Friday, 21 February 2014

Mum's gone to Iceland

The holiday companies are in marketing overdrive at the moment. This last fortnight I’ve had e-adverts from every travel agent who’s webpages I’ve however fleetingly stumbled upon. I’ve had shiny adverts dropping through the letterbox from sundry flight bookers, villa renters and trek organisers. Gawd knows when/how I signed up to this lot.

Maybe they knew I was in the market for a short break. I’ve been planning a surprise escape for Mrs A and I for some time. One of the speculative fliers to land on the mat recently is a relic of a previous surprise trip.

Early one Summer circa 2007, on a listless and becalmed office Thursday afternoon, I noticed the those insightful people at the Met Office were forecasting lovely whether for that forthcoming weekend. Only on the east coast though. Cloud and unspecified murk was predicted for much of the rest of the country.

‘Right! We are off away this weekend’ I declared, to no-one in particular.

Kelly, sat at the desk opposite perked up.

‘Ooh, excellent idea. Whereabouts?’

Kelly has always had wunderlust and loves spontaneous, ambitious foreign travel, even when squeezed into the most thinly sliced timeframe. She’s currently in Australia having chucked in her job to join her partner.

‘Essex’, I offered meekly.

‘Lovely…’, she grinned, mirth tickling the corners of her eyes.

But I was seriously inspired by the weather forecast. Chasing the sun. Walton on the Naze looked favourite. We’d never been and yet the pics on the web promised a half-mile long pier, grand-ish buildings, pretty shops, passable restaurants, and a golden sandy beach on which to enjoy those warming rays. 

I set about booking some accommodation. I’d left it late and it was tougher than I anticipated. 1st, 2nd and even 3rd choices all bit the dust. So did the reserve list. But I persevered and eventually found something, and at a bargain rate too.

Sure enough the weather was lovely on that Saturday morning. Everyone was happy to be going away for the weekend, but I’d kept the destination under wraps. As we turned the corner of the coast road into Walton, I proudly announced that this was the town of our short sojourn. There were positive mutterings all round. The girls had clocked the beach and the amusements. Mrs A had worked out that Biarritz was off the agenda, but was relieved to see the seafood restaurant and wine bar. We drove through the town slipping by some fine Edwardian guest houses.

            ‘Tell me where to stop’, said Mrs A.

            ‘I will.’

Edwardian grandeur was changing into 20th Century functionality.

            ‘Any time now?’


Sturdy functionality became transportable flexibility. We had hit the mobile home parks.

            ‘Left here, my dear.’

'Welcome to Martello Caravan Park', said the cheery, if care-worn sign.

            ‘You have got to be joking!’ Mrs A was clearly not. I will never forget the look of horror in her face.

‘C’mon! It will be a laugh.’

We parked up by the office – a decaying timber and asbestos shed. The vibes were not good. A long queue of disgruntled caravaners prodding tattooed fingers at a scrap of paper pinned on the door that said ‘Open at 4pm – staff shortages’.

Later, when we had fought and won the battle for our key, and trekked to the outer limits of the park, passing the communal bins and the rusting children’s play area, I was still pointing out the positives.

‘Look, everything else was booked up. Better here than nowhere, eh? The girls are having a ball.’

They were too. Folding out their sofa bed, flipping town the dining table, finding and then laughing at the chemical toilet…

The ‘better than nowhere’ remark was harrumphed at. And the ‘look at the funny side’ comment was turning milk sour. Mrs A wouldn’t go with me to Glastonbury because of the loos and the tents. Even though she had many happy holidays in the statics at Gorleston-On-Sea in Norfolk, I don’t think she was expecting to relive those fond memories in adulthood. Betraying her working class roots is what I thought. It was good enough for our parents...

Trouble is, I don’t think this place would have been. Martello Park hadn’t seen a speck of investment since at least our parents’ days. The caravan was stuffy, cramped and lacking a little TLC, as well as Windowlene, Jif and Flash. And the bed linen was on the tacky side. Not so much in the taste sense (though brown floral isn’t entirely my cup of tea), more in its adhesive quality.

We toured the park on our way into town. The carpet in the vacuous, Wellington Suite bar/entertainment area was a genuine ‘70’s original, though the stains wove an intriguing tapestry of beer, ketchup and crisps across every subsequent decade.  There were a few hardy types in the paint-peeled pool, braving the thin layer of greasy surface scum.

But it was an adventure! I said. The only event that diverted us from the ‘I can’t believe you’ve done this’ conversation, as we took in the town’s charm, was tracking down the seafood restaurant spotted earlier. It really was a gem. The Attic cafĂ© (on the ground floor, of course) served up this amazing seafood platter that the four of us shared into the late evening, washed down with J20 (kiddies) and crisp Chardonnay (adults).

Then back for crisps and beer in front of the one-channel telly, as tradition befits. I got the forecast wrong as well. It rained that night so hard that the drops rattled like machine gun fire on the leaky skylight above our bed. No-one slept particularly soundly.

Sunday, however, dawned fine and warm. We indulged in many favourite seasidey activities. Walton is a top town and we went home happy. Job properly done!  A memorable trip. If sometimes for the wrong reasons.

The Martello Caravan Park flier was one of the adverts deposited through our door recently. I keep telling Mrs A that it must be time for a return trip.

I peeked at a review recently on Seems the venue is even worse than when we went.

“This site is just awful. From the moment you first drive in it is clear that your choice of holiday park was a bad one and perhaps you shouldn’t have tried to save that extra few quid. The martello sign itself is a clear indication of things to come. Old. Rusty. Decrepit. On its last legs.”


So when I proffered an envelope towards Mrs A in the pub the other week and uttered the words, ‘A surprise trip for us’, I can almost understand why the blood drained from her face faster than the wine from her glass. The affable smile replaced by the look of someone who has received a court summons.

This time I got it right. We are off to Reykjavik in late March and leaving the girls behind. Grandad and Uncle Paul will be in charge of them. Or more likely, the other way round. And we’ve already had some instructions from facebook friends: ‘Can you bring back 250 mini sausage rolls for £2.50 please’. Wags.

I don’t know about frozen produce, put I’m expecting to make extensive use of the hot volcanic springs. The spectacular lava fields and waterfalls are high on the list too. Maybe we’ll even catch the Northern Lights. I’ve done some research and there is often more Borealis activity around the Spring Solstice. So that guarantees wall-to-wall cloud cover.

The accommodation looks a notch up on the Essex static too: tasteful restaurant, therapeutic sauna and pool. The bar looks classy, though I expect the price of a small lager will be astronomically higher than on the Naze. That’s where the bottle of gin smuggled in from duty-free comes in handy. I wonder if the bedroom will have a leaky skylight...

Monday, 17 February 2014

Shaping up: Festival 2014

My 2014 Festival Schedule of Shame is already looking much plumper than at the same stage last year. I put this down to the emergence of earlier than usual non-runner-no-bet markets on the Championship races and more attractive prices in Victor Chandler’s non-runner-free-bet policy.

Last season I tried hard to cut down on flabby, reckless ante-posts and to save my investments until nearer the day.  I was not so taken with VC’s thrifty prices on my festival fancies then, even though offered at no-show-no-risk. The result? My most numbingly painful and loss-laden Cheltenham in years.

I had long held that bullish ante-post punting was giving me an eyes-like-saucers, big-odds-seeking build up to the Festival whilst in reality driving sink holes into my betting strategy that could swallow half of Hemel Hempstead. Last year was an attempt to curb those instincts. It clearly made no difference.

It’s back to chasing the value this year. Good thrill hunting is winning out against measured caution. I’m looking to turn up on Tuesday 11th March with a fistful of ante-post vouchers for live chances that are at least double the forecast SP. I feel better already.

This is how the quest is shaping up:

Irving at 10-1. Struck before the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown last week where The Tullow Tank fluffed his lines but Vautour improved into favouritism. The result also saw Irving clipped in a couple of points. I had backed him thinking a good show in the Betfair Hurdle would see his price collapse. In the end he didn’t make the race. But his good win at Ascot in December sets a fair standard with that eventual Betfair Hurdle winner Splash of Ginge back in third.

So tough. Champagne Fever seems very short on the balance of what he’s done. He acts very well round Cheltenham, but I can’t have him at that price. Trifolium I like. I wrote him off after last season, but the wind ops have finally worked and he’s improving massively. He jumps really sweetly and seems to travel well just off the pace. I missed the real value though. 20-1 before the Irish Arkle, I got only 6-1. No double SP odds here. I’ve also had a little dabble with Hinterland. He’s a horse I’ve liked since his juvenile season when he never quite lived up to his potential. The same goes for his novice campaign last year, before injury curtailed it. Bigger, stronger and a better jumper, maybe this March is when he delivers on the promise. His good win in a classy renewal of the Henry VIII at Sandown in December is my most compelling piece of evidence. Best after a break and with form at the track, I’m on at 11-1 e-w.

Champion Hurdle
Tingly all over. A renewal that gets deeper and more irresistible with every trial. I’m counting eight live chances. And I include Melodic Rendezvous (25-1 e-w) amongst them. Nothing in his irresistible win over Zarkandar has dissuaded me from this. In any other year he’d be a battle-hardened live each way shout. This year, with My Tent Or Yours and Un De Sceaux completing their bloodless preps on the same weekend to add to top drawer form already posted by the Fly, The New One, Our Conor and Annie Power, I couldn’t say he’s a nailed on place candidate. I also have Jezki at 12-1 e-w in the hope that he will improve with a race run to suit. Such an event in prospect.

David Nicholson Mares Race
Carole’s Spirit at 25-1, as previously advised. Nothing new to report, except that the race looks even tougher with Glen’s Melody posting a decent result last week and Annie Power still riding high in the betting.

Red Sherlock, 6-1, as before, and no change in the price. I also have Champagne West, 33-1 e-w, though he’s more likely for the Pertemps.

RSA Chase
I already had Many Clouds (25-1 e-w) and Annacotty (25-1 e-w). Both have been supported into best-price 20s. Annacotty without lifting a finger and Many Clouds after a belting race on Saturday at Ascot. In my eyes the horse lost nothing in defeat to O’Faolains Boy after taking on Gevrey Chamberlain for the lead too far out. And especially so since I had backed O’Faolains Boy at 33-1 for the RSA before this race. He’s a 40TF horse and was happy to take a chance on him rediscovering form. Nice when it works out that way. Not that Mark Brown, a Racing Post race analyst gives Rebecca Curtis’s charge much chance, “As for this year´s festival, he's probably worth a shot at the RSA (best-priced 20-1) but would make little appeal for win purposes.” Apart from that little aside, I feel mob-handed in the value department for the RSA.

Queen Mother
Not much of a betting heat and a likely small field in a market that will cut up a little more. I’ll be involving Sire De Grugy in some straight or combination action (as a 40TF horse), otherwise, simply a glorious spectacle.

Market leader Benefficient returned to form in the Dial-A-Bet chase at Leopardstown over Christmas. But at 5-1 he makes much less appeal that the horse he (interfered with and) beat by only ¾ that day, Hidden Cyclone. Shark Hanlon’s horse is available here at 12-1. He has recovered from a disappointing season and a half to recapture the promise shown in his hurdle and early novice chasing days. 2 ½ miles is his trip and he has good enough track form behind John’s Spirit in the Paddy Power in November. In a race that could still cut up, this is a tender bit of melt in the mouth value.

World Hurdle
Backed Zarkandar at 10-1 before the Kingwell on Saturday, thinking that if he mullered MR his price would contract. He didn’t and it didn’t. Not a confident bet especially. Although he’s well worth a shot at 3 miles, having lost some zip this year, I’m not putting my mortgage on this one.

Albert Bartlett
I do like my novice hurdlers. But I’m looking a bit shaky here. Sausalito Sunrise (50-1 e-w) is a big outsider, even by my standards. Champagne West (25-1 e-w) as advised earlier is more likely for the Pertemps. I had a little look at Oscar Rock as well on Saturday morning. The usual tactic – 25-1 e-w would look big if he trotted up in his prep at Haydock. He was very poor, however. Looked like he hated the deep ground, but that alone is probably not enough to explain the drop off in the form since November.

Gold Cup
I haven’t fully recovered from Silviniaco Conti’s fall at the fourth last in 2013. He was tanking. Even though my head says Bob’s Worth would have ground him down on the hill, my heart says I’d have loved to see what Conti had left to give. My head - still chuntering away – says that Cheltenham really isn’t his track. This time I’m listening. I’m not interested in Bob’s Worth either at 9-4. Whatever value there was after his poor seasonal debut I missed. So thankfully Last Instalment produced an exhilarating display of jumping in the Irish Hennessy to enable me to have a proper bet in the Gold Cup. 8-1 is a fair price, given he hasn’t run at the Festival before and he might want soft going.

More soon. Inevitably.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Sausalito Sausage

Home alone. Mrs A is visiting Auntie Sue in Tenerife for a few days. Very nice too. Sunshine, warmth. Wine, cheese... Wine, cheese. 

It’s a weekend trip: Thursday to Tuesday. (Whisper it, but that sounds more like a short week to me.)

The girls are out too. Daughter No. 1 is being Bohemian in Camden and Daughter No. 2 is sleeping over/birthday partying.

So the Sunday morning calm, after some frenetic Saturday sporting action, is giving me a chance to have a first look at some Cheltenham ante-post action. I may not even poke my bounce outside the front door this weekend.

Of course there’s the domestic challenges to content with too. “Daddy, that pile of clothes on my bedroom floor needs to be ready for school on Monday. Bye-eee.”  I had to fix the washing machine door first. And the ironing to look forward to later. (But I don’t do socks.)

But first, a squint at the markets. Which of my 40 to follow horses might line up at the festival?

I snaffle Melodic Rendezvous at 25-1 e-w for the Champion Hurdle, availing myself of SkyBet’s Non Runner No Bet. The consensus is that he’ll need soft ground to turn up. I’m still not convinced by that, but at best he’s an outsider. Jezki too, at 12-1 e-w (also NRNB) will have to improve. So this is a small stake.

I like Carole’s Spirit at 25-1 e-w in the Mares Hurdle, who will relish better ground than last time. I back Red Sherlock for the Neptune at 7-1. I missed the fancy prices before last Saturday’s race, displaying rare restraint in wanting to see him perform against better horses. Both are taken on with Victor Chandler’s Non Runner Free Bet offer. Because it’s still only 2nd Feb and there are big risks that they may not turn up.

And in the RSA, Annacotty at 20-1 e-w and Many Clouds at 25-1 e-w. The former showed at Cheltenham last time out that the track should not be feared and impressed with a gutsy weight carrying performance. Many Clouds has plenty of class. But he may end up in the JLT. So NRFB again.

Then it comes to the Albert Bartlett. Sausalito Sunrise is a massive price. 50-1. I like this horse, but showed nothing like his quality in a quagmire at Doncaster last time. At that price I’m prepared to forgive this rank bad run. 

But someone at VC Bet is having a laugh. I contact the online help centre:

11.50. System: Antonin - Contact Centre has joined this session! “Hello Dave, you're speaking to Antonin. How may I help?” 
11.51. Dave: “Hi I'm just about to strike a bet on the Albert Bartlett ante-post market for Cheltenham. The horse I want is listed on your market as Sausalito Sausage. Can you confirm that this is actually the Philip Hobbs-trained Sausalito Sunrise?” I think it’s a misprint on your list. A joke maybe?” 
11.52. Antonin - Contact Centre: “I am just looking into that for you, one moment please.” 
12.07. Antonin - Contact Centre: “Sorry to keep you waiting, I am still looking into this for you.” 
12.08. Dave: "OK.” 
12:20. Antonin - Contact Centre: “We made a mistake. Very sorry. I’ve told the trader off. The bet will go through correctly and it will be corrected shortly. Thanks for letting us know.”

Thanks Antonin. I’ll be back for more shortly.

OK, where do we keep the ironing board?