Saturday, 28 April 2012

Flat Chance - 20 to follow this summer

Finally turning my mind to the flat. In the week before the first classics of the season, these twenty to follow indicate a belated start, to be honest.  But I'm finally getting down to business after a soggy, partially successful Punchestown. Looking forward to Sandown this afternoon, where Dover's Hill can end my jumps campaign on a high note. A breakdown of the 40TF campaign will follow at some point soon.

In the meantime, here a those twenty flat-trackers to see me through to Autumn:

Aazif - John Dunlop
Encouraging reappearance at Newmarket the other week in a race that wouldn't entirely have suited. Seen as a Cup horse in time and has a "likeable way of galloping" according to my adviser.

Bear Behind - Tom Dascombe
Sprinter who, as a three year old, looks like he may hold his own against older horses. First past the post in a race later awarded to Hamish McGonagall at Musselburgh. Decent 2nd at Sandown yesterday amongst his own age group.

Beggars Banquet - George Baker
Being quietly brought along by a trainer with a growing reputation and should be interesting to follow when earning his handicap rating next time out.

Born To Sea - John Oxx
Three-parts brother to Sea The Stars and the first hype horse in this list. Blistering debut performance on quick ground. Found out next time on softer going (and later found to be lame), but will surely be mustard given his favoured conditions.

Hoof It - Mick Easterby
Lovely, gutsy sprinter who showed massive improvement last year and sure to be a big player in Grade 1s at 5f and 6f this season.

Iron Step - Nicky Vaughan
Handicapper who completed a three-timer last back-end, two of them on the all-weather, but has good enough turf form too. Should be interesting this Summer on good ground at around a mile on the basis that there is still more to come.

Jupiter Storm - Gary Moore
A Brighton winner! Won his maiden at the trainer's local track handily and has an entry in the Tattersalls Millions Cup in June. Runner up in that maiden has won since.

Mawasem - Sir Michael Stoute
Given the archetypal tender ride in a Newmarket maiden earlier this month with starting odds of 25-1. Finished comfortably enough and should some seamless late progress. One to be on the right side of later in the season.

Mazeydd - Roger Varian
Varian had a good debut season last year, very consistent except when I backed his horses. This one looks a progressive sort for middle distances. Has form on good-soft.

Mince - Roger Charlton
Looks useful, despite heavy ground defeat to Ballesteros last season. That one has a real preference for bad ground and Mince is taken to progress well on a decent surface. Sprint trips or possibly up to 7f.

Modun - Saeed bin Suroor
A horse that never truly delivered on his potential last year whilst with Stoutey. It remains to be seen whether Suroor is really the man to deliver the goods, but I had to have Modun in this list anyway.

Out Do - Luca Cumani
One of many Cumani potential handicappers that made the long-shortlist. Out Do ran creditably in a big sales race earlier this month, following maidens last year where the form stands up. Will now find suitable targets in the handicap sphere where his trainer excels.

Sea Moon - Sir Michael Stoute
Top horse from a top yard. His most eye-catching performance was in the Great Voltigeur at York when winning powerfully. Interference and bad tactics stymied his chances in the St Leger, but showed at Churchill Downs what a class hose he is when pushing St Nicholas Abbey all the way from a bad draw.

Somethingboutmary - Kevin Ryan
Won an early season maiden well and with jockey Amy Ryan sitting pretty comfortably, left the impression that there was plenty more to come.

Stripped Bear - Tom Dascombe
Behaved badly when favourite for a Wolverhampron maiden, but had previously shown good form on her debut only four days previously. Assuming she learns to settle, she should pick up some races.

Tawaasul - William Haggas
Encouraging late season maiden debut, 2nd behind more experienced horse. Could be anything, as they say, but she's already been given a fancy Coronation Stakes entry.

Temple Meads - Ed McMahon
Great 2-y-o form, but frustratingly off the track all last season with niggles and dithering by the trainer about targets. He finally decided life was too tough for this 3-y-o sprinter and put him away. His appearance in this list is a bigger gamble than many. The darkest of horses.

Thimaar - John Gosden
Hinted at promise last season and began to deliver on that at Kempton earlier this mont when an impressive, staying-on winner of the two-mile Queen's Prize. More to come from a genuine cup horse contender. 

Trumpet Major - Richard Hannon
Just loved the way he bolted up in the Craven. He seems to be a bit unfashionable and is easily compared to the stable's Dick Turpin. I like the way this one has progressed.

Welsh Bard - Sir Mark Prescott
Had to have a Prescott handicap scammer in this list. Here's one the fits the profile. Campaigned over trips much shorter than optimum in a short space of time. Will be of interest when stepped up.

Monday, 23 April 2012


It’s all happening. Big stuff too.

First up, before I get to the racing, check out the eggs in the bird box! By the power of spy-cam, we’ve been able to nosy-in on a pair of blue tits building their nest outside our bathroom window. Now that the female has laid a clutch of eggs, we can expect hatchlings in a couple of weeks.

The responsibility is almost overwhelming. There are dangers everywhere: The magpie loitering on the fence anticipating a scrawny snack. Next door’s otherwise timid cat licking his lips, darting eyes tracking the birds flitting around the box aperture. I’ve ordered a catapult and intend to stand guardian at the back door when push comes to shove. Agincourt, Agincourt, Agincourt!

Next, a massive shout out to my mate Bryn who smashed up the London Marathon yesterday, despite a pair of dodgy knees and a craving for late night doners. Times have changed since I staggered round the course 14 years ago. He could be tracked live all the way round via the tag on his shoe. And on pitching up at the ExCel arena to complete the registration last week, he got a bottle of London Pride in his goodie bag. That’s what I call progress. I got a tub of marge! Move over Flora.

Top effort mate.

In other news, the digital telly switchover continues apace. I spotted this great Flickr pic of the moment that Crystal Palace marked the end of analogue services in London.
Ed Walker/Flickr
Matthew Engel, former editor of Wisden penned this great piece on one of the side effects of the digital transfer: the disappearance of Ceefax. Like Engel, I have a very soft spot for the service. It was fantastic for racing results. And for at least a decade, in the formative years of Fantasy Cricket competitions, up to date County Cricket scores could be followed in no other way. There was no TV coverage, the papers carried the previous days’ scoreboards and internet was the preserve of buck-toothed geeks in sweaty college computer labs.

I remember sitting with my brother-in-law, Chris in our Wandsworth terrace one late night/early morning after his delayed return from a construction job in Germany. We were off our faces, nursing tumblers of Jaegermeister that he’d returned with, Auf Wiedesehen-style, watching the Ashes Test Match scoreboard refresh every 30 seconds. Page 341. “Goughy’ll have taken a wicket next time it ticks over. You watch.” “No chance, England are crap”, gurgled Chris. We eagerly anticipated that slow, faltering scoreboard scroll-down from the top of the screen. “There you go. ‘lbw b Gough’ What did I say!”

Oh happy days. I think the remainder of the Jaegermeister still resides at he back of the drinks cupboard, its cough-medicinal contents now congealed into a thick brown liquorice crust at the bottom of the bottle. Maybe I should raise a nostalgic glass? Maybe not.

So what else? Well, there’s an excellent couple of days in London to report. A rare overnight trip to the big city for Mrs A and I, and without those gorgeous little girls in tow to boot! We stayed in a swish boutique hotel (no, I don’t know either. Small perhaps?) on Threadneedle Street. It used to be a Citibank so far back in the day that it was spelt City Bank then. How unfashionably conventional!  Unfashionable service too. But in a good way. We quite enjoyed seeing the staff at the formal reception tables jump up to attention every time we walked in the front door; and fetching us goblets of Bordeaux at 1am after we’d trotted round some old haunts in the West End.
A nice cupola
I knew it was Bordeaux because earlier in the day we’d been for a wine tasting tour and dinner at Vinopolis. It was great. I learnt loads. But why did Mrs A get a good 2cm extra in her tasting glass every time we went for a sample? And why could she do that Hannibal Lechter slurpy thing over the sensitive tastebuds at the back of her mouth whilst I just dribbled down my front like a fool? And her tasting notes made a damn sight more sense than mine, too. “Canal dredge” I offered. “Vanilla, subtle olives, perhaps parma violets”, came her verdict.” Too much Greg Wallace can be a bad thing, in my opinion…

I can heartily recommend the Dickens exhibition at the Museum of London. We rounded off our sightseeing trip in the City with lunch at Galvin’s La Chapelle near Spitalfields. Proper grown up place. Wonderful food. Never before have I purred over broad bean veloute and spinach froth with soft boiled quail eggs. “That’s not a bad veggie soup”, I declared. The service was attentive, knowledgeable and friendly. Mrs A even got a crack out of the po-faced sommelier by retrieving his accidentally discarded cork from the floor. “I know you collect them”, she winked!

I’ve been quiet on the racing this week. The news has been dominated by fallout from last Saturday’s disturbing Grand National. It has become increasingly clear that the race cannot continue in its present form. I have no argument with that. Deaths this year of the Gold Cup winner and a stout stayer whom I’ve followed for years are too hard to justify. Whilst the official BHA investigation in to the deaths is on-going, I was struck by the excellence and thoroughness of Tom March's analysis of the last few renewals.

It contains a snippet of analysis that brings home to me how difficult it is to solve the safety issues in this race. One jockey opined that because the drop on the landing side of Becher’s Brook has been reduced, jockey’s all went for the inside of the fence to save ground. When On His Own tipped up, such was the congestion in a confined space that it set off a chain of events that claimed According To Pete’s life. In previous renewals, jockeys have fanned out across the fence  and away from the inside because “only the brave or the really good jumpers could cope with the drop”. An ironic instance of a broadly welcomed safety feature having the opposite impact.

The Craven meeting came and went and I hardly caught a race. But I’ve started to clock a few interesting ones that will make up my 20 horses to follow on the flat. Bit late this year, maybe, but still worth doing. I’ll have them ready for my next post. In the meantime, here’s some interesting observations from Bacchy on the early season exchanges.

And that was the news.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

National obsession

After two days of rank punting at Aintree, a post about Grand National bets is ill-advised at best; an exercise in public humiliation at worst. A couple of quotes illustrate my point perfectly: "the extra distance just gives Menorah more fences to clout." He won the Manifesto Novice Chase easing down. "Finians Rainbow, on the evidence of the Victor Chandler Chase, won't stay 2 1/2 miles." He won the Melling Chase with proverbial head in chest.

Two distant seconds is the nearest I've got in eight bets. One of those was Burton Port in the Betfred Bowl who had Tony McCoy hard at work with a circuit to go but couldn't get close to 'shock' winner Follow The Plan at 50-1. Massive. But the horse has two-grade 1 wins, one over this trip and was placed in this last year. So how much of a shock?

Take out that race and the Cheltenham form has held up remarkably well. Eight winners in the two days at Aintree so far have come from horses placed at the festival and a further 5 have been placed again. This is not always the case. It is possible that the inusually long four week gap has helped festival horses recover and excel, despite very different track and underfoot conditions.

It's tempting to take this tiny nugget of dubious information as a punting bedrock for an assault on tomorrow's big races. But as two of Cheltenham champions are  short-price penalty kicks here - Simonsig in the Mersey Novice Hurdle and Sprinter Sacre in the Maghull Novices Chase - the plan has a few holes in it. Spawny double territory, anyone?

The pattern could be repeated in the Aintree Hurdle. Rock On Ruby has an excellent chance over arguably his optimum 2 1/2 mile trip. He's tough and didn't have the hardest of races in wrapping up the Champion Hurdle. But he faces Oscar Whisky here who is mustard at this distance after being found out by the extra 1/2 mile in the World Hurdle. He bagged the race last year and is very classy at his best. Assuming the World Hurdle didn't leave its mark, he'll be bang there again. Zarkander is another who should like the trip, commentators having noted his 'crying out for a step up'. His indifferent run in the Champion is some cause for concern, but Nicholls claims to have him right now. That said, the trainer  fancied this one in preference to Rock On at the festival too. So how much help is that? ... All clear? Because there's the ultra-consistent Thousand Stars to consider as well. At 11/2 there's even a whiff of value about the Mullins runner who didn't really stay in the World Hurdle and was a good 2nd in this last year. I don't know how to split them. Maybe this is one to simply savour. Bollocks. I'm on  ROR!

And to wring every last drop of significance out of the Cheltenham winner's pattern, we should heartily lump on Synchronised in the Grand National. Well, it wouldn't be the worst bet in the World. Two nationals already in the bag and a Gold Cup to boot. That's top drawer form. And there are no ground concerns after shaking off the notion he needs it hock-deep. But he is still a horse who goes best when fresh. The Gold Cup was a tough race and landing this off top weight (albeit a few pounds well in on official figures) is too much to ask. He'll be a short enough price at 4.15pm too.

I'll be opposing the market leaders. Whilst it is not so easy these days to discount horses lumping 11-stone-plus, I feel that Ballabrigs will be vulnerable to something lower down the handicap; I'm not convinced by Junior's jumping prowess; likewise Chicago Grey who can seem laboured and ponderous at his fences; Sunnyhillboy has some jumping question marks over him too; West End Rocker has a hike in the weights to overcome.

At big each-way prices, I like:

Becauseicouldntsee (18-1) Stamina proven, been in the frame in some marathon trips, will like the ground and jumping (on the whole) is sound.

Planet Of Sound (33-1) - on a respectable mark and has some very strong staying performances in the book. 2nd in the Hennessy in November is the recent pick and fairish effort in the Racing Post Chase at Kempton will have put him spot on.

According To Pete (33-1) - bounced back to form this season, winning back-to-back staying chases. Will love this test of stamina and the ground will not be a problem. On a career high mark, but has earned it.

At really big odds, I can't shake an interest in Quiscover Fontaine (50-1) who has been kept to hurdles this year, but has very persuasive form in the Irish National and I would dearly love to back Weird Al (50-1) who looks handy in the weights, will stay and has some class. But he's so fragile, having burst a blood vessel in the GoldCup for a second year on the bounce.

How many can I have?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Grand National Meeting - Day 1

Skimming through the cards for the Grand National meeting, I am reminded how tight and sharp the Cheltenham Festival used to be as a three-dayer, before greed made it flabby with conditionals hurdles, second-division Triumphs and mares races.

Aintree features eight elite Grade 1 races, four Grade 2s and the National itself, together with a few excellent supporting handicaps shoe-horned into three neat, seven-race cards. Yes, I miss the three-day festival. The intensity has dropped a notch or two since its diluting expansion in 2005. But I’m a realist. The money-making potential was too much to resist.

The National meeting can’t match the Festival’s all-pervading significance and strength in depth. But it stands as the clear second-best UK jumps meeting behind those four days at Prestbury Park.

Tomorrow is a cracking start: four Grade 1s (some of them competitive, even); a gaggle of Champions and top performers; and all against the backdrop of the tightest Trainers Championship scrap since Martin Pipe fielded seven runners in an Ayr seller to fend off Paul Nicholls back in 2005.

Thursday highlights:

2.00 Liverpool Hurdle
A benefit for the unbeatable, exceptional Big Buck’s. Shorn of the Irish challenge and of most of his Cheltenham opposition, the race doesn’t throw up any serious challengers. The only angle I can find is Stan James offering ¼ the odds on the first three home in an eight runner overbroke place-market race. On that basis, I’m chancing that BB’s stable mate Poungach can progress past some of these old lags and make the frame at 18-1. Smad Place should still be on the upgrade too, but not sharply enough to close the gap to BB on their Festival showing.

2.30 Anniversary 4-y-o Juvenile Hurdle
This is a much more competitive affair. Many of the Triumph principles re-oppose on a track that could impact on that finishing order. Winner, Countrywide Flame smashed up the hill, whereas Grumeti, leading at the last stalled on it. Dodging Bullets ran well there and comes with strong claims, together with the same yard’s Pearl Swan, preferred by Ruby Walsh, who was a last flight faller when looking a place shout. But I’m taking a non-festival contender. And not just because I get burned so often by translating Cheltenham form too literally at Aintree. I think Hinterland is a decent animal, saved for this fixture after being not quite right before the Festival. He has good early season form, franked by a very good Baby Mix win on a similar flat track, and at 11-1 is proper value. Thank you very much.

3.05 Betfair Bowl
Absolutely fascinating renewal. The strongest for years. Again Cheltenham form is to the fore. Ryanair winner Riverside Theatre heads the market. But he had a tough race there after running like a dog for 2 miles and four furlongs. And I’m still not convinced he’s proven at the trip (though I may be alone in this!) – three miles and one furlong at a good clip with Nacarat in the van might nail that argument one way or the other. Medermit also had a tough race and tries this trip for the first time, though it might suit him better than 2 ½ now. Can’t wait to see Hunt Ball here. Big step up in class, but who is to say he can’t take it in his stride? What A Friend is a frustrating horse. He won this a couple of years back and could go well again after an early fence exit in the Gold Cup. But I’ve chanced him once to often and I’m sidestepping him for Burton Port at 9-2 who seems to be ultra-consistent, has track form and the insistent urgings of A P McCoy in the plate. I’ll have an each way shout on my list horse Diamond Harry at 20-1 who is surely better than the form he’s shown so far this season. Surely….

3.40 Foxhunters Chase
Just a word for My Way De Solzen who lit up Cheltenham a few years ago and appeared to have the chasing world at his mercy. It all went wrong too quickly and it is fantastic to see him back on the big stage, albeit in an amateur race. I’ll punt him off the boards (a tenner should do it) and cheer him all the way home.

4.50 Manifesto Novices Chase
2 ½ miles should suit Al Ferof and he is a short order favourite. He was well beaten in the Arkle by Sprinter Superstarcre, but was not competitive after taking a fence down the back up by the roots. I don’t like Menorah over fences. Too clumsy and ungainly. The extra half-mile may suit this Hobbs-horse in terms of stamina, but it just gives him more fences to clout. Pepite Rose is interesting, coming here in search of a five-timer. I’m just not sure how much her mares-only win last time out amounts to. I’ll chance Cristal Bonus whose Kempton win in February over this trip has a more solid look about it. The Nicholls’ number 2 was found to have an abcess at Cheltenham latest and so, if back to his best, is taken to shake up Al Ferof, who has had a hard season, at 7-1.

Good luck all.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A force for good

I thought long and hard about whether to write this post in memory of Crispin. It is too easy to bash out trite words and push them into the vastness of cyberspace, hanging the sensibilities. I don’t want to do that. There is a danger of invading the space of a wonderful family and of friends and relatives who knew him better than me. I would hate to do that. Such a post could overflow with sentimentality in a frivolous social media world, alienating those who did not know him. I may have to risk that.

Crispin was a man who touched so many lives in such a positive way, mine included. And for that reason I am compelled to offer my own tribute.

Crispin and I arrived at the Countryside Agency within a couple of years of each other. He became my colleague, my boss and my friend in quick succession. On my last day in the job, he gave me such an affectionate man-hug in the middle of the open plan that my ribs still ache to think of it…

At work, Crispin was a blend of idealistic visioning and pragmatic realism: he knew the battles that he wanted to fight and win. He held the bigger picture firmly in his sights, whilst acknowledging creeping myopia about ‘interminable’ budget processes and blurry ‘detail’ that could be resolved later. He also knew the value of a contented team and the balance between hard work and rewarding play. I remember waking up the morning after a drink with Crispin and Justin at the launch the State of the Countryside report in 2008 to my laptop bag filled with the contents of my stomach (is this too much information?) and a two-week dose of conjunctivitis… I blamed them squarely for both!

My fondest memories remain those outside the direct line of duty, such as his brazen encouragement of my horse racing vice. When I booked time off for the Cheltenham Festival, he was more interested in my ante-post portfolio than my leave sheet. He was a regular commentator on these posts, offering hearty congratulations on those rare occasions of a successful tip, notably when Masked Marvel won the St Leger last September. And he remained supportively encouraging or mercifully silent about the pile of steaming junk that comprised the vast majority of these ramblings. The very fact that Crispin was reading them, let alone backing the horses displayed his typical loyalty, humour and mischief.  

Crispin liked nothing better than a day at Lingfield races, his home track. In fact his house couldn’t have been better positioned, sitting between the track and the railway station. Crispin once recalled an encounter in which a couple of lads returning from the races knocked at the door and asked “Scuse me, have you got any playing cards?” In response to this slightly odd request, Crispin’s unflappable daughter happily produced a pack and wished the travellers a safe journey. “No, no, no we can’t just take them. Here, have this”, said one and proffered a twenty-pound note! Despite all protests and refusals, these boys wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and left to play snap with their expensive cards on the train home, after - one would assume - a pretty successful day on the gee-gees!

We had a great day there last Summer. The racing was good, although Crispin was unable to urge 100-1 shot Barello into the frame of the 3.50. This despite summoning up the spirit of his Italian-based brother, domiciled in the region of the famous wine. In consolation, we enjoyed a couple of pints of delicious Finchcocks ale from a Westerham Brewery barrel mounted on the bar. We had a teary discussion about this vicious, unjust illness that has now taken his life prematurely; and about his plans to make the most of the time that remained. He told me he was stopping short of a bucket list - a wish-list of things to do before the final curtain - but was taking and enjoying every day as it came. I saw how he was drawing such strength from his family, his friends and his faith. I was in awe of his humility, his fortitude and his positive outlook. I still am.

At last week’s funeral, the tributes were uplifting. The readings were moving. None more so than a passage from a letter Crispin had written to his wife which, in parts, served as a goodbye to all of us. “Grieve and grieve well”, he had said. The phrase was resonant and heartfelt. And it sliced through the carefully laid defences of the congregation like a rapier. This was raw emotion. I am not a good crier. Some dab delicately at moist eyes. Others blink away a salty trickle. I convulse with chesty heaves and a shoulder action more at home in a rugby scrum. It was not pretty.

And we did grieve well. We raised a glass to Crispin in The Star Inn. Such occasions are always bittersweet. This was mostly bitter, to be honest, but catching up with old friends and colleagues and meeting new ones was sweet enough. We read stories that had been collected by Crispin’s wife as a keepsake for his children and published in a booklet for everyone to take away. This was a lovely touch. Vivid reflections of an inspiring, humorous, talented, eloquent, intelligent and passionate friend and colleague.  

Crispin’s love of Twitter was well known. Never have 140 characters been more effectively deployed. He harnessed the medium to his world-changing causes. Even whilst undergoing treatment at Kings College, he tweeted, “Thinking as a patient, one of many things the NHS needs is a betting shop in each hospital. Why not an ‘NHS Tote' or a 'People's Bookie'? I have now posted this approach to the DoH consultation on their NHS reforms ....”

Fantastic stuff. Crispin Moor: a force for good.