Friday, 25 May 2012

Blue Eiderdown

I was sorry to see Henrietta Knight retire from training this week. The official explanation was that she needed more time to look after husband Terry, who had a stroke last year. I wish her and Terry the best. 

In truth, Hen's star has been on the wane for some time. The stable has had fewer runners in recent seasons and fewer high profile winners, drawn from a decreasing number of very loyal patrons. So maybe the time was right. 

But it is worth emphasising the affection in which she and Terry are held by the racing community. Her tender handling of Best Mate to win three imperious Gold Cups, accompanied by a charming, almost skittish and yet idiosyncratic persona won her a unique place in the hearts of the public. Best Mate's tragic death in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in 2005 seemed to me to mark a change in the stable's approach. The incident must have, quite understandably, left it's mark on the team. And from that point on, we saw much more cautious and low profile campaigns for some horses of high class ability. Nevertheless, Racing Demon, Calgary Bay and Somersby have all won some decent prizes, even if my uncharitable suspicion is that that they have, ever so slightly, under-achieved.

That was certainly not the case when Hen and Terry were at the the peak of their powers. Best Mate is a legend. A very fine horse. But my own favourite of her vintage crop is Edredon Bleu. In contrast to some of Hen's later charges, this one is a horse who probably over-achieved.  

I saw him race a couple or three times. Perhaps most notably at the Exeter in '02. An early edition of Mug Punting, dusted off here in tribute to Hen and Terry, picks up the tale:
Rays of sunshine are slanting through my office window at a low angle. They highlight a sheen of dust covering my pc screen. Summer is exhaling easily into Autumn. I'm peering at the screen through the reflection (squinting is an easier option than moving the window blinds on this soporific Thursday) when an e-mail from Brynaldo pops up in the new messages box. It's ten past four. This missive can only mean one thing.  
“Fancy a swiftie after work boys? Willow Walk, 5-10?” 
Sound. Bacchy joins us for his customary two-pint slurp. It's busy down the 'Walk and we squeeze in at the bar. 
Bryn is a newly expectant Father and is taking his pre-paternal duties seriously. Not least among them is finding a house for himself, Debs, and his child-to-be for the occupation thereof. He slips away this very evening after a couple of pints to put the finishing touches to his property scam which involves buying a house near our mate Nick in Worcester Park in order to force down the value, buy up the stock and become a tyrannical landlord. Only the first part of this sting is currently in place.

Mild surprise then, that come the six o'clock watershed, it's me and Bacchy propping up the veneered MDF. Not me and Brynaldo. Conversation inevitably turns to the approach of the jumps season. We look forward and we wax lyrical: the return of Best Mate who may well stamp his champion class all the over the stayers division; the potential emergence of Seebald and Moscow Flyer; the unproven but mouth-watering credentials of Armaturk; the ability of the novice class of 01/02 to mix with the big boys in championship company.

But it’s still a shock, despite this Grade-class banter, that before we know it, the black hole is gaping before us. That strange twist of the elements that conspire to swallow time in the pub between 7.30pm and 10pm. Where does that time go? One minute you are finishing off the last pint ready to get your coat and be home in time for tea, and the very next moment you are pissed, late, skint and sniffing out kebabs with the zeal of a hunter/gatherer. It's beyond me. 

“Fancy one for the road then?”
“I can squeeze one in if you are sticking around”, offers Bacchy

“Yeah, I think I'm OK for another”, and then to the barman, “two pints of the guest ale please?”
It's slipping down well, this stuff. It's the dog's bollocks. No really it is. Wychwood Dogs Bollocks, OG 1048, brewed in darkest Kent.

Dangerous, loose talk is this.

“Sorry mate, there's a £5 minimum on card purchases.”

I look at my flacid piece of plastic. I've already done my real dough - the wallet is empty. It's just like being down the bookies.

“OK, make it four pints - and £30 cashback please.”

Steve throws his head back; his laugh is shot through with resignation and inevitability. We set the controls for the heart of the black hole and settle in for the duration.

Before the kebab rush, we have organised a day out at Exeter on 5th November. It's a good early season card whose jewel-encrusted crown is the Haldon Gold Cup: a stiff 2-mile 1 ½ furlongs around the undulating moor. Henrietta Knight has already declared her intention to send Best Mate for his season's pipe opener, and Armaturk and Seebald are both likely runners. We set the seal on our good idea with a couple of well deserved Jameson's and head off into the (long departed) sunset. 

Come the big day we are still on course. There have been a couple of minor blips to negotiate, such as the realisation that 5th November is bonfire night (remember, remember), with all its attendant family commitments. Not to mention Hen Knight deciding, in the end, not to run stable star Best Mate at Exeter (allegedly because of going concerns, but more likely because an easier blow first time out at Huntingdon in a week's time is more attractive). Edredon Bleu goes instead. No mean substitute. And we are not deterred. 
 Out of the train, it's a taxi ride up on the the wild moor on which perches the track. Probably. Low lying cloud has rolled in and veiled the vista in translucent grey. 
We are in. It's busy. It's a small track and this is its biggest day. And yet not overly busy. There is room to wander and fraternise. We have planned the journey well. There is plenty of time to explore the course.  Once again I move stealthily past the owners and trainers bar and cast furtive glances inside. I'll be on the other side of that door one day. 

We linger by the excellent, intimate paddock and parade rings.  Before most of the races, we return here to see the horses warmed up and saddled. We compare the sizes of the beasts, judge their gait and demeanour (like we know what we are looking for...) and observe the trainers and connections. 

Henrietta and Terry Biddlecombe have a couple of runners and they are preparing Robber Baron for the novice hurdle. They are an amazing team. Appearances belie their skill and knowledge. Henrietta exudes a deep love and innate understanding of horses, but she can’t bear to watch them run and can be found in the car park on the end of a mobile phone whilst the race is in progress. She’s a bit like a slightly mad Auntie Nora who always gives you jumpers three sizes too big for your Christmas present every year. But you always wear one of them when you are with her because you wouldn't dream of offending. And Terry. You would never guess to look at him, but Terry was Champion jockey three times and has a Gold Cup win tucked under his enormous belt. There is quite a lot under his belt. He is the chortling Uncle Bernard who drinks in life and talks like a runaway train. He's your mate really, and he'll buy you a pint down the pub even though you are not quite 18 yet. They are the genuine odd couple, but as I say, appearances can deceive. What a team. Their genuine love for the game shines like a beacon. A bit like Terry's bonce sitting on top of his rotund frame.  

Later on there is a lovely moment as Armaturk is being readied in his box for the Haldon Gold Cup. The stable lad has saddled up the chaser and the gaffer, Paul Nicholls is chatting to him. When they are satisfied, Nicholls moves off, but not before giving Armaturk an affectionate peck on the nose. This touches me. Racing often hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons - corruption and collusion and so on. Such a genuine moment as Nicholls' gesture restores my faith that there is warmth underneath the hard-boiled gambling.  

The Grandstand is packed for the first. I'm shoe-horned in next to some wide boy car dealer on an away day from Essex. His camel hair coat gets up my nose and the stench from his fat cigar gets in my eyes. The cloud is still low, but there is a very good view of the undulations that the horses must struggle round. Down the back straight there is a particularly testing pull. It's also clear from the first novice hurdle race that the ground is riding softish when Robber Baron wins by 5 lengths. 

Soft rain descends from even lower cloud. Much of the course is obscured from view. Just in time for the feature of the day.  We have been scoping the contenders in the paddock. It is a fine prospect. There goes Latalomne looking frisky and nodding at Bacchy on each circuit. Seebald looks in fine fettle too. AP McCoy is hobbling around after a fall in the 2nd, but as soon as he mounts up he is a different prospect, suddenly looking welded to the horse. Man and beast as one. Ruby Walsh is aboard Armaturk who is a gorgeous chestnut colour and looks well. Top weight and elder statesman Edredon Bleu glides passed us calm and aloof. It’s a small field and we also get a good look at the outsiders, Castle Prince and the old rascal Ferdy Murphy’s runner Ichi Beau. 

Bacchy has an edgy and, by his own admission, sentimental punt on Latalomne. He is seeking Champion Chase retribution. I want to be on Armaturk. I think he'll win. But he's 2/1. I really don't fancy that. It's no kind of bet. Seebald is odds on which seems a bit extreme. I'm dallying. I've come all this way for the best chase of the year so far and I'm thinking about no bet. 

Bacchy remarks, “Look at Edredon, he's out to 10s". 
And he is. Everywhere. So I plunge. He sees my ticket and hollers, “Come on Edredon!” 

I wish I had premonitions. I don't. But this feels like a good bet. He's just too good a horse to be isolated in the market with the long shots at double figures in such a small field. I can hear Bacchy's words at countless venues over the last year.

“Where's the value? Where have the bookies got it wrong? Where is the market over-pricing a live chance? Find him and you've found your value.” 

Wise words. Top advice. I'm a disciple and today it pays off. Edredon is a sensation. He takes them round for the first circuit at a cracking pace, looking very strong. They disappear into the murk and who knows what is going on. The giant screen can't pick them up. So we wait. It's like a library out there. You could hear a pin drop if course commentator Simon Holt wasn't puncturing the silence with wisecracks. “Anybody on a long shot? This is the time to imagine him in the lead. Anyone got a road map? They should be emerging from the, Maybe not.....” 

He's earning his wedge today. 

But here they come for real. And it's still Edredon in full sail. Jim Culloty's claret and blue colours are carried easily and boldly in front.  We've moved to the rail. No point in languishing in the Grandstand. They are not in the home straight yet but I can see Edredon's ears are pricked. Seebald is the nearest of his rivals and McCoy moves up to make his challenge just before the 3rd last. Edredon puts in a spectacular leap. An awesome leap. The crowd gasps collectively. Bloody hell that was special. I'm tingling. 

He gallops away from the fence like a four year old. Seebald is left in the wake of the blue eiderdown and he never gets closer. Two lengths, four lengths. Christ, I'm filling up. Bacchy thumps me on the back, “Edredon you beauty!" 

But I can't let go until he clears the last. He does. He flies it. Now I'm dancing! 
This is the highlight, but the rest of the afternoon doesn't disappoint. There is a cracking novice chase featuring top prospects Montreal, Bow Strada and Farmer Jack. Next up, Bacchy - maximum respect here - conspires to land a well-plotted reverse exacta in a desperately strongly contested handicap chase in which Satshoon edges out Handyman by the closest of margins. Ruby Walsh picks up a 3-day whip-ban for his efforts. We see promising novice chaser Jair du Cochet post his first victory at Folkestone over the best stilton soup and pork bap combination this side of Cleeve Hill. To round things off we both back Tales of Bounty in the final handicap hurdle of the day who strolls home for a Nicholls/Walsh/Atkinson/Clark double.  
It is the manner of the victory that seals the moment. Exuberant jumping, strong galloping and a serious value winner by 10 lovely lengths. The welcome for the old boy back in the winner’s enclosure is overwhelming. At 10/1, not many of the crowd would have been on him, but it sounded like everyone was. Then again, maybe there's something about paying respect to a worthy champion, an affectionate embrace for an old friend. Stop blubbing you fool.   
Hopping on the the shuttle bus back to the station, there's a groan  from the axles, flexing under the weight of our collective wedge. A couple of Stellas and whisky chasers on the train see us home nicely. Exeter is a welcome addition to the fixture list.
Edredon returned to Haldon Hill the next year and trotted up again. The two of us and Bryn were there to see the repeat. But there was not a sniff of juicy 10-1 on offer this time. If that is not enough. This graceful gelding landed the King George that December, over, as I told my brother, "a wholly unsuitable 3 miles, that, even on a flat track, he will never get. Not in Grade 1 company. And not at 11 years old." My bro, hanging on my every word as usual, bagged a healthy chunk of the 33-1 on offer that Boxing Day morning and shouted me down the length and breadth of Towcester racecourse when we saw him canter home on the big screen. That was his 4th straight win and he slammed the fields in all 5 of his outings in that 2003-04 season. 

Wishing you the happiest of retirements, Hen. We will not forget what you have given us.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Slow day

It’s a quietish day at the office. I’m poised over the laptop, checking some indecipherable interview text and enjoying the banter on Test Match Special. It’s a slow day at Lord’s too. Aggers is describing in some detail the criteria deployed in his judging of a recent pork pie competition in Melton Mowbray: depth of filling, opacity of jelly, firmness of crust, etc. I remember going to Melton Mowbray for a conference once upon a time. In a spare hour, I toured the many independent butchers and carefully selected a prize specimen to take home. I later discovered exactly the same brand was on sale considerably cheaper in my local supermarket. Aggers is in good form. He’s chatting to the great Sir Vivien Richards about the West Indies awesome attack of the 1980’s. “Malcolm Marshall once said sorry after he hit me in the ribs”, offers Aggers. “Maybe he saw something in your eyes”, suggests Viv. “Yes - pain”, retorts Aggers, “It was sheer pain!”

I’ve also caught some of the action from York’s Dante meeting. The Fugue looked impressive in the Musidora, as did Bonfire in the Dante. I missed out on Izzi Top in the Middleton Stakes after backing her in the Dahlia at Newmarket previously. She’s a filly going from strength to strength and must have Group 1 success in her sights. Today’s Yorkshire Cup was meat and drink for Red Cadeaux after a pipe opener in the Sagaro Stakes earlier this month. He’d drifted out to an eminently backable 4-1 and I missed a trick there. My fancy Time’s Up ran not without credit, but after travelling smoothly, was unable to land a blow.

I’m pleased for a quiet day, to be honest. We’ve all been on the go for a while. Granny’s been here, looking after the girls whilst Mrs A was visiting her sis in Tenerife and I was working in Birmingham. If one didn’t know Granny had been staying, there are always tell-tale signs. For instance, washed socks and underpants smoothly ironed and neatly folded (I kid you not) and placed in my smalls drawer. I mean, what else can a man ask from his Mother-in-Law?

I think the 3rd Berkhamsted Guides knew she was here too. Daughter No 2 had gone off to her brass rubbing session in the parish Church, forgetting to take down the consent form for various Guide-y adventures in store over the Spring. So Granny popped down the road in the rain to hand it in. Only the church doors were locked.  Granny gave those solid old oak doors a serious rap with the big brass knocker. The noise reverberated up and down the road. Passers-by ducked for cover. Car drivers swerved in the road.  Dogs ran screaming. But the Guide Leader could not be summoned. So next, Granny shouted through the giant key hole. “Helloo-ooo-ooo!” No response. One can only imagine the noise that twenty pre-teenagers rubbing crayons across tracing paper must have been making. Granny is nothing if not persistent. It was her third assault on the door when she bent down to the keyhole and spotted some movement . Hell-ooo-ooo, over here, hello there!” she shouted. “Who’s that? Is it kids again? Go away!” Undeterred, and if anything, impressed that child-protection was being taken so seriously, Granny managed to explain herself. The door creaked open, pleasantries were exchanged and the form was handed over. By this time, Guides was almost over. Daughter No 2 was getting a lift home from a friend and Granny barely made it home before her! I really don’t know what we’d do without Granny. On many levels…  

I’m creaking a bit today after nets at The Oval last night. My one and only hour of proper exercise every month. These days it takes me about 15 minutes to work up to anything even approaching medium pace, before exhaustion and a slow decline sets in after a further 10 minutes. But it’s belting good fun. And yesterday there was a beer festival in the shadow of the pavilion. Perfect reward after some physical exertion. It appears this is a new venture the club are trialling during some home matches this season. I can heartily recommend the Ringwood Boondoggle. I only hope attendances at their county matches will be sufficient to justify the continuation of this exemplary innovation.  

I think I’ve just got time to cast my eye over the tomorrow’s fulsome racing fixtures and pick out some fat value, before Straussy lumbers up to his ton.  

Frankel’s four-year-old career kicks off in the Lockinge at Newbury. ‘Eagerly anticipated’ is the term of choice employed by commentators, punters and bookies alike. And why not. The highest rated horse on earth, returning after an early season scare to renew rivalry with old miling foes. But it’s no betting proposition. Excelebration, now in the genius hands of Aiden O’Brien may get closer to Henry Cecil’s star, but on all known form he won’t reverse the placings. And 3-1 isn’t enough to tempt me anyway.

Looking elsewhere on the Newbury card, Hawaafez  at 6-1 in the Aston Park Stakes has the sort of progressive profile that always suckers me in.  Stepping up from handicap company and with a mares allowance, she only needs to find a little improvement to give market principles Ibicenco and Nehaam a proper fright.

The market for the London Gold Cup, an informative event for unexposed three-year-olds, is dominated by Henry Cecil’s Thomas Chippendale. His cosy enough Leicester win last back end has been given a massive boost by the runner-up’s subsequent top class exploits in the States. He has fancy entries and could be very good. But with so many of these with only three or four runs, I’m looking for some value. Clayton could fit the bill, having made good progress in a decent handicap on Musselburgh after missing the break. Trip and ground likely to suit and 12-1 sounds good.

Over at Newmarket in the Sprint Trophy, Mince ran really well last time out, arguably an unlucky 2nd. She has strong form and the trip and ground are all in her favour. Nevertheless, this is a tough heat. But as one of my 20 to follow I’ll hope to get a bit of the 6-1 on offer. The project is off to a miserable start with only 1 win and a bunch of hard luck stories from 12 starts. So I’m looking to the Charlton mare for a 100% improvement.

On a similar theme, the 5.40 features another 20tf runner, Aazif turning out in a class 3 handicap. His slightly laboured 4th last month in a similar event needs to have put him spot on for this. But at 7-1 I’m prepared to take that chance. Trip and ground should be fine.

Back at Lord’s, England are grinding along in workman-like fashion. Well played, Cap’n Strauss. That should keep the critics at bay for a couple of games. Now, let’s get Jonny Bairstow in amongst that lot. 

Saturday, 5 May 2012


Just time, before the flat season clicks through the Classic gears, to indulge in a familiar and intimate masochistic ritual: Analysis of last season's 40 jumpers to follow.  Some slightly better news this year. After three woeful years of loss and shame, 2011-12 showed a return to happy(ish) days.

Overall, I squeezed out a 27.8 points profit: 135 bets and 33 wins at a rate of 24%. Total staking came in at 138 points, producing a Rate Of Return (ROR) at 20%. For that level of win rate, I'm looking for a much chunkier ROR. This betrays a lot of short priced winners.

A profit is a profit. I'm not arguing with that. But the results don't stand up to closer analysis. Against the accepted benchmark of a level 1-point stake per run, the picture is much less rosy: 155 bets giving a 4.9 point loss. Crushing.

The actual profit compared to the level stakes loss is largely accounted for by three factors in my real-wedge punting this year:
  • No-bets on short priced favourites, a good proportion of whom lost. This is crucial. The 40 to follow list simply has too many novice hurdlers and chasers who will always be no value at all in most of their outings. An easy lesson to absorb, but harder to put into selection practice.  
  • Bigger stakes on strong fancies, a reasonable proportion of which came in. This is the key to the staking plan, of course. But the most slippery of concepts to be bullish about. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. 
  • Spawny place returns on double-figure each-way shouts. As a purist, I'd far rather be backing the winners. But the stats do not lie about the significance of this factor. In December, I returned 9 runners up out of 12 races, including a sequence of 6 consecutive 2nds, many at big prices. I can't begin to tell you my complex emotions as each one of these bets crashed. Not all of them featured excruciating chinnings on the line, but this little run was enough to send me off to a pretty dark place....! 
So those are the stats. But what about the horses?

Of the star names, Bob's Worth, Oscar Whisky and Rock On Ruby delivered the goods, but only the last named at a stand-out price. Too many others massively under-performed: Peddlers Cross, Captan Chris, Noble Prince, Realt Dubh....the list goes on. Also, too many no-shows. This is a perennial problem, of course, but it is such a shame that good prospects like Spirit Son, Recession Proof, Salden Licht, Mathew Riley, Quwetwo and others were not seen last season. Some have been retired. 

Looking at the overly-represented novices and ex-bumper horses in the list, Ambion Wood stands out as a real class act. Victor Dartnell's very progressive staying hurdler managed 3 wins from 7 outings, ending the season slamming the fields of two ostensibly competitive handicaps from top weight. He'll be chasing next year. Swinging Sultan also acquitted himself well, although he ran in to some good ones, including Champion Bumper runner-up New Years Eve. It will be interesting to see where Reveley sends him next, having already dabbled with a flat campaign. 

So now, with that off my chest, I'm ready for the flat season:
  • Twenty To Follow picked, primed and plunging into negativity;
  • Tote Ten To Follow selected and paid up: Frankel, Imperial Monarch, Born To Sea, Hoof It, Camelot, Fame and Glory, Maybe, Elusive Kate, So You Think, Immortal Verse. Can't lose, surely.
  • Daily Telegraph QIPCO Champions Series competition entered and leagued up with the rest of the Atkinsons. 
  • Bets down for later today.  
Have I missed anything?