Thursday, 23 March 2017

Young Jockeys and Old Horses

As if it wasn’t already difficult enough to get a leg-up in horseracing, this week the BHA announced that it was going to make it tougher to become a jockey. No longer will the main qualification be for applicants to weigh less than an empty packet of crisps.
 
From 1st April it will be necessary for aspiring apprentice and conditional jockeys to pass a pre-licence assessment and to undergo a lengthier training course. There will also be ongoing training for those that succeed in obtaining their licences. Statistics show that nearly a third of wannabe jockeys never get as far as winning a race, while only 12% are successful enough to ride out their claim – the weight allowance that is granted to trainee jockeys which encourage racehorse owners to give them rides against more established riders. The new regulations have been devised to ensure that racing’s resources are targeted at those that are most likely to succeed.
 
There is no truth in the rumour that Knockara Beau, George Charlton’s 14-year-old gelding, will be retiring from racing in order to enrol at the Northern Racing College. However, having narrowly missed the cut for the Pertemps Hurdle at Cheltenham last week, it would be no surprise if the veteran was granted an honourable retirement after one final bash around Kelso this weekend. Knockara Beau, who famously beat the champion stayer Big Bucks in the Cleeve Hurdle, already has five Kelso victories to his name. He is my selection this weekend to make it one more, off a handicap mark of just 134 – the lowest rating he has held since the start of his hurdle career in 2009.
 
Selections based on sentiment rarely pay off in racing. Backing an ‘old favourite’ like Knockara Beau is a sure sign that you (like me) have become a na├»ve and inept, fluffy, mug-punter with nothing but feathers for brains and a wallet full of fivers that are destined for the bookmaker’s satchel. But it also demonstrates that you have heart; you understand the romance of National Hunt racing and, because of that, you’re capable of accessing riches that extend way beyond the reach of mere money. At least that’s my excuse…
 
Sentimental punters are also more likely to back the winner of the Grand National – a race which, in each of the last five years, has returned a winner at odds of 25/1 or more. In a sport which is dominated by youngsters, seven of the last ten National winners were aged ten or older. All of this is good news for Highland Lodge the 33/1, eleven-year-old, chaser who was confirmed as one of 79 remaining entries for the big race in just over two weeks’ time. Trained by Jimmy Moffatt in Cartmel, he’ll be the sentimental choice of everyone who lives in Cartmel and anyone who’s granny once enjoyed a remote holiday in the Highlands – if that includes you, good luck!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Check Your Tickets

Unfortunately there is no blog today as your correspondent is lost among the drunken hoards at the Cheltenham Festival and there just isn’t time to write.
 
The first day crowd was more than 66,000 strong, a bit like staging three-and-a-half Cartmel fixtures all at the same time. It’s definitely a hoard, but perhaps it’s not quite fair to call it drunken – as I’ve given up alcohol for Lent and I notice that my sister and niece, who I met up with on Wednesday, are drinking Fanta at £3 a bottle from the fish and chip van above the Parade Ring. The Fanta might be expensive, but the chips are excellent – especially with smokey-baconaise.
 
Despite not having to waste time in the queue for the bar, my lack of preparation means that I’m having to dedicate serious effort to form study. And it so very nearly yielded results. In the first race of the second day I identified Willoughby Court as the likely winner of the Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle. And then, because I recently read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to my daughter, it seemed obvious that Neon Wolf was the one for the forecast.
 
I backed Willoughby Court on the Tote and shouted home the winner of the first as if I’d had at least £100 on his nose (it wasn’t that much). And then I backed Might Bite in the RSA Chase, in spite of the negative comments made about the favourite’s chances at our preview night last week. He shone like the proverbial star in the paddock, but so nearly threw away the race by ducking towards the horse-walk after the final fence. I’m sure he can win any Grade 1 staying chase in the country, as long as the exit to the stables is located on the far side of the winning post.
 
So far so brilliant. The chips are on me! The rest of our small party is in the money too – with wins on Special Tiara in the Champion Chase and several placed horses at decent odds. And we bump into lots of friends, because that’s what a day at Cheltenham is like – a convergence of like-minded, jump-racing-obsessed fanatics from every corner of the country. I even spoke to one who told me that Saphir Du Rheu, this week’s selection, is in the best form of his life ahead of the Gold Cup on Friday. He’s 50/1 and is being prepared for a tilt at the Grand National but, trained by a Champion trainer, he’s been ignored by punters and has a decent each way chance.
 
It was only when I tried to collect my winnings on Willoughby Court that I found that the kind lady at the Tote had misheard my request – and given me a ticket for Skipthecuddles (eighth) instead.
 
Nothing to pick up, lot’s more form study to do, no time to write a column…

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Expert View

It's questionable whether I should publish this blog-post at all - giving away (as it does) all the privileged information purchased at Thursday's Cheltenham Festival Preview Night in the Cartmel Grandstand.

It'd be easier to pretend that there were no useful tips at all: Marten Julian doesn't know what will the Champion Hurdle, John Sexton has never backed the winner of the Coral Hurdle, Jimmy Moffatt fancies a non-runner in the County Hurdle and Brian Hughes doesn't care what wins the Cross Country Chase.

But the four expert panellists did express a few opinions: most of them were pretty keen on the chances of Altior in the Arkle Novices Chase as well as Douvan in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. What? Not happy with odds of 4/6 for the double? What's wrong with you - it's surely better than backing losers! Okay, they also suggested that, for the OLBG Mares Hurdle, it might be wise to check which horse was trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh. If you didn't pay for a ticket to the preview night, I don't think I can tell you any more...

Except that I'm just too excited...

Marten, Jimmy and John all like the chances of Holywell in the Ultima Handicap Steeplechase. I'm fairly sure that Jimmy said the horse could find his way around Cheltenham with his eyes closed, but I hope he doesn't try.

When it comes to the Champion Hurdle, John thinks that this could be The New One's year. Jimmy says that he'd have to grow an extra leg (The New One, not Jimmy) if he were to have any chance. He's convinced Yanworth is a certainty and a great price at 3/1. Brian says that Jimmy will refund all bets if Yanworth gets beat... which sounds like quite a good offer, but I can't find it on any of the bookmakers' websites.

Brian rides Cyrus Darius in the Champion Hurdle. He reminds us all that he proved himself a good horse by winning as a novice at Aintree, before needing some time off. Having enjoyed a winning prep race at Kelso, he could easily surprise a few people by finishing in the top three at 40/1.

Jimmy also has a big priced selection for us - his own Bon Chic who 'could easily finish in the top eight' at 100/1 in the Mares' race. The only problem is that, regardless how many places they pay prize money for, I'm pretty sure the bookmakers will only pay out on the first three. Not many people have both ridden and trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival - so I'm going to back Jimmy's mare in any case, even though Marten Julian promotes Colin's Sister and Lifeboat Mona as viable each-way alternatives.

Edwulf and Beware The Bear get favourable mentions for the National Hunt Chase, ahead of my fancy Champers On Ice. I've mentioned him here anyway as I'm pretty sure he's going to win, just like all my other selections.

Brian Hughes knows what it takes to win the Close Brothers Steeplechase because he won it last year. It's obvious that he doesn't really want to tell everyone - but he's really excited to be riding Double Ws.

On to Wednesday and everyone likes Neon Wolf with the possible exception of Marten, who just feels that his jumping isn't quite as proficient as it could be. Messire Des Obeaux and Willoughby Court are his alternatives.

No one fancies Might Bite, the short priced favourite for the RSA Chase, with Royal Vacation receiving several votes and John Sexton opting for Bigbadjohn... obviously.

'I Shot The Sheriff...', wails Jimmy when it comes to the Coral Hurdle. But he did not shoot the deputy. Brian rides Hawk High who will apparently benefit from blinkers and (possibly) from the step up in trip.    

Finally we get to Thursday and Marten's three-star-nap of the meeting. Except Brian Hughes doesn't rate Politologue's chances, pointing out how wound up the Nicholls' trained horse gets before his races. What a dilemma - I'm pretty sure that Paul Nicholls is a good enough trainer to have identified this problem and I'll be surprised if the horse isn't walking around the parade ring with tampons stuffed in his ears. Stick with Politologue.

Vosne Romanee, a previous winner at Cartmel, received a mention ahead of the County Hurdle and looks to have been laid out for the race by Dr Richard Newland. I like it when the Cartmel form gets franked at Cheltenham, especially at 33/1.  

There were loads of other horses mentioned too. Far too many to mention here. But you have to take it all with a pinch of salt because no one mentioned Saphir Du Rheu, the 66/1 winner of the Gold Cup. Honestly! and they call themselves experts...

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Bright Stars of the Future

When the team from Bright Stars called the racecourse office, I thought perhaps they were going to ask me to sing alongside Sir Tom Jones, on the Cartmel stage, at the end of June. But no, it turned out that Bright Stars is a competition for primary school children, working with a mentor from a local company, to create a money-making enterprise.

Now I love children, almost as much as I love money, so I said yes straight away and thought it’d be really easy. Apparently, though, we’re not allowed to send the smallest ones up chimneys anymore and the bigger ones are prone to getting stuck - which is no use at all.

Fortunately the children at Cartmel Primary were given £50 in a golden envelope, which seemed like a good head-start, so I suggested that they put the whole lot on Highland Lodge in the Grand National – giving them the potential to generate a cosy £2,500. Then they told me that the competition closed on the Monday before Cheltenham, severely restricting our options.

On visiting the school, I discovered that the children of Class 2 were studying the story of David and Goliath, which gave me a brilliant idea. "I bet there were loads of people," I said, "who would have paid good money to watch that fight. Perhaps you could stage a fight of your own in the playground."

I’m pleased to say that the children took my advice. Well sort of. They didn’t actually put on a fight, but they did decide to create an event and charge people to come and watch. And instead of the playground, they chose the racecourse grandstand as the venue for their Evening of Stories and Poetry Reading. The children read in front of a captivated audience, all of whom agreed that they had been substantially undercharged for the experience at the bargain admission fee of just £5. So when we were asked to pay a further £2 for the accompanying programme, including further writings and pictures created by the children, who could refuse?

It'd be difficult to choose a favourite from the array of obvious talent on display, but one that sticks in my mind was the story of a horse called ‘Star’ who attended the races at Cartmel, only to discover that it wasn’t quite what she had expected. Startled by the loudspeaker, Star galloped through the square… "Past the medieval Priory and the famous Cartmel Cheese Shop all the way to the Primary School. She missed her race and ate all of the flowers in the school garden."

I won’t be in a hurry to back Star when she next makes an appearance at Cartmel. But if the children fancy playing up their takings from Wednesday evening, the selection for this weekend is Darebin in the Imperial Cup at Sandown.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Tom Jones - The Voice of Cartmel

"What’s New Pussycat?" asks Lois as I walk into the office.
 
I look at her quizzically. "It’s Not Unusual!" says Pam. But it is – it’s very unusual. In fact there’s an odd vibe about the entire office.
 
"She’s a Lady," Pam explains, although the point is entirely lost on me. Gary Sharp, the Head Groundsman at Cartmel Racecourse, is not a lady but he’s usually very sensible all the same. I turn to him, hoping for a proper conversation.

"How’s the track Gary?" I ask.

"Like the Green Green Grass of Home," he says and they all fall about laughing.
 
I’m getting a bit fed up; I’m obviously not in on the joke. "Has anyone seen my car keys?" I ask, possibly with a hint of irritation.

"Dey-lie-thar," they scream together. "De-li-lah - ha ha ha…"

Delilah! Well then I knew… That was the moment it finally dawned on me that the nice people at Cuffe and Taylor (our musical partners) had named the next superstar-artist to play at Cartmel races: Sir Tom Jones. Known to millions as the voice behind 36 top ten UK hits, the veteran singer is as popular as some of our seasoned steeplechasers, like this week’s selection – O’Faolain’s Boy who runs in the Veterans’ Chase at Newbury on Saturday.
 
He’s also attracted a new generation of fans through his place on the panel of the popular television show The Voice. At this stage I should point out to racing fans that the BBC programme is not a biopic of the late Sir Peter O’ Sullivan (known by all as the 'voice of racing'), as entertaining as that might be.
 
The Voice is a show in which the relatives of bookmakers, like Tony Lusardi’s grand-daughter, battle it out on stage to see who’s the best singer. Sadly Lucy Kane, the Tom Jones mentored daughter of Linda Lusardi (who may have featured among the photographs on my wall as a teenager), was knocked out in the last show.
 
I don’t know whether Lucy Kane will be here at Cartmel on Friday 30th June (perhaps she’ll be taking bets for her Grandfather), but we can all look forward to seeing Tom Jones – who will be playing live on the big stage after the final race.

All-inclusive tickets, for access to the racing and the concert, will be available to purchase on-line on Monday. A limited number of early-bird tickets will be available for just £40, with the normal advance price ticket for adults costing £45. Existing annual members will be able to enjoy the concert as part of their season ticket.
 
I can already hear ladies all over the village chanting, "Sex-bomb, sex-bomb." I don’t think they’re calling for me. But it’s not unusual… 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

For the Love of the Sport

Tell me that you’re an amateur musician and I might (politely) decline to see your show; tell me that you’re a professional dancer and I probably won’t be permitted to see your show. There’s a prejudicial assumption that amateurism stands for not-very-good, whereas professionalism is all about the unseemly chasing of money.
 
The word amateur is derived from the French word meaning ‘one who loves’ or ‘lover’ – which in turn comes from the Latin word ‘Amator’. So an amateur jockey is someone who participates in horse races because they love the sport, but without pursuing it for financial gain – which, in my experience, is a bit like most punters.
 
Amateur jockeys can ride against professionals if they wish, although they’re not entitled to a share of the prize money if they win (this rule doesn’t affect the owner of the horse or the trainer – who get their usual share of the spoils). There are also a number of races which are restricted to amateurs and some (called Hunter Chases) which are perceived to be for amateur horses.
 
So how do we define an amateur horse - is it a four-legged beast that loves horses so much that it wants to gallop for 3 miles over obstacles? Or is it a horse which declines any reward, barring the odd carrot, for winning? It’s difficult to say because, for the time being, professional racehorse trainers are allowed to enter any horse in their yard in a Hunter Chase as long as it has taken a defined break from racing in ‘normal' races under 'rules’. The break might only be a couple of months - or up to a year for the winner of a Class 1 or 2 race.
 
The entry criteria for Hunter Chases has caused a bit of chatter in recent weeks, particularly in the north following Wonderful Charm’s victories at Musselburgh on 4th February and Haydock a fortnight later. Wonderful Charm is a 153-rated chaser trained by Paul Nicholls and, having been campaigned at graded level until last season, is now qualified to run in the amateur riders equivalent of the Gold Cup: The Cheltenham Foxhunters’ Steeplechase. Is it in the spirit of the sport, ask some of the grass-roots jumping folk, that a top-trainer like Paul Nicholls can enter horses in the amateur sphere?
 
But there are difficulties in ruling against horses like Wonderful Charm. Firstly, if he had changed hands and entered an ‘amateur’ yard, would there be any objection to the horse competing in Hunter Chases? And then, what if he stayed in the yard, but was sold to an enthusiastic owner-rider – like the Nicholls trained Mon Parrain, who’s entered for a Hunter Chase at Fontwell Park on Sunday. Isn’t it a good thing for amateur riders to have professional mentors to guide them on their way? I think it was the right approach for Victoria Pendleton - and she definitely qualified as an amateur jockey, despite her professionalism on the saddle of a bike.
 
Hunter Chases and Point-to-Points are recognised as providing valuable experience for both young riders and promising young horses. It’s usually considered better if they aren’t paired together – young riders are often mounted on older horses, sometimes referred to as school-masters, many of which have previously shown reliable form under ‘rules’. Somehow, it therefore seemed appropriate that the brothers Sam and Willie Twiston-Davies (both now successful professional jockeys) started their careers riding as amateurs on the same reliable horse – the fantastic (but not top class) Baby Run, who was of course trained by their Gold Cup winning father.
 
It’s difficult to write rules that cater for the spirit of the sport. However, having listened to several respected people that know and love the sport (Amo, Amas, Amat - I love, you love, he /she loves), I think there should be a new rule whereby every horse that runs in a Hunter Chase has to run in at least two Point-to-Points first. Once the horse is qualified one season, it should be able to continue running in Hunter Chases in subsequent seasons – unless it has a run under ‘rules’, in which case it should have to qualify once again.
 
Regardless of the rules, there are some reassuring statistics for defenders of the Corinthian spirit: in the last five years, just three professionally trained horses have made it into the top four placed horses in the Cheltenham Foxhunters Steeplechase and there have been no professionally trained winners – which suggests that, in racing, love really does (usually) conquer all.
 
This week’s selection is The Dutchman at Newcastle on Saturday.

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.