Bookmakers working on the rails Pic Dan Abraham - Cheltenham 1.1.11

Roving Reports: To Cheltenham, eventually

It's been a while since my last missive, mainly because after the last one the good lady and myself took ourselves off to St Ives to celebrate her milestone birthday, writes Dave Massey. You'll not want to hear stories about me traipsing around the coast, visiting art galleries and generally making out I'm far more cultured than I actually am; what you want to know is where I've been racing since I got back.

It started with my first visit to Plumpton this season, that coming on the Bob Champion Charity Raceday, a meeting I do try and get down to each year. Plumpton, like Fakenham, is one of those well-run country tracks where after about four visits, you know the crowd that go there on first-name terms. I love the place, full of genuine race enthusiasts that have their favourites. You can pretty much guarantee a roar going up every time a Chris Gordon or Gary Moore horse hits the front in the closing stages. The former had one winner on the day, the latter two, and I doubt very much that the bookmakers walked away winning.

I'm staying in a hotel in Horsham for a couple of nights, as Kempton and Fontwell are also on the agenda in the next two days. After a long drive down I'm really tired and fall asleep about half ten, only to be woken up around 12.45am as the fire alarm goes off. I'm on the top floor, right at the rear of the hotel, so quickly put trousers and a t-shirt on, grab the phone and wallet and get out as swiftly as possible.

However, I didn't put socks and shoes on, and am stood outside without either. What happens next is bizarre, to say the least; the potted version is a German woman took pity on me, gave me her dressing gown, chatted to me for 15 minutes before asking me my star sign to see if we'd be compatible, and then gave me her room number. I'm not making this up. I mean, I couldn't have looked any worse - disheveled without footwear in the early hours, hair all over the place, yet here we are. After being allowed back into the hotel (no fire, a sensor issue) you'll be pleased to hear, dear reader, I retired to my own room.

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Tuesday. I decide, as I'm fairly near, to have an hour at Hove greyhounds before I set off for Kempton. It's depressing to tell you that there couldn't have been a dozen punters there. The place had all the atmosphere of a crypt. It's saying something when the evening Kempton meeting felt busy by comparison. Such a shame, as Hove used to be a really busy little place, even the afternoon meetings drawing enough to make playing the Tote worthwhile. No longer.

A change of plan. I'm supposed to be going to Fontwell on the Wednesday, but I've a share in one running at Worcester and the card, with three novice hurdles and a bumper, looks more appealing. So I set off from Horsham around 7.45 am in bright sunshine, but by the time I get to Worcester around 11.30 it's cold and cloudy and the wind is blowing.

My fallouts with the car park attendants at Worcester have been many over time, but on this occasion all goes smoothly and before you know it, I'm enjoying an early lunch. There aren't many bets to be had on the card, although I do like the giant (and wonderfully named, Trumpton fans) Cuthbert Dibble in the bumper and try a little each-way investment. Third place gets me a small profit back but he's definitely one you want to be taking forward. Lovely big chasing type, he'll do well once he sees some obstacles.

Sadly Blue Suede Shoes, the horse I've a small share in, doesn't complete and leaves us scratching our heads. Too green, or just not a racehorse? I've no doubt her next couple of runs will reveal a lot more.

Thursday. Southwell sees rain, lots of it. It's the usual crowd, and as they don't want to hang around outside between races, it is decided we will all bet to 15 minutes. This means no prices until fifteen minutes before the off, with all the books going up at the same time. This not only gives you time to get a cup of tea and a loo visit between races, but it gives a chance for the market to form properly.

So we open up fifteen minutes before the first. There is one, sole, woman punter in the ring. None of us are in a rush to get her business.

She comes over to me, and looks at the board. To the astonishment of us all, she announces...

"£300 number one, and £100 ew number three."

We all stand there, open-mouthed. What just happened there, then?

It turns out she's one of a party upstairs who have all chipped a fair amount of money into a pot and are basically betting whatever the majority go with. Number 1 wins, and she draws £1300 off us as a start. £300 is invested back and they keep a grand. Sadly for them, they barely back another winner and by the time the last comes around, funds have dwindled.

However, there's a twist. They have their last £300 as a £150 each-way bet on Superstar DJ at 28-1. When it romps home, you can hear the screams a mile away. Over £5k to draw. You have never seen a happier bunch of ladies and we're delighted to pay them out.

And so to the end of the week, and a return to the home of National Hunt. Yes, Cheltenham is back, and I'm working on the rails both days.

The Friday is a quiet day, despite plenty of runners, and there are few big bets flying around. The biggest I take is a £300 Music Drive in the novice hurdle at 13-8, but that stays in the satchel as Mofasa, who looked really well going to post, comes out on top despite a mistake at the last.

The rain just keeps a-fallin' even with the forecasts saying that it ought to have stopped around lunchtime; but Cheltenham, as we know from Champion Chase Day this year, has its own micro-climate and trying to guess the weather here is a game in itself. Two slip up on the Flat in the last and we all agree it's probably a good job there's no more racing on the day.

Saturday is busier. Some old familiar faces in the crowd including Cheltenham member Bridget, who always has her fiver with me. Good judge too, is Bridget, and after she's backed Shearer in the first I remark to her it's always the same old faces in the payout queue!

Things really get going in the handicap chase that follows but Lord Accord is an absolute skinner on my side of the book. Not one single person has backed it with me which, for a Cheltenham handicap, is remarkable. A total payout of £115 on the race on my side, with just the places to reimburse.

That means I can crack on with the next and here comes the money for Pied Piper. Plenty of £200 and £400 bets and they don't have much worry as he quickens clear after the last to win. This payout is bigger, but it's nowhere near as big as it is for Dad's Lad in the next.

Dad's Lad is one of those horses that the public latch on to in a big way. One in three bets I take is on the Mullins charge. The writing is on the wall from some way out as he cruises into contention and, although the winning margin is under a length, the result never really seemed in doubt. £3k to pay out and a bad result.

And of course, the tenners and twenties merchants all back the outsider of three in the novice chase, so Chemical Energy is no good either. Encanto Bruno wins the last as favourite and that puts the nail in the coffin for many of the books. The dark is already descending as we pack away; it's time to head home...

- DM

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