Monday, 18 May 2015

London to Brighton

“That might be nice”, said Mrs A. “Find a nice little B&B up on the South Downs for an overnight stop”. It did indeed sound appealing. Tough going, but over a couple of days, probably achievable.

Bryn had e-mail me a link to a British Heart Foundation page about a London to Brighton walk over a Summer weekend. On further investigation, the challenge seemed a tad tougher than Mrs A and I had initially thought.  The idea was to depart from south London on Saturday morning and arrive in Brighton on Sunday afternoon, having walked through the night. The walk was filed under their ‘extreme events’ section: ‘The ultimate walking challenge. Up to 30 hours to walk 100k from London to Brighton’.

It was either trepidation about rambling across Box Hill in the dark with only a head torch to stave off an 80 foot plunge that finally put Mrs A off; or the prospect of me, Bryn, Ad and Ben talking about cricket averages for a day and a half. Either way, she instead decided to volunteer her services as support crew during our marathon adventure. A grand gesture, the full implications of which may not yet have hit home. Neither is it clear whether the dog will be assisting her.

The route is lovely and I’m sure in the more relaxed moments, we’ll be commenting in Hardy-esque tones about some of the finest landscape in southern England. The start is at Kempton racecourse. The irony of a post on Mug Punting about a journey from there to the finish at Brighton racecourse that does not contain any other reference to racing is not lost on me.

The training is going well: first my right knee twinged a bit, then the heel felt sore, now my left knee feels loose. The whole house has a faint smell of embrocation.

Still, I’ve sorted the sock strategy. A new pair every 10 miles is the answer. Keeps the feet fresh, apparently, and is the best prevention against blisters. There are masseurs on the course, too. Fantastic, though anyone who wants to put their fingers anywhere near my feet will require lead lined gloves and a carefully worded life insurance policy.  

All sorts of help is available ‘out there’. Ben has been providing some excellent advice on lubricants, gels and sprays that he found on a website somewhere. I’ll say no more.

I’ve only joined up with the south London members of our foursome once. We hiked from Battersea to Richmond and then through the park to Norbiton and finished with a welcoming plate of sausage and mash.  It was a relief to discover that we all walked at roughly the same pace and had a similar idea about stop/rest strategies. We are all on the same page.

Bryn is Team Leader (the trek was his mad, inspired idea) and has taken on the task of organisation this ramshackle crowd into a lean and hungry team. Walking past the practising boat crews around Putney and Hammersmith, Bryn was keenly eying the coxes with their well-used megaphones. “Step it up Davoski!” he rehearsed through funnelled fingers. Thankfully, the rest of the team were on the same page about this policy too. Brynaldo would be involuntarily breaking wind into a megaphone pretty sharply, should one be produced on the day.

There are some sensible ground rules emerging about language and motivation. Banned phrases include ‘Are we nearly there yet, Dad?’ , ‘I could murder a pint’ and ‘Is there a kebab shop near here?’ No-one is allowed to say ‘Shut the f**k up!’ until at least all the pleasantries about the weather and personal wellbeing have been exhausted.

How do you really train properly for a 100km walk? Even to get close to halfway (let alone two-thirds as you might do for marathon) will take over ten hours. I’m currently working up to that milestone.

Apart from an outing with the rest of the team, Mrs A and I have been joining any handy local sponsored charity walk going. Last Sunday, hiking 18 miles across some of the best bits of Ashridge for the Children’s Society Berkhamsted Walk was a treat. I was tired afterwards, so there is clearly some way to go.

And then this Sunday we tagged onto the Chilterns Dog Rescue Society’s amble through Wendover Woods. This is from where our dog came, so it was a worthwhile cause and all that. However, as Mrs A observed, here we were trouping along tracks Indian file with 40 other dog owners and their muts, regimented by yellow-bibbed volunteers. Suddenly we had become part of a crowd we used to openly mock.

This week I ordered some kit. I feel better about the trek already. Multiple pairs of grippy merino wool socks, a ‘wick-away’ long sleeved base layer (I think that means it’s a t-shirt) and a breathable zipped-top with holes in the cuffs for my thumbs. Oh, and a nice purple 10l backpack that I may lose to any of the girls in the house. Dog included. Sorted. All the gear, no idea…

The last thing to mention is sponsorship. Apart from the sheer personal satisfaction of achieving this monumental undertaking (am I overdoing it?), there is, inevitably, a sponsorship target to achieve. I would be extremely grateful for any contributions to my British Heart Foundation fundraising page. In return, I can offer you/spare you [delete as appropriate] an unexpurgated, candid and blow-by-blow account of the walk itself on 27th/28th June, right here.

You will also be contributing to a fantastically worthy cause. The BHF really do some excellent work. Heart disease is the UK’s biggest killer. It is entirely possible that some of the resources we are aiming to raise money for will be required to carry us over the line. Defibrillators en route, we are hoping.

Thanks for your support.

More soon…

Friday, 15 May 2015

Jumps wrap 2014-15

The flat. I’m not feeling it. Not yet anyway. I’ve let the Guineas and the Dante go with barely a ripple in my Bet365 vat. So maybe I’ll indulge in a little look back over the completed jumps season before the need to thrash around in the nether regions of the Carnarvon Stakes formbook takes hold of me.   

The Punchestown Festival is technically the first big meeting of each new jump season. For all practical purposes, of course, it is the final monster meeting of the old one. Punchestown’s five days of top quality Grade 1 action, competitive handicaps and a bottomless well of bumpers became yet another stage for the Willie Mullins showcase. A Festival he has plundered with ease in previous renewals, this season his dominance hit new heights and crowned a majestic season.

Un De Sceaux. 

These are easy words to tap out on a tired old laptop. What do such glib phrases mean? For starters, he banked €4.2m in prize money and handled 187 winners in Ireland. More than twice the number of his nearest rival. The strike rate was a jaw-dropping 34%. Given the short prices at which many of his stable stars plunder their races, it is even more remarkable that Mullins shows a 41.5 point profit to a level £1 stake.

Uncompetitive events and shallow pools, I hear you mutter. Well, over this side of the sea the Mullins juggernaut picked up just shy of £1.4m to finish 4th in the trainers table with 16 winners from 91 entries.

I haven’t finished yet. If there was any doubt that this was his best season ever, the stable landed 30, that’s thirty, Grade 1s in Britain (8) and Ireland (22) during 14-15 (including last week’s Punchestown meeting). During the same period for 13-14, he snaffled a mere 19.

Even without a stat attack, the casual observer would be struck by Mullins’ barely credible strength in depth, which now extends across all the jumps divisions. Where once he was weaker in the staying chase department, we now see a nap hand of potential Gold Cup winners. Keeping them apart will be his challenge, though with some of his front rank in the ownership of Gigginstown who don’t mind pitching their beasts against each other, there is more prospect of some juicy clashes.

In looking back, what I’m really doing is looking forward. How about Mullins emulating Michael Dickinson’s Famous Five feat in the 1983 Gold Cup like this:
  1. Vautour 
  2. Don Poli
  3. Djakadam
  4. Valseur Lido
  5. Vroum Vroum Mag 
Combination Quinteta anyone? Has Fred Done invented the Tote bet yet?

I might have a saver on Don Cossack though. For me, the most improved horse in training this season. What a campaign the horse has had, navigated beautifully by the gifted Gordon Elliott. And capped with a rare Mullins party spoiler in the Punchestown Gold Cup. In truth Cheltenham may not be the Don’s ideal track, but the point about the strength of Irish racing is writ large. It seems set only to get better.

It puts into perspective the achievements of Paul Nicholls. He ran away with the British trainers championship and put together a season-long series of big Saturday winners. He had few answers when the best Irish horses came out to play, though. Silviniaco Conti kept the flag flying everywhere except Cheltenham and Dodging Bullets, somewhat surprisingly, came to the fore in a sub-standard Queen Mother Champion Chase. As ever, he has a few good ones to look forward to next term. Mildmay winner Saphir Du Reu and Coral Cup winner Aux Ptits Soins would be close to the top of the list.

I still like Paul Nicholls. He is one of the trainers that tries to be honest about his stable. Everything he says is under intense scrutiny and he gets lambasted if he’s too bullish about the chances of a horse. Understandable if he shows a bit of irritation now and again. 

Better his enthusiasm than the smoke and mirrors of the Nicky Henderson operation. He looks shattered these days. A trainer whose nervous disposition sees him increasingly reluctant to actually run his horses. He’s more florid and heavy lidded than ever. All his interviews seem to end in damp-eyed sentimental jibberish. Maybe the burden of hosting a superstar like Sprinter Sacre has taken its toll. Time to step aside?


Not that he could ever do so with the total, unalloyed respect that accompanied the retirement of AP McCoy. This blog has paid tribute to The Champ on more occasions than one. He leaves a massive hole in the punter’s armoury. His are boots that Dickie Johnson, Tom Scudamore and the like will never fill.

Sandown’s old Whitbread Gold Cup meeting was the last day of the domestic jumps season and they conspired with Channel 4 to play up the retirement of McCoy to full effect: guards of honour, Champion Jockey presentation, family photos, interviews… Only a fairytale last day winner was missing.

Other awards were dished out at Sandown too.  Many Clouds garnered the accolade of British Jump Racing Horse of the Year. I have absolutely no complaints about this. He was a firm favourite of mine long before his breathtaking Grand National victory. That Aintree performance put him in to a different league. The winning time of 8 minutes 56.8 seconds was the second fastest in the race's history. And no horse has carried a higher weight to victory since Red Rum in 1974.

He is also the first horse to win both the Hennessy Gold Cup and Grand National in the same season. I backed him in the former and then abandoned him for the Grand National, calculating that after his disappointing Gold Cup effort, he couldn’t lump 11s 9lb to win the world’s most famous steeplechase. I was wrong. How he loved those fences!

Many Clouds was in my 40 to follow last season. I wish I’d stuck with him this term. More precisely, if I’d stuck with the full 40 horse stable from 2013-14 I would have done better than this. Apart from the Sherwood star, Jezki, Annacotty, Carole’s Spirit, and Le Reve all had double figure and/or handsome multiple wins all season.

As it was, I just about scraped a profit with this season selections – a measly £35 gain on a turnover of £550-odd. Worth the effort? Well, yeah. I still love fretting about all this stuff. And I beat my Bruv in our family challenge, so that’s something isn’t it?

Outside the 40TF, tiny profits about summarise the rest of my punting season too. A few quid at Cheltenham, better at Aintree, wipe out at Punchestown. It has been tough going this campaign.

There have been some personal highlights though. A return to Catterick races after 25 years was a lovely experience and a first ever visit to Aintree’s Grand National meeting was a massive thrill.

So much to look forward to in the coming season. It will be interesting to see whether the BHA’s new Comprehensive Review of Jump Racing will have any short term impacts. The review got underway a month ago and has a remit to “assess the health of the sport, identify challenges and deliver recommendations to safeguard future of the code and deliver growth.” No small task then. The panel will look at the race programme, field sizes, breeding and prize money, with grass roots and middle tiers a particular focus.

The BHA comes in for a fair amount of stick in an average season, but I applaud the review, or at least aspects of it. The jumps race programme, prize money and field sizes have long been a problem. The dominance of Cheltenham and its impact on the rest of the season is part of this. It is a structural issue that a bit of extra prize money won’t be enough to fix. Though increasing it would help. As it would with the decline of jump racing in the north. Just mentioning Michael Dickinson earlier in this blog simultaneously quickened my pulse and sparked regret. The glory days of northern racing are long over.

Even recent bright spots have been snuffed out. Ferdy Murphy has successfully relocated to France, Nicky Richards remains a low key trainer, Donald McCain has lost his mojo, and O’Meara and Fahey barely bother with the jumps game these days.  The contrast with flat fortunes in the north as exemplified by these last two could not be more stark.

Ironically, Donald McCain is one of the committee members. His sage views would be very interesting to hear. The membership runs to 20 souls (just two women!) from betting, journalism, broadcast media, training, horse ownership, track ownership and the BHA. I couldn’t obviously see anyone who represented the punter’s view, unless that is considered to be the role of Lee Mottershead, the Racing Post representative.

We’ll see.

In the meantime, Summer beckons and I really should look at that massive Lockinge field…