The Saturday Sermon – Quality racing from Haydock, Ascot and Naas…. Courage friends, roll the dice.

Good evening from the Major who writes from a swirling Worcestershire where the wind creeps uninvited, slithering past fabric defences, seeking access to your core; sudden flurries of precipitation cling tensely to the skin.  A night for stoking the fire and sealing the home tight.

The Major is weary, the week has washed around me around, events; events dear friends.  At nightfall, I have dreamt wildly, as the sun rises, I awaken with the pulse racing and the mind working to establish the division between the night and the day world and seal the former away.

One dream took me back to my climbing days, I believe it’s presence was provoked by watching the footage of the climbers conquering El Capitan in Yosemite on a lead rope all the way.  My own climbing exploits were confined largely to indoors and far more modest.

Indoor climbing is a splendid inclusive sport to make friends to, there is a lot of trust built, manning a rope to catch your comrade as he comes off the wall.  You can climb indoors, with partners of a much higher standard, it is entirely inclusive.  Since one of you is tasked to belay while your partner climbs, the severity of the wall is irrelevant.  I was certainly the inferior partner in my climbing partnership.  Adam was indeed far better than I, a Barnsley chap with a thick accent, gentle and almost childlike in delivery, a thin flop of surfer hair and a lithe tall spider-like body, well suited to the sport.  He was a damn good egg, tremendous humour, good with the bottle, great guy.

He now lives in St Louis, we are not in touch any more.  I remember times with him well and a particular memory made me smile this week, as I lazily swam in my memories of the time and, since this exchange which I recall, barely paints me in a good light, you can know it to be a truthful recollection of events.

An ex girlfriend, of Adam’s, invited him on a European break having split from her new partner in the weeks building up to this trip which she had already paid for.  He sought my council with his problem being a delicate one, you might indeed judge it indecent but it is how mens minds can work, cheaply, especially in their youth and impudence, bad mannered,wild beasts we are, blundering on with no sophistication and little style, blind to the finer behaviours.

What troubled Adam was that the trip appealed if he could be confident that (and I shall try to be tactile) he would be at couples.  Put simply, he was not sure if the invitation was intended as entirely platonic, like one might ask an old friend, or perhaps a little more suggestive.

Now, myself, I have always been poorly equipped to advise on the minds and intentions of the fairer sex.  The mysteries of god to me, include their thoughts which have always been unfathomable.  I am thankful I found a decent sort willing to take me on as a sort of project.  Why Adam sought my counsel was based on trust not on expertise and I answered as best I could.

I declared that of course her mind ran to la gallop and that he should not worry one bit.  A little wine flown, I offered a deal.  If he returned and the trip had been merely pleasant, then I would take him to dinner in one of Birmingham’s finest curry houses, fine compensation for playing the good old friend.

I knew he was good for a gentleman’s gamble and being of the Yorkshire sort, was unfaltering honest.  A few years prior, I had offered a similar deal.  He was unsure as to whether he would get a university result of a 2:2, 2:1 or unthinkably (to him) a first.  Knowing him as a deprecating sort, I marked up the odds and created a market in which I paid him for underperformance and he paid me for overperformance, to hedge his result.

He got a first to his delight and rang me on the day (before his family note!) to declare that he would give me the £200 as promised.  I hesitated, having made the bet after imbibing gods good liquor and not wanting to sully my friends great news, I declared the bet void and offered my congratulations.  It felt like a decent thing to do and told him he might buy me a beer instead.

When I got home that evening, the good lady, we’d just moved in together, handed me an envelope, it had been hand delivered.  It contained £200 cash and a note which simply read ‘I’d have taken your money, Adam‘. Sportsman.

Anyway, I’d forgotten about our more dubious agreement regarding his chances of fine fun.  It had clean slipped my mind after sobering up the next day.  So  when, landing at the airport following his trip to Barcelona, Adam called me, rather cheekily while still in the company of his travelling companion, the memory of the arrangement came back to me suddenly.  He was walking through the airport when he called, having just landed.  He called to inform me what a fine time he had and that wasn’t it time that me and him went for a curry, on him.  Sly dog.

Mountaineering is a fine sport.  Focuses the mind and if you have a head for heights, which I do, then the accomplishment one feels is excellent.  The danger side to the sport is left for the extremists.  The chaps on El Capitan, while dramatic are fairly safe, climbing a wall that has largely been bolted.

For a real sense of what madness lies in risk taking wild-eyed lunatics, watch Adam Honnolt, the sensational free climber.  Most of the climbing community think it is a matter of time until the mans death.  Until then, what he is doing sends shivers.

Do you know the most deadly mountain in the world?  Well the answer depends on how you characterise most deadly.  The measure I find most accurate is deaths per summit.  On this measure, Annapurna I or Kangchenjunga, compete for that macabre title.  Just over 180 souls have stood on the summit of Annapurna, it remains one of the most significant mountaineering challenges, being the tenth largest peak on Earth and in excess of 8,000 metres.  For those successes, 61 people have died attempting it.  Kangchenjunga has a similarly chilling death rate, it is the third highest mountain in the world.  If it is sheer numbers that you would class, then the Mont Blanc massif has claimed thousands and is unsurpassed in death toll.

These days, I am happy to make a successful ascent of the stairs, sometimes wondering if I soon require oxygen and a team of sherpas.

Anyway, sports tips, for that is what you fools have come for.  Last week was a story of near misses.  Lots of second places, close friends close.  Today we have some quality racing cards and once more I invite you to ante up.  I pity those who never gamble, such feeble existence, as Kipling said, stake it all on one turn of pitch and toss; you’ll be a man my son.

Let’s start with the main course.

Ascot – Sprinter Sacre

At about 3.06pm, we will know what remains of the highest rated horse in training, Sprinter Sacre.  We can all recall some of his extravagant leaps, like a stag and his demolition jobs where he was never troubled off the bridle.

His heart fell out of rhythm and being of such status, the horse was pulled up and since then, rumours abound of his well-being, his likelihood to return in anything like his best shape… controversy and conspiracy.

I can only proffer a view.  Henderson is a master but he faces a damn hard task.  There are many holding out that on his former best, Sprinter Sacre rated in the mid one eighties.  That would rate at least 15lbs better than any of his Champion Chase potential rivals and frankly he would be odds on for the main event in March if it were known that he can still perform at that level.

So the question that occupies all of our minds is the level that he is returning at.  Nicky did not want to run him on bottomless ground.  I think he will have avoided that.  Significant rain fell on Wednesday / Thursday but Ascot drains so well that I would not be concerned about that.  Potential heavy showers may pass over in the morning and I think genuine soft ground is to be expected.

I have my doubts about him.  It is not my wish that he falter, none wants to see a true great, scrabbling around confused, unable to dominate as they know they should.  No, no.  Yet, in this division, I think it is hard to return to the top table, the races look tough on the competitors.

My mind runs to Masterminded – He was rated 186 after he destroyed a Champion Chase field, coming home 20l clear, as the commentators turn of phrase goes, in splendid isolation.  When he went, he went.

Sprinter Sacre is nine and has raced just 17 times so is hardly burned out you would think.  Yet we are asking him to come back from a year off and at 9, return to his glorious highs.

I can only offer you a gut feel, I think the two mile chase division can be pretty brutal.  He last raced over a year ago, his heart irregularities while seemingly fixed remain closely monitored.  My greatest hope is that he returns OK.  He does not need disgrace or to be flogged, I know he will not be.  You can tell I am wavering.

All that said, in spite of my mind telling me to back Dodging Bullets, I won’t be able to celebrate properly unless he is in my multiple so against my better judgement I shall have a slice of him.  Yet I am not recommending it as a tip, no. No bet, watching brief.

The mares hurdle is a nice little race for those that do not look down their noses at such contests.  Carole’s Spirit is an improving sort and a deserving favourite.  She has only lost over hurdles the once, in this race last year when defeated by Highland Retreat.  She probably bettered that form in a listed race on seasonal debut when the Henderson trained odds-on favourite fell and she took advantage in pretty convincing fashion.

However, history may well repeat itself here and Carole’s Spirit may well again lose to a Harry Fry horse.  Both have a perfect record on soft but Bitofapuzzle gets 5lbs from the favourite and brings plenty of solid form in the book.  I think she has been crying our for a step up in trip and Noel Fehily gives us at least another 5lb advantage from his skill and strength.  4/1 have a slice.

I am going to stick with Fehily, this time for Nicholls and back La Mercurey in the Grade 2 limited handicap at 2.25pm.  Nicholls rarely brings a bad one over from France and the British debut looked too bad to be true.  I don’t have a lot to go on other than reputation, a strong record of being raced on soft ground and the finest jump jockey bar Ruby.  4/1 Again.

While Ascot is currently soft, Haydock is booked as heavy.  12.55 is an interesting novice chase where the mercurial and sometimes frustrating Colour Squadron aims to take a deserved Grade 2 chase.  I was very taken though with the flawless confident jumping of the Queens Close Touch at Wincanton over Christmas.  Nicky Henderson has hit top gear in the last week or two and even at 4/5, I think we have a multiple banker here.  Technically Colour Squadron is rated a few pounds superior but since the selection was a better hurdler, I have little doubt that he will improve again on his current chase mark even giving 4lbs to a chasing maiden of Colour Squadrons ilk.

The supreme trial looks a poorer Grade 2 all round and I am going to take a punt on Qewy for John Ferguson at 5/1 in places.  He was a decent flat horse for John Oxx and is in very good hands on hurdle debut.  Ferguson is having a fine season and it would not be a surprise to have another Cheltenham contender on his hands.  Ferguson seems to draw stamina out from flat profile sorts that seemingly do not seem the sort.  He is having a damn fine season and this race looks winnable.

The New One of course wins but you do not need me to tell you that.  It is not a bankable price but as a reminder, it is my idea of the Champion Hurdle winner.

The Peter Marsh chase is always a tricky conundrum.  In the last 6 years we have had winners at 16/1, 20/1 and 33/1.

Broadway Buffalo has tremendous credentials at the top of the market.  He loves the mud and is unbeaten at Haydock, very good assets in this renewal.  However, it would not be Saturday if Venetia did not have a runner staying on past weary sorts, improving on prior form and in Shangani at 9/1 we have a perfect candidate.  Low in the weights, reasonable form and that cast iron guarantee that when others have cried enough, Ms Williams will have crafted this one a will of iron.

At Naas.  Rule the World put in a sterling performance giving bags of weight to the Mullins trained Adriana des Mottes last time out, going down fighting by the slimmest of margins.  If that effort has not left any mental of physical scars then I see no reason as to why a well deserved chase success does not await here. 6/4 – Fill your boots and your undercrackers.

In the previous race, Kitten Rock has been improving this year winning a Grade 3 already and I am to put off by 8/11 – A Naas double is in order.

Meanwhile in association football, just one tip.  I would take West Ham to carry on their good work with a home win over Hull who are slipping.  3/4.

The Martin Hill bet… Rule the World, West Ham and Close Touch – A powerful treble made with a steady hand and a fistful of notes.  Time to think of the Cheltenham war chest.

May your dinner be blessed in the fine company of a raven haired sort with a lilting Irish voice, all sing-song and magic.  She won’t respect you unless the restaurant is first rate, dress well and revel in the wonder of it all.

Courage friends, roll the dice.

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