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’.