Sunday, 30 December 2012

Rein in the year

A winning team
As a serious horse racing fan I’m always intrigued to see how the game is perceived by the wider sport consuming public. If this year’s Sports Personality Of The Year extravaganza was the barometer, I could be forgiven for thinking I love a minority sport. Cheltenham, Royal Ascot and The Grand National are the perennial mentions, though I did appreciate the longer linger on Frankel and his great trainer, Sir Henry Cecil. It’s a shame neither could have been there. I’m sure the latter would if able, however the former is a little pre-occupied at anything up to £100k a pop just now.

Nevertheless, I indulgently wallowed in this enormous Olympic SPOTY fest, beaming at (the now beknighted) Wiggins’ left-field contributions and cringing at Linekar’s shallow Spanish stunts. Of course, the programme can never be a true reflection of the breadth and depth of the nation’s sporting achievements, although it increasingly sits awkwardly with the institution’s shrinking live output. I was staggered and thrilled that AP McCoy won the main gong in 2010 (after a well engineered campaign and in a fairly quiet year), but remember its reporting being massively overshadowed by David Beckham’s lifetime achievement award. And now live racing coverage has left the beeb too.

Having re-read my stock take of 2011 I'm struck by how many of the themes have remained current in 2012.

Black Caviar. Fast and heavy. 
Frankel’s ascendancy last year reached the firmament this Summer. Five straight group ones including, to my tired old eyes, his visually most impressive win in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot when annihilating Excelebration and in the Juddmonte International at York when effortlessly stepping up in trip. The debate still ebbs and flows about whether he is the greatest ever, but in the context of the Spring tendon injury that briefly threatened to retire him prematurely, I’m grateful that he so brilliantly graced the season at all. The conservative nature of his campaign – mostly at a mile, and never outside the UK – surely means it is impossible to say he’s the best of all time. It would be churlish to pick holes in the form (never set a track record, beat one horse four times and another twice in his last 10 starts), but it is a shame he didn’t line up in the Arc, for instance. Or more wistfully, a 7f match against Black Caviar, whose owners I absolutely respect for their resolutely international campaigning of the wonder mare. 

For my money, I can’t help wondering what Sea The Stars might have achieved as a four-year-old. He didn’t win races in the spectacular, dominating style that Frankel did. But the turn of foot he displayed to win the 2009 Arc is one of the most exhilarating spectacles I’ve seen in racing.

But Frankel was massive box office wherever he went and it will be a very long time before we see his like again. And there’s a human side to this story which probably helps to explain the campaign. Sir Henry Cecil has visibly taken strength from Frankel in his fight against stomach cancer. “I am so lucky to have been allocated Frankel to train. He has been an inspiration and challenge, which I really needed so badly”, he said in October. The trainer, now established as a national treasure, visibly declined over the Summer and was too weak to travel far. Trips to Paris or California were never likely and this must have had an impact on decision-making. He made it to the Ebor meeting at York in August after being absent from the paddocks since Royal Ascot. I know how much the ardent northern racegoers appreciated that gesture.

It was good to see John Gosden pick up his first trainer’s championship in a year when Aiden O’Brien routed four British Classics and was less than a length away from landing all five. Respect to connections for running Camelot in the St Leger. The Triple Crown hasn’t been won for 43 years. It’s a ridiculously tough and peculiarly idiosyncratic challenge, and it could be another generation before the feat is even attempted again. The Classic generation has not fared well in the final ratings analysis so it’s relevant that O’Brien still considers Camelot to be the best that has passed through his hands. If he’s right, this is a mouth-watering prospect for 2013.

What Kauto might do next
Like last year, Kauto Star was the national hunt horse that captured more headlines than others. But unlike 2011, none of this was about winning races. Firstly there was a fall in the Spring whilst working that put in doubt his Gold Cup participation. Then the race itself in which he was pulled up, followed by further speculation about his future. This was finally confirmed in October: retirement for the greatest steeplechaser of the modern era. But that was not the end of the Kauto drama. Clearly the relationship between master trainer and single-minded owner had been deteriorating for some while and spilled in to the public arena with a row over how decisions had been taken that gave Kauto a new career in dressage. The spat was quite entertaining and served to underline the unique power relationship that exists between owner and trainer.

Nicholls bagged the trainer’s championship for the seventh consecutive season. The margin of victory over Nicky Henderson was boosted by landing the Grand National. Without that, it would have been nip and tuck. Henderson swept all before him at Cheltenham and has continued where he left off in the first half of this season. There is an unprecedented concentration of Grade 1 talent at Seven Barrows and he is now long odds-on to wrest the championship away from Team Ditcheat in 12/13. It would be his first win since 1986/87.

A downside of such riches stuffed into one stable is that they rarely line up against each other. This leads to fewer high quality races before the big festivals in the Spring. The success of Cheltenham also has a real impact on the quality of cards across the season, where horses are ‘saved’ for the big races. This is particularly acute in the novice chase division. Despite rule changes, trainers are still reluctant to commit horses against a good one for fear of a punitive handicap mark. Bookies pricing up the races don’t help to make them competitive either.

Higgs boson. Possibly. 

These few gripes aside (well, there had a to be a couple) the quality and depth of jumps racing is in rude health. Kauto will be deeply missed, but there is a host of established and emerging talent to make this season a scintillating spectacle. In the wide open champion hurdle division, Hurricane Fly looks back to his best but Darlan may have the equipment to push him all the way. Grandouet and Zarkander will be no mugs come Cheltenham either. However, the injury to Big Buck’s (note the odd apostrophe) will mar the stayers races. Of the chasers, Sprinter Sacre is starting to fulfil his enormous potential, Bobs Worth (why no apostrophe?) is stepping up on left handed tracks and Silviniaco Conti could be very special. And against massive odds, Nicholls has found the key to the enigmatic class of Tidal Bay and honed him into a consistently high performing animal. Word has it that the Higgs boson  team dropped in to Ditcheat to revise their methodology before discovering the God Particle.

Osborne in PR disaster
A third theme from 2011 that couldn’t quite be nailed this year is that of horse safety. Interestingly, the incendiary whip ban issue seems to have been successfully doused. New rules originally introduced in October 2011 were about as popular with jockeys as George Osborne was at the Paralympics. A new set introduced in March, which followed a lengthy series of tinkerings and adjustments, have now begun to make a difference. By October, the number of whip offences in Britain had fallen by 34% compared with the same period in 2011, whilst the occurence of weal marks on horses had virtually disappeared. This is overdue, but nonetheless very welcome news.  

However, the high profile casualties and bad press generated by the Grand National do not look likely to go away any time soon. Deaths of the Gold Cup winner Synchronised (after which McCoy said “I cried, I was in a mess, I didn’t ride for days”) and top handicapper (and a big favourite of mine) According To Pete in the sport’s biggest TV event leave a massive welfare and PR problem. More fence modifications, following clearly unsuccessful changes after deaths in the 2011 race, and changing the start to slow runners down may work. There is plenty of evidence that reducing the field size would improve matters, but this has been left alone for the moment.
The race remains a thrilling spectacle, underlined in April by a photo finish in which Neptune Collonges prevailed by a snotty nostril. But even this wasn’t enough to convince long-time sponsors John Smith’s to hang around. The brewer’s current deal will be pulled from 2013. How much public perception played into this decision alongside commercial considerations is not known, but it will be interesting to see how easily Aintree can whistle up a new and lucrative sponsorship package.  
Folkestone winner's enclosure
Whilst the continued economic downturn has the nation restrained in a public spending straight-jacket, the impacts on racing are more mixed. 2011 actually saw an increase in the total number of people turning up at the tracks. BHA figures show that attendance at all racing was up by about 400,000 on the previous year at 6,151,282. Well over 600,000 of those were recorded at Ascot and over 400,000 at Cheltenham. However, two tracks closed in 2012: Folkestone where an average of 1476 hardy punters attended each of 24 fixtures and Hereford where a measly 1337 passed through the turnstiles at their 19 meetings. Only Leicester and Wolverhampton have smaller average gates. Perhaps it is no surprise that the tracks were in danger. The gap between the haves and have-nots in this sport became a reality for these two tracks. Bloody hell, I sound like an old socialist. I’m a big supporter of local courses. Racing doesn’t have to be all about corporate entertainment and fashion accessories. My local course, Towcester, runs free admission at most of its meetings and averages over 3,300 punters per fixture. That’s not bad for gaff-track racing. Free admission means punters slapping down bigger bets, swilling more ale and demolishing extra hog roasts. I’m sorry to see these two historic tracks disappear. Local people do go to local races. It does matter and it can pay.

Some changes are for the better though. The BBC’s live TV coverage of racing has passed to Channel Four. It’s tenure ended in ignominious style. The last live broadcast was meant to be the Welsh National meeting the day after Boxing Day. However, the fixture was abandoned after most of the track was underwater on Christmas Eve and has been rescheduled for 5th Jan when the shiny new C4 team will show it instead. The BBC’s coverage has been painful to watch in recent years. By turns comic, flippant and complacent, (excepting the impeccable Clare Balding who has been carrying the inarticulate Willie Carson for too long), I am not mourning its passing. The Telegraph was even more scathing. Of Carson’s swansong at Ascot it exclaimed, “And so it ends, Flat racing on the BBC, not with a bang but with a dementedly high-pitched cackle in Surrey to shatter bulletproof glass on the outskirts of Istanbul.”

Don't hold back now...
At this point you need to imagine Emile Sande whining a nasal funereal dirge sat at an oversize grand piano in front of a screen with flickering images of those the sport lost this year. Lord John Oaksey, who had been ill for some time, passed away in September. His impact on horse racing reaches from selfless work establishing the Injured Jockey’s Fund through to broadcasting, owning, breeding and training. Much respect. At the other end of the career span, 21 year-old jockey Campbell Gillies, drowned whilst on holiday in Corfu. The jockey was a rising star, based at Lucinda Russell’s yard. The horse he partnered to their best win, Brindisi Breeze in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham, died in a horrific accident only a month before. The horse had jumped out of his paddock and was hit by a tanker.

I was also sorry to note the passing of Kris Kin who gave me one of my best Derby winning bets on the back of an inspired Keiron Fallon ride. Other losses I noticed (and I will have missed many) include Go Ballistic, Garde Champetre, Bellvano, Scotsirish, and most recently Cristal Bonus.

Lee after one of his many jumps spills
Cheer up at the back there. Has there been a more uplifting story than that of  Graham Lee’s transition to flat racing? A jockey of both determination and skill over jumps, he landed many big winners for Graham Wylie and Howard Johnson and had a great association with Inglis Drever. His subsequently battered body could take no more of the jumps game and his career was in decline. I didn’t hold out much hope for the switch to the flat and even my untrained gaze could see his early efforts looked clumsy compared to his tidy contemporaries. But what did I know? Any technical issues were smartly ironed out and his partnership with Jim Goldie has flourished. Lee recently rode his 100th winner of the season and has landed almost £1m in prize money, including a hefty stash aboard Hawkeyethenoo in the Stewards Cup. In typically self-effacing style he commented that he was “making a go of it in a second career and not many get that chance".

To continue a hackneyed theme of swings and roundabouts, Frankie Dettori has had a less uplifting time. The six-month ban from racing for cocaine abuse caps a miserable year for the star jockey who had slipped down the pecking order at Godolphin, culminating with his departure from the operation this Autumn. As bad as this is, my money is on the irrepressible Italian bouncing back in some shape or form. Whether this is in an unspeakable reality TV show or as a freelance on the track remains to be seen…

Legendary racing commentary
I continue to enjoy the banter that Twitter can add to the racing experience. Immediate (but not always accurate) observations and reactions all add to the cut and thrust of an afternoon in front of the box or at the track. I did spot some humorous material under the hashtag #ohgrowupnaughtytittermongers in relation to the French bay filly Tossof (by Slickly out of Tossup) when running at Maison Lafitte in September. Comments such as “beaten off”, “was pulled” and “double handful” were enough to reassure me that the legacy of Derek and Clive is alive and well.

Here’s to an inspirational and rewarding 2013.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Photos of 2012: 52 weeks

The Guardian's Flickr group ‘52 weeks’ draws to a close this week. I've just uploaded my final photo. What a great project. A feature on the group recently appeared on the Guardian’s website and the group’s closing request is for members to offer some reflections on the year. So here goes.

I looked back at my half term report and am pleased to see that early enthusiasm for the project grew at about the same rate as the challenge of finding new, inspirational material. I have tried to use the group’s aims of sharing images that mark big events, personal stories or world news in 2012 as a guide. But there is also hefty doff of the cap to pragmatism when those landmark moments fail to materialise and the week was suddenly running out, leaving me to conjure a worthy snap from the garden, the sky or the street.

Surprisingly as tough was the challenge to limit the choice to only one each week when the subject matter was stronger. During the Olympics, for instance, or at a personal favourite event, the Cheltenham Festival.

Many of the subject themes are pretty predictable (in that they match my interests) and are planned or anticipated: horse racing, landscapes, sun/moonsets, architecture…

Berko Common - January
Berko Common - November
My 52 weeks slideshow is here. I thought about doing something clever with the ordering to reflect recurring subject themes – of which there were surprisingly many. But the main point of the project for me is simply to record the year in weekly photos. On that basis, the only way to view the topic is as a chronological journey. I used to organise my LP collection by genre, sub theme, alphabetically and release date. But I’m feeling better now.

But the beauty of the project has been that it should not and can not be planned. And so there also many spontaneous shots or the ones taken because I’m running out of time. Someone famous once said that “The best camera is the one that you have with you”, which is absolutely right and plays so much to the strengths of the smart phone. More than half my snaps are collected when an opportunity presents itself. Including when inching our way up the A64 in a screaming blizzard one night in Autumn when I demanded of Mrs A, behind the wheel, to “put the lights on full beam, I think I can get a great shot!”

A64 blizzard through the windscreen
Some images I hunted down with the zeal of a missionary. I had spotted a series of striking graffiti tags on the side of a disused carriage near Willesden Junction from my train. I had failed to capture it on many ocassions: too much reflection; too much speed; too much self-conciousness in a packed commuter car to put the lens up against the window… The image I ended up with wasn’t quite as good as the one rattling around in my head. But it is odd what can be picked up in the Flickr community. This became a multiple addition to the photostreams of ten or so graffiti artists around the capital whom I suspect were collecting evidence of their own work!

Graffiti train, Willseden
I’ve loved experimenting with the apps and learnt loads from the other members of the group. If you’d asked me to tilt-shift in December 2011 I would have attempted some yet-to-be-invented yoga manipulation. I have since become au fait with this and many other sassy moves. I am a full-on snapseed drama groupie. Perhaps that’s the theme of the year – the massive growth of phone and tablet based filters, editing tools and photo sharing. Who could have predicted eighteen months ago that Instagram would be sold to Facebook for $1 billion?

Nevertheless I still found myself returning to my point-and-press compact camera and back to the bulky, but trusty, DSLR when there was a particular shot I was measuring up. 

The group sharing has been the key to the success of the project. I have shamelessly stolen approaches and techniques from many other members and can only aspire to many of the great collections in the group. I’ve long admired the soft themes and brilliant use of light in Helen Ogbourn's photos; Daviocious captures incredible colours and detail; and check out Scouser_Steve's great scope.

My collection seems scattergun and eclectic by comparison. But that’s OK. I have felt able to stretch out and test ideas here. If not all have worked, well then that’s just part of the learning curve. There are a few here I’m really pleased with and ultimately this serves as a tremendous personal record of the year shared with others who have the same or similar ambitions.

Roll on 52:2013…

Saturday, 22 December 2012

A waiting game

I’m hammering away at the keyboard here almost as hard as the rain is hammering down on the sodden ground outside. The chances of the cards at Haydock and Ascot even getting underway are slimmer than a stickman on a diet, never mind completing. It’s 9.30am and its still dark.

We had some friends round for a pre-Christmas drink last night. It was a reasonably civilized affair, although the lopsided pyramid of dripping Doom Bar bottles outside the back door is evidence of a solidly sociable occasion. And the CDs piled up next to the stereo are cast-iron retro fodder: Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Bob Dylan, ELO, John Lennon, The Black Crowes, Ian McNabb. Nothing there that troubled the charts this century. Yes, we still play CDs. How passé! The Christmas party season starts earlier and finishes later, I swear. The good thing about being self-employed is the regular flow of Christmas events I get invited to. For the last three Mondays I've bumped into Patrick who lives up the road after I've stumbled off the train in varying degrees of festive cheer. Uncanny. We can go months without an encounter. "See you next Monday" we now cheerfully call on parting.

This Monday's bash had a neat twist on the Secret Santa idea. Instead of a name pulled out of the proverbial hat, we each had to make up a party cracker from a kit and insert a suitable gift. So after getting everyone in the house to help with my pathetic cracker preparation, I shot off to Corals to buy my gift. A win bet on Al Ferof for Boxing Day's King George. All the crackers were mixed up on the day. Eva won my gift and was delighted. "Inspired" she said. "Predictable" she'd have uttered if she knew me better. I won couple of pink geometry protractors. They'll come in handy...

Eva wasn’t supposed to know who the gift was from. Secret and all that. Except that she was sat opposite Julie, our Director, whom I’d bumped into the previous Saturday on Clapham Junction platform 10. I was going to Sandown for the Tingle Creek. She was going to an ice skating show with grandkids. There was a moment of mutual hesitation as we struggled to put familiar faces into an unfamiliar context. How we laughed. Anyway, when Eva was I querying the identity of the gifter, Julie nodded in my direction and said "David might know". What my Director thinks of her charity fundraiser's gambling habit is yet to be recorded.

So the very next morning, of course, Al Ferof was declared a non-runner. I told Eva and she was disappointed. I said I’d swap it for another runner. She doesn't need to know that Corals weren’t offering non-runner, no-bet (season of good will). And so I was quids down before the five-day decs were out. Eva will now be cheering on Cue Card. I hope she’s got powerful enough lungs to see him over the last half mile. Still, there are a few doubtful stayers in the field this year. I do think Cue Card has a good chance. As I did Al Ferof. But if Sir Des Champs turns up, he’s the one they all must fear. Long Run and his dodgy jumping included. They will both like the heavy going, but the whole field will need aqualungs and flippers if this rain continues to beat down with such ferocity.

I’m reading that clerks of the course at Ascot and Haydock are now uncontactable because they are slithering around their respective tracks, sinking in the mud and looking heavenwards. Abandonments move a step nearer, I fear.

Last week was one of dramatic highs and lows for Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls. His quivery emotion in an interview with Alastair Down on Saturday after Unioniste won the big handicap was all to with the unseemly and very public row with Kauto Star’s owner Clive Smith. The toothy Mr Smith had chosen a dressage career for the now retired legendary chaser, and this had upset the trainer and his team. It is the owner’s right to do as he wishes with the horse, of course. That’s not something old pumpkin head was disputing. Though it seems the way the decisions were made and subsequently announced had wound up the champion trainer beyond measure. He packed off Kauto to his new home with Laura Collett, a dressage rider of some repute and promptly stuck his bottom lip out.

The subsequent volleys of accusation and counter charge were highly entertaining. Who discussed what with whom…Where was the best home for the horse… Who loved him the most…it all added a touch of drama to an obviously emotional set of circumstances. Nicholls blubbed to Alistair Down about how embarrassed he was at the turn of events. And I believe he’s genuine in this. It highlights a unique power relationship between an owner who is often very distant but with ultimate control and a trainer providing constant attention and decision making but shorn of final responsibility. Mind you, plenty in racing will tell you that the power balance can often feel like it’s the other way round.

And then the news on Monday from his stable that both Al Ferof and Big Buck’s will miss the rest of the season. Never mind the King George, this throws the World Hurdle wide open as well. What is interesting about the withdrawal of the Nicholls’ duo is that neither of them budged an inch on betfair. The stable played it absolutely by the rules and didn't lay off either horse in the Long Walk or King George markets. BB was trading at about 1.57 at the time and would have been a simple target.

Compare this with behaviour of Henderson's yard where the price of his horses can ping-pong faster than a heart monitor before any word from the trianer. In Spring this year, Spirit Son drifted like a deflating lilo in a North Sea swell on rumours that he would not make the line up for the Champion Hurdle. Only when some bookies started suspending markets did Hendo declare Spirit Son a likely non-runner saying something like "it comes to something when the exchanges force one's hand". Charming, affable and twinkly he may be, but clearly the long suffering punters are well down his list of well-connected priorities.

Some tweets from the track just now:
“Never seen rain like it here in Ascot...don't know how the meeting is going ahead.”
“I’ve never seen the car parks in such a state.”
Due to going concerns Santa has withdrawn both Vixen and Prancer from delivery duties. Elf of the course says deliveries will still go ahead.”
The Tingle Creek meeting the other week was a scream. I can’t say much proper punting was done. Partly because of sundry odds-on racing certainties and small uncompetitive fields. But mainly because of the rapid emptying of hip flasks and regular flow of refreshment from the Hogsback bar. I do recall collective sharp intakes of breath when Sprinter Sacre cruised up to Sanctuaire who had been cutting out a pretty nifty pace and slipped by as if cantering on the Seven Barrows gallops. Earlier we had started to debate the chances of Captain Conan giving Simonsig a race in the Arkle after the former had bolted up in the novice chase. But then someone found some more tokens left over from our Winter Warmer package and it was back to the bar.

Having just slagged off Henderson’s approach to the betting exchanges, I am nevertheless staggered at the talent he is currently masterly nurturing in his barn. Apart from the three mentioned above, Bobs Worth and Long Run retain serious Gold Cup hopes; Finians Rainbow and Riverside Theatre can win Grade 1s at intermediate distances and there is evidence of a slew of good novice hurdlers.

So with no official word from the tracks, I’d better start looking at the cards, even though I fear they have a theoretical air about them. The Forty To Follow project continues to wash its face with three good winners this week – Sustainability, Benheir and Melodic Rendezvous (though Up To Something was outclassed yesterday by the massively impressive Puffin Billy). Today, She Ranks Me and Arctic Ben would have good chances at Haydock should the card get that far. Smad Place takes good form from last season into the Long Walk Hurdle, though has never run in conditions more akin to scuba-diving before. And Urbain de Sivola will love this ground in The Ladbroke.

It’s a waiting game today. I still fear the worst.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Tingle of anticipation

I popped into the bookies for 20 minutes in my lunch break yesterday. It was time well spent. First I watched a three-year-old chase from Pau, in the shadow of the Pyrenees,  run over the craziest switchback, carting circuit of a cross-country course I’ve ever seen. It made the Cheltenham track, scene of many wrong-course disqualifications, look like an M1 slip road. One obstacle was less water jump, more shallow lake. Fish were jumping and the leaders did well to avoid the jet skis. Most of the open track resembled sheep grazing pasture with tussock and fescue aplenty to cause hazard to man and beast. The winner, as in England, asserted off a slow pace once the race returned to the regulation chase track. Malberaux will surely be one to watch come the Festival. You heard it here first.

Next up, the event in which I had a punting interest (after-timing alert), featured a stunning sit from jockey Aiden Coleman. His mount and race favourite Renard D’Irlande clattered the 12th, ejecting Coleman clean from the saddle and round the horse’s neck. Both feet appeared to be out of the irons and his head was level with the beast’s fore quarters with his backside in the air. Renard galloped on whilst Coleman, still holding the reins, executed a recovery so unlikely that he’s fielded calls from George Osborne about the UK economy. Back in the saddle, Coleman found that he had lost some track position but stayed on for a decent third.

The final treat for me was backing the winner in this, Grandioso, who came in at 7-2, despite bunny hopping the last. It put me into a handy possy for the Tweet Naps monthly prize, though there's ages to go and today's fancy could only manage 2nd. 

I aim to improve my showing with a strong display at the Tingle Creek meeting tomorrow.  Desperately, this is my first appearance at a track this jumps season. But it is one worth waiting for. It’s a lads outing and we’ve pouched the Winter Warmer offer. £10 food/booze vouchers, £10 bet tokens and Grandstand entry all for £32. Of course the value is stretched a bit more thinly when one looks a bit closer. The punting tokens are mostly to supplement to a fixed minimum stake on mug tote bets like the quadpot, trifecta and swinger. And I’m half expecting the drinks voucher to be rejected by the only place I’d really want to use it. No, not the mulled wine concession by the parade ring, but the Hogshead real ale bar in the betting hall.

But let’s not get off on a negative footing before the day has even dawned. Instead, time to ponder the highlights of a card at one of the Winter’s best meetings.

The Tingle Creek’s recent roll of honour goes two by two. Take out Sizing Europe last year and the previous eight results feature double winners: Kauto Star (added to Gold Cups, King Georges and Betfair Chases over 3m plus, his record shines ever more brightly) Master Minded, the enigmatic Twist Magic and the brilliant Moscow Flyer. His brace in ’03 and ’04 stand between Nicholls and a straight eight. The Flyer beat Team Ditcheat’s Azertyuiop on both occasions.  Indeed that 2004 renewal that also featured Well Chief stands proud as the best running of this race in many a long year. How spoilt we were seeing that glorious trio of two-milers creaming the railway fences and spring heeling up the hill.

The 2012 vintage could well stand easy comparison with that illustrious crowd. Sprinter Sacre looks electrifying. Sanctuaire slammed decent fields by massive margins at the tail end of last season and bids to serve it up to the Sacre tomorrow. Fascinating. Of the others, I fancy Doeslessthanme to outrun his odds, though whether this race is a real betting proposition for me I doubt. I can see a few ToteMugbets being chucked in, but that can hardly add to the prospect this thrilling race.

The other grade 1 is also low on punting potential but high on interest. The Henry VIII novice chase has lost much of its lustre with the overnight withdrawal of Overturn. Captain Conan should win this against Third Intention who was back in third when these two met last month and Hinterland who has did not convince over fences last time out. More ToteTokens.

The other races offer more in the way of betting opportunities. Although both the opening novice hurdle (down to 6 runners from 27 entries at the five day stage) and the closing London National have disappointing turn outs. In the hurdle, the Chubby Chandler/Lee Westwood owned Golden Hoof will be short after a good looking win at Kempton. Hurdles debutants Bekhani and Lord Protector from strong yards will be interesting. It could be a ToteSwinger race. Or possibly ToteExacta. It will certainly be a TotePlacepot race and I may even commit my ToteJackpot token. Is this getting ToteTiresome yet? I haven’t even mentioned the bet that I’m required to make on behalf of the Berkhamsted Ladies who have yet again entrusted me with the loose change from their float in order to win them some Christmas drinking money. My last sorry attempt is burned in their memories so it is not really clear how this latest opportunity has come about. However, I’m prepared to step into the furnace again.

The Mares Handicap Hurdle at 1.25 is a new race at the fixture. More of these types of races are welcome. If only to increase the chances of unearthing a nice talented mare that one day might realistically take on the mighty Quevega at the Festival. I fear there’s nothing of that quality here. Florafern is improving but may not like the deep ground here again. Tempest River may have a squeak of improvement. Kentford Grey Lady has the strongest form in the book, but I’d be worried about her anchoring weight. Justazippy got mullered on the bend last time out after a long absence and could go well here off a featherweight

The staying handicap hurdle and the listed handicap hurdle either side of the Henry VIII chase are the biggest fields of the day. In the former, there are plenty on recovery missions. In fact nothing can win this. If you absolutely twisted my arm and wrung my final ToteEachway voucher out of my sweaty mits I might be persuaded that Lightning Strike’s best form on soft gives him a small chance of a place showing here. In the latter, Petit Robin, better known as a chaser, was impressive in a similar event at Kempton recently and will be interesting again. I backed Ifandbutwhynot from the improving David O Meara stable last time out and I’ll be looking closely at him here.

It will be a day for beanie-shod bonces to deflect screaming northerlies bearing a 5 degree wind chill and for frozen digits to slosh malt whisky into dry mouths from over-filled hip flasks. But I suspect it will also be a day to remember.