Sunday, 30 September 2012

40 jumpers to follow 2012-13

The Ryder Cup is seriously warming up in Illanois. Europe is trying to overturn a four-point deficit in the last day singles. An uphill struggle. And as I stagger to comprehend Rory McIlroy almost being late for his tee-time, I realise that I’m almost late with my 40 to follow. For me the jumps season starts tomorrow, 1st October, a long time after the Ryder Cup is won and lost at Medinah.

It’s not just about personal pride and private income. These forty raggle-taggle hurders and chasers carry my credibility into the Annual Atkinson Challenge which, in five years, I have failed to win. Nevertheless, last season’s stats are good. I aim to match or better that performance with these. Last year’s list had too many odds-on shots at unbackable prices. I’ve tried to redress the balance here with a few more unexposed types, a few more handicappers and a little less focus on the big end of season festivals. It remains to be seen whether that proves to be the case.

1. Alfie Spinner – Nick Williams
Campaigned above his level last season, always finding one too good in top novice chases. As a handicapper over extended trips in the mud, he’s expected to come into his own. Trainer is gleefully eyeing up the Welsh National for him.

2. Ambion Wood – Victor Dartnell
A graduate from last year’s list and a horse with a bright future over fences after some compelling performances as at up to three miles. Untested on anything better than good-soft. I like him very much though rumours that my skinny beans are already down for the RSA Chase are a touch exaggerated.

3. Arctic Ben – Henry Daly
Good progress over hurdles in the mud at around 2-2½ miles. Shows a willing attitude in a scrap, an essential for this list, and further progress is keenly anticipated.

4. Back In Focus – Willie Mullins
Formerly with Howard Johnson, this good looking hurdler made an impressive debut over fences for Willie Mullins at Listowel recently. Will now be aimed at all the top novice chases in Ireland and then probably the Festival in March, though questionable whether much value can be squeezed from this.

5. Barbatos – Ian Williams
Top drawer staying novice form last season on good ground. Missed the second half of the season with a small leg injury. The bold grey is expected to resume his career this Autumn.

6. Benheir – Rebecca Curtis
Take out the Albert Bartlett at the Festival and this one’s profile is ascending. Unlikely to be top-ranked amongst this season’s staying novice chasers, but this improving trainer can be relied upon to find decent opportunities.

7. Big Occasion – David Pipe
Dual purpose campaigner putting an interesting cv together over 2½ -3 miles on soft. His trainer, a master of the dark arts of handicap placement, is sure to find appropriate opportunities.

8. Bold Sir Brian – Lucinda Russell
Great progress through novice and handicap route last term, before one race too many at Haydock in March. Pick of the form is on soft or worse at 2½ - 3 miles. Not fully exposed yet.

9. Call The Police – Willie Mullins
Exceeded the expectations of many (but not me, smugly clutching an ante-post voucher) in the RSA Chase at the Festival in March. Further modest improvement was seen at Punchestown and though he may be one of Mullins’ lesser lights, I’m going to stick with him in staying chases as he emerges from novice company.  

10. Cotton Mill – John Ferguson
I wept bitter tears of pain when he ran out at the Festival in the Neptune. Only later when I watched the reply did I realise he was never going to get close to Simonsig. Found out over 3 miles at Aintree, but nevertheless, a classy one to follow back down in trip.

11. Daffern Seal - Dermot Weld
Another foray across the Irish Sea brings this Weld gelding into the list, who at 8 years old is remarkably lightly raced. He has shown a bit of quality and stamina in his 5 starts, notably at the Galway Festival and then when staying on well behind Teaforthree in the Festival fourmiler and is fancied for staying handicap chases this season.

12. Dodging Bullets – Paul Nicholls
Strong evidence that he was a slow learning juvenile last year, being very green behind Grumeti on his British debut at Newbury in February, before running a very good 4th in the Triumph and then being badly hampered by falling stablemate Hinterland. Not seen the best of him yet. 

13. Fascino Rustico – Ronald O’Leary
Not much to go on, but easily won a Carlisle bumper with previous winners behind him and could be fun to follow. Evidently well-liked by his yard. However, if I ever use the term ‘apple of his trainer’s eye’ you are invited to poke me in mine with a sharp stick.

14. Fashion Faux Pas - Paul Henderson
Experienced mare in Irish points and although a slow start last season, there was enough promise in her most recent novice hurdles to suggest better things when she attains her handicap mark at around 2m 5f and over.

15. First Fandango – Tim Vaughan
Hardly unexposed, but competed well last season and improved from race to race, Cheltenham excepted. Displayed the requisite likeable attitude and picked here to take advantage of an anticipated upgrade over fences this Autumn. 

16. Get Me Out of Here – Jonjo O’Neill
I’ve been close to including this boy in previous lists and as an exposed sort it’s a risky decision now. But though I will argue he can improve again, this is really about heart ruling head. His weight carrying performances earn my maximum respect but I want to see him campaigned away from big handicap company at up to 3m now.  

17. Go All The Way - Jim Dreaper
Has been beset with injuries and has recently recovered from two pelvic operations to land back to back chases at Killarney. His trainer says he needs to go left-handed and wants good ground. That could be a challenge in Ireland. Top prospect if handled sensibly, as expected. 

18. Greyfriars Drummer – Charlie Mann
4 from 5 since last Spring and his last effort in August at Market Rasen winning a 2m3f hurdle was a good performance. Only a 4-y-o and surely scope to improve on good ground. 

19. Hazy Tom – Charlie Longsden
Looked like he was going to be special after he won well at Wetherby in November. Things didn’t pan out that way and he didn’t match that performance again until Aintree in April when staying on behind Attaglance. It could be that 3 miles is his trip and I fancy him to pick up from there.

20. Hidden Cyclone – JJ Hanlon
Won very well on his debut over fences last December. I was initially disappointed that he only finished 3rd in his next outing, but considering what Sir Des Champs has done since and where he sits in the Gold Cup betting, that length or so defeat reads much better now. Preference for soft ground.

21. Ifyouletmefinish – Jeremy Scott
Consistent performances in moderate novice hurdles before being found somewhat in the County Hurdle. Resumed progress at Haydock and enough potential shown to stay loyal this season. Might step up to 2 ½ miles.

22. Il De Re – Donald McCain
McCain found remarkable improvement in this one’s flat form this Summer and we can anticipate similar progress when he makes his hurdles debut for his new trainer after switching from Ian Williams.

23. King Of The Wolds – Malcolm Jefferson
After his best season for years, I really wanted a Jefferson horse in this list. This one is likely to fit the profile of many of his horses, plying their first season in bumpers before stepping up.

24. Kuilsriver – Nick Gifford
A quiet one for novice chases around the gaff tracks. Nice attitude and expected to improve for the switch to fences. Unlikely to set the world on fire, but likely to be handy to follow.  

25. Lackamon – Sue Smith
Decent staying handicap chaser up to 3 ½ miles. Won’t want anything too soft and assuming his jumping issues can be sorted out, should pay his way this season.

26. Mae’s Choice – Gordon Elliot
Never out of the first three in six runs and landed the odds on four occasions. Still possesses plenty of potential (although often needs rousting along in her races), particularly if she goes chasing now that her handicap mark has risen.

27. Melodic Rendezvous - Jeremy Scott
An improving trainer and improving horse. MR beat some well-touted prospects from the big stables at Chepstow in March and bettered that on shocking ground in the Grade 1 Champion Bumper at Punchestown Festival behind he deeply impressive Champagne Fever. 

28. Native Gallery – Ben de Haan
Racked up a great strike rate: 6 wins from 11 starts including point to points. Improved quietly in competitive handicaps for the most part last season and will revert to chasing now.

29. Pendra – Charlie Longsden
The same day as Finian’s Rainbow was carving up Sizing Europe in the Champion Chase, this one was just beginning his career in no more than an ordinary bumper, but with some horses from good trainers represented, three of whom have gone on to win again.

30. Problema Tic - David Pipe

Won at Kempton in March and sold by his owner Robert Ogden who is now concentrating solely on the flat. Pipe picked up the reins and he then won impressively at Ayr over 3 miles. Scope for improvement, possibly over even further.  

31. Raya Star – Alan King
Deeply impressive in a string of competitive handicap hurdles last season. I like his pluck and one to follow this year in the top handicaps or more likely over fences.

32. Red Rocco – Donald McCain
A quiet improver from McCain junior. A lot of 2nds in his profile, but I saw most of them and he is not wanting for guts and tenacity, so I’m persuaded to give him another go this season in handicap hurdles (most likely) on the basis that he’s a slow burner.

33. She Ranks Me – Donald McCain
Fast improving novice hurdler, already been on the go in late Summer and the type to rack up a sequence.  

34. Smad Place – Alan King
Signs of an Alan King recovery last season. This one was just short of top-notch in the staying hurdle division and will be an interesting novice chaser to follow.

35. Sustainability – Venetia Williams
Simply had to have a Venetia Williams handicap hurdler in the line up. She’s not the force of old but I’ll look forward to her campaigning this decent sort softish ground over about 2 ½ miles.

36. Swinging Sultan – Keith Reveley
Should make his mark over middle-ranking hurdles this winter after some impressive bumpers last season, competing well against New Years Day who was then 2nd in the Champion Bumper. Flirted with the flat in the Spring and pleased to see that experiment was curtailed.

37. Trifolium – Charles Byrnes
Finished a close third in last year’s Supreme after I’d talked myself out of backing him e-w. No great surprise as I’d had the same debate with every runner in the field. Looked unlucky to lose to Alderwood at Punchestown in a strong but select renewal. No dithering this year. I’m backing him for the Arkle. Or possibly the Jewson. Or maybe he’ll stay over hurdles…

38. Umadachar – Warren Greatrex
Eye-catching frame finishes in big bumpers at Aintree (mares) and Sandown. Might want a stamina test over hurdles, but clearly possesses a touch of potential. 

39. Up To Something – Charlie Longsden
Unbeaten in three bumpers, making all in a class 2 affair at Newbury. Loved the way he dominated (though almost running out of gas) and picked purely on that promise.

40. Urbain De Sivola – Nick Williams
Reasonable progress in juvenile ranks last season before exposed on good ground at the festival. Won a couple in France since and should go on when kept to soft and worse. Could make full use of chasing allowance if tackling the big ones.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

60 not out

On St Leger day, we were at Steve's 60th birthday bash, bathed in gorgeous Autumnal sunshine surrounded by bucolic Suffolk rurality. Steve and Di inhabit a wonderful Victorian rectory which they have painstakingly and lovingly converted into a top class B&B. For an insight into some of that pain (mostly Steve's) and love (see Di)  - check out this edition of  Channel 4's  Ruth Watson's Hotel Rescue about the renovation. These deeply complex reality programmes always need a Shakespearean sub-plot of intrigue. Step forward Steve who quickly realised the need for a fall guy to Ruth's patronsing wisdom. He expertly portrayed himself as the reluctant and unenthusiastic hoarding grouch with natural born comedic timing and understated scene stealing.

 There was a marquee in the back garden, which Steve and Di used for wedding receptions and most recently an 80th birthday party. Inside and sitting in prime position on the top table was a gleaming barrel of Adams Topaz Gold. I didn't really want to pile in, on duty as I was. But who could resist? My duty was to take a few snaps of the guests to mark the celebration. That's all well and good, except that Steve's son happens to be a talented photography graduate already carving out a career in the business. No pressure then. Keir is also a budding actor and his appearance in Hamlet would keep him from his Dad's birthday until late. Hence my role.

The photo gig had not started well. On dusting off the SLR that morning I had found the battery only half charged with the adapter missing and no time to buy a new one. I packed the compact as a standby (3/4 charged) and well, there was always the iPhone for a particularly professional look if all else failed. Ahem.

It's good to break the ice when you are wandering around sticking a camera in people's faces. I was appalled at how easily some digital-age photographic bullshit slipped from my lubricated tongue: "Official photographer, yes just back from a royal engagement in rural France...What a lovely group you make - anyone would think you knew each other....Smile for Facebook...Thanks, that's lovely - another one for my stalking collection".

Of course, the battery had run out on the big camera long before Steve's climactic speech ("...after 60 years I've finally learned the secret of popularity. Marry a popular woman!") and cake cutting. The little camera decided to fall into sleep mode (clearly nothing to do with Steve oratory skills) on the very point of actual cake-incising. I got one of Di wielding the silver knife instead. Never mind. I captured few pretty sunset shots on which the hosts will no doubt reflect on with affection when recalling this big day...

There was was plenty of eating (epic spread), drinking and grand catching up to be done, too. Mrs A and Steve go back decades and there were some great anecdotes from EMI days. Apparently the balcony, over which The Beatles leant for their iconic 'Greatest Hits' red and blue covers, was moved from the Manchester Square office when it was demolished and re-erectred in pride of place at the new South Kensington base.

The racing banter didn't take long to materialise, either. Charlie declared his strong interest in punts and tips and it turned out Cookie knew all about Camelot beaten that day in the St Leger by an outsider. But not the outsider that I'd been rattling on about all afternoon. Thought Worthy, my fairly confident each-way shout was first beaten, by all accounts. It was Enke, at 25-1 and well held by my lad at York last month, that kept Camelot out of the history books. I found compensation in the next when Libranno rediscovered his early season form to land the Park Stakes at 16-1. A fact I was not slow in passing on after my public Leger humiliation. And then I learned that Nigel was only promoting the music nights at half a dozen Northern Racing tracks. The very nights that our family have been attending as fee-paying punters. What's the point in having connections and not being able to exploit them? By the way, you wouldn't believe how much Status Quo asked for... Well I didn't anyway.

The night started to get silly shortly after the Topaz Gold was drained off and someone pulled out a crate of Hobgoblin at 5.2% from under the table. It's lovely stuff, but it delivers a lasting impact. I made a nuisance of myself helping, but mostly hindering, Paula and Victoria who were putting up their tent in the lee of the marquee. Later I picked up some adverse comments from the Swedish contingent as I headed off to the bedrooms carrying a shiny black plastic overnight bag with Cookie in tow. Can I say here and now that the bag belonged to daughter No 1 and I was showing Cookie where his bedroom was. I don't care what the Swedes thought it looked like. Indeed Anna-Lena was already making mischief with her vaguely incriminating gallery of photos mostly featuring Mrs A with an ever-changing collection of alcoholic beverages. "They are not all mine" she pleaded.

A sweet and innocent justice of sorts was served, much later, upon the talented Scandinavian chanteuse. Anna-Lena and her husband Andreas were lodging with Ron and Glenys just up the road. The latter couple - lovely, sweet people and long standing friends of Steve and Di - were leaving the party around midnight. Glenys called over her house guests into the pool of light spilling into the garden from the bay window and started fishing about in her rucksack. Anna-Lena was huddled over the bag, probably a little curious. But no more so than the crowd of onlookers seriously concerned that Glenys was up to a no-good illicit trading transaction.  We needn't have worried. From the bag, Glenys pulled a sleeveless luminous jacket, complete with day-glo stripes and velcro fastenings, which she thrust into Anna-Lena's hands, followed swiftly by a rubber-cased flashlight. She then pulled a set out for herself and Ron and said, "That road is so dangerous at this time of night, the cars don't slow down and there is no footpath". Anna-Lena was very grateful and was half-trying on the safetywear over her cool partywear accompanied by our urgings, but thought better of it. Shame. I had my camera and "tall glamorous rock star wears hi-vis jacket at social event of the year" facebook headline all ready.

Later, chatting outside the marquee, I was disturbed by wailing guitars circa Frampton Comes Alive pumping from the speakers, and several notches louder than the preceding '70's disco mix, too. I staggered back inside and found James who, freed from his expert burger flipping duties earlier in the evening, was now flipping CDs into the PA. He was a metalhead. And although 20 years my junior, we had so much metallic ground in common. We eagerly traded highlights and experiences for the duration of at least another two Hobgoblins, ranging from the doom of Paradise Lost through the Slayer's finest moments to respectful doffing of cap to Tony Iommi's inspirational riffing. We indulged in ritualistic top live moment comparisons: loudest gig, biggest crowd, longest solo, fastest drummer, and most stomach-punching bass drum weave... Ah. Sweet memories.

What a great night. Steve and Di are impeccable hosts. The next morning, they were still at it: Steve sorting breakfast for a rectory full of sleepovers and Di organising a mass clear up and lifts to various stations for departing family and friends. It had been an even later night for some. Barry had fallen asleep at the kitchen table at 6am and Jo was leaving for a double shift at Pizza Express on one hour's sleep.

We said our goodbyes and rumbled out with Cookie to the coast for a head clearing tramp on the beach. Aldeburgh is wonderful. Fish and chips washed down by a pint of Broadside was perfect end to the weekend.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

List horses

The infamous flat horses to follow project is rumbling into its penultimate month. After a slow start, the list has begun to wash its face financially, albeit with a flannel small and thin enough to give airline complimentary wet wipes a good name. Today presents an opportunity to move the project up a rung or two because of the presence of half-decent chances and half-decent prices.

Kempton, 2.30pm – Modun is a forecast 5-1 chance in a strong looking September Stakes field. He picked up this race last year whilst in the charge of Sir Michael Stoute. There were signs of a return to form at Newbury last time after a previous effort on the wrong ground. A busy time before that in Australia and UAE can’t have helped. 1m4f here will suit, as will the surface. It’s a confident bet, but he main danger may well be Calvados Blues and arguably comes with the best Godolphin form. Sagramor is feared too.

Haydock, 5.05pm – Aazif. John Dunlop’s charge has been frustrating this season and has yet to get his bonce in front. Second-placed the last two outings, this step up in trip has been anticipated for some time and its not quite clear why connections have been so cautious with him. The 7-2 on offer is not entirely generous with the likes of Ex Oriente and Between Us who line up with better form on paper. His liking for the track and probably the trip have not escaped the bookies beady eyes.

Leopardstown, 5.45pm – Born To Sea. Unlike the first two selections, Born To Sea doesn’t have much chance of winning the Irish Champion Stakes. On paper, he comes to the track 4th best. Odds of 20-1 keenly highlight his worrying lack of progress, for instance when stuffed by old lag Famous Name last time out. The only scenario I can conjour up is that two of Nathaniel, Snow Fairy and St Nicholas Abbey have off-days and Born To Sea miraculously (how else?) finds the improvement that we know is there, under conditions that fall right. It’s a slim frame hope and a marginal price shout.

Thirsk, 4.05pm – Full Speed. This is an ex-list horse. A horse that has ceased to be (listed). Back in 2010, I backed Full Speed to an early season win and a fail. Following which he wasn’t seen again until last year when, by the end of the season, he was recapturing good form. He’s been off again since last July and reappeared (low key, wrong ground) last month, now under the tutelage of decent northern trainer Phil Kirby. This Hambleton Cup is a tough enough handicap. Aren’t they all? But at 33-1 on ground he will like, over the right trip and on the pick of his form (if he can recapture it), the head and the heart encourage me into a minimum stakes each-way wager. Convinced? Don’t be.


[Scene: head-scratching of such fury that concerns are raised about a friction fire in dry, brittle split ends during a surprisingly hot September spell; eye brows entwined in inextricable knots sufficient to enthrall a Royal Navy Rating.]

What happened there? Two of my more confident bets this season burned away under a meltingly hot Autumnal sun. The only heat about their performances was the scorch marks left in the debit column of my secret Swiss bank punting account. The one that siphons off the Child Benefit and is named after our pet hamster. I got the idea from Harry.

Modun was consistently backed all morning, touching favouritism at a couple of points, and no bigger than 10-3 at the off. So I found some value. But that's all. Dandino, the archetypal consistent sort ran to bare form and won this heat with a bit to spare. Modun was held up but seemed to find very little when asked to quicken and was never near enough to challenge the leaders. He is not the horse of last year and remains a frustrating beast who may never realise his full potential.

I could utter carbon copy remarks about Aazif who I rated as an even stronger chance. And consistent with the laws of symmetry, I was even more disappointed. Money came for him too and he lined up the 9-4 fav. He never came close to justifying those odds, trailing in 6th after being held up and failing to mount a serious challenge thereafter. Maybe the M6 lay-by he ran on wasn't to his liking. He's running out of excuses, though - fool that I am - I'd stump up again over this trip if he raced on a surface with a little less concrete in the going report.

Born To Sea ran as I feared. And whilst it's tempting to say we may not have seen the best of him, it's more likely that he has just flattered to deceive on a couple of occasions. The evidence for the latter is starting to mount up. I love Snow Fairy to bits. What a marvellously campaigned and talented mare.

So thank heavens for one of my other list horses who once again got me out of jail. Mince, benefitting from Roger Charlton's considerable sprint training expertise, bolted up in the Garrowby Stakes at York yesterday. At only 2-1, this could only be damage limitation territory. But Mince's fourth victory this season, third on the bounce and second successive listed success represents a streak hotter than the charcoaled sausages I was incinerating on the bbq to mark my daughter's 15th birthday. She owes me nothing. (My daughter, on the other hand...)

On to Doncaster then and a chance to wring a smidgeon of profit out of the season. Sweat the list equity.

Saturday, 1 September 2012


Saturday racing coverage switches to More4 today and next week in deference to Channel 4's big (and welcome) push on the Paralympics.

Incidentally, we cheered the Paralympic torch through Berkhamsted in the wee hours of Wednesday morning on its 24 hour relay from Stoke Mandeville up the road to the Olympic Stadium. In reality, it was more like a 26 hour relay. The bearers and their entourage were already two hours late by the time they pounded across our fabled streets. This was by then approaching 2am in the morning.

I think it was all part of a grand plan by Phil, the landlord in our local pub. The Lamb kept its doors open all night to meet the thirsty demands of its torch-eager customers. And whilst the ch-ching  of the singing till provided some inevitale motivation, Phil at least looked after his customers properly. Chairs appeared for the over-tired and hyper active  kids, ditto the pensioners. And tables for our drinks... I even offered to wheel out the fruit machine at one stage, and to see of we could get the kebab van to make an additional stop.

Great atmosphere though. We were lapping it up. The crowd was three deep outside the pub by the time a couple of police outriders doffed their helmets to us and thought twice about our request for burnout donuts around the mini-roundabout.

To be honest, everything that moved got a cheer. The bemused Gregg's delivery driver heading the wrong way up the road, the Brompton-fold-up-bike rider milking the applause, sundry police cars and finally the coach with other torch bearers, the official 2012 cars and then the torch handover and procession itself. After a long, beery and high spirited wait, things all happened quite quickly. Indeed I captured a rather delightful snap of the back of a bald headed bloke on front of me. Great night though.

Anyway, bit of a diversion, that. I'm supposed to be revealing some pretty sharp selections across today's card, three of which are on More4:

2.30 Chester - Tominator, though at 6- 1 he's short enough after everyone else also appears to think he ran better in last week's Ebor than his finishing position of 8th would suggest.

2.50 Sandown Solario Stakes - Master of War. Best form on show here, particularly against the solid Heavy Metal benchmark, and because the money seems to have come for Tha'ir this morning, I'm arguing that he's a value pick at 5-2. The horse would seem to want the extra furlong too. Hannon's record with 2 year olds is of course wonderful so it's a surprise this race has evaded him so often. Looking forward to seeing what improvement there is to come from Fantastic Moon.

4.15 Beverley - Elusive at 10-1 to put his best foot forward (a rare occurence to be fair) from an OK draw and land the Beverely Bullet stakes. Is there a better named race in the programme book? Great to see the veteran Borderlescott lining up here and he's not without place prospects.

5.05 Sandown - Proximity. I was thoroughly convinced by his win last time out at Wondsor and I'm happy to side with him here on handicap debut at 11-2.

Good luck.