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.