The Saturday Sermon – Ascot, Haydock et al. Tis the season to be jolly and so… Courage, roll the dice.

Good morning from the Major who awakens in unfamiliar circumstances having visited upon friends in Gloucestershire and waking in an alien room.  Tis the season to be jolly and last night, we imbibed at length into the night celebrating two former colleagues heading for pastures new, both excellent sorts and for once, the Major put thoughts of the Sermon to one side to enjoy the company.

This morning I am paying the price for this oversight.  I did consider penning this at 2am but felt that 6 hours sleep would revive me enough and while a little jaded, I feel it was the right decision.  I have not missed a Saturday in 5 years.

What a week.  At what point on the scale of mans insanity does shooting children  not sober you up.  The news from the Peshawar tribal regions shook to the core, overshadowing the terrorist activities in Sydney just the previous day.  I detest the reporting of both of these incidents,  Watching the news channels, competing for our viewership, you can hear the palpable excitement in the presenters voices.  I am waiting for one to slip and exclaim ‘This is brilliant!’.  I dislike the entire premise and I dislike myself for tuning in.

Something about it reminded me of the first gulf war.  A family member served upon destroyer class HMS Gloucester and was thrilled with the adventure, just 20 years old, I remember him exclaiming that they were off to ‘kick Saddams Ass’.  I watched that war unfold as entertainment.  Do you remember the images of Scud missiles traversing the horizon with American Patriots rising to meet and destroy them in flight?  I was glued.  We might dress it up as current affairs, breaking news, of national public interest but since that point, these major world events have simply been the latest blockbuster to peddle, the veneer of anything else is slipping.  Fiction and reality blending together.

Last week I wrote of politics and my personal antipathy for any social engagement in the subject  Apart from being raised to believe that discussing politics with strangers is the height of rudeness, there is a dirge of immovable opinion foisted upon you with no recognition of the nuance of various positions.  I repeat, an opponent to your argument will cycle quickly through three stages as a response to you not conforming to their view.  You are ill-informed.  You are not that bright.  You are evil.

Bedroom Tax debates this week was a timely example of this.  We all believe in bedroom tax.  There.  We all believe in bedroom tax.  What you say?  Let us examine this.

Ask yourself.  Do you think benefit claimants should be able to demand any sort of housing with any sort of luxurious feature?  For example, should a single guy, claiming housing benefit be entitled to a 6 bedroom executive room with a swimming pool, because it is nice?  At the other end of the spectrum, I doubt I will find anyone that believes that a disabled claimant who desperately needs to store essential equipment should not be provided with an appropriate home.  If you accept the former, then you believe in ‘bedroom tax’, if you believe the latter then you are human with a soul, congratulations and you also still believe in ‘Bedroom Tax’.

Then what remains is simply where you are on the spectrum between.  More nuanced examples might draw your thinking.  Should a mother of a serviceman who lost their life in action be charged now for a ‘spare room’?  Should an elderly lady who has lived in the same home for 30 years be charged once her family leave?  My point is not to give my own opinion, you do not need it.  Rather, I would like the abuse parked.

Kauto Star’s retirement to the dressage ring bought about condemnation from many corners that I thought was a bit harsh.  He looked healthy to me.  My father retired and took up bridge, we all wish some purpose in our winter years.

I cannot believe Christmas is here.  I feel like I am lurching through weeks.  With no current employment, this sermon remains the one reliable anchor around which the sway of the ocean crashes.  Days morph, time twists, I am tired a lot, sleep is uneasy.

I love racing.  Memories of former races surface unexpectantly in my thoughts.  I asked some people to share their favourites  this week and Treve made an appearance as did Frankel, a few Grand Nationals and lots of Cheltenham.  My personal favourite was Long Runs Gold Cup.  It stands my hair on end to close my eyes and reminisce of Kauto and Denman eyeballing each other once more hurtling down the hill and the crescendo rising, their torso straining, their bodies stretching into the drive position as they turn in and run for home; only for Long Run all gangly and uncomfortable to out-stay the old masters with his young legs.  He was a novice I think (I stand to be corrected) and that was some achievement.  If you watch the race again, it is my paper that goes airborne in the Best Mate enclosure, yes I was slumming it that day.

I entered a bookmakers in Birmingham City Centre this week.  I was just in time to lose some money on Open Hearted who came third, unfortunately of three, to Mr Mole.  The scenes in the two bookies I visited were bleak.  In the first, a BetFred, there was a queue for the FOBT machines.  Part of my soul died.  One player was striking the screen, the staff persistently asking him to stop.  I don’t blame the staff for not intervening more, on their wages they do not deserve to face the naked aggression a confrontation would surely bring, neither do they have the skills I dare say.  However, I think repeatedly hitting a machine is a strong sign that gambling is not fun and clearly an addiction issue.  The industry needs stronger legislation.  I am a believer in liberty, I pretty much believe an adult should be able to do as they please within the confines of the law.  I believe that offence is a small price to pay for personal liberty.  Yet, FOBTs cause social harm by inciting, breeding and commercialising addiction.

I left BetFred before the exchange concluded.  The guy seemed to respond at first to the repeated warnings, once they got serious enough, but when his inevitable losses mount up again, his frustrations would boil over again, I felt sure of that.  I turned my cheek, put my collar to the wind and left it behind me.  Unpleasant all round.

In my hungover state, I seem to have no positive rays to share.  Forgive me.  Let us get to business.  Let us get Christmas paid for.

The Ascot Card

Soft going at Ascot and it is a visually deceptive track.  I think it takes some getting in these conditions and so doubtful unproven stayers are off my agenda.

I am going to start with the Graduation Chase at 1.15pm.  Irish Saint lines up at just the better side of evens with Thomas Crapper and Puffin Billy the worthwhile opposition.  I am a bit wary of Irish Saint.  It was a good race he competed in at Sundown but he looked tapped for pace that day and travelled uncertainly.  I think it brings value to the field, we can get him beat, in spite of the Ditcheat strong form.

Puffin Billy is my pick and can be backed at 2/1 with Ladbrokes.  He looked in need of the experience when third on chase debut behind two good sorts but left that form behind last time at Ascot when jumping with much better experience.  He likes soft ground and as a hurdler struck me as a potential very good chaser.  Get stuck in.

The following handicap chase is an open event with marginal favouritism for last years winner, Lancetto.  Evan Williams has the horse off a good mark again and so it could be a big run.  That was the horses only win at Ascot from 6 attempts and I do not think it is a rock solid bet to repeat the dose.  I really like the chances of Ballygarvey at a generous 9/2.  Hobbs has been firing all season and the horse looks well treated in conditions he should like.  I like Tom in the saddle  and so the stars are aligned.

The Long Walk Hurdle only has a field of five and Reve de Sivola is bidding for a hat-trick of wins in the race, to match the mighty Big Bucks.  The thing is, I have never given the horse the credit his record seems to demand and I am going to continue in that approach today.  Reve de Sivola finished behind an impressive Zarkander in France last time and I see no reason the form will be reversed.  However, neither garner my vote.  I think the race looks a tad weak and I am willing to bet the improving 5yo Aubusson to upset the odds, even with the inexperienced Lizzy Kelly in the saddle.  The horse needs to improve 10lbs but at the age, may well do so and I have doubts over the market leaders enough to suggest an investment at 15/2 (Bet365).

The Silver Cup at 3pm is our chance to see The Young Master who was so cruelly stripped of a Badger Ales win after it became evident that the horse should never have been entered.  He has, in a year, some from a chase mark of 97 to the lofty 144, a win here would be a crowning glory.  He is receiving plenty of weight still from Houblon des Obeaux who won this race last year and put up a good show in the Hennessy which looked a tough race.  Has he recovered?  If so, he is certainly a class animal with proven Ascot form.

I am going to take a chance on Via Sundown at a price (14/1) that reflects his last effort, in the Hennessy.  His hurdling seasonal debut at Exeter I thought was to liven him up for the Hennessy run and while now you have to find a reason to give the horse another chance, I am willing to because I trust the yard felt he had a genuine chance at a Hennessy.  It is a perverted logic but if he was a contender for that and mis-fired then why can’t he win this receiving weight from all but two in the field.  Take a chance.

The lucky last is a big field G3 handicap hurdle and a horse I have been waiting for runs.  Goodwill Mirage received some talk at a preview night I attended a couple of months ago when looking to compete in the Greatwood.  He was withdrawn then because of soft ground which is concerning for today and with a shadow hanging over the O’Neill operation, I cannot tip him, though will feel suitable vindicated and bitter when he rolls in.

I am going to back two in straight win bets and a reverse forecast.  Balgarry has a huge task following a second substantial career break but Pipe is the sort who can achieve that.  If you do not like being double-handed in a race, then of the two I am backing, I prefer Shelford who can be backed at 7/1 and has rock solid form behind Aubusson whose credentials I have already lauded.

Other Saturday Snippets

I am looking forward to seeing Un De Sceaux destroy the field in the Firehouse opener.  Let’s hope for a clear round, Firehouse fences are serious and this should get him respecting the obstacles.  I am placing a double before the race on UDS for the Arkle and Vautour for the Champion Chase.  5/1 and 14/1 with Paddy Power.  My logic is simple enough, I think UDS will win the Ankle and Vautour, although a popular bet in the JLT, I think has a good chance of turning up in an Champion Chase.  For a long time I have thought the Champion Chase a terrific antipasto market because the two previous winners at the head of the market, Sprinter Sacre and Sire de Grugy may not make the track this season and if they do show up, it might be their only run of the year.  Originally I thought God’s Own might be the answer ut I think those early thoughts were inaccurate as without solid opposition, I see no reason why Mullins would not aim one of his stars, although a novice, at the main event.  Vautour looks a natural.

At Haydock, I want a piece of Goohar who I recently put up at Cheltenham.   He was edged out of it that day with the front two coming clear, that form signals a handicap improver and I want him on my side.

Haydock is not Ludlow (odd statement I know) but Saturday would not be Saturday without a Venetia Williams winner and I think Vivaccio in the 1pm is a sound investment as a strong improver.

Bitofapuzzle represents Fry, a yard you all know I rate highly and he can keep the winning streak going with this smart mare, 5/4.

In the football a double on West Ham (7/10) and Manchester United (8/13) will provide some easy winnings at 5pm.

The Martin Hill bet is Bitofapuzzle, Goohar and Ballygarvey in an each way treble.

I need to get some coffee.  I trust your dinner is peaceful, pleasant and unhurried.

Courage, roll the dice.

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