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?