The Dark, The Fog and The Fluke

I was sorry to hear of the death of James Herbert this week. Like most blokes of my vintage, Herbert's dark, often psychological horror was required reading during the early eighties. As a teenager with a healthy, inquiring mind, Herbert hit the spot for both suspense filled fear and the best naughty bits going. Facebook posts have been paying tribute to this very duality all week. It is with some regret that I realise you cannot find the high class filth in a well thumbed electronic copy of, say, Creed by shaking the spine of a Kindle to see which pages are bent back the furthest. Where do today's teenage boys get their cheap thrills? That's a rhetorical question. I don't really want to know.

The Facebook discussion about Herbert's demise also led to the title of this post. As I listed my favourites from his oeuvre, Brynaldo suggested this would be a good title for my Cheltenham Festival post mortem. A doomed strategy conceived in the Fog, delivered in the Dark and supplying just one Fluke winner.  I might add that my selections acted as a Jonah for many horses, but that was crap book, so doesn’t get a mention.

A more straight forward title might have been "Where did it all go wrong" but there is a risk of confusion with the Manic Street Preachers' 2010 track “Golden Platitudes”. That track expresses a frustration with the demise of radical politics rather the puncturing of a punting strategy. It’s hard to see Nicky Wire penning anything for the Racing Post.  

The stats offer no platitudes, golden or otherwise. Nowhere to hide: 42 bets, 1 win, 4 places, points staked 382, net loss 229. ROI -60%.

My worst festival ever. It has taken me over a week to come to terms with this. I even ploughed back through my records to seek a sliver of comfort. There was none. I had a bad year in 2005 when many ante-posts went astray. I had Black Jack Ketchum at fancy prices for the (then) Sun Alliance Hurdle, but his ‘canny’ trainer mischievously rerouted to the new 3m Brit Novice Hurdle. He won at a canter. I lost a wad. But not as much as this year. I also discovered that I have made a profit – some very healthy ones too – at eight of the last 12 festivals. I made a small loss last year and there are worrying signs pointing to the start of a trend. It is getting harder every year with more races, moving targets, deeper plots, bigger fields and tougher competition.

That reflects the increasing prominence and domination of the Festival over the rest of the season. Indeed, to the utter neglect of the rest of the season. I moan (too often) about insultingly small fields for novice and intermediate chases, as well as graded hurdles and chases offering good prize money. Before the Festival there had been 23 grade one events, 16 of which were won by the favourite, and 6 by the second favourite. How competitive are these fields? Not at all is the answer. And what has it come to when leading stables would rather give their best Festival prospects a track gallop in front of a few hardy punters at the end of racing rather than a test in a real race? Vacuous arguments about too few appropriate races and losing valuable work time due to bad weather just do not wash. This absolutely undermines the game. Bob’s Worth, Grandouet, Binocular, Riverside Theatre all raced just once before the Festival; Dynaste and Simonsig hadn’t been spotted since Christmas. (And yes, I’m jabbing an accusatory finger firmly in Henderson’s direction, but he is not alone). Add to this the relentless concentration of big talent in a small number of yards and resulting reluctance to run stable stars, or horses in the same ownership against each other and we are left with plenty of evidence of the pitifully weak top class action outside Spring. Thank God for the handicaps. And the Irish.

On the question of the overall quality of the Festival itself, I tend to agree with my mate Bacchy who observed that:

“…with the principal Grade 1 winners lining up in the 4-miler and the Jewson, the RSA was an anticlimax. This is not what we come here to see - especially when Back In Focus and Dynaste are allowed to contest those lesser events without a Grade 1 penalty. That's what they mean when they talk about diluting the Festival.....”

All this rustling bluster could easily be seen as an attempt to obfuscate the direness of my week at, despite rantings, the greatest week of racing on the planet. Time to man up. Where did it all go wrong?
  • Bad judgement and poor research: I got too many of the big calls wrong. For instance, Silviniaco Conti was always going to be outstayed by Bob’s Worth, and despite my attempts to rationalise his suitability for the track, SC patently didn’t warm to Prestbury Park. Even had he stood up, it is hard to see him coming up the hill like BW or even Sir Des Champs. Another example: one of the few things I got right was the ground call. It was pretty much good to soft until Friday. So how does that square with one of my main bets on Taquin Du Seuil whose knee action betrays a liking for mud flying up by his ears. Missed that one. And, hands up, I got Cue Card all wrong. Concerns raised by his win over 2 ½ miles at Ascot and the proximity of Captain Chris before his final flight blunder were banished here. Cue Card sluiced home with confidence and stamina after making his own running at a pace too sharp for First Lieutenant. And here’s an interesting piece by Dan Kelly that suggests Zarkandar had been bottomed long before he got to the Festival. The signs were there for all to see, if you know how to look.
  • Bad performances: Alongside the rank bad selections, I’m arguing that too many of my selections did not run to anything like their marks. In the big ones, Arvika Ligeonniere (Arkle) failed to settle or jump with fluency; Unioniste (RSA) was entitled to run much better than this on all known form. Elsewhere, She Ranks Me (Mares Hurdle) barely travelled a step; Loch Ba (JLT Specialty) was being rousted disturbingly early and eventually unseated; and Cotton Mill (County) and Kashmir Peak (Triumph) both disappeared without a trace. Initially, I had thought Dodging Bullets’ run in the Supreme fell into the same category, but his position relative to River Maigue suggests the form is probably solid.
  • Bad luck: Not too many moans here, given that we are talking about 27 races. That said, a triple whammy on Friday just about put the tin lid on my Festival. Cousin Vinnie brought down in the Albert Bartlett before the race had got serious, Siviniaco Conti falling before the hill and Tetlami crashing through the wings whilst leading the Grand Annual just about summed my week.
I didn’t mean this post to turn into spleen-venting about the Festival. For all the concerns about the dominance of these four days and its impact on the rest of the season, and indeed the shape and quality of the four day bonanza itself, I would not be anywhere else on earth. For just a few days, my world revolves around those gleaming acres of turf sitting beneath Cleeve Hill where the most intense kind of equine theatre is played out for an audience of screaming, laughing, weeping emotional and financial wrecks. Bonds forged here in the white heat and heady atmosphere of Festival competition are never broken, whether that is man-to-man or man-to-beast.

This year, the highlights came hurtling at us from the very first moments. Champagne Fever’s gutsy win from the front in a brilliant finish to the Supreme. Ruby Walsh in very different mode getting Hurricane Fly back on the bridle to then win the Champion Hurdle as Mike Cattermole was desperately trying to call his race over. Sprinter Sacre causing the biggest intake of breath in the Champion Chase since Master Minded sprinted clear in less anticipated circumstances back in 08. The New One already setting pulses racing for a tilt at next year’s Champion Hurdle and in the same race Rule The World laying down a giant marker for his chasing career. Bob’s Worth equalling Flying Bolt’s 47 year old record of winning three different Festival races. Quevega matching Golden Miler’s achievement of five consecutive wins. Cue Card shutting up all the doubters in the Ryanair. Our Conor dropping jaws in the Triumph. I could go on.

On the human side, thoughts must be with JT McNamara. He remains in an induced coma after falling from Galaxy Rock in the Kim Muir. My mate was walking the path outside the perimeter fence at the time, showing his young son some of the action. He witnessed the incident and heard a crack as rider and horse came down. His relief at the sight of the horse getting up was immediately replaced by concern that the jockey had not moved. The green screens were erected to shield the view from the stands – but curiously not from the perimeter fence – and as my mate saw medical staff and ambulances arrive, he realised it was time to move on. Disturbing scenes.

I have a soft spot for JT. He rode Rith Dubh to a beautifully crafted victory in the 2002 Four Miler. That was my only winner at that year’s festival. I celebrated like I had screamed home the trifecta. This year, 11 years on, my only winner at the Festival was also in the Four Miler.

On a personal note, a big shout out to our mate Nev. He was the life and soul with us on Tuesday and Wednesday and smashed up a series of improbable forecasts before blowing a chunky part of his stash on the Coral Cup. He wouldn’t be the first to do that. Nev has been taken ill and is still in hospital as I write. Things are going to be different for Nev from now on and this one is for you mate. Get well soon.


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