Monday, 31 March 2014


Mrs A and I were obviously looking forward to a trip the isle of ice and fire, but the rush for crisps on the plane by Icelanders returning home was a touch disconcerting. What was going on? Didn’t they sell potato snacks in Reykjavik? The number of times the hirsute family in front of us made extra trips to the galley for ‘boxer chips’ whiffed strongly of panic buying.

Mrs A and I were berthed either side of the aisle. She, of course, made instant friends with the passengers on her right. Hotel details, recommended tours and sights were gleaned, even the sunset times. Laughing and joking they were. I leant across and butted in. “Hi, yes we hope to see the northern lights!” But my conversational equivalent of the photo bomb got me nowhere. In dealing me a dismissive glance, the bloke in the middle seat barely broke his flow about scuba diving plans.

Instead, I attempted light-hearted communication with the two sat next to me. “Mind those popcorn packets, they go everywhere!” said the cabin chap, handing them a couple of cardboard packages bulging at the seams. I waited a couple of minutes into my beer and crisps and then casually remarked "I'm looking forward to you opening that popcorn!" Grin grin. Point point. Window seat man looked at me with alarm pricking his eyes and laughed nervously. His petite, slightly clingy partner did the same and shuffled noticeably away from me. They simply radiated "Nutter alert”.

We arrived during a brilliant sunset over the bay. Reykjavik is different to anywhere I’ve been before. “Lego Town” remarked Mrs A. It was a bit. Low rise, simple and colourful. We found a welcoming bistro for dinner and were overwhelmed with charming service and decent food. Rumours of menus containing nothing but puffin burgers and putrefied shark were well wide of the mark.

Saturday night is the big event in town. The runtur is a weekly bar crawl through the Downtown area and things were getting lively by the time we wove our way back to the Sky Bar on the eight floor of our hotel. One corner of the packed bar was occupied by a group of acoustic guitar toting Christians belting out gospel ditties and the other featured a couple of hardened Northern Lights watchers with noses pressed up against the windows, scanning the heavens for glints of green and blue. They looked like train spotters, which also explained the faint whiff of egg sandwiches.

I thought I caught glimpses of hairy, big jumpered locals squabbling over boxes of crisps hoarded from Easyjet in another corner, but it may have been a trick of the light.

The bar’s serious, vaguely austere manager collared me on the outside decking as I was taking in the view. “See that beam of vertical light?" I did. A broad and powerful searchlight illuminating the sky. She looked at me full on. "Batman lives under that! " I howled. Bloody hell. Icelandic humour ice-dry enough to be British. The beam was actually, she told me, a memorial to John Lennon created by Yoko Ono and is turned on to mark specific anniversaries. It was to be the nearest we got to lights in the sky...

On the bus to the Blue lagoon the next morning and Mrs A had made friends again, slipping into easy conversation with a charming young lady in the seat next to her. Not to be outdone, I turned to the woman on my inside, clocked the sour face, folded arms and decided against small talk.

The Blue Lagoon was totally excellent. Yes it's a tourist trap, but it is so well done. There was nothing corny or tacky about the experience. Like so much in Iceland the attraction is perfectly managed, discrete and respectful.

It's certainly no fault of this thoughtful management policy that I'd attached my electronic wrist tag (Group 4 - take note) worked out the security lockers and was half undressed before realising that the good lady wife still had my swimwear in her bag. So, clobber chucked back on and locker digitally locked again, I went downstairs to see if I could locate Mrs A. I was tip-toeing around, wondering whether I should shout through the door of the ladies’ changing rooms or try to explain my dilemma to an ever helpful assistant. Thankfully my mobile buzzed and a few moments later, Mrs A emerged with my floral print swim shorts dangling from an outstretched hand. Blushes saved.

It was her idea to head out to the lagoon early. Top plan. We were amongst the first into the geothermal wonderland that morning. All those adjectives you’ve seen about this place apply: weird, surreal, other worldly… Fantastic. Sulphurous steam rose from electric blue water encased by mountainous snow covered lava flows. The sun streaming through light cloud cast an ethereal glow over the milky surface. Mostly, the temperature was very pleasant, but occasionally, vents pumped out screaming hot streams of scalding liquid. I lurched into one boiling trough that caused me to hop about like a Maori on hot ashes, nearly spilling my drink in the effort of water-sprinting away.

The silica face mask was a laugh. Full of restorative algae and minerals apparently. It’s basically fast drying clay that fixes everyone’s face into some Edouard Munch parody of wide-eyed high-eyebrow astonishment. We went to the cascade to wash ourselves clean. Mrs A was under the rock water fall for ages and I thought I spotted her making advances to a dead-ringer for William Hague on her right. She explained that the force of the shower had knocked the glasses from their perch on her forehead. She was trying to pick them up with her feet. William Hague didn't look much better. If he turned his head in a certain direction the gushing torrent made his large ears flap like Dumbo in a wind tunnel. Glorious place it may. Flattering it is not.

Skin softened and aquated, we returned to Town for a chilled pootle. Reykjavik may only be home to a shade over 100,000 souls but it knows how to mix architectural muscle with the big boys when it chooses. Harpa is the capital's main music and performance complex. We had a great view of the irregular shaped, glass and steel creation from our hotel. At night the window frames light up in sweeping and ever changing patterns. Inside the place is equally spectacular. Geometric glass and mirror ceilings and walls dominate the cavernous, multilevel performance and public spaces. Hardly any of the floors or uprights are at 90 degrees and we felt disoriented more than once.

It is well used too. We stumbled across a gentle piano and guitar recital and on leaving had to shoulder-barge through crowds assembling for a production in one of the main halls.

Later, after a gentle beer, we took the lift to the top of downtown's other dominant edifice, the Hallgrimkirkja. This gothic cathedral sits atop the highest hill and can be seen from miles around. Insane buttresses fly off the main tower like swept jet fighter wings and the building looks like a pimped up Thunderbird 1 on the launchpad.  This is my newest favourite monolith in the whole world. Spanking views from the top revealed the surprisingly extensive spread of the city hemmed along the coast. The colour of the place again shone through strongly.

Reykjavik is full of weird business and visitor signs. Mrs A collected ‘The Happy Smiling Headware’ shop, and meeting place for the ‘Hand Knitting Association of Iceland’  

After exploring north side, we so, so wanted someone to ask us the way to the Hateigskirkja church, because we could legitimately have said "Oh yeah, turn left at the Volcano shop and hard right up by the Penis Museum’. I kid you not. Sadly we ran out of time, otherwise a poke around this establishment may have been reasonably stimulating.

I’m familiar with variable weather that seems to give four seasons in one day, but Iceland seems to have all the seasons going on at the same time. Rain of a more irresistible nature had, however, set in by the evening and our late night Northern Lights trip was cancelled. Instead we found time to explore a few more bars and ate probably the best meals of the stay in the classy (and yet again friendly) Restaurant Reykjavik. Helen’s charr ensemble (a fish she had never eaten before) was glacier fresh and my lamb was as tender as a re-run of On Golden Pond.

And then back to the Sky Bar, though much quieter tonight, where the manager was very chatty about the surprisingly good Icelandic ales. I’m happy to endorse Einstock IPA and Bjatur blonde ale, as well as some more predictable lagers. She said most were brewed further north where the barley grew. Barley? Out of bare rock and steaming pools? I was doubtful. As I was about the flocks of sheep that allegedly roamed the island and supplied my meal tonight.

So the next day we went on a trip to seek out barley fields and sheep pastures. We saw absolutely nothing. Not a stick of wavy grass or a single scraggy ewe. That’s debunked another Icelandic myth.

What we did instead was explore some of the most active and riveting geology on the face of the planet. The rain continued to lash and driving over the Blue Mountains, visibility dropped to about 20 feet. Prospects didn’t look good, but when we turned north, the sky lightened to reveal ridges, escarpments and volcanic peaks poking out of the murk.

By the time we hit the geyser fields, the weather had all but dried up. Mrs A was telling me about how Icelandic trolls die if they see sunlight and that planning decisions on one part of the island are subject to respecting the ancient, mythical pathways of elves. I in turn was harping on about the subcutaneous pressure required to power the water blasts and the sheer size of the Langjokull glacier. It was a guide book score draw.

Seeing a whole hillside venting clouds of hot air from clear water pits plays havoc with the senses. The original Geysir pool, which gave the geothermal phenomenon its generic name, no longer spouts boiling water, but its near neighbour, Strokkur, performs magnificently every minute or so for the assembled galleries.

Geological highlights continued. The powerful triple water falls of Gullfoss slam into a spectacular gorge fuelled by glacier meltwater further inland. The sound was as immense as the sight. So I thought I’d video it. Something I rarely do. I won’t be bothering again. “Listen to this” I said to my Dad and Bruv, when back home. They’d been looking after the girls – or possibly the other way round –during our trip. Fully expecting an ear splitting roar brewed in the very pits of the earth, the distant thrum we heard had more in common with a weedy generator on Summer rations than screaming falls throwing down 52 million cubic metres of turbulent water a minute. “Hmm, that’s impressive, Dave [chuckle].” observed Bruv. Think I’ll stick to the pics.

This area was the most northerly we ventured on the trip and the icy blast straight off the glacier was numbing. So the comforting lamb soup, speciality of the café at the top of the falls, warmed spots that really shouldn’t have been exposed in late March.

On the way back to Reykjavik we gained a glimpse of the fissuring and cracking that is renting apart the North Atlantic plate from the Eurasian one. The Thingvellir national park is a giant rift valley formed at the cutting edge of tectonic action. The split is reportedly increasing at 1-2cms per year. “Can you actually see it?” asked Daughter No 1. “Not in real time” I replied. But imagine if you could. Sat there all year waiting for the 2cm shift and then missing it because you went to the loo…” Geology brought to fizzing life.

The rains returned as we dropped back into the capital, extinguishing any lingering prospects of a Northern Lights appearance. That night we stumbled across perhaps the best bar of the stay. Laundromat is a large airy informal space dominated by a square central bar whose base houses shelves of paperback books. Red leather benches, booths and non-conformist tables surrounded the bar and were populated by a genuine all human life clientele. The food was somewhere between posh café/bistro, and the beer list took up the entire back page of the menu. Proper!

Why Laundromat? Mrs A said it was still a working launderette and we couldn’t work out how. Until I went to the loo downstairs where I passed three bright red washing machines and three large red tumble dryers. All being used and waited upon by locals minding hopper-sized laundry baskets.  As I say. All human life.

We couldn’t pass up a drink in a subterranean bar called Koffin where I finally tracked down a dark beer I’d seen supped elsewhere. Mori Red, hand pumped and served in a pint glass, was as tasty as it was civilised.

Then one late-night last drink in the Sky Bar, peering through rain lashed windows at the dancing, symphonic patterns of tint and hue flickering across the face of the Harpa. A colourful metaphor for this vibrant city full of wonderful people surrounded by stunning landscapes.

And we barely scratched the geothermally ravaged surface.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Mug Punting - Kindle discount

In a shameless act of self promotion, this post is merely to say that Mug Punting - Short Tales About Long Odds, is now available discounted by 54% to 99p for the next 7 days.

That's less than a quid for the book that spawned the blog. What can you get for less than a quid?

Click on the picture on the side panel or try this link to go direct to the Amazon Kindle page.

Get 'em quick.

Mug Punting Two is on the way as well. Just some finishing flourishes of rabid nonsense to finesse and we'll be there...

Advert over. Normal service to be resumed asap.

Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Festival wrap

The comedown. Like a slinky dog uncoiled, limp and tension- free lying at the bottom of the stairs. All latent energy consumed and potential dissipated in a headlong, blinkered rush.

Back to life, back to reality, as Soul II Soul accurately recorded. Crumpled here in the shadow of the bottom step, I’ve found a moment for reflection.

What to make of the Festival 2014? Some indicators of pleasure and pain, joy and grief, stimulation and banality are randomly gathered here.

Feel the quality
Interesting to see the ratings published the other day for the Gold Cup. It seems that both Bob’s Worth and Silviniaco Conti ran at about a stone below their best. The quickish ground a contributing factor, no doubt, but the way Conti struggled up the hill was alarming. Not a high class renewal, but quite a spectacle.

Many judges, both sound and otherwise, have questioned the form of the Champion Hurdle too.  The New One being the recipient of favourable analyses because of the ground he lost avoiding the ill-fated Our Conor. To the naked eye, I’m not so sure. He lost a few lengths after the third flight but was back on the heels of the leading group at the top of the hill. He then seemed to get outpaced, something he has a tendency to do in his races. Twiston Davies galvanised him eye-catchingly well up the hill, of course, to prompt the unlucky epithets.

No doubts about the World Hurdle as the race of the meeting for me. More Of That storming away from Annie Power after a right old ding-dong in a deep renewal of the race was a defining moment of the Festival. And happy retirement Big Buck’s.

Jockeys in focus
Injuries took high profile, encapsulated by Daryl Jacob’s crazy week. Despair when nosed out of the Pertemps Final to elation winning the County Hurdle, swiftly  followed by smashed bones and a hospital bed. His fall from Port Melon was a freak. Jockeys are used to landing on turf. Catapulted into the concrete via a camera crew is a different matter. Ruby’s broken arm suffered in the Triumph was also a horrible fall. Other injuries were suffered by Bryan Cooper and Paul Townend. McCoy typically rode through his injury and stood himself down after the Festival had closed.

Ruby Walsh found plenty of telly and press coverage. Not all of it as sympathetic as his Channel 4 three-part cosy chat with Mick FitzGerald. Walsh’s remarks about Our Conor were seized upon with frenzy by certain sections of the media peddling an ill thought through line from PETA.  Walsh said “It's sad, but horses are animals, outside your back door. Humans are humans. They are inside your back door. You can replace a horse. You can't replace a human being”. Far from a callous, ruthless dismissal of the beasts he bonds with day-in, day-out, this was simply a reasonable, if clumsily expressed, reminder that people matter too.

Redemption for Davey Russell. Having lost the top job at Gigginstown to Cooper, Russell claimed the ultimate compensation with a short-headed, steward-queried victory on 20-1 shot Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere. “For Davy Russell this has been a redemptive week and he wouldn’t have expected more personal miracles if they had transferred the Cheltenham Festival to Lourdes." Alastair Down in the Racing Post.  

Textual torment
Whilst sinking a Guinness or two in the Desert Orchid Bar with Bacchy, Mrs A texted to say Bob Crowe had died. The same moment, Nev texted to say he and Si were nearly there and to get in double rounds in. “Jesus”, I replied. “What a shock”.  And then, “Sorry Nev – meant that for my wife. Bob Crowe has died.” Nev didn’t bat an eyelid. Back he came with “Yeah. Charlton’s Chris Powell has just been sacked as well.” Bacchy remarked it was fortuitous that I cocked up the response that way round. A “piss off and get your own drinks” text to Mrs A would have bordered on inappropriateness. 

After Western Warhorse nicked the Arkle at 33-1 by no more than a curled lip, my Bruv texted “Well that makes the 40 to follow interesting, doesn’t it?” I had been storming the tri-lateral competition by a good 25 points. Western Warhorse was in his list and this did indeed change things. My instantaneous response, ‘Pies Off’, was the result of a sanctimonious spellchecker intervention. A correctly syntaxed ‘Piss Off’ followed a good two minutes later.

This didn’t help my mood. I had descended into grumpy bastard mode after a complete blow out in the Supreme and then the Arkle. After Jezki landed the Champion Hurdle for me by the archetypal flared nostril (how many desperately close finishes at this festival?), Bacchy texted, ‘Happy Now? Guiness Bar’. But sent it to the wrong Dave. Dave Briscoe, a million miles away, replied ‘Trust you are at the Festival! Go girl!’

War horses
I was desperately sorry to see the demise of Raya Star in the Grand Annual. A high class horse and one I’ve followed for a couple of years. Our Conor is a big loss.

Briar Hill broke his cheekbone after a crunching smackdown. It looked like he may have fared worse.

Last Instalment has been retired after injuring a tendon for a third time. He’s already done two and recovered magnificently. At least this way he avoids the full house. Sensible decision.

Big day for Gigginstown Stud
£1 risked on their eventual 82,653-1 final day four-timer would have seen a reasonable return. Apparently this is just what happened to someone in O’Leary’s box. Tiger Roll 10-1, Very Wood 33-1, Don Poli 10-1 and Savello 16-1. Four different trainers and three different jockeys. 

False steps
“Two false starts in the Gold Cup. It isn't only the Grand National whose starts can make us look silly to the watching world.” From Twittersphere.

The bottom line
A hard cash profit of £147 and a return on investment of 35%. Solid enough. The portfolio whimpered a little on days 3 & 4 after roaring magnificently in the first half of this epic punting marathon. But I’m certainly happy with that. Nine profitable Festivals from 13 grafting years. And ante-posts are most definitely back in favour. O’Faolains Boy, I love you.

Fantasy Festival
Always an absolute scream. This year the lead changed hands about 10 times over the four days, including three on the final day. After Adam somehow found the winner of the Gold Cup he overtook Bryn to occupy the box seat at the start of the last leg. I tried to reassure Ad that the compo was very rarely won on the back of the murky lottery that is the Grand Annual – knowing that’s exactly what had happened to me a few years before. And it happened again. Much respect to Paddy. Backing outsiders had been his hard-and-fast strategy all week. So it was fitting that Savello was produced like an ace from the massing pack and won comfortably at 16-1. Top competition once again.

The Barley Mow
Scene of betting bedlam and beery bullshit from noon until midnight. A glorious, raggedy, indulgent celebration.

"Who is that poor girl?" said Mrs A
Highlights too hazy to capture crisply, but the more sublime moments certainly included:
  • Drinking the Butts Mott whip to a dusty and dry emptiness. Famous dreams of Cheltenham doubles and value thievery slid away on days 1 & 2. Finally, there was no appetite for more punting in the Gold Cup; only for more beer. We supped off the float and toasted the slippery greyhound’s good health.
  • Colin down on his knees at the feet of grown men, blowing… dirty big raspberries on anybody’s belly he could access. Paddy was at least one recipient and, though touched by this endearing act, decided enough was enough and took Col home.
  • Arm wrestling. Yes, arm wrestling. Si and Steve seemed to sweep all before them. Shame about my dodgy shoulder, otherwise…
  • The wreckage pieced together over the next few days. Bryn’s sentimental text about camaraderie of the gang; Si getting stranded in London after the pub shut; Steve left to taxi all the way home from Upminster. Rinsed.

And finally
A couple of choice pieces from David Ashforth’s insanely brilliant column in Saturday’s RP, ‘Your Cheltenham questions answered…’

Dear Sir
On Tuesday I backed Champagne Fever, My Tent Or Yours and Shotgun Paddy. On Wednesday I backed Smad Place, Get Me Out Of Here and Any Currency. On Thursday it was Southfield Theatre. I am thinking of killing myself. What can I do?
Dear Ernest
Your own suggestion seems a reasonable one. Did you back them each way?

Dear Sir
Would you believe it? I’m from Rochdale and in 1996 I went to their home game against Cardiff City. Cardiff’s in south Wales and Fingal Bay’s in New South Wales but I didn’t think of it until after Fingal Bay won the Pertemps final. How unlucky can you be? I hate racing.
Dear Stephen
I sympathise with you because, only last week, I commented on how many hawks you see nowadays and, lo and behold, Hawk High wins the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle  at 33-1. So you don’t need to tell me about bad luck.

Time to recoil the spring.

Until next year.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Cheltenham Festival 14 - Day 4

Big Buck's has been a colossus amongst the staying hurdle division for almost half a decade. How sensible to retire him at the scene of his greatest triumphs and afford him the luxury of one last circuit around the parade ring in front of deeply appreciative banks of race-goers. With impeccable timing, the PA announced his retirement at the very moment that Jonjo was handed a big glass edifice signifying his achievement in training the new staying King: More Of That.

Geraghty has been in superb form this week and gave More Of That a sublime ride. Not so Ruby Walsh who was reproachful and crest-fallen after his ride on Annie Power. In a weighing room interview with Mick Fitz, his quiet comment that he thought he was to blame for the mare's defeat had a confessional quality. Surely an inaccurate comments though. It will not go down as a peach of a ride, but More Of That had more to give and won on merit.

We've seen different sides of Walsh this Festival. His subdued demeanour today contrasts with the measured and careful set-piece interviews that C4 have been broadcasting each day. Ruby, sat in the strangest tartan lazy boy recliner, has been patting back a few considered half volleys from Mick Fitz. I like to believe the real Ruby Walsh has more of the witty, wry, almost acerbic characteristics to the fore, as captured in various preview panels and informal gatherings before the Festival.

I'm not so sold on Tom Scudamore though. As a jockey he's starting to get it right more than he gets it wrong. About time. Great ride on Dynaste today. For a brief moment I thought my fancy, Hidden Cyclone had given he field the slip. Dynaste put in a great jump at the last and Scudamore got the grey home comfortably enough. Then he' does that irritating pointing at the stands as if everyone's had it in for him and the horse. He did the same an hour later when Ballynagour bolted home in the Byrne Plate. Deal with it, Tom.

So a place-collect for me in the Ryanair and another on Trustan Times - typically, my least fancied bet of the day - in the Pertemps keeps me ahead of the game.

Into the final day and a session at the Barley Mow beckons. We've disrespectfully frittered away a lot of the Butts Mott wedge during the week. Hurricane Fly let us down in the first leg of the Champion Hurdle/Mares Hurdle double. Foxrock jumped poorly in the four-miler, Red Sherlock didn't get home in the Neptune and Morning Assembly ran with credit but no return for us in the RSA Chase. We are down to beer money and an interest bet in the Gold Cup. £116.10.

There's the Fantasy Festival to play for as well. £150 up for grabs this year and there are still about five or six of us with live chances. It will get messy. In many, many ways.

So I'm getting these bets down before the day disappears in a whirlwind of beer, betting slips and bullshit.

I had backed Activial at 12-1 after an impressive win in the Adonis. Withdrawn last week in favour of Aintree, the race lost more of its lustre on Tuesday when Le Rocher picked up some heat in a fore-thingy.  This leaves the race looking very open. Guitar Pete (8-1) has improved a mile since beaten here by Royal Irish Hussar in November. And I like his battle-hardened style. Would be a memorable win for the yard after the devastating loss of Our Conor on Tuesday.

County Hurdle 
Just the 28 runners then. Nightmare. I really haven't put the necessary hours in to pick over this form and am cluless, to be honest. Many live chances. Small bet on Montbazon at 25-1 e-w who would have hated the ground in the Betfair Hurdle on his comeback after a long injury in February. If he's able to recapture any of the form of his novice year, he'd have a shout here.

Albert Bartlett
Two ante-posts in this, both from the Hobbs yard. Champagne Fever (25-1 e-w) is a decent horse, improving all season. Doesn't have the eye-catching profile of the market leaders, but should do well if he goes on the ground. Sausalito Sunrise (50-1) looked impressive in his first three runs before bombing out at Doncaster last time. Let's hope that was a blip and he outruns these massive odds.

Gold Cup
Old glass legs, Last Instalment has overcome two smashed tendons, doubts about the ground and a steroid infested yard (allegedly) to get here. He was very impressive at Leopardstown in the Hennessy and I was congratulating myself on bagging some of the 8-1 available. Until Bacchy - a long time admirer of this beast - told me he snaffled 50-1 before the gelding's seasonal debut in January. Stunning bet. The ground may have gone against him, but we should be treated some wonderful jumping and who knows... I've also got minimum stakes on Katenko, a 40 to follow horse of mine with no chance here.

Pearlysteps (7-1) because I've heard of him. I may have even backed him once.

Conditional Handicap Hurdle
The third of my Hobbs novice hurdlers lines up here: The Skyfarmer, 25-1 ante-post. Great attitude and would have struggled on heavy ground last time. Decent shout.

Grand Annual
Impossible. Raya Star, 10-1, for old time's sake.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Cheltenham Festival 14 - Day 3

Being at home for the first time in 12 years, rather than at the track, for Champion Chase Day felt all wrong. Watching the field on telly, milling round the chute for the opening race, was a strange emotion akin to an out-of-body experience.

That's probably how Ruby Walsh felt as Faugheen skipped free up the home straight, timber trailing in his wake like a raft-wreck. OK, slight exaggeration. He did totally demolish the third last, but even so he never looked like being beaten at any stage. Impressive. Red Sherlock was disappointing. Bang there with two furlongs to go, he seemed to empty pretty tamely.

I thought the ground had gone against the horses carrying my two best bets in the RSA. In fact O'Faolain's Boy had more trouble with his footwear. One shoe was kicked off and the other bent backwards, probably in his epic tussle with Smad Place up the hill. Thrilling, breathless stuff. Geraghty was as inspired as he was on Jezki yesterday, reeling in this time, rather than repelling. 33-1 is my best ante-post return for many a long Festival.
"It's quiet in here", 
observed Mrs A after the Neptune. Her tone had changed a fraction after my vocal and manic urging home of O'Faolain's Boy.
"I wish I was there at the course for this." I said. 
"So do I" she grinned.  
Sire De Grugy's Champion Chase win warmed the very cockles. The guard of honour formed by weighing room colleagues for Jamie Moore in the winners enclosure was the sort of genuine tribute that this hard working family deserves. I'm a big fan of the Grugy and this emphatic victory on a surface and course he doesn't like will surely give him appropriate recognition. Clare Balding was in her element with a tale of ordinary-folk-buying-champion-racehorse to amplify. I also warmed even more to the articulate and urbane Rich Ricci (owner of Faugheen amongst others in a stellar stable) when he described Balding's enthusiasm as the reason he wanted to get into jumps racing.

A good day. For a change, I'm well ahead at the Festival. Thursday will be a quieter day's punting:

JLT Novice Chase
Belatedly, I'm hitching lift on the Mullins' bandwagon. Watch the wheels come off now. I can't see past Felix Yonger at about 4-1. He should like the ground (only defeats on soft/heavy) and the track. No reason I can see why the extra half mile or so should hurt and with question marks over many of the others, he's the boy for me.

Pertemps Final
On The Bridge (16-1 e-w) has been kept for this since a run in one of the first qualifiers back in October when he wasn't asked too many tough questions in coming home a comfortable 4th. The bad winter ground wouldn't have been to his liking and off a sensible weight, this could be Jeremy Scott's best chance of the week. I also have Trustan Times (28-1 e-w) from the 40 to follow list, but I'm cool on his chances, so it's a small bet. He hasn't improved from last season and seems to struggle under the weight at the moment.

I backed Hidden Cyclone a month or so ago at 12-1 e-w and thought that was a good price. When he drifted to 16-1 a week later, I went in again. I think he has a more than fair chance at a track he likes and with questions to answer or recovery missions the order of the day for the other principals.

World Hurdle
I've messed this up.I backed Zarkandar ages ago at a not desperately attractive 10-1. I was sure Annie Power would line up in the Champion Hurdle and reasoned that if there were still doubts about Big Buck's then Z might have a squeak. It's not panned out that way and my lad's form is a notch or two below last year's. I don't fancy his chances, but I'm tempted to leave the race alone now, save putting Annie in a couple of crazy accas. This will be a great one to watch.

Byrne Group Plate
I was really taken with Shangani's win at Newbury in the Greatwood Gold Cup last month. The best of his form is in the mud (he's trained by Venetia of course), so will need to prove himself on the sounder surface, but 16-1 e-w is OK. Small stakes.

Kim Muir
An amateur race too far. I don't like this heat. Small bet on Indian Castle at 7-1 because I like the way he ran here when beating Annacotty and has a decent amateur (Derek O'Connor) on his back for this one.

Cheltenham Festival 14 - Day 2

A thrilling, exhausting foray into Prestbury's green acres yesterday, with enough highs, lows and twists to give a Cold War fighter test pilot a nosebleed.  

Jezki was the star turn. In the boozer the night before with Bacchy I had been attempting to formulate a theory that Jessie Harrington was less effective as a trainer these days. As evidence I cited arguably poor handling of Grade 1 performers Boston's Angel and Oscars Well. Sitting on a 12-1 ante-post voucher for Jezki, this was clearly a case of getting my excuses in early. 

Come the big day, she made no mistakes. The hood was, of course, a stroke of genius. Giving Barry Geraghty the leg up was reuniting a successful partnership of deep trust and respect between jockey and trainer. Putting in a pace maker who was to be ridden with restraint and tact was the final piece in the jigsaw. The race went according to the plan and at one stage owner JP McManus was looking at a 1-2-3. (What a race Caprain Cee Bee ran!) Jezki's well known stamina ultimately came in to play to hold off My Tent Or Yours in the final strides. 

This franked the other half-baked theory I had been touting in the boozer.

"Bacchy, we are looking in to this too deeply. The names of my winners of the Champion Hurdle all end in a phonetic 'I' - Sublimity, Punjabi, Rock On Ruby. 
And tomorrow, Je-ZKI!"
Without breaking stride or glance, he retorted,
"Or Grumeti!!" 
At the track, the four of us - Si, Nev, Bacchy and me - had been talking up the Champion Hurdle all afternoon. We'd discussed the best to see the race in terms of sight lines, commentary and atmosphere. Come the appointed time and place, only Bacchy and Si made it. Nev was in the bogs and rang Si. 
"Where are you mate" hollers Si above the din. "You're where?... You're having a shit?! Oh thanks for that mate!" 
Meanwhile I was demolishing the largest and sweetest Old English sausage baguette I'd ever tasted. I had an eye on the big screen and was walking backwards to the rendezvous point, skittering all those behind me. Until stopped by the line of high viz jackets. 
"Sorry sir, you can't take food in this section." 
I jammed the remnants into my gob, gave the steward and chutney-laced grin and continued backing in to the enclosure. I screamed Jezki home but didn't catch the boys to celebrate until outside the Guinness bar a few minutes later. (I hardly ever drink Guiness, but at the Festival I drink nothing else, save the contents of the hip flask.)

At that point I had to apologise to Si. I'd been mullered in the Supreme again. Again. I was so confident this year. Irving had looked the complete package. He was struggling with a circuit to go here, though. My other shout, Wicklow Brave, emptied on the hill. I'd had a long shot dabble with The Liquidator. He'd emptied on the hill the first time round.

I was desolate and miserable. The Arkle made things worse. Trifolium and Valdez ran with credit without bringing home any wedge. 

Things improved a touch with a place return in the Bayliss & Harding. And of course after the champion I was screaming the place down. 

"I'm sorry Si. It's the peaks and troughs. I take it all to heart. The emotions take me over. This is what it's like. If you think I'm a pain, just think what it's like to be me!"

I didn't apologise to Nev and Bacchy. They know the score.

Vautour was immense in the Supreme. All those earlier nouns still apply: machine, aeroplane, monster. Stunning. Bacchy was on him. And later he picked up on Holywell. Si put in a max bet on queen of the park, Quevega and suffered a long heart in the mouth moment before Ruby Walsh galvanised her up the hill. Nev had a few bits and pieces. 

Received wisdom is to start the four-day marathon punting with restraint. I can't do this. I spend so long looking at those first grade 1s and am so keen to get off to a great start that dizzy-headed scatter-punting takes over. I spend the rest of the festival playing catch up. But not this time. All in all day 1 was a 'top, top' day.

So for Wednesday, traditionally my strongest session, these are the 'top, top' selections:

I'm sticking with Red Sherlock at the ante-post price of 6-1. 

RSA Chase
Mob handed with ante-posts on Annacotty at 25-1 e-w, Many Clouds at 25-1 e-w and O'Faolains Boy at 33-1 e-w. I see the latter is shortening up. He's a great jumper, but am surprised because his best form is with give underfoot. Nevertheless, all three have good place chances or possibly better. However, they have it all to do against the Irish battalions at the head of the market. A strong, deep renewal this year. 

Coral Cup
Small e-w bets on Far West and Vendor.

Queen Mother
A poor renewal. I've gone round the houses in this one. I was looking to oppose Sire De Grugy (11-4) because of his obvious dislike for the track. Then I couldn't see anything here that I really fancied to give him a race. I concluded that it is so poor he will still win! Hinterland is very interesting and I'm on at 12-1 e-w. The talking horse this morning seems to be Captain Conan, but I'm not convinced by what he's done over fences yet. I may be wrong...

Cross Country
Sire Collonges, 8-1

Fred Winter
Katgary, 8-1

Neck Or Nothing, 25-1 e-w on the basis of a shrewd observation from Bacchy on his last run; Value At Risk, 12-1. 

Monday, 10 March 2014

Cheltenham Festival 14 – Day 1

Just a day-trip to the Festival this year. Not since my debut in 2000 have I only taken in only one day. Nev would have been up for a second day, like last year. But I think I’m still licking wounds from a bare knuckle mauling last year.

Scoured clean through by bookies no less excoriating than the permanent easterly skimming over Cleeve Hill, I limped home on the Thursday night feeling like a broken frigate captured in the receding light of a JMW Turner painting.  The rattling hangover didn’t help much either. And then I read about JT McNamara – having beaten my retreat before his devastating fall in that that race – and stopped feeling sorry for myself pretty abruptly.

I’m also, rather more prosaically, juggling commitments so that Mrs A and I can enjoy our trip to Iceland later this month. As if I won’t have had enough of screaming east winds...

Tomorrow will be such a rush. I woke up this morning wringing with anticipation. So much so that I forgot to brush my teeth. How ridiculous is that? There is nothing at all better than the first day of the Festival. Bar nothing. Clambering off the shuttle bus so brimful of confidence that that your swelling chest won’t fit through the double doors and your swaggering arse clouts all the touts out of the way.

This year sees the return of my punting partner Bacchy to the fray, after a couple of years away, completing the perfect scenario. I go into battle with a fistful of value, live, ante-posts (having reversed completely last year’s policy) and things couldn’t be sweeter. Last season is a distant memory.

This is the way the bets are lining up at the moment:

1.30 – Supreme
Irving, 10-1. Looking like one of my strongest ante-posts. His Dovecote win and other efforts this season tick all the boxes for me, save a run going left-handed. Vautour of course is a massive danger. Whether or not he got a soft lead in the Deloitte is less important than the fact he has gears and pace. Never a bad combination. I’ve also had a saver on Mullins’ second string Wicklow Brave at 7-1. But the form of these novices is so hard to assess, particularly those that have beaten only trees in egg and spoon maidens.

2.05 – Arkle
My ante-post on Hinterland bit the dust once it became clear that Nicholls had nothing else for the Champion Chase on Wednesday. There’s some logic in that as it is a very weak renewal and Hinterland is a second season chaser, so taking that bit of extra experience into a Championship encounter. I’ve backed him for that now. I think he would have been a handful here as well. My surviving ante-post is Trifolium. At 6-1 I haven’t gathered much of a value advantage, but his form hasn’t taken too many knocks. A lot depends which Champagne Fever turns up on his favourite track.  I’ve also had a little look at Valdez at 9-1, who will love the drying ground and seems to have crept in under the radar with some solid enough form. Maybe one more run might have made a more compelling case.

2.40 – Bayliss & Harding Chase
Always a competitive handicap (show me one at the Festival that isn’t) attracting a couple of classy ones. I had backed Annacotty for the RSA on Wednesday, but when the weights came out, I found myself hoping he would be re-routed here. So my dabble at 35-1 on Betfair is a small loss I’ll take on the chin. Instead, I’m with Lucinda Russell’s Green Flag who followed Annacotty home in that strange Feltham on Boxing Day. Green Flag was travelling sweetly when clipping heels with another at Wetherby last month. I think he has a nice weight here and 14-1 is good enough for me.

3.20 – Champion Hurdle
Nothing to add to the ante-posts here. Jezki at 12-1 and Melodic Rendezvous at 25-1. The addition of a hood for Jezki is worth a try, but you don’t really want to be experimenting on the big day. If the move sets him alight, he may just about be able to keep up with the pacemaker, Captain Cee Bee. The ground has gone against Melodic Rendezvous if you believe the deep surface arguments. I expect I’ll be in that camp too by tomorrow night. Best race at the Festival, this, despite the defection of Annie Power and Un De Sceaux.

4.00 – Mares Hurdle
I had a couple of 40 to follow horses here who were not declared, so no surviving ante-post action. But in a race that is usually a low punting event for me, I’ve found myself getting behind two at double figure prices. Down Ace at 14-1 is just the sort of progressive mare I can’t resist and I’m a big fan of Feargal O’Brien. This is a new trip though. And, following a line through Carole’s Spirit (my long-range fancy for this renewal), I was really taken with the performance of Harry Fry’s Highland Retreat (16-1) at Ascot in January. I’m playing for place money in reality and jumping onto two beasts is folly. Evidence of festival fever. Mullins may have been concerned about a Quevega for a day or so, but there’s nothing to suggest she won’t turn up here and set records flying. 

4.40 – Four Miler
Suntiep. So good I backed it twice. On purpose at 16-1 and then again by accident at 20-1. More signs of festival fever, or simply incompetence. One bet would have been sufficient, but I do think the horse has a decent claim. A good hurdler last year, he started slowly this season and was lucky to win in February when Si C’Etait Vrai tipped up at the last.  He will stay these four miles though, looks to jump well and is surely an improver. Mullins won this with a slow one last year in Boston Bob. Trading at around 10-1 now.

5.15 – R4R Novice Handicap Chase
Despite Pendra being one of my 40 to follows I haven’t secured any value on this Charlie Longsden shout. He has been near the head of this market since it was formed and I only belatedly took some 7-1. Whilst I think he has a good weight and McCoy gets on well with him, there are question marks. He bombed out at Prestbury Park in last year’s Coral Cup and also failed to get home in the only decent race he’s tackled this season. Not my most confident punt on the card. My other interest is also a minimum stakes affair. Up To Something is a 25-1 tickle, but has a lot of weight and form that yo-yos more than the stock market in a financial crisis. This is his trip though, and the ground will suit.

Regular readers may also dimly remember the existence of the Butts Mott whip money.  The decent stash that has been carefully cultivated over a good few months will be cracked open, at least in part, tomorrow:

  • Hurricane Fly/Quevega - Champion Hurdle/David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle: £30 win dble @ 6.64/1
  • Foxrock – Four-Miler: £30 win @ 7/1

and on Wednesday:
  • Red Sherlock - Neptune Novices' Hurdle: £35 win @ 6/1
  • Morning Assembly - RSA Chase: £25 win @ 9/1

Even if all these are blown out of the water, we have £119 left over to DRINK with on Friday!

I love it when a plan comes together.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Festival tipping

Festival tipping. Sounds like a minor offence governed by parish council by-laws.

Preview events used to be a cheeky route to garner the odd pointer from those on the inside track, build up the anticipation and witness some healthy banter. The last five years or so has seen the phenomenon grow to an industrial scale. When coupled with social media reporting, I had started to think they had become both watered down and plumped up.

Never fear. This clip from a Boylesport-sponsored event in Dublin restores my faith. Ruby Walsh is in cracking form, berating Kevin O’Ryan for suggesting Vautour got an easy lead in the Deloitte at Leopardstown. Leon Blanche doesn’t fare much better in defending Boylesports’ offer of money back if your horse is beaten one ridden by McCoy. “What kind of offer is that? he drawls. “How many favourites am I riding? Seven. How many has he got? None!”

And what is Davey Russell on about? 

This is common territory for Walsh. A few years ago, a mate sent me an amusing transcript (the days before Twitter) of some of his choice observations from a previous preview evening. Walsh is never short of a refreshing view, even if it’s not always on the money:

Supreme – I imagine Cousin Vinny runs here and if so he will take all the beating. Go Native won't get up the hill.” Go Native won and Cousin Vinny was unplaced.

Arkle: “There is no future Champion Chaser amongst these. Kalahari King has been winning donkey derbys, Forpadydeplasterer won't win but can be placed.” Of course Pady won by a short head from Kalahari King.

Ryanair: Vor Por Ustedes is a cert. Imperial Commander is a handicapper, Monet's Garden gets lost outside of Aintree, Tidal Bay ran like a hairy goat last time and Our Vic ran terribly on his only run this season.” Imperial Commander won from VPU, but Monet’s did absolutely get lost in the race.

This is unfair though. Ruby had a superb festival that year and in the preview he tipped up the winner of the Gold Cup (Kauto Star), the Champion Chase (Master Minded), the World Hurdle (Big Buck’s - 1st victory at 6-1), the RSA (Cooldine) and the Champion Bumper (“Patrick Mullins has ridden in a lot of bumpers this season and I know he fears Dunguib” – 6-1).

So what have I learnt this year?

Well, that many of my confidently struck ante-post shouts are not flavour of the month. Irving in the Supreme, has been rubbished by Barry Geraghty (“I don’t fancy Irving or Vautour”) who likes Vaniteux (“working great”). He and his other panelists also described one of my other bets, Red Sherlock in the Neptune, as ‘”too slow”. Ho hum.

If the tipsters don’t do it for you, there are plenty of angles, systems and approaches out there to assist in finding your own answers. And you don’t need to dig too hard. A couple of nuggets:
  • AP McCoy has a 42% strike rate when riding Jonjo O’Neill trained horses in handicaps over further than 2 ½ miles. And McCoy is a slow starter at the Festival these days, so focus on Thursday and Friday. Hmm. A narrow window of opportunity, perhaps.
  • Charles Byrne’s has returned a £16.50 level-stakes profit since 2008, including 3 grade 1 wins. Promising. I’ve backed his Trifolium in the Arkle. Is this a sign?
  • Side with the Irish in the Bumper and the Cross Country. Well yes. Just not sure how far that really closes down the options.
  • And a word for that nice Mr Hobbs: Non-handicaps have produced the most profit for the Withycombe team at 6-64 (for a +£17 profit), compared to handicaps at 3-100 (-£73). Seven of Hobbs’ nine winners arrived here having raced last time out at either Kempton (3), Sandown (2) or Cheltenham (2). Does that shed any light?
  • Good lists always have an odd number of bullet points. Never even. Sound advice. 
Happy hunting. It’s a jungle out there. Don't break any by-laws.