Thursday, 16 February 2017

Revealing All - at the Grand National Weights Reception

First of all, an apology: If this column seems a bit all over the place it’s probably because I’ve lost track of where I am, having moved house earlier in the week. I’m taking consolation from the fact that I’m not the only one that’s found a new home – with the Randox Health Aintree Grand National weights being revealed this week, for the first time, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

It is an inspirational venue – the World’s leading museum of art and design – a fitting place to reveal the creative endeavours of the BHA’s senior handicapper Phil Smith. It’s also currently home to a highly informative exhibition entitled ‘Undressed – a brief history of underwear’. Which means that early arrivals at the drinks reception had the option of viewing items as diverse as bloomers worn by Queen Victoria’s mother and a pair of ‘butt-lifters’ designed to bestow the bum of Kim Kardashian on any wearer. Apparently pairs of Queen Victoria’s knickers sell for sums of between £600 and £12,000, which seems like quite a lot of money until you realise that some of them can be re-purposed as marquee linings.
All is revealed at the
Victoria & Albert Museum

I’m not certain whether the exhibition features any displays of jockeys wearing tights, as most of them do beneath their breeches. However, there is a ‘waist belt’ constructed from a fine mesh of metal wires, designed to help Victorian men keep a straight spine whilst on horseback – a forerunner, perhaps, to modern day back-protectors.

But I wouldn’t want you thinking that everything at the Victoria & Albert Museum is pants – Tuesday night’s event featured a host of knowledgeable guests with lots of interesting information about the World’s most famous race. Unfortunately, it turns out that you can take the Grand National out of Liverpool, but you can’t take Liverpool out of the Grand National Weights Announcement – hence the fact that most of the interviews were drowned out by the lively banter of booze-quaffing attendees.

I wasn’t invited to the drinks reception, but I do know someone who is very knowledgeable about pants – who happened to be visiting the museum earlier this week. She thinks that she might have overheard some interesting conversations which haven’t been reported in the racing media. Apparently there was a girl with an Irish accent who said she’d like 'more of that'. It's possible that she could have been looking at one of the photographs of male underwear models, or it might have been Katie Walsh (likely to be on board Foxrock) commenting on Jonjo O’Neill’s More Of That, who has been allocated just 11st 1lb.

There was also a man in a duffle coat, who might have been Nigel Twiston-Davies or possibly just one of your common-all-garden museum-goers. Either way he’s reported as having said "If Blaklion doesn’t win the National Trial this weekend, I’ll eat my pants." Blaklion is our selection for Saturday’s meeting at Haydock and is another who could be of great interest at Aintree in April.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Man's Best Friend & Punters' Pal

Dogs are way better than cats. It's been proved on every continent on the planet. After all, I don't think anyone has ever said, "I've got a good idea - let's rope a bunch of cats together and see if they can pull this sleigh to the North Pole."

Now it has been proven that dogs are able to make moral judgements about our friends. According to scientists from Kyoto University in Japan, dogs show a 'highly developed social competence'. A report in The Times, explained that 54 dog owners had been given a task in which they pretended to struggle to open a container. An actor was then employed to enter the room and either help the dog owner or ignore them. The dog was then offered two treats - by the actor and another stranger simultaneously.
 
Apparently most dogs took the treat from the actor if he had assisted the owner - or took it from the other (neutral) stranger if the owner had been ignored. No dogs were fool enough to decline the treats altogether, which just goes to show how important it is to offer biscuits at every available tea-break. Preferably chocolate digestives if you're visiting my office.
 
To test the theory further, I've allowed my dogs access to The Racing Post and asked them to select a jockey to join our panel for the Cheltenham Festival Preview Night on Thursday 9th March. They appear to have selected Brian Hughes - or at least he's the name that attracts the most muddy paw marks if I leave the newspaper on the floor.
 
As one might have expected from Man's Best Friend, the dogs have made an excellent choice. Not only was Brian crowned the top jockey at Cartmel last season, with 7 winners and a strike rate of 17%, but he is now the most successful jockey in the North with 105 winners this season already.
 
He has an 11% strike rate for Jimmy Moffatt, one of the few people who has both ridden and trained a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, who will also be on the panel - together with form expert Marten Julian.
 
I can't tell you whether Brian will be riding anything for Jimmy at Cheltenham - you'll have to come to the preview night and find out - but he's likely to have some interesting rides. I'll be keeping an ear out for any mention of horses like The Dutchman, who could feature in the Novice Handicap Chase or Cyrus Darius, who was beaten quite a distance by The New One in a Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock recently. Second in that race, not beaten far at all, was Clyne, who runs in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury on Saturday and is our selection for the weekend.
 
I'm sure Brian will come to our preview night armed with lots of top quality information. If not, I'm sure he'll bring some decent biscuits. And if there are no treats of any kind, I'll just have to set my socially aware dogs on him...

Friday, 3 February 2017

Tall Tales of Small Horses

Last week the National Army Museum in Chelsea was accused of fakery - when news that they were reassembling the skeleton of Marengo was greeted with an assertion that Napoleon’s horse, famously painted crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, never actually existed.

According to popular history, Marengo was an Arabian horse standing at just 14 hands high – not overly big but quite tall enough for the 5 foot, 6½ inch Napoleon. We all tend to think that Napoleon was rather small, but 5½ foot was about average for a Frenchman two hundred years ago and I dare say the extra half inch was important to him. Marengo was acquired by Napoleon, in Egypt, in 1799. He was already 22 years old by the time he was captured at the Battle of Waterloo, which gives me hope that my old favourite Knockara Beau, trained by George Charlton, will still be going strong eight years from now.  

Except now it materialises (according to The Times) that Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, scoured the official records of 1,762 horses belonging to Napoleon, only to discover that no such animal existed – not the name, nor a horse which matches the skeleton’s age and size. Which begs the question: whose horse have they got in the museum?
Copenhagen in Glasgow
 
There has always been room for interpretation when it comes to the description of historic horses. Take for example, Copenhagen – the mount of the Duke of Wellington, who occupied the opposite corner of the battlefield at Waterloo. There are two large bronze statues of him in Scotland, one in Edinburgh, the other in Glasgow. The Edinburgh version gives him the appearance of a noble steeplechaser – think Strong Promise, Sprinter Sacre or Dublin Flyer. The Glasgow version, where the Duke’s head is almost permanently augmented with a road traffic cone (perched at a jaunty angle), portrays Copenhagen as small, narrow and unimpressive.

As you might expect from a city known for its gritty realism, it is the Glasgow version which is most likely correct. According to contemporary correspondence, Copenhagen was about 15 hands tall, had a scratchy short stride and a cantankerous temperament. Sired by Meteor, a winner of the Kings Plate and Prince of Wales Stakes, Copenhagen had at least ten outings on the Flat, winning just two matches without impressing. He wouldn’t have been a match for a horse like Aristo Du Plessis, this week’s selection at Musselburgh, who is seeking his eighth win under rules.
Copenhagen in Edinburgh
 
The entries for the 2017 Grand National were published this week, sadly without Many Clouds whose name deserves to be remembered for two hundred years or more. A quick scan of the entries reveals that Highland Lodge is well placed to get into the race this year. If the Jimmy Moffatt trained gelding wins at Aintree, perhaps they’ll erect a statue of him in Cartmel village square - if so, I hope that racegoers will refrain from adding a traffic cone to Henry Brooke’s attire.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Tasting the Future

It’s been a few weeks since I last tipped a winner and I’m beginning to feel guilty. It’s not just the possibility that someone might have taken my advice and lost their money – after all who on earth really believes that they’ll make money by following my tips? It’s the fact that so many losing punters are obviously turning to drink...
 
According to figures released by the Scottish Whisky Association this week, Scotch whisky contributes roughly £4.9 billion to the UK economy - about 40% more than the estimated economic contribution of British horseracing. I may not be entirely responsible for the disparity but, now that I think about it, there is a correlation between the diminution of my whisky stocks at home and the number of losers that I've been backing each Saturday.
 
But at least it’s better than backing winners. Because every time I open a bottle of Champagne I am contributing to the UK’s trade deficit of goods (excluding oil) which amounts to £112 billion. It turns out that Scotch whisky is the largest net contributor to the UK’s balance of trade in goods, with exports reaching £3.9 billion against imports of just £0.2 billion. The net benefit of £3.7 billion is nearly twice as much as that generated by sales of aircraft (£1.9 billion) and miles better than our national deficit on clothing (-£12.3 billion). 
 
Just as the horseracing industry has been proactive in boosting the sport in Scotland, the whisky industry has recently been expanding south of the border. A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to have been treated to a tour of The Lakes Distillery - where their first spirits have already been distilled and lie in maturation casks until their third birthday, when the pale liquid will have taken on more colour and will finally be classified as whisky.  
 
I tasted the future at The Lakes Distillery and it is full of promise – which, coincidentally, is very much the theme of this weekend’s racing action. Cheltenham's Festival Trials Day features a couple of dozen horses currently occupying prominent positions in the betting for Championship races. In addition to Un De Sceaux and Thistlecrack in their respective trials, we could be treated to the sight of More Of That in the whisky sponsored Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase. In the Cleeve Hurdle I hope Ballyoptic (this week's selection) will have a chance of upsetting the World Hurdle favourite Unowhatimeanharry.
 
Win or lose, the results of this weekend's races at Cheltenham will be picked over in detail over the next few weeks - at Festival Preview Nights up and down the country. We’ll be staging our own Preview Night, at Cartmel Racecourse, on Thursday 9th March with a panel of experts – who will necessarily be much more knowledgeable than me. Tickets, costing just £16, are available from the racecourse office (o15395 36340). The price includes a one-course meal during the interval.
 
We will also be serving whisky, should anyone feel the need.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Bishops on the Beat

Blessing of the horse at Cartmel Priory
On hearing about the Jockey Club’s planned closure of Kempton Racecourse, I assumed that the whole story was an elaborate joke. So just to be on the safe side, I’ve decided not to fall into the trap of adding more column inches to those that have already been devoted to the subject.

It isn’t as if we don’t have enough controversial issues of our own to debate in Cartmel. Last week the Parish Council voted in favour of a plan to develop a traffic regulation order to reduce irresponsible parking on the local lanes. The plan includes double yellow lines – but slightly narrower than the ones that you might usually see in a town, and primrose coloured to strike a better balance with the rich heritage of the village centre. The three week consultation period organised by Cumbria County Council will no doubt consider a wide variety of views – so I’m not going to use this space to add more fuel to that particular fire either.

No. I want to talk about the Bishop of Carlisle, who visited Cartmel Priory on Monday this week to listen to a request from the church commissioners to withdraw from the Cartmel Peninsula Team Ministry. To summarise, the 'team ministry' was devised 24 years ago as a collective of parishes to allow the local clergy to support one another and provide cover where vicars were scarce. Nestled among the valleys are some beautiful small churches, frequented mainly by tiny congregations of aging parishioners. The team-system enabled a small number of ministers to spread themselves across the sparsely populated area.

But that isn’t the way of the future. In most areas of our lives we’re either seeing services centralised to the major conurbations or else they’re retreating to the digital world – think of your bank, insurance provider or travel agency. I’m surprised more worshippers aren’t already taking virtual communion over the internet. As Keats might have written, if he hadn't died in 1821, Ah, bitter chill it was… Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers as he tapped out his rosary on the i-pad. 


As it happens, I believe that spiritual guidance is something that is best given face to face; I’d like to see more vicars on the streets. Not – you understand - sleeping in cardboard boxes, nor enforcing Cartmel’s proposed traffic regulation order. I’d like to see them serving the communities in which they live, helping to instil moral values in the children at our local schools, blessing racehorses and embracing our questions about faith. 

After all, while it’s evident that there is a declining interest in attending church services, there is no slackening in what I’d call spiritual speculation: is there life after death? Do ghosts exist? Why are we here? Would life be any better if I could back a winner this weekend? (Alary is my suggestion, in Haydock's Peter Marsh Chase).
 
There is a real danger that the Cartmel Peninsula Team Ministry will be reduced further in strength, resulting in the possible loss of the vicar from Cartmel. And while it is impossible to justify the needs of one parish over another, the truth is that Cartmel Priory is special. The church is large, has impressive medieval roots and is located in a tourism hotspot. The building itself draws people – which makes it a grade one venue for engaging with issues of faith and encouraging community spirit.
 
I’m all for the maintenance of services across rural parishes, but imagine – scaling back the use of Cartmel Priory would be a bit like closing down a grade one racecourse and flogging it for housing. Doh... I said I wasn't going to mention that!


Friday, 13 January 2017

The Dog and Bone


The phones have been busy in the racecourse office with all the usual enquiries:

Beep, beep, beeeep… Thank you for calling Cartmel Racecourse where the first of nine race-meetings in 2017 takes place on Saturday 27th May. To help direct your call appropriately, please listen to the following options.

If you’d like to bring a dog with you to the races… DIAL 1. (The answer’s yes – but you must keep it on a lead at all times).

If you’d like parking in the village of Cartmel to be restricted by double yellow lines… DIAL 2.
 
If you’d like to purchase a four-night camping pitch for the May Bank Holiday weekend, the July meeting or the August Bank Holiday weekend, please redial on Tuesday 17th January - which is when these tickets will become available. Or, even easier, look us up online from 9.00am on Tuesday morning at www.cartmel-racecourse.co.uk. Please note, two night camping pitches including just one raceday will not be available until 14th February. 

If you’d like parking in the village of Cartmel not to be restricted by yellow lines - but controlled on a voluntary basis through the implementation of improved signage and white lines… DIAL 3.

If you’d like to purchase a two-night camping pitch for an individual raceday (including the night before and the night after racing), please redial on Tuesday 14th February, when these packages will become available. Customers wishing to attend multiple racedays are being given the first opportunity to book.

If you’d like to purchase an annual parking permit for the racecourse pay-and-display car park, so that you're no longer reliant on parking in the streets of Cartmel…  DIAL 4.

If you’d like to purchase early-bird admission tickets at half price, please go to our website on Tuesday 17th January. Please note, the availability of early-bird tickets is limited to 2,000 in total and they are available to online bookers only with a maximum of two per household. Early-bird admission tickets are not valid for the camping packages which already include admission.

If you know what’s going to win at Kelso this Sunday… please DIAL 5 and let me know too.

If you’d like to book tickets or camping pitches for the June meeting, please hold... fire – we are awaiting exciting news about concert artists which will be released in the near future.

If you don’t know what’s going to win at Kelso this Sunday… try Aristo Du Plessis in the 2.10.

For all other enquiries, dial… click… buurrgh…
 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Licensed Disorder

The Twelfth Night is the eve of Epiphany, the festival on which we celebrate the arrival of the three wise men at the crib. Although Epiphany falls annually on 6th January, there is an ambiguity which leads to a regular discussion in our household (let’s not call it an argument), as to whether the twelfth day of Christmas (the day by which we must pack away all the Christmas decorations) is actually the day before the twelfth night or the day after – the day before the wise men arrive or the day itself, which can only be the twelfth day of Christmas if the festive period actually starts on Boxing Day. 

In my book, the day on which to pack up the decorations is undoubtedly 6th January – because the night before is all about celebration, which makes no sense if we've already taken the tinsel away. In days gone by, the night was so significant that William Shakespeare even wrote a special play to celebrate the occasion. At least I only have to write a short blog…

The Twelfth Night was traditionally an evening of licensed disorder. A ‘Lord of Misrule’ would be appointed, usually someone of low status, in order to impose a temporary inversion of the general order of everything. Servants would dress up as masters, the head of the household would temporarily fulfil the role of a slave. Shakespeare’s play adhered to the traditions of the festival by exploiting a plot device whereby a beautiful girl, called Viola, dresses up as a boy and makes a fool out of everyone – a bit like Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet.

In seems to me that the team at Chelmsford, where racing takes place tonight (the twelfth night), have missed a bit of trick. For one night only, the jockeys should have been allowed to officiate – while the stewards, the judge, clerk of the scales and clerk of the course should have been forced to ride around the track.



Meanwhile, the trainers could have led the horses up in the parade ring, while the stable staff entertained racehorse owners in the bars and restaurants. The ground-staff could have been occupied in the kitchen while the caterers were employed on the track - filling divots can’t be much different from filling vol-au-vents, although one would hope they wouldn’t use prawns and thousand island sauce, because that would just be messy. 

I know, I know… they only have to harrow the sand-based track at Chelmsford to level out the divots – but you can’t fill vol-au-vents with a tractor, so I’m assuming that the catering staff would be more comfortable doing the job by hand. 

As for this weekend’s selection, I’m relying on Wishfull Dreaming to invert the natural order of the form book by reverting to winning ways in the last race on Sandown’s Saturday card. If racing be the food of love, gallop on!