Good evening from the Major who writes from a sharp winter Worcestershire where rain bites against pink skin, stinging and streaking down into cold puddles on the neck. The damp seeps into bone and tests the recovery capabilities of your circulation.
The Major arrives at the weekend tired having washed about aimlessly for much of the week in an ill-tide. In the rhythmic patterns my wayward faculties subject me to, I recognise the times where sleep will be scarce. Last night, I slept shortly but intensely and had one of those dreams that is so vivid, you wake still consumed by the emotion of it. In my case, my heart racing. I shall subject you to the mundane detail, irrespective of the value to you – I do this partly because I am self-absorbed and mainly because this blog is the anchor of my week.
So, at the risk of boring you, I shall recount what I can, although as dreams will be, the nitty-gritty is at best sketchy and peculiar, not strong enough for a conviction.
My first recollection was of being part of a large crowd making an orderly way towards a town at the bottom of a valley, we were walking not in strict formation but were strung out for miles along the road. The valley we travelled down was straight with the destination town some way off in the distance and some way below us. There was a feeling of enforcement about the march although I do not know by whom. To my left, over a short barrier, the side of the valley fell sharply into a deep and steep sandstone crevice which dropped all the way to a deep blue still water many hundreds of metres below.
For some reason, without warning, I jumped. It seemed honourable, surprising to my fellow hikers and the leap carried an uncertain outcome. I cannot tell you why I did it but it was exciting, the sense of falling as the water hurtled towards me, unsure of how deep it was.
I hit the water and knew that I could not surface immediately, lest some unknown benign malevolent watcher saw me surface. So I very peacefully looked around well beneath the surface. I did not seem to be suffering any shortage of breath and so, I could float effortlessly, looking down to a deep green peacefulness that dropped endlessly down, there were long strands of weed waving gently, interspersed at pleasing distances. All was silent and rather beautiful. Rolling onto my back, I looked up and saw the surface some twenty metres above with the cliff faces, a deep red sandstone rising powerfully skywards.
I kicked backwards like you might for breaststroke, still lying on my back and slowly made my way down the peaceful cool lake towards the town. The dream tapered off momentarily although resurfaced to some later detail. A day had passed, I was now in the town, having checked into a hotel, it was some sort of work convention and an old colleague was stood with me in an outdoor reception asking for directions. A local was suggesting a taxi for it was a twenty-minute walk but my colleague was insisting we would walk, almost scoffing at the suggestion of laziness.
That was it. I woke with my heart racing, still recalling my plunge into the unknown. If any of you might suggest a meaning to all of this, I have a comments section.
It left me uneasy this morning as I shabbily dressed and prepared to walk my two boys up to the village primary school. It would be charitable to describe my condition as dishevelled, I had taken some time to shake off my precarious demeanour but had barely washed and was not fit for parade.
Having never been a man of habit, discipline or even good organisation, I had not considered that being Friday, it was the morning of the parental assembly and to my horror, I was expected to stand quietly in the company of fellow village parents and look responsible, normal. Realising this belatedly as I saw an eager throng of folk loitering at the gate, I would have given my sharpest heel turn and marched with conviction to safety but ahead of my reaction, my name was called and I was ushered in by a Governor that wanted to tap me up, someone I could not easily refuse So there I was in the uncomfortable company of 40 small children, fifteen odd parents and a hand full of the teaching staff.
Head teacher awards were distributed, a prayer spoken, work proudly shown off. My eyes were darting from side to side, it was an effort to provide normal responses to the banal friendly chit-chat and I was biding time until I could politely abscond. That said, the proceedings provided cover, a distraction and as the social comportment requires, quiet. With protection from the wholesale and well-meaning inquiry as to the wellbeing of me and the good lady, I could stay lost in my personal thoughts. It was not peaceful but it was easier without the fear of what my face might give away.
I made a passing examination of the assembled parents. To someone still building their psychological reserves for the day, I found them pleasing silent company. All warm thighs and pleasantness, genuine good will, soft fabrics and care of presentation. It gave me great comfort.
The assembly came to a close with an orderly exit of children under the careful watchful eyes of the staff. Then, Amy, the governor (and a fine sort) who had sought my attendance at the school gate, came over. Any hope I had of a swift departure evaporated, it seemed that following the assembly was a parents forum with the head teacher. So we gathered tiny chairs in a small circle and a dozen or so concerned parents quizzed the school on such vitals as the variety and standard of vegetables being cooked in school lunches and whether the fine tennis tuition would return in the spring and many other minutiae that glued together make up the life of a small village school.
Afraid to make eye contact, my gaze was distracted into the middle distance. Both meetings had taken place in the small school hall and my eyes wandered. I examined the old gym apparatus. No ropes on a line, that I recall climbing as a child at my own primary school in Birmingham; instead a metal frame that folds out, not as demanding and less danger of burns. Further along the wall, some sort of childrens display was fixed to the wall, I could not make out the work underneath in any detail but the heading emblazoned above was made of giant individually cut letters in an electric blue. They simply read ‘TIME TO THINK’.
I am not sure how long I was looking at those words but I fear it was too long. I became aware all of a sudden that the headteacher seemed to be looking directly at me, not harshly, but inquiringly. I felt recognition was required and I raised a weak forced smile, it did not even convince me and I am afraid that was all evident on my face.
Eventually, the meeting wound up. Pleasantries were exchanged, fat bottoms hauled from the low-lying children chairs which scraped on the herringbone floor. Amy the Governor came over and pressing my arm ushered me onwards, outwards to a quiet spot. Cold on my face, wonderful liberating free air. She got straight to the point, the elders at the school wanted me to be a governor, would I consider it. Goodness me, if only they knew. I made my excuses but fear I might well be courted again on the subject and Amy, one of the most generous spirited people I know will be a hard person to deny.
Anyway, could that dream be a premonition. Dare to jump with me dear friends? Well that mothership is not going to land itself so join me in those calm cooling waters, allow the facts and my story to enchant you into a series of ill-advised bets.
To the sports.
Sandown – Scilly Isles Chase Day
Last weekend, I attended Cheltenham with the finest friends. Without their permission because it’s ridiculous to think you might need it, here is our party on course. Dinner was magnificent and the nightcaps numerous.
Olly made a good point. He is not a regular horse racing gambler but I suspect he visits the blog from time to time. He told me that he can tell when I am serious about a horse from my language and in his opinion, those selections fare much better.
I guess that makes some sense. I often feel obliged to cover the major races and most weekends pick a card to go through. Yet in reality, there are only a few races in which I think I have a good angle into the likely winner. Should I reduce this to a couple of tips? Well no. I will continue to post as always a selection of the best racing and my most favoured horses and will do my best to guide as to my own confidence.
All of that assumes that there are folk backing these selections blind, confident in my ability, I doubt that happens much. I never assume that I am the oracle, merely a commentator and perhaps a poor one at that.
Sandown has a decent card including the Grade 1 Scilly Isles. While Grade 1 might be a bit glamorous for this line up, it remains a small quality field of five set to go to post.
With the exception of Gitane du Berlais, they are all proven good ground sorts, that horse is also stepping up in trip so is a bit of an unknown, especially with weight in hand. It is also far to suggest that the poor chasing record of Mullins on this side of the Irish Sea has kept the price even more honest.
None of the yards represented in the Scilly can be ruled out of form, neither can any be said to be red-hot at the moment. Therefore, with conditions to suit for most, it comes down to the best horse and jockey combination.
Paul Nicholls might have some idea of where Irish Saint stands against Champagne West since he got the horse beat by his best novice chase, Ptit Zig last time out. That form is very solid from the Hobbs horse and he has some other strong form too. Irish Saint though has impressed being stepped up in trip, I always found him a bit hit and miss, he was once beaten by Splash of Ginge who is a horse I like but should be beaten here in my estimation.
In the end, I think Champagne West has the better potential here and am advising at 5/2 generally.
Money says that The Saint James in the Sandown opener is a good thing having been a third of a million purchase by JP out of the French provinces. I am cautious though, particularly with the Jackdaws form remaining so frustrating.
This leaves two of interest. Alan King runs a tidy Plumpton winner, Pain au Chocolat who like the rest is unexposed – Nothing wrong with that.
However, I am very drawn at the prices to the chances of Old Guard who already has been a bit tricky. He won his hurdling debut and was suitably supported in a grade 1 at Chepstow, over Christmas. That day he fought violently for his head and burned away the crucial energy he would need in that relentless Chepstow straight, way too early.
I have a good feeling we might expect better and with a vulnerable favourite, he is the one I want at 4/1.
In the 1.15pm, 4 horses line up in a an exciting contest which boasts Binocular and Celestial Halo amongst the roll call of previous winners. Garde la Victoire returns to the minimum trip and most folk will see that as a good thing. I think, while a very good horse, he will struggle against two real rising stars in Jollyallan and Bristol de Mai.
Jollyallan represents Harry Fry, a stable I have all respect for and AP rides on account of the JP ownership. His record with the Fry team is excellent and the horse looks progressive and classy.
Yet, I am drawn like a moth to the flame I was tempted with Bristol de Mai. In a grade 1 last time, the horses in behind, namely Golden Doyen and Karezak are not superstars but solid 140 sorts that provide some comfort. It was breathless and as long as the animal performs as well on better ground, he is a threat but it is a big ask and in the end, Jollyallan edges it for me at 2/1.
Barry Geraghty is positive about French Opera running now on better ground in the 1.50pm Handicap Chase. I have never and will never have my money on the beast who while boasting very decent form has not won in almost four years and I don’t think a 14b fall from his heights would be enough to persuade me to be on.
I would much rather back the progressive Ballygarvey who did really well at Ascot last time. Returning from injury he dealt a decent beating to Ulck du Lin and I do not think he will get stopped here. Tasty bet at 5/1.
Other Racing – Wetherby and Fairyhouse
There is a grade 2 at Wetherby, the Towton Chase and while the line up is not stellar, it is a decent puzzle.
Return Spring is my selection having backed him at Cheltenham in the race won by Kings Palace. He travelled and jumped really well that day and I think a race like this is within his reach. 5/2.
At Fairyhouse, I am only interested in the run of Morning Run in the 1.55pm Grade 3, her runs have shown her form well and Mullins is one I trust to bring her back from a break well. Not much of a pick but there you go.
In the football…. Stoke to beat QPR at 4/6 is the sole bet.
The Martin Hill bet…. Ballygarvey, Return Spring and Old Guard in a power trixie.
I trust your dinner will be in the best company, go with people you know, friends you can trust and enjoy yourself as though it is the last time you will see them.
Courage friends, roll the dice.