Saturday, 24 November 2018

Stoking the fires

For a while over the Summer I thought I was falling out of love with the game. Back in August at Sandown, Mrs A and I met up with a few pals to see Nile Rodgers and Chic after racing. The evening was spectacular. Mainly because of a cataclysmic thunderstorm that broke the heatwave; and the unearthly light that followed it. For the first time I can remember, the racing was overshadowed by extraneous stuff.
In the last race on that card, I backed a winner that prevailed by a neck. Data Protection won at 7/2 and I had backed it at 6/1 earlier in the day. William Muir’s charge had been unearthed through a system I’d been working on with varying levels of application for a couple of years. I’ve written about it elsewhere.

The system seems to work. But for effective results, the beast needed feeding with attention most days. Big priced winners are found inconsistently and to maximise the return, there is a compelling need to shortlist the horses from each handicap each day. That shouldn’t be such a trial, especially when the stats show a decent return, but this Summer I couldn’t devote enough time. More pertinently I began to lose the inclination. The ‘system’ became a bit like punting by numbers. I’ve never been a fan of that.

The return of the jumps proper in October eventually stoked the fires. I realised that what I enjoy the most is watching the races, picking out progressive types and backing winners that I’ve picked out myself. What a thrill. I’d almost forgotten.

It’s good to be back. And it’s good to welcome back Philip Hobbs. I backed War Sound when he won a decent handicap at Aintree at their Old Roan meeting. A win that rehabilitated my enthusiasm and also confirmed that Hobbsy has a string of well handicapped hurdlers and chasers lined up. Rock The Kasbah’s gutsy (not a trait he has shown too often) win in the staying handicap chase last weekend confirmed that view. Although a return to form for the previously slick Defi Du Seuil was a trick too far. He looked about as poor as Lalor looked impressive. 

I also managed to snaffle Nietzche in the Greatwood Hurdle. This one was a proper long-term project. I’ve had Ellison’s hurdler in my watchlist for over a year, waiting for him to find the combination of the right ground and the right weight. I’ve lost a few quid in the process. I didn’t think the Greatwood was that ‘right’ race because he appeared to be too far out of the handicap. But a last-minute punt based on a drifting Betfair price (28/1) and an encouraging recent outing on the flat (when I also backed him) finally saw the project deliver. I would have been inconsolable had I not backed him.

Shifting fortunes: on Saturday my ante-post punt for this race had come out because of the ground. I'd backed Patriote at about 29 and had been happy with the selection. He's a nice one for another day.

I’ve already punted up a small slice of these early winnings on lunacy Cheltenham shouts. Why not?

  • Draconien (Mullins) for the Arkle, 20/1, now 55s so assume a setback or a different target.
  • Melon (Mullins) for the Champion Hurdle, 10/1
  • Great Field (Mullins) for the Champion Chase, 20/1
  • Pingshou (Tizzard) for the Arkle, 25/1 backed before the race in which Lalor excelled.

The Betfair Chase at Haydock takes top billing this weekend of course. Hard to see past Mite Bite, but I’d love to see Thistlecrack bounce back to his scintillating best.

Earlier on the card, River Wylde is on my shortlist for the graduation chase. Over at Ascot, the Coral Hurdle is disappointingly uncompetitive. I may look at Oscar Rose in the earlier mares hurdle now she goes in handicap company. I’ll probably get involved in the 2m handicap chase too. Otherwise, probably a quiet weekend. One to watch some of the novice action here and in Ireland.

Play the long game.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Summer tripping

Mrs A and I are quite getting in to the idea of sneaky weekend trips away without the rest of the fam. We’ve just booked another. Flushed with the success of last year’s wet and windy visit to Westport on the wild Atlantic coast of Ireland with The Johnsons, we then followed up with a more genteel destination. Bruges didn’t require the same extreme hiking mentality, nor square-jawed, stiff-upper-lipped resolve to enjoy-despite-the weather as Westport. Neither did the Belgian town have the cacophonous accompaniment of Storm Brian.

What both trips did have in common, however, was unquenchable thirsts and raging hungers. We ate and drank well. Bruges is spectacularly able to meet both these needs. Days (and nights) were spent ambling through the medieval city’s pretty streets; exploring the canals (this was the ‘Venice of the North’ after all, doffing a respectful cap to other claimants for this title that include Amsterdam and, well, Wigan); and visiting the many fine landmark buildings.
Refuelling fitted in with this pattern well. Coffee by the chocolate museum, cake in the shadow of the The Belfry, brewery tour by the Dijver Canal, beers in the Duvelorium overlooking the Markt, moules marinieres by the Skinners House…. Aperol Spritz in the karaoke bar at the end of our road at 2am in the morning. To be fair the last named was only attempted by Sue who claimed to have discovered a liking for this luminescent, sickly alcoholic cough medicine concoction. Something we all doubted when she spent the day after our return ill in bed with gastrospritz aperolitis. Or something.
Duvelorium. Rude not to.
By that time of the night, the rest of us were invariably on ‘weak’ beers. That’s how the locals referred to anything below 6%. Earlier, we dropped in on a bar on the northern canals by the Bonne Chieremolen windmill for a spot of refreshment. To accompany a sharing platter of savoury-topped bread, deep-fried fish nibbles and posh chicken nuggets, the barman recommended to me a bottle of Triple de Garre Van Steenberg beer, which I accepted, until I learnt it weighed in at 12.4%! I bridled at the strength of a such a thing. Especially on a lunch time. Despite the barman’s insistence (“You can take it! You are English, no?”), I found the will to decline and settled for a mere 8% brew.

Fast forward to our next trip. We’ve just booked a weekend in Krakow in late January, when the average temperature appears to be around -4º centigrade. Westport may yet seem benign.

These breaks are not intended to replace family holidays. Far from it. Merely a welcome diversification spawned of life-cycle shifts. Indeed, the four of us spending a week away with Dad and Bruv is a regular and welcome fixture in the calendar.

But I have to ask. Who on earth takes a printer on holiday? I don’t mean one of those flash, palm-sized gadgets you attach to your phone. No, I refer to a traditional, clunky, early 21st century combined fax, printer and photocopier. The sort that if you managed to wedge it into the compact boot of a Hyundai i10, together with cables and cartridges, there might not be room for much other luggage.

Mrs A, myself and the girls had pitched up at our log cabin on the Norfolk coast to spend a few days with Dad and Bruv. After unloading our car of dog, food and holdalls, we helped Bruv lever out his printer and, with one of us at each corner, humped the beast into the cabin. It rested on the table, causing the legs to bulge slightly.

Between bouts of furious piss-taking and general hilarity, Bruv found the wherewithall to explain that the Wi-Fi was on the blink at home and that he was desperate to get his tax return completed, printed and posted so that he could bank his rebate tout-suite. Making space in the car for the printer was more important than packing, say, clothes, or anything else useful. Good job the barometer needle had swung firmly to ‘good’ with all immediate forecasts predicting a heatwave. 

We explored the cabin that was to be our home for the next few days: hot-tub, check; en-suites, check; BBQ terrace, check. Just one hitch. We were nestled at the bottom of a steep valley, shaded by conifers and beeches. Wi-Fi: uncheck. Intermittent at best. (Who knew Norfolk had hills?)

The weather did not disappoint, even if the IT did. There were some glorious cliff top walks to Cromer and Mundesley; and plenty of lounging around in the sun at genteel locations like Felbrigg Hall and Overstrand. I like Norfolk. 
The World Cup was underway. We saw a couple of games in the bar on site. But the real drama occurred not on football night, but on a club night when we ostentatiously smashed up the quiz and won the price of our meals. There’s nothing more satisfying than winning a quiz. Except possibly watching Daughter No 2 roasting the barman who tried to make a cheap sexist comment. One round had as its theme the meanings of symbols on clothing care labels. “One for the ladies only, I think!” he winked as he collected our empties. Daughter No 2 fixed him with her death stare and told him he was disgraceful. He wasn’t expecting that and muttered something about not meaning it. The swiftest backtracking seen since the last Brexit Secretary resigned. 

Bruv had fought the wi-fi and managed to finalise his tax return by the end of the week. He printed it off with a flourish wholly undeserving of the mad exercise.

I keep telling Mrs A that we should sell off our gaff in Berko and cash in on its ridiculously inflated prices and move to the coast. However, I’m starting to feel like we may have missed the boat. We’ve had a couple of trips to the north Kent coast this year to see friends. Already the price differential seems to be narrowing. Whitstable would still be near the top of my list. Built around fishing, tourism and tarmacadum, the place is famous for oysters, sunsets and real ale. Lovely though it is, the lively, independent and slightly eccentric feel is proving attractive to retiring London-types moving in and ramping up the prices. Our hosts beat the rush and upped sticks from South Hampstead about 7 years ago. Smart move.
Herne Bay, just along the coast still has some juice left in the market and has much going for it. What it lacks is the tousled, faintly Bohemian appeal of its neighbour. I can’t knock the substantial breakfast served by friendly staff in the Cook House café by the pier. But is that a sufficiently compelling factor to relocate? Almost…

To be fair, neither town is ideal for commuting to the Big City more than a couple of days a week. The rail journeys are still painfully slow this far east despite HS1. These are very much semi-retirement destinations.

Folkestone, though, is starting to benefit from HS1 and the steady increase in bullet-shaped trains. I paid an overdue visit in August, although buying a train ticket wasn’t as straight forward as I expected. And not just because the ticket-lady couldn’t stop looking at the purple pimple nestled angrily on my chin. No, depending on when you travel, there are various options including or excluding the high speed option; and in or out of peak hours; or a promotional offer, or the reckless desire to travel just any bleedin’ time you wanted.

Having negotiated the purchase which afforded me the right to traverse those precious HS1 tracks, I settled into my Javelin train. ‘Britain’s Fastest’ it said on the cab. That one was named in honour of Paralympic sprinter Jonny Peacock.

Rushed into service prior to the 2012 London Olympics, the Javelins have split open commuting times (for those that can afford them). Stratford, Ashford and Ebbsfleet comprise the ‘International’ stations on the fast line out of St Pancras International. Stations beyond have seen journey times more than halved: Faversham, Folkestone, Deal, Margate. But not to any significant degree, Whistable or Herne Bay.

Trouble is, Folkestone is a town of two halves. I jumped off the train and found the area close to the station and down to the front pretty grotty, rundown and not without an air of hostility.  A girl in her early twenties with multi-piercings and long ginger hair, wearing skimpy animal-print clothing was shuffling along in front of me, incumbered by broken-backed slippers. She halted her phone conversation to bark “Whachoo lookin’ at, mug?”, as a bloke overtook her and couldn’t resist a peaking back over his shoulder at this vision. Busted.

Then I skittered out on to the cliff top path like a cork from a bottle and suddenly breathed deeply. It felt like a different world. Folkestone seems to have a structural shift between the town and the coast. Over a giant cup of coffee and the crumbliest cookie ever baked, I relaxed on the terrace outside the Leas Cliff Pavilion overlooking a stream of liners entering and exiting Dover Harbour on the horizon. And wondered (only briefly) if I should pop back in October to catch Joe Pasquali live at the venue.

The cliff path dropped down to a wide shingle beach and I wound my way back to town past some glorious houses, splashes of public art, beach huts and man-made sea bathing enclaves. The port area sums up Folkestone very neatly: gruesome, decrepit 70’s flats overlooking a tasteful and ambitious refurbishment of the town’s old harbour. If I was a betting man, or at least one with decent-sized cajones (ahem), I should be taking a property punt on the town. Get ahead of the curve, that’s what I say. Except this is just wishful thinking. I have to gird my loins for a long-range Cheltenham Festival punt, so finding the grit to gamble the retirement plan on a town’s potential resurgence seems remote. Back to the racing ante-post lists, then. 
High Summer wound into a mild Autumn and we paid a visit to the homeland to catch up with Bruv for his birthday. Those brief 2½ days in Yorkshire echoed Westport in the intensity of weather. On the Castleton Road, the magnificent vistas of Farndale and Rosedale to left and right, we encountered snow and screaming winds, broken up by a vivid sunset streaming out from under a dramatic linear cloudbase. The moor beyond The Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge resembled the fire and freeze of Iceland.
We were on our way to the Raven Hall Hotel at Ravenscar, surely one of the most romantically perfect settings anywhere on the stunning coast. The building perches on a headland 200 foot above the broiling North Sea, purposefully setting its granite countenance against the sharp north-easterlies; and affording a view over the striking bay, scarified at the water’s edge from its days as an alum-mining port, towards the fishing village of Robin Hoods Bay tumbling down the opposite headland.

It's been estimated that 25m tons of shale and rock were hewn from the quarries along this coast to produce the alum that was used as a colour fixative in leather goods. Together with extensive ironstone mining further north, 19th century heavy industry has shaped the coast in these parts more than the thrilling, raw view from the Raven Hall Hotel might suggest.

A visit to Dalby Forest next day could not have been more different. Shimmering Autumn sunlight from crisp blue skies illuminated golden leaves, with barely a breath of wind to cajole them from the branches. The landscape here has been shaped by farming and forestry, rather than mineral extraction.

It was the first day of GMT. Daughter No 2 hadn’t come with us. She texted Mrs A who looked up from her phone and said “This is why you can’t leave children on their own…” The text said, ‘Mum, have the clocks gone back or forwards?’ The very phone on which she texted would have updated automatically.

And Bruv is still waiting for his tax rebate.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Breaking the silence

What happened there? Write a post in February, blink your eyes and the next thing it’s Halloween. The hottest Summer since 1976 proved to be a barren desert for this blog.  Arctic interludes are already muscling a benign Autumn out of the way and I haven’t yet dealt with the Spring festivals.

Picking up the baton from that February missive, I feel it is time to draw to a close the hairy tale of the Grab-a-Grand initiative. The deal, you may or may not remember, involved a work colleague investing a straight £1,000 with which I would gamble over the course of the Jumps season. In return, come April, I’d present him with a guaranteed £1,100. A six-month 10% profit margin that he would never secure in the High Street banks. My incentive was that any profit I made over £1,100 was mine to keep. An investment of a grand would provide me with the raw materials for bigger, bolder bets. I was confident of a 30-40% return on investment.

That February blog reported the notching of my worst ever, ever punting run: a 38-bet tale of woe in pursuit of profits on that grand investment. I also chronicled some Cheltenham ante-post action. Those two subjects intertwined neatly when the latter became my salvation in regard to the former. A barn-storming Festival, courtesy of decent bets on the gorgeous Shattered Love, the canny Benie Des Dieux and the tough Rathvinden, together with a more productive Spring campaign all round, turned my losses in to a profit.

Heady with this hard-won success, I offered Pete the chance to take his guaranteed investment up to a £200 return by October. Naturally, he bit my hand off. My greed, in turn, bit me in the arse. A double metaphorical masticating injury. I contrived to lose bucket loads of cash on half-hearted handicap plots and dithering pattern race punts. Keen to draw the exercise to a close, I paid up Pete’s £1200 in late August, thereby negating the chances of losing over the Summer everything I had scrambled to bank over the Winter.  

Building from my colleague’s £1,000 investment in October 2017, I had retained a profit of £274 by the time the transaction closed, down from £440 in April, meaning I trousered a puny £74 after paying over Pete’s guaranteed £1200. Pfft.

I have mixed feelings about the experiment. Clearly the profits were not what I’d hoped for. The mistaken Summer extension saw a return to lilly-livered punting on horses about which I had little opinion. Yet the NH campaign was a blast.  Even before the sphincter-busting 38-bet losing run had ended, there was a residual nugget of confidence that matters could be turned around.

The Festivals were a chance to have decent bets which topped up, for once, a profitable ante-post portfolio. In fact, I had very little ante-post betting before the middle of February. Activity began to ratchet up in the fortnight before the meeting, when value began to spill around. Some firms went non-runner, no-bet while others were still ante-post. Coupled with the clarifying of targets, there was opportunity to take a chance on some fancy prices.

I backed Rathvinden at 16/1 for the National Hunt Chase when Willie Mullins said in his stable tour that he was a likely runner (though as Tony Keenan said just after the festival, “that’s not a cast-iron guarantee, I’ll grant you”). Rathvinden won at 9/2. The same with Shattered Love, whom I backed at 14/1 for the JLT after Elliot declared her for that race (I gather 20s were also available). She won at 4/1.

And here we are at the start of the jumps again. Bacchy has circulated his Twelve To Follow competition for the season and markets are already forming around bankers for some of the Festival’s defining races: Kalashnikov for the Arkle? Samcro for the Champion Hurdle? Faugheen for the Stayers? And Altior v Footpad for the Champion Chase could be a modern-day classic.

I’m looking forward to seeing Monalee in open company, Black Op over fences and, at the other end of the experience scale, a couple of Fergal O’Brien bumper horses in Time To Move On and Strong Glance. Paul Nicholl’s novice hurdler Secret Investor was impressive in the Persian War a couple of weeks ago.

The boys have already had our say. Over the wreckage of an Indian Diner fantasy cricket curry, the unanimous shout was to entrust the remains of the whip money to the chances of Presenting Percy in the Gold Cup.

Cheltenham opened its door last Friday and the Charlie Hall meeting at Wetherby this coming Friday and Saturday sees the first high quality meeting of the season. Banish those Flat blues (and pay no more than cursory attention to the events at Churchill Downs this weekend), we are all about the jumps. And I’m ready.