Thursday, 24 March 2016

Mopping Up at Cartmel

Every smart grandstand needs a clean floor. Every clean floor needs a dirty mop - which is why I was so excited to learn that there was still one week left to register for the racing industry’s new MOP Scheme - promoted by the Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

I’m not saying that I was disappointed but, on contacting the TBA, I was directed to an application form for the registration of fillies - for the ‘Mares’ Owners Prize Scheme’. Not what I was expecting at all... I suppose I’ll just have to continue polishing the floor with my socks.

But still, it’s good news for racehorse owners – who can earn a bonus of £10,000 per race if their horses win particular races, restricted to mares, over hurdles or fences. There is also a £5,000 bonus for winners of Mares Only National Hunt Flat Races. To qualify for the bonus, the mares must be appropriately registered. Breeders have until 31st March to nominate any fillies that were foaled in 2013 - those foaled in 2012 should already be registered.

Only a fifth of horses currently racing over jumps are female which, given Annie Power’s Champion Hurdle winning display last week, is a great shame. The racing public is missing out – to see how good mares can be, watch the first race at Haydock on Saturday (in which our selection is Card Game) and tell me if you can see any difference between these horses and the ones that run later. 

The TBA has promoted MOPS to encourage owners and trainers to give mares a chance of proving themselves on the track – simultaneously underpinning the selection of the best breeding stock according to racing ability. The enhanced prize money will improve demand for British bred fillies, hopefully enhancing the economic viability of British breeding enterprises.

And there’s even more good news for mare-owners at Cartmel. Hadwins Motor Group, who have form as long-time supporters of the racecourse, have agreed to sponsor an entire programme of races especially for mares. The five race series will consist of three handicap hurdle races, a maiden hurdle and a novice hurdle race – which will qualify for the £10,000 MOPS bonus scheme.

In addition, Hadwins Motor Group are providing a £1,000 bonus of their own - for the stable that earns the most points in the series. Points will be awarded for each runner and for those that achieve a place in the first three. 

Hadwins Motor Group stables three major dealerships – Hadwins Volkswagen, Hadwins Approved (in Kendal) and Lake District Audi. For as long as they’ve been attending Cartmel, we’ve made fairly predictable quips about ‘horsepower’ – but no longer. From now on it’s all about girl-power… Just don’t ask them to mop up afterwards.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The £520 Million Jockey Tax

Shares in Ladbrokes surged nearly 8% at around 1.45pm on Wednesday. I have a strong suspicion that it might have had something to do with the first leg of my life-changing 'Lucky-15'  - which went down with Yanworth, in the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle. But, just for now, I’m going to give the credit to George Osborne.

Now, I’m not suggesting that George Osborne backed Yanworth, although I’m sure he was tempted – what easier way to get the economy back on track than to whack a few billion on an even money favourite. To put a smaller amount on a Willie Mullins accumulator perhaps? To bet the remote gambling tax on Pena Dorada in the Foxhunters on Friday? Or to stick with our weekend selection: the Jimmy Moffatt trained Altruism, in Newcastle’s novice hurdle on Saturday.

But when it came to Wednesday’s budget announcement, the Chancellor gave Ladbrokes a break – there were no further announcements about tax on fixed odds betting terminals – and instead he imposed a £520 million tax on jockeys. At least I think the soft drink sugar tax is aimed at jockeys: the mountain of empty Lucozade bottles left in the changing room after a day’s racing would suggest that they are the country’s most prolific drinkers of sugary drinks. 

It should be noted that it is the racecourses that purchase the drinks in the Jockeys’ changing area, so technically this is a tax on racecourses. But no matter; perhaps we’ll end up with healthier jockeys with better teeth. Either that, or we’ll substitute the Lucozade for cider (on which duty has been frozen) and we won’t have any jockeys at all because they’ll all fail their drug tests. 

The money raised from the new tax is going to be given to schools, which probably means that our children will grow up being too sensible to get on the back of a horse and race at 30mph over obstacles – which will be a problem for the industry in the future. We’ll have to recruit athletes from other sports, like cycling, to compete in their place. Oh – it seems that’s already started.

In other budget news, the Chancellor announced that he will allocate £700m to flood defence schemes – including those in York, Carlisle and across Cumbria, which means that the 'Going Description' at York, Carlisle and Cartmel is guaranteed to be ‘Good’ of faster from 2017 onwards. He also earmarked £230 million for road improvements in the north of England, so getting to Cartmel will become quicker and easier.

So that’s the budget in a nutshell: relief for bookmakers, better teeth for jockeys and a grand display of Cumbrian Altruism (who the Chancellor is sure to back at a good price).

Monday, 14 March 2016

Cheltenham Festival Preview News

The audience at the Cartmel Festival Preview Night was terribly well behaved; there was none of the heckling that you get at other venues - except for one ignorant punter who rudely interrupted to recommend a horse which, as it turned out, had already been scrubbed from the list of entrants.

But that's enough about me, what did the real expert panellists say?

One horse had them all smiling: a good old-fashioned coup in plain site; a horse which has been brought along with just one race in mind - campaigned cleverly to maintain a favourable handicap rating. One of the few horses to unite the panellists - right at the end of the evening. Oh - you should have been there...

One of the hot favourites on the first day of the Festival is thought to have a wind infirmity - but is considered so good that they might just win anyway, without coming under the sort of pressure which could reveal the potential problem. Which horse? Oh you should have been there...

Another ante-post favourite drifted in the markets after suffering defeat last time out - but was subsequently found to have stood on a stone. Which horse? Don't worry - we were given a better priced one that will probably beat it anyway. I'll come to that later...

Selecting just a few of the panel's selections is a tricky task - after all, I want to impart enough winners to ensure that you come and pay for a ticket to next year's Preview Night. On the other hand, I don't want to give away the best information, otherwise no one will need to buy a ticket next year - seeing as it's all in the blog. At least that's my excuse -if somehow I manage to ignore all the winners and highlight only the also-rans.

So here goes: Henry Brooke thinks Min will win the first and apologises for being unoriginal. Marten Julian suggests that Buveur D'Air offers the best value. Trevor Harris (of Star Sports) and the panel Chairman (John Sexton) agree with him - who said Henry was unoriginal!

Jimmy Moffatt, trainer of the 2016 Grand National winner (in case you had forgotten) opted for Silver Concorde.

Everyone agreed that Douvan would win the Arkle Novices Chase, although the selection was truly unoriginal.

The Champion Hurdle will go to Nichols Canyon, The New One or Top Notch. Or possibly My Tent Or Yours, but only if he has learnt to settle during the two years he has been away from the track. No one mentioned Lil Rockerfeller - but I think he's worth backing each-way anyway.

Polly Peachum, Aurore D'Estruval and Bitofapuzzle were popular for the Mares' race - with The Govaness each-way for a bit of fun.

In the Ultima Chase, a race usually won by a horse with a low weight, the panel opted for Holywell, Carole's Destrier and Morning Assembly - all of whom are set to carry 11st 10lb or more. Trevor thought Kruzhlinin would go well, although Henry (who has ridden him) didn't think he'd jump the Cheltenham fences fluently enough.

On Wednesday, Yanworth will definitely win the Neptune Novices Hurdle (according to Jimmy - who says that there is no point backing losers at long prices when you can back winners at short ones). Marten prefers A Toi Phil - and Trevor confirms that there has been money for him. 

While More Of That and No More Heroes are the class horses in the RSA Novices Chase, virtually everyone agrees that this race isn't usually won by the classiest. Seeyouatmidnight is a popular selection. 

There is barely 4lb covering the top five in the betting for the Champion Chase, which begs the question: Why would you back Un De Sceaux at odds-on, when you can back Dodging Bullets at 10/1 or more? And even then, Marten thinks that Felix Yonger (10lb off the top) is better than his official mark suggests.

If Trevor is to be believed (do we ever believe bookmakers?), even the handicapper thinks Diego Du Charmil will win the Fred Winter.

In the Bumper, Henry likes Spirit of Kayaf; Marten and Jimmy go for Ballyandy, while Marten also thinks the fact that Willie Mullins isn't talking about Castello Sforza could be significant. Incidentally, Willie Mullins is about to go down in history as the man who trained the most losers ever at one Cheltenham Festival (even if he also trains the most winners).

John Sexton believes that Black Hercules will win whichever race he runs in - which should be the JLT Novices Chase on Day 3 (Thursday).

Coincidentally, Thursday is also the day that Doctor Harper is likely to appear, having held multiple handicap entries in the build-up to the Festival. He'll probably win the Kim Muir - although you could also look out for Perfect Candidate, Cause of Causes, Silvergrove and Lost Legend.

The panel are unanimous in their support for John's Spirit in the Brown Advisory Chase.

Six different horses are mentioned favourably for the World Hurdle, none of them is Knockara Beau - who I am hoping for, with every fibre of my heart.

I've forgotten what was said about the new novice race for mares, as that's when I got up to refresh my orange juice and lemonade. It was very nice.

Day four: Marten's tip for the whole meeting is Connetable. That's difficult to resist, even though I hold a 16/1 voucher for Zubayr - who was also the selection of Jimmy Moffatt. Henry Brooke is going for Leoncavallo, John Sexton for Footpad and Trevor Harris for Sceau Royal.

My favourite race on Friday (after the Gold Cup, the Foxhunter and possibly the Triumph Hurdle) is the County Hurdle. Marten is hoping that Kayf Blanco creeps into the weights - he looks outstandingly handicapped for a 33/1 shot.

Don Cossack isn't very sexy, but he'll probably win the Gold Cup. John's gone for the other Don (Poli), while Jimmy, Henry and Trevor are all not-so-secretly hoping Cue Card scoops the million pound bonus.

Pena Dorada is a 66/1 certainty for the Foxhunter (no one said that - but I think he'll probably lead them down the hill on the final circuit). Jimmy tipped Mendip Express.

And then there was that one that made them all smile. What was it called? Oh sorry... out of space...

Thursday, 10 March 2016

What Have You Got To Lose?

I was just seven years old, standing in the school playground, when I first contemplated Pascal’s Wager. Of course I’d never actually heard of the 17th Century philosopher, nor did I really understand the concept of wagering, but the thought process was there.

My friend Peter Colligan, who was also seven, asked me ‘Do you believe in God?’ 

I responded by looking over my left shoulder, just in case God was actually standing behind me, thought for a moment, and said ‘Yes’. Because I wasn’t really sure, but if God did exist and he heard me saying ‘No’, there was a very real possibility that I could be struck by lightning on the spot. In other words, it may have been a longshot - but there seemed little harm in acknowledging God’s existence and a major potential downside if I denied it.

Pascal had it the other way around. In a document entitled ‘Pensées’, published posthumously (by which time he presumably knew the result of his wager) he reasoned that there was little downside to believing in God - besides the deprivation of a few luxuries - but a major upside if we found ourselves ascending to an infinite paradise as a result of our belief. He posed the question ‘What have you got to lose?’ 

… Which is what I ask myself, every year, as we approach the major National Hunt Festivals of Cheltenham and Aintree. 

Here’s an easy one: Should I back the Jimmy Moffatt trained Highland Lodge at 50/1 for the Grand National? On the downside, I might lose my £2. On the upside, I could win £100 – and more importantly, if he does win, I won’t be derided as the only person in South Cumbria who hasn’t backed him. Answer: back Highland Lodge.

Here’s another one: Should I back the dual Cartmel winner Pena Dorada, at 66/1, for the Cheltenham Foxhunters Chase? Again, I might lose my £2, but then I might win £132. And if he were to win without my money down, there would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth – so much worse than the fiery depths of hell. I obviously have to back him.

So what about this week’s selection? Well this is where we depart from the cold logic of Pascal’s Wager and rely on good old fashioned faith. Because, let’s face it, an omnipotent being would see straight through Pascal in any case - faith being so much more powerful than logic.

I’m placing my faith in Lucinda Russell - the trainer of Bold Sir Brian who attempts to win, for the first time since 2012, at Ayr on Saturday. He’ll be running off a handicap hurdle mark of just 115, compared to a peak of 155 when beating Pacha du Polder (the replacement for Victoria Pendleton's bicycle at Cheltenham next week) over the larger obstacles back in 2012. 

Come on, what have you got to lose?

Thursday, 3 March 2016

A New Dawn for Edith & Maud

On Thursday, this week, the Government made an announcement which will hopefully provide a fitting conclusion to a story first told by Rudyard Kipling in 1888. 

The story, entitled ‘False Dawn’, concerned a suitor who intended to propose to one of two sisters in provincial India. The sisters, Edith and Maud, possessed ‘a strong likeness between them in look and voice,’ - which might have been a metaphor for the similarities between bookmakers on the high-street and bookmakers who operate through digital platforms, often based overseas. Unfortunately the suitor, whose name was Saumarez (he later became a horse and won the 1990 Prix De L’Arc De Triomphe) was disoriented by a dust storm and proposed to the wrong one.

During the last decade we’ve seen quite a few false dawns in racing, while the Government attempted to ensure that offshore bookmakers made a fair contribution to the sport of horseracing. First they scrapped the Horserace Betting Levy Board, then they hastily reinstated it, since when they've been forced to mediate between racing's requirements and the betting industry's identity issues.

Sadly, like Saumarez, their good intentions were lost among a series of disorienting storms - some brewed by the bookmakers and others by European legislation. They tried to woo the offshore bookmakers, but kept on clobbering high-street betting shops instead. This week, however, the Government announced a radical package of reform which will involve the replacement of the Horseracing Betting Levy from April 2017. 

The replacement scheme is expected to deliver a similar proportion of revenue, to horseracing, as was lost through the overseas migration of betting operators. It will create a level playing field among bookmakers: Edith (who owned all the betting shops) will no longer have to pay a lot more than Maud (who dealt exclusively online). Crucially, the plan is also expected to pass European state aid rules, following the favourable outcome of a similar case in France – assuming of course we are still part of Europe in April 2017.

The money will be used to secure the integrity of the sport and to underpin prize money - the life-blood of racing, as it filters through racecourses to owners, trainers, breeders and stable staff. 

In the meantime, racing continues to encourage bookmakers to become Authorised Betting Partners – a status which enables them to sponsor races at Cartmel as well as other racecourses – to make up the shortfall over the next year. One such authorised partner is Star Sports, who happen to sponsor our Cheltenham Festival Preview Night, which will be held in the Grandstand on Thursday 10th March. Tickets are still available and you’ll be able to enjoy a delicious supper as well as secure quality information ahead of the Festival in two weeks time.

And talking of quality information… You can call Star Sports now to back this week’s selection, Many Clouds, in Kelso’s Premier Chase on Saturday. Here’s hoping that those clouds don’t obscure racing’s new dawn.