Thursday, 26 March 2015

Tweeting Winners

Immediately after the Cheltenham Festival I received the best birthday present ever. I won’t say that it must have been going “cheap” because that would appear ungrateful and I’ve been wanting a budgerigar for a very long time. 

Following the fantastic victory of Coneygree in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the obvious thing was to name the bird after the Bradstock’s incredible steeplechaser – which is why I’ve called him Carruthers. Actually that’s just a joke,  I’d wanted to name him Coneygree, but Carruthers just seemed to suit better. Plus there’s the fact that, while I did have a small punt on Coneygree in the Gold Cup, I won a lot more money when his half brother won the Hennessy back in 2011 – so Carruthers it is. 
Carruthers reading about his namesake in The Racing Post 

Carruthers likes to read The Racing Post (I’m talking about the budgie now – obviously, because horses can’t read) and he became particularly animated when he spotted that his namesake was running at Newbury last weekend. He was even more delighted when the horse won, which reminds me of Sid James in the 1971 film Carry On At Your Convenience

If I remember correctly, Hattie Jacques had a budgie called Joey, who predicted the results of races. Sid James would read out the list of runners and Joey would tweet when he got to the name of the winner. It wasn’t a fluke because Sid James made a lot of money placing bets with his local bookie. It must have impressed me a great deal at the time – otherwise I’d probably be a lot better off financially than I am now. 

Anyway, now that I have a budgie that really can predict winners, I’m a very happy man and I shall do my best to keep him away from the Clerk of the Course’s Jack Russell.

I’ve run a few of the weekend’s entries past him and he chuntered quite happily when I got to Jack Dexter, who needs to bounce back to form if he is going to make much of an impact at Doncaster on Saturday. Happily, he also gave a small chirp when I pronounced the words Vosne Romanee – although I’m not sure whether he was laughing at my accent or agreeing with my selection for Ascot on Sunday. 

Carruthers is sitting on his perch at the moment (the budgie, not the horse - obviously) studying the rest of the races. But don’t worry, rather than feathering my own nest, I intend to keep everyone informed. Keep an eye on our twitter feed (which comes in a box marked Trill and seems to consist mainly of millet) for further news.


Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Look Of Eagles

I had a strange dream last night. Yes, another one - but this time I had all my clothes on. 
I had just finished running a race and had performed rather well, out-sprinting Tony McCoy on the rise to the line. My dogs were terribly pleased; they wagged their tails, jumped up at my chest and woofed approvingly. 
We turned a corner and all of a sudden I was surrounded by dogs - 63,000 of them! There were terriers up on balconies, collies on a huge tiered viewing terrace and retrievers on the lawned paddock around me.  
They were all wagging their tails and yapping with delight - with the exception of a handful of bull-mastiffs at the back, who were paying out packets of pigs ears to happy looking whippets with winning tickets in their paws. 
This, I imagine, is a rough approximation of what Faugheen must have experienced at Cheltenham last week. While the enthusiastic greeting of another species must have been totally incomprehensible, the aftermath of Faugheen's Champion Hurdle victory must also have been bizarrely uplifting for the horse. 
His closest human companions crowded around him in the Winner's Enclosure; cameras clicked and the crowd cheered. All eyes were on Faugheen and, tellingly, he was the only one of the four horses present that initially took a few steps backward in alarm. The placed horses, including two more from the Mullins' yard were quite aware that they, the vanquished, were not the ones in the spotlight. 
Faugheen now knows that he is special. It may have no bearing on his future performance, but I bet he is a completely different horse around the stable. He will have gained confidence and assurance from the experience. 
Anthropomorphism can be a dangerous thing; beasts do not share human thoughts (much though I admire Wilbur, the pig, in the book of Charlotte's Web). Faugheen knows nothing of prestigious trophies, antepost bets or official ratings. 
However, having observed the hero's welcome accorded to our champions, it strikes me as little wonder that horses such as Best Mate and Big Bucks developed a "swagger" when parading in front of their admiring public. Nor is it a surprise that Arkle, the best steeplechaser of all time, was generally acknowledged to have acquired the "look of eagles". 
One of the most admirable horses in training missed the festival last week for the first time in seven years. Please give a cheer for Knockara Beau, now 12 years of age and our selection this weekend, if you see him at Kelso on Saturday.


Friday, 13 March 2015

Investing at Cheltenham

There’s been a huge investment at Cheltenham Racecourse and I’m not talking about my modest plunge on Moon Racer in the Festival Bumper, the proceeds of which will be re-invested on this week’s selection Holywell in the Gold Cup.

An immense new grandstand is under construction at the home of British jump racing and, although it isn’t due to be completed until next season, racegoers have had access to some areas during this year’s Festival. The most notable improvement is the number of toilets. Despite a crowd of 63,000 on Tuesday, the queues for the loos were noticeably short. On the face of it, this is an excellent development – although I can’t help recalling that the inspiration to back Cavalero for the Foxhunter Steeplechase fifteen years ago (£20 at 20/1) only came to me whilst standing in line for the Gents. It remains one of my biggest winners and I am now facing up to the fact that it may never happen again.  

Loos are an important feature on any racecourse and, although many of the facilities at Cartmel are temporary, we too are planning to make some significant improvements ahead of our new season in May. Not only are we hoping to have more loos available, there will be more space for ladies to check their hair and make-up, more space for changing babies’ nappies and more betting information displayed adjacent to the Gents – to provide inspiration for those spur-of-the-moment betting decisions. 

During the last few weeks we have also been installing ducts beneath the enclosures which will carry fibre-optic cable to every corner of the site. In addition to linking all of the entrances to our new ticketing system, it is anticipated that the fibre-optic will also help us to provide wireless access to the internet for a large proportion of mobile users on the racecourse. Apparently hundreds of thousands of pounds have been invested in improving the wireless and mobile signals at Cheltenham, although this was less in evidence this week – with most telephone calls taking at least six attempts to connect.

Behind the new grandstand at Cheltenham is a very smart new giant screen. Not to be out-done, the team at Scottish Racing have also developed a new giant screen and will be showing it off at Kelso a week on Saturday. I’ll be off to have a look, in the hope of securing its services at Cartmel this Summer. Coincidentally, our new fibre-optic network should be ideal for supplying the high-definition picture signal. 

I don’t suppose Holywell will be running at Cartmel this season, nor Many Clouds or Coneygree - but while Cheltenham is renowned for the sheer quality of the racing, I’m confident that visitors to our little track will continue to enjoy the unique atmosphere at Cartmel, while noticing a similar range of customer focused improvements.

Friday, 6 March 2015

And Our Experts Say...

I've got some sheets of paper here with the names of all the winners, for the 2015 Cheltenham Festival, printed in plain black type. Every race - no exceptions.

There's just one problem: There are about 1,000 other names on the paper too, because the sheets have been removed from the entries-section of The Racing Post. Following the 5-day entry stages, the lists of names for Tuesday and Wednesday are considerably shorter than for Thursday and Friday, which helps, although there are still 110 horses listed under the title of the Coral Cup.

Fortunately we can rely on the services of John Sexton, Chairman of our panel of experts at the Star Sports Preview Night on Thursday evening, who tells me that he has never backed the winner of the Coral Cup - so it's his turn. He is confident that Dawalan will do the business. But... ahem, it seems that Dawalan is not one of the names left following the 5-day entry stage. Perhaps he will win the Pertemps Hurdle instead?

Marten Julian passed on a good word for Activial, in the Coral Cup, who has been rising up the weights having been placed in good races - but thought likely to improve for the increased trip. Marten is also keen that we should keep an eye out for Goodwood Mirage and Pearl Swan, both of whom are likely to turn up at a big price in a handicap hurdle soon.

Marten enjoys telling us about 33-1 shots that are likely to run well, possibly without winning. He likes Gods Own in the Arkle, Cole Harden in the World Hurdle, Western Rules in the Bumper, Boston Bob in the Gold Cup and Vosne Romanee in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle.

I'm glad Marten favours the chances of Vosne Romanee because this is the horse who won our juvenile race at Cartmel in August. If he follows in the hoof-prints of Countrywide Flame, who also became a Cheltenham Festival winner, the race could be listed within a year or two.

Marten gave us several other hot pieces of information too - but you really should have been there on the night. You can still find out what he thinks - by purchasing his excellent Cheltenham Bulletin book. Look it up on-line.

Mark Howard also writes a Cheltenham book, which is out any day now, so I don't know what it says yet. But he highlighted the chances of Alvisio Ville in the opening race of the Festival, who he believes could be ridden by Tony McCoy. The champion jockey will have the final race of the Festival named after him this year and whatever he rides, possible Ned Buntline, is likely to start a short priced favourite.

Apart from Mark, there wasn't much enthusiasm for Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle - no matter how much Terry from Star Sports bookmakers plugged their special offer of 11/8. I'm sure the Gentlemen's bookmaker is also a very generous bookmaker. Lucy Alexander felt that he could be a bit novice in his jumping and preferred the reigning champ Jezki. Jimmy Moffatt thinks Hurricane Fly will win, while John Sexton mentioned The New One. Marten didn't say who would win, but fancies Arctic Fire for a place.

Jimmy nominated Sire De Grugy as his tip of the meeting, while Lucy agreed that he was top of her list for the Champion Chase. Mark liked Champagne Fever and Marten fancies Special Tiara - but only for a place.

Ma Filleule was Mark Howards selection of the meeting - and Lucy had the same horse at the top of her list for the Ryanair Chase, all of which makes me think that Lucy might be a great punter if she weren't a jockey.

There were no unanimous selections for any of the races, although Annie Power came pretty close - only missing out because Marten was looking for each-way alternatives such as Carole's Spirit.

Moon Racer, from David Pipe's yard, was a popular selection in the Bumper while the Gold Cup is likely to go to Many Clouds, Holywell, Djakadam or Boston Bob, with Sam Winner having place chances at a big price.

Good Luck!

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Cheltenham and Other Clichés

The word Cliché originated in France, where the sound of the printing press (clique, clique, clique) became synonymous with the insertion of oft repeated phrases. In order to save time, such phrases were kept at the ready, while lesser used words (like bunkum) were compiled one letter at a time before being set into the printing frame. 

Thus: The tapes will go up on the Olympics of horseracing next Tuesday, accompanied by the Cheltenham roar, in a natural amphitheatre nestled in the shadow of Cleeve Hill. Form analysts will speculate as to whether the Irish banker will come down the hill, while questioning whether doubtful stayers will get up the hill. Broadcasters will commiserate with last fence fallers, while punters declare sagely that “jumping is the name of the game”. Everyone will agree that the experience is an emotional rollercoaster. 

And that’s the nub of it. The reason why we’re so passionate about the Cheltenham Festival - the reason why we have so many stock phrases to describe what goes on there - is that it taps into our emotions.

We develop irrational feelings of ownership for horses that we want to succeed, even though we have no intention of ever paying their training fees. We form strong opinions about the relevance of preparatory races and (especially if we’ve spouted forth to our friends) we need our opinions to be proved correct. There are many more than two teams on the field, the dynamics are complex and (in the friendliest of ways) deeply partisan. 

For example, I love Wishfull Thinking. He can be backed for the Ryanair Chase at 25/1 and the miserable statisticians will say that, at the age of twelve, he can not possibly win. However, he is likely to be the highest rated horse in the race, he is a gem and I am on his side. I’ll follow Cartmel winners too: Vosne Romanee claimed the same juvenile hurdle at Cartmel that Countrywide Flame won prior to his Cheltenham heroics. Vosne Romanee is not even listed on the first page of the betting for the Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle, but if he sneaks into the weights, you can be sure I’ll be shouting him on. 

In the Champion Hurdle there’ll be plenty of support for Tony McCoy aboard Jezki – because it’d be uplifting to see McCoy win any of the Championship races again before he retires. But I have a feeling that when we see Faugheen, it may be difficult not to come to the conclusion that he is one of the most beautiful creatures on Earth. Willie Mullins (Faugheen’s trainer) recently complained about the level of prize money on offer at Cheltenham, which at £400,000 for the Champion Hurdle is not inconsiderable. If Mullins had been targeting a £3,000 handicap hurdle, I might have had some sympathy; instead he has flicked a negative switch in my Cheltenham befuddled mind – I’d rather see Nigel Twiston-Davies, who was gracious in defeat last year, reap recompense with The New One

Among the regular pearls of wisdom dispensed to punters ahead of the Festival is “Don’t raise your stakes: a 4/1 winner at Plumpton is worth the same as a 4/1 winner at Cheltenham”. To which I say balderdash, bunkum and piffle. Double your stakes for all races at Cheltenham, especially the Gold Cup, because there is no feeling on Earth like owning the best steeplechaser in the British Isles – even if you don’t have to pay the training fees.