Monday, 30 July 2012


On reflection, I feel quite privileged to have attended the first proper day of the 2012 Olympics. We were always looking forward to going, and the anticipation had grown steadily since we realised we had tickets for four finals on the first night of the swimming gold rush at the Aquatics Centre. That anticipation increased exponentially after the jaw-dropping opening ceremony on Friday night.

Danny Boyle served up an idiosyncratic take on the unveiling of the Games. His masterstroke was the perfect combination of drama, spectacular, humour and relevance across three centuries of historical, social and cultural highlights. Daughter No 1, a confirmed Mr Bean fan, nearly split her sides when Rowan Atkinson turned up to guest his one-finger performance on Chariots of Fire. Granny was almost in tears at Emeli Sande’s rendition of Abide With Me. She wasn’t caught out by too many tunes in the tribute to great British pop and rock either. Perhaps only the Prodigy and Dizzy Rascal seemed genuinely beyond her… I loved the Olympic symbols coming together above the stadium, cast in the white heat of the industrial revolution. Fiery rings indeed.

When it came to the cauldron lighting, I was feeling quite smug. I’d already decided that Steve Redgrave was an absolute shoe-in for the gig. Who else has a CV like his? Five Golds at five consecutive Olympic Games. Awesome. And then a mate rang on the off-chance and mentioned that he had heard from a mate who had been told categorically by another mate that he knew someone who had been tipped the wink that Redgrave had been asked to perform the honour. That sealed it for me. I went off scouring online markets and High Street bookies to get some wedge down on Sir Steve. Many bookies had already closed their markets. Word was sneaking out, I wrongly concluded, about the identity of the firestarter. To me this was merely further confirmation that the bookies were running for cover. Possibly they knew that I was out and about with my fistfuls of fivers (and some supplementary two-pound coins, just in case).

So when Beckham’s speedboat docked on the River Lee, I was not surprised (but possibly a little relieved) to see Sir Steve awaiting Becks’ slightly awkward handover. I could look forward to counting my wedge. After the speeches, Redgrave duly trotted in with the flame and received the appropriate recognition. Then something odd happened. He handed the flame over to a bunch of oiks in tracksuits. They jogged round fairly sedately and were introduced to the crowd. “Nice touch”, I thought. “Give the youngsters a moment in the spotlight... Now give the torch back to Stevie, there’s good lads and lasses”. But Redgrave was long gone. Nowhere to be seen. Torches were now being dolled out like it was a three-day-week. And then they turned to the cauldron, which we saw for the first time, at least in deconstructed form: 204 little copper petals on elongated poles, spread out in a huge circle on the ground. The game was up. It was the next generation who got the lighting honour. Legacy and all that. Another mug punt to rank with some of my finest. I felt a bit sick.

But only a bit. I was caught up in the moment. The ceremony was uplifting, flames dancing from one copper petal to the next, following by the slow rising of the steel pipes to form one giant canopy of flame. Pretty special.

On Saturday, we decided to make tracks for the Olympic Park pretty early so we could have a good look round and soak up some of the much-touted atmosphere. But not before I’d summoned up courage to check the damage on my bookie accounts. Squinting at the screen with one eye closed, I was relieved to see that those nice people at Paddy Power and SkyBet had refunded my bets on Sir Steve. The markets had been voided because the result – the kids lighting the cauldron – was not in their list of possibilities. I’d almost got away with it. Only Coral played hardball when I pitched up at the shop with my voucher. But I haven’t given up yet.

The Olympic Park was cool. Great architecture for a start. Daughter no 1 wanted to know what the stadium was “that looked like a giant pringle (it was the velodrome) and daughter no 2 thought that the water polo arena resembled “a giant mattress”. Nice landscaping too. We were very taken with the ‘wild’ flowers sown on every available patch of ground, the river walks and the big screen viewing areas, even if Mrs A did try to irrigate the floor with the contents of her wine bottle. Plenty of merchandising opportunities too. Of course. In one shop we bumped into a work colleague and her family. Can’t go anywhere…

I’ve been to the park before. But it was a very long time ago and it looked a bit different. Here’s an extract from something I wrote in 2005:
“…No regrets, then, about leaving behind the greyhounds of London Stadium. The track was a hole and resided in a run down part of East London in need of significant regeneration. The sun was out and was beginning to draw a heady stench from the urine soaked litter piled up in doorways and alleys around the perimeter of the track. It was a bizarre place. On one side was an expanse of open ground bordering the stadium, presumably once the site of a factory; and on the other was an array of traditional businesses: taxi cab firms, kebab shops and junk emporia, as well as a smattering of empty and derelict two-storey, flat-roofed shops and terraced housing. The intimidating rubbish strewn urban jungle on this side of the road provided a brief, surreal counterpoint to the factory site on the other with its savannah of tall grass waving lazily in balmy mid-day sunshine.

No surprise to me that a few years later the dogs had gone and the stadium closed; further rationalisation of the sport in London. And then, a few years later still, I read that the area has been chosen as the hub of Britain's Olympic Bid for 2012. Hackney dog track will be the site of an 80,000-seater flagship Olympic stadium. Ironic indeed. There's a picture on the back of The Independent showing the track littered with skips, sundry ironmongery and rubble. And there is the rickety enclosure we occupied with once proud letters proclaiming 'LONDON STADIUM, HACKNEY ' emblazoned below the holed roof. Only some of the letters have dropped away and HACKNEY is now _AC_NE_. Appropriate.” 
(from Acne in Hackney, Mug Punting - Short Tales About Long Odds) 
There is a stonking view from the entrance to the Aquatic Centre back to the main stadium.

We refuelled here with snacks, sugary drinks and alcohol. We needed them. The hike up to the seats required oxygen masks and crampons. But the view from Block 412, row 50, seats 122-125 was awesome. Daughter no 2 thought so too, between nose bleeds and panic attacks of vertiginous origins, anyway. I was psyching the girls up for the Ryan Lochte v Michael Phelps battle in the 400m Individual Medley, which splashed off at 7.30pm. At 7.23pm, Daughter no 2 said, “Daddy, I need the loo”. “What?” I said, “Can’t it wait?!” I could see from her squirming bum that she couldn’t. So we did the fastest stairs descent, wee and ascent the stadium had yet seen. Possibly a new Olympic Record. As I laboured up the last steeply inclined steps back to the seat, breathing heavily and sweating freely, a bloke in the opposite aisle grinned at me and said “The other one wants to go now, ha ha!” Comedian, I thought, as I poked him in the eye (mentally, of course).  

The swimmers emerged on to poolside with the appropriate fanfare, though some of them looked faintly ridiculous. A Japanse competitor was replete in tight silver swim hat overlain with huge headphones and sporting reflective lens goggles. Had we stumbled into a Dr Who tribute? Was this the return of the cyber men?

Lochte was formidable, leaving Phelps struggling to come home in 4th. A major surprise that Phelps had performed so poorly. The second of my Olympic bets to fold.

We settled down for the Mens 400m Freestyle final. A chap in the row behind us tapped Mrs A on the shoulder and in a faltering voice, cracked with emotion said, “Would you mind staying quite still when the swimmers come out for this one? My son is competing in Lane 8 and I want to get a good photo.” Oh wow! He was David Carry’s Dad. Carry was competing in his third Olympics but this was his first final. What a special moment. We all wished him well and said how proud he must be. And he was, you could just tell. Carry competed with great credit, coming home in 7th. The race was won by Sun Yang from China in an Olympic Record time.

After a couple of semi-finals, we had a medal ceremony for the Lochte race. Daughter no 1 wasn’t too impressed with the podium. “That’s rubbish. It looks like a yoga mat!” She was not wrong! The medallist emerged to Chariots Of Fire blasting through the speakers. This just set her off again, chuckling uncontrollably and miming Mr Bean’s one-finger virtuoso performance. 

In the women’s version of the 400m Individual Medley, Hannah Miley had realistic home team medal hopes. She was greeted to a deafening reception. The curious convex pool ceiling and steeply banked seating seemed to create a channel of sound. The atmosphere was palpable.
Smiley Miley was in contention for the first two disciplines, roared on by an ecstatic crowd, but she fell away over the final 200m. The 16 year-old Chinese girl Ye Shiwen took the race by the scruff of the neck at that point and smashed the World Record. I read later that she came home over the last 100m only 7/10ths of a second slower that Ryan Lochte in the earlier men’s race. Third bet down.

The final medal event, the Womens 4x100m Freestyle Relay, was a complete bunfight. And that was just in the stands. The decibel level was cranked up a few notches. Everyone who had a flag, a banner or a poster was furiously waving it. As the girls began their merry-go-round of front crawl, we were shouting out the names of the red-hatted Team GBs swimmers like we had known them all our lives. “Go on Amy, go oooon…Come on Frankie, you can do it…” I looked at our two and they were screaming at the tops of their voices, red-faced with effort, loving every second. The Australians won, to the complete rapture of many nearby fans. The woman in front of me had the names of all the Team Aus swimmers neatly written out on a piece of A4 with the times of their races and personal bests written alongside. Dedication!

We hung around for the last medal ceremonies, then walked down the banking to get closer look at the pool and finally spilled out into the stunning park now illuminated in glorious Technicolor.

We had been incredibly lucky with the tickets. It was all the luck of the draw of course. We applied for a bunch of tickets alongside half of Britain last year. Initially I was disappointed to have missed out on a few events. The girls would have loved the tennis and gymnastics; and I was desperate for the athletics. But I quickly realised that this, in fact, was a top result.

The clamour for tickets had outstripped supply. More tickets have subsequently been released at regular intervals, including for some of the showpiece events. But the row over empty seats that has been simmering away for the last couple of days is entirely predictable. This was always going to happen. If tickets on general sale are in too short supply and massively expensive then of course there is going to be fury at evidence that venues that are not full. I’m writing this with the gymnastics from the O2 on the telly and I can see banks of upturned plastic staring back at me. I’m more than happy to point a cynical finger at the corporates and IOC affiliates for this, who scandalously don’t use their freebies. This needs sorting out. Seb Coe’s initial blithe comments that ‘the venues are full to the gunnels’ was wrong, insulting and glib on many levels. I see he’s backtracked from this somewhat and moves are now afoot to make sure tickets get used by people who actually want to see the competition. This kind of stuff gets me very cross.

But, perspective, perspective. The Games are off to a flier. We’ve seen some fantastic live action, Team GB are off the mark and I’ve even got two bets still alive! Roll on the handball next Saturday.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Let the Games begin...

“Let the Games begin”, says the latest in a very long line of e-mails from the helpful girls and boys at London 2012. “One day to go”, I’m told, just in case I’d missed a moment of the countdown. With the BBC’s gargantuan Olympics coverage cranking up to full swing, it’s hardly possible. I did snigger a little at Fiona Bruce, with an old fashioned mike pinned to her lapel, sounding like she was reading the news from inside a toilet bowl. I don’t think the studio had been  quite sorted out by Tuesday night.

(By the way, does anyone else find those BBC adverts featuring computer enhanced superhuman athletes with bursting, rippling muscles and etiolated bodies jumping and diving about the place just a bit too suggestive of the effects of drug enhanced training regimes? Surely a bit incongruous in a climate of public revulsion at such abuse in sport. No? Just me then.)

On the eve of the opening ceremony, I think I am ready. I’ve checked the rules, regs and travel for Saturday: get to the Park two hours early… get to the Aquatics Centre 90 minutes early… airport style security… one small soft bag only… small lensed camera only…no ambush marketing (the orange mini-dress goes back in the wardrobe)…

So I’d better get some bets down.

We will be perched up in the Gods for the first swimming finals of the Games. And it would be rude not to take an interest. I’ve taken 5-1 about Hannah Miley in the 400m Individual Medley, who has a fair shout of landing Britain’s first Gold in the pool, propelled down the lanes on a wave of home fervour. It could be Britain’s first Gold anywhere if Cavendish fails to land the time trial on Saturday afternoon. Miley, coached by her father, has serious claims, but is ranked third in the world, and will have to shave a few fractions off her PB to win.

Before that, we will witness Round 1 of a mouthwatering series of Ryan Lochte v Michael Phelps head to heads. This one is the 400m Individual Medley. Lochte beat Phelps in this event  at the US trials earlier this month. But I’m happy to take a chance of Phelps reversing the form at 6-4, though that is hardly value by any of my normal rules (can’t see the exacta being a big payout either) The Lochte-Phelps duels are likely to be the story of the pool. Lochte is hot property right now and nobody will be surprised if he bounds well clear of the Phelps’ shadow.

Away from the pool, I’ve done a terrible thing and opposed Cavendish in the Road Race. I just looked a the 7-1 available for Peter Sagan and thought that was just a bit too much like value. The Slovakian has had a stonking Tour de France, landing the overall points classification, with Cavendish back in third. Cav is a legend, of course, and will have been saving plenty for the inevitable sprint up The Mall. But 7-1 just looks a bit big to me.

I absolutely loved the final stage of the Tour de France last Sunday. Wiggins showed all his class and temperament in the way he refused to coast round the streets of Paris, enjoying his victory. Instead, he dug deep for the team that had pushed him to the brink of victory and led out for Cav’s sprint finish in an absolutely beautifully orchestrated piece of team tactics. Proper respect due and, I’ll confess, lump in the throat time. So I feel bad about deserting Cavendish on Saturday. To assuage this reckless act, I’ve patriotically doubled up Wiggins in the Time Trial with Hoy in the Keirin later next week. It could have been worse, but Paddy Power wouldn’t let me put these two together with the British Team Pursuit Gold (also odds-on) for what would have been a treble of stupefying mugness. I shall content myself with the double.

Oh, and almost forgot my nap of the, er, meeting, Germany to wear the Equestrian Team Eventing gold medals at 9-4.

With decent cards at Ascot and York over the next couple of days, I aim to use my time wisely to unearth even more staggeringly good bets. In the meantime, bring it on, as they say. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Jet Stream

Britain’s summer of sport continues a heavy legged squelch through sodden conditions. Those dreams of shiny hot days of sport formed back in a baking May have rusted under jet stream driven downpours.

The test series between the Windies and England was a poorly attended damp squib, the one-day series more so. Racing has never seen so many fixtures abandoned in the main turf season. The British Grand Prix was played out in front of empty seats because petrolheads couldn’t get to flooded car parks. The build-up to Thursday Open at Lytham St Anne’s has dominated by observations on wind and climatic conditions. Andy Murray briefly lifted our spirits under a Centre Court roof that was pulled back and forth with the regularity of the shelf on a penny falls machine.

However, the tarnishing qualities of excessive rainfall are only partly responsible for the unsettled mood hanging over sport just now.

This week’s disturbing revelations in a Westminster Magistrates Court show the extent of the dark place in which football resides. Rarely has the meaning and nuance of such vitriolic abuse been analysed as microscopically as it was in the John Terry racism case. The shoddy, degrading, offensive nature of football has been exposed in the full glare of publicity. Simon Hattenstone’s article paints a depressing picture of long-standing ignorance, ineptitude and intransigence about recognising and dealing with corrosive racism.

The mood I’m in right now, it would take plenty of evidence to convince me that the game isn’t rotten to its very core at every level. Racism and general offensiveness are not the only problems. Add in a fanbase with a bent towards regular violence (most recently played out in the grandstand of Newbury racecourse on Saturday); allegations of bungs, corruption and bribery at the very top of the world governing body (awarding the 2018 World Cup to Qatar makes my nostrils itch with the smell of burning money) which cascades through tiers of the domestic game; right through to aggression, interference and intimidation on the part of fathers at their sons’ Sunday morning football and a picture emerges of a game in crisis. We lurch towards another over-hyped Premier League season with the prospect of players diving, cheating and pressurising officials; managers coaching them to do so; ignorant tribal fans sending death threats (and in some cases letter bombs) willy nilly to players, managers, board members or officials; owners running down and over-committing clubs for personal profit or ego-mania; and the media telling us this is the greatest game in the world.

Glebe Park 
‘Miserable bastard’, you scowl. Maybe. Though I have found some bright spots. I was cheered to see Scottish football club owners refusing to be intimidating by the SPL’s threats of financial ruin and instead banishing newco Rangers to Scottish League 3. Quite right. The management and resource atrocities committed at the former club should not be swept away so easily. Take your medicine and enjoy the view from the corporate box at Glebe Park. Brechin City will be a welcoming host. And a few capacity crowds at the lower league clubs wouldn’t be the worst thing for the sustainability of Scottish football.

Accentuating the positive, I loved watching Spain’s authoritative defence of the European Championships, sweeping away slights about a boring passing game with a gorgeous demolition of a pretty useful Italy outfit.

For all my bellyaching about football, I do want to reserve a modicum of unvented spleen for the Olympics, too. I accept that Jacques Rogge has done a lot to clean up the IOC since the monumental Salt Lake City bribery scandal, but so much controversy lingers on – witness the 27 Olympic officials and agents who were caught selling tickets for London 2012 on the black market last month.

The rampant commercialism and image protection around the modern Games sticks in my craw: this “heavily branded corporate monster, devouring a city in which it is staged before moving on to the next” (Owen Gibson). Stories about police having to empty their crisps into unmarked plastic bags and a children’s guard-of-honour being requested to wear adidas trainers are designed to wind me up in the same way that the reports of EU technocrats demanding straight bananas and the renaming of Cornish pasties are aimed directly at the bile of Little Englanders. And I rise to it every time. Probably because I loath being manipulated by corporate sponsorship more than I loath being manipulated by the press. But I accept that some of this is necessary to deliver an event that will not bankrupt the Country. I just wish we could have lower ticket prices, more contracts for local companies and less kow-towing to big business. And less of the brand police tormenting independent bakers, for God’s sake!

I remain, though, a fan of the Olympics. As a family we have tickets for swimming finals, football semi-finals and handball group matches. I’m really looking forward to them. I can’t wait to be part of it. I will become immersed in the action, developing an instant expertise in the tactics of BMX racing, modern pentathlon and taekwondo that will allow me to scream advice and encouragement to any British competitors with an outside chance of making the rostrum. I’ll pay hawk-like attention to the medals table as if it is a 6f sprint (as long as we beat the Germans, eh?), and I’ll be bottom-lip-quivery when Mark Cavendish flies down The Mall on Sunday 28th to bag Britain’s first gold. (Surely it has to be?)

And what of horse racing in this sodden Summer? We’ve seen the emergence of a top quality three year old in Camelot and the confirmation of two great champions in Frankel and Black Caviar. On the down-side there has been the carnage of water-logged courses and too many good races run on bad ground. But the tarnishing quality of controversy has been seen here too. At Worcester last week, a number of high profile jumps trainers caused the walk-over of a race by withdrawing their horses in a concerted action to protest at the low levels of prize money on offer. I happen to think that the bookies and the courses have it too much their own way and prize money in this country is woeful in comparison with, frankly, anywhere else. But this is not such a simple debate. The Guardian’s racing journo Greg Wood lit a fire under the protest by calling into question the motivations of these trainers, arguing that they were the “already minted demanding more”. The full arguments are here and are worth reading.

So as I look forward to the Olympics, to The Open, to England taking on the South Africans for top test team status and to a second half of an increasingly intriguing flat season, I note that the jet stream is heading back north, where it belongs, heralding the chance of a break in the rainclouds. Golden light shining on a healthy dollop of spectacular sport will do wonders for my gloomy outlook. Though I fear it will take more than a few rays of the sun’s glare to buff up football’s tawdry image.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Mug Punting - the book

Well it's taken a while, but I've finally got round to editing and cleaning up Mug Punting the book. This mighty tome (!) is now available through Amazon on kindle here. It's really the forerunner to this blog and collects some early, cringeworthy stories of punting misadventure and mishap. 

Hope you enjoy it. Any comments welcome. 

As flavour, here is one of the penultimate chapters about my first foray into horse ownership...

The Charming Dash
The horse that I own a tiny fragment of, Dashing Charm, is belatedly making his seasonal debut. Connections (technically, I guess that should include me!) have settled on a low-key Huntingdon Sunday fixture. He’s running in a bumper, the second race of his career. 

Finding a race for him has had more false starts than your average General Election campaign. Set backs have included a cough, a cold, weather too wet and weather too dry. Talk about wrapping him up in cotton wool. You’d think this horse was a full brother to Shergar. Frustrating, but the animal’s welfare comes first. I accept that.

Then we had a farcically protracted campaign to find the horse a suitable race. The fixture list has been pored over and the form booked thumbed through. Multiple entries have been made in bumpers and novice hurdles at some of these fair island’s most far flung locations. Dashing Charm’s emergence into the limelight has been a tantalising ‘will he, won’t he’ soap opera for the last six weeks. I even rang the club’s hotline during Cheltenham week because there was a chance the beast might turn out at Sedgefield the day before the Champion Hurdle in some dodgy egg and spoon race. He didn’t make the cut. Just as well. 

Given this fixture/fitness epic, I feel I really should see this race at Huntingdon. Just to clock the horse actually on the track would be a victory of sorts. The next hurdle (even though this is only a bumper) is getting an owner’s ticket. After all, what is the point of horse ownership - even on this club membership basis - without an owners badge? But no joy. I do not get through the ballot. It makes me wonder how many members there are with a share in this beast. There are ten tickets up for grabs and I don’t get one.

But I resolve to go anyway and be a paying punter in the cheap seats. It’s not an easy decision. There are competing pressures at home. For instance, daughter no. 1 has a ballet exam. But this was Mrs A’s Christmas present to me and she too wants me to get some value out of the membership.

I e-mail Mike at the club in the hope that someone pulls out and I can pick up the spare. At about 5.30pm, my luck changes. Mike calls.
            “Hi Dave. Are you still planning to come racing tomorrow?”
He’s got a ticket for me, I reckon. But he wants me to commit before he offers it up. Canny bugger.
“Yeah, definitely. I’m looking forward to seeing the horse.
“Good, because I’ve got a free owners ticket for you. One of the club members has had to drop out as the family have come down with chicken pox”
“Oh that’s such a shame.”
Ouch. Was it only three years ago that I irresponsibly deserted a chicken pox-infested household to go to my first three-day Festival? I’m so shallow.
            “But good news for you if you want the ticket. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
            “Yeah, that’s fantastic. I’ll take the ticket.”
And then the immortal words….
            “Just go to the Members entrance and there will be a ticket for you there.”

Right. Sort out the logistics. Huntingdon is OK to get to. Usually. Straight down to Euston, short stroll to Kings Cross taking in the modernist British Library edifice and gloriously gothic St Pancras Station en route, followed by an hourly 50-minute shuttle into rural Cambridgeshire. But the infamous West Coast Modernisation, a lumbering and painful, overblown and overbudget rail engineering project with an unspecified completion date, is causing protracted havoc with the service from this corner of Hertfordshire.

Weekend services are particularly prone to carnage. Sure enough, a quick check reveals that emergency engineering announced only yesterday will sabotage the service tomorrow. I try to assemble a straight story from the incomplete information provided by three separate calls to National Rail Enquiries. It seems that the works are due to be completed by lunchtime. Or I can get down to the next station on the line - Hemel Hempstead - and pick up a regular service from there. This is taking more planning than Cheltenham.

Whilst I’m on the web, strangling screams of frustration at the rail system, I do a bit of research. Last time Dashing Charm’s trainer, Chris Bealby, had a winner at Huntingdon it returned at 66-1 in a bumper. And the jockey booked for tomorrow’s ride is Paul Maloney who rode a cracking double at Towcester when I was there earlier in the week. Hey hey! Good omens.

I’m reassured. After a cosy night’s kip, dreaming of the winner’s enclosures around the country, I awake refreshed and ready to take the first steps on the road signposted ‘Ambition Fulfilment. This Way’.

The family even has time to squeeze in a traditional Sunday morning outing to the Supastores. B&Q for some patio furniture and Curry’s for a washing machine. It’s this kind of time honoured, established activity that keeps the fabric of families as tight as a snare drum. But we’ve bonded for too long over the white-goods counter and we have to shift a little to get round to the station in time for the first train.
“See you later, girls. Good luck with the ballet, Elizabeth. Catherine, be good for Mummy. Thanks for the lift Helen. Byeeee”
“Good luck Daddy. Where are you going again?”

This is where the shit hits the fan. I’ve been drip-fed duff information. Stitched up like a kipper. There are no trains to London. Buses all the way. I make enquiries of one of the many luminous green-vested Silverlink attendants about the next bus. My gaze follows his jabbing finger in the direction of the last bus just turning out of the car park. Preceded by wife’s car. Bollocks.

12.40 is the first train of the day. I curse again. No chance of getting to Huntingdon for the first race. The arrival time of the train starts to slip a little. And a little more. My stomach tightens. The TV display has given up the unequal struggle and resorts to blinking ‘delayed’ in fat yellow letters instead of an estimated arrival time.

A care-worn, harassed Australian customer services rep snaps shut her mobile phone and swaps it for a mega phone.
            “The train is delayed. I don’t know when it will turn up. We’ve found another bus. As an alternative to the train, anyone who wants to take the bus to Euston, it will be leaving from the forecourt in about five minutes.”
 They’ve found a bus? I bet they don’t have this carry on in Bendigo Springs. I bet she wishes she’d taken the safer option to work with her country-folk in an Earl’s Court pub.

Reluctantly I leave the platform with everyone else, casting a longing look down the empty track. Cold rails to hell.

The coach shuttle is a disaster. The driver doesn’t know the way and he takes a wrong turning in Watford. We do a complete circuit of the Mirror Print Works on the outskirts of town followed by a tour of myriad side-streets trying to find the railway station. After 20 minutes stuck in traffic near the by-pass there is open hostility on the coach.
“If he don’t know his fuckin’ way round the A41 he shouldn’t be doin’ the fuckin’ job”, is one of the more constructive remarks.

Another guy blowing his top at the inept driver is with his family trying to get to a West End matinee performance on time for a birthday treat. I shuffle uneasily in my seat.

The bus sits outside Watford Junction station waiting for new customers. The coach driver has disappeared and a couple of the more irate passengers get off to find out what’s happening. It is they, rather than the driver that come back and tell us that the trains are now running from Watford and the bus will be going no further. Bastard. I knew it. I should have stayed at Hemel. Wrong decision.

I charge through the barriers and up the stairs. I never move this enthusiastically when I’m commuting. Unbelievably, a train is just departing from platform 9. It isn’t even full. Surely the platform manager must have known that there was a coach full of people in the car park waiting for trains? I swear and actually kick the guard-rail running round the waiting room. It hurt.

I’m starting to lose heart now. The train info suggests tentatively that the next direct London service might be 1.55. But it appears to be running late already. It’s about 1.15 and I begin to wonder whether I should just turn round and go home. There is a train on Platform 10. It goes to Brighton via Harrow, Kensington and Clapham Junction. At least it is vaguely the right direction. I leap on just as the doors are closing. This is harum scarum stuff. I’m not even in London yet.

I’m trying to catch my breath. In my mind’s eye I see the last couple of minutes as something out of a Western. I’m Clint Eastwood and I’m looking at the train indicator, weighing up what to do. Maybe I’m chewing resolutely, but calmly on a piece of old gum. Maybe I’m distractedly spinning my shiny pistol around the fingers of my left hand. I take a long look at the London platform and narrow my eyes. Then a long look at the Brighton train. With a quiet nod I coolly board the Brighton train. The doors sliding shut immediately behind me ruffle my poncho but not my pose. 

In reality, I’m more like Manuel out of Fawlty Towers. I’m stood in front of the train indicator dithering and dallying. First I take a few hurried steps towards the London platform before I stop and grasp my head in frustration. Then I move towards the Brighton train before halting and blaspheming.
            “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck”
I go back to the train indicator and search for some illumination. I have the deepest scowl burnt onto my features.
            “Meester Fawltee. Whata you wanna mee todooo now?”, I should be asking, droopy moustache twitching with nervous tension.
Then at the very last moment I plunge for the Brighton train like the manic waiter from Barcelona and scramble aboard by the skin of my pinny, grin unnervingly at the other passengers and prop myself up against the opposite door, slipping as I do.

I have some quick decisions to make now. I pull out my Betfair diary and consult the tube map at the back. I need to get to King’s Cross from this train which cuts out central London. Clapham Junction involves too many changes. There are no tubes from Olympia and West Brompton on a Sunday.

No choice then. I get off at Harrow and Wealdstone to get the Bakerloo line which will take me right into Zone 1. The train I’ve just exited pulls away at the moment I’m reading the tube map info. It tells me that Harrow doesn't currently enjoy a Sunday Bakerloo line service. Trains into London start further down the line at Queens Park today. That’s handy then. Boy, have I cocked this one up.

I’m still running through options in my increasingly crowded and dark brain when I notice a bit of movement on the platform. People shifting around like they are getting ready for a train. I spin round to see a Silverlink Metro service arriving. Hallelujah! My first piece of good luck. This is a tortuous stopping service all the way to Euston. I need to be on the 2.20 from KX if I have any chance at all of seeing some racing today. It will be tight. I count down every single stop, willing the doors to bleep-bleep as soon as the train comes to a stop. It’s torment.

Next thing, I’m skittering down Euston Road, hurdling rough sleepers and leap-frogging concrete bollards. People jump out of my way as they hear my laboured breathing and heavy footfall approaching behind them. I’m no athlete.

But I’ve gained a bit of time and I clamber in to the Cambridge train with a Racing Post, a racing heart and a beetroot face. I hope there aren’t rules about deportment in the Owners Enclosure. 

Throughout this chaotic journey, I haven’t had chance to look at the form or check what the RP says about my horse. I flick to page 73 and cast my eyes over the runners for the 5.10 Hemingford Grey Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race (Class H) Winner £1,876. Hmm. Don’t think my share of the prize money is going to make me rich, then. 

Dashing Charm is Number 4, resplendent in red colours with a blue stripe. He gets an RP rating of 69. This isn’t good, though there are two others with an even lower rating. The spotlight analysis is crushing.
            “Left toiling in rear on run for home when tailed in off fast ground Worcester bumper last June; cannot fancy.”

The journey out to Huntingdon is in marked contrast to the last few hours: calm, quick, pleasant. I jump in a taxi out to the track. It’s not long before I’m directing the taxi down the track marked ‘owners and trainers’. I leave him a healthy tip and he shoves off. I’ve got too smug. This entrance is for the trainers, grooms, head lads and the like. Pukka race folk who have a proper job and proper connections. I trudge off before I make any more howlers. I find the main entrance and more accommodating ‘members, day members and owners’ gate. This is me.

            “Hello. You should have a badge for me. David Atkinson, City Racing Club. Bit late. Ha ha. Train trouble. I’ve got a runner in the 5.10.”
I wince. That last bit I couldn’t deliver with any confidence. It’s the sort of thing I dreamt of saying. When it came to the delivery, it sounded weak and made up. If I was a proper owner I wouldn’t need to emphasise the point.
            “Oh yes, here you are Mr Atkinson. And a complimentary race card. Have a lovely day.”

Oh yes. I will. Oh Yes.

I fumble with the strings attached to the badge, trying to attach it to my jacket. In doing so I almost stumble into Nicky Henderson who is leaving the parade ring to watch the next race. Oh my God. I’ve only been here 30 seconds and I’m already mixing with the game’s premier trainers. This is too much.

I’m in time to see the 3.40. The day’s exertions have rattled me and I decide to have a bet and watch the race before meeting the Club members. I need to regain some composure.

I back Nicky Henderson’s runner Late Claim. Rude not to after our introduction just now. We are almost mates and this is practically a tip. It’s a 2 mile novice hurdle, but this doesn’t stop the horse fading badly in the last half mile. There is a very close finish and I couldn’t call the winner between Stolen Song and Tai Lass as they flash past the stands. Stolen Song prevails.

OK. I’m steeled. The club members are meeting in the owners’ bar of the main grandstand. I swear my chest swells as I stride in. The doorman (who would not be out of place at The Ritz in my eyes) clocks my badge flapping freely in the Spring breeze and pushes open the door. I breathe deeply. Smells like any other bar in the world. Stale fag smoke, flat beer and recycled air conditioning. But this is my bar. The owners’ bar.

Mike told me that he and the other club officials would be wearing red jackets. I easily spot a group of four - two blokes and two girls - who fit this description, mingling with half a dozen people who I assume are the other members. I wander over and introduce myself. Mike’s on the phone and the other red-fleeced clubbers point at him and say it’s him I need to speak to. Not a trace of a Geordie twang. Clearly it’s just the Tote red jackets that bring out this curious trait.

I fall into conversation with Bill from the club. I say I’m late because of my train nightmare. He takes one look at me and says,
            “You look like you need a drink! The bar is over there.”
He knows me for all of 30 seconds and he’s worked me out! He’s bloody well right. I must looked frazzled after my ordeal. The journey out from Peterborough was calm, but clearly it did not give me sufficient time to disguise the trauma of the first 3 hours of the journey.

I return with my pint and I do actually feel more relaxed. Bill is a quietly spoken, stocky bloke in his late forties at a guess. He tells me he’s only working with Mike because he’s at a loose end these days. He comes along on race days to help with all the bits and pieces that need sorting out. He knows Mike from their Army days years ago and hooked up with him again after his own engineering employment which had taken him as far afield as the Falklands had run into the ground.

Bill is so laid back. He doesn’t know much about the horses or about the game. He doesn’t bother about a bet. This is all about a day out, being involved and helping out a mate. He is a very engaging, thoughtful chap and contrasts markedly with Mike. Mike is finally off the phone and is scurrying around each of us shaking hands, nodding the odd comment and making himself busy. He’s quite a short guy, clipped blond hair and looks a few years younger than Bill. After a few minutes, Mike gives a sort of school-teacher like chat about Dashing Charm, known by everyone here as ‘Tickle’ and today’s events.
“He’s been working well at home and Chris is pleased with him. He is still only young and we are looking forward to a long career with him. Today’s race is a bumper. That means there are no fences and it’s just a flat race. He has taken on some hurdles at home, but he won’t be trying that today.”
Hmm. This is hardly a Racing Post analysis of his prospects.
“Is the plan to step him up to longer distances after today?”, I ask.
“Yes. We already think he will stay 2 ½ miles and touch wood, after today, he’ll try that distance over hurdles.”

That’s about it before Mike issues some instructions about meeting up before the race and slips back into his phoning/handshaking routine.  I grab a couple of words with him. He seems like a buzzed-up teenager, not able to hold his attention on anything for more than a few seconds. He’s very enthusiastic which is great to see and he cares deeply for the horses. He rides out Tickle most days.

The owners who have shown up today come from right across the racing spectrum, hence Mike’s very general pep-talk a few minutes ago. I’m chatting to a young couple who bought each other shares as Christmas presents. They’ve never been racing at all before. First time. They remind me of giggling teenagers, arm in arm, pointing and laughing at anything they have never seen before. Another couple, much older and looking well off, go racing regularly and seem to have an interest in one or two of the club’s horses. Eric - big bloke, blingage, camel hair coat and booming gor-blimey voice - tells me all about his best bets and how to pick a winner at Leicester, his local track. He must be a used car salesman. He’s a good laugh, at least in moderation, and I watch the next race with him and his quietly spoken, demure missus from the grandstand.

I don’t get a sniff of a win in the race, but at least my blood pressure has returned to normal and I’ve stopped spitting barbed wire about Network Rail. I have a good look at the course. There are a couple of decent races here each year. The Peterborough Chase, synonymous with Edredon Bleu is probably the pick. The circuit is quite small and even in 2-mile events the field comes past the stands twice. I crane my neck to see them round the tight bottom bend. Rarely, for a course these days, there is no giant screen to concentrate on when the field is down the back straight. The course is not exactly top drawer in terms of quality and quantity of facilities, but the environment is lovely here on the outskirts of town and the track has encouraged an open and accessible policy. There is plenty of room to move around and explore, fostering a relaxed atmosphere. The facilities must heave under the pressure of a Peterborough Chase crowd though.

I decide to explore the facilities in more detail and plunge nose first into a thai chicken concoction from a van near the horse walk back to the unsaddling enclosure. Wonder if it makes the horses hungry. I’m standing near the winner’s enclosure when Terry Biddlecombe squeezes under the rail and passes within a foot of me. For a moment I think he’s going to steal my noodles. But he simply passes an enquiring glance and heads off to the stables. No sign of Hen Knight today but the stable has a couple of runners here today. Mixing with the stars, me. I’m getting to like this owner’s stuff.

I bump in to Bill just as I’m binning the mangled remnants of the Thai extravaganza. It only gets 5/10. If you read this, Terry, go for the chippy instead! I tell Bill that I’m having a great day and that I’m surprised how many top trainers there are here. He says that’s good but I don’t think he really knows who Terry Biddlecombe and Nicky Henderson are.

The novice chase is a reasonably good looking race and I back Bill’s Echo. It’s the first decent fancy I’ve had so far today. Bill and I settle on the rail beyond the winning post for this one. He talks lovingly about the grace of horses then surprises me when he says that his first love is really motorbikes. He also tells me about a fantastic walk he did across Northern Spain as part of an international challenge. He ended up staying on for months after the walk had been completed. We went there on holiday there last year and he knew the bit the stayed in, Cantabria, well. He loves the people and I think he left part of his heart in La Coruna.

Timmy Murphy left part of Bill’s Echo at the last fence. My bet was coming to take the race, I’m convinced, under a typically late, driving finish from the in-form jockey. But he clouted the final obstacle and went down in a heap. 

We join the rest of the team by the parade ring for Dashing Charm’s race. Mike is still buzzing about, but there’s not much to be seen yet. I meet the other two red-jacketed club officials. Kate and Lynn are the stable staff. Both teenagers who love horses and are charged with looking after Tickle. Mike is organising a collection for Kate who is the horse’s groom. She’s been with him up until recently and is more excited than any of us about seeing him in the ring.

Mike points out Chris Bealby, the trainer and not long after Dashing Charm, or Tickle, whichever you prefer, comes out of his box. There are too many of us to go into the ring with Mike and the trainer. Shame. I’d have enjoyed that part as well. Maybe next time.

Tickle looks very well. He’s a chestnut colour, quite big and appears quite fit enough to my uneducated eye. But this is his first run since June last year, so is bound to need a sharpener. He’s big enough compared to the other runners. I think I actually do say “chaser in the making” to someone in our group who nods back at me with a knowing expression. Some traditions need to be kept intact. 

Jockey Paul Maloney receives the briefest of final instructions from Chris Bealby before mounting our horse, pause there, ……our horse…., and cantering onto the track. Chris joins us in the grandstand which is great because I really wanted to have a bit of a chat with him. At least he’s making the effort to join the members and is an approachable sort. I ask him about long-term plans for the horse.
            “Yes, we think he’ll go chasing. Seems the right sort. See what happens today though. Needs a bit more experience.”
He speaks in clipped tones from a giant height. I’m on the step above him in the stand and I’m still peering up at him. You can tell he’s a trainer a mile off. He wears a check flat-hat pulled down low over his eyes. He’s wearing a grey barbour zipped up half way with regulation brown v-neck pullover and contrasting shirt/tie combination peeping out from underneath. But the give-away must be the crazy mustard cords keeping his pins warm. Where do they sell this gear?

I don’t get chance to congratulate him on his tremendous bumper record at Huntingdon or to ask whether he’s expecting a repeat. He’s been collared by Mike again who clearly feels he’s the only one qualified to engage the trainer in proper racing talk. He’s probably right. 

I need to get a bet on and I bag 66-1 each way on the Atkinson beast. Ha ha. They are at the start by the time I join the gang. Bealby has his bins focused on the field. I do a double take at the size of his hands. They are like shovels. Absolutely massive. He’s obviously bred from solid farming stock.

As the race gets underway, Bryn fires me a text to say he’s watching the race and the Charm looks well placed in mid Division. Indeed he is. The field passes us with our boy held up sensibly in the pack.
            “Go on Tickle. You show ‘em.” It’s the stable girls next to me.

The race kicks on a gear down the back straight and Dashing Charm is quickly outpaced. He can’t stay with the leaders and Maloney is barely asking him for an effort. Henrietta Knight’s horse Racing Demon comes away to win the race, but all of us are still looking down the track. Dashing Charm stays on well and picks off a few stragglers to finish a well beaten but not disgraced 10th at 40-1.

The stable girls are bitterly disappointed and desperately trying to see the bright side.
            “At least he wasn’t last”
            “Yeah, but this was a decent race, remember. Lots of good stables were represented here”, I offer.
            “Yeah, that’s right”, they leap on my solace. In a manner of speaking.
            “And he hasn’t run since last June. He’s bound to be rusty.” I almost believe the excuses myself.

There’s time for a group photo and a bit more chat before I decide to make for home. Bill tries to buy me a pint, but given the histrionics involved in getting here, I see sense and head for the courtesy bus back to the station. This has been some day.

Think I’d better call home.
            “Hello Daddy.”
            “Hello Elizabeth. How did your ballet test go?
            “Oh, it was OK. Wendy said I did well.”
            “Brilliant. Well done.
“Hello Daddy. I’ve been a good girl today.”
            “Hello Catherine. That’s really good.  Is Mummy there?”
“Yes, I think so”
Long pause.
Longer pause.
“Hello? Dave?”
“Hiya. It’s me. What sort of day did you have?”
“Fine. I didn’t know you were calling. I just walked in to the living room and the phone was off the hook!”
“Cheers Catherine!”

They’ve had a top day anyway. And they even saw the race.
            “Which one’s Charming Dash, Mummy?” had asked Elizabeth.
            “That’s Daddy’s horse”, had said Helen, pointing at the red and blue clad jockey, “Dashing Charm.”
            “It doesn’t look like Daddy”, she had replied. Helen looked a bit perplexed before she worked out what our eldest meant.
            “No, no he’s not riding it, honey. He’s just gone to watch it with some other people.”
I think she was a bit disappointed.

The club are quite pleased with Tickle’s run, apparently. I checked the website for any follow up, and not only is there a picture of us all by the parade ring, but the price for shares in the horse has been put up by another £50 quid or so on the strength of this performance. There’s optimism for you. 

Monday, 2 July 2012

26 of 52

"Do you want this spare notebook?" I offered to daughter no. 1. "There are plenty of unused pages in it." 
"Oh, yeah', she thumbed through the leaves. "It will be good for my revision". 
"Ignore all those lists", I said, "Chuck 'em away if you want. They're just names of race horses."
"Yeah, I'd worked that out Dad. You don't write about anything else!"
So, this is a forlorn effort to prove that I do have some other hobbies. I really, really do.

The Guardian has been running an excellent 52 Weeks photo project on Flickr, in which I am thoroughly enjoying participating. Check out this fine gallery of the contributors. The idea is simple enough: capture an event, moment or view that makes each week memorable and post it to the group. As a brief, this is tougher than it sounds. I have strived to meet the challenge of searching out, or happening upon distinctive images for each post. Sadly I have often fallen back on the usual subjects, but I have nevertheless welcomed the stimulation.

One of the ideas behind the project is to explore the possibilities of iphoneography, where there is a burgeoning market in smarty-pant apps to filter, edit, stitch and otherwise manipulate images. But it's not all about smartphones. There are plenty of impressive photos on there taken with dedicated digital cameras and also archaic hardware using something called 'film'...

And here we are at half way already. I'm surprised how much I've got into this. Experimenting with some of the iphone apps that can transform images is a blast. Cheating? Yes. But in such a creative and liberating way that my purist photography principles have been happily lobbed out of the window. This is meant to be fun.

My 26 of 52 are linked here. And below is a slection of my faves.

Week 3. Bleakness on Berko Common. This is one of my favourite views down the valley, caught here on a frosty morning through watery sunshine. It was properly freezing. Those figures in the mid-distance were layered up and were chasing a dog to keep warm.

Week 4. By now I'd found some cool iphone apps. This one is called colorsplash and turns the photo black and white, so you can restore selected areas of the image to the original colour. The neighbourhood's garden bird population stripped this bush clean in about a week following this photo.

Week 5. Now we are getting flash. This app is called Camwow and has a fun little colour-temperature filter which exploded the sun behind this bare tree at Northchurch Common all over the sky. It's amusing, but I don't know what Cartier-Bresson would make of it!

Week 7. Pickering church, augmented with a filter called drama on the snapseed app, which I discovered at about this time and have subsequently experimented with loads on this project.  My brother's not impressed. "Well, it's OK, but it's not very real is it?" Course it is. Real, but better.

Week 11. Highlight of the year, the Cheltenham Festival, held every March. It was a bright day and highlighted nicely the runners in this amateur race commonly referred to as 'the four-miler'. In all honesty, whilst the vintage effect works OK, the edge-blur adds nothing to the photo and I should have left it off. One lives and learns. If only the same could be applied to gambling.

Week 12. The new departure hall opened at King's Cross this week, revealing this splendid roof and lighting pattern. This is taken from behind the main pillar near the ticket windows looking back over the restaurants gallery. I like to think that station-spotting is at least one step up the evolutionary ladder from train-spotting. But I may be delusional. Where did I put those egg sandwiches?

Week 15. It's a bitter, cold early April day. I was on my way to a net session down at The Oval in the week that the English Domestic season had it's earliest ever start. To add insult to injury, this seriously malevolent cloud was just about to dump its wares all over the carefully manicured outfield. Again, a touch of snapseed drama emphasises that pregnant sky.

Week 16. I found myself in Liverpool on a date very close to the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. This is the former headquarters of the White Star Line, owners of the the ill-fated liner. The 5th floor balcony is where the news was conveyed to the public. The building is mostly empty now and needs a touch of refurb. The more iconic Cunard Building, this company's biggest rival back in the day, is just down the road by the pierhead.

Week 20. On the road again. This time Birmingham, where these colourful wind sculptures caught my eye, illuminated by a low evening sun out of a crystal blue sky and sitting on a deceptive ridge, so that the pinnacles of St Martins-in-the- Bullring are just visible. The Bullring really has been transformed in recent years. It's actually a nice place to go now. Tilt-shift has been used to throw the nearest sculpture into sharper focus.

Week 21. It's May now and I had to include at least one sunset pic. This is with my DSLR and long lens out of the loft window. Not too much post-production going on here, just a bit of cropping. See. I can leave the toys alone if I want.

Week 22. Another week, another app. This time autostitch which creates a panoramic shot from a series of individual snaps. In this case The Thames near Waterloo.

Week 24. And sticking with The Thames, these Olympic rings appeared on the underside of the Tower Bridge walkways in mid-June. A sure sign that the carnival is almost here. They now hang vertically between the bridge's two towers in an "iconic image of the London games", so said Mayor Johnson, anyway, shortly after he comically bellowed into a walkie-talkie "Lower the" during a marvellously choreographed piece of 2012 PR.

Week 26. Back to Berkhamsted Common for the halfway point of this project. Where was frozen clumps of fescue in January, now rises metre-high grass swaying (not so) gently in yet another westerly depression. Pretty though. Isn't nature a marvellous thing?

Don't be surprised to see similar themes emerging in part 2 sometime in late December!