Saturday, 24 December 2016

Party fever

‘Tis the season… when once a year drinkers get jolly. And then get smashed on vodka-spiked punch at the office do. And then fall over on my train home. When respectable professionals pee on the tube and puke on the platform.

Not that I’m entirely innocent in this regard. I may not be a once a year drinker, but I do remember an unfortunate incident on the train after a launch party the week before one Christmas. Posh do at the RSA’s swish gaff just off The Strand. I thought the RSA was the financial company that sponsored the gruelling 3 mile novice chase at the Festival. Who knew there was another RSA? One of the pre-eminent drivers of creative enrichment in the country, apparently. (That’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, since you ask.)

After too much complimentary bubbly and not enough fiddly canap├ęs, I felt a little queasy on the train home. The champers was clearly to blame. It’s not my regular tipple. I calmly picked up my rucksack, placed the laptop and various documents together in one compartment of the bag and carefully threw up in the other compartment. I zipped it up, wedged it back under the seat and closed my eyes until my stop. I did not once look at any of the other passengers sat opposite me.

Sometimes I’m on the receiving end. On one late night Christmas Special out of Euston, the train was predictably packed and about 6.5 on the lairy scale. I was stood between the seats. There was a drunk lad wedged in the doorway, legs curled up beneath him, burping uncontrollably. Classic signs of discomfort. Then, sure enough, although quite discreetly, he vomited on his trousers. The bloke stood nearest to him didn't spot it straight away. When he did he glanced round at me and others with a helpless expression and tried to edge away.

The train emptied out a bit at Watford Junction and I got a seat. I was horror struck to see sick-bloke stagger over and spill into the seat next to me. I passed a very tense few minutes with him losing his balance from his sitting position and grabbing my leg instead of the armrest. He was burping again and mumbling and twisting and looking at his watch in that way that meant he really, really wanted the journey to end. I know. I’ve been there too many times.

At Berko, with a giant effort, he hauled himself up and out. I lost him on the stairs, but then spotted him again on the edge of the car park tucked into the back door of the chippy. Bent double. Shoulders heaving. Not pretty.

Our Christmas parties have been reasonably vomit-free this year. Even the trip to the Tingle Creek meeting in early December, my first real seasonal bash, was a relatively civilised affair. Hipflasks were well to the fore, of course. Watching the races in the grip of winter whilst taking a few nips of radiating malt whisky is an indispensable part of the experience. I brought along the Lagavulin 16-year-old, received as 50th birthday gift. It is just about the best whisky I’ve tasted. Peaty but smoky too, with lingering warmth in the finish. Laphroig used to be my favourite, but this smooth, complex distillation has displaced it.  So 2016 hasn’t been all bad.

The flasks always get passed around the gang and there were some fine spirits to sample. Even Colin’s 40% proof apricot brandy found a satisfying niche. Though Bryn rather disparagingly suggested it could best be used to give his cappuccino a sweeter edge.

Mrs A’s work party needed a similar amount of stamina. It was hosted by Steve and Di in their splendid Jacobean former vicarage in a quiet corner of Suffolk, made all the more atmospheric by prevailing mist. 

It is within striking distance of Fakenham racecourse too. I really must try to get over there on our next stay.

The guests began assembling from about 1 o’clock. Following a superb Christmas lunch and then a ham and turkey supper at 8ish, the hard core were still going at 3am. On this occasion, I was not part of that core. Mrs A’s crowd are music biz players. I qualify to attend because through Mrs A I’ve known Steve for decades. I think a couple of gig and CD reviews I wrote have snuck me over the line as well.

However, I knew it was time for bed when the brandy and whisky bottles were sloshing around the table and the music took on a challenging ‘60’s hue. The conversation was surely from a yet-to-be-commissioned nursing home sit-com. The material wrote itself:

“Ah, this is one of the absolute classics. ‘Ghost riders in the sky’”.

“No mistaking the quality.”

“You should hear Johnny Cash’s version.”

“This is Johnny Cash!”

“No this is Frankie Laine. Listen to the bass player”.

“Didn’t The Doors do a version of this?”

“That was ‘Riders On The Storm’.”

“Oh yeah. I’m thinking of Tom Jones”.

Get’s up. Shuffles to CD player. Bends down and lodges right ear against speaker.

“That’s Johnny Cash is that. Unmistakeable”

One of the guests had been in the business for years and used to know well the hard-as-nails northern Working Men’s Club circuit. He told a story about the flat-hatted entertainment secretary of a social club in the north west who had introduced a new act in the early 1960’s by saying,

“I don’t think you’ll like this lot very much. Four darkies from America.”

The band was the Four Tops! Hard to picture them on that tough circuit. And probably not the first time Levi and the soon-to-be Motown legends had encountered blatant racism. Different times I suppose, but outrageous all the same.  

More gentle was a gathering of friends up the road where, in casual conversation, Mrs A and a new acquaintance discovered they had gone to the same school together over 45 years earlier and yet had never met. It emerged that they also had shared neighbours in common from Mrs A’s home village in Northants.

Whilst this uncanny connection was at first humorous, I soon began to doubt the sanity of Mrs A’s new friend. She showed us a series of photos of her dog taken to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas (although her set of 12 was scheduled to end on Christmas Eve, which seemed to be a flagrant conflation with Advent to me, but maybe I’m just splitting non-secular hairs). In each pic, the dog’s outfits became more extravagant. Day 8 saw the hound concealed in a wraparound elephant costume, with only its skinny legs peeping out to identify it as a dog. I despair to imagine the garb Ronnie will be squeezed into on the 24th.

 Of course, the real party happens at Kempton on Boxing Day. Thistlecrack v Cue Card in the King George has to take top billing. The field is small, Tizzard’s headliners having frightened off the Irish raiders, but the clash is fascinating. The small field will suit Thistlecrack, but Cue Card’s relentless galloping will put the former’s jumping under the severest of examinations. Massive respect to connections for running them both. This is what the fans want to see. Take note Mullins.

The Christmas Hurdle is a similarly small and fascinating field. Market leader Yanworth is very classy, but looks more like a stayer and a resurgent The New One will make life tough. Hard to fancy My Tent Or Yours, even on the likely more suitable better going. Ch’Tibello is a big improver but has a lot to find on the face of it.

In the third of the meeting’s head-to-heads, the picks of the Feltham (as was) look to be Frodon and Anibale Fly. I’m going for the latter, but this will be a good race.

Leopardstown joins the get-together too. Keeping up the one-on-one clashes, Boxing Day sees Min take on Identity Thief. Although visibility was poor, Identity Thief seemed to put in the more convincing fencing debut last month. Min remains the talking horse and maybe there’s a touch of value in the 9/4 about the De Bromhead chaser.

Then over the next few days, some or all of the big guns will come lurching into view, carrying their token bottles of prosecco and banging the door down: Douvan, Sire De Grugy, Altior, Djakadem, Valseur Lido, VV Mag and maybe even Faugheen.

Party central.

Happy Christmas and thanks for following the blog this year.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Tingle Revised

I was going to write a new blog about our annual expedition to the Tingle Creek meeting. Then I found that with a little bit of handy, writers-block relieving track-change manipulation, most of last year's effort will suffice. This is the first time I’ve plagiarised my own stuff (as oppose to anyone/everyone else’s) and I’m quite pleased with the initiative.

(black – last year’s words; struck through – last year’s deleted ramblings; red, this year’s amendments)

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-off we instead went 10-pin bowling at the Trocadero and drank all day.

Since switching to the main event, attendance amongst our unruly gang has grown. Fourteen Sixteen thirsty souls answered Bryn’s group booking invitation this year: thirteen sixteen 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, Douvan, as well as last year’s 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 Douvan Sceaux was “not as good a traveller as Un De Sceaux. 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. Sad to say that neither Sprinter (retired), nor Simonsig (destroyed) lined up this year either, though Sprinter paraded for the crowd and Bacchy took a fantastic picture of the legend.

This all prompted hearty twelve- ten to-follow chat about those numpties who had dropped Vibrato Valtat picked Douvan, some as star horse - and others a couple of weeks previously to bring in the Sprinter who had shamefully made no transfers at all.

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 mayhem caused by crap trains across the entire south west London region, meaning Bryn, Nick, Ad and Pete missed the first; and Bacchy resorted working out his placepot on the phone. An impossible task. I imagine he ended up with the default fav in every race. A further potential trap 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. Thankfully, the rail enforcers were having a day off. Maybe it was their Christmas party. Or maybe they didn’t fancy the wrath of thousands of punters made late by their useless services.

Bryn’s expert planning was rewarded with the arrival of the Gang Of FourSix(teen), bearing shiny, happy, optimistic faces within a few moments of the appointed hour at all sorts of random times both before and during racing. 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 (just like last year) into the farthest reaches of the car park enclosure for refusing to pay inflated concession fees.  In the meantime, Nick found a the real ale bar underneath the Esher Stand in the family area just adjacent to kids’ pantomime stage had also gone. Instead, the Christmas market had grown exponentially, spreading its gaudy stalls of gingerbread animals, German tree decorations and smelly candles into every nook and cranny. 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 three 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. Danny, on the other hand, brought his Sandown record to 0/12 across two years.
-       Bacchy We all proclaimed me a the genius for of finding locating some bogs with no queues over by the parade ring Hogsback Bar. A sign of the relative priorities amongst men of a certain age.
-       Nev not landing any forecasts. At all. (Unless I missed them)
-       A big No surprise in the Henry VIII novice chase as Gary Moore’s Ar Mad Nicky Henderson’s Altior won at 14-1 a canter in a six four runner field. No-one backed him in our gang, despite Moore running up six winners across the two-day meeting the class of the beast. The odds of 2/7 rightly proved too prohibitive, even for Bryn.
-       Everyone ignored my winning nap on Simply A Legend in the handicap hurdle bad tempered bleating about backing a brace of fast-finishing seconds in the opening two handicaps and then me ignoring everyone else’s nap of Carole’s Destrier who took the last tried to get in on my act when Tim instigated an impromtu Smug Punting book signing. All that was missing was the trestle table and a stack of books...
-       Some saucy action away from SW London saw Colin tip a 33-1 runner up Bacchy get his 20/1 shot Highland Lodge at Aintree chinned by a canny ride by Tom Scudamore up his inside; and me back a spawny 6/1 winner at Chepstow (my solitary success all day). 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 sublime moment was easily Special Tiara getting stopped in his tracks by Sire De Grugy in the finish to 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!"  Un De Sceaux held on from a rejuvenated, heart-on-his-sleeve Sire De Grugy, with God’s Own fair screamimg up the rail and Ar Mad suddenly back in contention after looking well beaten. That’s the order in which they passed the post, but for the last couple of furlongs, the bellowing coming from our party betrayed the closeness and brilliance of the finish. Un De Sceaux made a howler at the last and for a moment Grugy had his noble head in front. UDS pulled out a little more to repel all comers. SDG held God’s Own for second by a neck. Proper racing. The best Grade 1 race I’ve seen all season.

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 a couple of pints and a half-hearted offering up of round of full blooded his belly for a raspberry blows. 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. ‘s mate Jamie, new to the races, was swiftly initiated into this bewildering ceremony.

After a few more beers, there was an overwhelming need to find a curry house. Things fractured a bit at this point. I remember getting a train to Wimbledon and standing outside a shut down restaurant as if our very presence would spark it back into life. We were then turned away from another because it was full. The group splintered again and I then went home to slake my curry obsession with a take-away from emporium just down the road.

A whole new world of recycled blogging has just opened up. Given our predictable behaviour, I may well write next year’s Tingle Creek meeting right now.