Well, what a weekend a wacing... sorry, racing... that was. Wacky races indeed. I was lucky enough to attend a couple of meetings last week and I've jotted my thoughts down here.
It all started on Thursday, down on the Dorset/Somerset border, and frosty Wincanton. The good people at Racing Welfare had commandeered the meeting for promotional and fund-raising purposes, and had a number of events scheduled as part of the afternoon's merriment.
However, all that would come to nought if dear old Winny couldn't pass its 8am inspection. Now, as you'll know if you've been following twitter in these weather-dominated days of abandonments and further inspections, the micro-blogging site is an absolute treasure trove of current information, most of it pretty much spot on.
So, as I clambered aboard the 08:20 rattler from Waterloo to Templecombe, I was expecting to tune in and get full chapter and verse before the carriages left the platform. Alas, no. When you need it to be, life is often not that simple.
It seems - from a communications perspective, at least - that Wincanton's 8am inspection lasted until 09:20! And even then, the bulletin was that there would be a further inspection at 10am.
Having made the early part of the journey through streets of frosted roofs as the iron horse wended westward, I knew the problem. It would be a fair few degrees sharper in the country. And indeed, by the time the 08:20 from Waterloo had become the 09:23 from Andover, the battle in which the clerks of the course were engaged became apparent as field after field was topped with a crusty, dusty white surface.
I was making contingency plans when it was finally revealed, some time after 10am and just as I was alighting the train, that the meeting would go ahead. Stepping down from a warm heated carriage into the fresh, cold morning offered little in the way of supporting evidence that the meeting could proceed, and it wasn't until I arrived at the track that I realised what a superb job the maintenance staff had done.
Let's be clear: clerks of the course and their teams have a generally thankless task. If it's not trainers and owners whining that they shouldn't have watered /the ground is too firm / there's a draw bias; then it's the dreaded 'will temperatures rise?' conundrum.
This one is a bit of a nightmare for all concerned, and is clearly not as cut and dried as some dismissive observers insinuate. Sure, it's easy enough to gauge the depth of frost in the ground; but overlaying the likely rise in air and ground temperature between inspection time and first race time... and doing that in a manner where you simply cannot afford to be wrong... is a real challenge.
Back to Thursday, and Wincanton. They had more reasons than most to ensure the meeting went ahead. Not, you understand, especially for the racing itself, which was only marginally above moderate in the main. No, this was about fund-raising, and the aforementioned Racing Welfare, as well as EPDS Racing - more of them momentarily.
You see, on this day, there was a special charity race featuring twelve trainers or assistant trainers riding nags which varied from a Group 3 winner that ran in the Derby (Ted Spread) to a winning three mile chaser (Roalco de Farges). Not only that, but each of the jockeys was sponsored for the event, and one of them - Anthony Honeyball - was sponsored by me!
It seems the excitement of such lofty backing was lost on AJH, as he told me prior to the start that his mount, Swincombe Stone, needed a blow out and this was an ideal opportunity. As a race not run under the rules of racing, it seemed that schooling in public was positively de rigeur!
Not that I cared, of course. It was little more than an excuse for a day out and a chance to catch up with the sport we all love. Here are some pictures of various riders before and after the race...
The race was won by Neil Mulholland, aboard Adiynara, and I have to say he was very stylish in the finish to see off all comers. Ralph Beckett will have been pleased with his placed showing in third, with Tim Vaughan splitting the pair. Dan Skelton, atop the aforementioned Ted Spread, did all he could but his mount didn't seem to have the guts in the last furlong of his trio of vanquishers. Fourth only for the logical favourite.
As you can see from the snaps, much fun was had by all, principally the spectators.
The 'actual' racing, featuring professional jockeys and obstacles barring the path to victory, was less comment worthy. Luckily for me, a chance meeting with a friend, John Powell of EPDS Racing, led to a spot of lunch and a glass of wine. That was a by-product of the fact that the great and the good of the racing fraternity in this part of Albion had convened for a luncheon. Thirty-odd tables of ten were thronged with munching and guzzling, with the likes of The Chemist and The Denizen (names protected to protect the innocent, but regular readers will know to whom I refer) in their midst. And this prior to the ROA Awards that very night. It would be a long day for some of those lunchtime revellers.
(My thanks to John for his kind hospitality, and best wishes to his Shilpa, which runs today at Fakenham).
On the track, Coole River made a very pleasing return from three years off on his first start for Emma Lavelle and should be winning soon. He was only second here to Paul Nicholls' Grandioso, which plugged on best in very sticky conditions. I wouldn't fancy him to confirm form with the second next time they meet.
I backed Ulis de Vassy, the horse at the centre of Daryl Jacob's ten day ban: a suspension that will see him miss all of the Christmas and New Year racing and, potentially, some big pay days. He received his ban for not riding to the finish. I have to say, I thought that was extremely harsh, as his horse went from cruising to nothing in a couple of strides.
Clearly a monkey, Ulis de Vassy would not have beaten the game and super-consistent Quaddick Lake. This is the race from which I think future winners will emanate, and if any of the sextet are worth a weather eye, then concentrate here. Top Wood, Notarfbad and Headly's Bridge should all be competitive under optimal conditions in the near future.
Leaving the course after the fifth race, I was in a hurry to catch a train for an evening meeting with some of the other online racing product vendors: a meeting which I'd arranged. Unfortunately, I wasn't familiar with Wincanton, and didn't realise that taxis are rarer than hen's teeth there. I was extremely lucky then to find a minibus driver awaiting his party after the last, and to blag a ride from him to Templecombe station, some five miles away.
Having recouped my earlier losses with a fairly lumpy investment on Ballinahow Star, I made the journey worth his while, and thanked him kindly for getting me out of a self-dug hole.
Back in London and a quick spin up the Northern Line from Waterloo to Euston to meet with ten or so fellow online racing chaps. Fun, booze and curry were the watch words, as well as a smattering of business chat of course!
Friday was a day on the 'easy list' after this, and especially so as I had plans to be at Sandown on Saturday for a card that included the wonderful Sprinter Sacre making his seasonal bow in the Tingle Creek Chase.
Last season, I'm slightly embarrassed to say, I was a little slow on the uptake in acknowledging the brilliance of this horse. And I tried to 'get him' a couple of times. Naturally enough, the record shows the futility of those attempts and I'm now firmly in the 'Sprinter is a machine' camp.
I headed to Esher (home of Sandown Park) with Declan Rix, who works for At The Races, and we strolled across the course from station to grandstand. It was a truly glorious early winter day and, as the sun's watery warmth dulled the worst of the cold, I thought to myself what a wonderful week it was.
The racing, in contrast to that at Wincanton, was generally excellent, and there were many pointers for the future. The opening novice hurdle was run at a crawl, but it was hard not to be taken by the performance of Golden Hoof, owned - like a number of other 'Hoof' horses - by golf agent, Chubby Chandler, and his former world number one golfer, Lee Westwood.
The Hoof cruised through the race and quickened smartly to win going away by eight lengths from the pace-setting Lord Protector. Most of these will find their mark in handicaps rather than Festival Championship events, but there were some decent sticks in here, perhaps most notably Beckhani, which ran better than a free-falling drift from 7/2 to 11/2 implied.
The second race, a mares' handicap hurdle, was won by the top weight, Kentford Grey Lady. Second in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham, behind the mighty Quevega, entitled her to serious respect; and the manner of this victory is worth a good bit more than the winning margin, to my eye at least.
She travelled very well off the pace, and when she was asked to get involved, fair cantered up to the leaders. She was giving a stone to the second horse, and the best part of the same to the third, so this was a run of proper class.
The unlucky mare was Justazippy, who looked the main danger to the winner when taking a heavy fall at the last. She's one to keep an eye on next time, as is the winner, wherever she goes next, as long as it's against her own sex.
Araldur was another impressive winner, and was ridden like a non-trier. Certainly, the jockey would have been in trouble had he not got up in the shadow of the post to collar Kasbadali for the luckless Oliver Sherwood (received a hefty fine for a very dubious stewarding judgment of a non-trier in the week).
Araldur could have picked them up a quarter of a mile earlier, and three miles on soft ground looks well within his scope. He's another to follow. The other in this race of some interest is David Pipe's Amigo, who was expected to need the run. He raced prominently throughout and plugged on for third, on his first start in Britain. I'm fairly sure he'll be tilting at one of the Festival handicaps, perhaps the race named in his trainer's father's honour.
Captain Conan too was impressive, for different reasons. His jumping was the thing that caught my eye. For a novice having only his second run over fences, he was athletic generally and clever when needed. It is that second component which is so important in novices, and this fellow now has a Grade 2 and a Grade 1 chase win under his belt. He looks a ready made Arkle candidate, and is already no better than 7/1 for that race. He'll continue to be hard to beat.
If there was a horse not trying on this card, then it was Paul Nicholls' Hinterland. Quite clearly ridden from way off the pace, Hinterland wasn't asked for maximum effort until late in the piece, and he cruised through for second, eventually beaten three and a half lengths. After the 'brave' verdicts of the stewards earlier in the week, in the cases of Jacob and Sherwood, it seemed remiss of them to fail to enquire as to the running and riding of Hinterland, in my view.
Presumably the Denizen of Ditcheat (oops, that's one cat out of the bag) will be plotting up a Festival handicap with this chap off a big weight...
Then it was time for the big one in the big one. Sprinter Sacre is a monster. He has huge hind quarters, and that - I presume, being no expert on such equine constitutional matters - is from where he derives his 'Forrest Gump' ability to just keep on running.
Sanctuaire was supposedly a credible threat and, according to official ratings, there wasn't too much between them. But, sometimes, official ratings don't really tell the whole story. This was one of those times.
I had heralded Sprinter's chances to readers in an email on Saturday morning, compelling all who would listen to back him with the race sponsors, sportingbet.com, who not only were guaranteeing to match the best price of their fellow bookmakers, but were also offering to pay out at evens if Sprinter Sacre won by more than ten lengths.
And, not only that, they were offering a free bet if he got beaten for new account holders.
Some of you shrewdies took advantage of the sponsors' generosity. Bizarrely, to me at least, most did not.
The long and short of it is that Sprinter Sacre was truly imperious in destroying a decent field of 150+ rated speed chasers.
Sanctuaire set the gallop, as he was almost certain to do. He failed to sustain it, as also was almost certain. Sprinter Sacre slipstreamed the cut-throat pacemaker, and ambled to the front in his own time.
Sanctuaire, rolling up the Sandown hill like a drunk trying to 'do a runner' from a taxi, was caught and passed by Kumbeshwar, a horse for whom I have great affection, and which I thought had a place chance if the 'Sanctuaire ran out of gas' scenario came to pass. I backed him at 11/2 for a place.
Sportingbet.com paid me - and those who followed me - out at 1-2, and then topped that up to make things up to evens, as the official margin was fifteen lengths, considerably bigger than the ten lengths qualifying verdict.
Then came Sunday, and the much vaunted John Durkan Memorial Chase, featuring a shootout between some of Ireland's top chasers, Flemenstar, Sir Des Champs, Rubi Light, and Bog Warrior.
The race lost some of its interest with the morning defection of Bog Warrior, and most of its interest as the tapes went up and Rubi Light didn't try to lead. That one was nursed round for third place money, and the big two were left to fight out the finish. Except Flemenstar had already gone before Davy Russell pretended to get serious on Sir Des Champs.
It was a most unsatisfactory affair, and told us little to nothing we didn't already know. Yes, Flemenstar is very good. And he stays two and a half miles in a bog. But how... how the hell... does that make him 4/1 joint favourite with Ladbrokes for the Gold Cup?!
Seriously, that's a joke price whether he goes on to win it or not. He's never won beyond two and a half miles (except in a pointing field), and almost all his form is in deep ground. 4/1. Joke price.
Sir Des Champs had a racecourse gallop and little more. He is the 6/1 third favourite for the Gold Cup on the back of that, and there's little value there either. He does have credentials that suggest he can win a Gold Cup at least.
If you want to look for a Gold Cup wager, my quartet worthy of further investigation are Bobs Worth, Sir Des Champs, First Lieutenant, and The Giant Bolster.
Trainers riding in charity races; Sprinter Sacre demonising a decent field; and a three runner farce at Punchestown. Yep, these were wacky races indeed...
What were your weekend racing highlights? Any horses to follow in your notebook? Leave a comment and let us all in on the secret. 😉