It was an inauspicious start...
I awoke Saturday morning with a hangover, harsh and unjustified after just a trio of pints with 'Database Dave' and Johanne the intern, integral parts of my development team here. For what was to be a long weekend, this was hardly the portent I was after.
Saturday was to take in a birthday party for little people (one year old's to be precise) in Kent, then a train ride to Smokey, and another west to the Dorset/Somerset border in readiness for some horsing around on Sunday.
Minimal overnight bag (pants, socks, wash kit, laptop, betting book, notepad) packed, and off we went, me and my three pint hangover.
The kiddies' party was all right. As all right as twenty screaming toddlers can be when you're nursing a sore head, and it was lovely to see 'young man' (Leonardo, my six month old son, lest you didn't know) engaging so readily with these, much older, kids. Much older... five months!
From 3pm, I was checking my phone. The kiddie jamboree wasn't the only party in town. Down on the south coast, 9,014 hardcore footy fans - 96% home team supporters - were cheering on the Cherry Reds. Victory for Bournemouth would mean a very strong chance of promotion from the third to the second tier of English football for only the second time in the club's not terribly illustrious history.
And a first senior goal from Steve Cook, just one day after his 22nd birthday, helped calm the nerves midway through the first half. By half time, I was at Hildenborough Station awaiting my transit to the terminus, and listening to the commentary of the Scottish Grand National. It was a lousy race for me, as my main hopes were undone by the rapidly drying ground and an inability to fence fluently. As it happens, Godsmejudge was one of those 'obvious after the event' winners that slipped through the cracks in a trends analysis.
Prompt train departure number one - without weekend engineering work - led to prompt train arrival number one, and allowed a few minutes to check the scores. Cherries had conceded the second goal, but were in front again just six minutes later. Elsewhere, and occasional foes, Portsmouth, were doing us a massive favour despite already being relegated by beating up Sheffield United, 3-0. Even more gratifying for the Bournemouth faithful was that one of our own, Shaun Cooper - a centre half, no less - had started the rout.
It's rare to hear 'Play Up Pompey' ringing round Dean Court, but then it's rare when Cherries have a chance to mix it at Championship level. Better news still was to follow, as Doncaster - leading the division two hours earlier - contrived to bottle it at home to a Notts County side with nothing to play for.
Their 1-0 loss was hurled into the melting pot with Cherries' 3-1 final score (Brett Pitman scoring for the eighth game running to ice the cake) and Sheffield United's drubbing down the coast. What all of this meant was that if Brentford, who were playing in the late game on Sky, failed to beat Hartlepool - themselves already relegated - Cherries would be confirmed as promoted.
That game kicked off at 5.20pm, exactly the time my iron horse to Crewkerne sidled out of Waterloo. Prompt train departure number two. Occasional score checks were interspersed with reading Peter May's new semi-autobiographical book, In Search Of The Winning System, and a pleasant enough two hours passed. Pleasant enough, that is, without the news that 'pool had scored first and that the Bees of Brentford could do no more than level the contest by the time the pea rattled around the tin whistle to signal the end.
Bournemouth had been promoted. Yes. YES. YYYYYEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!
A team which Eddie Howe inherited on 12th October last year in the relegation zone has achieved promotion. Now, let's be clear on two things here. Firstly, Bournemouth are not the 'quaint little club down there' they once were. Administration led to new ownership, and new ownership led to a new director. A very wealthy new director from the former Soviet Union. These days, and for as long as it lasts, Bournemouth are minted.
Nevertheless, the second point is that no matter how much money - and how big a squad - you have, it's very difficult to take a team from relegation zone to promotion, and the brink of being crowned champions. That's what 35 year old Eddie Howe has done. A fantastic effort.
Such was my faith in Howe and the team (and my utter dismay that it took so long to get shot of the preposterously inept previous incumbent), that on 7th December, I had my biggest ever single bet: on Bournemouth to be promoted, at 4/1.
Thank you, Victor Chandler. Thank you, Eddie. Thank you, boys!
I've had five or six bets of £400 previously, and all had lost, some of them (Sizing Europe in the Champion Hurdle) in bizarre and implausible circumstances. So it was (very) nice to record an overdue draw.
The wager was landed, and a few minutes later, so was the train. Punctual into Crewkerne, from where my chariot (OK, a taxi) awaited. A ten minute drive through the glorious countryside amid lengthening shadows and the last shards of a sunny afternoon, and I'd arrived at Broadwindsor, on the Dorset side of the Dorset/Somerset border. This small village is only around fifty miles from my birth place, and the scene of fat celebrations as a result of the afternoon football.
And yet it felt like a million miles away. A stereotype of the sleepy Dorset hamlet. Checked in, I ventured the two hundred paces (metres and yards are measurements used in cities and towns) to the local pub - the only local pub - frequented, naturally enough, by local people.
Ham and eggs was an agreeably local repast. But it was bloody huge! Four slabs of thick cut country ham, half a sack of thick cut chips, two thick cut eggs, and a side dish of thick cut garden peas were swilled down with my traditional pub dinner gravy, Guinness.
I did my best, I really did, but half a slice of that saintly hog remained uneaten, as did a larger part of the fried spud mountain. The Guinness, needless to say, was not wasted.
Stuffed to within an inch of my life, I waddled back up the hill (more like 250 paces this time) and called it a night.
It was an early start on Sunday, and a gloriously sunny one too. Stat of the Day and the Daily Dabble were to be written, and I felt I'd found a live one in Mumbles Pier at Wincanton. Indeed I had, because the 16/1 available at 8.15 when I posted truncated all the way in to 4/1 by off time. There was a 35p rule 4 applied to that which meant that post-deduction odds were more akin to 10/1, but still a 250% bashing of the starting price is not to be sniffed at.
Alas, the nag hadn't learned his lines, and fluffed every single line of hurdles. If you do that once, you'll get away with it. Twice, and you might escape. Seven times, though, and your goose will be cooked. Seventh was his finishing position and a well-oiled plot had slipped out of our grasp.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to brekkie. More pig - this time in a sausage skin, bound up as black pudding, and sliced as bacon - and some cracking eggs. Good filter coffee too. The Cross Keys is a welcome little cubby hole in this dormant corner of west Dorset. I finished my scran, said my thank you's, and hit the road.
For some curious reason, most unlike the usual public transport-loving me, I decided to walk the 1.7 miles to Anthony Honeyball's stables, where the horsing about was to commence. Perhaps the curious reason was that there was no public transport down here! That said, I politely declined the most generous offer of a lift from mein host at Broadwindsor.
Down the road I went, then up a hill... a very steep hill. At the top, I was knackered, having barely gone 400 metres - sorry, paces - and my inner pig was growling. Country smells abound here, luckily, and the complete absence of other humans meant no harm was done. 😉
Forty minutes it took, or thereabouts. And what a joyous forty minutes it was. No people. No cars. (Forty minutes along country roads and no cars!) Just two cyclists. "Good morning". "Good morning!" And that was it. The rest of the ramble was mine, all mine. Rolling countryside, the occasional rolling road, turn right and then left at Littlewindsor and Potwell Farm is on your right.
Home to Anthony Honeyball, Rachael Green, and a score and more of horses. And, on this morning, temporary residence to myself, fellow syndicate member, John B, and about thirty-five other owners. Tea, coffee, cake and biscuits were in plentiful supply, and only my gastric guilt prevented further indulgence.
It was a 'free for all' sort of a morning. Anthony and Rachael were there, milling and mingling, and owners wandered hither and thither (mainly thither, it seemed to me) looking at nags, hosses, and other breeds of equine.
I had the chance to chat with Regal Encore, the lad who bagged a silver medal in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham; and Velator, the lad who bagged a silver medal at Cheltenham last week. I also noticed Solstice Son, who was ready for action - buzzing in his box - a few hours prior to him bagging a silver medal at Wincanton in the bumper. A frustrating run of silvers for the yard, but their horses are in decent form and the winners will be coming.
All of this was preamble. The main reason for being there was to catch up with our dear friend, Priceless Art. Priceless Art is a geegeez.co.uk syndicate horse. He's had a few problems since we got him. A good few, in truth. But he's a lovely laid back animal, and has some cracking form in the book if we can get him back.
The good news is he's been working steady canters, and doing plenty of them (three a day). The better news is that the warmer weather we might now get is in his favour. And the even better news still is that he might be ready to get back on course as soon as next month. We keep our fingers crossed for that possibility.
Here's Anthony showing us Priceless Art - and his rather fetching field wear:
He's a fine big horse and we're all very excited at the prospect of seeing him run soon, all being well.
Anthony was, as he always is, very chatty and candid about not just PA but any subject we cared to mention. He's very hopeful that Chill Factor will win this week, and he has a couple of entries, so might be one to look out for.
Then it was time to head off to Wincanton for the afternoon's racing, and a meet up with geegeez' Sunday Supplement correspondent, Tony Stafford. As you probably know, Tony was at the Telegraph for thirty years, and racing editor for most of those. These days, amongst other things, he's racing manager for Raymond Tooth, who owns horses like I Say (watch out for her this year), Cousin Khee, Punjabi (remember him?), and Fair Trade.
The last named was slated to run that afternoon in a novices' hurdle and he was considered a certainty by Tony. Tony is a good judge, but he has used the word 'certainty' in the same sentence as the word 'Cesarewitch', which has led me to be cautious of such pronouncements from him.
Amongst other enjoyable experiences throughout the afternoon were a hog roast (more delicious pig, this time sans oeuf) ; cussing at Mumbles Pier's inability to jump and therefore to reward my 16/1 voucher; meeting trainer, Paul Burgoyne (very nice man, tried to sell me a horse! He reckons West Leake has a stand up chance this afternoon); and, of course, Fair Trade.
In the pre-parade ring before the race, Fair Trade was strutting around like a man in the company of boys. He's a bit of a pasty chestnut in terms of colour and, while that may not be as easy on the eye as some darker shades of racehorse, he was a rippling ball of muscle in his chest and shoulder. A real paddock standout: the sort that even a paddock ignoramus like me couldn't fail to detect.
I wasn't going to, but then I did. He was 4/7, not my sort of price normally, but having discussed the value in Sire de Grugy's facile 1-3 romp at Stratford an hour before, I decided that his price was still value, given form and physique. His task had already been made easier by the withdrawal of a swathe of entries due to the fast ground - ground which Fair Trade loves, and needs - and it was to get simpler still when two 50/1 pokes exited at the first.
But the real simplification of the job in hand, and the real shame of the afternoon, was the breaking down - fatally, I'm sad to report - of a promising beast called The Stout Italian. He wouldn't have won, but that's incidental at best, and irrelevant to some degree too. It was a real shame.
Fair Trade fair bolted up. What he beat, who knows, but he did it in electric fashion and there may apparently be another novice race for him next Sunday at Wetherby, lugging the seven pound winner's penalty.
We sloped off after that, and missed Solstice Son's second under a fine ride from Rachael Green. Passing Stonehenge (which seems to me to be less impressive each time I see it) was the only slowdown in our car journey back to Hackney. Arriving home at 8pm, I was expecting that 'young man' had already headed off for his sleepy bye-byes, but when your luck's good, your luck's good.
Half an hour of daddy time was the perfect end to what was a wonderful weekend. I'll leave you with the wizard of dribble himself, and wish you a week at least half as wonderful as my weekend. 🙂