Thursday, 28 April 2016

Simply Red - One Direction?

The chances of our tulips lasting until the Whit Bank Holiday weekend improved slightly this morning, when a chilly breeze brought a light dusting of snow to the racecourse. But the weather isn’t the only thing which has gone a bit bonkers: I’m struggling to get my head around the recent stories about the development of driverless cars. 

I don’t know why it’s on my mind; there are plenty of other things to keep me occupied, what with Simply Red and Jools Holland hitting the Cartmel stage in just over four weeks time, but I woke up this morning worrying about cats. How are those driverless cars going to avoid cats that stray into the road? Then I remembered that I haven’t got a cat, so I worried a bit less. But I do have two dogs… and what about small children, and Jimmy Moffatt’s horses – and all the horses in Newmarket for that matter. 

It strikes me that the nature of the country lanes around Cartmel are never going to lend themselves to the technology being developed for self-driving vehicles. How are they going to recognise the temporary traffic management system that we put in place for race-days? The road to the north of the racecourse is made one-way throughout the early part of the day – allowing visitors to approach the racecourse without creating gridlock in the village. 

At around the time of the fourth race, we turn all the signage around – reversing the one-way system to allow the traffic to leave. We’re encouraging all racegoers attending on Saturday 28th May, when Simply Red play after the races, to arrive early. However, any late arrivals will be directed to the south of the racecourse, where they can access the car parks adjacent to the Course Enclosure without encountering any traffic leaving the Paddock Enclosure. I’m just hoping that no one decides to ignore the signs and follow their sat-nav instead, or even worse – decides to arrive in a driverless car.
Being a passenger in a driverless car must feel a bit strange: trapped, with no power over the speed or direction of travel, subject to the vagaries of those that surround you - but powerless to react. On the other hand, I can see what the benefits are meant to be: safer environment, a standardised roadmap to help us reach our destination and controls that ensure everyone adheres to the relevant legislation. Either way, it feels like a metaphor for the debate about the European Union.
I haven’t decided which way to vote yet, so I can’t offer any advice on the referendum question. However, word has reached me - from Francis at Burlington Stone - that there is mounting scepticism about the quality of the racing selections in this blog. With that in mind, we’re going to make up for recent losses with Jungle Cat in the Palace House Stakes at Newmarket - as long as he doesn’t get squashed by a driverless car on his way to the races.  

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Sticky Toffee Prizes

The countdown has started… to the 2017 racing season.

During the next few days racecourse managers will be meeting at Newbury and York to discuss the fixture allocation process, hopeful that we can hammer out a fixture list that can be published before Cartmel’s final race-day of this season on 29th August.

There is some concern about the funding of the fixture list - despite the Government announcing that the sport should benefit, in the long-term, from all bets struck by British punters with bookmakers based offshore. The new levy arrangements are likely to take effect from April 2017 at the earliest – and the revenue accrued from the new system won’t be available immediately; it will be paid in instalments, following a series of audited procedures, that are probably yet to be defined - and may or may not involve secret accounts in Panama. 

The sport will therefore rely heavily on race sponsors and authorised betting partners to keep prize money topped up throughout the hiatus. So it is heartening to know, as we head into the 2016 season, that our regular race sponsors are as supportive as ever. This year we’ll be welcoming lots of names that are already familiar to Cartmel racegoers including: the Tote, Louis Roederer Champagne, Oakmere Homes, Burlington Stone and Banks Lyon Jewellers, to name just a few.

The first race of our season - on Simply Red Raceday, Saturday 28th May – will be the Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding Novices Hurdle Race. The Cartmel Village Shop, who produce the famous pudding, have sponsored the first race on the first day of the season forever. Well almost. Their sponsorship is already one of the oldest in the industry – outliving, as it has, great races such as The Whitbread Gold Cup which will be run on Saturday as the Bet365 Gold Cup. 

More importantly, the Village Shop also provides us with enough sticky toffee puddings to ensure that every winning owner, jockey and trainer goes home with a pudding in a beautifully branded paper bag. The puddings are so popular that sometimes I wonder if we really need to offer prize money at all - but racehorse owners can’t live on sticky toffee alone, and if the bookmakers paid their levy in puddings we’d all be jolly fat. So, thanks (in no small measure) to the generosity of our sponsors, we’ve also got a Cartmel-record-breaking £472,000 to give away this year - an average of £7,500 for each of the 63 races.

Compared to the £4.6 million won by Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins this season, that might not seem like a lot of money, but then they’ve won a lot more than 63 races between them – and most of the best races too. Interestingly, neither has managed to win a sticky toffee pudding.

The Nicholls-Mullins battle for the Trainers Championship is set to continue all the way to Sandown’s big race on Saturday, which I expect will be won by Nicky Henderson’s Hadrian’s Approach. He jumped ever so well over the Grand National fences; it was just a shame that he got rid of his rider at the first fence.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Springy Heeled

Spring may have sprung but it isn’t feeling very springy here in Cartmel. The temperature gauge on my car dash board says that it’s only nine degrees in the middle of the day – which is a relief because it’s a new vehicle to me and at first I thought it was the number of miles that I had left until I ran out of petrol.

I called Lake District Audi, part of the Hadwins Motor Group, who put me right: not just about the temperature gauge, but also the fact that I mustn’t put any petrol in the car because it’s manufactured to run on diesel. They’re so helpful – it’s lovely to have race sponsors that you can recommend with confidence.
Anyway, I know that it must be Spring because the Aintree Festival has been and gone - and a second group of campers has descended on the racecourse for a caravan rally. This group have called themselves the ‘Micro Maniacs’ and they have the daintiest little vintage cars that you’re ever likely to see on the road. None of the vehicles is allowed to have an engine larger than 700cc, although they’d be splendid fun to drive with the roof open – if it was warm enough.
To be honest I’m in a bit of a quandary. I can’t decide whether I really want the grass to start growing on the track, or whether I want it to stay cool and slow the progress of the tulips planted in the tubs outside the office. The grass is important as we have to have a decent racing surface come the end of May, but it would all look so much brighter if the tulips were still in flower when we’re racing. It did say, on the packaging, that they were ‘late parrot tulips’ – and I’m quite glad that didn’t mean that they were actually dead – as in an ‘ex-parrot tulip’. All the same, they seem to be growing slightly too fast.

Which brings me to the rabbits – they’re growing a little too fast too. I think it’s the way we rear them – they stuffed themselves on tulip shoots in February and March, before getting their exercise sprinting down the woodside-straight of the racecourse – usually followed at a distance by my daughter’s whippet-cross dog. We haven’t actually caught one yet, but chef Paul Rowley is getting excited about the size of their thigh muscles and if we’re not running rabbit races at the May bank holiday weekend, there’s a fair chance that Lapin à la Cocotte
will make it onto the restaurant menu.

The weather forecast suggests that it could be sunny in Ayr this weekend for the Coral Scottish Grand National. I’m hoping that Jimmy Moffatt’s Highland Lodge will show a clean pair of spring-heels to the rest of the field.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Gallant Grand National Winner

Bob Davies, the man responsible for racing at Ludlow Racecourse, might disagree with me - because he won the 1978 Grand National on Lucius – but the biggest story of the race 38 years ago was the non-runner Red Rum. A national (as well as a Grand National) icon, Red Rum had already won the race three times and finished second twice before going lame a day in advance of his sixth attempt. 

For the first time since, it looks as though the non-runners for the Grand National might be more important than the runners - at least they are if, like me, you live in South Cumbria and have already stashed all your chips on a horse trained in Cartmel. Among those balloted out of the race, at the final declaration stage, were Pineau De Re (the winner in 2014), Alvarado (twice placed) and Highland Lodge (the Jimmy Moffatt trained winner of the Becher Chase in November).

Having focused exclusively on Highland Lodge for the last four months, I’m pleased to report that anyone who has backed any of those three horses ante-post, should be able to reclaim their stakes. But now that we know Highland Lodge can’t win the race, we’ve got to start afresh…

The winner is likely to be a mature chaser who stays well, enjoys ease in the ground, possesses a touch of class and who will be carrying a relatively light weight. I'm therefore going to take a couple of easy steps to narrow down the field. So, here goes... Sad though I am to discount First Lieutenant, I’m going to put a line through every horse carrying more than eleven stone – only two horses have successfully carried more in the last ten years.

I’m also going to rule out every horse aged nine or younger (too young) and every horse aged twelve or more (too old). Last year’s winner Many Clouds falls foul on both counts – but that didn’t stop him winning last year’s race, so I’m going to give him a reprieve for now. The rest of the shortlist consists of eight horses, so we’ve already managed to reduce the Grand National cavalry charge to just nine runners with a chance of winning - easy isn't it... 

Rocky Creek’s best National attempt came in 2014 when he finished fifth, but he could only manage seventeenth place last year; another honourable completion looks likely. Boston Bob has been overlooked by Ruby Walsh in favour of Sir Des Champs - who has a touch of class, having finished second in the Gold Cup three years ago.  

Soll has been running out of his skin this season, having already finished seventh and ninth in previous Grand Nationals. I can seeing him running well again, but I can’t see him winning. Double Ross won’t stay; Katenko isn’t quite good enough. But last year’s second, Saint Are, looks likely to run well again off a low weight. 

Anyone with a nephew called Oscar will have done well in recent years, following two places for Oscar Time at 66/1 and 14/1 from three Grand National attempts (he also won a race over the same unique fences at 25/1). But they’re about to do even better, as this year’s winner is Gallant Oscar, trained by the shrewdest trainer in Ireland, Tony Martin.

Such a shame Highland Lodge had to be a non-runner – he’d surely have won it for Cartmel - but he'll be a well named winner of the Scottish National in two week's time instead! 

Winner: Gallant Oscar
Second: Sir Des Champs
Third: Many Clouds
Fourth: Saint Are.  

Friday, 1 April 2016

Pop-up Flat Racing

The Lincoln Handicap marks the tradition start of the flat racing season – so today seems like a good date to announce our plans for a new flat racing track at Cartmel Racecourse. 

The idea first surfaced after Chester Racecourse organised a schooling trial over hurdles in 2012; we thought: if Chester could stage racing over jumps, perhaps Cartmel could stage racing on the flat… And following the successful introduction of flat racing at Wetherby last year, we gave the idea serious consideration. What a great way to supplement the traditional jump racing programme.

Of course there were a few obvious issues to work through – like the probable draw bias for all races staged over half a furlong or further. But, with a little bit of lateral thinking, I’d like to think that we’ve come up with some suitable solutions. We've plans to create a straight course in the centre of the track – a bit like the sprint course at Sandown. 

That would involve displacing a bit of the crowd, as everyone at Cartmel enjoys the spectacle from the centre of the course – so perhaps we could experiment with a ‘pop-up’ track, a bit like the one on the beach at Laytown. When the time comes for the sprint races, we’d move the crowd back, delineate the course with white tape and off we go. Naturally we’d have to ensure that there was a clear thoroughfare between the funfair rides.

We haven’t actually measured the new course yet – it looks as though the horses might have to start in the woods, where they would also have to negotiate the River Eea, or more likely the Course Enclosure car park. But we’ve plenty of space, so we could tape some room off there too.

I expect that some trainers might be reluctant to trial the new course with their relatively inexperienced two-year-olds, so we’ve got a work-around. Instead of young Thoroughbred horses, we thought we might go back to our roots – and stage races with donkeys ridden by monks, just like they used to do in the 14th Century. There is a trend for celebrity amateur jockeys at the moment – so I’m working on a proposal to see if Betfair might be willing to sponsor the Archbishop of Canterbury or another prominent member of the clergy to take to the saddle.

We won’t be implementing any of these proposals without a suitable level of consultation – so please don’t hesitate to send us your thoughts. Be sure to put today’s date (1st April) at the top of any correspondence. 

My tip for the Lincoln (and this is not an April Fool) is You’re Fired - which I suppose I might be, if anyone takes this blog seriously.