Thursday, 25 February 2016

Controversial Statements

Our friend Lindsay, from Rowleys Catering, was in the racecourse office the other day. 'A colleague of mine,' he said 'asked whether you actually wrote your own blog.' 

I was flattered of course, thinking that Lindsay’s colleague imagined that we employed an expensive ghost writer. 'No.' he said 'She just thought it was full of the usual promotional claptrap that you’d expect from an underpaid PR executive.'
Well that hurt. Because I used to be an underpaid PR executive; it was fun and I’d always laboured under the impression that I’d fooled everyone. I even used to script quotes on behalf of racecourse executives. Only now do I realise that no one believed a word I wrote – and they still don’t. Everything’s too positive, too perfect. And life isn’t really like that. Except for the tips - which win with a rarity that lends a smattering of authenticity to each post (this time it's the turn of Grumeti at Fontwell Park on Sunday).

So this week there will be no promotions, no glossy pictures painted. This week it’s just horseracing: the plain unvarnished truth. Controversial statements all the way...

Let’s start with girls: they’re just not as good as boys. They're slower, weaker and prone to mood swings caused by hormonal fluctuation – after all, that’s why mares are entitled to a weight allowance when running in conditions races isn’t it? Because let’s be clear, I’m talking about horses here and not humans. 

In fact, in case my daughter reads this, let’s just clarify that statement: girls are miles better than boys. Obviously. They’re more intelligent, funnier, prettier and better at performing more than one task at the same time. It’s just a shame that the boys don’t have to carry a 7lb backpack when it comes to the school cross-country event. 

Excitingly, the favourite for this year’s Champion Hurdle is a mare. And such is the spell cast by Annie Power (men are popular; girls always cast a spell) that some people believe that she could win the race with or without a weight allowance. If she wins convincingly, it could help to change attitudes – because we are guilty of discrimination. Male horses, including geldings and entire horses, account for more than 80% of all horses racing over jumps. 

There were fewer horses bred during the recession and, while numbers are recovering, there are still less horses in training now than there were in 2011. In an effort to encourage more racehorse owners to give mares a chance, the industry has come up with a scheme to enhance prize money when a mare wins – by as much as £10,000 for appropriately registered horses. Much better to have them racing than sat in the field.

And what about female jockeys? I’m not going to recommend that they should sit in a field. Tony McCoy suggested that they should receive a weight allowance when riding against male jockeys - a bit like mares. But that’s far too controversial a topic for me; after all, I’m just an ex-PR guy.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

The 2,600/1 Spring Double

This year Jimmy Moffatt will attempt to do something that no racehorse trainer has ever done before – and I’m not talking about tipping the winner of every championship race at Cheltenham, when he appears at our Festival Preview Night on Thursday 10th March. Although that would be handy too.

Just three trainers (Ivor Anthony, Denys Smith and David Elsworth) have won both the Lincoln Handicap and the Grand National, but no trainer has ever won both races in the same year – a feat known as the ‘Spring Double’. While the first race marks the start of the Flat season, the second is the zenith of the Jumps season and the two races take place on consecutive Saturdays in early April.
The challenge of backing the winners of both races, never mind training them, is so difficult that William Hill Bookmakers once gave thousands of potential investors a free £20 bet on the double. The offer followed an abortive attempt, in 1999, at floating the company on the stock exchange – at which point they gave everyone, who had registered an interest in the floatation, a voucher for the free bet. It would be easy to view the offer as a cynically empty gesture – but I, like many other punters, latched on to the John Dunlop trained 9/2 Lincoln favourite Right Wing, who won cosily by half a length.
My Grand National selection was Addington Boy, who was well supported in the market to 10/1. My potential winnings were £1,100, for a completely free stake, and although Addington Boy eventually finished fourth (winning me nothing), it was one of the most thrilling bets that I’ve ever placed. So imagine how exciting it is going to be when Jimmy Moffatt completes the Spring Double with Golden Town and Highland Lodge, both of which can be easily backed for their respective races at 50/1. That’s 2,600/1 for the win double or just over 180/1 if they can both reach a place.
I should point out that I know almost exactly nothing about Golden Town's chances in the Lincoln. But, having become the top trainer at Cartmel last year, I have faith in Jimmy achieving pretty much anything that he sets his mind to (as long as it involves training horses and has nothing to do with rocket science).
Highland Lodge, on the other hand, has won a race over at least 3 miles (like ten of the last ten Grand National winners); has an official rating higher than 137 (like ten of the last ten winners); has run at least three times since August (like nine of the last ten winners); has won a chase worth more than £29,000 (like nine of the last ten winners); has previously been placed over the National fences - when winning the Becher Chase (like seven of the last ten winners) and will carry no more than 11st (like eight of the last ten winners).
Asked about Highland Lodge’s chances by The Racing Post, Jimmy was quoted as saying “We’re pretty confident.” Which is how I feel about this weekend’s selection: Clic Work at Wincanton on Saturday.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Whose Great Idea Was This?

According to a television programme that I saw last week, we don’t have as much control over our actions as we think. In fact it appears that the notion of ‘free will’ could just be a myth – our bodies simply react to trillions of competing stimuli in an automated process over which we have no conscious control. This could explain quite a lot.

The TV presenter, who was a Doctor (so it must be true), showed us an experiment in which a patient was connected to various laboratory machines and instructed to move their limbs while electromagnetic beams were aimed at their head. By changing the electromagnetic settings, the Doctor could make the patient move the ‘wrong’ limb – although, weirdly, the patient always thought that the unintended movement was their own idea, thus maintaining the misconception that we are responsible for our own actions.

The implications for horseracing are huge. For a start, no one can possibly blame me if Starchitect doesn’t win the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury this weekend. My choice of selection has basically been preordained by a sequence of events which are entirely outwith my own control.

Moreover, we can’t blame the jockey, the trainer or the horse either – they’re all just creatures responding to a complex matrix of external forces. Although it should be noted that Starchitect is a particularly handsome creature and this may well turn out to be one of the forces that discriminates in his favour. 

In another programme this week, I heard an anthropologist discussing a similar theme. Simon McBurney spends his time asking people to point to the place where their ‘consciousness’ comes from. As you’d expect, most adults in western civilisation point to their brain. Some people might point to their heart, which is a nice sentiment, especially with Valentines Day just around the corner. But in the isolated wilds of the Amazon Rain Forest, McBurney found a tribe of people who pointed at the jungle surrounding them. Their belief is that their consciousness comes, not just from the self, but from their environment – which links us back to the hypothesis of the Doctor on TV.  

I’m not sure why I didn’t see this before. I am quite certain that if you asked a hundred thousand Irishmen where their consciousness comes from, they’d point East towards Cheltenham. Like a murmuration of starlings swooping in the Autumn dusk, or a hive of bees swarming in the Spring, droves of punters migrate across the Irish Channel each year in March – apparently coordinated by the unseen hand of fate. Few know how they managed to get to Cheltenham; even fewer know how they got back.

Most of the Irish contingent will be hardwired to bet on any horse trained by Willie Mullins. They’ll probably go home having backed a high proportion of winners. Unfortunately, I’m pre-programmed to support horses at longer prices (it’s a medical condition known as ‘greed’) – and will consequently come away much poorer. But at least I know, now, that it isn’t my fault.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Just the Job

I have a dusty file at home, full of letters received from racecourse managers - responding to my requests for work experience from the age of sixteen onwards. Some of them are very short, most are polite and almost all of them contain the word ‘no’ somewhere within the text. 

There are some exceptions. A few took the time to offer advice and a couple even invited me to visit their racecourses – anywhere from Folkestone in the south, to Kelso in the north (which was a tad far at the time). It was Geoff Stickels, the father of Chris Stickels (Ascot’s Clerk of the Course) who eventually gave me the opportunity to tread in divots at Lingfield Park. That was before they built the all-weather track; they don’t need divot-treaders for many Lingfield meetings nowadays. 

A few years passed, the sand arrived at Lingfield and I received a degree in Agriculture (or something similar, I've forgotten) from a University near Colwick Park - at a time when they still staged jump racing there. Geoff introduced me to his Marketing Director, Roger Easterby, who later became the Marketing Director of the Tote.

Roger gave me a job as Race-day Announcer in the Weighing Room, putting out messages over the PA system: non-runners, jockeys’ colour changes and vehicles that had left their lights on in the car park. I made all the announcements at Lingfield, Folkestone and Brighton and I wasn’t very good at it – so I was rapidly ‘promoted’ to other roles like chief-leaflet-deliverer and pub-poster-putter-upper.  

None of the jobs were full time but, because I was keen, I picked up extra work at Ascot Racecourse, Ladbrokes and a company which delivered flour all over the country - not that this had much to with horseracing, but at least it gave me plenty of time to read The Sporting Life. It was a good apprenticeship and there weren’t many jobs on a racecourse that I didn’t experience to some degree or another – so, if there are any young aspiring racecourse managers out there, I would recommend getting some casual work at your local (or even not so local) track. 

As it happens, we’re looking for people to help us this Summer at Cartmel Racecourse. Each season we directly employ around 120 staff at the races, not including the security stewards, caterers and tote operators. The office team expands too, as we employ an extra person to handle enquiries and assist in the coordination of events from May through to the end of August.  

Anyone interested in working at the racecourse, regardless of whether they’re seeking a new career or a little extra beer money, should write us a letter - I promise you’ll get a reply.  

To work in the office, it’d help if applicants are numerate, literate and have a sense of humour. No other specific qualifications are necessary - unlike entrants for the Cheltenham Foxhunter Steeplechase, who should either have won two point-to-point races or been placed first or second in at least two hunter-chases. Pena Dorada achieved that before winning two handicap chases at Cartmel last year and returns to hunter-chasing at Musselburgh this Sunday, in preparation for a shot at the Cheltenham Festival next month. Pena Dorada is our selection for the weekend.