Friday, 30 December 2016

2017 Predictions

Leicester Football Club, Brexit, Donald Trump and a huge level stake profit for followers of this blog's weekly tip: if you thought 2016 was the year of shocks, take a look at our predictions for 2017...

We all know that Donald Trump will be redecorating the oval office in 2017, but very few people are aware that Barack Obama, in a neat piece of role reversal, is set to become a reality TV star - participating in the next series of Celebrity Bake Off. I suggest getting down to your local betting shop before his odds start to 'crumble'.

ITV's coverage of racing will be an overnight success, becoming so popular that I expect the company to be bought for double the current share price - just for the racing rights (and one or two other media assets) - by the middle of the year.   

Scotland's rugby team are set for a triumphant grand-slam in the Six Nations Tournament. Just joshing - not even this blog is daft enough to suggest something so frivolous. The battle for the Six Nations Trophy will be fought out between England and Ireland.  

Willie Mullins will win most of the races at the Cheltenham Festival (again), but not the Champion Hurdle (which will be won by the ex-Mullins inmate Petit Mouchoir) or the Gold Cup (which will go to Native River).

Thistlecrack, generally acknowledged to be the best horse in training, will not win the Gold Cup because he is just too good. The Gold Cup rarely works out that way (where the best horse wins), I don't know why - but I love it all the same. Instead, Thistlecrack will give lumps of weight away to win the Whitbread (or whatever the race is going to be called in 2017) in a stirring finish which will cement his place in the hearts of jumping enthusiasts throughout Britain and Ireland.

Jimmy Moffatt will win the Grand National with Highland Lodge, earning himself the highest honour bestowed in South Cumbria - the keys to the Cartmel Village Shop 
Highland Lodge and Henry Brooke
Pictured by The Racing Post
and his weight in Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding. Moffatt will go on to be crowned the top trainer at Cartmel races, for the third consecutive year, in a Summer season which will set the racing world alight with record prize money. There'll also be some racing on the Flat in other parts of the country, although I don't suppose I'll have much time to study the runners - I expect that the Derby will be won by a three year old.

Regular readers of this blog will be able to retire at the end of the year having played up their profits from 2016 with 52 consecutive weekly winners, the first of which is the tasty looking Pain Au Chocolat in the 1.40 at Musselburgh on New Years Day (live on the aforementioned ITV).

I'll be back with more predictions next week. In the meantime, keep an eye out for fairies, talking sheep and low flying pigs...

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Santa Rally

This is probably my favourite time of year: short days and long winter evenings spent by a roaring log fire. I love the cold mornings, race-meetings that while away the few available daylight hours and sloe gin sipped from a hip-flask - extracted from a suitably capacious poacher’s pocket, folded within the depths of a warm overcoat.
There’s something about the contrast between the cold winter weather and the warm optimism of Christmas that is especially good for the soul. It's the international season for hope, peace and reconciliation - and it’s a phenomenon that’s powerful enough to lift global financial markets, as well as the spirits of National Hunt racegoers.
The Santa Rally may sound like a fancy-dress car chase, but it is a recognised trend within the stock market calendar. Share prices have a tendency to rise during the last few days before Christmas and through until the New Year. A quick search of the internet reveals that the Dow Jones index has risen by an average of 1.7% each year during the 7-day Santa period since 1896, increasing in value in more than three years out of every four.
Analysis of the UK stock market by Hargreaves Lansdown reveals that, during the 30 years between 1985 and 2015, share prices on the FTSE All Share Index increased by nearly three times more in December than during an average month. A person who had invested £10,000 in 1985, but removed their money from the stock market every December for 30 years would have missed out on growth totalling nearly £80,000.
But the markets are discerning too – so the share price of ITV, where the live broadcasting of horseracing will commence on New Year’s Day, has risen by 14% in the two weeks since 1st December. Imagine how high they’ll be by the time the first races from Cheltenham and Musselburgh are shown on 1st January. Meanwhile, shares in Ladbrokes have fallen by 5% during the same period – presumably on the news of the massive punt that I’ve lined up for this weekend’s meeting at Haydock – the selection, a dual winner at Cartmel, is Morning Royalty.
The difference between Jimmy Moffatt’s horse winning and losing could be the difference between six bottles of Lambrusco Rosso for Christmas (£2.49 at Asda) or a case of Louis Roederer Brut Premier at around ten times the price. I’ve always maintained that there’s something rather charming about a glass of sparkling red wine, chilled and decanted into a stoneware jug so that no one can read the label. This year, apparently, red Lambrusco has become incredibly fashionable – but Mrs Garratt is having none of it. She's clearly as discerning in her choice of aperitif as she is in her choice of husband. Or so I'd like to believe...
Well I'm optimistic that peace will reign in the Garratt household, Morning Royalty will play his part and we'll toast our good fortune with a cold glass of Louis Roederer as we throw another log on the fire. Christmas approaches - good fortune to all!


Thursday, 8 December 2016

Leading the Field

Cheltenham Racecourse is one of the very best in the country, providing an outstanding experience for the many racehorse owners that choose to compete with their horses at the track. But even so, I doubt that Simon Clarke (the owner of this week’s selection – Module in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup) will be offered a free space to pitch his tent or park his motorhome at the racecourse.
As far as I’m aware, Cartmel is the only racecourse in Britain, possibly the World, that offers free camping as part of the ownership experience. We haven’t yet had the opportunity to welcome JP McManus with his back-pack, but a small number of owners have taken advantage of the offer during the last two years.
Each season we have to be sure to reserve a couple of spaces for owners at all meetings, because camping has become an immensely popular dimension of a trip to Cartmel races and availability is strictly limited – especially for campervans and caravans. Such is the level of demand that, this year, we have decided to stagger the booking process.
Although race-tickets are not yet available for individual race-meetings, next Monday we shall offer the opportunity for racegoers to book a season ticket for camping. For a fee of £740, campers will be able to book a pitch on the inside of the ‘Scout Hut’ bend of the racecourse – including a space for a campervan or motorhome at all nine racedays and two annual membership badges. The camping pitches may be used on both the night before and the night of each raceday.
Annual Members badges admit customers to the Paddock Enclosure at all nine Cartmel racedays, plus more than 45 fixtures at other racecourses throughout Britain and Ireland. Anyone wishing to book a package as a Christmas gift should contact the racecourse office before it closes on Friday 16th December.
In the New Year, we shall make camping pitches available for whole race-meetings, so for example: all three days of the May meeting or both days of the August meeting. This will ensure that those racegoers who wish to stay for the a whole racing weekend will have priority over those staying for just one raceday.
Finally, in February, we anticipate releasing camping packages for individual racedays, so for example: the nights either side of Totepool Cumbria Crystal Cup Day or North West Evening Mail Picnic Day.
Anyone who was forced to study classics at school will be aware that the word ‘camp’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘field’ – and ever since the launch of our camping enterprise we’ve always acknowledged that the facilities are basic. The good news is that increased numbers of campers have helped us to justify an increased budget – so if JP McManus does decide to descend on us, he can expect to find a greater number of loos and hot running water among a number of improvements to the field-infrastructure.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Blue Remembered Grandstands

With apologies to a Shropshire Lad…

Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of Folkestone Racecourse, I see it shining plain,
The happy races where I went
And cannot come again.
Despite welcoming the happy news of Hereford’s resurrection (next meeting 19th December), I can’t help but mourn the loss of Folkestone Racecourse. The track, which closed four years ago this month, was the only racecourse in Kent and now looks likely to subside under a blanket of housing. Shepway Council is progressing plans for a 12,000-house development called Otterpool Garden Town.

In addition to being the only racecourse within cycling distance of my childhood home, Folkestone was also the subject of my first venture into racing politics – a letter to The Sporting Life, in 1985, defending the track from Tom Kelly, of the Bookmakers Offcourse Licencees Association (Tom-BOLA - no seriously, that's what they called him), who suggested that the course was a drain on the industry’s resources and should be closed with immediate effect.
There were more in the industry who would have agreed with him. Throughout the 1980s, The Sporting Life ran a regular column in which racing personalities were asked 20 standard questions, including: Name your least favourite racecourse. Folkestone was the most popular response by quite a long way. Probably because, if you didn’t live in Kent, it was a long way.
When John Francome retired from the saddle he reportedly claimed that he wouldn’t miss trailing around the four ‘F’s: Folkestone, Fakenham, Fontwell Park and F***ing Plumpton! All of which, incidentally, would have found their way on to my list of tracks-for-special-preservation – which might also have been extended to include Fab Ludlow, Fruitful Catterick, Friendly Kelso and Family-fun-filled-Cartmel.
For those that have never been to Folkestone Racecourse, I’d like to argue that it isn’t quite so God-forsaken as some might suggest. In fact it was once a venue which benefited from significant royal patronage. During the twelfth century, Westenhanger Castle, which lies adjacent to the parade ring, was a trysting place for Henry II and his mistress ‘Fair’ Rosamund Clifford. Elizabeth I was a frequent visitor and made the castle a command post for 14,000 of her troops - gathered to defend the south coast from the Spanish Armada.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity, to change the course of history at Folkestone Racecourse, came during the English Interregnum when Charles II was invited to return from the continent. A plot was hatched to bring him secretly to Folkestone Racecourse (or Westenhanger Castle as it was then) from where he would make his procession to London. In fact the plotters planned to murder him before he reached London, but Charles was warned and the trip was postponed.
But let’s pretend for a moment that Charles had made his fateful journey and survived the assassination attempt. Surely the King would have rewarded the region with his continued patronage; in place of convening racing parties at Newmarket, his court would have descended on Folkestone instead – where they would now be preparing for the three hundred and forty-seventh year of the race he initiated - the (Newmarket / Folkestone) Town Plate.
This week’s selection: I'm backingthe James Moffatt trained Highland Lodge to retain his Becher Chase crown at Aintree on Saturday.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

And the Winner Isn't ...

Apologies for returning to the subject of the Racecourse Association’s Showcase Awards – but it isn’t every year that we win a major award from our national trade association. In fact it’s only every other year, based on the three years since 2014 - but I’m starting to boast again ...
And while the whole team is proud that Cartmel received the accolade of Ground-staff of the Year, we know what it feels like to be runners-up too – having been shortlisted twice previously for the jumps category of the awards. It can feel pretty rubbish to dress up like a penguin for a big ceremony, have all the excitement of making the shortlist, and then remain seated for the duration of the event while others scoop all the awards. In some cases the difference between winning and losing must be so infinitesimally small as to appear quite unfair – so today I’m name-checking a few of the racecourse champions that should have won an award but didn’t.
If there’d been a ‘party animal’ award, for the liveliest racecourse – or the one that got reprimanded the most times on the dance floor – it would surely have belonged to Hamilton Park. It’s no wonder that their entry for the ‘events’ category was based on a festival of music and racing involving eight different bands over an eleven hour period. I just wonder how many of the Hamilton Park staff were moved on by security stewards at their own event.
The ‘putting yourselves about’ award for top-networking goes to Redcar who, despite sending just two delegates to the Showcase event, seem to have spoken to every single one of the 270 people in the hall during the speed-dating phase of the conference, held during the afternoon. Incidentally, the purpose of the speed-dating section was to exchange ideas; no weddings (or divorces) are expected.
Without taking anything away from Ascot Racecourse, who became the first track to reclaim the accolade of overall Showcase Champion, we should perhaps feel slightly sorry for Musselburgh – who surely came closer than any other small racecourse to winning the whole thing. Having been trumped by Ascot in the categories for ‘social media excellence’ and ‘operational excellence’, they scooped the award for ‘best event’. Apparently their advertising strapline for 2017 will be "Ever-so nearly as good as Ascot – but in a nicer part of the British Isles".
It would be sacrilegious to suggest that anyone other than Seamus Buckley, the Clerk of the Course at Goodwood, deserved to lift the Neil Wyatt Lifetime Achievement Award – he was the only winner during the evening to be accorded a standing ovation on his way to the presentation podium. However, I think it might be worth reminding the judges ahead of next year’s event that a common factor links the two most recent winners of the overall Ground-staff Award: York and Cartmel.

A certain terrier called Jack regularly oversees operations at both racecourses – occasionally accompanied by his chauffeur, Anthea Morshead (who apparently also calls herself a Clerk of the Course). For the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award (he can't be more than 10 years old) – vote Jack!
Looking ahead to the weekend, I fully expect Zubayr to be picking up the prize for ‘best hurdler’ in the 2.40 at award winning Newbury Racecourse.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Craving the Rose

I’ve previously described the Racecourse Association’s Showcase Awards, which take place on Thursday evening, as being a bit like the Oscars. It’s probably more accurate to compare them to Chelsea Flower Show – because running a racecourse is a lot like gardening.

Here at Cartmel, we spend the Winter months germinating our ideas and planning our displays. Like young seedlings, some projects develop stronger shoots than others as we nurture them throughout the Spring. And then, as the Summer season approaches, we keep our fingers crossed that all our plans will come together, while praying that the whole blooming show doesn’t get spoilt by the rain.
Most racecourses have their share of hardy perennials - races or events which attract an admiring audience year after year. Some events are bigger than others, but even at the highest level, the perennials need care and attention – the Cheltenham Festival has been lifted and divided to create four days, while the Epsom Derby Meeting has been pruned to create two days of concentrated quality. Some events have been transplanted – Champions Day to Ascot; Saints & Sinners from Hamilton Park to Ayr – and back again.
And then there are the cuttings: snippets taken from one racecourse which are propagated in the hot-house and distributed across multiple sites. Ladies Days, for example, are now as common as petunias – without being any less cheerful.  
For every seed sown by racecourse management teams, there’ll be a thousand more that blow in from outside – parties of racegoers with their own agendas: smart dress, fancy dress, picnics in the car park, dances by the bandstand or singing in the bar. The perfect race-day allows space for all of these wild-flowers to co-exist in a concert of colour and to continue growing organically for years to come. 
One of the best things about British racing is that no two racecourses are the same: different climates, different topography, different outlooks. It’s no wonder that, when submitting our show-gardens to the RCA for judging, there is so much variety. The award categories recognise excellence in various disciplines, from community engagement and catering to marketing and logistics. At Cartmel, we’ve been fortunate enough to be shortlisted in the categories for ground-maintenance and special events. 
There isn’t an award for the top racecourse tipster, which is a shame because we’ve enjoyed an exceedingly fortunate year. There's always a risk that this weekend’s selection, Upsilon Bleu, who is due to make the lengthy journey down from Northumberland to Ascot on Saturday, won’t improve our record further – we can't get it right all the time. 
But as Anne Bronte observed: He that dares not grasp the thorn, should never crave the rose.


Thursday, 10 November 2016

Coming Up Trumps

To use a word invented by George W Bush, we "misunderestimated" him. How else do you explain the election of Donald Trump as the leader of the Free World?
When I woke up on Wednesday morning I was pretty much lost for words, so I turned to the dictionary for inspiration. The word ‘trump’ has a variety of definitions. As a verb, it can be used to describe the act of audibly breaking wind – in the sense intended by the Monty Python team when they wrote: "I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction." Which, I think, is what Angela Merkel was trying to say when asked for her response to the election result.
I’m not sure whether Donald Trump’s mother was a hamster or whether his father smelt of elderberries – but the President Elect did ‘outrank and defeat someone in a highly public way’, which is one of the more traditional definitions given by my dictionary.
In decades past, the phrase "He’s a trump!" was used to describe a helpful or admirable person. Only time will tell whether that meaning will return to common parlance, or whether the phrase will evolve to mean something else entirely. If I’m honest, my mood this morning was on the negative side: the Americans have voted for a looney, the Russians are delighted, ISIS are plotting wildly and global warming is going to kill us all. Mrs Garratt says I’ll be feeling much better after I’ve returned from the dentist this afternoon.
That’s one of the good things about being married – there’s always someone there to give you a bit of perspective. If you’re not already married and fancy organising a wedding for yourself, you could do worse than head down to Holker Hall where they’re staging a wedding fair in the Ilex Restaurant on Sunday between 11am and 3pm. There’ll be trade-stands to help you find the perfect flowers, food and favours – although I’m pretty sure that you have to bring your own bride or groom.
I don’t know how I’ll feel after visiting the dentist, but I bet I’ll feel much better if I can back the winner of the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday. If the world is going to pot, I might just as well take all the money in my betting account (all £14.26) and stash it on something at a decent price so that can we can have a big party. As De Mee, part owned by Dame Judi Dench, is the one to come up trumps.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Swallows, Amazons and the Pirates of Cartmel

Having been happily occupied by racing at Cartmel in August this year, I missed the release of the new Swallows and Amazons movie, set just a few miles up the road on Coniston Water.

Arthur Ransome’s book, published in 1930, was a childhood favourite of mine, so it was slightly disconcerting to find that the plot had been sexed-up for modern viewers. The children’s uncle, a curmudgeonly author in the novel, has become a member of the secret service – protecting a sheaf of top secret documents from a pair of dastardly Russian spies. Where once there were mock battles between child-pirates, now there are all-action chase scenes involving grown-ups and seaplanes.

And while introducing a whole swath of new action, the producers have also acknowledged the lost innocence of our time by changing the name of one of the central characters, from Able Seaman ‘Titty’, to Able Seaman ‘Tatty’. Personally, I can’t see a problem with the original name. But then I’d also have advised the publishers of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree stories to retain the names Dick and Fannie instead of re-christening them Rick and Frannie – I guess it depends on your frames of reference.

Despite the changes, Swallows and Amazons is still a good film – like many aspects of modern life, it’s different, it’s faster paced, it’s not necessarily better - but it’s not necessarily worse either. Being set in the Lake District, it’s also proved demonstrably beneficial to the tourism industry, which is why I’ve started work on writing a sequel that I hope might commence filming next year. The title given to Ransome’s own sequel, Coot Club, could prove contentious, so I’m playing it safe and I’ve given it the working title Pirates of the Cartmel Peninsula.

In the opening scene, the children will receive a telegram from their absent father reading: "Better drowned than duffers. If old enough to drown, they’re old enough to gamble." At which point the children will sell their sailing boats in order to fund a massive betting coup, at the traditional Whit Bank Holiday race-meeting, at Cartmel. The plot bears some resemblance to the real life gamble involving a gelding called Gay Future, although the horse will obviously be renamed to avoid further innuendo.
We might pick the name of another real life racehorse – like the promising young novice chaser Rolling Thunder, who happens to be our selection this weekend – in the 1.10pm at Kelso on Saturday (also at Carlisle on Monday).
The film will conclude with a dramatic court room scene - although I’ve yet to decide whether it’ll be the children in the dock for perpetrating a gambling fraud, whilst being underage for betting purposes, or the parents for wilful neglect of their children.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Half Term Sport

I’ve never really subscribed to the Tony McCoy, win-at-all-costs, approach to sport. According to my bookmaker, it’s the reason why I’m such a good punter. As each loser passes the post, I’m able to tear up my ticket with a gallic shrug of the shoulders and tell myself that it’s the taking part that counts.
And I’ve been taking part in a lot of sport this week because it is the half-term school holiday. I should make it clear, at this stage, that I left school some time ago – but my daughter hasn’t and so I used this short Autumn holiday to take some time off and reacquaint myself with several sports which I haven’t experienced in two or three decades.
Whoever said that you never forget how to ride a bike is quite wrong. I seem to remember, at the age of eight, riding a bike without having to use my hands. But this week I struggled to steer the damn thing at all, never mind while speeding nonchalantly downhill with my arms crossed. It wasn’t very Chris Froome – although I’d like to see him win a Tour De France with a tag-along children’s bike bolted on to the rear of his back wheel.
Next came the swimming which was superbly uncompetitive – no one is too bothered about winning races when they’re bobbing up and down in front of a wave-machine.
It turned out that I was pretty good at archery – I almost hit the target once. It might not sound like much of an achievement, but by the time you’ve made your own bow and arrows, cut from a nearby hedgerow, you’re quite pleased if the arrows fly further than the end of your toes.
The real competition started when we met up with some of my daughter’s cousins for a spot of croquet. There is a common misconception that croquet is a sedate game played by gentlemen. It isn’t. Croquet is an evil game, the object of which is less about winning and more about smashing your opponent’s ball to the four corners of the lawn or, even better, to make their ball hit the central post – which means that they have to return to the start line. It’s easy to cause offence in a game of croquet; I don’t think we’ll be invited back in a hurry.
Just as I didn’t expect to win the game of croquet, it’s true that I don’t really expect every horse that I back to win its race. So it’s doubly exciting when I inadvertently pick a winner – and the feeling is quadrupled when the horse is an old friend like Menorah, my selection for the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby on Saturday. With horses as wonderful as Menorah – that have run in the best races year after year – it doesn’t really matter if they find one too good on the day, as long as we enjoy watching them run. If he completes safely but doesn’t win, it will have been a good race. If he wins, it will be an even better one.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Bookies Bashed as Punters Weep in the Streets

Cor, wot a scorcher! The bookies are being asked for tens of millions of pounds, but there are punters weeping in the streets... What’s going on? The Sun might ask.

The gods of sport took aim at horseracing this week and unleashed both barrels – as two seismic events rocked the racing world. First, The Times newspaper announced that it had seen a letter, from the Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch, asking bookmakers for their thoughts on paying racing a 10% share of gross profits on horserace betting.
Then came the second blast, inevitable one day I suppose: The Sun newspaper heralded the retirement of Claude Duval, the Punters’ Pal.
The 71 year old racing journalist from Cranbrook in Kent (42: 52: 32) – I made up the vital statistics, which is something Claude would NEVER do – has been a fixture at The Sun since the tabloid edition first hit the streets in November 1969. The front-page headline was: 'Horse Dope Sensation!' In fact Claude was the only remaining member of the reporting team that published that first tabloid edition, although The Sun had enjoyed an even earlier life as a broadsheet since 1964.

Claude Duval became the Horserace Writers Association’s Journalist of the Year in 1998 and published biographies of Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery, Willie Carson and Tony McCoy. But his greatest moment arguably came following the disqualification of Royal Gait from the Ascot Gold Cup in 1988. Prior to the subsequent Jockey Club hearing, Claude wrote "If Royal Gait doesn’t get the race I’ll streak round Portman Square…" But Royal Gait was not awarded the race and Claude Duval achieved the sort of photo by-line which would still be considered unusual today.
Throughout Claude’s near 50-year tenure, the racing industry has been engaged in a never-ending negotiation with bookmakers over the amount of money that should be paid for their main product, a proportion of the profits left behind by punters in the bookmakers’ satchels. After more than 50 years of the Horserace Betting Levy, Tracey Crouch’s letter suggested that we might be nearing a settlement.
A charge of 10% of gross profits, levied on digital platforms as well as high-street betting shops, would represent an increase of more than £30 million for racing, which has seen levy revenue plummet from around £100 million, to less than £55 million, in the last ten years.
It is estimated that the new scheme, which would include relief for smaller betting firms, could cost Ladbrokes and Corals an extra £5 million. While we shouldn’t assume that they’ll be pleased at the prospect, the proposal offers the merging bookmakers a degree of certainty and a level playing field with other, digitally-led, betting organisations. The price looks cheap when compared against the discount applied to their joint shop dispersal, engineered to smooth their merger through competition concerns, of 359 shops at the knock down price of just £55.5 million.
A spokesman for DCMS was keen to point out that no rate has been agreed for the replacement levy scheme. A spokesman for The Sun refused to confirm whether the Punters' Pal would endorse our selection for this weekend – Urban Hymn at Kelso, 2.35pm on Saturday. 

... and for Claude Duval's own account of his time at The Sun, go to:

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Award Winning Walking in the Park

"It's too bad," says Gary with a grin upon his face, "that there isn't an award for the untidiest desk or the tallest pile of Racing Calendars."
He is referring to the fact that his team has just been named as the winners, in the jumps track category, of the 2016 racecourse Groundstaff Awards. It's also true that there is a stark contrast between the neat enclosures outside my office window and the organised chaos of the Stewards Room, which doubles as managerial HQ when we're not racing.
As I've always maintained, a dirty bath is the sign of a clean body and a tidy desk is the sign of an empty mind.
Nonetheless, Gary Sharp's achievement, at the head of a team consisting of one other full-time groundsman (the excellent Martyn Fogg), plus several part time staff and contractors, is significant. His efforts have yielded record numbers of runners, greater consistency in the going and several innovations that have improved both the racegoer experience and equine safety. 

Racehorse trainers have responded by sending better horses to Cartmel; it's no accident that two track records fell during the course of this year.
An interesting fact: we welcomed more horses to Cartmel during the first six and a half weeks of the most recent season, than in any calendar year of the racecourse’s history with the exception of 2015. Repairing the track after so many hoof prints is no walk in the park. Well… except of course it does involve walking… in the park. But there’s lots of other technical things that Gary does too, besides the walking – or so he tells me.
I think he gets many of his ideas from Pitchcare magazine, which happens to be one of the brand-sponsors of the award - alongside Fornells, the running rail manufacturer, and Watt Fences, who supply materials for making hurdles, steeplechase fences, PVC fencing and almost anything else you could want on a racecourse except barbecues and cricket bats (which, apart from Cartmel, aren’t required at most racecourses anyway).
The team at Brighton picked up the groundstaff award for Flat tracks, while Ascot scooped the award for dual-purpose tracks (flat and jump combined). The overall winner, for the top team of the year, will be announced at the Racecourse Association’s Showcase Awards next month – an event which is a bit like the Oscars but much more important.
If there was an award for the top racecourse tipster (there isn’t), we might have been in with a chance this year – the weekly selections have so far yielded a profit of £49.29 to a £1 level stake. Realism suggests that the good fortune can’t continue – but we’re going to give it a go anyway, with Rayvin Black in the 4.10pm at Kempton on Sunday.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Glass Half Full

Each year, at about this time (Friday evening to be precise), we stage an annual get-together for the people that have helped us throughout the season. It’s a fun occasion and it gives us a chance to reflect on the events of the Summer.
I’ve come to notice over the years that when a Clerk of the Course makes a mistake, we have a new track layout; when the office administrative team makes a mistake, we have a new filing system – but when I make a mistake, it turns out that I’ve just made a mistake. Well on Friday evening I’ll be reminded of all the new ideas that the team has come up with and all the mistakes that I’ve made during the year. We’ll have a chat and a laugh, we’ll make some fresh plans and we’ll raise a glass to the season that’s passed. And, at the very least, the glass will be half full…
Because there are a multitude of benefits to be derived from positive thinking. According to research scientists at the University of Kentucky, optimists are likely to have a stronger immune system than pessimists, they’re at a lower risk of heart failure and they’ll live for longer. Optimists are also more likely to age well, which explains why so many racehorse owners appear to be so spritely in the Parade Ring - because there can be no greater optimist in the World than a racehorse owner.
And of all the varieties of racehorse owner, there can be no greater expert in positive thinking than those that own jump horses – and of all the months in the year, October is the time when their optimism hits peak levels. This weekend's Totepool Silver Trophy at Chepstow has long heralded the start of the Winter jumps season – with the unleashing of some of the most promising horses from the most prolific yards. The meeting has been through a quiet spell for a decade or so, but this year it has regained its lustre – with Saturday’s £50,000 prize attracting a high quality field and supporting races for the two-day meeting attracting some of racing’s biggest names.
Former Champion Chaser Sire De Grugy could run at the meeting, as well as the Cheltenham Gold Cup fifth Irish Cavalier and Grand National candidates Unioniste and Kruzhlinin. However, if there is one horse that I can’t wait to see this Winter, it is the full brother to Wishfull Thinking – this week’s selection: Wishfull Dreaming.
Call me an optimist, but if this horse can't win off a handicap mark of 123, I'm a Dutchman (and I'm pretty sure I'm not). If I’m wrong? Well, I’ll just have to console myself with the fact that I’m going to live longer than most of the pessimists believe... possibly in Holland 

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Down in the Mouth

I’m feeling pretty down in the mouth at the moment. In fact there is no depth to which the down-ness in my mouth won’t plunge and there is no limit to the self-pity that I can heap upon myself. And nothing that you can say will make me feel any better.
Take, for example, the people that I heard yesterday, complaining about the long queue they’d endured at the dentist… while I was in the chair. Who would you rather be, the person sitting in the dentist’s chair or the one sitting outside on the comfy sofa, listening to Lakeland FM with a choice of newspapers to hand?
I had a tooth extracted. It took hours. Or it seemed like hours – long enough to ensure that every other patient was going to be at least forty minutes late throughout the rest of the day. I knew I was in trouble when the dentist turned to the dental nurse and asked for a new drill bit and a larger pair of pliers. About twenty minutes later he said "This one’s a bit stubborn isn’t it". And twenty minutes after that he explained "I’ve got most of it out now; we’ll get that last bit next time, when you come back for the implant."
And have you seen the cost of dental implants recently? For the price of one implant, you could keep a horse in training for two months with most trainers. Although probably not with Willie Mullins, which is apparently the reason why Michael O’Leary has just removed around sixty horses from the Irish maestro’s yard. Apparently there was a disagreement over the cost of training fees and Michael O’Leary, the owner of Gigginstown Stud, needs 120 new teeth… per month. Or something like that.
Anyway, I can’t feel too sorry for Willie Mullins, nice chap though he undoubtedly is, because he still has lots of very smart horses to train – and unless he tells me otherwise, I don’t think he’s had a tooth extracted this week...

I don’t feel particularly sorry for the multi-millionaire Michael O’Leary either, although I’d wish him all the luck in the world - if he'd just send a few of those sixty horses to some of our local trainers in Cumbria. How much fun could he have with horses like Blow By Blow and Apple's Jade, if only they were trained by the likes of James Moffatt and Diane Sayer?
Perhaps Dan Skelton, in the south of England, will get one of the Gigginstown horses instead – he already trains this week’s selection: Zarib at Fontwell Park on Saturday. I’m sure he wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, which reminds me – did I tell you that I’ve had a tooth out this week?

Friday, 23 September 2016

The Final Act

All good things come to an end: Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt, Brad Pitt & Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie & Billy Bob Thornton - not to mention Jonny Lee Miller. And then of course there's the Horserace Betting Levy Board.
The Levy Board is the statutory body which oversees the collection of funds from the off-course betting industry and distributes it throughout the racing industry, predominately through contributions towards prize money. The Government announced, in March this year, that it planned to bring in a levy replacement system from the beginning of April 2017, designed to cope with the shifting sands of betting trends - specifically the drift of money from highstreet betting shops to digital platforms administered from offshore jurisdictions, where the levy doesn't currently apply.
Having lasted for more than five decades, the Levy Board has already demonstrated greater longevity than most celebrity marriages - despite similarly regular and premature reports of its demise. But, with further Government announcements expected within the next few weeks, it looks as though the final act of the levy drama may now be unfolding - and it's got racecourse executives sitting on the edge of their seats.
Perched behind their desks, this is the time of year that Clerks of the Course formulate their race programmes for next year, a key ingredient of which is the amount of prize money available for the connections of horses. It's an important process because when a horse like Spark Plug wins the Cambridgeshire (this week's selection) the money filters down to all layers of the sport - through owners to trainers, jockeys, breeders, stable staff and a cast of equine suppliers that would extend to horse dentists and physiotherapists (but not quite as far as Mr Pitt's stylist or Ms Jolie's assistant hair-dresser).
Despite the fact that all prize money passes through to the horsemen, the distribution of prize money grants is material to racecourses too - because it helps to determine the shape and quality of our race programmes. High prize money doesn't exactly guarantee box-office success but, like a low budget movie, it's more difficult to make an impact if the actors aren't being paid.
The average prize fund at Cartmel this year was our highest ever, at just over £7,500 per race. We'd love to pay our actors more, but Cartmel receives less levy funding than any other racecourse in Britain. More than 58% of our prize money comes from our own resources, the highest percentage contribution of any jumps racecourse in Britain and well above the national average of 46%.
The discrepancy centres around the fact that, despite their popularity, three of our race-days (one third of our fixture list) attract no levy support at all. That's why, in addition to a levy replacement system, we're looking for a change to the mechanism for distribution - one that recognises the aspirations of racecourses to progress and develop their businesses.
Racing has asked the Government to restore the funding pot to the level that it was before the offshore drift commenced: more than £100 million. The problem is, with barely six months to go until the scheduled closure of the Levy Board, we don't really know when we're going to see any action, or even if the Director is about to shout 'Cut!'.

Friday, 16 September 2016

A Star is Born

Once upon a time there was a racecourse manager. The racecourse that he ran was very small and had a tiny number of fixtures. But even so, he couldn’t manage it on his own - he needed a team to help dispatch all the tickets, to mend the track, hire the mobile toilets and so on and so forth.

So the racecourse manager hired some pixies. The chief ticket pixie was called Naomi and, because she was always nice to everyone, within a very short period of time she attracted a great number of friends and admirers. Chief among Naomi’s many admirers was Andy – whom she coincidentally started dating during the same week that she started working at the racecourse. The stars, they were aligned.

And so it came to pass, that instead of completing essential work ahead of Cartmel’s final race-meeting of the season in August, Naomi was absent on maternity leave. The other pixies in the office worked day and night - mainly responding to correspondence regarding Naomi's condition, but occasionally selling a few tickets too. There was no grumbling about the heavy workload - or at least not all the time - because everyone was excitedly waiting for the arrival of the new baby (or pixel – as babies are known in pixie land, on account of their small size).

The day of the final race-meeting arrived, but the baby did not; still the requests for baby news flooded the racecourse office. And then, during the week after racing, under the star-sign of Virgo, baby Sasha Seren Williams was born.

Sasha will understand the importance of her star sign, because Seren is the Welsh word for 'star' - and Virgos have a reputation for paying attention to small details like that. They are loyal, kind, analytical, hard-working and practical. They can also be a bit shy and overly critical of themselves and those closest to them - which shouldn't concern her mother too much because, for as long as Naomi has worked in the office, she's never been known to make a mistake - or at least no more than the rest of us. At least not many more; not really bad ones anyway.

Virgos are among the most careful signs of the zodiac; they are not particularly prone to gambling - so when Sasha grows up she might be disappointed to learn that I haven't bought her a cuddly toy, or one of those musical mobiles in the shape of a multi-coloured elephant. I've put a fiver each-way on this week's selection instead. Think of it as an early lesson in life.

And as for the selection - forgive me if you sense an element of déjà vu: I've tipped the Jim Goldie trained Jack Dexter for the Ayr Gold Cup in previous years without success. What can I say? I think he's well weighted and I'm convinced that Jim will win the race one day - it's written in the stars.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Shades of Grey

According to research conducted by the Equine Research Foundation in California, nearly ten years ago, horses find it difficult to distinguish between items which are red, yellow, orange or green in colour.
So, if you were to take your horse to the Holker Chilli Fest on Saturday or Sunday this weekend, it is unlikely that he (or she) would be able to distinguish between any of the chilli peppers on display without tasting them – which isn’t necessarily recommended.
If you’re a certain type of person, it’s possible to generate quite a lot of pleasure from watching people writhing in pain whilst eating the fiercest chilli peppers on the planet – if you’re one of them, don’t miss the chilli eating contest each afternoon from 4.oopm onwards. For the less sadistic, there’ll also be trade-stands featuring cuisine from around the world, local food suppliers, music, street entertainers and belly dancers.
Fortunately for horses, it appears that they can distinguish blue colours – which, among other things, explains why they can read the blue signage which prohibits them from using the motorway. They can also see different tones of colour – which is probably how they recognise their jockeys in the Parade Ring, although some colour combinations are clearly better than others.
Take, for example, Harrison – who is due to run in Saturday’s Doncaster St Leger, sporting the green silks with pinky-red stars of racehorse owner Tim Radford. While familiar to many jumping fans as the same exciting colours seen aboard Somersby and Sgt Reckless, to Harrison they will simply look rather dull and greeny-grey. Meanwhile, Maths Prize (running later on the card) will have no problem picking out his owner’s colours: Her Majesty the Queen’s silks are among the easiest to identify - being purple and scarlet with gold embroidery, a black cap and a golden tassel.
In a bid to help racehorses further, the BHA has announced plans to release six sets of never-before-seen racing colours – to be sold through an online auction ending on Friday 23rd September. The new designs stand out as distinct from the 14,000 sets of colours which have already been registered by owners – with symbols like anchors and horse-shoes which aren’t usually permitted. There are also vibrant combinations of colours in rainbow designs and large multi-coloured spots.
Each specially-designed set of colours will have a minimum reserve of £5,000 in the auction, with 5% of the proceeds being split between the Racing Welfare and Retraining of Racehorses charities. The remainder of the income will be targeted by the BHA at initiatives to promote racehorse ownership.
We can’t say how this week’s selection perceives his name – but I expect Red Pike to brighten up a grey weekend in the Portland Handicap at 2.35pm on Saturday.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Binning a Tradition

We’re big on traditions at Cartmel: the Bank Holiday fixtures in May and August, Taylor's Funfair in the centre of the Course Enclosure and Sticky Toffee Puddings for all the winning connections.
Many of our racegoers have their own traditions too: family picnics from the boot of the car, a walk around the village before the first race or a meal in one of the pubs in the square after the last one. Regular visitors have their favourite places to watch from – and some turn up as early as 7.00am in the morning to secure a parking space near the running rail, lighting up the barbecue for breakfast, lunch and tea.
The blessing of the horse, part of Sunday’s Steeplechase Service, may only have started fourteen years ago – but it already has the feel of an age-old tradition with many of the congregation attending year after year. It’s even becoming a bit of a tradition for Jimmy Moffatt to win the Cartmel Cup, after three consecutive seasons, and for racehorse-owners Keith and Helen Bowron to bring the large double-handled cup to the Priory to count their blessings the following day. It’s a tradition they’re keen to maintain as it helps to cut down on house-work; apparently when the trophy gets returned to the racecourse, for a few days in August, it leaves an unsightly, un-dusted, ring on the side-board.
I’ve noticed that some other sports have cost-cutting traditions - that I’d be quite interested in adopting. For example, during the gaps between polo chukkas (the chukka is the period of play) spectators are invited to walk on to the pitch and tread in the divots, Some polo clubs even advertise ‘divot stomping’ as one of the main attractions of the game: ‘a wonderful way to socialise while helping the groundsmen to flatten the turf’.
Most racecourses don’t allow members of the public on to the track, although at Cartmel it has long been the norm for children to play football and cricket between the steeplechase fences. How much more useful would it be if they could be persuaded to tread in divots instead?
The bookmakers have a tradition – of ripping up the successful betting slips and throwing them on the floor – which has led, over the years, to many racegoers doing the same thing with their losing ones. The litter from this Bank Holiday weekend has already been painstakingly picked by our litter-pickers and taken away by Wicks Waste Management (who recycle 100%), but I can’t help feeling that the littering of the racecourse is one of the few traditions I’d like to stop.
... Unlike my traditional weekly tip – which will doubtless prove unstoppable: Kentford Heiress at Fontwell Park on Sunday. Win or lose, may your betting slip find its way to a suitable bin.


Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Golden Village

Sweeny Bob’s Barber Shop, in Cartmel, is moving premises after eight years in the village. Phillipa, who usually cuts my hair, will be spending more time at her shop in Ambleside instead. I’ve no idea where I’ll go for a trim from September onwards, but the good news for racegoers is that she’ll still be around for the forthcoming August Bank Holiday weekend.
We’ve received many a call from visitors to the racecourse camp site, who have woken on race-day morning to discover that they’re experiencing a bad-hair-day. Fortunately, Phillipa is there to help - whether it’s a shave, a blow-dry, or a short-back-and-sides. If you’ve booked into one of the restaurants, and require a bit of post-camping styling, I’d recommend making an appointment - because the queue can extend past the Mallard Tea Room on busy days, which is useful if you’re in need of a bacon sandwich.
The same goes for anyone who’d like their nails done - or needs a body-wrap, a facial, a massage or waxing: The beauticians at Park Lane, just 30 yards from the Course Enclosure, have a small number of appointments available this Sunday – the day between the races. I’m not actually sure what a body-wrap is, but it just goes to prove that everything you could possibly want (and probably anything you forgot to pack for the races) is here in the village.
Left the cork-screw at home? Go to the Red Pepper cook shop. A stick to prod the track with? Look no further than the Larch Tree gift shop. Enhance your picnic with a trip to Cartmel Cheeses, the Unsworth’s Yard micro-brewery or the Cartmel Village Shop – which also happens to bake the famously delicious Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding.
From Friday evening, until the Tuesday after Bank Holiday Monday’s races, there’s really no need to go any further afield. There are four pubs to choose from (a different one for every evening), in addition to L’Enclume (recently named the Good Food Guide’s ‘Best Restaurant’ for the fourth consecutive year), Rogan’s Bistro and The Priory Hotel. The Ilex Bistro and Bar is little more than a mile walk through the woods to Holker Hall.
And to feed the soul, at 11.00am on Sunday morning, there is the Steeplechase Service at the Priory – after which one of Jimmy Moffatt’s horses will be blessed, by the Racecourse Chaplain Nick Devenish, by the porch of the church.
It’s all so idyllic that, if Cartmel was any bigger, I’d be tempted to call it the Golden Town (which just happens to be the name of this week’s selection – in the first race on Saturday). Perhaps we should re-name the horse: Golden Village in Need of a Barber.   

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Sputnik Sports Services

Long suffering readers of this blog will appreciate the truth of the adage: You can't believe everything that you read on the internet.
So I hope that you won't be too concerned to learn that I am currently working on a plan to broker a new sponsorship arrangement with Sputnik International, the Kremlin backed multi-media news agency recently accused of infiltrating British institutions for propaganda purposes. Having donated more than two hundred thousand pounds to Edinburgh University and eighty five thousand pounds to St Anthony's college, Oxford, I'm sure they could make a meaningful contribution to the Cartmel economy - where Russian visitors to L'Enclume are already commonplace.
Sputnik International has close links with the Russkiy Mir Foundation, a government funded organisation established by Vladimir Putin to promote the Russian language, headed up by former KGB chief Vyacheslav Nikonov. The launch of Sputnik Radio, in Scotland, appears to be the latest blow in a propaganda battle which started when Winston Churchill sent emergency aid packages to Russia, during the Second World War, containing condoms packaged with the words "Extra Small" - to make the point that British soldiers were made differently from their Russian counterparts. 
Sputnik International don't appear to have a racing correspondent, so I'm hoping to fill that gap as part of our proposed partnership: this week's selection is Ivan Grosny (otherwise known as Ivan the Terrible) in the Betfred Ebor at York. 
Ivan The Terrible - Tip for the Ebor
To gain some insight into the world of Russian racing, I turned instead to TripAdvisor - where the Central Moscow Hippodrome has accumulated four and a half stars from 29 reviews. I can't read the 28 reviews in Russian but, according to CraigWorldWide, the hippodrome is a good place for people-watching and, although it can be quite cold, it's much better with a cup of coffee and a sandwich - which reminds me a bit of Brighton.
Cartmel Racecourse also has four and a half TripAdvisor stars, based upon 170 reviews - of which 149 rate us either 'excellent' or 'very good'. NatwichFlatley goes as far as nominating Cartmel "The best racecourse in the World!?!".
There are some honest niggles within the reviews too: the viewing isn't great if you like to see the whole race - although we do usually have four or five giant screens showing the racing and there can be few (if any) racecourses with more furlongs of accessible running-rail to see the action close up. One or two reviewers commented on the price of the food concessions, although many also mentioned the voluminous picnics which racegoers are encouraged to bring with them - there are plenty of alternatives to purchasing a burger in a bun.
To help our own propaganda efforts, if you have a good time at the races - please tell all your friends and family (or TripAdvisor if you prefer). And if you don't have a good time, please tell us why - and we'll do our best to improve the services we offer.
Until next time... or as they say in Russia: Do Svidaniya!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Home of Steeplechasing

For almost as long as I can remember, I have wanted to scale the heights of the steeplechasing world; only now am I beginning to realise that I was born in entirely the wrong country.

Britain stages more steeplechases than any other nation. We even stage the Grand National, the most famous steeplechase of them all. So it is galling to discover that, having been blessed enough to be born British, it should turn out that the best practitioners of the sport are bred and nurtured in a far-off land.

I know what you’re thinking: Ireland isn’t all that far away. But I’m not talking about the Irish, despite the genius of Arkle and Paul Carberry (the most skilful jockey on the planet, who retired this week through injury).

Nor am I talking about France (the source of recent chasing greats such as Kauto Star, Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre), Germany, America, New Zealand, Australia or any of the other countries which we regularly see represented by horse-flesh at racecourses up and down the country.

Because while I was leaping about my childhood garden, pretending to be Red Rum (and occasionally Zongalero - second in the 1979 Grand National), there were children of my age in Kenya who were already training at high altitude and covering distances in excess of 70 miles per week.

My garden antics led to an enthusiasm for athletics – and a sporting career which peaked in 1987, when I won a race at Dover, setting a new school record for the 2000m Steeplechase (due, in no small part, to the fact that no other students had a desire to run over a long distance whilst jumping obstacles and pretending to be a horse).

Since then, there have been eight runnings of the men’s Olympic 3000m Steeplechase; all eight have been won by a Kenyan. On two occasions (Barcelona in 1992 and Athens in 2004), Kenyan athletes took gold, silver and bronze. Since 1998, Kenyans have occupied at least two of the three positions on the podium following every Olympic steeplechase final.

It would be easy to predict a further gold for either Ezekiel Kemboi or Brimin Kipruto, who have shared the last three Olympic titles between them – but my selection for this week (breaking all my rules about not putting money on any creature with fewer than four legs) is their compatriot: Conseslus Kipruto, in the final of the 3000m Steeplechase, in Rio, on Wednesday 17th August.