Did you miss me? I missed myself. I think that was only the second blank week since I started my musings more than eight years ago, writes Tony Stafford. I relayed my withdrawal symptoms to the boss and he gave me the all clear to resume, but no 4 a.m. Monday for me. The other day, the phone rang and I looked at the clock, it was 8.45 a.m., the latest I’d awakened in decades.
There’s been a slight confusion whether these offerings have been musings or meanderings – the latter term hardly describes my physical movement over the past three housebound weeks.
No racing, football, cricket or anything else. Just three-hour daily afternoon sessions with eons-old reruns on Channel 120 – ITV4, the place we see ITV racing when 103 is tied up – of Minder, The Professionals and The Sweeney from around 1980.
Sometimes, when I was the editor of the Racehorse magazine at that stage of my career – doubling up with my Daily Telegraph job to help pay off Mr Lippman – we’d be out for lunch In Battersea and see them filming The Sweeney. – Sweeney Todd, Flying Squad for those of you without the rudiments of Cockney rhyming slang.
In those days I had a fair knowledge of day-to-day form. Racing was not encumbered with anything like the volume of bookmaker-benefiting dross of today, but I had an opinion on pretty much every race, just as well as I had to make a selection in them all each day for the Telegraph. Even holidays brought no respite from the sausage-machine of racing and betting even if most of it was not televised.
Now we see it all, except in Covid 19 Great Britain there’s nothing to see. There’s only Hong Kong twice a week or the odd still-soldiering-on action from one or two tracks in the US. I rarely bother with either.
Then suddenly, on Saturday, the 18th consecutive day without horse racing in the UK, we had the Computer Grand National, 40 runners over what passed quite impressively and realistically for the track. The horses’ gaits and strides over the fences, while a generation up from the early betting shop “jumps” computer tracks, still had an artificial look about it. I suppose it would!
What struck me again, and I’d mentioned it after the autumn Aintree meeting, was the totally-unexpected difference to Becher’s Brook. Where the horses used to have to stretch to clear the gaping breadth of the brook while ideally half-turning in midair to take the immediate left turn towards Valentines, they now appear to go straight on. The fence has been rendered pretty innocuous in fact and its computer-model looked even more straight-forward on Saturday. That’s a big loss for purists, but then 30 fences and almost four and a half miles is test enough for most people.
Anything computer-generated needed human input to provide the data for whatever device crunched the numbers to elicit the result, so the outsiders in the market almost by definition, were most unlikely to prevail. Punters, or even in many cases, non-punters, because in normal times plenty of once-a-year bettors break their annual disinterest with racing and have a flutter on that Saturday in April at Aintree, grabbed at the chance of relieving the present torpor.
Trainer Ian Williams had the initiative to set up a sweepstake on the race, offering handsome prizes for the lucky few to secure horses “finishing” in the first four. As I said, the computer was hardly going to reward those of us unlucky enough to land on a rag.
In the old days, I’d invariably had a Grand National fancy on the day of the weights, always tipping and backing it at that stage, and enjoyed plenty of winners over the 30-year spell. Those were the times of office sweeps when unfailingly I’d get one of the outsiders. Yesterday my name came out alongside the 66-1 shot Peregrine Run. I can safely say I’d never previously heard its name and marvelled that his black and red colours were relatively prominent for much of the “race” before wilting away as 66-1 shots were bound to do.
It seemed after the event that Ian reckoned around £4,500 had been earned for charity from that single event. I think he had multiple – possibly four – full fields, so the offers of expensive meals for two in a top Birmingham restaurant, champagne breakfasts for four at his stables quite close to the Second City and other lesser prizes were recycled and put up for auction by at least one of the winners.
On his What’s App feed, Ian even showed pictures of his stable’s real horses gently exercising with the riders all keeping appropriate Social Distancing. For those of us who did take part, it was great to see somebody bringing enjoyment at such a time of fear and unease.
When I first got to know Raymond Tooth, one of the main reasons we met was the input of Derek Hatter who had known Ray in business for many years. Derek dropped out of our little team around six years ago when already just into his 80’s and it was sad to hear that his elder brother Sir Maurice Hatter had died aged 90 last week. Sir Maurice was a great man in charity work with his wife Lady Hatter for many years and the news of his death made me wonder if Derek is fit and well.
So where are we now? After a couple of weeks, I’m reading almost a book a day; am surprisingly rubbish at sudoku; only slowly taking off the surplus pounds from the last year’s excesses – probably solely because there are no more Set 1 breakfasts at the café – and am still in the early stages of a fitness regime.
Meanwhile horses have to be exercised and fed, although most jumpers will have been “roughed off” with the BHA announcing no jumping until July, concentrating on a return to Flat racing before that. The jumps trainers will have had some respite in that at least the weather has become much more Spring-like with the prospect of new young grass on the horizon in place of the bare and flooded fields of winter enabling turning out.
Everyone is raring to get going again, but as Derek Hatter always used to say when discussing anything to do with money or life. “Everything’s the same all the time, it’s just different numbers!”
The key will be those graphs which will hopefully show a slowdown and then downturn in deaths and new Covid 19 cases. At the moment, the total to have died in the UK is fewer than 5,000, which is less than one in 10,000. As one of the leading healthcare experts suggested last week, the UK will be “doing well” if the death toll is restricted to 20,000. That would be around one in 3,000. If you stay healthy and stay safe at home, as I intend to continue to do, we should hopefully all be around when the world gets back to normal. Different numbers.