Thursday, 29 January 2015

It's All Greek To Me

When Homer penned the Iliad in about 750BC he included the first ever report of a horse race. I don’t know who won, but I do know that the horses were harnessed to chariots and that the winner’s prize was a “women skilled in women’s work”. It wouldn’t be allowed nowadays of course – but there is still plenty that we can learn from the Greeks.

This week they elected a new Government – one that is challenging the notion that Greek fiscal policy should be dictated by bureaucrats in Brussels. And why not? It was the Greeks who invented democracy about two and a half thousand years ago, so you’d imagine that they might want their votes to count for something.

On Monday Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek Finance Minister, was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme. Having accepted the host’s congratulations by admitting that his country was bankrupt and that he'd “picked up the poison chalice”, he proceeded to quote Dylan Thomas - best known for being a Welsh poet and for winning the 2007 Prix De L'Arc De Triomphe when trained by Aiden O'Brien.

With unusual candour, Varoufakis informed listeners that his party’s pre-election exchanges with Brussels had included “a great deal of posturing on both sides”. Then he announced his startlingly brilliant new idea for debt repayment.

“We want to bind our repayments to our growth,” he said. "We'll make the rest of Europe partners to our success, not our misery." Which got me to thinking: What if I could convince my bank to do the same? I'll repay my mortgage - but only in months when I can beat the bookie. Horse gets beaten a short head: nothing to pay; horse wins at big odds: everyone's a winner! The bank can be a partner in my success, not my misery.

Back in Britain, political matters took an unexpected turn this week when an examination of Green Party policies revealed that they intend to “end the exploitation of animals in horseracing, greyhound racing and all situations where animals are commercially raced".

A spokesman for the British Horseracing Authority felt compelled to comment, "Within an equine population of around a million in Britain, racehorses are among the best looked after two per cent of horses in the country. Welfare standards in racing far exceed those proposed in animal welfare legislation. We fundamentally reject the suggestion that horses bred for racing are exploited." 

Absolutely right. If I were to be reincarnated, my first choice would be to come back as a horse. Not a Trojan one, presented by Greeks as a gift to wary financiers, but a chaser like Kings Palace (this week's selection at Wetherby),
following in the hoof-prints of nearly 3,000 years of history, stuffed with healthy food and pampered every day by an adoring team of stable staff.

Incidentally, if you haven't been to Wetherby, I can thoroughly recommend it - not just because Jonjo Sanderson (the Chief Executive there) asked me to, but also because the staff were so warm and friendly when we visited on a freezing day two weeks ago.  

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Things Ain't What They Used To Be

Mercy, mercy me; things ain’t what they used to be. First Cadbury changes the recipe for Creme Eggs, then The Sun dumps page 3 girls, the Royal Mint tell us that 3% of £1 coins are fake and now race distances are about to get shorter.  

The Sun newspaper first started publishing photographs of girls, minus their vests, on its third page in November 1970 – about the same time that Cadbury started producing their version of the Creme Egg. Both were considered to be sweet by many and sickly by others. The Creme Eggs were enrobed in Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate, while the page 3 girls weren’t enrobed in anything very much at all. 

Cadbury were taken over by Kraft Foods and now the Creme Egg consists of the same revolting gooey fondant, albeit encased in an inferior waxy chocolate shell. In the meantime, The Sun sneaked a page 3 girl back into Thursday’s edition of the paper – introducing a new element of will-they-won’t-they surprise about the whole feature.  

My own experience of page 3 girls is that they are far from two-dimensional, if you’ll excuse me stating the obvious. I should explain that a few years ago (about 20 actually) I helped to launch The Sun’s immensely popular Punters Club. The club leased horses trained by Martin Pipe, Howard Johnson and Mick Channon which regularly won races and were led into Winners Enclosures, up and down the land, by proud page 3 girls. Unlike some of the other racegoers, the girls never lost their shirts, were always polite and 100% charming.  

…Which is a lot better than the pound coins in our pocket, of which only 97% are believed to be genuine. According to an article by the Daily Mail (so it must be true), Dutch Police recently closed down a counterfeiting plant capable of producing 4 million coins per year, while the Royal Mint believe there could be up to 50 million fake coins in circulation. 

So what else isn’t what it used to be? Well, following the revelation that Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase was run over a distance 78 yards shorter than advertised, all jumps racecourses have been asked to employ a surveyor to re-measure their tracks.

Quite apart from the fact that distances were previously measured to the nearest half furlong, the criteria for measurement is also changing subtly – from taking the central line on each individual course, to measuring the circumference six feet off the inside running rail. Rails are frequently moved outwards between race-days, to allow the ground on the inside to recover. Crucially, the new measurements will be taken when the rails are on the inner-most line.  

The result? I’m pretty certain that most race distances will either get very slightly shorter, or that the starts will be moved a few yards backward. It won’t make any difference to horses like Many Clouds (this week’s selection for the Gold Cup trial at Cheltenham on Saturday), but the improved accuracy may just assist the form analysts who use a stopwatch to compare the relative speeds clocked by horses on our tracks.

Some changes are for the better.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Would Anyone Like £2,912?

Racecourses are giving money away… And more surprisingly, racehorse owners are handing it back to the racecourses. 

Take for example the Sodexo Clarence House Steeplechase at Ascot on Saturday, in which Sprinter Sacre bids to make a successful return following more than a year on the side-lines. The total prize fund of £125,000 includes a sixth prize of £1,662, a seventh prize of £825, plus a further £425 for the eighth placed horse. Except Sprinter Sacre is due to face just four other runners, meaning that Ascot can put £2,912 back in the bank. 

Sprinter Sacre is a god among horses. Referred to by his trainer as the “black aeroplane” earlier in his career, flying is what he does. The ease with which he moves has a fluidity which makes lesser animals look as though they have been glued to the floor.

If Sprinter Sacre is just 90% as good as he was, the rest will be competing only for second place. But having acknowledged this, if you had a horse – even one that wasn’t as good as Dodging Bullets, Twinlight, Somersby and Grey Gold (who are all wonderful animals and worthy of the £26,500 second prize) – wouldn’t you be happy to have lunch at Ascot and watch your horse canter round for £1,662? I know I would. 

Incidentally, if one of the above horses fails to complete, the fifth place prize money will not be returned to the racecourse; it will be distributed between the first four finishers - so there is no malodorous incentive for Clerks of the Courses to increase the height of the fences.

In fact the opposite is true: racecourses are specifically incentivised through the payment of broadcast media rights to ensure that their races are as competitive as possible. To this end, Anthea Morshead (Clerk of the Course at Cartmel) and I will be attending the races at Wetherby next week - with a view to meeting owners and trainers to discuss our draft race programme for the Summer. 

While we can’t pretend to compete with the prize funds distributed at the Queen’s racecourse, Cartmel's prize money is set to increase by nearly a quarter this year, to more than £405,000. Admittedly, we do have an extra day’s racing, but even so - the average value of each race will be increasing by 8.5% to £7,200. This compares well with other British racecourses, where prize funds are also increasing: by 6.2% to an estimated £130 million in 2015.  

At the same time the financial climate has impacted on the number of horses in training. There were actually 3.5% less British runners in 2014 compared to the previous year, despite there being more races staged. The obvious conclusion is that races are less competitive at the moment. Not only should it be easier to pick winners (Hohoho), like this week’s selection Benbens in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock, but there has also never been a better time to buy a racehorse... And run it at Cartmel!


Thursday, 8 January 2015

Luck Comes In Threes

Luck comes in threes. Not good luck obviously, otherwise I’d be able to tip winners in three consecutive weeks. In fact, having analysed the results of this blog’s selections for 2014, it seems that bad luck doesn’t just come in threes, it also comes in fours, fives, sixes and seventeens. 

Yes, there were seventeen long weeks between my selection, Rose Of The Moon, falling in the Grand National at Aintree and Intrinsic winning the Stewards Cup at Goodwood. Except that it wasn’t called the Stewards Cup, it was called the 32Red Cup, which upset traditionalists at the time - I was just pleased that Intrinsic managed to win it. 

Not that we’ve had an unlucky year. If you’d placed £1 on each of the weekly selections (£2 on each-way selections – one to win and one to be placed) you’d have made a profit of £14.25 – that’s a 26.4% profit on the £54 you’d have staked over the full twelve months.

In the meantime, the footsie 100 index increased by almost 1% (but not quite) - so now we all know what to do with our pensions. (Yes… past results are not an indication of future success; placing a bet is a bit like folding up a fiver and pushing it down the plug-hole, blah blah blah, etc, etc). 

Admittedly, if you missed the equivalent selection for this very week last year (Royal Boy at 9/1) and our selection for mid-November (Garde La Victoire at 10/1), you might have an altogether different perspective on matters: Perhaps you didn’t get the turkey wishbone at Christmas, broke a mirror, or mistakenly touched formica instead of wood.

In which case, you’re probably seeking a four-leaf clover (a bit too early in the year) or a rabbit’s foot to keep in your pocket. If you’re reading this in Thailand, you could try walking underneath the belly of an elephant three times. I’m assured that this brings the best luck of all and costs just 39 Baht if you can find the right elephant handler.  

The good thing about Sa Suffit (this week’s selection at Wetherby) is that he comes complete with four lucky horse shoes. The flip-side is that they need replacing every four weeks and that they cost about four times as much as a small child’s plimsolls. Fortunately, despite following his career with keen interest, I haven’t had to pay the bills for his footwear. He looks attractively handicapped and, even at the age of twelve, he hasn’t got many miles on the clock. Therefore, for his owner’s sake, I hope that he’s lucky on Saturday.

Now, where is that elephant?