Friday, 28 October 2016

Half Term Sport

I’ve never really subscribed to the Tony McCoy, win-at-all-costs, approach to sport. According to my bookmaker, it’s the reason why I’m such a good punter. As each loser passes the post, I’m able to tear up my ticket with a gallic shrug of the shoulders and tell myself that it’s the taking part that counts.
And I’ve been taking part in a lot of sport this week because it is the half-term school holiday. I should make it clear, at this stage, that I left school some time ago – but my daughter hasn’t and so I used this short Autumn holiday to take some time off and reacquaint myself with several sports which I haven’t experienced in two or three decades.
Whoever said that you never forget how to ride a bike is quite wrong. I seem to remember, at the age of eight, riding a bike without having to use my hands. But this week I struggled to steer the damn thing at all, never mind while speeding nonchalantly downhill with my arms crossed. It wasn’t very Chris Froome – although I’d like to see him win a Tour De France with a tag-along children’s bike bolted on to the rear of his back wheel.
Next came the swimming which was superbly uncompetitive – no one is too bothered about winning races when they’re bobbing up and down in front of a wave-machine.
It turned out that I was pretty good at archery – I almost hit the target once. It might not sound like much of an achievement, but by the time you’ve made your own bow and arrows, cut from a nearby hedgerow, you’re quite pleased if the arrows fly further than the end of your toes.
The real competition started when we met up with some of my daughter’s cousins for a spot of croquet. There is a common misconception that croquet is a sedate game played by gentlemen. It isn’t. Croquet is an evil game, the object of which is less about winning and more about smashing your opponent’s ball to the four corners of the lawn or, even better, to make their ball hit the central post – which means that they have to return to the start line. It’s easy to cause offence in a game of croquet; I don’t think we’ll be invited back in a hurry.
Just as I didn’t expect to win the game of croquet, it’s true that I don’t really expect every horse that I back to win its race. So it’s doubly exciting when I inadvertently pick a winner – and the feeling is quadrupled when the horse is an old friend like Menorah, my selection for the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby on Saturday. With horses as wonderful as Menorah – that have run in the best races year after year – it doesn’t really matter if they find one too good on the day, as long as we enjoy watching them run. If he completes safely but doesn’t win, it will have been a good race. If he wins, it will be an even better one.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Bookies Bashed as Punters Weep in the Streets

Cor, wot a scorcher! The bookies are being asked for tens of millions of pounds, but there are punters weeping in the streets... What’s going on? The Sun might ask.

The gods of sport took aim at horseracing this week and unleashed both barrels – as two seismic events rocked the racing world. First, The Times newspaper announced that it had seen a letter, from the Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch, asking bookmakers for their thoughts on paying racing a 10% share of gross profits on horserace betting.
Then came the second blast, inevitable one day I suppose: The Sun newspaper heralded the retirement of Claude Duval, the Punters’ Pal.
The 71 year old racing journalist from Cranbrook in Kent (42: 52: 32) – I made up the vital statistics, which is something Claude would NEVER do – has been a fixture at The Sun since the tabloid edition first hit the streets in November 1969. The front-page headline was: 'Horse Dope Sensation!' In fact Claude was the only remaining member of the reporting team that published that first tabloid edition, although The Sun had enjoyed an even earlier life as a broadsheet since 1964.

Claude Duval became the Horserace Writers Association’s Journalist of the Year in 1998 and published biographies of Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery, Willie Carson and Tony McCoy. But his greatest moment arguably came following the disqualification of Royal Gait from the Ascot Gold Cup in 1988. Prior to the subsequent Jockey Club hearing, Claude wrote "If Royal Gait doesn’t get the race I’ll streak round Portman Square…" But Royal Gait was not awarded the race and Claude Duval achieved the sort of photo by-line which would still be considered unusual today.
Throughout Claude’s near 50-year tenure, the racing industry has been engaged in a never-ending negotiation with bookmakers over the amount of money that should be paid for their main product, a proportion of the profits left behind by punters in the bookmakers’ satchels. After more than 50 years of the Horserace Betting Levy, Tracey Crouch’s letter suggested that we might be nearing a settlement.
A charge of 10% of gross profits, levied on digital platforms as well as high-street betting shops, would represent an increase of more than £30 million for racing, which has seen levy revenue plummet from around £100 million, to less than £55 million, in the last ten years.
It is estimated that the new scheme, which would include relief for smaller betting firms, could cost Ladbrokes and Corals an extra £5 million. While we shouldn’t assume that they’ll be pleased at the prospect, the proposal offers the merging bookmakers a degree of certainty and a level playing field with other, digitally-led, betting organisations. The price looks cheap when compared against the discount applied to their joint shop dispersal, engineered to smooth their merger through competition concerns, of 359 shops at the knock down price of just £55.5 million.
A spokesman for DCMS was keen to point out that no rate has been agreed for the replacement levy scheme. A spokesman for The Sun refused to confirm whether the Punters' Pal would endorse our selection for this weekend – Urban Hymn at Kelso, 2.35pm on Saturday. 

... and for Claude Duval's own account of his time at The Sun, go to:

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Award Winning Walking in the Park

"It's too bad," says Gary with a grin upon his face, "that there isn't an award for the untidiest desk or the tallest pile of Racing Calendars."
He is referring to the fact that his team has just been named as the winners, in the jumps track category, of the 2016 racecourse Groundstaff Awards. It's also true that there is a stark contrast between the neat enclosures outside my office window and the organised chaos of the Stewards Room, which doubles as managerial HQ when we're not racing.
As I've always maintained, a dirty bath is the sign of a clean body and a tidy desk is the sign of an empty mind.
Nonetheless, Gary Sharp's achievement, at the head of a team consisting of one other full-time groundsman (the excellent Martyn Fogg), plus several part time staff and contractors, is significant. His efforts have yielded record numbers of runners, greater consistency in the going and several innovations that have improved both the racegoer experience and equine safety. 

Racehorse trainers have responded by sending better horses to Cartmel; it's no accident that two track records fell during the course of this year.
An interesting fact: we welcomed more horses to Cartmel during the first six and a half weeks of the most recent season, than in any calendar year of the racecourse’s history with the exception of 2015. Repairing the track after so many hoof prints is no walk in the park. Well… except of course it does involve walking… in the park. But there’s lots of other technical things that Gary does too, besides the walking – or so he tells me.
I think he gets many of his ideas from Pitchcare magazine, which happens to be one of the brand-sponsors of the award - alongside Fornells, the running rail manufacturer, and Watt Fences, who supply materials for making hurdles, steeplechase fences, PVC fencing and almost anything else you could want on a racecourse except barbecues and cricket bats (which, apart from Cartmel, aren’t required at most racecourses anyway).
The team at Brighton picked up the groundstaff award for Flat tracks, while Ascot scooped the award for dual-purpose tracks (flat and jump combined). The overall winner, for the top team of the year, will be announced at the Racecourse Association’s Showcase Awards next month – an event which is a bit like the Oscars but much more important.
If there was an award for the top racecourse tipster (there isn’t), we might have been in with a chance this year – the weekly selections have so far yielded a profit of £49.29 to a £1 level stake. Realism suggests that the good fortune can’t continue – but we’re going to give it a go anyway, with Rayvin Black in the 4.10pm at Kempton on Sunday.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Glass Half Full

Each year, at about this time (Friday evening to be precise), we stage an annual get-together for the people that have helped us throughout the season. It’s a fun occasion and it gives us a chance to reflect on the events of the Summer.
I’ve come to notice over the years that when a Clerk of the Course makes a mistake, we have a new track layout; when the office administrative team makes a mistake, we have a new filing system – but when I make a mistake, it turns out that I’ve just made a mistake. Well on Friday evening I’ll be reminded of all the new ideas that the team has come up with and all the mistakes that I’ve made during the year. We’ll have a chat and a laugh, we’ll make some fresh plans and we’ll raise a glass to the season that’s passed. And, at the very least, the glass will be half full…
Because there are a multitude of benefits to be derived from positive thinking. According to research scientists at the University of Kentucky, optimists are likely to have a stronger immune system than pessimists, they’re at a lower risk of heart failure and they’ll live for longer. Optimists are also more likely to age well, which explains why so many racehorse owners appear to be so spritely in the Parade Ring - because there can be no greater optimist in the World than a racehorse owner.
And of all the varieties of racehorse owner, there can be no greater expert in positive thinking than those that own jump horses – and of all the months in the year, October is the time when their optimism hits peak levels. This weekend's Totepool Silver Trophy at Chepstow has long heralded the start of the Winter jumps season – with the unleashing of some of the most promising horses from the most prolific yards. The meeting has been through a quiet spell for a decade or so, but this year it has regained its lustre – with Saturday’s £50,000 prize attracting a high quality field and supporting races for the two-day meeting attracting some of racing’s biggest names.
Former Champion Chaser Sire De Grugy could run at the meeting, as well as the Cheltenham Gold Cup fifth Irish Cavalier and Grand National candidates Unioniste and Kruzhlinin. However, if there is one horse that I can’t wait to see this Winter, it is the full brother to Wishfull Thinking – this week’s selection: Wishfull Dreaming.
Call me an optimist, but if this horse can't win off a handicap mark of 123, I'm a Dutchman (and I'm pretty sure I'm not). If I’m wrong? Well, I’ll just have to console myself with the fact that I’m going to live longer than most of the pessimists believe... possibly in Holland