Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Drawn in

Mindful of last season’s profit-sapping ante-post performance at Cheltenham, I had been determinedly keeping my oars clear of the swirling pools of Festival disinformation. This was no easy ask. Ante-post punting has been a staple of my Festival build up for 13 years or so: a financial and mental outlet for the simmering championships build-up and a chance to be a smug stride ahead of the bookies come the big day.

The scales tumbled from my eyes in the aftermath of last season’s Gold Cup. Keeping pace with the frontal lobe thump of a Laphroig hangover was the insistent snare drum of mug punting realisation. I declared that there would be no raft of ante-post bets in 2013 until bookies began offering Non-Runner-No-Bet guarantees. This would rule out finding fancy-priced early season value. Injuries and drops in performance I could take on the chin. That’s part of the ebb. The flow is the rare joy of a long-priced ante-post winner sent off at short odds on the day.  But I had become fed up with trying to second-guess the plans of trainers at a Festival with increasing options every year. It had become a frustrating and expensive task. My mate Bacchy’s recent blog post accurately identifies the beginning of the end. It just took me another 6 seasons to act on it.

This is a wise, level-headed and measured commitment. And like most of the purging and abstinence that goes on in January, these reckless statements came under the severest of pressure long before the month was out. I found myself unable to keep jittery digits away from Oddschecker. That nice Victor Chandler’s excellent Non-Runner-Free-Bet initiative was too good to miss. So I’ve tooled up on a good many of my more likely Forty To Follow Festival runners where VC has them chalked in at something approaching value. The company has clearly stolen a march on its rivals. “Antepost bets on this year’s Cheltenham Festival have increased by over 350% on this time last year” reported its PR head honcho, Charlie McCann.

Its offer hasn’t taken care of all my needs though. Victor is too short about some of my fancies and so the free bet offer alone isn't enough to entice me. I’m sitting on my hands and waiting for the chance of better value when other bookies go NRNB.

And now the first real trials weekend of the season has exploded into the ante post markets. Given added impact because of the largely barren preceding 10 days. And I’ve had my first risky ante-posts.

The best thing I saw this weekend was the Cleeve Hurdle. A brilliant finish involving the two market principles. Geraghty impressively eased Oscar Whisky, a doubtful stayer, into the race, but could not get past Reve De Sivola driven out by Johnson, harnessing his one true talent – brute strength. The general consensus following the race seems to be that Oscar Whisky now stays 3 miles. In so far as he didn’t run into a brick wall at the bottom of the Cheltenham hill as he did last March, this conclusion is true. On the other hand, neither did he stay like he does over 2 ½ miles where he would have buried Reve De Sivola. The latter’s preference for bad ground does not explain his beating of Oscar as that one has plenty of rock solid form in a bog too. Three miles is not his Oscar’s best trip. This staying business has shades of grey. Not 50, but certainly enough variations to have me doubting that Oscar Whisky is a sure fire thing in a very open World Hurdle. Neither was Bog Warrior totally convincing on Sunday. Zaidpour is not a three miler so the form is shaky and Tony Martin’s lad will want soft ground more than many. I’ll be looking elsewhere. Meanwhile I have Smad Place with Victor at 16-1. King’s charge has much improving to do, reflected in that price, but is better than he has shown this season and a return to good ground at the Festival ground would be a bonus.

The worst thing I saw was Bold Sir Brian taking a horrific fall at the last in the Murphy Group Chase. Having backed him to win, I confidently monitored his easy progress through the field before Kitenko kicked on from 3 out and Brian went backwards. Thankfully he walked away from his tired fall a few minutes later, seemingly none the worse. The only casualty is my speculative ante post bet at massive prices on the Ryanair and the Gold cup, courtesy of Victor. Speculative, but risk free. Haha! The system is working! Send more money!

Two surprises of the weekend. Firstly that total dog Vino Griego managing to win a race rather than throw a hissy fit with a victory in reach. It is three years almost to the day since his last win. After 18 chases he has shaken off his novice tag. At least the handicapper can get after him now and I can stop worrying about trying to predict his next win. There won’t be another.

I also remain surprised by Cape Tribulation’s improvement as a chaser. Before his win at Wetherby on Boxing Day, Jefferson’s stable star had won only one chase from six attempts. He had reverted successfully to hurdles last season following an undistinguished novice campaign. Now he is being talked of as a Gold Cup horse. His Argento win on Saturday was visually impressive and Jefferson sagely remarked that “I might be wrong but there appears to be a lot of two and half mile horses in this year´s race and he´s an out and out stayer.” We will readily remember Synchronised’s win in a Gold Cup for the stayers last season. However, I’ve backed Silviniaco Conti today after Stan James pushed him out to 15-2. I wasn’t convinced by his form last season, but quickly revised my opinion when he won the Charlie Hall comfortably. His Betfair Chase win was foot perfect and he remains firmly on the upgrade.

I saw nothing this weekend to shake my existing NRFB Supreme punts. Though subsequently, it is interesting that Sherwood is now leaning towards that race with the exciting Puffin Billy, after previously nominating the Neptune as his preferred option. This looks so obviously like he’s running scared of Pont Alexandre after he took apart a decent novice hurdle field at Leopardstown on Sunday. Chuck in The New One and At Fisher’s Bridge and the Neptune is shaping up to be a very strong race. I have a small bet on Pendra at a big price struck on the basis of his decent Tolworth 2nd behind the classy Melodic Rendezvous. The extra half mile will suit him, but this is tough.

With many races not fully considered yet, the ante-post book currently looks like this.

Supreme Novice Hurdle
Two 40 To Follow horses who have real, live chances. I’m happy with this portfolio. Plenty of dangers, but I’m mildly confident of breaking my Supreme duck this year. 
Melodic Rendezvous 1pt e-w @ 12-1 VC NRFB
Dodging Bullets 1pt e-w @ 12-1 VC NRFB

Champion Hurdle
A couple of 40 To Follow outsiders. Raya Star is a massively improved horse over the last 18 months and he must have an each way squeak. My hand was forced into backing Cotton Mill by Pricewise’s selection. I was keen to pocket some value before it disappeared. In the event, I missed most of it anyway! Risky.
Raya Star 1pt e-w @ 40-1 VC NRFB
Cotton Mill 1pt e-w @ 26-1 Stan James

David Nicholson Mares Race
Another massively improving horse. This would be a cast iron bet if Quevega decided to run in the World Hurdle. The currently looks unlikely. Someone have a word with Willie Mullins.
She Ranks Me 1pt e-w @ 16-1 VC NRFB

Neptune Novice Hurdle
See above.
Pendra 0.5pt e-w @ 33-1 Stan James

Ryanair Chase
Two Irish 40 To Follow raiders and one from Scotland. Call The Police can only be an outsider at best and needs to build on last season’s potential. There’s still time. Hidden Cyclone on the pick of his form would be an interesting shout. But he flopped badly in the Lexus and ran only a little better under top weight in a testing handicap on Saturday. See above for Bold Sir Brian comments. The Ryanair could be a really string race this year and these are not amongst my most confident bets.
Call The Police 1pt e-w @ 25-1 VC NRFB
Hidden Cyclone 1pt e-w @ 33-1 VC NRFB
Bold Sir Brian 1pt e-w @ 25-1 VC NRFB

World Hurdle
See above
Smad Place 1pt e-w @ 16-1 VC NRFB

Gold Cup
See above
Silviniaco Conti 2pts win @ 15-2 Stan James
Bold Sir Brian 1pt e-w @ 50-1 VC NRFB

...And so it begins.

Monday, 21 January 2013

"The biggest cheat sport has ever known"

I've developed late as a fan of road cycling. I registered the seven consecutive victories of Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France as notable feats in a gruelling competition. But doubts that clearly existed at the time about the validity of his first and subsequent achievements passed me by. Indeed, like many I bought entirely into the story of a supreme athlete who had overcome massive odds to beat cancer and then to land the tour titles. Superhuman, I thought. A genuine good news story. The Armstrong myth had taken flight and I wanted to ride it. A few years ago, I even suggested Lance as the subject of my daughter’s school topic on sporting heroes. How duped I feel now. 

Drug abuse has been a well known blight on the tour throughout his (now) discredited reign and since. I suppose I cynically thought that the whole road cycling game was so riddled with doping that Armstrong was no worse than the others. To the extent that I had given it any thought at all, I had concluded that EPO use, blood transfusions, cortisone injections and the like were so widespread there was a hideously warped but bizarrely level playing field.

So thank God for the campaigners, the doubters and the whistle-blowers. In the early days, there were very few. The Sunday Times journalist, David Walsh was amongst the first and the most vociferous. He has waged a tenacious 13 year battle to expose Lance Armstrong’s cheating, lying and systematic abuse. His story is remarkable because of the intimidation and manipulation he suffered at the hands of Armstong and his organisation. And also because of the link to a personal tragedy when his son was killed in a cycling accident at the age of 12.

Walsh was everywhere after the pantomime of Big Tex’s Oprah Winfrey confession last week. He was seen and heard refusing any inclinations to triumphalism and yet calmly pointing out the limitations and omissions of the Winfrey charade. He also said he would accept an apology from Armstrong though he felt it had been "hesitantly offered" during the show. The best of Walsh, highlighting the obsessive nature of the investigation that almost consumed him is here . It is lengthy, but well worth a read. And in an interview with the World Service News Hour programme last week, Walsh becomes emotional at the personal nature of Armstrong's vilification, finally uttering the words"probably the biggest cheat sport has ever known." Well worth a listen.

I share the widespread reaction to the Winfrey interview as a shallow and stage-managed stunt. A mate commented in the pub afterwards, it was “more Alan Carr than Jeremy Paxman”. I still felt as though I was being manipulated by the myth: here was a calculated show of contrition, a shaky foothold on redemption, a tentative brand relaunch.  Does he still retain political ambitions? It wouldn’t surprise me.

This photo of a sign in an Australian library went viral. It wasn't placed there by library staff, apparently, but it made me laugh anyway.

Ironically, the profile of road cycling has never been higher in the UK than right now. Wiggins’ Team Sky has adopted a zero tolerance approach to doping which has already led to the departure of two of the management team. It will take many more such deep cleaning operations before the spectre of doping is convincingly dismantled.

However, with the leviathan Leveson enquiry leaving the reputation of press ethics lower than a snake’s belly, it is reassuring to see an example of investigative journalism take the moral high ground. David Walsh, take a bow.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Bookies a blight on the High Street?

Harriet Harman has had the humble bookie in her sights this week. Labour's Deputy Leader described betting shops as a "blight" on London's high streets. Her comments come after the Government on Friday ruled out a crackdown on high-stakes gambling machines from betting shops despite warnings about their addictive nature.

This gives me a chance to dust off my hobby-horse again: the role of the ethical bookmaker. Ms Harman has commented before about the way that the betting industry preys on the most vulnerable in society, particularly by moving into the high streets of deprived areas, often in high concentrations.  Interestingly, betting shops are classified as financial services, meaning that if a bank closes a betting shop can open in the property unchallenged.

There are 1,773 betting shops in London, according to the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. But it is what goes on in them that was the subject of this week’s House of Commons Culture debate. Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) have long sparked concern. The machines can accept stakes of up to £100 and offer prizes of £500. Research by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling again links gambling to poverty. It estimates that FOBTs in the 50 parliamentary constituencies with the highest unemployment rates saw a turnover of £5bn in 2012, generating a profit of £173m. In the 50 constituencies with the greatest employment levels, the bookies made only £44m. Dianne Abbott has accused the industry of targeting the poor, saying: ‘It’s a business model which sucks money from the poorest communities.’ The Daily Mail, never one to miss a trick, has got its teeth into this as well, bandying about puritanical headlines pointing to 'the crack cocaine of gambling’.

However, the Government is not for turning. Culture minister Hugh Robertson said there was little evidence they caused serious problems.

For my part, I would like to see bookmakers that can contribute to the regeneration of these deprived areas they serve and to be more proactive in identifying and tackling addictive behaviour. I’ve blogged before about the ethical bookmaker. A bookie that is run as a social enterprise and re-invests profits into the local community where it is based and from where the customers come. Even better, the bookies could be run by those communities. There is an increasing trend for community organisations to become more entrepreneurial: competing for the right to run local authority services; developing enterprises that can help to regenerate areas.

As Ms Harman has observed, bookies have a deep reach into many of the most deprived areas in the country. Half an hour in any bookie off the Holloway Road would confirm that. A social enterprise makeover for the humble bookmaker could provide investment in local infrastructure and services. They might also act as a gateway to other advice and support services, perhaps including help with gambling and other addictive behaviour. Profits would be harvested from responsible gambling and re-invested in community projects.

There would be barriers to such an approach, of course. Moralistic arguments, amongst others. Prospective investors in the model – likely to be public sector in reality – might be squeamish about basing a community policy that relied on encouraging gambling. On the other hand, we seem to have got over that problem when it comes to the National Lottery, often perceived as a tax on the poor. And now we have a new Health Lottery that has been criticized for creaming off too many profits for its operators.

I’ve suggested this approach before. This time I’m going to write to the Shadow Culture Secretary to see what she has to say.