Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Christmas shopping

The season is sizzling. This isn’t another global warming warning and it’s not the mild weather that has me clammy all over. The jumps game is hot right now and the festive fixtures look as tasty as a turkey dinner.

The season was full of promise back in October. But aren’t they all? So often the expectancy outweighs the delivery.  Not so far this term.

The Mullins battalion looks even stronger. Last season’s stellar novices are beginning to dominate in new divisions and the established Group 1 talent grows ever more formidable, bar the odd unexpected hiccup. Not by any means in the same league, but the rise and rise of new young trainers like Dan Skelton and Harry Fry is encouraging.

The narrative of the early winter has also been about the return to form of some old lags I was happy to write off. I don't just mean Philip Hobbs (love that guy). Sprinter Sacre, Sire De Grugy, Cue Card, Sir Des Champs, O’Faolains Boy, Simonsig (although that may be brief), and even Smad Place who is starting to deliver on the promise as an 8-y-o.  

Now at the business end of the season, it is time for the novices to show their mettle. We have had some early skirmishes and sighters, but the Christmas fixtures are where we start to see the good ones taking each other on. Particularly so in Ireland. The magnificent Leopardstown four day-meeting is where I have started my Christmas shopping.

On Boxing Day, we will see the best two-mile novice chase of the season. Douvan is held in the highest regard by the Closesutton team, Mullins hailing him as “an amazing athlete and I would say he’s as good as I’ve ever had”. In the Racing Post Novice Chase he will bump into two other decent sorts. I backed Ttebbob at 10/1 for the race a fortnight ago after his scintillating round of jumping in a Navan Grade 3. He’s now 4/1. However, compared to my punting pals Bacchy and Si, I’ve been slow off the mark. They both took advantage of much chunkier prices after his jumping debut at Thurles. Chuck in Sizing John and we have a properly exciting contest. Henry De Bromhead has a good one in this clean-jumping gelding who should get closer to Douvan than he did in his three tries over hurdles.

Once I start to ramble around the Christmas markets, I find it hard to stop. So I’ve backed Ttebbob for the Arkle at Cheltenham at 20/1. I’ve also taken a punt on De Bromhead stepping Sizing John up in trip and backed him for the weaker-looking JLT Novice Chase at 12/1. I may be wrong about both these Festival targets. Let’s face it, that wouldn’t be the first time. I’ll just go in again. None of this false caution of previous years. Gung-ho! It’s the only way.

I haven’t looked properly at the staying novice chasers, except to note that the two at the head of the market both look impressive: No More Heroes and More Of That. Looking forward to Native River and Twea For Two at Kempton. Both have started well. Nevertheless, I’m keeping my powder dry for now. (Is that the shortest-lived ‘gung-ho’ policy in ante-post history?)

Also at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, Rashaan goes in the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle. He’s the best Triumph prospect I’ve seen all season and I’ve duly backed him for Cheltenham at 16/1. From the small stable of Colin Kidd, I was so impressed with his neat hurdling style and smooth travelling when he took a decent Fairyhouse race last month. You have to trust what you see sometimes.

Mullins hasn’t yet sorted out his Triumph crew. He’ll have plenty to choose from. Here, it looks like Footpad is his current first choice.

Oddly, I haven’t sorted out the novice hurdlers at all, aside from the juveniles. No bet yet. Not even close. I like Barters Hill, Yorkhill and Bellshill. And anything else vaguely undulating, to be honest. But I’ve no idea which race they’ll go for. A little more under the radar, I saw on telly and liked the look of Winter Escape, trained by Alan King. I’ll keep tabs. Early days though. So unlike the novice chasers, I’m not ready to make a call.

Away from the novices, one of the few superstars we haven’t yet seen from the Co Carlow champion trainer is Un De Sceaux. All being well (and him not feeling too flat) he should finally emerge in the Paddy Power Chase on Sunday. The horse is superb to see careering at his fences, but is a ridiculously short price for the Champion Chase. Best price of 7/4. I can’t be having that. Sizing Granite, another from the De Bromhead yard, will line up against him on Sunday. I’ve dipped in to the spends again to take 14/1 there and also 33/1 about this lad for the two-mile showpiece at the Festival. This is a real punt. I thought he put in a beautiful round of jumping at Aintree in April when taking the Maghull Novices Chase. Admittedly not the strongest renewal and he failed to land the even-money on his reappearance this season. He ran well enough though, giving lumps of weight away, and showing some fight to go down by only a head. He has to improve and at the moment 33/1 is a fair price. I’m investing in potential.

Monday 28th sees the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown over 3 miles. Martello Tower is in the early decs and I am keen to see him line up having  had him as a stocking filler at 16/1 for the World Hurdle. The division has suddenly come to life with the mighty marker put down by Thistlecrack last Saturday and the reversion to hurdles of Saphir Du Rheu – surely still feeling the effects of his recent Hennessy run in the same race. I still think there’s value hereabouts, though. Whilst Martello Tower is speculative until he actually reappears, I’m also very interested in Alpha Des Obeaux and Kilcooley. I’m likely to play again.

The best race that day at Leopardstown is the Lexus Chase. The staying chase division is absolutely fascinating right now, despite the recent loss of Coneygree for the season, we are enjoying a bumper show. Mullins holds a strong hand, of course. It’s likely that Don Poli and Djakadam will be his charges here, whilst Vautour and Valseur Lido head to Kempton on Boxing Day to take on Cue Card, Don Cossack, Silviniaco Conti and Road To Riches.

The King George looks the pick of the two races and I can’t wait to see the tactics unfold. I think I will be with Don Cossack who seems to keep on improving and there should be no doubts about the track at Kempton (whether or not there are any valid ones about Cheltenham). I’d love the winner to be the new gurgle-free Cue Card but I don’t think he’s got the beating of the Elliott horse. My only other comment is to note the staggering price available about Road To Riches at 25/1. I could say the same about Valseur Lido, too. I’m talking myself into too many bets here. Maybe it’s one to leave alone and savour.

I have actually had an ante-post interest in this division. O’Faolains Boy has attracted some sentimental shopping for the Gold Cup. In a rather over-excited moment after his impressive win at Newbury last Friday, I found myself unable to resist a little of the 33s generally on offer. Then Rebecca Curtis confirmed him for the Welsh National on 27th and I rather fear that will finish him for the season. Well it’s hardly classic Gold Cup prep is it? Ho hum.

The Irish look to have the spoils of the Champion Hurdle between them. Indeed, it may even be just between three or four Mullins charges. Henderson seems to be misfiring. Peace And Co’s inability to settle is a worry; and on Saturday JP McManus seemed to say that Hargam was a more likely runner in the Ryanair Hurdle than My Tent Or Yours. It may well be that Top Notch ends up being Hendo’s best shout in the Champ, but I don’t think he’s improving fast enough. One who might be is Old Guard. The wise words on the street suggest he’s not really a convincing Champion Hurdle type. I tend to disagree at 20/1 and have had a small interest. Boxing Day will tell us more, though the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton is surely Faugheen’s for the taking.

OK, the credit cards have gone back in the wallet. I’ll wait until these Christmas crackers are out of the way before the re-gifting of ante-posts starts…

Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 13 December 2015


This meeting has become a fixture in our punting calendar. For years we came on the Friday; a lower-profile card which still has a couple of decent races. Sneaking a day off work was part of the attraction. One time when the fixture was frosted-ff we simply played 10-pin bowling at the Trocadero and drank all day.

Since switching to the main event, attendance amongst our unruly gang has grown. Fourteen thirsty souls answered Bryn’s group booking invitation this year: thirteen lads and one lass.

At one point in the week before the meeting, we allowed ourselves to think that an epic Tingle Creek Chase was about to unfold. Willie Mullins had committed to the race the brightest star in the current two-mile division and reigning Arkle hero, Un De Sceaux. Henderson had also pointed two of his stable stars in the direction of Sandown Park. Scintillating Sprinter Sacre had been nursed back to something approaching his best and another sick note, previous Arkle winner Simonsig was also back to form.

Shame on us for allowing ourselves such high hopes. The increasingly nervous Hendo decided that Sprinter was not yet ready for another bout, citing possible heavy ground (it rode genuine good to soft on the day); and the unfathomable Mullins revealed that Sceaux was “a little flat in himself the last two days." Bless. On the eve of the race Simonsig was also pulled out with a new injury.

This all prompted hearty twelve-to-follow chat about those numpties who had dropped Vibrato Valtat - and others - a couple of weeks previously to bring in the Sprinter. The Vibrator (as the stable staff affectionately term Nicholl’s premier two-miler) was now heading the market.

We set out from various points of the south east regional compass. Bacchy offered a spread on people left at the entrance without their allotted ticket at 2-3. “Are you a buyer or a seller?” he asked. Another potential wrinkle was the number of punters who copped a penalty fare at the track-side exit form Esher station. It is beyond zone 6 and the ruthless Southern Railway enforcers set up camp just off the ramp to pounce on hapless incorrectly-ticketed punters. Bryn was alive to this, though and had warned about their tactics in his final briefing to us all. Top admin. Give that man a finance job.

Last year, I met Tim at Watford and he was picking out winners for that evening’s Wolverhamtpon card. I ignored it. This year was worse. “My cousin is sending a horse box over from Ireland for Monday’s Musselburgh meeting.” I rolled my eyes. “One of them will win, if not two”, he said with no little authority.

Bryn’s expert planning was rewarded with the arrival of the Gang Of Four(teen), bearing shiny, happy, optimistic faces within a few moments of the appointed hour. The first concern was the lack of real ale. “Where’s the Hogsback stall?” said virtually everyone. Even the lager drinkers.  Turned out they’d been booted out of the grandstand into the farthest reaches of the car park enclosure for refusing to pay inflated concession fees.  In the meantime, Nick found a real ale bar underneath the Esher Stand in the family area just adjacent to kids’ pantomime stage. They don’t make it easy for the beer drinkers. Top work that man.

Fuelled by ale and increasingly animated banter, the actual racing part of the day disappeared in a rising miasma of punts, horses and pees. I do remember one or two highlights:
  • Gary found five winners from seven races. Outstanding. He backed Li’l Rockerfeller because it was similar to his Mother-in-Law’s cat’s name. Or some such.
  • Bacchy proclaimed me a genius for finding bogs with no queues over by the parade ring. A sign of the relative priorities amongst men of a certain age.
  • Nev not landing any forecasts. At all. (Unless I missed it)
  • A big surprise in the Henry VIII novice chase as Gary Moore’s Ar Mad won at 14-1 in a six runner field. No-one backed him in our gang, despite Moore running up six winners across the two-day meeting.
  • Everyone ignoring my winning nap on Simply A Legend in the handicap hurdle and then me ignoring everyone else’s nap of Carole’s Destrier who took the last. 
  • Some saucy action away from SW London saw Colin tip a 33-1 runner up at Aintree; and Bacchy expecting to land a cheeky treble at Navan only to find it had been abandoned, despite the bookies taking his bet.

The most controversial moment was easily Special Tiara getting stopped in his tracks by Sire De Grugy. in the Tingle Creek. The enquiry went on forever. There’s something wrong somewhere when the common consent at the track was that Special Tiara would have won the race but that the stewards would never reverse the decision. Colin noted the transformation of Darren during this moment, discarding his 'Happy Days' banter in favour of apoplectic rage when SDG kept the race. "Even if his jockey had've shot my fuckin' jockey, he still wouldn't have been fuckin’ disqualified! Fuckin’ fix!".

Bacchy reacts to the steward's verdict
Dark days at Sandown. By 3.45pm the lights were on and we groped our way to the station. By 4.15pm we had commandeered a corner of a cosy pub in Surbiton.

Colin pulled out after one pint and a half-hearted offering up of his belly for a raspberry blow. Gary exhorted him to stay, “Go on, just one. A half. A short. A coke. A bag of crisps?" Nick was next. The hipflask had been drained and he ran up the white flag by texting Den to come and pick him up. 

For some reason, Bacchy and I felt the need to escort him from the pub. Den was in the station car park surrounded by honking taxis. Nick scrambled in to the passenger seat and Bacchy leant in to Den through the open driver’s window, elbows on the frame offering wise words about getting Nick home safely. Den looked like a rabbit trapped in the headlights.

Back in the pub, Bacchy tipped his head back, extended his arm upwards and threw hipflask remnants straight down his throat. An adjacent barman looked on with incredulity but didn’t say a word. Time to go. I was almost persuaded to go to Wimbledon for a curry, but thought better of it. I was stood on the wrong platform at Surbiton and must have looked like thunder as I rejoined the gang on the right platform. “Here he comes”, said Bacchy, “the Grinch!”

There was the odd hangover from Saturday’s adventures: one missed twelve-to-follow transfer; one missed gig ticket purchase; and one winner from Tim’s work on the train down - Moonlone Lane from the Irish raiding party went in at Musselburgh on Monday afternoon by 3 lengths. This time I listened.

Stories of earlier Tingle Creek encounters and other meetings can be found in the newly published collection ‘Smug Punting – More short tales about long odds’.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Jump to it

Mug Punting got off to a pretty low-key start this jumps season. Even a trip to Cheltenham’s first day of the season couldn’t induce a winning thread. Me, Dad and Bruv pitched up on the first day that an impressive new £45m five-storey grandstand was open for business. The whole redevelopment looked good: a new parade ring and winners enclosure, balconies, viewing areas and high level walkways.

We grabbed a table on the first floor next to the champagne bar and gathered from staff that plebs like us would not be allowed in here in future. When the stand opened formally from the next meeting, this would be badge holders only. This was the soft launch designed to test operational wrinkles like queues for the bogs and crushes at the exits. (Wouldn’t want to see the members used as such guinea pigs...) Still, the development is a significant improvement on the old owners and trainers enclosure that used to occupy the site.

Much more spick and span than my punting. I didn’t sniff a winner all afternoon.  Dad and Bruv didn’t do a whole lot better. The best I could do was to take away a couple of hurdlers and pop them in the notebook: Mister Miyagi, a Dan Skelton novice and Old Guard a vastly improved Nicholls’ handicapper who had first shown his abilities in juvenile events the previous season.

So come the next meeting at HQ, when the new stand had been opened as The Princess Royal Stand by the 12th in line to the throne, I managed to let Old Guard go off unbacked at 12-1 to win the Greatwood Hurdle. Bollocks.

The rest of the Open meeting card was a bit better as a punting exercise. I’ve followed Sausalito Sunrise for three seasons now, extracting a reasonable profit from this unflashy stayer along the way. His grinding win in the 3m3f handicap chase etched his figures further into the black at 7-1. My best bet of the weekend. I thought I had the winner of the Paddy Power, too. Irish Cavalier was tanking and looking like he had the race at his mercy. Until he folded at the top of the hill.

It was the best few days of racing I’d seen in a good long while. Nichols Canyon beating a rusty Faugheen at Punchestown was dramatic stuff. Sizing John and Bellshill laying down markers in the novice divisions across the Irish Sea was intriguing. And then the stunning return to form of Sprinter Sacre. For the first time in his illustrious career, I managed to find a winning bet on him. Always eschewing the odds-on prices in his glory years, my only other bet was his 3rd in the Supreme of 2011. Even here I prevaricated over the 2-1 almost too long. Great to have him back. As Lydia Hyslop remarked in her Sporting Life column, it’s amazing what a little bit of vulnerability does for a horse’s popularity. This is an emotional game. Disappointing then, but hardly surprising, that Henderson has subsequently taken the cautious route and will not be running Sprinter at the Tingle Creek on Saturday.  

The season is taking on a retro flavour. Add to Sprinter Sacre’s return the re-emergence of Sir Des Champs, Bobs Worth and Simonsig after long lay-offs and it could be the year of the come-back kings. I’m keeping up my hopes for 1D.

So Cue Card, take a bow. I’ve been wrong about this horse too many times. I was ready to write him off again in the Betfair Chase. Instead I chose to believe Tizzard and my mate Col about the epiglottis fix. I took a punt based on his Charlie Hall Chase win (and make no apologies for this apparent aftertiming). Cue Card was brilliant. At the point down the back straight where Silviniaco Conti out jumped Cue Card, the latter might once have folded. Given a moment to recover by the imperious Paddy Brennan, he was soon back on the steel and up to Conti’s girths before running away with the race.

My mate Col also tells me that the benefit of these throat ops often doesn’t last long. I hope they get him to the King George in one piece, because that is shaping up to be a superb renewal. Silviniaco Conti will be back, blinkered for the first time at his favourite track. Vautour, after his satisfactory return, will come on a bomb and Ruby insists the right-hand jumping is not a problem, merely a quirk of the alignment of the fences at Ascot. Throw in the top-rated Don Cossack, Gold Cup champ Coneygree and a few others like Saphir Du Rheu and Ptit Zig, and we are in business.

Unlike the class of 2013 who are burning up the come-back trail, Rock On Ruby never went away. He just kept on winning. Sadly, he picked up an injury after claiming a tenacious victory in an Ascot Grade 2 and has been retired. Happy dotage, old son. Doesn’t owe me a penny. The 2012 Champion Hurdle victory will live long in the memory.

I’ve got a half decent record in the Hennessy. I backed Many Clouds last year when I was at Twickenham watching England beat Australia in an Autumn International. What a difference a year makes. This November, England are nursing a premature World Cup exit hangover and I was playing golf in a screaming wind whilst my bet Ned Stark got tailed off at Newbury.

I was on the wrong Alan King horse. I was mostly on the wrong fairways too. Nothing went straight, or very far. My putting was solid enough. Comparatively speaking. If only I hadn’t taken eight shots to get on the greens. Nick was not much better. His vicious slice kept him in the undergrowth for most of the afternoon. The very same undergrowth, as well as fairways and greens (and other obscure parts of the course my balls had visited) that were about to be ripped up to make way for a new housing estate. The course was closing the very next day, having succumbed to the owner’s smell of development money.

Smad Place was quite brilliant. Bold, flouncy jumping and electric front-running. He’s probably had a performance like that in him for some while, having never quite put it all together at the right time/weight/conditions before. Fair play. My other bets took a pounding too. Top Notch was the best of ‘em in the Fighting Fifth. Even watching the replay later, knowing the result, I thought he was going to hang on.

These tribulations were nothing compared to those of sharp-quiffed young fellah-me-lad in my office. On Monday morning he was telling me about his fourfold football combi (he no longer accepts any of my racing tips): Brighton, Man City, Middlesbrough and Everton all to win. All four results were lining up the right way. Over at Goodison, the Toffees had a comfortable 2-0 advantage. Then a brace of Bournemouth goals in the last 10 minutes brought the scores level. Fellah-me-lad was downcast, cursing his luck. However an injury time goal for Barkley had him waving his three-parts empty pint of Stella around in the boozer and counting out his virtual three-figure payout. Only for Stanislas to equalise with the very last kick of the game, taking the acca down without a trace. Cruel.

It will be the same or similar for 14 of us this Saturday, no doubt. The boys (and one girl) are assembling for the annual onslaught at the mighty Tingle Creek meeting. Sprinter Sacre or no, it will be a memorable day. At least, until the early beers and empty hipflasks take their toll. From that point on a forgettable day might be more appropriate. 

Saturday, 7 November 2015

A tale of two piers

Well, two and a half piers, really. Because I was to be found lurking outside a concrete bunker opposite Brighton's ruined West Pier at one point of this tale, haranguing strangers on a damp Halloween evening.

West Pier
You may well ask why this was happening when I could easily have been lapping up an insanely brilliant collection of Weekend sport in comfort at home. The answer has something to do with a misjudgement about the pulling power of a rock ‘n’ roll dream ticket. 

Joe Bonamassa, one of the few truly inspiring guitarists left on my to-see list had announced an arena tour. Surprisingly all the dates missed out London. Inexplicably, they also bypassed Aylesbury Watford and even the decent blues pub in Sarrat. Brighton was on the list though. And I knew tickets would sell fast for this blistering fret-meister. So one Monday morning I was to crouching over the laptop, credit card in hand, waiting for the tickets to go on sale. Hardly a Glastonbury-scale operation, granted. Nevertheless, I was determined not to miss out again after failing to catch the man on at least three previous visits.

My promptness was rewarded. Two tickets were purchased for the Saturday night, although my eagerness didn't yield anything better than seats up in the south balcony. Some birds were significantly earlier than me.

"Fancy a weekend in Brighton?" I smugly teased Mrs A. "Maybe." she replied. Was that a hint of a wink? "What are you offering?" When I gushed my plan: the finest blues-rock guitarist of our generation live and personal for a 2 ½ aural treat, and all night scrabble (amongst other options) in a bijou little hotel overlooking the front, she seemed a fraction underwhelmed.

"Maybe" became "maybe not". Joe B and the boys were not universally regarded as a hot ticket, it seemed. (It couldn't have been any other part of the offer, surely?) More importantly, I'd also failed to register that the date was Halloween. A big night for the girls in the Atkinson household. It became clear that Mrs A would not/could not join me.

So that’s why I was skulking outside the Brighton Centre, doing my best stubbly-chinned, roll-up smoking, stained-mac wearing ticket tout impression. I'd previously tried to flog the spare voucher on one of those reselling websites that are nothing more than industry-sponsored mark-up outlets. Despite the gig having been sold out for weeks, mine would not shift on the net. I had no joy trying to hawk the ticket outside the gig either.  I hung around the box office a little while and then simply handed it back to them and asked that they gave it to anyone who turned up last minute. Life really is too short to be flogging tickets on Brighton front in the gathering mist. I've had enough free gigs over the years. I don’t begrudge paying double for this one. And anyway, I had some illuminated seaside attractions to photograph.

 The seat next to me in the balcony was empty all night, so I guess no-one claimed the ticket. During some of the many exquisite moments when Bonamassa was writhing over his axe like a dementer, faced screwed up like a pug's, I glanced at the vacant seat and thought it was just as well Mrs A was not there. She would have seen those extended passages of sublime lead guitar as nothing more than overwrought grandstanding. To me, Bonamassa is a genius. His sharp suit, slick hair and shaded eyes belie the passion and feeling he wrings from his instrument. Nobody chucks such a high-spec ceramic kitchen sink at every solo like this upstate New Yorker. He means every plaintive, gutteral, pure, sweet, brutal note he picks out. 

That's him. There on the right. 
Walking back up South Street was a visual treat. The hen party/stag scenario that takes over Brighton at weekends was in full swing and the bottom of South Street was mayhem. It wasn’t just the gangs of nurses, tarts, vicars, and Elvises that forced me into the road. Their number had been swollen exponentially by Halloween revellers. I later read that Halloween had just become the second most lucrative festival in the calendar, behind Christmas. The sale of pumpkins, costumes, sweets, cakes and decorations has eclipsed Easter, Valentines Day and Mother’s Day in terms of the revenue it generates. I think at least 75% of those fancy dress sales were collected in a thin strip of the south coast that night. I battled towards the station past zombies, Freddie Krugers even the odd Grim Reaper. More inexplicable were the Minion, shark and rubbish bin outfits. Bizarre.

I'd decided to stay in genteel Eastbourne overnight, rather than schlep back to Hertfordshire. Strolling to the hotel along seafront parade was like a timeshift experience. Surely, a completely different temporal zone to the manic scenes 25 miles down the coast.

I awoke to a sunlight streaming though my sea view window and, downstairs, to a generous fry up in the conservatory. The breakfast room was about half full. There was a disproportionate number of pensioners on sneaky weekends away, and couples minding geriatric parents. A vision of the future...

Eastbourne pier is less gaudy than its Brighton neighbour. And probably more photogenic. On that balmy November morning that felt more like August, I strolled on the prom and drank more cappuccinos that is strictly good for one. 

I caught the Number 12A bus from the pier back to Brighton over Beachy Head, through the Birling Gap and past the Seven Sisters. I’d forgotten how beautiful it was down there. In the quieter moments around Saltdean and Rottingdean, I appraised myself of the betting carnage across that special weekend of sport: losers in the Charlie Hall Chase, The West Yorkshire Hurdle, the Sodexo Gold Cup; and in at least half-a-dozen Breeders Cup races. My one remaining Rugby World Cup bet had gone down too. The Wallabies eclipsed in a superb final, apparently, by the best team the game has ever seen. The All Blacks at the peak of their powers.

Cuckmere Valley
And then Brighton pier hove in to view. The London to Brighton vintage car rally was in full swing. Glorious Autumn sunshine was glinting off carefully polished paintwork and chrome radiator caps. With a final glance over the seafront and Bonamassa’s ‘Oh Beautiful’ ringing around my soggy brain, I headed for home.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Smug Punting: More short tales about long odds

I'm delighted to announce the follow up to Mug Punting: Short tales about long odds is published today.

Picking up the dysfunctional threads of the original Mug Punting opus, this second collection of real-life racing and sporting yarns meanders haphazardly through ten more years of furiously celebrated small time gambling adventures. 

Since that first volume, the this blog has become quite well established as an outlet for racing, sport and betting rambles, together with a ridiculous array of general escapist nonsense, bellyaching and disturbing trend towards telltale middle-aged grumpiness. Time marches on

The blog has implausibly gathered a loyal troupe of curious visitors, to whom I am massively grateful. Many of those posts provide the source for the stories here, and have been expanded and edited into new tales that are set against the backdrop of a decade of horse racing and other iconic sporting moments.

Smug Punting: More short tales about long odds (what else?) is available as a kindle download and paperback here

I've also taken the opportunity to relaunch Mug Punting at a reduced price for both kindle and paperback. Bargain!

Thanks for all your support. Better get on with the third volume...

Happy reading!

Monday, 26 October 2015

Rock faces

An early Autumn weekend in Gibraltar seemed too good to miss. We had some credits left over from a cancelled flight last year. Desperate to use them up before they expired, I scoured the Monarch website and soon enough the destination pretty much self-selected: convenient departure airport, weekend-friendly flights and the prospect of warm weather.  That the destination was new to us as well was a bonus.

The tired old Airbus 320, with its faulty seats and broken lighting, pitched up late at Luton and took off later still. But that didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of plenty on board. The greater part of the Bedfordshire Rotary Club had taken up several rows in front of us and were eagerly anticipating a weekend away from running tombolas and raffles (I think that’s what Rotarians usually do). And the woman in the seat next to me was travelling with various members of her family to a brother’s surprise 40th birthday party. She was applying complicated make-up using an array of dangerous tools pulled extravagantly from a patterned fold up pouch. Her companions behind us received a running commentary: “It’s no good. I can’t do my eyelashes like this, Mary”, “My tiara’s getting in the way. I’ll have to finish my hair in the taxi”. The overheard name of the party hotel was duly noted and subsequently avoided.  

Gibraltar’s spanking new airport terminal, built across the old racecourse, was refreshingly low intensity. So much so that we walked past the taxi rank twice before spotting a driver with his feet up and hat shading his eyes, lolling half-in-half-out of his people carrier. The taxi turned out of the airport on the road spectacularly adjacent to the frontier and then across the runway which itself is built out in to the sea. Not an inch is wasted on this isthmus. But, as the local bus company proclaims on the side of its vehicles, there is “Possibility in every direction”. Such an uplifting philosophy. However, it was really the sea that was in every direction, as Mrs A accurately noted.

The Rock Hotel was a recently renovated (we gathered later in a bar conversation) Art Deco gem. Portrait photos in the lift lobby identified the stellar guests who had previously stayed here: Winston Churchill. Dwight D Eisenhower, Sean Connery… Cindi Lauper.

The Rock
The views from the balcony over the naval dockyard had me trying to recall classes of Royal Navy ships. There was a battleship grey boat in dock, with its number just out of sight. It definitely wasn’t an aircraft carrier. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a destroyer either. Another conversation in the bar confirmed that it was a minesweeper in town to mark the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Many of the dead from the Battle were brought ashore here and buried just outside the old city walls. The ship’s Captain was attending the ceremony with other dignitaries at the pretty cemetery. The harbour was furiously busy both mornings and we were entertained for a good few minutes by three of four boats from a rowing club seeking out racing room amongst wakes from assorted container ships, cruise liners and cargo vessels.


Contemplating this view and Spain just over the water, I wondered whether Gibraltar competed in the Eurovision Song Contest. Or the Commonwealth Games. Mrs A seemed remarkably uninterested in my sovereignty musings. We have the school association quiz night coming up soon. I thought she might have been a little more enthusiastic.

The town of Gibraltar has many faces. The bastions and gun emplacements at every turn underline its military heritage, of course, but the mainstreet is a surprisingly pleasant mix of English colonial, Spanish and Moorish influences. We found a couple of welcoming traditional bars; and the next morning had a relaxed breakfast in a friendly north African café with views to the top of the Rock. 

There was also a smattering of traditional boozers offering ‘the best Sunday lunch’ in town, which in a single phrase confirmed their principal target audience. Even so, these establishments offered Friday night tapas and a distinctly Mediterranean atmosphere compared to their brash Costa Del Sol cousins.

Casemates Square was where the real Brits Abroad lurked, in bars spilling out across the quadrangle and into the burger, pizza and chicken shacks. We passed through on our way to another face of the rock. Ocean Village was a high-end marina development with flash apartments, shiny casinos and all-design-no-taste restaurants. We ended up in one such Asian-fusion eatery serving up salty mush. I’d take greasy muck over that lot anytime. Which was handy because AC/DC were playing in the bar next door. Ha! As greasy as you can get. And high-calorific to boot. 

Not Bon Scott

An accadacca covers band in full pomp. Hilarious and entertaining. This was clearly a big night out on the Rock. The bar was packed with worn out band t-shirts, faded denims and sweaty armpits like it was 1981. An illusion given greater credibility by Mrs A’s observation that nearly everyone in there was a bloke of a certain age. Hardly any women at all.

The sign outside the bar was a trade name nightmare. Without a nod to either irony or copyright, the poster simply said “Tonight: AC/DC. Next week: Guns N Roses”. We’ll be back for that.

Saturday’s weather was iffy, and so we decided to take refuge in the siege tunnels. We followed a Moorish route up the rock past various fascinating relics from the 12th and 13th Centuries. But it was the 19th and 20th Century relics that were more obvious. The crumbling old town houses were literally falling down. The badly designed, 20-story apartment blocks of the new town were worse. Already corroded and broken, the gloomy cloud and intermittent rain exaggerated the grim outlook. Yet another aspect of life on this contradictory Rock.

The weather improved. ‘Sun’s out, guns out’ could be the promontory’s calling card. Everywhere you looked. Here, a massive WWII battery was trained on the Spanish border, doubling as a modern deterrent to unruly away-support in the football stadium just beneath it. There, a series of implausible embrasures carved out of the limestone from tunnels deep within the rock to hold Victorian 10-inch, 18-ton cannon.

We walked over the Upper Rock which was also home to a nature reserve and then down to Europa Point. The clouds closed in once again around the lighthouse and the University of Gibraltar which we thought might be a good one for Daughter No 1 to add to her Open Day list. Maybe.

The end of Europe
In contrast to the previous evening, the food on Saturday night in Casa Pepe, by the harbourside, was amazing. Generous raciones of flavour-packed artichoke, boquerones and tomatoes to start, followed by one of the most plump, purple and delicious fillet steaks I've had the pleasure to devour. It was almost the equal of one slathered in blue cheese sauce that I ate in a restaurant called the Steak & Stilton (appropriately enough) in Jersey about 20 years ago. On leaving, I had to lie down on the pavement outside. I was so full I couldn't move.

Gibraltar, generally speaking, is not cheap. The posh apartments by the harbour (the sort where the offshore bookmakers reside – I tried to track down Victor Chandler, but he was obviously in hiding, the bastard) as oppose to the spartan blocks up the hill (that the dock workers have to live in) are on a par with London suburbs. Eating out is also comparable. However, drinking seemed to be surprisingly cheap. We tottered back to the hotel lounge and propped our burgeoning girths onto ample bar stools. I had a single Glenmorangie over ice that filled three-parts of a tumbler the size of an oil drum and was charged about thruppence-ha’penny.

We fell into bizarre chatter with a German-Namibian couple who ticked plenty of the Colonial-refugee boxes, clearly enjoying the whiff of old world order that hung in the air of The Rock hotel. “You see this barman?” said the chap. I did. His jacket was too large, the cuffs were stained and he had flecks of scone around his lips. “You can’t be polite to them. No point. They have no charm. That’s the problem.” Indeed, the barman had been a little off-hand with Mrs A earlier. I had thought about asking him to pour me a measure of the 15 year old Bowmore Reserve on the top shelf, which he patently couldn’t reach. But that would have been churlish. I banished the thoughts that these elitist generalisers tried to invoke. We said goodnight to the couple as they indiscreetly checked out the carat-age of Mrs A’s demure bling. 

After another relaxed breakfast, we took the cable car to the top of the rock. We were given a wifi code to unlock a ‘Top of the Rock’ app, for ‘an unrivalled interactive guide to the sights’. I noted that the code expired in three hours, which was almost as long as it took to download the app. Still, with the summit swathed in thick cloud, we thought the app might be as close as we would get.

We headed over to the stunning St Michaels Cave: a vast cavern of dense and intricate natural limestone formations on a scale so massive that if Disney had sculpted them we would have cried ‘unrealistic!’  

Limestone cathedral

We ascended to the highest point of the Rock at O’Hara’s battery and tackled the Mediterranean Steps. This switchback cascade of stone steps was carved out of and twisting around the mountain down to Jews Gate. We had some hairy moments clinging to the cliff face where steps had disappeared, splintered or slipped. Soon the cloud began to lift and we finally enjoyed some thrilling vertiginous sights to headlands both north and south. 
Towards Point Europa 
Towards Catalan Bay
It was hot, breathless work in the muggy atmosphere and we were congratulating ourselves near the end of the trek when a young woman barely breaking sweat ran past us on her way up to the top. Insanity.

Recovering at the Jews gate 

By the time we walked back, gingerly, to the cable car (which I kept undermining by calling it a chair lift), the cloud had lifted on the west side but was still carpet thick on the eastern. This gave rise to a strange swirling effect as cloud rolled over the spine of the mountain, almost like waves crashing on a breakwater.

Top o' the Rock
Back at sea level, we decided on a long, late lunch before our flight home. This was another good decision. Tucked up in a restaurant overlooking the new harbour, we sheltered from a spanking thunderstorm which was still raging when we got to the airport. Our taxi driver, a stoically loyal Gibraltarian, warned us that under such conditions, flights were sometimes diverted to Malaga. Ho! Ho! we scoffed. But it was a near miss. The storm was spectacular stuff, watched from the outdoor observation deck of the terminal. Thunder and lightning bouncing around the Rock and rain sheeting in at 45 degrees, illuminated by the large runway lights.

Thunder and lightning. God damn it's so exciting.

One flight was indeed diverted to Malaga. We thought we were in for the same fate when we learned that our flight and also the EasyJet flight, due out 20 minutes before us, were both still circling somewhere over the Med waiting for the storm to pass. Later our captain announced that the delay was not just because of the weather, but because the storm had knocked out the Gibraltar meteorological station!

Events became very trainspotterish on the packed viewing deck as everyone scanned the sky for signs of planes. Then the road across the runway was closed, so we knew a landing was imminent. Landing lights were spotted and we followed them down until the plane hit the runway in a fountain of high velocity spray. When the Monarch Airlines tail fin was identified (as oppose to the EasyJet colours) the gallery rang out with cheers and boos in equal measure.

After that, the journey home was rather mundane. We seemed to pack a lot in to this weekend. Gibraltar is a fascinating, complicated, contradictory place and I’d love to return. But perhaps when the weather is better.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Visit England

The dog’s arrival has had some unexpected impacts on our lives. As well stressful hours chasing her around half of Hertfordshire when she does the Escape To Victory routine, we also decided to have a Nuca-friendly holiday this Summer. No kennels in her first year with us. Instead we spent a couple of weeks in pet-compliant gaffs. First up north with my Dad and Bruv and, after a pause back home where I lost and then won back holiday spending money via Glorious Goodwood, a week on the Isle of Wight en famille.

Staying in England afforded the opportunity to establish some new and revisit some old holiday facts:  

Always – no, never – set up an ‘Out of office’ message 
I managed to send out about a billion or so ‘out of office’ messages. By accident, of course. I’m not really sure how this happened. Something to do with the way I applied the filters, I believe. Even the polite little warning from Apple, saying “Are you sure?” didn’t alert me. About 30 seconds after clicking to activate, I realised that I had sent an e-mail about my holiday plans in reply to every e-mail in my work in-box.

I’d sent an apology text to those that got the most. Brian said ‘”Just the 300-odd!” and Andy said “Don’t worry. Just replying to them all now”.

There were a couple of unexpected consequences. Some colleagues I hadn’t been in touch with for ages replied “I think you’ve got a bug. By the way, why don’t we meet up soon?” One guy replied with some useful advice about employment law that I had originally asked for in 2013. He hadn’t bothered the first time.

Si went “Let’s get some dates sorted for horse racing this Summer.” “Top plan”, I replied “l’ll get on to it after my hols. As you know, I’m away for a while”.

The moral of the story is empty your in box.

Hot tubs are brilliant
Dad and Bruv joined us after their day at Cartmel races where they had no joy at all with the bookies and got rained on in the process. We were more lucky, but in any event it didn’t matter. By 8pm we were all wet, splashing about in a vat of fomenting water on the decking, supping beers under a warm northern sun.

It was about then that Bruv barked “Hot Tub – Time Machine” in a Samuel L Jackson-does-drill-seargent pastiche. The adults looked at him with incredulity. The teenagers roared with laughter. His utterance was more than the ramblings of a deranged holidaymaker, but in fact the title of a film they recognised. It’s true. A Chevy Chase farce set in a ski resort. Unbelievable. Sometimes, to mix things up, he spat “Hot Tub - Time Machine Two”. This, though was a step too far. The remake remains nothing more than a virtual storyboard in the wistful director’s mind.

Anyway, I’m digging up my carefully tended flowerbeds and installing a hot tub in the garden instead. It’s the only way.

Lancashire isn’t all bad
Startling, I know. Even though we had very clearly booked a lodge in the Ribblesdale Valley, I was aghast to realise, on closer scrutiny of OS Explorer Sheet 141, that the park, perched above a wide bend of said river, had somehow shimmied out of the Dales and over the border into Lanc… Lan… no, can’t say it.

I tried to conceal this disturbing fact from Dad and Bruv. But they were already aware. And cared not a jot. Later in the week, I noticed with an ironic grin an old 1930’s iron signpost with a loop on the top proclaiming ‘Yorkshire WR’ (as in West Riding) picked out in black lettering.

At the time, we were sat outside a closed down pub in Bolton by Bowland, a village of no little appeal cast stoutly in quartz-flecked granite. Many of the neighbouring villages were also stuffed with millstone loveliness (some with open pubs) but pleasingly devoid of bustling tourist hum. The southern part of this AONB resembled the Dales: pretty villages, livestock and arable farming, Pennine outcrops and a rolling landscape that is easy on the eye.

The northern part is very different: bleak, remarkably feature-free and boggy. There’s nothing there.  No people, no roads, no farms. My map even went as far as naming ‘pile of stones’, so little of note was there to actually cartograph.  I feel like asking for a 30% refund on the purchase price to compensate me for the empty bits.

Mobile OS maps are the future - mostly
Having just slagged them off, I have cause to laud OS richly for their fantastic phone app. From it I could download the maps I had purchased and link them to GSI in order to provide an accurate pinpoint of my precise location. Even in the remoteness of Lancashire.

Until the mobile signal dropped out of course. At that point we were stuffed because I’d left the physical map at home. Relying on my rigorously honed geographic instincts only cost us a couple of scenic miles or so… The app couldn’t do anything for the dog-unfriendly stiles either. We were reduced to gathering up the hairy beast and bodily lifting her over fences. It could have been worse. She could have been an Irish Wolf Hound.

Farming is real
Walking back from the village near our lodge one night, we watched a farmer cutting down grass in a big, sloping field. We provided some ironic applause as his tractor finally mowed down the last tricky line of two-foot high blades. We suspect he enjoyed taking his revenge. The following day, he – surely it was the same farmer - spent an hour or so zipping back and forth in his Zetor, liberally spreading a thick layer of slurry over an adjacent 80 acre field. The sickly smell of rich silage hung in the air for days. Wafting particularly easily through our open patio doors when the warm summer breeze blew from the west.  

Shortly after we left, traces of cryptosporidium were found in the areas’ drinking water. The parasite, which can cause gastrointestinal complaints, left residents having to boil their water. It was not clear how the bug entered the water table. I think the authorities need to have a word with that Ribblesdale farmer.

Landscapes are brilliant
Despite the schizophrenic bleak and then bucolic charms of the Forest of Bowland, we were unable to resist the magnetic pull of the glorious Yorkshire Dales for long. We took a trip up the right end of the Ribblesdale valley to the Ingleton Waterfalls Walk. Even the zealous car park attendant and the overpriced tea and cakes in the gift shop could not spoil this rewarding yomp around half a dozen or so waterfalls of the rivers Doe and Twiss. Terms like, ‘ravine’, ‘gorge’, and ‘curtain of water’ might suggest something more akin to the drama of watery attractions on the USA/Canada border rather than a quiet corner of the Dales, but with rain swirling through the dank air we were all doing pretty good impressions of Maids of the Mist.  

At the top of the valley, the map indicated the location of a refreshment centre. We scoffed as we reached a converted, pre-loved caravan selling ice-creams and hot beverages. “Is that it?” whispered Bruv, and then “Right. What’s everyone having?” “Thanks very much. Four Zooms please!” answered some wag at the front of the queue. We were polishing off our 99 flakes as we rounded the corner for the final descent and came upon the real refreshment centre: a newly erected  stone and wood building in the shadow of Inglebrough with paved terraces, clean public toilets and an information point. Its café sold everything from scones to cooked breakfasts.  There was no queue though. Everyone had stuffed themselves giddy on cheap fare at the entrepreneur’s mobile up the hill.  

The Isle of Wight, by contrast, was all crumbly cliffs, sandstone outcrops and curvaceous beaches. There was a superb ‘blue’ moonrise over Bembridge Harbour one night and then I got up spectacularly early to capture my first ever Summer sunrise.

This part of the island is naturally photogenic. Not that the opposite side of the diamond was in any way overawed.

The Needles Park is a disaster area
Speaking of the western extremity, special mention must be made of The Needles Park. It is a crime scene of tack and tasteless crap nestled beneath a breathtaking headland that is home to one of the most iconic landmarks in Britain.  How this horrific collection of fast food, cheap tat and slow traffic ever managed to evade planning laws to scar such a beautiful corner of the world defies sense.

The gaudy vista was a sufficient jolt to our equilibrium even before the wind had dealt us a stinging slap of that famous multi-coloured sand, precisely funnelled through the parade of unsavoury retailing units from Alum Beach below. Events only took a humorous turn for the better when we witnessed a shockingly bad Bob Marley impersonator crank out ‘Jammin’ and ‘Three Little Birds’ at a ferocious wattage whilst eye-catchingly girating his ludicrous belt buckle and single handedly breaking the trajectory of the sand gale.

I came here once before, many years ago. Then there was a pleasant chair lift down the face of the cliff to the bay. It’s still there. “Lets see the Needles from the chairlift”, we had said to the girls that morning, “pretty view”. But no. This one modest relic of that innocent, bygone age was closed because of high winds.

The walk up to the batteries on the headland was a perfect antidote. The screaming wind blew away the bad taste. Views of the Needles, across to Lymington Harbour and back to Tennyson Down were as satisfying as they were refreshing.

Pubs are brilliant
Hardly news, I’ll grant that. Neverthess, after ‘Closed. Pub business to let’ and later, ‘Closed Mondays’, in Lancashire it was a relief to find a hostelry that was actually open. Paythorpe was a pleasant stroll up the Pennine Bridleway from Gisburn where The Buck welcomed us with honest enthusiasm and makeover-free facilities. It was a proper local retaining what an estate agent might call period fittings. Like an ‘80’s patterned carpet that might have been a prize on Bullseye once. We were only here for the beer – the pints of Copper Dragon were superb - but the food looked amazing. Traditional and comforting. I walked past a bloke in the dining room who was wide-eyed with excitement, and saying to his Missus, “ We’ve hit t’ jackpot here!” He was staring at a steaming volcano-like beef suet pudding with a scalding stream of lava gravy tricking down the outside.

The landlady was a scream. Apart from relating all the gossip about her neighbours and the park we were staying in, she had a warning. I told her we were going to La Locanda in the village for dinner. She said, “It’s great there. Really nice. But don’t ask for garlic bread”. She pursed her lips. “Eh?” I queried. “They’re proper northern Italian in there. My sister went in and asked for garlic bread. ‘We don-na do dat in here. Deez is an outentic establishament!’ and she brought some bread and dips instead!”

We had a great meal, including a range of beautifully stone-baked Tuscan breads accompanied by oil, vinegar and just a hint of regional attitude.

On the Isle Of Wight, we managed to get round all the decent boozers in Bembridge and a couple beyond as well. The Crab & Lobster became our second home next to our cottage; and the view from the Culver Haven Inn was almost as tasty as its crab sandwiches.

Traditional pastimes are best
We rediscovered the enduring quality of rockpooling on Bembridge beach.

We rocked with mirth at Grandad trying to describe anything contemporary in Articulate.

We scowled everytime Daughter No 1 ruthlessly trashed our pieces in Ludo

We learned how to play Texas Hold Em poker with matches for betting chips and the hand rankings blinking back from the laptop screen. Daughter No 2 has the best poker face.

Wifi is a lie
Just as well we could gamble, play games and explore. Access to social media, the 21st century default pastime, was patchy. In Ribblesdale wifi services required regular visits to the café for frapalapamochachinos. In Bembridge, despite being promised full coverage, wifi was mostly unavailable. Often we resorted to waving devices in the general direction of the next door pub to catch their beams. The cottage owner popped round one afternoon whilst we were out. It’s not clear what he made of the four wooden chairs placed hard up against the fence adjacent to the pub. He moved them back around the lonely picnic table in the centre of the garden and went away.

So did we. Eventually. Refreshed, windswept and firmly in the dog’s good books. Back in time for exam results and the Ebor meeting. Happy holidays.