Monday, 19 March 2012

The morning after

It was always going to be messy. Even before Paddy arrived to savour the final moments of his Fantasy Festival victory with double malts all round, we had made alarming progress through the Barley Mow's real ale selection. 

My head the next morning testified to the damage done by successive Doom Bars Glenlivets and Ardbegs. My phone testified to the struggles of getting home. A text to Bryn sent sometime late that night says, "Couldn't get off Euston tube platform. Couldn't work out where I was trying to get to." I do have a recollection of this. I'd tumbled out of the tube at the right station. But staring blankly at all the signs, arrows and information, my brain couldn't process any of the information. I simply stood on the platform waiting for a revelation. I've only done that journey about three thousand times.

Evidently I did make it home. Mrs A says she heard me bouncing off the passage walls; fumbling, dropping and then finding the right keys; followed by a lengthy silence whilst I disappeared into the downstairs loo. Then I attempted the stairs. She says I didn't turn on the lights. I'm a considerate drunk. I ponderously crawled my way over each step in the dark and stumbled into the bedroom. "You can turn on the light if you want", said Mrs A. "I think I'm a bit the worse for wear", I apparently and rather unnecessarily replied. And then disappeared into the upstairs loo this time. On my emergence, she had already decided to feign sleep. I was all set for a rather good blather about my top day out. But it was not to be. Mrs A had seen the signs.

Looks like I wasn't the only one. Colin and Paddy struggled to get home, falling over a good few times. They had stopped to ask some Italian tourists for directions to the tube, only to find they were actually stood right outside it. This was not our collective finest moment. 

The day's racing was right up there though. Nick had reserved a table bang in front of the big screen in the corner of the boozer. Absolute quality. There was even talk of nibbles arriving after the Gold Cup. But in the end that was simply an organisational step too far. 

I was on Fantasy Festival duty until Steve's arrival during the Martin Pipe Hurdle. In truth it was settled a long tome before then. Somehow Paddy had ignored all the form lines and advice about sensible betting to lump on Countrywide Flame with about 20% of his pot. The going conditions must have brought out a transformation in this horse because he flew home and trounced rivals who had given him a good kicking in previous encounters. Colin screamed "That's Paddy's horse! Paddy's horse!", as jockey Dougie Costello milked the applause. I don't begrudge Dougie. He missed the meeting last year through injury and this was another victory for the north in a vintage meeting for us. But I do begrudge Paddy. He's a novice! Who is he to come into our precious competition and rip it up by the roots before he's served a respectful apprenticeship? We simply looked round at each other in resignation. Askance. Aghast. A bit gutted. 

Not looking too gutted, it has to be said.....
Paddy did indeed win, but there were a couple of twists and turns along the way. Firstly, Katie, another novice, put herself right in the frame with a mega-punt on Brindisi Breeze who was not so much flying the flag for Scotland in the Albert Bartlett as launching it into the stratosphere. This was a thrilling win by a horse confined so far to the bogs of the northern circuit and whose relentless, insistent galloping repelled the late thrust of Willie Mullins, Graham Wylie and a shed load of cash behind short-priced favourite Boston Bob. One to enjoy next season.

Then Bryn timed his late effort to the split-second with his maxi-bet Synchronised who won the Big One. Is it harsh to say this year's Gold Cup renewal was an anti-climax? That's the after taste for me, partly because the Kauto Star-Long Run showdown failed to materialise. So often these top billings don't. Kauto will surely be retired now and there is no ignominy in him being pulled up here. There's also case to say we've been spoiled in recent years by classy horses winning with style. This year was ground out by the stayers. Synchronised was miles off the pace at the 2nd last and being given the hurry-up by McCoy. 

So Bryn and Katie were both making concerted efforts to reel in Paddy. But they needed to find a winner or hit the frame with a big priced outsider in the Grand Annual to overhaul him. Paddy played it cool, minimum stakes, and duly cantered away with the spoils. 

Paddy also took a sartorial revenge on Bacchy for some earlier Facebook commentary on his Festival chances....

Chancer, dreamboy, tourist. Looking good Bacchy
There is a sub-plot to the Fantasy Festival. If we collectively end with more wedge than we start, then we have bust the bookie and Bacchy must buy us a bottle of fine malt whisky. It has not happened yet. This year, with two bettors well over one-grand mark, Nick and I quickly worked out that if we minimum-staked on the last race, we would finally bust the bookie. A carefully hatched plot within a plot, a subtle conspiracy within a plan. 

And it would have worked too. Except that I stared at those big prices on the TV screen with eyes like dinner plates. Tara Royal could win this race easily. And at 25-1 the competition would be mine....all mine, hahaha! So I broke the pact. I split on my mate like a greedy gold-digger.

When it came to the final reckoning, Nick soon realised what I'd done. He was apalled. His sneer cut me down. Bacchy roared with laughter and all I could do was ruefully stroke my chin and grin apologetically. Treachery! 

Fantasy Festival is quite rightly the intense focus on Gold Cup Friday with the lads around and the beers flowing. But real punting still happens. I had a much better Friday than either of the previous two days. Salsify was a good winner in the Foxhunters and I picked up a proper place payout on Via Galilei at 40-1 in the County Hurdle. Make A Track in the Martin Pipe made another frame contribution to a good day. 

But it wasn't only the Gold Cup that was an anticlimax. I don't fret and worry about the Festival for months to then win the pesky Foxhunters and a podium finish each way consolations. For that reason, this goes down as a pretty poor Festival, yielding a small loss. Of the proper bets in the big races that could shell decent dividends, Rock On Ruby was my solitary success. Those are the results I crave, not the amateur riders' gongs.

The real flaw in the strategy is more obvious than ever this year. Take out all those speculative ante-post bets, even the one that paid out (for merely a place), and I would have been easily in profit. The best wagers were those struck as non-runner, no bets in the first week after the majority of firms started offering this incentive. The analysis is simple. Ante posts are dead. Long live NRNBs. (And Lucky 15s of course.) (And the odd accumulator wouldn't hurt.) (And if there was a nailed on ante-post certainty, it would be rude not to....) 

Until next year, chaps. 

Friday, 16 March 2012

Never Enough

Freed of the discipline demanded by getting to the races on time, fed and watered, I found I was running late on Thursday. Despite the absence public transport rigours, wifi requirements and the like, it was 1.15pm when I left Waitrose with provisions for the night's meal safely stowed. That was cutting it too fine. And yet there were still people arriving, waving extensive shopping lists, plus a store full of people behind me. There was no way they were going to get back for kick off at 1.30pm. What were they playing at? Well, that was their problem. Finally I was settled.
Home comforts
I love Peddlers Cross to bits. He gave me my biggest single winning bet when he landed what is now the Neptune two years ago. But there is clearly something amiss at the moment. The problems incurred in the Kempton race when trounced by Sprinter Sacre are obviously not yet resolved, although McCain is indicating a return to hurdles next season. But the winner, Sir Des Champs was deeply impressive, particularly the way he powered up the hill when kicked on by Davy Russell. He was immediately the subject of quotes at around 12-1 for next year's Gold Cup.

The award for the biggest grin of the day surely went to Jimmy Nesbitt after his syndicate's Riverside Theatre landed the Ryanair. When asked before the race whether he'd had a bet, Jimmy twinkled his Irish eyes and remarked "I may have had a little tickle..." It wouldn't have been much fun being around AP McCoy afterwards. Albertas Run put in a wonderful round of jumping and was winning everywhere but on the line. This was the best of steeplechasing: a searching, brutal gallop and a compelling, breathless finish.

What felt like only a few short minutes later and I was on my haunches in front of the telly, nose scraping the screen, baying my lungs out to get that beautiful little mare Voler La Vedette up the hill and past the Big Buck's. This is a not uncommon scenario. And one that my girls have taken to exploiting. If they have friends round on a Saturday afternoon, they'll sneak into the lounge doorway and shake with mirth at my helpless contortions at the mercy of these equine demons. ROFL could have been invented for these performances.

My urgings were not sufficient on this occasion, however. Although Andrew Lynch pulled Voler right over to the stands rail in order to keep her away from the intimidating Big Buck's, the three-time World Hurdle Champ made it four. "Where are you going?" I screamed, memories of Cotton Mill's refusal yesterday uppermost in my mind. And for a moment I thought she was going to succeed where a long and commendable series of challengers had failed. But it was not to be. Big Buck's is an iron horse with deep wells of reserves. A worthy champion to be savoured and revered.

Daughter No 2 came in after school, just as I was weeping at the 2nd fence exit of Notus De La Tour in the Festival Plate. I had quite fancied him for that.
"Daddy, are you watching racing again?"
 I don't think she was impressed.
"Yes, my love. Cheltenham goes on for four days. Good isn't it?" 
She eyed me sprawling all over the sofa, cups of coffee littering the table. Papers strewn on the floor. Laptop beaming to no-one.
"Have you done any work today?"
There really is nowhere to hide!

It was a poor day on the betting front, but the most rewarding in terms of dramatic action. I've only got Voler La Vedette's stirring place money to show for my efforts though and I'm now looking for the greatest come back since vinyl:

Triumph: Darroun, 14-1 e-w. The Irish form has crept in under the radar a little as the big four British horses have been taking each other on. Must have strong place claims at least.

County Hurdle: Via Galilei, 40-1. Outsider, but with SkyBet paying 6 places I'm happy to side with this Gary Moore who, with a generous interpretation of form, could still be progressive. Also Raya Star, 14-1 e-w who has done nothing wrong all season (does that give me the grand slam of cliches now?) Solid and consistent.

Albert Bartlett: I'm not sure I can see past Boston Bob here, but I'll side with Mount Benbulben on the basis of price and that his reversal with Boston Bob last time out was because he wasn't right. Straws. Clutching.

Gold Cup: Weird Al, 20-1 e-w (ante-post) and Burton Port 8-1.

Foxhunters: Salsify, 6-1. Because Marten Julian said so.

Conditionals' Hurdle: Make A Track at 14-1 e-w. A 40 to follow horse who has shown a good level of form and already been campaigned in decent handicaps. Trip will suit.

Grand Annual: Kid Cassidy, 6-1. Fancied him for the Arkle and am sticking with him here.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Make or break

I got a good night’s kip once I’d worked out how to turn the air conditioning from its 2-minute-blast-3-minute-rest default setting to simply off. The fumbling for glasses and trying to read instructions through blurry eyes was worth it.

Good catch up with Colin and Anne over an eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet breakfast, with RP, Schedule of Shame and smart phone with open betting apps spread across a six-berth table. Does the start to the day really get any better than this?

Colin and Anne were heading home today, despite my best attempts to persuade them that another dose of festival mayhem would be equally as good for the soul as the previous day. They were willing (Colin more so), but commitments are commitments. We’d had a blast.

Anne, Col, Nev
Colin planned to be back in plenty of time for the opener on the box and was first in with his Fantasy Festival selections. I haven’t mentioned the FF yet this year. Bacchy’s genius brainchild of a punting competition, now in it’s thirteenth year, is as red-hot as ever. Colin will be there with the rest of the guys in the boozer on Friday for the final reckoning. For now it’s all about wind up and bluff. Col’s mate and new entrant Paddy is clearly not with the pace. That morning he lodged a £19.75 win bet for odds-on Sizing Europe. What’s that all about?

Getting to the track was as easy as yesterday was hard. The bus sailed through the town centre and I had plenty of time to choose my placepot and enjoy the first Guinness of the day perched at the top of the temporary stand. The sun was breaking through the haze to illuminate pockets of Cleeve Hill. I wish it would do the same for the four-miler.

Nev arrived bedecked in a baseball hat and Betfair scarf, clutching a mini-Racing Post pull-out (fantastic innovation) and placepot tickets. “Awright Dave!”. The gaff he’s sorted at Bourton-on-the-Water sounds top notch. He'd brought is laptop down and last night had it hooked up to the telly and had watched the footie. This morning he'd been poncing around his room whilst Spotify cranked out The Stranglers' Peaches through the telly's surround sound speakers. Today is Ladies Day at the track. How appropriate. As if any further evidence was needed about how well set he is, Nev tells me his Italian landlady has been simpering after him this morning. “Oh, Mr price, I remembered from yesterday that you like warm milk on your cornflakes. I’ve heated it up for you. And toast instead of fried bread I think is your preference.” The man is smoother than Caffreys.

Day 2 is my make-or-break day. My stats tell me that I need to land something chunky or I will struggle. The back-to-back Neptune Hurdle and RSA Chase are my most successful across the whole Festival.

Teaforthree leads on the first circuit. He led pretty much for the full four miles.
Predictably, I was potless in the opening marathon. But Nev had backed the favourite, Teaforthree and was off to a flyer. I opposed the favourite, Simonsig, in the Neptune and was on Cotton Mill backed only last week at 16-1, now about 8 and Sous Les Cieux at 14-1, now about 5½  The latter put in a limp performance, but Cotton Mill was tanking with Simonsig tucked in his slipstream, miles clear from their tame pursuers, when he crashed through the wings of the penultimate flight, apparently trying to run out. I was distraught. Inconsolable. Nev had never seen me like this and didn’t quite know how to deal with it. So we went for a beer. What I hadn’t quite grasped – because it is not always easy to do so in the maelstrom of noise and movement down by the rail – is that Simonsig had absolutely flown home and was not stopping at the post. My boy would have had a mighty, mighty battle on his hands to have won. But this realisation came much later. Still, I’d rather have lost that way than this.

But the roller-coaster analogy isn’t in the top five Festival clich├ęs for nothing. In the very next race I made a bit of a comeback. Whilst Nev was holding his head in his hands at the non-staying performance of Grand Crus (we knew, didn’t we?) I was watching Call The Police overtake him and land me some more than handy place wedge. That’s not normally something to get particularly excited about, although the 25-1 I took was decent enough. But through a large dose of incompetence, I’d managed to back him twice on consecutive days in the early days of NRNB. Backed him once, forgot to note in down. Looked at the Schedule the next day. No reference to the bet, so backed him again.

Bobs Worth takes the applause
Just then, the police turned up. Well, this was too much for Nev. “Excuse me constable. We’ve just won some money on Call The Police! Can we have a photo?” You couldn’t script this stuff! 

Call The Police! 
Call The Police Again!
Grand Crus’ defeat had mullered Nev’s big double with Sizing Europe in the Champion Chase. So he dithered a bit before backing Finian’s Rainbow and then blamed me for sowing the seed about this being a perfect exacta race. So he chucked the reigning champ to the forecast to fill second spot. And that was how it finished. But there were a fair few incidents along the way. The Wishfull Thinking fall looked bad from where we were and it was not at all obvious why the jockeys had to take such late evasive action to avoid the last fence. For a brief moment, with both jockeys locked into a heads down drive, it looked like the horses were gong to plough into a dolled-off fence.  Explanations emerged later, but in the middle of the action, it’s not always clear what has gone on.

Nev was doing a little jig about his Finian’s bet. And then I reminded him about the exacta. He did another little jig. And then I said that nearly everyone’s Fantasy Festival double-joker wedge had crashed and burned on either Grand Crus or just now with Sizing Europe. At this, he was on his knees, goggle-eyed, screaming to the sky and double-fist pumping like he’d won the lottery. Never under-estimate the importance of this competition!

For both of us, there were a couple of 2nd and 3rd spots and we collected some place wedge as a result. But no more histrionics. I would love to see Get me Out Of Here go for the big level-weights races. In the Coral Cup he humped top weight into 2nd spot and was almost inevitably beaten by a plot horse from much lower in the handicap. On this occasion it was Donald McCain’s Son Of Flicka. Cue a text from Colin. “Anne’s only bet of the day: Son of Flicka at 25-1”. She’d cleaned up with Cinders And Ashes from the same stale the day before. She has a hotline to the McCain nerve-centre, surely!

And that was pretty much that for Day 2. I was home in very civilised time. Nev had another night in genteel Bourton and was hoping he wouldn’t fall asleep on the bus back, like the night before, when a nice old lady he’s befriended woke him up as they entered the town. Rock n Roll, Nev. See you Friday.

Thursday's losers:

Jewson: Peddlers Cross. No value, I know but I simply can't let him go off unbacked. Though this is absolutely not a festival banker.

Pertemps: Pineau De Re, backed at NRNB 33-1 e-w last week before Pricewise put it up last night. I swear! (He was one of my 40 to follow horses two years ago.)

Ryanair: Blazing Tempo, NRNB 25-1e-w.

World Hurdle: Voler la Vedette 16-1 e-w, Mourad 16-1 e-w. Neither are confiedent bets.

Byrne Group Plate: Notus De La Tour 14-1 e-w.

KIm Muir: No bet yet.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Rock n Roll

"Do you think these shoes will be comfortable enough?" A blank look from Mrs A. "Wonder how many pens I'll need." Another withering glance. "Am I starting to babble?" I inquired. "I think it may be time to go dear", came the polite reply.

So I did. And despite some appalling logistical barriers, I made it in time. Unfathomable queueing systems at Birmingham New Street and an hour long shuttle (term used loosely) bus crawl through Cheltenham led to a frazzled and manic arrival.

Colin and Anne had only just arrived too. But Nev had rocked up in good time, cased the bars and bookies and even pointed me to the loos. I'm only on my 12th visit to the Festival!

At one point we lost Col somewhere by the Guinness bar. Nev and I were shouting him at the top of our voices, blasting the ears of a group of girls nearby. We finally attracted his attention and he mouthed something in reply, but we didn't catch it. I could just about make out the reactions of those girls we had screamed at. 'Bless. Three fat, bald, deaf old blokes having a nice day out.'

Rock On Ruby was quite simply the difference between success and failure for me. My only winner of the day, I was able to celebrate with Colin who has been admirer of the horse all season. Together we shouted the place down.

Rock On my son. 
Noel Fehily gave the horse a great ride, moving smoothly throughout and cranking up the pace, arguably catching the turn-of-foot merchants, Binocular and Hurricane Fly, on the hop. But this wasn't just about their bad tactics, the Rock was easing away at the post.

Sprinter Sacre blew away any bridle-horse doubts with an awesome display. He's the real deal. You heard it here first folks(!).

Other selections ran well without really threatening to bring home the bacon. Shop DJ suffered in a slowly run race and a bunch finish which did not play to her strengths. But no hard luck stories anywhere else.

A good day for trainer Donald McCain too. 1st, 2nd and 3rd places. The two above him in the trainers' championship didn't do too badly either. And Anne did OK by Mr McCain too, courtesy of his 10-1 winner in the Supreme, Cinders And Ashes.

Day 1 of the Festival is very special, with the famous roar as the tapes go up for the Supreme. I wouldn't miss it for the world. We had a scream. Anne and Colin both had winning days and Nev plundered the Sprinter Sacre evens offer earlier in the week.

He's out to play up his winnings today. Bookies beware: this is the man who landed Gold Cup and Grand National exactas in the same season!

And the results are in....
Day two road to glory:

Four miler: Alfie Spinner win, 9-1; Our Island, 33-1 e-w.

Neptune: Sous Les Cieux 14-1 e-w (ante post); Cotton Mill 16-1.

RSA Chase: Call The Police, 25-1 e-w.

Champion Chase: Realt Dubh 25-1 e-w

Coral Cup: Get Me Out Of Here 8-1 win; Dare Me 14-1 e-w.

Fred Winter: no bet yet.

Bumper: New Years Eve 6-1 win; The New One 13-1.

Good luck all.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Here we go!

I have been struggling to focus on the day job over the last week. It's always the same just before Cheltenham. The anticipation kicks into overdrive and my mind skitters like some free-spirited arachnid over the highs and lows of previous festival adventures.

My unhealthy introspection about the ideal punting strategy usually reaches self-flagellation by this stage. Agitated fingers worry-beading over the imbalance between too many/too few ante-posts; shaky non-runner, no bet combinations; and too little/too much reliance on a day of race wagers. There are no cool-headed sure-handed bookie-beating plots here. An MRI scan (I've been watching Casualty again) of what passes for my noodle would resemble tail lights at spaghetti junction in stop-motion photography.

I've been hanging on six day declarations and breaking festival news more firmly than a suction-cupped mountain climber cramponned to the ice scree. Every new festival tweet or web headline sends me fumbling to Oddschecker for contractions, drifts and new opportunities. By the time I've scrolled through all 27 markets it's time to start at the top again. Helter skelter...

There's no shortage of advice out there to help me navigate these choppy waters. YouTube preview evenings, tipster blogs and a stunningly useless video post from Mick Fitzgerald, SportingBet's 'Racing Ambassador' who showed about as much insight as a favourite backer at Romford. I'm the mug for listening to this 'Henderson-or-the-favourite-preferably-both' analysis. His one departure from that routine was to 'take a punt on the ground being soft and back Rubi Light in the Ryanair'. I can safely say that will be the worst piece of advice you could take this drought-affirming week.

There's some better quality material available though. Marten Julian's thoroughly enjoyable Cheltenham Bulletin is one I read as soon as Bacchy forwarded it. Mark Howard's update is always worth a read too, particularly the Irish angle via Declan Phelan. So I've just got the Official Cheltenham Guide, The Racing UK Festival Debate and the William Hill Preview to go, sitting over there on the bedside table, silently mouthing more bankers at me.

At least the logistics have come together. After the Royal Mail lost my original tickets, I ordered some more and printed them myself. Then the original ones turned up three and a half weeks after being posted. Rubbish. At least I can get a refund. There's one result in the bag already! Sort of.

I'll be meeting Colin and his Mrs, Anne, together with another of the Fantasy Festival gang, Nev outside the Best Mate enclosure as the Grandstand clock strikes high noon. All three are Festival virgins, believe it or not. As an old hand, I'm happy to be mid-wife to their deflowering. I think I'm mixing metaphors again. And not in a good way....

Nev nearly made it to Prestbury Park for the 2008 Festival, only to be turned back at Paddington on the morning of Day 2. Heavy storms had ripped through the Cotswolds damaging the course and high winds made the site unsafe. The remaining three days' worth of races were shoe-horned into two. But Nev didn't make it for either. He had a scare this year too. A couple of months ago he casually mentioned that he'd booked up three nights accommodation in the heart of Cheltenham for £30 a night. I smelled a rat. Add another 0 on and I'd have believed it. "What dates have you got there Nev?", I inquired. "13th to 15th Feb, mate". "Nev, that's the wrong month! The Festival is 13th to 16th March!"

But he's landed right on his feet and has berthed himself in a fine looking B&B in genteel Bourton-on-the-Water. On the right days.

Colin's had the Festival in his sights for many a long year. As I write, he will be nose-deep in The Racing Forum, cross-checking stats and facts. Col is a thorough trends man and will have information at his fingertips on the morrow.

And now the final declarations for Day 1 are out. Further confirmation that my ante-post policy has lurched from acceptable to bloody awful. It's a long time since I've gone to war with such a meagre armoury of decent long range bets. My knee-jerk plundering of the NRNB markets has smacked of panic. On the plus side, three of my 40 to follow horses, rather belatedly, came to my rescue on Saturday: Ambion Wood at 20-1, Dover's Hill at 8-1 and place money on Sire De Grugy backed at 11-1 each-way. Badly needed contributions to the fighting fund.

Here is my Day 1 portfolio:

Supreme: Tetlami. A survivor from my first bout of ante-post punting at 20-1 e-w. Happy enough with this. I would hope to see him in the mix. I've supplemented this with Montbazon (a 40 to follow horse) at 8-1. This is a very open betting heat and I've struggled to split three of four at the head of the market. I thought I'd found an angle with Hinterland at 40-1 (NRNB), but he was pulled out this morning. So I'll stick with these two.

Arkle: Here I've been savaged. The defections of Peddlers Cross and then Kid Cassidy this morning have hit me like a freight train. I'm licking my wounds with a valueless  Al Ferof punt, in the hope that Sprinter Sacre is, after all, a bridle horse and gets found out by Joe Tizzard's prairie galloping atop a lit-up Cue Card. I imagine I will succumb to some exacta action on course as well. I won't be making my fortune in the Arkle this year.

3-mile handicap Chase: I like Zarrafakt here. Won really well at Wincanton last month and went close the time before at Newbury. Ground and trip should all be fine and the rise in weights can be overcome. At 16-1 its a fair each-way shout in a tricky - as usual - race. Money is flying in for the Pipe plot horse, The Package, who went very close two years ago. I'm also a big fan of Our Mick from the McCain yard. Admirable attitude and all that. Again, money has come for this boy, so I'll keep my powder dry and try to find a double-figure price tomorrow.

Champion Hurdle: Backed at 25-1 ante-post, the price of Oscars Well has contracted regularly since January. In truth he can be no more than a place prospect on all known form this season, though I have convinced myself that he's run better in each race. But he will have his ideal going and a strong pace pretty much guaranteed by Overturn. I've backed Rock On Ruby at 14-1 each way. A horse I like and with that strong pace his stamina should come into play. Hurricane Fly will win if he's at his best. Zarkander is the one who may improve again.

Cross Country Chase: I won't be getting very heavily involved. Maybe a fun bet on last year's winner Sizing Australia.

David Nicholson Mares Hurdle: Quevega is my idea of a festival banker. But at these prices, not one I'll be backing. One of my 40TF horses, Shop DJ, has been running quite nicely this season and was given a winning prep by trainer Peter Fahey at Dundalk recently. I backed her last week at 33-1 each way, really as a place shot. I may go in again on 'w/o the fav' markets where she's 10-1 or better.

Pulteney Novice Chase: Nothing fancy here. I've backed Bless The Wings at 9-1 straight win. In an uncomplicated strategy, I think Alan King's horse has very strong course, going and distance form and should be up to winning this. Love the profile of Hunt Ball as a handicapper going right through the grades. But off 12 stone, this will be a tall order.

And as if that's not enough, my traditional Day 1 grab-a-grand-crazy-each-way-acca rests on: Galileos Choice, Our Mick, Rock On Ruby and Triolo D'Alene. If that little lot comes in, I'm trousering thirteen grand.

Hahahahaharrrr!!!!!! Here we go.

Sunday, 4 March 2012


I’ve been slightly distracted from Festival preparations this week. Many reasons, I think, but the 40th birthday bash on Friday night was a contributory factor. “Fancy dress” it said on the invitation. “1970’s”. “Hoho” I had replied. “I’ll just dig something out of the back of the wardrobe” I wittily replied. The same joke had been attempted by at least half the guests, it transpired. Humour is a shared experience I always say.

I thought about going as Red Rum. But even the town’s well-stocked, overworked costume emporium couldn’t meet my exacting requirements for the right shade of chestnut coat and sheepskin noseband. So 2nd choice was a barely passable tribute to Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osbourne, complete with a plastic bat in my pocket for head-biting photo opportunities….of which, sadly, there are none to report. Mrs A had a startlingly good punk makeover and would have given Souixsie Sue a run for her money in an identity parade.

Mind you, things nearly ended in disaster before we even arrived at the party. Walking down the passage my nylon wig became entangled with the metal gate and I had a good five minutes tug of war before I could extricate myself. Mrs A was no help, doubled over with mirth, hugging her convulsing, ripped t-shirt-clad-ribs and tears ruining her carefully applied black eye-liner. There's still a fair chunk of the stuff wrapped around the latch showing distinct signs of split-ends.

I gave the fire pit outside the venue a wide berth, given the incendiary potential of the plastic mop atop my head and recent clumsiness with the gate. But plenty of people were making good use of both that and the adjacent mouth-watering hog roast. We’d arrived with Bex and GC, doing splendid impressions of The Fonz and Hippy Chick. Inside, we found all manner of 70’s refugees. I was not alone: at least three Ozzies (with whom I respectfully and unspokenly knuckle-touched), supplemented by two Angus Youngs for lead guitar duties, Kiss’s Gene Simmons on bass and Aladdin Sane-era Bowie on backing vocals. That’s a super group I’d love to see. Add to that mix, ¾ of Abba, a few white Jacksons and a whole suburb of Village People and you start to get a flavour of the night. Simon, he of the 40th birthday, had put on a great event. Food, drinks and a floor show to savour: a full-on Saturday Night Fever LED tiled dance floor. Quality! It saw plenty of feverish moves and serious shapes too. Many happy returns, mate.

That and other work priorities explain a small drift in my Festival focus. For instance it was only yesterday that I realized my tickets for Tuesday and Wednesday of The Greatest Show On Earth™, purchased from the website a few weeks ago, had not actually arrived. On talking to the helpful gentleman from Jockey Club Ticket Sales, it sounds like they are lost in the post. Postal deliveries round here have been rubbish since the local sorting office was closed. Thanks a bunch Royal Mail. Looks like I’ll have to buy more, with precious little chance of refunds.

More evidence of poor attention to detail: I haven’t really taken advantage of the now widespread non runner, no bet offers. This is something I’ve struggled with in previous years too. I tend to back ante-post because I’m seeking that extra slice of value and am happy to factor in the likelihood of not getting a run into those bets. This means expecting a proportion of my portfolio to be non-runners. When I say ‘happy’, I mean realistic. I can’t be phlegmatic when the ante-posts get clobbered and I’m pathetically grateful to get to the track with a few live ones in the bag. So far, this ante-post season, I’ve lost a few – Hold Fast (Queen Mother), Hidden Cyclone (RSA Chase) and Broadbackbob (Neptune). Peddlers Cross now also looks like a serious Arkle worry. On the other hand, Oscars Well (Champion Hurdle) and Tetlami (Supreme) look handy at the moment, whilst others are still likely to run but probably not at significantly shorter odds than I’ve got them (Voler La Vedette, Weird Al, Realt Dubh), but there’s still some time for that to change. Overall, this is just about par for the course.

But NRNB is a different conundrum. And it’s a growing trend. Each season the bookies drive turnover by offering non-runner, no bet earlier than the year before. NRNB prices are nearly always significantly shorter because of the money back get-out. But there are still options for the value punter. As Oddschecker’s Festival blog points out, “one angle is to look for horses you think are doubtful to run, but that you think would have a great chance if they did. Because there's been no money for those horses (as few people think they're going to run) bookmakers often don't focus enough on them - as a result they can be over priced in the NRNB markets.” A classic example for me is Willie Mullins’ Blazing Tempo. This is a tough mare at around 2 to 2 ½ miles. She’s entered in the David Nicholson Mares race where her odds are 20-1 and the Champion Chase where she is 25-1. I’ve taken both those NRNB prices and would be happy to see her lining up in either event where there is little strength in depth.

In a bid to raise my game, I’ve augmented my Champion Hurdle chances with a NRNB each way on Rock on Ruby. And if you fancy Bog Warrior in any of the three races in which he’s entered, then NRNB at double figure prices is clearly the way to go too. Despite his trainer’s declaration that he won’t be risked on good ground, the 10-1 NRNB in the Jewson has tempted me in. Rain is forecast at Prestbury Park next week…

Festival previews are in full swing now. This is another growing trend, as is their wider reporting in the YouTube and twitter-blogosphere. The value of the views on offer is a fairly mixed. Separating the gossip and rumour from gold-plated information requires the wisdom of Solomon and a fine grained bullshit sieve. I’m also getting a bit fed up of twinkly eyed, winsome smiling trainers who are happy to fob off the betting public whilst tipping their owners the wink and feeding exchange insider dealings. Forums just seem to be another medium in which to do this.

On the other hand, they can be very entertaining and the key is not to take them too seriously. More grist to the mill and all that.

And when my Festival nerves get the better of me and I start jibbering like a confused fool with crumbling logic resting on a series of crazy accumulator perms, I take strength from the wisdom of Ozzy who once said “It could be worse….I could be Sting.” Less comforting, the big man from Birmingham also said “Out of everything I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.”

There’s enough mindless punting just round the corner to make Ozzy look sane.