Going racing in Malta

I’m back from a week in the Mediterranean sun, and thanks to Gigginstown/Ryanair’s strict one bag only rules, I had to leave the laptop behind. Still, Mr O’Leary’s Sir Des Champs had largely paid for the trip with his win in the Jewson at Cheltenham, so I don’t begrudge giving that money back.

I heard three things about racing whilst I was away: Brae Hill won a close fought finish to the Lincoln; Mickael Barzalona rode the winner of the Dubai world cup, and Jason Maguire rode a double at Ascot. But I wasn’t completely cut off. So while I’m catching up on the latest racing developments here in the UK, here’s something on the year’s big two day meeting at the Marsa Racing Club in Malta.

The Marsa Hippodrome is Malta’s only racetrack, but given that the island is no more than 17 miles by 9, it’s no great surprise that there is just the one circuit. The track has changed since it was established by the British Military in 1868, and is now a simple oval of 1,000 metres. With a mixture of flat and trotting races, run manly over 2,140 (10 furlongs) or 2,640 metres (12 furlongs) there’s plenty of opportunity to see the horses close up during the race.

The highlight of Saturday’s seven race card was the opening leg of the 2012 Mediterranean Horse Racing Union Drivers’ Championship, an invitation trotting event contested by entries from Malta, France, Italy, Russia, Serbia and the Ukraine.

The home nation were represented by local racing veteran Ray Clifton, who is now well into his 60s. He started as a jockey in the late 1950s and soon won the Mediterranean Derby on a horse called Waterloo Boy. We remember another horse of that name had considerable success over here! Clifton started driving trotters around 40 years ago and is clearly something of a legend on the island.

Clifton clearly needed all his skills on Saturday as he brought his charge Polytain home by a nose ahead of the Italian driver Attilio Golia with Petit Veinard.

Strangely, in my view, this was not a premier race in terms of prize money. Races are graded, with “copper” events the lowest grade, through bronze, silver and gold, premier and then the highest grade, the “open” races. The Drivers’ Championship was a bronze event, with the winner picking up just €400 in prize money.

All the races have a rolling start, with the trotters following a "winged van" for a couple of hundred metres before this pulls off the track to launch the off and the action. Handicaps are particularly interesting, as the handicapping is done by distance rather than weight. The horse with the lowest mark gets a head start on all the others, and as you move up the handicap, so the start on the highest handicapped horse is reduced. The draw ensures there’s plenty of scrimmaging going on as the faster horses catch up and try to overtake their rivals who are cutting in from the outside of the track.

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Fast-forward 24 hours, by which time I had a bit of a feel for what was going on, and though I should have a fun flutter or two. With eight races on Sunday’s card there were plenty of opportunities to blow some of my spending money.

Things didn’t go well in the first race. I decided to weigh in with in form driver Charles Camillieri, who had steered home a four timer on the Saturday. He was driving New Hope, which seemed a reasonably named charge for my first bet in a trotting race. Unfortunately, things soon went awry, as the combination was disqualified for breaking – not running the whole race in the trotting gait. This happens a lot!

The second race wasn’t any better, but I took some consolation that the only people cheering on this winner were the bookies. They weren’t going to lose on a combination going off at 143.8/1.

I had noticed that horses with a single figure draw had won eight of the nine races I had seen so far over the two days (most races had 15 or 16 runners). I thought I would use that as my guide, along with one of my old betting principles – that when there’s a break of four points in the market after the first three or four market leaders, back the outsider of those heading the betting. And it worked, with Tony Mallia (driver) and Orlando Dix (horse) giving me a return at 6.2. We were working up the race standards, too, so I decided to leave out any more copper and bronze events and concentrate my two minutes of form study on the better class events.

This meant I skipped the fourth race and was faced with a serious decision in the fifth. Did I stick to the draw or did I plonk my bet on the outsider of the three favourites? As low numbered combinations were still prevailing, I went with that approach, and the reward was another winner. Noting on the scale of Cheltenham, but enough to pay for dinner.

The bookies are kept out of sight of the racetrack itself, tucked away behind the main stand, so there’s a fair bit of legging it if you are betting on each race – and as they go off at 20 minute intervals rather than the half hour we are used to, you can’t afford to hang about.

Race 6 didn’t look promising from a betting point of view – two pairings vying for favouritism at around 2/1, and then 6/1, 7/1 and 9/1. I was happy to leave this alone.

The next race was the bid one, the only Open event on the card. The Dragonara Casino Tazza I-Kbira is Malta’s most prestigious race and this was its 79th running. Could I find the winner? My rules on the draw and the market pointed to one pairing: Mig Of The Wood, partnered by Tony Baldaccino, a French 12 year old whose career winnings had totalled over €430,000. Malta’s big race purse of €2,600 wasn’t going to add substantially to that, but at odds of 7.8/1 I thought there was a decent chance of adding to my little pot.

And so it turned out, as they came in a length clear of Charles Camillieri. It wasn’t turning out to be his day at all – several favourite and not a single winner. But it had been mine. As there wasn’t anything meeting my criteria in the lat race, my “round of drinks” bets had produced three winners, and more than paid for the two days racing.

Beginners luck? It probably was, but I’ll apply the same rules next time I’m in Malta and see if there’s some real value in them.

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