Friday, 24 February 2012

Deja Vu

Déjà vu…all over again! This time last year I was blogging about pitching up at the rescheduled Totesport Trophy meeting at Newbury after its electrocuting abandonment the previous weekend. Today the blog is about the same fixture, saved this time from more predictable frost and snow.

But the fixture’s consecutive rescheduling, and my shifty appearance at both, are about the only similarities between the two years. Prior to postponement, the 2012 card had already been augmented with the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Chase, plucked from Sandown’s frosted-off card two weeks ago. And since last year Betfair had supplanted Totesport (now hived off the public roster to Betfred) as sponsors. They brought with them a hike in prize money and publicity that had been rewarded with high quality, competitive fields right across the card.

Postponement usually means watered down fodder – last year, the Game Spirit and the Aon Chase both became shallow and weak renewals, followed by a Totesport Trophy shorn of both top-end prize money and competitors. The drop in the funding pot seems to be the result of an unfathomable quadrilateral equation of smaller TV audiences, fewer corporate jollies, thinner crowds and busy-digited BHB calculator operatives. So a hearty Big-Up goes to Betfair who overcame all four here. The free entry policy was a major factor. Compared to last year, the place was jumping. More of this please.

A smaller Big Up to Newbury, who did their bit and got the fixture restaged but failed to entice enough bars and food outlets to open. Hungry punters queuing round the corner at an overpriced and crap ‘gourmet’ burger concession is never a pretty sight.

That Festival-standard card was enough to get Bacchy rolling the ball. “I'll probably be in Scotland, but with Betfair letting the punters in for free, just thought I'd mention the rescheduled Newbury gig this coming Friday” That was enough for Colin to bagsie a day’s leave and he rounded up a mate to go as well. And I had deferred plans to travel north. So four of us gathered at the Paddington Burger King ready for a day’s punting. It was almost the Cheltenham routine.

We piled on to a four-car train which was plainly under capacity for the journey. But Col, bold as brass, strode into the 1st compartment and we plonked down at the table. “Col?’ I muttered weakly. “They’ll have to decommission 1st class. Too many people.”, he said confidently. I nervously looked round for the guard. The cab door opened. “Here we go”, I thought. But the driver just looked at the shifting wall of people in front of him and went “Oh bloody hell!”. “No-one told you there was a free race meeting today did they?’ said Bacchy. “They bloody didn’t” he chuckled and closed the door firmly. That’s the last we saw of him. Boom!

It was good to chew the fat with Paddy, a mate of Colin’s from way back when. He’s into his racing and was soon signed up for the Fantasy Festival marathon next month. Come Friday 17th he’ll be joining our ever-expanding crowd of Barley Mow desperados, all reduced to feverishly searching out a last-roll-of-the-dice Grand Annual winner. 

After placing the customary Placepot bookies benefit, we eventually found somewhere decent for a beer, overlooking the paddock from the 1st floor of the Berkshire Stand. Paddy was all for a double round first up, though that was scratched when we realised we couldn’t take drinks outside to watch the actual races. Come on Newbury. Sort it out.

Paddy and Colin were on a relentless pace. Then we realised how. They were necking Gaymers cider. Cider = pints of pop. Say no more. (Doffed cap to Thommo).

Paddy claimed to be a novice at the races compared to Col. Well that apparent status didn’t stop him accurately clocking the laboured efforts of my toiling bet Hold Fast in the first race. “That Nicholl’s horse can’t jump. He’s knackered.” Bloody right he was. Slewing out to the right at every obstacle and out the back for the whole trip. There went my Champion Chase ante-post token. It was always an ambitious bet, but I was hopeful of more than that.  A bout of coughing was later diagnosed at Paul Nicholl’s yard, after 31 entries over the weekend yielded just one winner. With three weeks to go before the festival, an outbreak of the lurgey is about as welcome as Japanese Knotweed at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Sprinter Sacre won the opening Game Spirit Chase as he pleased. Looking a bit of a handful in the early stages, he pulled himself to the front and then ran away with the race, even showing a little bit of canny jumping at a couple in the home straight. He joined Hurricane Fly and Big Buck’s as nailed-on Official Festival Good Things. And Colin was off the mark with a place return on French Opera.

The Aon Chase was a much closer affair. Cases could be made against most of the principals: Long Run’s dodgy jumping; What A Friend’s moody form; Burton Port’s injury lay-off and arch enigma Tidal Bay’s all-round flakiness. It was a cliché writers’ dream and as Bacchy pointed out, Pricewise had delved deep into time-worn racing phraseology in putting up ‘old monkey’ Tidal Bay ‘who is a bit long in the tooth’ as his selection. Love it. This blog is nothing but an homage to Tom Segal, Alastair Down and their analogising comrades!

In the end, we all remained unconvinced by Long Run. My complaints were a slight tendency to run down the fences and not quickening sharply enough off the front. Both Bacchy and I were on Burton Port and he should have won really. Geraghty could be accused of tender riding tactics, albeit not helped by a moderate jump at the last. But a proper race, nevertheless, and a close finish had got the blood flowing.

Back to the balcony where Colin was describing his Working Man’s Accumulator (© colinwhelanenterprises) for the day, comprising a four-fold each-way acca struck to a stake of buttons. It’s a great shout. In fields of 8+, the place element alone is attractive and one day every leg will come in. Surely. I’ve done something very similar at the festival where competitive Grade 1s cry out for this sort of approach. Today was just the sort of fixture to give the bet a full workout. “So what race is the final leg, Col”? inquired Bacchy. “Er, it’s at Fakenham, Steve”. Cue spumes of beer and cider spat out in mock derision….

Schweppes, Tote Gold Trophy, Betfair Hurdle. Call it what you will, this 2m handicap is one of the highlights of the season and boasts a rich pedigree (Persian War, Make A Stand, Spirit Leader). Zarkander had been favourite since the weights came out with stable mate Brampour keeping the Champion Hurdle contender down at an attractive 11st 1lb. The field was strong and featured the usual mix of plot horses and progressive handicappers. Zarkander duly came through to win under a very cool Ruby Walsh and looked to win without being fully extended. (Nicholls later said he was one of the horses with a dirty nose, and so he argues the win is worth more than the bare form). However, in screaming my contender Sire de Grugy up the home straight, I’d missed just how easily Darlan was travelling when he came down; and that this had seriously hampered Get Me Out Of Here who eventually finished 2nd. So some question marks about exactly what Zarkander achieved. Nevertheless, that was his first run this season and I remain pretty impressed.

So three races, three favourites. Placepots still alive, and a couple of winning bits and pieces between us. I was checking out the parade ring only to be disturbed by a Col, Bacchy and Paddy reciting chunks of monologue from Billy Liar. Colin doing a startlingly effective Tom Courtenay, “It was a big day for us, we had won the war in Ambrosia. Democracy was back once more in our beloved country” Or something similar. It led to a surreal but welcome remembrance of classic ‘60’s kitchen sink dramas, Alan Bates, John Osborne and Rita Tushingham. I don’t know where it came from but the benefit was finished as quickly as it had begun. We were back to the serious business of Bacchy attempting to land the third leg of his crazy treble with Colour Squadron in the novice hurdle.

He might have done it too. The Hobbs horse came down at the second last. My bet, Montbazon, came home strongly. But on closer inspection, there was plenty of evidence to suggest Colour Squadron was going the better of the two.  This was an informative race for a Class 4. The top four in the betting are all Cheltenham bound.  Colin’s working man’s accumulator had bitten the dust also. No need now for us to crowd round the black and white portable telly in the corner, showing grainy images of some obscure East Anglian track.

The good races kept coming. Even the 3-mile handicap hurdle featured Grand National and Coral Cup plot horses (both from the same stable) and the Scilly Isles Novice Chase had a few more Cheltenham clues about it now that the Jewson Novice Chase is becoming an established feature of Festival Thursday. For Non Stop looked like a worthy winner.

It had become very messy in the upstairs bar by then. The series of pints in quick succession between races had started to addle judgement and alter reality. We were determined to come out of the listed bumper, the concluding race on the card, well ahead of the bookies. I swear it was Paddy who suggested the combination exacta. Well, it sounded like a sure-fire winner to us. The strategy was simple: ‘get’ Givray Chambertain. Just like Barry Dennis’s long lamented Bismarks, we were taking on the favourite, over-hyped and too short in the market because of his relation to Grand Crus. Four horses made the perm. And apart from Village Vic, I can’t remember a single one of them!

But that’s largely academic, because we’d targeted the wrong horse anyway! As Bacchy later pointed out, the Pipe horse wasn’t even the favourite. We were so mullered that we hadn’t spotted the plunge on Shutthefrontdoor. This Jonjo O’Neill horse prevailed by a short head from Village Vic - who may have been backed separately by Paddy as well, though it was getting so blurry by that stage that I can’t quite grasp all the elusive details. Anyway, the plot was properly blown out of the water. Shutthefrontdoor’s owner, JP McManus had earlier brushed past me on the terracing. So we concluded, fingers tapping wise noses, that this was the horse that he had made the journey from Ireland to see. Easily forgetting that Darlan and Get Me Out Of Here, both of whom he owned, very nearly won the massively more valuable Betfair Hurdle.

There was nothing for it but a last pint….. And then a last round of double Johnny Walker Black Labels.

As we hit Paddington I was well up for a curry. Colin had to be cajoled a tad as he had an ETA at home. But a quick curry wouldn’t hurt, we said. We found a suitable curry house only after being turned away from another “because they weren’t sure if they were open or not”!

Then reality kicked in. As I was poring over the surprisingly inclusive Jalfrezi combinations, my fuzzy grey matter latched on to the fact that the family and I were heading up to my Dad’s that night. I was due to be on the asphalt carpet in 20 minutes time. “Shit lads, I’ve gotta go! Nice one, top day – absolute belter. Do it again soon. Catch you all later….” I left with serious form questions to answer. As Colin said, “Poor judgement of pace, mate!” Too right. How am I ever going to find the winner of the Supreme?

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Hide The Evidence

Oddschecker’s Festival Countdown nags away at me. Each clicking second tapping out an impatient rhythm, like fingertips drumming on a table.

“28 days, 13 hours and 22 minutes, Davoski. Is that all you’ve got?”

I haven’t added significantly to the ante-post portfolio. Clues have been a bit thin on the ground lately. I’ve had a couple of quid on Kid Cassidy for the Arkle before his last outing. Whilst he won well enough, he still looks a massive handful. He may be Grand Annual bound instead, though JP McManus’ only other live Arkle contender is Shot From The Hip who was well beaten on Sunday.  

Last weekend saw one of Ireland’s main trials weekends. In truth, a well-trained beagle would have struggled to sniff out high grade evidence. There was a poor turnout for the Hennessy Gold Cup and the Moriarty Chase. In the former, Quel Esprit showed a touch of class in a weak renewal; in the latter, Last Instalment franked his strong RSA credentials, but wouldn’t turn up if the ground came up fast. The Grade 1 novice hurdle served only to muddy the Supreme/Neptune markets, throwing out a 50-1 winner. And on Saturday at Naas, clear cut novice chase winner Bog Warrior was not obviously pointed at any Cheltenham target by his trainer who went on to say “I wouldn´t like to subject him to good ground”. He’s entered in all three principal novice chases.

But the rescheduling of Newbury’s snowbound Super Saturday meeting to next Friday is a welcome development. All being well I’ll be there to see at first hand a very high quality card in its own right and the last decent trials fixture before the Festival.

The airwaves are crackling with previews, tips and analysis right now. Here’s a selection:

Friday, 3 February 2012

A Burns Supper

An icy blast is putting paid to the racing right now. A screaming north-easterly, screwing down the mercury into negativity will probably be enough to freeze out most of the racing this weekend too, Fos Llas fleecy frost covers and all. And I don’t think they will be racing in Poland or the Ukraine any time soon. -30°C and counting earlier today, with the wind chill slicing off another 15-20 degrees.

Maybe abandonment might save me from further humiliation at the hands of the bookies. I notched up an impressive ten losers on the bounce last weekend. It was grim. But I’m not sure I’m in the mood for self-flagellation. My brain, crowded with pre-festival conundrums, scarcely has the capacity to pick over the grisly details. Suffice to say the losing sequence kicked off with a crippling 12-1 disqualified winner at 1.55 on Saturday and was only ended by frosted-off Sedgefield which, no doubt, saved Swinging Sultan’s blushes, at 4.15 on Sunday.

I’d prefer instead to dwell on some infinitely more pleasurable events from last weekend. Our good friends Clare & Neil’s hosted an excellent Burns Supper last Saturday night. The anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth was actually  25th January, but as Clare said, why have a party on a Wednesday?

I’d never been to a Burns Night before. There seemed to be an element of formality and performance about the event. Clare had sent through a piece for Mrs A to read at the dinner and we were advised to wear something tartan. On the basis that my Bay City Roller-trimmed jollies wouldn’t count, I thought I’d check out a clan tie. It’s interesting that the heraldic websites pride themselves in linking just about any surname to a Scottish clan. I smell a genealogical rat homing in on the lucrative American heritage market. And debutant Burns night attendees, possibly. Atkinson is a corruption of Aitken or Aicheson, an old north-country name, and is entwined in some convoluted historical twist with the ancient Gordon clan. So I borrowed a tie from my mate Gordon who is a member of the Cunningham clan. That seemed like an authentic solution to me!

Anyone ear-wigging the conversation during our drive up to Clare & Neil’s roomy Warwickshire farmhouse would have struggled to follow the thread.
“’Some canna eat meat’, no that’s not right.”
“Eh? Meat?”
“But we hae meat…”
Mrs A was learning by heart the Selkirk Grace. She almost had it off pat.

There were 12 supper guests in all, at least two of whom were genuine Scots. Neil was sporting his Murray tartan kilt and David his MacDonald clan colours. Neil is a finance man and has slipped easily into the high-flying corporate world as if born to it. I suspect he was. He’s probably secretly from Guildford or Billericay, and likely to make a guest appearance on TOWIE anytime soon.  

Clare, our hostess, is from a town just down the road from mine in Yorkshire (which is sort of how Mrs A and I know her and, indeed, each other….but that’s another story). Two of the other guests, Peter and Gloria were from near there too. So it was comforting to know that the good folk from God’s Own County outnumbered the Jocks at their own bash. Tsk. How predictably I’ve slipped in to negative regionalism. You’d think there was a vote on independence just around the corner….

Slowly, the mysterious traditions of the Burns celebration revealed themselves to me. The CD (I was only half expecting the massed pipes and drums of the Black Watch) cranked out Flower of Scotland as Clare brought in the haggis on a large platter held aloft. We stood and clapped it in. Neil was poised menacingly over the wee beastie and recited the Address To A Haggis with appropriate drama (An' cut you up wi' ready slicht,) and respect (The trembling earth resounds his tread). Then it was whipped away again by Clare and her teenage table staff to be sliced up and re-presented, accompanied by traditional neeps and tatties and introduced by Mrs A’s faultless Selkirk Grace. Bloody fine it was too.

I was expecting a couple of fine malts to make an entrance at some stage. Maybe after the main course or even later, after retiring to the lounge. But no, several bottles were already scattered across the dining table, having been cracked open to wash down the haggis. Well, it was rude not to join in at that point. The Cardhu was first rate and I think I sampled a fine Dalwhinnie before I let slip to Neil that I had a preference for the peaty malts of Islay and Skye. 

At this point he wheeled out a bottle of Ardbeg Supernova that he described as “almost undrinkable”. My curiosity was aroused. The blurb sounded good. Malt of the year in 2010; peated to more than 100 parts per million (no, I don’t know either..); 60.1% ABV; £81 a bottle. The aroma was over-powering before I got a single drop near my gob. The overall effect was how I imagined having a mouth filled with distilled heather, from the pollen heavy blooms to the earth-crusted roots, would be. There was too much intense, cloying flowery, muddy fire going on. Neil was right. But the website shines a different light. Check this garbage out:

“Ardbeg Supernova challenges the palate with a smoke and salt explosion - hot, sizzling and gristy sensations effervesce and explode on the tongue with a powerful peaty punch. Black and white crushed pepper pop with chilli and chocolate. Chewy sweet rolling tobacco, linseed oil and newly tanned leather roll backwards on a wave of brininess and burst of juicy lime marmalade. Cigar smoke builds up to a crescendo before drying out to bring dark roast earthy coffee, toasted almonds and liquorice root.”

Mrs A said she could still smell the stuff on me the next evening….

The celebration carried on with a series of readings and recitals. Clare provided an entertaining Immortal Memory, plucking some juicy nuggets from the life of Rabbie and provoking heated discussion about exactly how many sets of twins he fathered, how many were born out of wedlock and to whom. The whisky was taking its toll. By the time of the Toast to the Lassies and the Reply, the heckling had reached fever pitch and I genuinely had no idea what was going on anymore. The formal procedure of the evening had unravelled. It was every lad and lassie for himself. I do remember tucking in to Clare’s absolutely stonking steak and sausage pie with gusto and then after a wonderful dessert, delivering a short reading of Mr Burns’ finest. Not a word of which I understood. Though I did a fair impression of pretending to when challenged about its meaning from the other side of the table. Something to do with pride and nationality. Probably.

The evening cracked on with high humour and hearty conversation. Clare did herself proud. Wonderful entertainment. It finished with me challenging anyone left standing to games of tennis on the X Box Kinect. My backhand is something to behold at 2.45am. I was just reaching my peak when suddenly the room was empty. This happens to me a lot.

Our chance to lay-in on Sunday morning was snaffled with alacrity. Leaving the girls with Granny was our best decision of the weekend. Clare was back in the kitchen rustling up a hearty breakfast, but things were a bit more leisurely than the previous evening.

It was good to talk to Peter about his interest in horse racing. He’s bought a decent brood mare once owned by John Ferguson, bloodstock adviser to Sheik Mohammad and is looking forward to putting a two-year-old in training with David O’Meara later this year. Peter’s links with racing don’t end there. For many years he has held a pilot’s license and has built a useful business flying the top northern jockeys around to meetings in their packed schedule. He didn’t have a bad word for current Champ Paul Hanagan and previous Champ, now jockey’s rep, Kevin Darley. He also had some interesting stories to relate professional betting syndicates playing the delay between real time events at track-side and the reactions on exchange markets, for photo-finishes and the like. A high-octane way to earn a living based entirely on the judgement of the bloke on the line with a mobile in hand.

But soon it was time to head back home and grab an early night. Burns has been well remembered this weekend. Unlike the losing nags at Cheltenham and Leopardstown.