Good evening from the Major who writes from a deep cold and green Worcestershire where the local folk turn their shoulders and collars to winters cold bite, shuffling and coughing to their business. The Major is tired but content having made great roads into recovery this week, breaking new ground with my bad back (slipped disc) and revelling in the new capabilities. I am like a blind man whose vision returns, gorging on colours and textures. I have been swimming.
George, my glorious physio, in my mind is elevating to the goddess status of Panacea, healing me with her potions and charms. On Monday, I attended my appointment, two hours early, due to personal mistake. The error was simple enough, the previous week’s appointment was 8.30am and that I assumed was the time again, I recalled in the instant she saw me, with that slightly confused and querying look on her face, it suddenly triggered me into thinking, we said 10.30, didn’t we. Fortunately, she was happy to put her admin to one side and see one of her more unusual patients.
I lamented that my poor back felt no more up to snuff than the previous week, though I was hardly an ideal patient, frequently flaunting her strict instruction. My frustration was, I suspect, a touch detectable, although I like to keep pleasant manners and calmness at all times, Birkenhead Drill. Any disquiet I felt soon started to melt away, the curl of her lip, her jaunty stance, those dark flashing eyes; I am sure she was imparting good advice but I must have missed it, regulars know me well enough, my mind wanders readily. Oh, I’ll burn in hell.
Thankfully I remained sober enough to tune in to odd words, and pieced together in a patchy jigsaw, estimate her key message. It was along the lines that I should take much succour from not deteriorating despite my ill discipline and to imagine what progress I would make if I actually followed the advice, for which she added, I was paying good money for her to dispense. She said this with a knowing wickedness, ah there is no danger of impropriety but I think she has my number and knows how to play me and I am a willing fiddle, when the player is such good fun. She booked me in again for a week later by telling me to come along at the same time next week, with a raised eyebrow, adding… After all, if you are determined to show up at 8.30, you may as well have an appointment to see me.
Do you know I left it a touch more spring in my step. I subsequently followed instructions. I have even been sober for 6 days, god help me. I have not over-eaten. I have walked, swam and done far more than I thought I could. It feels good.
As a reward, tomorrow I am attending Aintree for Becher Chase day with very good friends. I have been warned that it might be called off due to their young beautiful daughter being at odds with herself. Although the Greeks recruited Panacea as the goddess of recuperation, they did not have the foresight to install a goddess of national hunt and so I am unsure to which deity to direct the prayer for her overnight wellbeing. A prayer that, I admit, is almost entirely selfish.
I have busied myself around the home this week, starting preparations for a family Christmas. In addition to the local organic hyper-expensive farm shop turkey on which the good lady insisted, I have added some beef, also organic, from a farm on which I used to live. I have made further meaty investments in venison and a wild card, Wild Boar. I have 20 family and friends over for Christmas, I aim to make it memorable.
I have cleaned gutters and drains, planted up hanging baskets, pressure washed the stone flags and sorted an old bookshelf. We already have a Christmas tree up, incredible for me, my mantra has always been that Christmas starts on December 20th. This short break from executive life has awoken such enjoyments in me, parts I never knew I had.
A further facet of a week on doctors orders is that I am sleeping. Not entirely peacefully, the thought’s of the day percolate through the night and emerge perverted and malicious in my slumber, in the small hours, I restlessly turn, the mind unable to simply absorb the onslaught. A young mother, leaving a Bristol hospital with a baby, to throw herself into the Avon gorge. What terrible thoughts could possibly have driven her to this. My mind turns it over, I see things in dreams that I am not sure I could imagine during the healthier daytime hours, strange realms with macabre twisted rules, my greatest fear is that one day they might reappear, where they do not belong. I wish for that boundary to remain impermeable, for when the breach comes, it will be terrifying.
Today, the British Museum shipped part of their Elgin marble collection to Russia. It flies a little in the face of the reasoning for not repatriating the marbles to Greece for which their safety has been cited. Whether they should be reunited with the Parthenon or not is complicated. Many think Lord Elgin, Thomas Bruce to you or me, was somewhat the vandal and thief but in reality he was a great lover of the arts and acting out of protectionism rather than imperial greed. He was making a reliable record of the carvings and studying the marbles with an Italian painter when he came to realise that many were already missing. When they fell, rather than be preserved or repaired, locals were destroying the sacred ancient artworks for their raw materials, principally lime.
To Elgin, the matter was critical and while he did sell the marbles to the British Museum, he did so at a tremendous loss on his costs of excavation, preservation and transportation. The actual legal case for ownership is ambiguous and murky. Incredibly, relevant paperwork exists to this day, all power to the administrators.
The controversy over ownership has raged since the marbles were first exported. While most people are familiar with the basic argument, far fewer would be familiar with the astonishing coincidence that Thomas Bruces’ grandson, James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin; managed his own controversial sacrilege of a foreign nations greatest cultural achievements. Forgive me, I have written of it before I think, it seemed apt.
James Bruce led the Anglo-French march on Beijing. The British were fighting to open trade, principally Opium. The French joined the fracas because of the execution of a missionary for which they sought vengeance. Whatever the pretence, the Europeans wanted to show the Chinese people that the dragon could be quieted with well-drilled cavalry, martini-henry rifles, highly disciplined naval gunners and Congreve rockets. You see, the Emperor refused to ratify treaties which the Chinese had previously negotiated. Without that ratification, many ports were not yet open for trade, as had been agreed. The Europeans, exerting the power of empire had to prove that no corner of the Earth was beyond reach, no person too powerful.
There was the sense, that the Chinese wanted to show that the Emperor (drug fuelled madmen on the fringes of sanity) was more than mortal, a higher power than any Queen from the West and he certainly would not meet Elgin man to to ratify anything, lest it show a crack in his veneer to the ordinary Chinaman and let doubt seep in that perhaps their leader was not omnipotent after all. The Chinese slavish society depended on universal acceptance of the higher power.
Lord Elgin marched on Beijing with a joint force of 15,000. That is the number of troops he took of the ships anyway. For speed, he abandoned many behind, believing in a fleeter army and having confidence in their superiority, he was right. After they took the ‘impregnable’ Taku forts barely breaking a sweat, he pushed on and it is likely that he had less than 5,000 mixed French, Indian and British cavalry and infantry when he completed his largely bloodless march on Beijing.
The battle of Eight Mile Bridge was the significant action. The Chinese amassed their finest troops and were readily brushed aside by a far less numerous but immensely more powerful French and British cavalry who delivered a fine pincer movement, scattering and driving back the enemy horse despite being outnumbered in the field by three to one.
Elgin defeated the Qing forces at every interaction. The Chinese delayed and implored the party to stop and negotiate at each turn but the Anglo-French force smartly kept on moving, negotiations were to be done on the march, they were going to Beijing and the Emperor would meet Elgin and sign the treaties, that was that. He would be humbled.
Elgin rolled his guns up to the walls of Beijing and sat there, finger on the button. The ruling Chinese had no choice and signed the treaties and a surrender was negotiated. As soon as the ink was dry, the gruesome corpses of captured English, French and Irish troops were returned and they showed the most despicable signs of torture. With the business complete, it left the allied force furious.
Lord Elgin launched an astonishing response. To punish the Chinese rulers and to demonstrate to the Chinese people that their rulers who had lorded over them , were not an all-powerful and untouchable power that the servitude were led to believe; Elgin burned the Summer Palace. A magnificent yet grotesque collection of the finest arts, gold, jewels, silk, buildings and landscapes. In one sense, Elgin was right, this was not a public asset, it represented the reprehensible collection of wealth that dictators often amass in pursuit of vain glory. Yet, with his family history, you might think he would have hesitated in smashing one of the finest collections of fine objects the world had ever seen.
I have no great eye for art. I enjoy time in our finest galleries, I find the history of the pieces more to my interest than the pieces themselves. I like the detail and storytelling of the Pre-Raphaelite artists but claim no expertise or appetite for it. That is for others.
Anyway, enough I cry. We need to roll our own guns up to the gates of the enemy. Watch him squirm and empty his satchel. The weekend is here and we return once more. The signal from the mothership weakens but we still hear it. Tread quietly warriors and stay alert.
To the Sports.
Aintree – Becher Chase Day
As declared, I am on course and so if you are around, please make contact by twitter and I shall see you for a pint or a whisky, maybe with ginger wine, what do they call that?
The good to soft should hold, the forecast is dry and cloudy. A full run through of the card is in order so here goes.
The opening novice hurdle is interesting. Area Fifty One finished a few lengths behind Buywise at Ludlow. He looked a little flat after the last for a flat convert but I think that is to do with his free racing style. He was a 105 rated flat horse and if he learns to settle well, he remains of good potential, he is in good hands to do so.
Ballybolley needs the return to Aintree to spring some improvement although he ran a good race in defeat to Commissioned, the Ferguson horse, at Cheltenham.
Beast of Burden could be anything and the visual impact of the Ffos Las bumper win was striking. Yet, I am tempered by the 2 from 32 record in the last month of Rebecca Curtis.
This all leads me to a strong bet in the first with Great Try for Paul Nicholls who is a stunning specimen. He has a jumpers bumper to his name but I credit that little. He then returned this season with a respectable opening run in an Aintree bumper, more respectful. So many of Ditcheats need that first run of the season and I think he will leave that form well behind today. He looks the part and if a fluent jumper can pose plenty of problems to the protagonists at 9/2. Load a cannon.
I must confess to struggling to find a decent angle into the second race. The key form looks to be Announcement beating Nyanza by a length. A 7lb reversal in the weights leads the market to a conclusion I am less hasty to jump to. These juveniles…. a lot can change and strict interpretations of form and weights can be misleading. The fact that the race was also on heavy ground further complicates the picture.
I am going to throw a tentative couple of notes on Brise Vendeenne who has joined Nick Williams from France. Bits of the French province form look OK, although admittedly are hard to read. I think it is a realistic level to start from and as long as coping in the better ground (two places came in the mud), I would rather have this 7/1 than anything else on offer.
The one o clock is a two and a half mile handicap chase. The string of ones next to Baileys Concerto is going to attract strong support and I would not put anyone off a bet. He is doing a Hunt Ball, although much smaller (at this point) in scale. Having won a Hexham chase in March off 96, he competes today, seven wins later off a revised 134, that is some improvement and he may not yet be done. He relishes the sort of decent ground he gets again at Aintree and keeps finding more, there is every chance we are not at the bottom of him but this (admittedly, like many previous efforts) is the toughest ask yet.
While I acknowledge the chances of Baileys Concerto, I am placing my own faith in Bincombe who I recently backed at Wincanton. That day he travelled well before sinking hard left crossing the road on the part of the track that takes them out on the final circuit. I wondered if he would stop at the outside fence but thankfully he did. Bincombe won three times last year over fences and with Hobbs on fire and the horse well supported last time, I take it as a good sign that he can be progressive off this mark at the age of 6. He has won twice from three runnings on similar ground and if the tendency is to go left, at least there is a bloody inner rail this time to stop him!
Then the first race over the national fences, the Becher Chase. It is 10/1 the field and this is a reflection of the openness of these sorts of contests. I expect the Elliott raider, Balbriggan, to go off favourite. I backed his last win in Ireland as was pretty impressed. He would be on my list
Some course familiarity would help and even discounting the unusual national fences to get to a total Aintree performance, this field have run over 50 times, winning 4 races. 2 of those victories belong to Saint Are, both on the Mildmay but he has run in a national and Tom George is doing OK.
I have two Becher horses picked and ready. On the national course, I like a prominent runner who gets to see the obstacles well. I am drawn to one (and please do not put too much emphasis on this) for which I have heard a positive suggestion that it was being laid out with this as the plan. Highland Lodge is a 20/1 horse (Paddy Power) and I suggest a small slice. Early in the season might be the time to catch the horse who was placed in last years Hennessy.
I am going in double-handed though because the other horse I think could spring back to prominence in the national market is Shakalakaboomboom who can be backed at 28/1. Three seasons ago, you thought this one would go on to achieve a little bit more than he has. About to turn 11, he might not quite fulfil all of his potential but may well improve for a wind op over the summer.
In the handicap hurdle, I have not yet given up hope that Mountain King might progress again. He looked a little exposed last time but maybe the step up in trip will help, with Hobbs firing on all cylinders, he is backable. This is a sizeable step up in trip and I trust he will make the improvements I seek.
The penultimate race is the four runner Bettered Chase. I have a strong fancy and that is for Ma Filleule to reverse form with Holywell. Jonjo has a classy horse there who has been trading near the top of the Gold Cup market. I have already written up why I think Ma Filleuele is a horse to follow this year (have a look in the menu above) – I think she might be classy enough to play a part in a Gold Cup herself and the way the Henderson string might work out, she might end up being his main play. That might sound ridiculous to some and I accept it takes a few jumps of faith but she is young, improving and has excellent tied form.
I actually think that Holywell would have advantage on the ground, he likes to clatter along but with Jonjo firing in fits spurts (has had no winner in 18 attempts in the last fortnight), I am put off. Daryl Jacob is now booked by the expanding string for Simon Munir and Ma Filleule gets weight from Holywell and has age on her side. You do need to put a line through her reappearance run and it did concern me a bit as she has previously run well at the start of her campaigns. She looked a bit sloppier than usual in Ireland so maybe there was plenty left off the horse and this will be very different. It was also her first trip to Ireland so maybe she just doesn’t / didn’t travel well. I have nailed my colours anyway.
If she runs well here, they will have her in the King George. If she runs well there, she will be a Gold Cup contender. Two big ifs. 25/1 and 33/1. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Mind you, don’t come back in anger and say I did either!
Then the card closes with the Grand Sefton. Rebel Rebellion returns trying to win again with the same jockey and a 5lb lower mark and that is enough for him to justify favouritism. I prefer him to the other Nicholls runner, Rolling Aces who would prove me all wrong to defy top weight against this field.
There are two classy runners in the field of interest. Champion Court might find the going a bit tacky if it stays genuinely soft and the other horse of quality has to be Hunt Ball. He is only 9 and was rated 162 before his fall began and his bizarre trip to the States. He was once a Gold Cup talking horse but has left that hallowed status long ago. I would like to see a return to form or a far more rapidly falling mark before becoming involved.
So now I am looking for something still decent or am stuck with the favourite. Jim Goldie won the race twice 8 years ago, once with a 66/1 shot. He has another 66/1 shot in this but from a stone and a half wrong in the handicap, how could you recommend it other than that anomaly.
I was tempted by a horse out of the handicap in King of the Wolds. I am a big fan of Hughes and this horse may have benefited from the summer off having not looked himself last season. He has had a pipe opener and is young enough to still come good.
However, my money is going on Persian Snow at 11/1 (888 10s in most places) Hobbs is the trainer to follow at the moment and while Persian Snow has to be forgiven a bad run last time, these conditions suit.
The Tingle Creek
Not exactly a vintage renewal and it might be a chance for a lesser two mile animal to steal a Group 1. Sound harsh?
Vukovar has been supported all week and regulars will know that I am a big fan of the Fry yard. This is a big step up but there has been plenty of talk for the horse.
The Halden Gold Cup is a key piece of form. God’s Own really put to bed any remaining doubters (a group I confess to being a member of) with a strong performance. Afterwards, Tom George suggested that the horse is better going right-handed so we shall see what effect Aintree has on him. I think that LH / RH bias is always over thought.
Balder Succes had previously beaten God’s Own before that form was reversed at Exeter and now his hopes on a swing back to his favour rely on the weights advantage he takes into the race. Not my sort of proposition from a betting perspective and I see he looks a bit unsteady in the market too.
Paul Nicholls has such a good record in the Tingle Creek but this is a case of trends bias that you have to be wary of. One of the reasons he has such a strong record is the sheer class of animal he has had (Masterminded, Kauto and Twist Magic won six of the last ten runnings) – Of course you aim them at the best two mile early season race.
It is not for that reason that I am backing his runner but I am on a Nicholls horse. Dodging Bullets may be the selection of Sam Twiston-Davies but I prefer his stablemate, the vulnerable but talented Hinterland who can be backed at 16/1 (888) or 14/1 in other places. He needs to overcome some races in which he ran poorly but with excuses and this happens to be a track he likes. Have a good slice.
I think Irish Saint wins the Grade 1 novice chase too, I’m backing Nicholls for a red-letter Sundown day.
In the football….
Hull should be backed to beat my West Brom who look a little out of kilter. We lack width and without Berahino firing in goals, very vulnerable. 6/4 is a super price. I am buying Man City at 8/15 – They look like a rebooted side in recent weeks. Finally, Stoke went well enough at Anfield last week to give my long price on them a run. I think they are Arsenals worst nightmare at the Brittania where the fans would love to stick one over the more cosmopolitan visitors. 3/1.
The Martin Hill bet is a monster including Ma Filleule, Bincombe, Great Try, Persian Snow and Hinterland. Doubles, Trebles, Fourfolds and an Accumulator will be 26 bets (52 each way) – Mothership hovering.
I trust your dinner is taken in the finest company. Order fine wines and enjoy all that life can offer. We have one ride on the roller coaster my good friends, lap up any honey that any stranger may offer. Tip well and let her know as to where your mind is running.
Courage and roll the dice.