Good Evening from the Major who writes from a crystal clear Worcestershire evening where the deep blue and pink hues hang in the darkening vastness above and as the light dies, the breeze kissed my cheek with a sharp bitterness that reached in and extracted my very soul. Respite, the wine is breathing, the fire crackles, spits and pops; we are here and should be thankful to be alive.
The Major attended course today. I was quite tempted with a crazy raid to Bangor, it looks an idyllic course and their race quality seems to improve each season. However, instead, I visited Cheltenham, meeting not one but two former Managing Directors I had the pleasure of working with.
The racing was good. I felt the ground a touch slower than good to soft but negligible. Kings Palace was impressive and the NAP, Ulzanas Raid landed in the finish of the day, a thrilling four-way tussle from the last for which I owe Wayne Hutchinson a stiff drink for getting mine up in an enthralling head bobber that had me shouting SHABASH! Charingworth disappointed as did the Bolger Cross Country animal. Goohar would have made it a good day rather than a break even day but was denied by the late thrusts of Starluck. All in, great entertainment.
I am not returning on Saturday, my thirst has been sated and I am spending time with friends on Saturday evening, old friends, the sort of company that can get a bit raucous and so I am looking to arrive fresh for that engagement.
Having read the Cheltenham cards, I am also going to say something unusual. Below, I have not backed anything that it is too outrageous. However, the horses did jump off the page to me. Often I have to force the angle, less so today, it could be a good one. I am feeling like we are booked for profits. Now I am going to stray into uncouth territory.
I watched Question Time this week. I normally do not. On the occasion when I do, I normally ignore any social media interaction. Twitter must be the worst possible medium for those who like a rational thought-provoking exchange of views. Sadly in an age of expectation, entitlement and of assumed insatiable rights, it seems to me, many confuse their personal opinions with an abject truth. The effect, it seems to me, is that counter arguments are fuelled by the following sliding scale of indignation with precious little self-reflection. Firstly, there is the assumption that the opponent is not in possession of the full facts, then comes the assumption that they are less intelligent, finally, the presumption of malicious intent.
For my own politics, I am traditionally conservative. To me this means personal responsibility, small state and aspiration. The feeling that whoever, you are, you have opportunity. Sadly, I am not sure the party that adopt that name give me a home for my allegiance and so I am currently party-less. I have voted on both sides of the political divide in the past, preferring to be open rather than partisan.
The Question Time panel were entertaining, a screeching banshee in the audience added colour. In the last fortnight, I also listened to the Autumn Statement and subsequent responses and a few things strike me. Firstly, there is very little difference between the major parties in spite of what they would believe themselves. Allow me to expand.
Take the main issue that each of the two major parties are entering on for the General Election. Labour are championing the NHS believing it is an area in which their opponents are not trusted. They have pledged an extra £2 billion more cash for the service. It sounds an impressive figure, you are drawn to think in terms of nurses salaries or new hospital wings, surely £2bn can buy a lot. In fact it is about a 0.8% increase on the existing budget. The health service is struggling to cope with ever-increasing pharma costs, PFI debt and an ageing population. Both parties are unable to face into this because any reorganisation or more radical review of health evokes great risk. Accusations of destroying the NHS would be hurled, public services are always hard to reform, ones that are quasi-religions, near impossible. So instead, like a great lumbering beast, it limps on blindly and we fiddle while Rome burns.
The main issue that the Conservatives want at centre stage is the economy, underpinned by their ongoing commitment to cut spending and get us back within our means. Again, you would get a paper between Osbourne and Balls plans for deficit reduction, Balls wants to go a year or two slower. Neither want to face into any radical thought. Health is sacrosanct and seemingly untouchable. I for one do not share the view that protecting the health budget has helped the NHS. In policing, cuts have forced reorganisation, rationalisation, fresh review and new initiative. Finally pensions, as state support for the public is cut across the board, no politician dare look the grey haired in the eye. They vote too frequently.
I share these views here, not to preach, though I am aware that I just did and apologise accordingly. I hold these views but do not seek to impose them. In fact, I am open to changing my mind at any point. You see, I think even those that would disagree with me are probably closer than they think. As I say, I think we are all on a spectrum of thought on most subjects. Neither party on either of the above issues is, in general, guilty of the three stages I laid before you. They have the facts. They are not stupid. They are not evil. We would all like to be living within our means and we all would like to have an excellent free NHS, it is just the case that our belief in where the solutions lie are at different points.
The real issue I face with current politics is the lack of risk takers who dare present a different vision. Do I want the NHS budget to be 100% of current plan or 100.85%? Well, frankly, I could not care less. Our current democratic set up condemns those with a radical view, frowns upon people who change their mind and flounders, wallowing in arguments in the very fringes while the globe moves on around us.
Tennyson once said ‘ The last great Englishman is dead’. That was over 160 years ago and he was referring to the Duke of Wellington, once a Prime Minister and leader of our forces in the Peninsular Wars which lead to the downfall of Napoleon. That work was first-rate, punching on through Spain, essential supplies from the sea. For that, he was indebted to Nelson, who ten years earlier had rolled the dice at Trafalgar, leaving us with global naval dominance. The two giants of British history were very different men. Wellington was deliberately reserved, a trait made popular in the early nineteenth century with the reform of Public School, Nelson was more evocative.
They met only once as documented while waiting for an interview at the War Office. Wellington recognised Nelson, in which he had an advantage as by then Nelson had led an unsuccessful assault on the port of Santa Cruz at Tenerife, in which he lost his right arm. Nelson did not recognise Wellington. The account of the mens discussion comes from Wellington who was disgusted that Nelson spoke mostly of himself. As the conversation developed, Nelson left the room, possibly to check who this soldier was and on return was a little more conscious of his illustrious company. Irrespective, the men hardly got on but that is the army and the navy for you. Wellington concludes his experience by confirming a view that Nelson was a ‘superior man’, a grudging but fine respect.
Of them, I believe that Wellington was the greater man. Of his great enemy Napoleon, he once said that his presence on the battlefield made the difference of 40,000 men. He was also the first to quote that his only fear, was fear itself.
I have committed the sin of raising politics. I trust you accept the apology and ask that we move on to the sport.
The juvenile hurdle that opens the card is a nice contest. Hargam is a nice prospect and lost little in defeat to Golden Doyen at the Open Meeting. That was a good start for Hargam against a decent looking Hobbs hurdler. However, it is worth observing that Golden Doyen had previously lost to Karezak at Chepstow on their seasonal and hurdling debuts. It is hard to take literal interpretations of the form at this stage with these horses. Who knows how forward they were at that point?
I take this view. Henderson is definitely not firing on all cylinders and that gives me a good reason to dodge the hotly backed Hargam. Stars Over The Sea gives us a Sea The Stars progeny and who knows, maybe the Arc, Guineas and Derby legend might be the next Kings Theatre or Presenting! There are reasons other than his blue blood to take the plunge on Stars Over The Sea. He is an eye-catching good-looking scope sort, I suspect he will be a chaser in a couple of years. Yet he is speedy enough to have won without breaking sweat around Kempton and Ludlow. His first engagement saw him a bit scruffy and ballooning a few flights but he looked more professional in Shropshire. He needs to have learned because Cheltenham does not forgive jumping inaccuracies lightly. 7/2 generally. Pipe had me away to a winner on Friday and I hope for a repeat prescription on Saturday.
The novice chase race currently has 4 runners and I suspect it will be 3 shortly as Virak is likely to defect to Doncaster. When that happens, it will mean we have an odds on favourite in Champagne West, Un Ace and Little Jon.
This does not make for much of a competitive betting heat. When McCoy rides for Bailey, it normally means business, he has won 16 times in the last two years for the yard from just shy of 30 runs. That is astonishing. Yet in this race, I do not think he has the ammunition. Kim Bailey has a good horse in Un Ace and his form deserves this step up in class. However, he is not a trainer for Cheltenham and I am siding with the obvious. Champagne West is 11/10 in a few places but expect a big rule 4.
We are into handicap country for the 1.25. The four in form trainers hold all the keys with Nicholls saddling Solar Impulse, Tizzard over his early season barren stretch runs Sew on Target and trainer of the moment, Hobbs, runs Bold Henry. Finally, Harry Fry brings back Karinga Dancer to face Bold Henry again after falling here last month, too early to assess if any serious challenge was developing.
Those are the three I am instructed in. There will be local popular support for Astracad who has run 15 times at Cheltenham but he will find several of these too good in my view and he surely needs further these days anyway.
Bold Henry is no young pup but going the right way and even though his defeat of Sew on Target strictly would be reversed at the weights, the former horse looks like he is going the right way.
It is too early to judge the Nicholls runner at the age of 4. His three chase runs have shown some ability but this is a tough race for outright favouritism.
I don’t need too much of an excuse to back a Noel Fehily runner and so I am highly tempted with Karinga Dancer but in the end, I settle on Bold Henry at 11/4 (Paddy Power) who won like a good horse last time.
The feature race of the day, the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup heralds the return of Caid du Berlais the Paddy Power victor and 7/2 favourite to go in again. I thought a 5lb rise for his Cheltenham glory was very reasonable and I am expecting him to compete again.
Attaglance is an interesting contender, a brave horse, northern raider and with the talented Hughes guiding him, I suspect we might see a decent challenge.
Do you know though, yesterdays NAP landed and I have to put Caid du Berlais up here. His Paddy Power win was over the horse I really fancied that day, course specialist John’s Spirit. In recent years, the Paddy Power has become a more important early season chase and genuine Gold Cup contenders can come from it. I take the form to be very strong and a repeat run should see him go in again. Load the heavy cannon.
Calmer waters in the 2.35 and back to novice company. I was a little disappointed to see Blacklion defeated last time and since that bubble has burst, I go to the horse who finished a place behind him that day, Port Melon, 11/4. I have a view that the extra distance might suit the Nicholls runner and yard form is now stronger. Port Melon is exactly the sort of animal that Nicholls improves after first run, have a slice.
The International meeting is not known for throwing up many festival winners but despite the Mullins hype around Faugheen, I think we will see the Champion Hurdler at 3.10pm, The New One. Previous placed Champion Hurdle form is always a good indicator and while there has been money for Vaniteux all week, my sense of The New One’s superiority and the mixed Henderson form, all point to backing the New One at his new more generous 4/7.
I did write The New One up as one of my horses to follow this year. You cannot expect me to support that view still now if I feel he is going to struggle here. No, he wins.
From a potential Champion Hurdler to an actual Champion. The last race sees Rock on Ruby try to build on a respectable reappearance and he is certainly the classiest animal on show. However, he is also about to turn 10 and I do not know that a small field will suit. His market rival is Volnay de Thaix but after extolling an aversion to Henderson horses, I cannot get in there. Lac Fontana looks a little held by this lot and with little interest from me in the others, I conclude that it is a no bet race.
You might be thinking that I have not exactly pushed the boat out so far. I can only hold up my hands and say that I am only reading the leaves as they muster.
I am looking at the two Grade 2 races at Doncaster and in the juvenile hurdle (2.15), I am taking my Henderson thoughts back to the bank and backing Starchitect for Donald McCain. 5/1 is available with Paddy Power for this dual winner who has looked progressive. the favourite, as well as being a Henderson horse is owned by Simon Munir who has retained Daryl Jacob for his horses. The thing is, Jason Maguire is a superior jockey and it just adds to the case for Starchitect.
The 2.50 is the race Virak has defected to and since I fancied him for Cheltenham and they have sent him up north… What can I say. 6/4 have a slice.
In the football…. Just one bet. Villa I think are the price of the weekend to beat West Brom at 3/1. Frankly the Albion look negative and narrow. One draw is the best they could muster from their last 5 games where as the Villains are unbeaten, having won their last two. Have a large slice.
The Martin Hill bet is Virak, Caid du Berlais, Bold Henry and Stars over The Sea in a powerful yankee.
I trust your dinner is taken in great state with the best company you know. Some glorious creature with flaxen hair and broad joyous features. Drink the finest wine and wallow in the splendour of being alive, we are, we are the lucky ones, we are here.
Courage, roll the dice.