Good evening to you all from a Worcestershire cloaked in a blanket of milky grey cloud which brings not comfort but a terrifying depth to the darkness. Yet while suffocating, the light, such cover brings comfort that tomorrows card at Cheltenham faces no icy hazards.
The Major is greatly looking forward to entertaining fine friends who are coming to stay for the Cheltenham races. Fine folk each. Pierre with his greying wolf like features, South African harsh edged tones and generous nature. Richard, straight as a lance, hawk like and peering at you sober as a judge. Olly, a roundness of joviality and sharpness but not to be fooled, sharp as a pin. Nataliya, drawling alto Russian accent, wide-eyed and damn good fun.
All are bringing families which bears well as it happens to be number one sons’ (Daniel) eighth birthday. This small fact had slipped my mind when organising the whole event and when informing the good lady of my social plans, myself looking pleased as a cat with cream on its chops; she politely and patiently reminded me of my family commitments. She might try to correct me but I fear I am a hopeless project.
Another week slips on past and the festival looms large. My mind wanders quickly from one stratagem to another, plots and stories are told in my mind before I appraise a different form line and a new fiction comes on. In the week, a commercial twitter account, I cannot recall, asked what was special about the enthusiastic roar each year as the tapes go up on the Supreme.
I pondered that partly it is an acknowledgement of the celebration to come, the grand opening. I hear the tourists (and tourists are welcome in our sport) joining in eagerly. Yet, there is something else in our hearts, nest pas? Accuse me on over-sentimentality, I accept the charge. Yet, at that moment, before the first result is weighed-in, all of those stories we concocted, all those hopes, many antepost dreams, they all are unblemished, intact and glorious.
Stood on the terrace as the tapes go up for the opener, that thought fills my heart. I cheer because I know that whatever comes, discouragement or exaltation, right there, at that point, the future is unsullied by the tarnish of what will be.
What a stir the Page 3 saga drew this week. I must confess, I did chuckle when the Sun seemingly reneged on their removal of bare breasts from page three. Twitter once again proved entirely the wrong forum in which any reasoned debate might exist. Sides were formed with some opting for the view that it has been a terrible stain, others decrying that we have become too prudish and some even bringing comparison to the Charlie Hebdo affair. Grievous offence was thrown towards feminists and chauvinists, each fighting for control of how we are all made to think.
To draw sense from the noise is hard. In raising the issue, my intention is not to preach.
I do not buy the Sun. My exposure was at my old place of employment, lunch-speckled copies would be left discarded and I would peruse with one hand, fork in other. I liked the cartoon nature of the journalism, the tongue in cheek tone of voice and the fervent sports speculation, undertaken with some gusto.
I always jumped page 3, I found it embarrassing in company. Even if I wanted to read some side article, the suggestion that I was some leery cove, well people know me for a scoundrel but I don’t want to play the role overtly.
Now I am conscious that this self-awareness paints me somewhat in an unflattering light. I make no moralistic case for not having bare ladies in the Sun, as you can read, I was more concerned with my own reputation than anything else. This hypcorisy is charge which I would plead guilty. Regular readers know that my weekly sermon is not designed to credit the author. No, no. Rather I am interested in telling the most truth that I dare.
Anyway, I disagree that the campaigns to stop Page 3 models have any parallel with the French tragedy. The campaigners in this case are not asking for a ban but rightfully asking a publisher to reconsider some content as inappropriate. Neither do I subscribe to the fact that being a family newspaper, it is an inappropriate spot. My objection to that is simply that I don’t think children read the paper.
When I heard that the tradition of bare breasts was coming to an end, my reaction was simple… about time. When I heard they were coming back, my reaction? I laughed! It really did bring a delightful chuckle, an exclamation, rascals. Having seen the smug celebration of their removal in such heady circles, it just seemed just deserts, for those judgemental sorts. You see, while I personally did not approve of their presence and it made me feel uncomfortable…. As an adult and as a libertarian, my belief generally is that other grown adults should be able to do pretty much what they choose, with the caveat of causing others no harm.
To the people whom protest that this outdated tradition is some terrible drag on woman, well, I find some credit in the argument. Yet I can swallow little of it when it is presented so sanctimoniously. Are we to become afraid of each other? Are we to fear being a little rude from time to time, to embrace things that others find distasteful? Should these permissions be broken down to the lowest denominator?
Locally, our school system is going through a possible period of transition. Passionate decries of change have surfaced, each more furious than the last. I do not deny that they are well-intentioned. I do not portray myself as having the virtue of their ‘action with conviction’. I just wish folk could reflect on what is genuinely important from time to time. The clock is ticking, you might wake up one day, old, losing your sharpness and wonder where you wasted your young wanton mind.
A great philosopher, which I forget, perhaps Kant, described our lives akin to sparks leaping from a great fire. As the spark spits out into the inky black night, it dims, the further from the source it goes, until extinguished. That childhood wonderment and excitement is left behind.
Hold on to your spark dear friends. Through racing, we can rekindle it a little. The quivering sensation as they turn for home, the thundering resonance of them climbing that hill, heads dipping for the line; live in the moment my brethren.
Finally, a few recommendations for you, if you will allow me. Both inspired by Radio 4. They have been playing an abridged version of Jonathan Franzens’ The Corrections. I would class this as one of the finest pieces of American literature since Tom Wolfe wrote both Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. I would not recommend the radio version which cut too much but would say the book and the two Tom Wolfe classics are all excellent, you will recognise influences on me throughout.
Secondly, Radio 4 are playing out Newman’s The Corrupted and it is well worth picking that up on Iplayer. Atmospheric.
To the sports.
Cheltenham Trials Day Tips
Due to travel arrangements, there is a sad chance I will miss the opener which is a fine fine race. Maybe not from a punting perspective mind as Peace and Co is expected to go off at 4/9, a short price on account of the entirely dismissive debut to British racing made at Doncaster in December. It was only a mediocre set of opponents but he brushed them aside with all the swagger of a champion and many competent judges were very taken with the display.
It is not a lot of evidence but it is compelling enough for me. I can’t see his triumph price getting shorter so I would leave the antepost slips where they are. Peace and Co is available at 1/2 in some markets, one for the multiples.
The second race on the card is a decent quality class 2 handicap chase which has amongst its holders, The Giant Bolster, Vino Griego and Hey Big Spender.
Stellar Notion looks a good favourite and I am in two minds about whether the step up in trip is going to bring further improvement. Tom George is a good trainer and had a positive early season and so we must trust that it will. Having won on heavy in one attempt, we should not be concerned about the softer ground. Considered.
Caroles Destrier was well fancied at Chepstow but was quite a disappointment, Cheltenham being a similar track and seeing no clear reasons, I swerve but with trepidation.
Ned Stark was going well but no match at the business end for Ptit Zig on New Years Day, I think he will find one or two too good here too.
Paul Nicholls has been sending fewer runners out in the last fortnight but has been winning races. As such, Black River is interesting but far too hit and miss for my liking.
My tip is Horatio Hornblower. I have been a fan of Nick Williams this season and this horse has shown pretty good progressive form during his whole career. Winning a beginners chase at Towcester is some way of what is required here but he is improving, looks OK on the ground and has hurdle form which entitles him to good respect. 9/1 is available (Skybet and Stan James).
The Betbright Cup Chase (Grade 2) is a nice race. Dynaste, formerly a dodgy stayer in my eyes, changed my mind with a staying on performance in the King George behind Silviniaco Conti. Whether genuine soft ground is his forte, I do not know. The Pipe yard are in mediocre form too, not iron clad, despite his form in the book.
To read the chances of Many Clouds, you have to take a view on the Hennessy form and perhaps read a little earlier. Many Clouds was an RSA contender last year but fell meaning we had no idea of his true ability. While not golden, the win of O’Faolains Boy in the race did the form of Many Clouds a boost as he featured amongst his former beaten foes having chased him home in the Ascot trial.
The Giant Bolster has won 2 from 12 on ground the worse side of good to soft. I have never been his greatest fan, despite his finishing twice placed in a Gold Cup.
On balance, I am backing Many Clouds 10/3.
Back to handicap chases and a Grade 3. I like Easter Day but the suggestion is that he is heading up north. On Boxing Day, Quincy des Pictons gave a striking performance at Chepstow in deep ground and on a similar course, undulating and left-handed. He went up a stone for that and has to lumber top weight as a result which sobers the enthusiasm a little.
Sew on Target likes to move off the front and ran well when winning over the minimum distance here last time. He seems ground versatile and ordinarily, I would begrudge him step up in trip. Combining those two changes though, causes some reservation.
The tip though goes a little left field in Tap Night. This is one of those bets where you have to leave the recent form book on the shelf and make some leaps. Thankfully, the price of 12/1 allows us to do that. I think the horse has been campaigned for a win and he ran in this race last year, finishing in the places. His performances since have been pretty woeful but as a result, he comes with nigh on a stone in hand on his mark last year. Muddy ground is his nadir and the money has arrived already. The best price left as I type is 12/1.
The Grade 2 at 3pm is a novice hurdle and we get to see the highly interesting Value at Risk again. Down the field in the festival Champion bumper, he fared better when placing, just a couple of lengths down on the high-class Shaneshill in the Punchestown version. His hurdle debut was pretty taking, coming well clear on a track that the Major considers it a challenge to do so. He is proven in conditions and frankly, Dan Skelton is high on my list of favoured yards right now. The chief danger and one I have tipped before (and considered again) is Robinsfirth. Well bred and possibly more to come.
The Cleeve Hurdle. The race last year when we knew that the curtain was falling on the mighty Big Bucks. Does the World Hurdle winner lurk on this card?
I am torn. Un Temps Pour Tout clearly has some talent but I just don’t know. The fact he dealt a beating up to Cole Harden only strengthens my feelings that neither are on my top class list. So could Saphir du Rheu make it? Well yes. I liked his Lanzarote an awful lot. Yet, while Nicholls had a failed chase campaign with Big Bucks who he bought back in this race, are we to assume the same is therefore ordained for this horse in the same ownership?
Well no… You see, I think Big Bucks class was the determining factor that made that switch OK and generally I cannot support such a move. That said, it makes a damn good story…
What to do. In all honesty, it is the race I cannot read at all. My instinct is to stick to proven form. It feels wrong though. Still a very small interest in Reve de Sivola will be taken on track and I will regret doubting Saphir du Rheu.
In the last… Lightentertainment has been winning plenty but I think has been doing so with smart entries and now might be found out, always a dangerous call.
However, Kiama Bay looks to have plenty in hand. Jim Best, always a trainer not afraid to reach to the top shelves when handling his better horses, has booked Barry Geraghty. Barry has had a ride for Jim in the last few years, just now, he won on it. You can get 9/2 and this is my bet of the day, rather exciting as it is in the lucky last. Load the big cannons.
Other Saturday Tips
The 12.55 Doncaster Grade 2 novice chase looks a match between Solar Impulse and Three Kingdoms.
The latter represents Ferguson who has had a strong year but I always feel his get vulnerable at this time. Better pundits might correct my misjudgment but he recruits flat performers and often has a few early season wonders who (like sparks from the fire) fade as the true mischief of the winter weather gods set devilish demon ground in which his speedy wisps get stuck. A sweeping generalisation I know.
Yet, I shall stick to those thoughts and have Solar Impulse in the multiples.
Aniflet is an interesting raider for Willie Mullins and one in which I have confidence. Yes, she fell when a contender last time, yes Mulhollands mare looks useful but Ruby comes across just for this one ride. Come on kids… 5/2.
The 2.40 sees Blacklion reappear and I was most impressed last time. He is not my idea of the Albert Bartlett winner mind, that goes to No More Heroes, a horse I have been backing since the start of the season. Still, Twiston-Davies has a good one here and he can take this at 6/4.
May your dinner be in great company. Perhaps a whole number of people, as I will, drink flowing, happy encouragble behaviour… Tip well, we are only here for a short ride.
The Martin Hill bet…. Horatio Hornblower and Kiama Bay double. I do like that Kiama Bay…
Courage, roll the dice.