Good evening from the Major who writes from a perfectly pleasant early winter evening from the shallow and green rolling landscapes of Worcestershire. The brooks are thick with life, the thick brown water trickling on its way; the smell of smoke hangs in the air as hardwood and coal fires are stoked in battle with the drawing nights. Life is good and we are now full engaged in the battle of National Hunt racing, it is Hennessy day.
The Major is up and about, attending meetings, for the first time in many weeks. For those who are not up to speed with my regular personal updates… In recent months, I have left my employer in search of pastures new and slipped a disc. Keep up.
While today was in our nations glorious capital, earlier in the week business opportunities took me north to meetings in the East Midlands and Yorkshire. Having some time spare between appointments and with the loose objective of feeding myself, I made an impromptu stop in the town of Chesterfield, an unassuming splodge on the green map of Northern Derbyshire. The surrounding countryside was pleasant, rolling agriculture and the town itself, everything you might expect. I shall file my report for your personal appraisal.
Arriving just a little too early for lunch, I strolled at leisure to take my measure of the town. It is one of my favourite activities, to aimlessly wander at pleasure absorbing the rhythm and feel of an unknown locality. No particular destination or route, simply allowing yourself to be immersed in the sights and sounds, you learn a lot.
Of Chesterfield, I will say this. The residents carry a thoroughly earthy look about them, dammed business-like, little fluff. Accents are a softened Yorkshire, the women rasp in an alto voice that is not wholly unattractive. I cannot say that the folk are virtuous or that style and sophistication is a lasting memory but neither shall I denigrate the place.
One plaster that slipped to reveal scar damage was the impressive quantum of ‘early opening’ pubs. The sun was yet to rise above the yard-arm but it did not quell these establishments who spilled their weary looking customers out onto the pavements for essential nicotine hits to break up their rounds of sorrowful weak lager, drowning their dreams. Quite a depressing gaggle, cheap beer, polyester and no hope all before 11am.
Yet, I quite liked Chesterfield. In London this morning, The Grovesnor at Victoria charged me £4.90 for an awful coffee and dreadful service. I bought a perfectly serviceable Chesterfield scrambled eggs and tea for half the price of a Grovesnor coffee – The accompanying smile was free. That is one advantage but there are other compensations. Wandering to the central older part of Chesterfield, through the tat, you could see an ancient mercantile history. An expansive cobbled market square from which narrow winding alleys ran hiding mysterious merchants out of immediate sight. I find my excitement runs high at the temptation of exploration.
That thought took me back to my school days. The Major attended a grammar school (I would gladly vote for anyone who wishes to increase the stock), Bishop Vesey in Sutton Coldfield. An ancient place, it celebrated the 450th anniversary during my academic tenure there. The buildings were a mixture of historic and modern and it made the place exciting and exotic to a suburban semi-detached boy, particularly if exploring the ancient corridors, alone and at night, with no permission; when the mind might run to terror uncommon quick and a man or a boy in this case must hold his nerve.
You might be wondering whether the Major is admitting to breaking and entering in my youthful years. Lest I be required to rely on my printed word in a court of law, allow me to explain. It was the evening of a school production, which we held in the main hall, affectionately referred to as Big School. A few close associates and myself had slipped our bonds and found our way past a few locked doors into the dark ancient corridors, libraries and rooms of ‘Old School’. The old passages and stairs were abandoned, almost asleep, we split up and I trod carefully not to awaken the monsters in the shadows.
I suggest to you that such old big buildings are alive, simmering with a history, lumbering beasts lurk in corners, memories echo in the dark, creaking into movement. Stand still and the adrenaline courses, you hold your breath tight, straining your ear to identify the rattles, hums, clicks and knocks, trying to distinguish through the noise, the signal, the origin, the cause. In a state of heightened awareness, you can feel and smell to thrillingly intense degrees.
Whenever I see a large abandoned building, I have an urge to get inside and wander around and rekindle that fire, to feel alive once more. I understand there is an entire movement dedicated to Urban Exploration. If it were not for my adherence to the rules of law (in general) and my mobility capability, I would probably become a fully signed up member. That and I imagine you have to be a bit pretentious. That is where I would differ, I don’t want to report it, I just want to experience it.
I am not done with Chesterfield as it also reminded me of an old friend from school. It was the spire that did it. It took me back in an instant when I saw it, quite an unusual piece and like a slap to the face, I remembered, of course, Chesterfield, crooked spire. That thought, like lightning in the mind, triggered a connection to my old friend Emma, born somewhere in the locale. My school was all boys until the latter years. Emma joined as I was close to leaving (I did not complete my A –Levels for reasons of independence) and we got on straight away. Like all good friends, the thing that connected us the most was a shared sense of humour. I loved time in her company because it made me feel joyous. She is in New Zealand now, married, with children and a dentist; a long way from Chesterfield.
What news from the racecourse this week. Un de Sceaux fell so did Saphir du Rheu, beware the short price novice chase shorties. Nicky Henderson accepted that Sprinter and Simonsig are behind as are many of his string, including those getting turned over at short prices, River Maigue and Tistory, I saw in Chesterfield. The first of those I thankfully witnessed getting beat just after lunch in Chesterfield and I was not in time to have lost money on him, which, being stupid I surely would have done. The latter unfortunately I was in time for. I hear the cry; more fool you Major and I would agree.
Anyway, it is ‘Hennessy Weekend’. I cannot recall backing a winner in the Hennessy. I was certainly in the camp that felt that Denman could not concede so much weight to decent opponents. That hurt – I hate not being on a monumental winner that you know has historic consequence as he crosses the line.
I am not selling my tipping services well to you am I? Well, I do not need to. Thankfully, the Major remains free of interference, free of charge, largely incomprehensible, unhinged and barely profitable. I have no idea why you are here but it is not because I hold the secrets.
No, I urge you to relax, get the coffee pot bubbling, sit back and take in my thoughts. Choose the finer cuts and discard the mutton I have dressed up. Or, if you prefer, follow me blind, careful, a wise man would not advise it. The Martin Hill bet landed last week though. Didn’t hear from him until today but he sent me a grateful text. Strange really, no thanks required, he doesn’t lambast me for regular error.
It turned out that the Martin Hill landing was the start of a fortuitous good weekend for me too. If you follow me on twitter you will know that I had a fun Sunday afternoon when a correct score double £5 investment stood to gain me £1200 if Hull held on against Spurs with their ten men.
Some urged me to get out and I must confess I did to a small extent. Why is this a confession? Well, many might remember my high and mighty stance on laying an accumulator off. If you were not prepared to be the second leg, why not just make it a single. The truth is I would never put £175 on a correct score in a Hull v Spurs game so a £5 single on the correct Palace 3 Liverpool 1 should have been my bet. Call me a hypocrite, it is accurate abuse.
Anyway, I have that off my chest and feel better. We can be honest companions for the journey once again. You know me well enough, warts and all.
Saddle up warriors, don thy war paint, our heavy cavalry will meet them at the gallop, lance points glinting and lowered to skewer our enemies and then, with superhuman effort, raising the point with them spit perfectly upon it and crying out SHABASH! as the blood drips to our glove. To the sports.
Newbury – Hennessy Day
Let us start with the main course, the Hennessey. Djakadam has been a plunge horse for Mullins, the yard have started the season is the usual sparkling form. 22 of their last 49 runners have won. Racing in Ireland is a Mullins benefit. You have to respect any raid over the Irish Sea.
I find the presence of Djakadam helpful because I am going to put a line through the horse on account of experience and age. I do not know of any 5-year-old to win the Hennessy and frankly, I am not sure there has ever been one. The horse is too young to run in a national and in a busy Newbury field, I cannot have him, this in spite of Ruby giving out positive vibes about the horses ability. He fell in the JLT and so we never got to measure him against the likes of Taquin du Seuil but he was 14/1 that day too. I am looking elsewhere which gives us a healthy advantage on price.
There is not really a profile for a Hennessy winner that you can apply with confidence. You can be looking for a top class animal to give the weight away or a progressive 6-year-old making bold improvement.
The last two renewals have been taken by a horse that Henderson saddled up and he sends out Triolo D’Alene to defend his crown. While the stats point to the stable running at a reasonable strike rate, with the riches he holds, you expect more from the yard and Henderson himself has suggested some are not as forward as others. I have long being betting against Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig and (alternate yard) Sire de Grugy in Cheltenham antepost positions because my sense is that these horses might not be racing anytime soon. We shall see. Anyway, Triolo gets the line, returning winners have to be exceptional, not for me.
Gary Moore has had one winner in the last month, that was Via Sundown in his prep race for the Hennessy. While the yard still look short, that one could be spot on for a big run from a lightweight, very well-respected at a massive price.
Paul Nicholls won the race with Denman twice and his representative, Unioniste is worth inspection too. The horse is attempting the race fresh and has never finished out of the places on three runs in soft or worse conditions, that includes two wins. Unioniste was strong at the start of last year and he might be an autumn / early inter sort. With the usual improvement you can expect season on season from Team Ditcheat, he is strongly in my thoughts.
I like Annacotty of the Keighly yard but think there might be better alternates. Plus, I want a proven in form trainer. I have followed Merry King a number of times and there is never a race that does not leave you thinking, he needs further. If there was a 6m slog event, I think he would be unbeatable. Always staying on, never getting there. Off a light weight though, I will be kicking myself if he goes in. I would also think The Druids Nephew has a decent shout based on the form of his second to Sam Winner at Cheltenham. Davy Russell gets the nod and Mulholland won the feature Friday race.
No, the other strong fancy I have is Fingal Bay. Hobbs has been outstanding this season to date, picking up big races and deploying his string well. I recall a few seasons back when Fingal Bay was hurdling, Hobbs described him as the best he had ever had, or words to that effect. That is some praise as the yard have seen some excellent horses in their time.
Sod it, let’s have two. Fingal Bay 8/1 and Unioniste 16/1. Stick them in a double, I dare you. If you don’t like being double-handed, stick with Unioniste.
Because it has been another monster post, I am going to quick fire in the next series of recommendations so you can get on with your day Of course More of That wins the staying hurdle at Newbury. He is in my ten to follow (only 6 written up – see menu above) as I think he is a banker for the World Hurdle. Don’t wait, lump on for Cheltenham now and print some at 2/5 if you like. I feel very confident that Jonjo has the new undefeated king of the division and I cannot see why they would change (send him chasing par example) the winning formula.
While at Newbury, fill your boots with Hammersly Lake in the 1.50pm at 4/1. I backed the horse on the nose last time out at Cheltenham and he looked to be getting there under a conditional jockeys ride but frustratingly was short on the line. That form looks excellent and I am considering adding the selection to the ten to follow. The first and third have gone in again since and I remember thinking on the day (through a blurry haze of fine wines) that the two had come so far clear in battling fashion that it was form I wanted to follow. We now get a proper adult in the saddle, in Barry Geraghty, trust your family silver, your wife, mistress and anything you can liquidate in time. Bet of the day and ignore any negative feelings I issued earlier about Henderson, he is three from three since Wednesday and I can pick and choose the story as I like.
There is a judgement call to be made in the last race of the day, the handicap chase in which a classic Pipe v Henderson v Nicholls clash awaits. The Pipe horse could still be ahead of the handicapper, that would be no surprise at all. Anquetta for Henderson was going nicely last time at Cheltenham when falling and if none the worse, could be a player. However, it is with Nicholls that I place my investment on 3/1 Solar Impulse who is less experienced than some but did beat Turn Over Sivola in a six runner event at Wetherby, a horse that is a useful and reliable yardstick. We will get a hint of the value of this form as Turn Over Sivola, yet to run out of the first three in ten chase starts, competes in the 12.50.
Newcastle – The Fighting Fifth Card
I always have fond memories of the fighting fifth card as my old favourite Punjabi won it on route to Champion Hurdle glory. It was one of the years in which WBX had a £1m bonus for attempting the FF, Christmas Hurdle and Champion Hurdle treble. Punjabi fell at Christmas and in glorious scenes, seemingly I was the only person that kept faith with the brave little warrior who went on to cling on grimly on the Cheltenham Hill.
Punjabi was the last Fighting Fifth winner to go onto Champion Hurdle glory and I do not think we are looking at the winner in this field either. I am not criticising the race, Overturn, Countrywide Flame, My Tent or Yours – There have been some notable winners but I would not be reacting heavily in the Champion Hurdle market even following a decisive win for one of the competitors from this years Fighting Fifth renewal.
If one horse was to step up, you would have to think it would be Irving. He was impressive last year and well touted before his fall on seasonal reappearance. I doubt he was going to win that day but if healthy and fit, in favoured conditions, it would not be a surprise to see him run well.
The one I am opting for though is the Quinn runner Aurore Destruval. She looks a real classy trier and opened this season with a splendid win in listed company. Like Irving, she has proven mudlark credentials and in this ground (Newcastle always looks tough to get in soft, a bit like Chepstow), I think her allowance of 7lbs might prove decisive. 4/1, engage the cannon.
If Hey Big Spender gets the hat-trick up in the 2.40pm Rehearsal Listed Chase, they might have to think about naming the race after him. Those wins are his only two visits to Newcastle and he is attempting to pull off the hat-trick near his twelfth birthday but in ground he will relish. Broadway Buffalo also like Newcastle in the mud but while others feel a 5lb claimer a benefit in a race like this, I think it is a hindrance.
Hence, I come back to Indian Castle the Ian Williams horse who you may remember me giving positive mentions about ahead of the Paddy Power. We did not get a tremendous run that day and the trainer has gone for cheekpieces. I am a big fan of the pilot Brian Hughes, especially at these northern venues and I am hoping we get 7/1 although would back at 9/2 and up.
In the football – Stoke might cause European travellers Liverpool more problems at home than 9/2 suggests. Play the draw no bet market if you don’t have the nerve to play with the big boys. I also want to buy another away performance and that is Newcastle who are 27/10 to win at West Ham.
The Martin Hill bet is Unioniste, Hammersley Lake, Solar Impulse and Aurore Destruval in an each way yankee of freedom and love.
May your dinner be with old friends, laugh joyously as the wine flows and pick up the tab, or allow Hammersley Lake to do so for you.
Courage, roll the dice.