Whilst some members of the Geegeez staff have been halfway around the world to watch the Breeders Cup in the last fortnight, others of us have been to such luxury destinations as *checks notes* Hereford, Ludlow, Exeter and Wincanton, writes David Massey.
Let's be honest here, though, if Matt offered me the tickets for free I'd still not go, as a) I have a flying phobia and b) the jumps season is starting to properly kick into gear. It's not all paddock watching and taking notes, however, I'm still doing some on-course work for the books, and that began with my first visit to Hereford last week.
It must seem, to the casual reader, that all the places I work at are exactly three-and-a-half hours away but that is indeed the time it takes for me to get to Hereford in a two-part trip. The first is from Nottingham to Leicester to get my lift, and that's the easy part; the more difficult second part involves crammed motorways and even when you turn off the M5 and see the sign saying "Hereford 20 miles", you're still the best part of 45 minutes away. Make that an hour if you get caught behind a tractor.
I was told the previous Hereford meeting was decent business, with just 15 books and a good crowd. Today, an extra four bookmakers turning up and the crowd down means it's slim pickings. I take a £1 ew bet from a punter having her first ever bet; she has it on the 8-13 favourite, Marble Sands, in the second race and picks up £2.87. I round it up to £3 for her in the hope she'll have another bet. She doesn't. She can, though, legitimately say to her friends she made a 50% profit on the day, which is something plenty cannot.
We actually got a result in the first, as the 5-1 shot Manintheshadows wins, but that really is a false dawn. That's followed by five out of the next six favourites winning, and two down from me, Martyn of Leicester looks decidedly peaky. "I think we'll have a steak dinner on the way back with what's left", son Stuart bemoans. He's true to his word and sends me a picture of it later that evening.
Next stop, Ludlow. Originally I was going to do this as a day trip but there's a change of plan and instead I'll stay over before Exeter on the Friday. I do like the drive to Ludlow, taking in the town of Much Wenlock, the home of the Olympics, on the way. If you don't believe me, then try and remember the names of the two Olympic mascots for the 2012 London Olympics. There's a good reason they chose the names they did. Have a Google and if you ever get the chance, give Much Wenlock a visit.
If you've never been to Ludlow before and you're using a satnav, you'll think it's sent you wrong when it tells you you've reached your destination and you appear to be in the middle of a field. Have a look around; can you see hurdles and fences surrounding you? Yep, you're there then. It's a strange one, is Ludlow: driving over mats here and there, all the time in the middle of the track. At the golf club, turn right.
The punting started badly, with me managing to lay two winners, but I'd been waiting for Fortescue's half-brother Blenkinsop to make his handicap debut in the last and, stepping up in trip, he duly got there just in time under another great Alice Stevens ride (she's good...) to save the day. Follow him this season, he'll win more.
I stayed over near Gloucester (after calling in at Gloucester Services, one of the great service stations) and although no fire alarms on this occasion, an owl outside my window made sure I got some noise in the night.
It's Exeter the next day. Never has the Exeter press room seen so many people in it, I'm told. An overflow area is required and one is provided. I bump into photographer Alan Crowhurst, up for an award for his "once in a blue moon" shot he managed to get this year. I ask him if that was his mate Ken Pitterson getting a round in, but he tells me that "ITV's Ken Pitterson", as Al refers to him, has gone cashless these days.
The best line Al has ever cracked about Ken was at the Yarmouth festival two years ago. The three of us were walking to the paddock together when Ken was stopped by an avid fan. It's fair to say his shoes had seen better days, the shirt he was wearing looked a step up on a rubbing-rag and his trousers had a hole in them. "You're great you are Ken", says the superfan. "When you're on he telly I follow all your tips." Quick as a flash Al looks at me and quips, "I think that's why he's dressed like that, Ken." Much laughter, even from Kenny P.
Anyway, I think I've seen a really lovely one in Outlaw Peter today. I shall start your cliché bingo card off with "a chaser in the making" and "could be anything" at this stage, but he's superbly put together and I will be disappointed if he doesn't make it near the top of the tree, be it this season or next.
Thyme Hill isn't left with a lot to beat once Press Your luck pulls up, so it's hard to say how good over fences he might be, but he does seem to have grown a little physically and ought to progress. I don't mind the fact he makes a mistake or two, it's how some novices learn to find a leg, and we will know more on his next run.
I fancy War Lord in the Haldon Gold Cup, but he doesn't see which way Greaneteen goes, in fact none of them do. So much for my thoughts of him using this as a warm-up for the Tingle Creek. War Lord finds it all happening a bit quick for him; surely softer ground and/or a step up in trip is now required.
Again, the last digs me out of the doo-doo, with Gerard Mentor holding on by a diminishing 3/4l from the gamble of the day Begin The Luck, who looked outstanding in the paddock and will surely make amends sooner rather than later. He goes off 100-30 but I'd nicked a bit of 11-2 in the morning, and he will pay for the evening meal in Yeovil. I didn't think I was that hungry, but when the nice lady on the reception desk informs me I'm entitled to a pint, main course and a dessert for £15, I can't sign up quick enough...
Excitingly, a trip to Wincanton to finish the week. I've never been so it's another to tick off the list (I'm coming for you Redcar, but not until next year) and what a cracking little track it is. Great facilities, good parade ring access, plenty of room for all and the only shame is the ground, which one jockey describes as "firm, with not much good in it". It has kept runners down a bit and a week of solid rain is probably needed to get it on the soft side. I realise it isn't the only place that needs it, but with cards recently abandoned for waterlogging, it hardly seems fair, does it?
Anyway, I'm there with my mate Becky, who has also taken her horse out of the novice hurdle with the ground. I have a share in her, so we'll have to wait until another day to find out exactly how slow she actually is.
There isn't a dry eye in the house as Frodon wins the Badger Beer, with her regular partner Bryony giving her a peach of a ride to win by 2 1/2l, a last-fence error by her nearest challenger, Lord Accord, helping her cause.
I spoke to Neil Mulholland afterwards, telling him if his had winged the last and chinned Frodon, he probably wouldn't have got out of Wincanton alive. He laughs. "You know what", he says, "I don't mind getting beaten by a good horse."
He thinks for a moment. "A proper horse."
I think that is something we can all agree on.
That nice Mr Nicholls has four of the seven winners, and the locals have pockets stuffed full of money. As I leave, just as the rain starts, I see the Martyn Of Leicester firm paying out again. I've seen that look on his face already this week; it's the same one he wore at Hereford. Steak dinners all round on the way home, again?