Any regular reader of this weekly triviality will be aware that I am a man of many obsessions. Last week I did the age thing; in a slightly different way, I can also reveal a fixation with time and numbers, all types of them.
Thus whenever I climb the stairs at home, or have to cross a railway line via a bridge, I always count the number of steps, just as when I walked for any meaningful distance, I would count off the hundreds and be irritated when I lost track as any other less important matter slipped into my subconscious.
On one holiday in some Spanish resort or other, I use to take a solo morning, post breakfast stroll on a prescribed route and be shocked if the step-count varied by more than a dozen in 2,000 or so taken.
Another variation was the practice when I wasn’t the slowest walker on the racecourse - so in my late teens - that I would target someone walking ahead and aim a point where I intended to overtake.
I had a school friend who lived in Muswell Hill, just up the hill from Ally Pally racecourse, and it was quite a walk back to the bus stop from his house. I’d have races with horse names attributed to myself and the “adversary”, and I remember I was Stem Turn to my rival’s Corn Cockle in a Triumph Hurdle trial and Thames Trader against Operatic Society in the battle of the veteran Flat stayers.
If I ever failed to get up it would be a case of self-mortification and I’d sometimes even break into an illegal gallop, from which Prix d’Amerique trotters or Olympic walkers like Don ‘Mighty Mouse’ Thompson, would quickly earn disqualification.
Counting the steps is one thing. Twice every year I bore anyone within earshot that every day from the shortest gets three minutes longer before and after, until by June 20, we have 540 extra minutes (nine hours) of daylight. Then back the other way.
Already today, it won’t be dark until 5 p.m. and the week after Cheltenham, when the clocks go forward, it’ll be 7.30 p.m. The other part of the useless information thing is that whatever day it is, like Feb 7, I like to project back the same number of days before the darkest and say, for instance: “It’s as light today as it was on Firework Night!”
The back step procedure was also a vital part in my appreciation of history. I used to say (when I was 30) that going the other way we’d be in the middle of the First World War. Additionally, my great-grandmother who I knew up to 11 when she died aged 87, was born that number of years away from 1783.
In that year, the famed English landscape gardener Capability Brown died and the American writer Washington Irving and the Two Headed Boy of Bengal – he suffered from an affliction called Cranopagus parasiticus - were born. They say time flies and that we are here but for a flicker and then go. Too true.
One thing I do know, there’s only five weeks to go to Cheltenham, and just one more for the mixed turf/all-weather delights of Good Friday’s big opening to the 2016 Flat season proper at Musselburgh and Lingfield.
Yesterday was not just the day when Leicester and Tottenham yet again won to take the first two places in the table. It was also the day for Cheltenham trials especially at Leopardstown where Willie Mullins, naturally, won four races.
I always reckon the punters in Ireland must be bored stiff to see a succession of short-priced winners, in order of likelihood carrying the colours of Gigginstown stud, Suzannah Ricci, J P McManus, Barry Connell, the Wylies and not much else.
The Giggs and JP show was in full flow and was attended by JP’s former rider Sir AP, but in actual fact the punters had something much worse than boredom to contend with as most of the Grade 1 action went to outsiders. Down the card the winners were priced at 14-1 (Mullins), 12-1, 11-1 (Mullins/McManus), 13-8 fav (Mullins again), 9-2 Mullins, 20-1 (McManus), 9-1 and 100-30. In most cases, the winners were second or even third choice for stables/owners.
Odds-on shot Ivanovich Gorbatov, the hot Triumph favourite handled by Joseph O’Brien in his role as his father’s assistant, disappeared without trace, like the ante-post vouchers in his name and there was also a costly defeat for one of England’s few alternatives to Mullins in the Champion Hurdle market.
Peace and Co, so impressive when leading home a Nicky Henderson 1-2-3 in last year’s juvenile championship, was almost uncontrollable when making a feeble comeback at Cheltenham. It would seem that the over-exuberance has been addressed, but sadly that has also resulted in what looked an unwillingness to try as he failed to quicken, finishing third in an ordinary four-horse race at Sandown.
We’ve had an eventful week. Ray Tooth’s April Dusk held every chance when coming to the last upsides the eventual winner of his novice chase at Leicester, where he came down. You lose one, you gain two, and we did with a colt by Mount Nelson and a filly by Mayson coming into being over the next two days at Kinsale stud.
Two more of the team, jumpers Notnowsam and Adrakhan, went back south to Dan Skelton in Warwickshire, buoyed by a break and some great outdoor air and grazing, while Ray’s Champion Hurdler Punjabi continued the early stages of his dressage retraining, with Rachael Kempster doing the day-to-day exercise. His next two appointments will be the Cheltenham parade at the Festival (with a nervy Rachael) and a first introductory competition a month later.
The sales season is up and running, and having recently mentioned the fact that I’d never met him, but liked his ideas, I bumped into Nick Rust of the BHA at Tattersalls on Thursday.
It was one of my principals of motion that brought about our collision. At Newmarket, I tend to stay close to the buffet- as against posh-dining room - counter in company with notably John Hancock, the insurance doyen, and a few other regulars in a constantly moving feast and cups of tea.
My theory is that if you keep going around the sale, you’ll meet more people, but generally they’ll either be talking to someone else and you need to loiter nearby, testing out their preparedness to break their conversations in favour of a word with yourself.
By sitting still, they can either see you, pretend they haven’t and go past, or stop for a while. It’s amazing how many do. That’s how we found Mark Johnston as one of our trainers at October sales, although it’s not infallible, as another of Ray’s new men, George Scott, was far too busy to stop or even acknowledge me on Wednesday.
As to Nick Rust, he was exactly the reverse and it was quite uncanny for this fully mature gentleman, 47, recalling that when he came home from school every day, he got to read his dad’s Daily Telegraph and read my column. From little acorns!