Back in the saddle

Nuca, our Romanian mongrel with a hair-trigger nose that detects grilled sausages at 200 paces, is sniffing Spring in the air. She’s been careering around the garden with unhinged, mad-March enthusiasm and tucking in to new shoots of grass like they are gourmet treats. I smell the changing mood too; and I’m sharing something of her wild passion. Not sure it’s the weather though… Cheltenham is nearly here.

Festival preview nights are all the rage up and down the land right now. They have become an established part of the build-up: well-oiled panel pundits spouting dubiously informed views and rumours in front of eager, equally lubricated punters, before moving on to the next venue on the next night. Entertainment is the name of the game rather than cast-iron info. The skill is in winnowing the odd grain of valuable wheat from the wind-blown chaff.

The Barley Mow festival pack had its own preview evening on Monday. Our level of inebriation would rival your regular ‘professional’ preview gathering, and indeed the quality of knowledge on offer was equally variable.  

Matters got off to a poor start when a stranger casually joined us at our table and sat down with his beer as if he belonged there. Turned out he did. He won our prestigious, fiercely competitive Fantasy Festival trophy last year. Apparently I’d had a long chat with him on Gold Cup Day in that very same venue about various exploits at the Festival. I had, I gathered, heartily congratulated him on his win.

How we laughed. He’s a lovely fellah and took my total absence of recall with a pinch of salt. Piecing together the dregs of that day last March, it seems my memory faded from the point that Al Boum Photo won the Gold Cup with a chunk of my bank wagered at 16/1. Everything after about 3.50pm was lost in a bitter-and-whisky fuelled celebratory blur. I don’t remember the results of the subsequent races, or who I was drinking with or how I got home. Or the reception I received when I got there… The level of obfuscation only became clear on Monday night when I had absolutely no recollection of meeting this chap before. At all.

I was not alone. He went to the bog for a leak and I quickly said to Nick,

“Christ, I can’t remember him at all! What’s his name?”

“No clue” shrugged Nick. “Is he one of Bryn’s mates?”

“I think it’s Tom”, offered Nev.

“No, don’t call him Tom!” pleaded Colin. “It’s definitely not Tom. We’ve met Tom before in the Jugged Hare”

This went on for some time. Poor behaviour, really. Bacchy helped. The Fantasy Festival is his competition, after all. We worked out he was Danny’s mate. And he’s called Joseph. Now I’ve committed this to text, I’m bound to remember.

So, you’ll be wanting tips and rumours from the Barley Mow preview evening massive, I expect. Here are the highlights:

  •     My new pal Joseph has a cracking ante-post voucher of 10/1 on Shiskin for the Supreme, after he scribbled the name into his little black book following a bumper romp last year. This good punting.

  •     My best outsider is Rouge Vif at 16/1 for the Arkle, struck after I cashed in an earlier bet on the same horse at 33/1 on the basis that I didn’t think he’d make the race. This is bad punting.

  •    Tim’s best bets of the week will all run at Wolverhampton. This is barely punting at all.  

Elsewhere, Colin was roundly vilified for his nap of the meeting, Clan Des Obeaux to win the Gold Cup. No-one else thinks he will get home. I copped some flak for putting up Epatante in the Champion Hurdle, though I genuinely fail to see why she can’t spank a pretty poor field. Bacchy had Honeysuckle to win a packet in the Mares Hurdle. At that point, she still could have been re-routed to the Champion Hurdle, leaving him potless. However, she was confirmed for the Mares the very next day.

Nick produced a scrappy bit of folded-over A4 printed with the rules of Bacchy’s famous Fantasy Festival competition. Underneath he’d written the names of 16 ludicrously short-priced types he planned to enter into the comp.

“I did some research!”

“What, Racing Post? Or do you use At The Races?” I was impressed.

“No – I just did a comparison of all the tipster sites”.

“Ah, so not actual form research, or anything, then?”

“What do you take me for?!” Cue mirthful roll of the eyes.

On leaving the pub, Nev, Bacchy and myself meandered down Strutton Ground. Nev pointed out the bookies where he landed a spectacular three-figure Gold Cup exacta back in the day. Emboldened with ale, I confidently claimed that I stood a fair chance of bagging the triple crown of fantasy competitions this season: cricket (already won); 12 To Follow (leading) and Fantasy Festival (launching Tuesday).

Nev was having none of it. Within a nano-second he goes, “£50 says you don’t.” I politely declined. He smashed me out of the park alongside my bullshit bravado.

I’m not going to the Festival this year. I’ll miss the roar before the Supreme and the atmosphere that you just don’t get anywhere else. Nevertheless, the keen anticipation is the same. I’m hanging on to every refresh of the Oddschecker ante-post pages to see if my fancies have survived five-day forfeits.

Non-runners do for my Festival portfolio what Coronavirus has done for cruise holidays. Speaking of the ‘C’ word, as I write it feels just about odds-on that we’ll get the fully fledged Festival next week. But with every passing day of hysterical reaction to new cases, the doubts persist.

If fears win out and the event is cancelled, Mrs A has already asked (…demanded…) that I arrange to be somewhere else next week, please. The prospect of me moping about the house all week, bereft of a horse to back, fills her with dread.

Maybe I’ll tramp the hills with the dog in search of that elusive Spring.  


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