Thursday, 26 December 2013

Santa's Visit

Whatever you wished for from Santa, I hope that you found it in the toe of your stocking. With a great King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, Sprinter Sacre appearing at Kempton on Friday and the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow on Saturday, you could be forgiven for thinking that all your Christmases have come at once. 

But we know that’s not quite true – because there have been some great Christmases already. There was that heart-warming one when Wayward Lad won his third King George in 1985, that brilliant one when Desert Orchid won his fourth King George in 1990, that heart-breaking one when Bradbury Star was just beaten by Barton Bank in 1993 – and that frustrating one in 1994 when Barton Bank fell at the last. Do you remember that one? Barton Bank’s trainer, David Nicholson, was so upset he punched a photographer. Perhaps that wasn’t a great Christmas after all. 

After Captain Chris’s failure to make the line-up for this year’s Boxing Day feature, I’m hoping that 25/1 shot Tour Des Champs will put in an appearance at Chepstow on Saturday. Teaforthree will run his usual good race and Well Refreshed looks well handicapped, but I’m siding with Tour Des Champs because he’s trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies who has raised some good jockeys as well as training some good horses.       

Being a good trainer and raising children at the same time isn’t easy. A friend of mine, who trains racehorses, has two  children: a little girl who is as good as gold and a little boy who isn’t. The boy swears like a member of the trainer’s stable staff and would give many a sailor a good run for their money. 

For the last few months they have been telling both children that they should behave well, or else Santa may not visit them on Christmas Eve. It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss – when the boy continued with his foul-mouthed ways, they warned him that they’d report his language to Santa’s elves. When these threats yielded no improvement, they turned to desperate measures. While the little girl was provided with all the items that she had specified on her list, the boy’s stocking was filled with fresh horse manure. 

On Christmas morning the parents sat in bed and waited - listening for their children’s response to Santa’s visit. The little girl was delighted and came sprinting into her parent’s bedroom, “Mummy, Daddy, Mummy, Daddy, – Santa brought me a bicycle, a sparkly tiara, a lollypop and a sack of pony feed!” She wore the biggest smile on her face. 

They called out to their son, who was looking mournfully out of the bedroom window, holding the stocking full of horse dung in his hands. “What did Santa bring you son?” they asked. 

“I asked him for a racehorse,” he said, “but the bugger's gone!”

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Cartmel Christmas Quiz

Just in case you were getting bored with the weekly blog, it’s time for some audience participation.

Please send your answers to the 15 Cartmel Christmas Quiz questions, below, to or post them to the racecourse office to arrive no later than Monday 6th January.

The first correct entry drawn from our hat will win a VIP lunch for two people at Cartmel races in 2014. The first two losing entries (any score – even zero!) will win a pair of Paddock Enclosure badges to any Cartmel meeting in 2014. Good luck! 

The Quiz:

1) What was Gay Future's coat covered with, before he won at Cartmel in 1974?
          A)     Shaving foam        B) Soap Suds                      C) Carlsberg

 2) How old was Cregmore Boy when he became the oldest horse to win at Cartmel in 1957?
          A)     13                              B) 15                                      C) 17

3) The first running of the £27,000 Cumbria Crystal Trophy in 2012 was won by:
          A)     Soul Magic             B) Front Rank                    C) What A Steel

4) Which was the last horse to win at Cartmel and run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
          A)     Soul Magic             B) Kauto Star                     C) Knockara Beau            

5) How many winners did Tony McCoy ride at Cartmel during 2013?
          A)     1                                B) 4                                        C) 7

6) How many losers did Tony McCoy ride at Cartmel furing 2013?
          A)     1                                B) 4                                        C) 7

7) How many career wins at Cartmel does Soul Magic currently have to his name?
          A)     6                                B) 7                                        C) 8

8) In 1865 Oulton Boy entered the record books by winning three races in the same:
          A)     Day                           B) Week                               C) Season

9) Which Cartmel winner went on to win the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham later the same season?
          A)     Zarkander               B) Countrywide Flame   C) Soul Magic

10) Which horse, pulled up in a maiden hurdle at Cartmel in 2004 won a Group 1 sprint at Royal Ascot in 2006?
          A)     Soul Magic              B) Gay Future                    C) Les Arcs

11) The average prize fund at Cartmel in 1900 was:
          A)     £3.47                        B) £34.71                             C) £347.10

12) Before the implementation of strict safety factors, what was the biggest field to contest a race at Cartmel?
          A)     20                              B) 30                                    C) 40

13) Which film featuring Pierce Brosnan was filmed at Cartmel Racecourse?
          A)     Mamma Mia!          B) Murphy’s Stroke          C) Die Another Day

14) Which out of the following jockeys rode the most winners at Cartmel in 2013?
          A)     Lucy Alexander      B) Tony McCoy                  C) Jason Maguire

15) What’s going to win the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot this weekend?
          A)     At Fishers Cross     B) At Fishers Cross          C) At Fishers Cross

By the way, in case you hadn’t guessed, this week’s selection is in the 2.25 at Ascot on Saturday: At Fishers Cross.

Good luck and don't forget - entries in by 6th January.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Miracle At Cartmel

Last week’s blog sparked quite a bit of controversy, judging by my bursting mail-bag of three letters. Father Patrick O’Shea and Father Michael McNamara, both drawn to the article by its religious theme, wrote to express their dismay at my mentioning Sprinter Sacre in the same paragraph as Arkle. I’m sorry reverends, it won’t happen again. 

The third letter wasn’t actually a comment; it was an offer from a reader who is trying to sell a box-set of “The Best Xmas Films Ever”. The problem is, the collection was missing my favourite Christmas film of all time and possibly my second favourite film from any category – the 1947 version of Miracle On 34th Street, not to be confused with the 1994 version featuring Richard Attenborough (which is watchable but not magical).  

Miracle On 34th Street won three Oscars including one for the best original story and one for the best screenplay. The gem among a myriad of great lines comes when Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn, who won the third Oscar as Best Supporting Actor) is trying to explain to a small girl, who doesn’t believe in Father Christmas, why she should loosen up a little and let her imagination run free. He says “The Imagination is a place all by itself. A separate country. You’ve heard of the French nation, the British nation. Well, this is the Imagi-nation. It’s a wonderful place!” 

All of which gives me heart when I fantasise about the 2014 running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup – which, now that he has proven he stays three miles, can be won by the appropriately named Wishfull Thinking. Or perhaps he could dead-heat with Knockara Beau – I’d love it if they could both win. And while we’re in the mode of wish fulfilment, could we all take a moment to pray for some fine weather next Summer? It’s so much nicer when the sun shines. 

In particular, we need some good days around the end of May, the end of July and the end of August – when we shall be racing at Cartmel. If you haven’t written your letter yet to Father Christmas, don’t forget that Santa needs to place his order with us by Monday 16th December, if your Annual Members badge is to arrive in time to reach your stocking. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves - before then there is racing at Cheltenham this weekend. Colour Squadron is sure to be a popular choice in the big handicap chase, but I am going to go with Malcolm Jefferson’s Attaglance instead. He has a bit of ground to make up, based on their recent meeting in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, but as Kris Kringle says in the film: “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to”.

... As if you needed any further reasons to continue following my advice.

Friday, 6 December 2013

In The Spirit Of Advent

Traditionally, Christian Church readings and teachings during Advent help us to prepare for the second coming; the word advent being a derivative of the Latin word adventus, which literally means “coming”.

It is ironic, then, that on the first Saturday of Advent, Sprinter Sacre should turn out to be a non-runner in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown - due to an unsatisfactory pre-race health check. To many in the racing fraternity, Sprinter Sacre is the second coming – the original being Arkle, the Irish steeplechaser who carried huge weights, conquered all-comers during the 1960’s and generally known as "himself". 

There remains the possibility that Nicky Henderson’s handsome two-miler will reappear instead in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton on 27th December, which on reflection may be a more fitting conclusion to four weeks of intense anticipation. In the Garratt household we take the preparation of Advent very seriously… you could even say that it is a spiritual experience. 

Behind every door on our Advent calendar is a small bottle containing a dram of whisky. The 24 bottles will take us up to the night before Christmas, when it will be down to Nick Devenish, the vicar of Cartmel Priory, to sustain our souls ahead of the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day (which I still think will be won by Captain Chris) and the Desert Orchid Chase the following day.  

In the meantime, just like our Advent calendar, every day during the build-up yields a special surprise or treat. On Saturday, I am hoping that Wishfull Thinking (yes him again) will provide me with a small Christmas shopping fund by winning once again Aintree. He has two options: the Sefton Chase over the Grand National fences or a three mile chase over the more traditional birch obstacles. I have always thought he is a stayer, albeit one with a breathing problem, and I hope that he tackles the longer trip. 

On the assumption that Nicky Henderson is bound to have a winner somewhere, look out for Lieutenant Miller, a previous runner at Cartmel, who looks seriously well handicapped over hurdles after a good campaign on the Flat. He has entries at both Aintree and Sandown. And in the absence of Sprinter Sacre, trainer Colin Tizzard could strike for the third Saturday running in a valuable chase (the last two weeks have yielded wins for Cue Card and for Hey Big Spender) - with Oiseau De Nuit in the Tingle Creek Chase. 

The Henry VIII Novices Chase at Sandown features a strong field including three horses in the ownership of Martin Broughton – of which I hope Taquin De Seuil will be the representative. Perhaps the decision over which horse runs will be down to the going - but either way, lets all prepare for what’s coming.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Stopping Trains

The handicapping of horses is relatively simple; or at least the method of slowing them down is simple – we pack flat pieces of lead into a thin “satchel” that slips beneath the saddle, which we call a weight-cloth. 

There is an old saying in racing that “weight stops trains” and, as if proof were required, a recent item in the national media caught my eye: Kevin Chenais – who suffers from a hormone imbalance and weighs in at 500lb (nearly 36 stone) – was not allowed to board the Eurostar train that was intended to take him back to France. In fact the papers reported that he was also “too fat to fly”, suggesting that weight stops planes too, so it is little wonder that it stops horses. 

All of which is most relevant to this weekend’s feature race, The Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. Top-weight for the £175,000 handicap chase is Cape Tribulation who has a handicap rating of 158 and will carry 11st 12lb. The 132-rated Whodoyouthink, carries 26lb less, the minimum weight of 10st. In theory, all of the horses rated in-between have been given an equal chance and will pass the post in unison – by which I mean together, not members of a new equine trade union. The thing is of course, we know that won’t happen – so which of the 21 declared runners has managed to get away with an inadequate load? 

Starting with the horses with the lowest handicap ratings, I like Loch Ba who carries just 10st 1lb. He may have unfulfilled potential and he ran out of steam during a recent prep-run at Bangor on soft ground. He’ll be fitter for that run and I can imagine him fighting out the places at a big price.  

Also on my shortlist are Merry King (10st 8lb) and Invictus (10st 13lb). Both horses have shown promise, but Invictus is perhaps the most interesting as he has been off the track for nearly two years. When last seen, in his novice season, he comfortably conquered last year’s Hennessy winner (and Cheltenham Gold Cup hero) Bobs Worth - who is now officially rated 180. A strict interpretation of the form could leave Alan King’s charge more than 2 stone better off than the competition. 

Closer to the head of the weights, Prince de Beauchene (11st 9lb) and Lord Windermere (11st 8lb) are both high class performers with scope for improvement. Both are well fancied and will be among the favourites for the race. But the horse that I am going to recommend is not one of the young, unexposed, brigade...  

Imperial Commander is a 12-year-old, former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, who sustained a leg injury in 2011. He ran a blinder to finish a half-length second to Cape Tribulation on his return to action ten months ago, before being pulled up in a speculative attempt at the Grand National. At his peak he earned an official rating of 185 and sneaks into this race on a very generous mark of just 153, converting to a weight of 11st 7lb.  

In the absence of Kevin Chenais, who eventually made it home to France on a ferry and was reportedly unable to make the weight, Imperial Commander will be reunited with his Gold Cup winning jockey Paddy Brennan.

Win, lose or draw, Imperial Commander will be retired after the race on Saturday and so I’ll be backing him with my heart as well as my head.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Team That Brings Tears To My Eyes

If I’m looking a bit teary-eyed at the moment it’s not because Knockara Beau finished second at Cheltenham last Saturday; although he did run one of those heart-squelchingly, gutsy, races, where you really wish the stewards would just place him first. No, I’ve been peeling onions. 

Yes onions, because on Friday evening we’ll be welcoming around 110 members of our casual-staff for a party in the grandstand. They’ll be a bit of music, a drink or two, a lot of chat and some lasagne. That’s where the onions come in – there’s also garlic, salt, pepper, tomatoes, beef (supplied by Clare at Furness Fish, Poultry & Game Ltd – I know… they do beef too!), milk, flour and cheese.

If I’ve forgotten anything, perhaps you could let me know, as soon as possible, as the hunger of 110 people depends on this turning out alright. The alternative is crusty bread and butter. 

The annual get-together has added significance this year, because it is the final time that Dorothy Lodge will be attending in her role as Staff Manager – I hope she will continue to attend for many years as our “former Staff Manager”, racecard seller, litter picker, envelope stuffer or whatever else she feels like turning her hand to.

As long as her hand recovers that is; because this week she has been wearing it in a sling following an operation. Together with her husband, Bruce, they make quite a pair. He has only one hand, following a misunderstanding with a piece of agricultural equipment some years ago. They’re not a very good pair; between them they have  two left hands and no right ones at the moment – but they couldn’t be happier together, more congenial company or more dedicated to their work.

While Dorothy coordinates the race-day staff, Bruce supervises the public crossing point at the end of the finishing straight. During races he holds a broad white tape across the track in order to allow the horses with jockeys to pass one way and the ones without to pass the other. It’s a very important role, as you can be fairly sure that without him, most of the jockeys wouldn’t know which way to go. 

On one memorable occasion Bruce made a valiant attempt at catching a loose horse as it veered towards him and ended up lying on the grass. While Bruce got to his feet and the Clerk of the Course and I discussed the safety issues surrounding the incident, Dorothy summed up their joint commitment to Cartmel races – “At least he would have died doing something he loved” she said. 

If you think that I’ve just picked on a couple of "interesting" members of our race-day team for effect, you should meet the rest of them. I’ve always believed that if you want to run a racecourse with a bit of character, you have to employ a few. It’ll be a great party!

This weekend’s selections are Gevrey Chambertin (in the Fixed Brush Handicap Hurdle, 2.25 Haydock - he's a full-brother to a previous winner of the race) and Silviniaco Conti (in the 3.00 at Haydock - a race he won last year).

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Ten Horses, Four Hundred Thousand Pounds

Pick ten horses and win thousands of pounds – it sounds pretty simple doesn’t it?

Each year The Racing Post’s ten-to-follow competition starts just before the Cheltenham Open Meeting (this weekend) and finishes after the Grand National in April. The horses, in your fantasy stable, gather points throughout the season and there are bonus points for winning the major races. Points mean prizes and there will be at least £400,000 up for grabs. 

Having once made an entry which reached the top 100, in December 2011, I consider myself a bit of an expert. Yes – that’s the closest I’ve come to winning a prize and no, by the end of the season the same entry wasn’t even in the top 10,000. Anyway… it’s the taking part that counts. Here are my ten for the 2013 / 14 jumps season. 

At Fishers Cross. He’s the young pretender to the World Hurdle crown, won last year by Solwhit in the absence of the legendary Big Bucks. He’ll have the assistance on Tony McCoy in the saddle. 

Attaglance. There are bonus points for winning the Paddy Power Gold Cup this Saturday, in which Attaglance sneaks in on 10 stone. His jumping needs to improve, but even if he fails to pick up this valuable prize, he looks well handicapped for a profitable season ahead. 

Captain Chris. Trained by Philip Hobbs, he is sure to be aimed at the King George VI Chase in which he has previously finished third and second. I think that those at the head of the betting market have plenty of questions to answer and he has an outstanding chance this year. He could well pop up again in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. 

Colour Squadron. Another trained by Philip Hobbs, Colour Squadron is still classed as a novice over fences and could clock up a lengthy sequence of wins. However, he's also engaged in Saturday’s Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him earn bonus points. 

First Lieutenant. Owned by the head of Ryanair, this horse missed the Gold Cup last year in favour of the Ryanair sponsored 2½ mile chase. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is this horse’s destiny - expect him to come to the fore in the Spring. 

Jezki. Like At Fishers Cross and Colour Squadron, Jezki is owned by J.P. McManus, famed for his massive tilts at the betting ring. Jezki will pick up several of Ireland’s top hurdle races before heading to Cheltenham for the Champion Hurdle in March. 

Lord Windermere. Yes, he is in the list because of his name! But the Jim Culloty trained chaser also won the RSA Novice's Chase last season and is being aimed at the Hennessy Gold Cup at the end of this month. He could be another for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March. 

My Tent Or Yours. Yet another gelding owned by JP McManus; like Jezki he’ll be bound for the Champion Hurdle, but the difference is that he’s trained in England – so he can pick up a few of the trial races on this side of the Irish Channel before then. 

Sprinter Sacre. If you forget all the others, make a note of this horse’s name. Pegasus in disguise, his trainer nick-named him the “black aeroplane”, and he is the best two-mile chaser of this decade and probably any other decade. Tune in to Channel 4 Racing or RacingUK every time he runs and watch him fly! 

The New One. Trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, this is another gelding bound for the Champion Hurdle. He always gives his best and is sure to give you an excellent run for your money.

To make your entry go to: . There are 400 horses in the list to choose from, so you don't have to pick the same horses, although I think you'll find these are the best!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

16.29 Reasons to Celebrate McCoy

There are around 10,000 races in Britain each year, which makes you wonder why Tony McCoy has won only 4,000 in his entire career. What on earth has he been messing around at!

About 60% of those races are on the Flat; Tony McCoy rides over jumps, so I suppose that cuts it down a bit. Then of course there are several race-meetings taking place each afternoon and he can only be at one of them – unless he takes a helicopter from one track to another, which has been known. When he is at the racecourse, he rarely rides in every race either – it’s good to let the other jockeys have a chance. Besides, he might stand out a bit in one of those races for lady riders. 

In fact it turns out that Tony McCoy doesn’t even win every race he rides in – only one in every four. Next someone is going to tell me that this is an unpredictable sport where punters struggle to find winners, while bookmakers laugh into their deep satchels and the jockeys go home in ambulances. Oh that’s right, I forgot. Well anyway, despite that, I’ve a good feeling about Sa Suffit at Kelso on Saturday (2.15pm) – he hasn’t run for eighteen months and has had a change of trainer, but he used to be a favourite of mine – I’ll tell you whether he’s still a favourite on Sunday. 

If you’ve placed one pound on every horse that Tony McCoy has ridden at Cartmel during the last 5 years, you’ll be £16.29 better off than you were in 2008. However, if you’re one of those punters that has been backing him blind at all racecourses, you’ll have lost £444.96 during the same period – almost as bad as following the advice in this blog.

The moral of this story is that, if you’re one of McCoy’s fans, you should only come racing at Cartmel and, even then, you would be better off backing horses ridden by Lucy Alexander – who would have won you £86.13 for a regular one pound stake on all rides. 

Now that Tony McCoy has landed his 4,000th winner – a remarkable achievement which will probably never be surpassed - he should celebrate by going somewhere really special for dinner – like the restaurant at Miller Howe on the banks of Lake Windermere, one of our race sponsors in August this year.

The winner of the Miller Howe Handicap Steeplechase was ridden by Jamie Moore, but Tony shouldn’t hold that against them – I visited Miller Howe this week and enjoyed the best meal I’ve eaten in Cumbria. That’s saying something, given the local (Michelin starred) competition in Cartmel. At just £25 for a three course lunch, it was good value too – which may be important if you missed backing Mountain Tunes, the latest in a very very long line of McCoy winners.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Horseracing's Pocket Money System

Imagine that you have 58 children. I know, you’ll either be full of horror at the thought of the chaos or immersing yourself in the parental bliss that only comes from the love of a small human; but stay with me – there is a serious analogy to be made here... 

You decide to pay them all pocket money, so you split your finances into several pots. You decide to incentivise the kids to take up activities – so you use one pot to match-fund their own contributions: the more money they put in, the more you’ll give them. The problem is, Johnny and Ian have so much money already that you can’t afford to match-fund them penny for penny, so you give them a bit less than they might have been entitled to. 

All of the kids help around the house, but Anthony generates more cash than some of the others; so you have a separate pot which pays each child a proportion of what they generate for the household. Richard and Claire prefer winter activities, but the majority of days that they can attend are cold, wet, miserable, Mondays – so you give them a few extra quid for their effort.

Simon and Charles perform at a higher level; you therefore have another pot which rewards them for playing better quality games. In the meantime, you are keen to ensure that everyone plays nice and fairly, so you keep yet another pot of money to give to the referees and adjudicators.  

All of the children think that the division of pocket money is unfair, which confirms in your mind that you’ve probably got it about right. That, in a nut-shell, is the way in which revenue from the off-course betting industry is distributed by the Horserace Betting Levy Board to racecourses. 

Most racecourse managers believe that their track deserves a greater proportion of Levy funding and I am no exception. In particular, Cartmel receives funding for just five race-days in total – even though a new racecourse could quickly build up funding for fourteen or more days. In effect, the HBLB are saying that children will only be rewarded for taking on extra activities if they are less than 10 years old. I know a few parents who wouldn’t stand for that one! 

The good news, for all racecourses (including Wetherby where Tony McCoy could score his easiest ever victory on At Fishers Cross this Saturday - and Ayr, where Plus Jamais could make an interesting first appearance in a handicap for Jim Goldie), is that the racing and betting industries have recently agreed an historic four-year deal with regard to base levy income.

In a rapidly changing world, particularly where on-line and off-shore betting is involved, this brief period of stability will permit both parties to work on a revision of the commercial mechanisms operating between horse-racing and betting. 

More fascinating still, the bookmakers have agreed to put an additional £4.5 million into a new levy-pot – now we’ve just got to decide how it will be split between the children.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Will Armageddon Spoil The Picnic?

According to the newspapers last weekend, scientists have predicted that a giant asteroid could collide with Earth on 26th August, 2032, just two days before the start of Cartmel’s August Bank Holiday weekend meeting. 

The rock, which is 1,345 feet across (about two furlongs – or the distance between the grandstand and the Cartmel scout-hut, for those with a good knowledge of local geography), could cause an explosion fifty times as forceful as the most powerful nuclear bomb. This will obviously be bad news for racegoers and could spoil a lot of picnics. I thought it only fair to warn you, as Cartmel customers are renowned for booking their tickets and accommodation very early. 

So how likely is it that the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory, located in southern Ukraine, have got this wrong? Astronomers in Italy, Spain, Britain and Russia have confirmed the presence of the rock, although the consensus is that the chances of it actually hitting us are about 63,000–1. I regularly place bets with odds of similar probability, so I’m not sure how much comfort to take from this. However, I have devised a little test. 

I suggest that you place a £1 accumulator bet on the following four horses running in Grade 1 races later this season:
  • Captain Chris  at 25/1 in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day – a great price about a horse who is sure to be aimed at the race and will be there or thereabouts.
  • The New One at 4/1 for the Champion Hurdle in March – skinny price, but he has already been out and advertised his championship claims this season. 
  • First Lieutenant at 14/1 for the Gold Cup, also in March – slightly disappointing on his recent seasonal debut, but will be trained with Cheltenham in mind.
  • The Knoxs at 33/1 for the Grand National in April – you might have to ask for a special ‘quote’ from your bookmaker on this one, but he was bought a few months ago by the connections of last year’s National winner and will surely be trained for the race. 
The combined odds are slightly more than the chances of being hit by the rock from outer-space, so if they all win we should start to get worried. Although if they do all win, we can have a big party and forget about Armageddon for a while – we should have at least another 131 racedays at Cartmel before the meteor strikes.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Bring On The Champions

The racing industry has invested millions of pounds in the development of Champions Day at Ascot racecourse. The fixture, which takes place on Saturday, has prize money of £3.4 million and has received a huge amount of marketing support. While the objective is to create an exciting end to the Flat racing season, the problem is that… well… it’s taking place at the END of the Flat season.  

For the second consecutive year the official going description is likely to be soft, meaning that some of the more exciting horses will be non-runners. Others have either finished for the season already or have overseas engagements in their diaries – where the climate is better suited to Flat racing at this time of year. Ascot Chief Executive, Charles Barnett, says that he is content with the October fixture slot – pointing out that an attendance of 25,000, if the weather is kind, would still be “a very good crowd”. 

There is also racing at Cheltenham on Saturday, where the prize fund is about one twentieth of the size of Ascot’s. Yet, if given TV coverage, Cheltenham’s card would probably generate a similar amount of betting interest. The crowd at Cheltenham, with relatively little marketing effort compared to that dedicated to Champions Day, will be around eighteen thousand and will consist of enthusiasts who will attend in virtually any weather, rain or shine. 

This week will see the seasonal debuts of some of the most exciting horses in training including First Lieutenant and Noble Prince at Punchestown, The New One and Rock On Ruby at Kempton and Balthazar King at Cheltenham – all of them previous Cheltenham Festival winners over jumps. The betting public will be at least as interested to see these horses as any appearing at Ascot. But of all the racing this weekend, I am most looking forward to Kelso – where Knockara Beau seeks his fifth course win at the Scottish Borders jumps track. 

Knockara Beau, if he appears, will be running off the same handicap mark as when winning in November last year. He is an old favourite of mine and will be familiar to Cartmel racegoers as he also won a novice chase here a few seasons ago. And that is the thing about jump racing: we look forward to seeing the same horses appear year after year – and when they run, all interest in Flat racing evaporates. 

Incidentally, if you fancy a trip to Kelso, we shall be taking a coach there for the fixture on Saturday 9th November. We've got together with Kelso and VisitScotland to create a fantastic package which includes coach travel, admission, a hog roast roll and a drink plus other benefits for just £20. If you are interested, you must call the Cartmel racecourse office before Thursday 24th October.

I suspect that we won’t know whether Champions Day is a success or not for another ten or twenty years; it isn’t a short term project. The fixture needs to develop a following and breed anticipation in the same way that punters are inspired by the mere mention of the Cheltenham Festival. The chances of success would be improved if  the event could be staged in the Summer, or perhaps even another country – but I wish everyone involved the very best of luck.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Looking Forward to Christmas

When the BHA finally published the 2014 fixture list this week, it contained 1,464 events including 7 at Cartmel. While it may sound pretty mundane to state that we have been allocated an almost-identical list of fixtures to last year, the process has involved a significant amount of time and effort over the last few months as bargains have been struck between BHA, the Levy Board, the Horsemen and racecourses. 

Just under 40% of the fixtures are over jumps, 40% are Flat fixtures on turf, while the remaining 20% are Flat race meetings taking place on all-weather surfaces. The most controversial development is the introduction of a new all-weather fixture worth £1 million at Lingfield Park – because it has been scheduled to take place on Good Friday, a day which has traditionally been kept clear of racing. 

The decision to race on Good Friday will be welcomed by the off-course betting industry, who will benefit significantly from increased turnover. However, I can’t help feeling that it will be a retrograde step for racing enthusiasts and some participants of the sport. For me, an enforced day off brings on withdrawal symptoms and makes me look forward to racing on Easter Saturday with renewed enthusiasm. As a child, I didn’t think Christmas Day could get any better, but now that it is the only racing-free day in the calendar, there's a new reason to look forward to it - the super-accentuated excitement of Boxing Day! 

On receiving the new fixture list, the first thing that I do is highlight the important days with a felt-tip pen. Apart from three Cartmel race-days in May (24th , 26th & 28th), two in July (19th & 21st) and two in August (23rd & 25th), there is the Cheltenham Festival (11th – 14th March) and Aintree Grand National (5th April). This year we are planning to stage lunches in the Grandstand on several of the major dates, with live action being shown on large televisions. 

The basic structure of the fixture list allows key races to slot into a familiar and reassuring pattern. For example, a couple of visitors from the West Country on Monday told me that they were “looking forward to the start of the jumps season at Chepstow this weekend”. Now… the 2013/14 jumps season started months ago at Wetherby and Ludlow, and there was jump racing at Chepstow as recently as ten days ago – so what on earth were they talking about? 

Well... for many years the first really valuable race of the jumps season was a limited handicap for 4 year old hurdlers at Chepstow. It attracted the best of the previous season’s juveniles and it was always interesting to see how they had developed over the Summer.

The race still exists, though slightly less prestigious than it once was. While Pistol looks well handicapped on his pre-festival form, I am recommending For Two, who looked a lovely prospect last year.

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Rabble and The Apocalypse

I’m not sure whether there is a collective noun for racecourse managers – an ‘embarrassment’ perhaps, although I believe that applies to pandas. Apparently you can have a ‘chattering’ of choughs or a ‘rabble’ of butterflies, either of which might be quite good substitutes. 

On Tuesday this week, the Racecourse Association hosted its Northern Area meeting at York, attended by racecourse colleagues from the north of England and Scotland. High on our agenda was the topic of prize money and, in particular, recent negotiations with the Horsemen regarding an agreement as to how much money each racecourse should contribute towards the total prize fund. ‘Horsemen’, by the way, is the collective noun for a group of the industry’s stakeholders including racehorse owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys and stable-staff. Perhaps we could call them an 'apocalypse' (an apocalypse of jockeys?) – although negotiations aren’t going so badly as to signal the end of the racing world just yet. 

While most racehorse owners never suppose that they will make a profit from their racing activities, prize money oils the wheels that make the racing industry go round. It rewards the most successful horses, filtering through to everyone involved in preparing the participants – from racehorse trainers and stable staff to jockeys and their valets (who wash the silks, scrub breeches and clean tack at racecourses all over Britain).

The total prize fund in Britain this year is estimated to be approximately £110 Million. In round terms, 40% is sourced from off-course betting through the Levy Board, 15% from entry fees paid by owners and 45% from racecourses, some of which is paid by commercial sponsors who benefit from the affiliation with racing events. 

The problem with striking a prize money agreement is that one size doesn’t fit all. At Cartmel, we have historically received less central funding from the Levy Board than other tracks and our own contribution to prize money is more than 51% of the total prize fund. In our efforts to gain improved central funding, we don’t really want to be shackled to larger direct contributions – which would have a knock on effect on general maintenance and improvement projects at the racecourse.

The success of horseracing, especially when negotiating future deals with the off-course betting industry, depends on close collaboration between all factions of the sport. For this reason, I am certain that we shall be able to add Cartmel’s name to the list of racecourses, that have signed prize money agreements, in the very near future. Talks this week have been positive. 

In the meantime, for this week’s selection we are heading to France, where I’m trusting in Novellist to write his own headlines by winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Sunday.  

Thursday, 26 September 2013

A Dastardly Plot At Cartmel

There is a dastardly plot afoot. It involves crooked trainers, bent bookmakers and dishonest stable staff – and the whole conspiracy has been revealed as a result of an incident at Cartmel Racecourse. 

I have been dipping into my collection of Dick Francis novels again, having been reminded of the Cartmel story-line by a member of the village’s Agricultural Show Committee. It’s surprising how many Dick Francis aficionados are out there; but with forty international best sellers to choose from, it isn’t difficult to pick up the habit. 

For Kicks is the third best novel in the Francis canon (my favourite is Dead Cert, which should be the starting point for any new readers). The story revolves around a disreputable bunch of ne’er-do-wells who encourage horses to run faster by way of a pavlovian response to a ‘silent’ dog whistle. The crooks’ plans start to unfold when one of their horses is unintentionally stimulated by the hound-trails at Cartmel races. Which reminds me – we have missed the hound trailers at Cartmel this year. 

Hounds have long shared the headlines with horses at Cartmel and we have clippings of newspaper reports on the office wall dating from 1932. Hound trailing involves the laying of a scent using a mixture of paraffin and aniseed oil, which is then followed by the hounds during a race. As the hounds near the finish, their owners shout, cheer and blow whistles for all they are worth. I don’t know what the prize money is like, but I’ve seen money changing hands with bookmakers – so the competition has a serious edge to it.  

While the proper races take place over long courses of moorland, fields and fells, the race-day versions involve a lap of the track and are much shorter but no-less exciting. We’ll get the hounds back at Cartmel in 2014 and I hope you might come to see them then. In the meantime, why not buy a second-hand copy of For Kicks (£2.80 on Amazon) and settle down for a good evening’s read next to the fireplace. 

If you’re feeling flush, perhaps you’ll invest in the Dick Francis Omnibus (three books: Dead Cert, Nerve and For Kicks) for £16.85. I think a small each way investment, at 25/1, on Fury in the Cambridgeshire Handicap on Saturday might help us fund the purchase.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Let Jack Pay For The Hotel

This week I’ve had at least a dozen phone calls from people wanting to know whether the 2014 fixture list has been published yet. It seems that they are trying to book their accommodation for next year’s races and some of the local hotels are already filling up! 

I’m often asked why Cartmel doesn’t have more fixtures and whether we couldn’t simply schedule a few extra. Unfortunately, the fixture process, which is administered by the British Horseracing Authority, isn’t quite so simple and Cartmel is obliged to fit into an annual programme of events alongside fifty-seven other racecourses. History plays a part with major meetings such as the Cheltenham Festival and the Epsom Derby taking place at the same time every year. 

Over time, each racecourse has built up a number of fixtures which it can consider to be its own – and these have been recognised by the BHA as ‘Racecourse Fixtures’. Historically, racing at Cartmel centred on just two weekends, the Whitsun Holiday in May and the Bank Holiday in August; as a result Cartmel has just five recognised Racecourse Fixtures, the smallest number of any track in Britain. 

In order to increase the number of days on which we have raced in recent years, Cartmel has succeeded in bidding for additional fixtures which are sanctioned by the BHA – although these have to be funded to a greater degree by the racecourse, with little or no funding available from central industry sources. We’ll be making the final round of applications for the 2014 fixture list this week and I hope that we’ll be able to announce the results early in October.

Under current fixture policies, a newly-built racecourse would be treated slightly differently to Cartmel. A new racecourse could be allocated two or three times as many fixtures as Cartmel on a temporary basis, while being allowed to convert these fixtures to Racecourse Fixtures over a period of years. The disparity appears to be anti-competitive and I am hoping that, one day soon, with cooperation from the rest of the racing industry, we’ll be able to give Cartmel customers greater certainty over our race-dates from year to year. 

In the meantime, while you’re waiting for the fixture list to be published, why not book in to one of our local hotels for an Autumn break?

I’m going to recommend three of our race sponsors, each of whom contribute all-important prize money to our fixtures. The Cartmel Priory Hotel is on our door-step and very comfortable. The Swan Hotel & Spa, at Newby Bridge, is one of the most popular destinations on this peninsula. Meanwhile, I visited the Miller Howe a couple of weeks ago – following in the footsteps of Her Majesty The Queen and The Princess Royal during July – and enjoyed the best meal I have had in several years.

Pay for a visit, to any of the above, with your winnings from Jack Dexter in Saturday’s Ayr Gold Cup.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Transported by Miss Marple to the St Leger

Three of the eleven entries for Saturday's St Leger will travel to Doncaster from Ireland, while the other eight will come from locations all over Britain. One thing is for sure - all of them will arrive at the track in a horsebox, a method of transport invented, 177 years ago this week, by Lord George Bentinck.

During the first part of the 20th Century racehorses were commonly transported to the races by train; before then they were usually ridden, sometimes taking weeks to complete their journey. So it is easy to understand why 'Elis', the ante-post favourite for the St Leger since the Autumn of 1835, started to drift in the betting market when journalists reported that three year old colt hadn't moved from his field in Hampshire - despite the fact that the final classic of the season was just a few days away. 

Elis won five out of his six runs as a two-year-old, establishing himself as one of the favourites for the 2000 Guineas in 1836. Lord Bentinck backed him accordingly but reportedly lost a fortune when he was narrowly beaten by 'Bay Middleton' in a tight finish. The owner needed to land a major gamble in the St Leger to recover his losses, but the short prices being quoted by bookmakers were inhibiting his plans. 

Lord Bentinck hatched a plot - worthy of a Miss Marple mystery - to transport Elis inside a padded trailer. The trailer would be drawn by a team of six post-horses, with the aim of sparing the colt's energy and completing the journey in record time. The post-horses would be changed at various stages on the 204-mile journey from Nether Wallop (which incidentally featured as St Mary Mead in the TV adaption of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories) and there would even be time for an exercise gallop at Lichfield on the way. 

With a week to go to the big race, in the absence of any sign that Elis was likely to reach Doncaster, the bookmakers promoted the beautifully-named 'Scroggins' to 6/4 favouritism. Elis was easy to back and the conspirators began placing their bets.

Elis completed the journey in just three days and eventually started the 7/2 second favourite. He travelled as easily in the race as he did in the new horsebox, taking up the running after half-way and pulling clear of his field to beat Scroggins. He is believed to have landed his owner £24,000 - a small fortune in 1836. 

Two of this year's field will be travelling from Hampshire - Talent and Havanna Beat. Of the two, I prefer the Oaks winner, Talent. However, her finishing time at Epsom was 3 seconds slower than the colts in the Derby - in which Libertarian and Galileo Rock finished a staying on second and third. Talent will carry 3lbs less than the colts at Doncaster and I fancy all three - put them in any order to finish first second and third in a tote-tricast.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Seasons Are A'Changin

It’s the first week of September and there’s still a smattering of good Flat racing to look forward to including the St Leger, the Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe in France and the Breeders Cup Races in America. 

The St Leger, which will be staged at Doncaster in just over a week’s time, is the oldest of the Classics and happens to be my favourite – being the one that takes place over the longest distance (one mile and six furlongs). If the Derby has long been recognised as a means of selecting the pick of the next stallion crop, the St Leger has become unfashionable by comparison. The winner is assumed to possess stamina instead of speed; while the latter has become the Holy Grail for breeders, the former has become a dirty word - although frankly I think it would be lovely to own a horse that possessed either.

When, like me, your favoured form of racing involves obstacles and a minimum distance of 2 miles, the St Leger begins to look like a more interesting race. And talking of Jump Racing, this week’s news headlines have signalled a seasonal change in the fickle minds of racing enthusiasts: there have been as many stories about top 2 mile chasers as there have been about Group 1 Flat horses – a sure sign that Winter is on its way.

Firstly, we paused to mark the passing of Direct Route at the age of 22. The Howard Johnson trained bay, long retired, won 15 of his 40 starts but is best remembered for finishing second in the 2000 Queen Mother Champion Chase by the shortest of nostrils in one of the most epic finishes in living memory.

Over in Ireland, no one’s telling who will be training Ireland’s top 2–miler Flemenstar; rumours are rife that he could be heading to Tony Martin’s resurgent yard, where no doubt he’d become a popular bet to recover from the mild disappointments of last season after which he reportedly became quite poorly.

Meanwhile, according to Nicky Henderson, Sprinter Sacre (the best 2 mile chaser you, I, our children or our children’s children are ever likely to see) will not be entered for the 3-mile King George VI Steeplechase at Kempton in December. This shouldn’t surprise us a great deal, but it will disappoint those that have backed him as the 6/4 ante-post favourite.

In further shock-news, Henderson warned that his Gold Cup winner Bobsworth is also unlikely to line up for the Christmas feature; favouring, as he does, left handed tracks. No tips for this weekend’s racing – instead I’m going to suggest a long range punt on the Irish trained First Lieutenant to claim the King George VI Chase at 25/1 with Boyle Sports. That’ll keep us warm over the coming weeks.