback, carting circuit of a cross-country course I’ve ever seen. It made the Cheltenham track, scene of many wrong-course disqualifications, look like an M1 slip road. One obstacle was less water jump, more shallow lake. Fish were jumping and the leaders did well to avoid the jet skis. Most of the open track resembled sheep grazing pasture with tussock and fescue aplenty to cause hazard to man and beast. The winner, as in England, asserted off a slow pace once the race returned to the regulation chase track. Malberaux will surely be one to watch come the Festival. You heard it here first.

Next up, the event in which I had a punting interest (after-timing alert), featured a stunning sit from jockey Aiden Coleman. His mount and race favourite Renard D’Irlande clattered the 12th, ejecting Coleman clean from the saddle and round the horse’s neck. Both feet appeared to be out of the irons and his head was level with the beast’s fore quarters with his backside in the air. Renard galloped on whilst Coleman, still holding the reins, executed a recovery so unlikely that he’s fielded calls from George Osborne about the UK economy. Back in the saddle, Coleman found that he had lost some track position but stayed on for a decent third.

The final treat for me was backing the winner in this, Grandioso, who came in at 7-2, despite bunny hopping the last. It put me into a handy possy for the Tweet Naps monthly prize, though there's ages to go and today's fancy could only manage 2nd. 

I aim to improve my showing with a strong display at the Tingle Creek meeting tomorrow.  Desperately, this is my first appearance at a track this jumps season. But it is one worth waiting for. It’s a lads outing and we’ve pouched the Winter Warmer offer. £10 food/booze vouchers, £10 bet tokens and Grandstand entry all for £32. Of course the value is stretched a bit more thinly when one looks a bit closer. The punting tokens are mostly to supplement to a fixed minimum stake on mug tote bets like the quadpot, trifecta and swinger. And I’m half expecting the drinks voucher to be rejected by the only place I’d really want to use it. No, not the mulled wine concession by the parade ring, but the Hogshead real ale bar in the betting hall.

But let’s not get off on a negative footing before the day has even dawned. Instead, time to ponder the highlights of a card at one of the Winter’s best meetings.

The Tingle Creek’s recent roll of honour goes two by two. Take out Sizing Europe last year and the previous eight results feature double winners: Kauto Star (added to Gold Cups, King Georges and Betfair Chases over 3m plus, his record shines ever more brightly) Master Minded, the enigmatic Twist Magic and the brilliant Moscow Flyer. His brace in ’03 and ’04 stand between Nicholls and a straight eight. The Flyer beat Team Ditcheat’s Azertyuiop on both occasions.  Indeed that 2004 renewal that also featured Well Chief stands proud as the best running of this race in many a long year. How spoilt we were seeing that glorious trio of two-milers creaming the railway fences and spring heeling up the hill.

The 2012 vintage could well stand easy comparison with that illustrious crowd. Sprinter Sacre looks electrifying. Sanctuaire slammed decent fields by massive margins at the tail end of last season and bids to serve it up to the Sacre tomorrow. Fascinating. Of the others, I fancy Doeslessthanme to outrun his odds, though whether this race is a real betting proposition for me I doubt. I can see a few ToteMugbets being chucked in, but that can hardly add to the prospect this thrilling race.

The other grade 1 is also low on punting potential but high on interest. The Henry VIII novice chase has lost much of its lustre with the overnight withdrawal of Overturn. Captain Conan should win this against Third Intention who was back in third when these two met last month and Hinterland who has did not convince over fences last time out. More ToteTokens.

The other races offer more in the way of betting opportunities. Although both the opening novice hurdle (down to 6 runners from 27 entries at the five day stage) and the closing London National have disappointing turn outs. In the hurdle, the Chubby Chandler/Lee Westwood owned Golden Hoof will be short after a good looking win at Kempton. Hurdles debutants Bekhani and Lord Protector from strong yards will be interesting. It could be a ToteSwinger race. Or possibly ToteExacta. It will certainly be a TotePlacepot race and I may even commit my ToteJackpot token. Is this getting ToteTiresome yet? I haven’t even mentioned the bet that I’m required to make on behalf of the Berkhamsted Ladies who have yet again entrusted me with the loose change from their float in order to win them some Christmas drinking money. My last sorry attempt is burned in their memories so it is not really clear how this latest opportunity has come about. However, I’m prepared to step into the furnace again.

The Mares Handicap Hurdle at 1.25 is a new race at the fixture. More of these types of races are welcome. If only to increase the chances of unearthing a nice talented mare that one day might realistically take on the mighty Quevega at the Festival. I fear there’s nothing of that quality here. Florafern is improving but may not like the deep ground here again. Tempest River may have a squeak of improvement. Kentford Grey Lady has the strongest form in the book, but I’d be worried about her anchoring weight. Justazippy got mullered on the bend last time out after a long absence and could go well here off a featherweight

The staying handicap hurdle and the listed handicap hurdle either side of the Henry VIII chase are the biggest fields of the day. In the former, there are plenty on recovery missions. In fact nothing can win this. If you absolutely twisted my arm and wrung my final ToteEachway voucher out of my sweaty mits I might be persuaded that Lightning Strike’s best form on soft gives him a small chance of a place showing here. In the latter, Petit Robin, better known as a chaser, was impressive in a similar event at Kempton recently and will be interesting again. I backed Ifandbutwhynot from the improving David O Meara stable last time out and I’ll be looking closely at him here.

It will be a day for beanie-shod bonces to deflect screaming northerlies bearing a 5 degree wind chill and for frozen digits to slosh malt whisky into dry mouths from over-filled hip flasks. But I suspect it will also be a day to remember.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Tattoos, vinyl and psychobilly

This blog post by a photographer Mrs A has come across in her music business dealings made me laugh out loud. Reminding me of my troubled and haphazard route to Wilko Johnson’s book signing this Summer. I think I’ve found a kindred spirit. So cue a non-racing post.

I’m thoroughly enjoying reviewing a few gigs and CDs for my mate’s music website. On Friday I went to see Viva Le Pink in Camden. I hooked up with my old mate and music biz veteran, Cookie and we sought out The Black Heart boozer round the corner from the World’s End. I thought I’d been in most of the drinking dens and music venues in Camden. But not this place. It was a revelation. Neon crucifixes and warped posters adorn the walls and there are more tattoos in your face than on a trip to Southend. And not the LOVE/HATE knuckle jobs either. These were full sleeve fantasy depictions, swirling Celtic images and complicated rose and thorn creations. There was even a stout on tap called Camden Ink.

The place was heaving. We fought our way to the venue upstairs, squeezing between (and sometimes over) sweaty bodies, to arrive mid set for the support act Ruckus dishing out a fearsome punk/rockabilly growl that could only have been the product of a Stray Cats/Misfits one night stand. We hung around long enough to get signed in on the guest list. “We’re on Viva Le Pink’s guest list”, I grinned at the bruising bouncer on the door. He dismissively pointed me to a table on the right. I could see Missy Le Pink, leader of the band we had come to see, sat behind the table, leopard print coat covering up her stage attire. I tried again. “We’re on the guest list”, I grinned at the bloke minding a cash box and a book of raffle tickets. In my quiet little world this is the only time I get to feel like I’ve got some status. I’m special, important, a VIP: I’m on the guest list. Usually, it’s only because I’m Mrs A’s ‘plus 1’. Not this time though. I was there in my own right and I had my own plus 1.

Missy looked over at me and nodded when she heard the words ‘guest list’. The puffed up moment of self importance was very quickly popped. Raffle ticket man pulled out a scrappy piece of paper that looked like second hand bog roll. There were a few blotchy, indecipherable marks splattered across it. He flipped the paper over, looked a bit blank, shrugged his shoulders at us and scribbled an ‘x’ in red felt tip on the backs of our hands. No red carpet tonight then.  

After a pint downstairs, we came back for the end of the ‘Rockin Raffle’. Viva Le Pink had promoted this debut show themselves. This included sponsorship by Missy’s own tattoo lotion business. It seemed at first that every prize in the raffle was a bottle of the said lotion, though I did see a few t-shirts and other merchandise being passed around. 

If the raffle was a good idea, then the pole dancing routine was a stroke of genius. This may surprise many readers, but I’ve never seen a pole dancing routine up close and personal before.

The dancer in question was tiny, lithe, sinuous and 60% tattoo covered. Apparently, pole dancing has been shedding its sleazy, strip joint reputation over the last ten years and is now seen in some of the most respectable gyms and dance clubs. There is undoubtedly an erotic element to the pole dancing experience, but I was more impressed with the athleticism, balance, control, poise and all round strength of the performance. I had barely begun to ponder these conundrums and debate their finer points with Cookie when the band hit the stage. We were treated to a slap of fully charged psychobilly with trolley loads of energy and a good few original tunes chucked into the covers mix. Here's the official review. If the invention and effort of tonight's showcase is anything to judge by, they will go far.

Before the gig, I'd met Cookie in the Euston Tap, a reasonably new boozer shoehorned into one of the two Victorian lodges that flank the former Euston Grove in front of the station. The lodges used to usher horse-drawn traffic through under the iconic and lamented Euston Arch and onto the platforms. I can feel a historical footnote coming on…*

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get here. It’s a cracking pub. Eight regularly changed cask ales on offer together with and a further 16 on keg and a plenty of speciality bottled beers. The adjacent remaining lodge is now ‘The Cider Tap’.

Cookie is a legend at EMI. He's worked there for the thick end of 35 years and has seen it all. He had brought along a copy of ‘Now 82’ for my girls and described working on the very first ‘Now That's What I Call Music’ eons ago. One of Cookies chores at the time was to obtain the permissions from Danish Bacon to use the image of the pig that adorned the first few album covers. What a sexy industry.

Mrs A worked on that first collection too. As it happens, we pulled out three boxes of vinyl from the loft only last weekend to fuel a night of sad musical nostalgia with some friends.  One of the boxes revealed the first six ‘Now’ double albums nestling between a limited edition Metallica 12 inch box set and Bowie's ‘Absolute Beginners (extended version)’. That’s neither alphabetical, not chronological. Who filed them is what I want to know.

It was a cracking night. But the boxes will go back into the loft now and instead I’ll haul out, using an ‘A’ frame and a small electric winch, six boxes and four bags of Christmas decorations. *groan*. Still. At least there is Newbury's Hennessy meeting to get me through the weekend.

* Euston Arch, a widely revered symbol of the railway age was ripped down in a shameless act of architectural vandalism in the 1960s when such treasures were less well respected than now. The demolition was part of the station redevelopment that resulted in a larger “dingy, grey, horizontal nothingness" of a structure. This I can attest to on the basis of 15 years of commuting through this grim, soulless wind tunnel. The two lodges just off Euston Road are all that remain of the original station. Eminent historian Dan Cruickshank spent 15 years locating the stones of the arch. He found that they had reached an ignominious end as in-fill for an off-shoot of the River Lea in the East End. He now heads a campaign to have the Doric arch rebuilt as part of the next generation of proposals to revamp Euston Station. More power to him.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Open Closure

Last weekend’s racing at Cheltenham lived up to the billing. And, as usual, it shook up the embryonic Festival markets too.

Dynaste, fulfilling all my anticipation for the Steel Plate and Sections Novice Chase, looked like a classy recruit to the division. He looked full of running when comfortably taking the scalp of Fingal Bay. It’s arguable that Fingal Bay’s form can have holes picked in it. His best win came at Sandown at the Tingle Creek meeting where the form is artificially enhanced because of the subsequent exploits of Simonsig, though at the time was pretty green. Nevertheless, it is encouraging the way that Dynaste travelled, jumped smartly and was clever at a few fences when awkward. Three miles should not be a problem. David Pipe could have a couple to choose from in the staying novice chase division. Our Father could hardly have been more impressive in disposing of two-time chase winner Sire Collonges on his fencing debut. But the one question mark here is what Our Father can do on better ground. All the evidence is that a deep surface is required to see him at his best. This was heavy ground in all but name – the winning time was 42 seconds outside standard.

In fact the most disappointing aspect of Saturday was the failure – yet again – of Simon Claisse to give the punting public a fair crack of the whip. Declaring the ground soft (good to soft in places) after significant overnight rain was shown to be very wrong just a few minutes after 12.45 when mud-spattered potential Triumph Hurdle candidates staggered over the line as if they had hauled canons through the Somme. After the fourth race, the official going was changed to soft (heavy in places). This after not one more drop of rain had fallen on the course. What had changed? I can see that the turf had become more poached, but why wasn’t it possible to give this going description at 10am?

I got mullered by Claisse once before. The run up to the Festival in 2007 had been extra-ordinarily wet. Trainers and punters alike were predicting heavy going on the first day. However, a quick shuftie at the long-range weather forecast with about a fortnight to go showed plenty of dry weather around. I took a punt on the healthily lengthy odds on good-soft for the official going and spent more time watching the clouds than I did plotting up outrageous Lucky 15s. The weather faired up in run up and the ground had been drying out all week. Nevertheless, on the first morning, Claisse stuck rigidly to his soft ground call. I was dumb-struck.  After horses in the Supreme and Arkle blazed down the track, fairly bouncing off the turf, the description was changed to good to soft everywhere. All too late for my inspired piece of weather based punting. In fact the times in the RP the next morning pointed to ground barely a fraction slower than plain old good going. I chuntered about that for the rest of a moderately successful festival. And I’m still moaning 5 years later.

Going back further, I remember quoting Ferdy Murphy from a Racing Post interview just before the 2004 Festival:
“I have an owner in the pig business and he has a ten-day forecast for the Cheltenham area that predicts showers for Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, with rain on Tuesday. If that’s right I would be happy. If it isn’t I wouldn’t be.”  
Might as well get Ferdy doing all the going descriptions. They can’t be less amateurish, misleading and inaccurate than the official ones.

Back to Friday. Dodging Bullets ran soundly enough in winning his novice hurdle (and bringing home the second leg of my spawny double after Dynaste earlier) where no-one wanted to make the pace. The jockeys sat around looking at each other for about 30 seconds after the tapes went up. Ruby had to cut out the running himself and said afterwards that Dodging Bullets was “starting to get there”. Nicholls may run him (the horse, ahem, not Ruby) in the Christmas Hurdle before taking the novice route at the festivals.

Pipe and Nicholls dominated the first two days with four wins each. But it was the latter who took the meeting’s premier race for which the former’s Grand Crus started favourite. Al Ferof clearly revelled in the conditions, but carrying 11st 8lb through a bog demands maximum respect. It was noticeable from early on how well he was travelling in comparison to his final three races last season. Ruby didn’t have to niggle or cajole at any point until asking him to make his way home from two out. Walk On chased him hard and comes out of the race with an enhanced reputation. Nadiya La Vega was a long way behind in third, but hung on to land me a scratching of place money. Grand Crus was disappointing. A lost shoe does not fully explain the performance. The subsequent news from the Pipe camp is that that he may have a “cauterising procedure”, known as a wind op to me and you, to rectify what seems to be a breathing problem. This is something, it has to be said, that John Francome picked up on the day when remarking on the way the horse held his head. I’ve come to realise what many others have probably known for a long time, that Johnny is by far the best judge on Channel 4 of a horse’s demeanour, appearance and well-being.

Sunday’s card suffered from multiple going-related withdrawals, including Sprinter Sacre who is being saved for the Tingle Creek now. Good. I’m going. In his absence here, the race was a strange affair. Wishfull Thinking who has a great engine, managed his first win in 18 months again after some bad mistakes and even worse riding decisions from the hapless Dickie Johnson in too many races last season. He clobbered plenty here too, but Doeslessthanme – one of the many horses to have improved by stones since being released from the dead-hand training of Howard Johnson – could not concede weight. He might be interesting on better going.

Captain Conan just about lived up to his promise in the Arkle trial. This wasn’t spectacular, but questions about his resolution were answered, at least on this very soft going, by the way he stayed on up the hill from the improving Sire De Grugy. The very pick of CCs best form is when there is plenty of give underfoot. I like Sire De Grugy a lot and he’ll win races, but most likely at a notch below this level. He takes is racing well and is also best on soft. 

Olofi hadn’t won in almost three years before taking the feature handicap hurdle. But there have been plenty of near misses and Tom George reckons he’s had more bad luck than most. So this win isn’t begrudged. Cash And Go interests me. I backed him in the Deloitte in February when he found nothing off the bridle and was later found to be lame (in the same race that Captain Conan was well beaten). He returned here, now with Nicky Henderson, with a much more convincing run and likely there’s more to come.

The very decent staying novice hurdle, penultimate race of the meeting, has had a string of winning and placed horses go on to Festival glory, including a couple of my old chums Black Jack Ketchum and Nenuphar Collonges. The winner of this year’s renewal Coneygree looks handy, bred by the late John Oaksey and related to Hennessy winner Carruthers.  I’m sure plenty will have also noted the eye-catching hurdles debut of Creepy from Martin Keighley’s yard. He won’t be 25-1 next time out.

As a post script, I was pleased to see another ex-HoJo improver, Back In Focus win well over 2m6f in a novice chase at Punchestown. Whilst unproven on a decent surface, I’m still anticipating big things from this Willie Mullins inmate. Can the juices for the Festival already be cooking? 

The bandwagon moves on to Haydock for the Betfair Chase and lots of Kauto Star nostalgia on Saturday. Here is a good preview from horseracingchat to set the mood - be sure to read the comment from @mulldog.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Power up

A great post here by Horseracingchat delving into the history of the Mackeson Gold Cup. It prompted me mark the start of the Open meeting at Cheltenham meeting with an affectionate reminisce and a preview of my own.

The Paddy Power meeting is usually regarded as the first in the season’s crown jewel festivals, glittering alongside the Hennessy meeting, the King George at Kempton and the Spring Festivals at the top of the pile.

I first became aware of it in the days of Mackeson’s long and fruitful association with the Gold Cup until 1995. The race regularly produced high calibre winners who have won top honours elsewhere. The pick is probably Bradbury Star.

My anticipation of the fixture was ramped up around the turn of the century when, in company with a few of the lads, the Friday of the meeting became a diary date for an afternoon skiving off work, lounging in the Jugged Hare over a few London Prides and dashing round to the Ladbrokes next door, usually leaving insufficient time for Nev to get his complicated combination trifectas down before the tapes went up. “Scuse me mate, can you watch our pints”, would be the shout as we hurtled through the engraved swing door, only to see some amateur jockey flailing away like a lion tamer after misjudging the grind of the hill up to the finish and getting caught by something out of the pack. (Like in 2001 when Samuel Wilderspin buried my wedge when catching an almost stationary Guns N Roses in the last 50 yards, despite his young jockey’s fervent urgings. Yes, the pain is still palpable. Sometimes the losers are more memorable than the winners).

The card on the first day has seen an overhaul and that amateur jockey’s race is  no longer the opener. The day is known in our circles as Latalomne Friday after Bacchy confidently pro-punted Brian Ellison’s horse in the 2m handicap chase in 2001 and smashed in to fancy prices for the Champion Chase at the same time. Latalomne coasted home that Friday and ran an absolute blinder in the Champion Chase. He came down at the infamous second last with the race at his mercy. TV images of jockey Vinnie Keane punching the turf in despair are only marginally more memorable than Bacchy’s haunted, ashen face next to me in the Grandstand.  We coined the term feeling flatalomne in the aftermath, but those words don’t really do the moment justice.

The other decent race on Latalomne Friday is the 3m novice chase. Denman and Imperial Commander have won this en route to big things. But on too many occasions I have taken this race as too literal a barometer for the RSA at the Festival. Martin Pipe, who turned this fixture into a Pond House benefit for so many seasons, sent out Standin Obligation to dazzle back in 2006. In the boozer afterward, Bacchy and I were mulling the performance and attempting to be as rational as possible. But we were both clearly very impressed with what we had seen. Sinking pints during such discourse does not help logical thought. By the end of the afternoon we had called up William Hill and staked far too much on his RSA chances at far too short a price. He ran dreadfully in his next two races and didn’t even show his long face at the Festival. Poor.

I’m looking forward to seeing Fingal Bay in this year’s renewal, though I think he’s vulnerable. He only does enough and I’m not convinced about how much he does of the bridle. Dynaste could give him a real race and Nicholls looks to have found a useful French recruit in Unioniste. This will be a good race to watch.

In Latalomne’s race, I have Arctic Ben running from the 40 to follow project, which is just about washing its face so far. Arctic Ben has the right profile and likes a scrap, but ideally likes bottomless ground. Nonetheless I’ll have an interest in him here.

Dodging Bullets won here last month in a 4 year-old hurdle. Another 40 to follow horse, he comes here with a great chance, though he’ll be short enough. Tominator will be the big danger. A real moneyspinner for me on the flat this Summer, he took to hurdles with alacrity last month and in the care of Jonjo O’Neill, I can’t wait to see him convert his talent to the jumps.  

The opening day of The Open meeting also sees the opening exchanges in the Tote Ten To Follow competition.  I enter every year with high hopes. The lads have a side competition (almost inevitably) around this too, with slightly tweaked transfer rules. My chase-heavy, bonus-targeted  stable this term is:  Finian’s Rainbow (King George, Ryanair), Silviniaco Conti (King George, Gold Cup), Simonsig (Arkle, Jewson, er, Champion Hurdle?), Sprinter Sacre (Champion Chase), Big Buck’s (World Hurdle), Zarkander (International, Champion Hurdle), Hurricane Fly (Irish Champion Hurdle, Champion Hurdle), Flemenstar (Irish Hennessy, Ryanair, Gold Cup), Grand Crus (Paddy Power, Hennessy, Ryaniar), Bob’s Worth (Hennessy, Gold Cup). In the bag isn’t it?

I tend to have better results at the main event on Saturday than on the opening day. The Paddy Power is one of my most successful big handicaps. Cyfor Malta, Celestial Gold, Tranquil Sea and L’Antartique have been high points. Celestial Gold was a particularly sweet moment to savour back in 2004. It came at the start of a crazy tipster offer I’d put up at our girl's primary school promises auction. The offer was a simple £2 bet at my expense based on my selections every day for a month, starting with the Paddy Power Gold Cup. The lucky bidder got to keep any profit on selections. Unfortunately, the lucky bidder in question got carried lashed at the auction and bid all the way up to £140 for the service. Needless to say I didn’t win all his money back! But Celestial Gold at 12-1 was a cracking way to start and briefly allowed me to dream.  I vividly remember dancing round the living room, flushed of face and jibbery, as he extended up the hill.

The 2012 renewal looks hot with a string of current and potential Grade 1 performers. Grand Crus will love the trip and has plenty of class, but is a skinny price and he’s got it all to do off 11st 6lb. Hunt Ball is fascinating perched on the same weight. Keiran Burke’s rags to riches charge last year was only found out in the Grade 1 Betfair Bowl and surely will have improved since. His exuberant racing style is only matched by his owner’s e enthusiasm. Expect to see the horse campaigned in every staying chase between now and Punchestown in April. There are a couple here with reputations, if not quite as tarnished as Newsnight’s, then at least lacking in lustre: Al Ferof off 11-8 has something to prove and Quantitaveasing has failed twice after a clear cut and promising success here a year ago.

One I like at double figure prices is another Henderson inmate, Nadiya De La Vega. Her win here last month reads well. Maybe she lacks for a little consistency but the pick of her form gives her a shout here and she’s one I liked in novice chases last season.  This is a great race though, with so many live chances and a plot more complicated than Abu Qatada’s extradition case.

The supporting card is shaping up nicely too. If Problema Tic lines up in the three-mile chase earlier, I’ll be on him and the three mile handicap hurdle looks to be hot too.

Sunday’s highlight has traditionally been the Greatwood Hurdle, rechristened the Racing Post Hurdle this year. It’s history is studded with winners who have achieved high rank: Sizing Europe, Rooster Booster, Detroit City for starters. Hard to know if there’s a star in the field this season. But half an hour earlier, we see the seasonal debut of one who burns with searing intensity. Sprinter Sacre will be unbackably short in the Schloer Chase, but his reappearance is one to set the pulses racing.

A meeting with a rich history. And plenty to look forward to this weekend.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Something for the weekend?

For sheer diversity, quality and globalism, the racing calendar rarely gets better than this Saturday. Races from Britain, Ireland and the States encompassing hurdles, chases and the flat are run on both turf and dirt and include 21 listed and graded races, bulked out by nine straight Grade 1s at the Breeder’s Cup.

The prize money on offer at Santa Anita’s is, of course, staggering. The two-day meeting claims to be the single richest sporting event in the world with well over $25 million on offer to lucky connections. The Classic (on current lists, the third richest race in the world after the Dubai World Cup and the Arc) and Turf pay out over $3m each to the winner. Hell, even Bo Derek likes it! “The fastest horses in the world will be coming to Santa Anita to compete in the Breeders' Cup in November. It's the richest, most exciting event each year and makes most other sporting events look, well, quaint.” So there you have it.

But at my shivering core I remain a solid jumps man. Sorry Bo. So let’s start the previews in quaint and homely West Yorkshire.

12.35. A lunchtime start is needed to squeeze in this good seven-event card. This is an excellent race to kick off the action. I only hope enough people get down the A64 and past the queuing Saturday shoppers to see Overturn’s debut over fences. This won’t be a betting proposition as McCain’s stable star (although there are others who could rightly claim that mantle) will be unbackably short. The race will be all about how well this extra-ordinarily talented, gutsy and versatile gelding takes to fences. Ulysse Collonges brings some reasonable French chase form on heavy ground to his British debut, and is most likely to pick up any pieces should Overturn fragment.

1.40. I backed Our Island to distraction last season, on each occasion being convinced that there as enough latent talent, particularly in testing conditions over long trips, for him to get his head in front. Sadly this didn’t happen until last month, when I let him go off an unbacked favourite in a little event at Kelso. He didn’t beat that much there and I refuse to revert to losing ways with him in this better class race off top weight. Fill The Power has an almost identical profile, having been campaigned in similarly lofty races last term. He is discounted for the same reason. Brady may be reinvigorated by a fresh challenge tackling fences for the first time, but is also considered risky after two flops. Preference is for Micro Mission to find improvement for her fencing debut behind Our Island in that Kelso race and assert with a weight advantage.

2.40. A listed mares only hurdle. Une Artiste is a class act and will be looking to assuage her bad behaviour last time at Punchestown where she threw her toys out of the pram. Alasi won this last year, though a weaker renewal. There’s nothing here to suggest she has the beating of Une Artiste. Baby Shine makes more appeal, but at the prices I prefer to side with She Ranks Me around the 7-1 mark. On the book, she has plenty to find with the principles, but the price reflects that and she is 40 To Follow mare, so it would be churlish to desert her this early in the season.

2.50. One could set one’s watch by the seasonal reappearance of Tidal Bay, Restless Harry and Fair Along in this race. Tidal Bay just needs marathon trips these days, as his tremendous win in the Betfred Gold Cup showed in April. He might not have enough furlongs to warm to his task here, though. The other two are previous winners of this event, but are massively inconsistent. Cape Tribulation had a belting season last year, winning at the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals. He is feared here, though has plenty on his plate out of handicap company. However, I am all in with the other market principle, Smad Place (another of my 40TF horses), third in the World Hurdle after an interrupted season, and a contender on the up slope rather than the downturn.

3.25. The archetypal small but select field, suffering, as I’ve said elsewhere, because of the prominence of new kid on the block, the United House Chase at Ascot. I’m playing a value call on Planet Of Sound at 11/2 here. He should like this flattish track and genuine good to soft will be fine. He has class but needs the cards to fall his way to show it. In the Grand National he was absolutely tanking, and was undone by  Dickie Johnson acted like a six-month conditional in gunning him round in front when stamina was always a question. Ridden with a touch more restraint he should be lively in what is a tough race to crack. Time For Rupert showed a return to something like old form in a strangely run Gold Cup and Silviniaco Conti brings high quality, but I’d argue, too highly rated, novice form and will be favourite. Midnight Chase might want a more undulating track, though I like him a lot. Master Of The Hall is a difficult one to weigh up. The best of his form is probably a bit short of what is needed here.

2.35. A big handicap hurdle and one that sees two of my 40TF selections at either end of the weights. I love the attitude of both of them. Raya Star hardly missed a beat last season, only missing the frame in Newbury’s former Tote Trophy from a clutch of top handicaps. I had expected Alan King’s charge to go chasing. Another handicap, now off top weight, looks tough. Il De Re, on the other hand, is absolutely hurled in on the basis of his flat form (Chester Cup and Northumberland Plate winner and not disgraced on Champions Day last month). 3-1 looks skinny though. I don’t fancy either of their prices. There are plenty here at bigger odds with strong claims. But with two 40TF entries I can’t duck out. Maybe a low stakes combi-exacta with Jonjo’s It’s A Gimme who looks primed for this.

3.10. Another very decent 3 mile chase and a competitive field. Two Nicholls’ horses head the weights, but Poquelin can’t be fancied off 11st 12lb. His recent form doesn’t stack up to that much and I’m happy to discount. Join Together has more chance. Early season form last year would have put him bang there, but a shocker in the RSA and a poor effort behind Silviano Conti at Aintree mean there are question marks. Duke of Lucca is interesting. Frustrating over hurdles, he seems to be delivering on his potential over fences, and is learning his trade well. He’s one for the short list. But I’ll stick with 40TF entry Alfie Spinner. After being set too many tough tasks against top drawer novices last season, here he has a chance, though (just) out of the handicap and ideally preferring softer ground, he’s much better than he showed last year. At 7/ or 8/1, I’ll play.

Down Royal
2.25. The day’s third high class 3m chase, a Grade 1 and Down Royal’s best race of the year. Sizing Europe has already augmented his splendid record this season by emphatically claiming a Grade 2 2m chase at Gowran. With 11 chase wins, he is the absolute class act in this field. But he’s been beaten in this race twice and 3 miles clearly isn’t his ideal trip. First Lieutenant will be much nearer to him than at Gowran where he looked very undercooked. There are a few here with questions to answer: Joncol, Kauto Stone, Quito De La Roque. I’m prepared to give Realt Dubh a shout at 7-1. Still lightly raced, he will have some improvement in him. This Noel Meade charge ran Sizing Europe to 2 lengths at Punchestown over an inadequate two miles in April, and has looked like he needs a trip for some time now.

Santa Anita
10.18. Though the card is star-packed and the quality undoubted, there is in truth very little here for me. I was more lively on the punting front when the Filly & Mare Turf and the Marathon were run on the Saturday. Their switch to the Friday a couple of years ago has diluted my interest here. It will be a great spectacle and I’ll enjoy the coverage. But I don’t do the juveniles, I don’t do the dirt and I know nothing about the American runners. I have no angles on any of that form. So, with a staggering leap of logic, I’ll only get involved in the Turf. St Nicholas Abbey is priced up with UK bookies to be favourite. I can see why: won this last year and has top quality form on firm going. On the other hand (there’s always one of those…), his form is a notch below the level of last year. His only win this season was in a weak Coronation Cup renewal. I like Shareta. Good overall standard of form before coming unstuck in the Arc (like St Nicholas Abbey). Always a risk that a race like that leaves its mark, but I’m a sucker for the fillies and I’ll take her prominent style of racing against Point Of Entry for the home team who seems to have an impeccable record this year.