Good evening from the Major who writes from the most glorious Worcestershire night, it is good to be alive. The winter may stall in it’s search for spring, but each night lights edge clings a little longer, chipping at winters’ clock, it feels less repressive each week, our relentless march towards March, we sense the redemption. We will know and right soon. It is coming friends.
Tonight, the sky was as expansive as the human eye could take. I drove at dusk, starlings flocking, a buzzard hulked on a branch, just a black silhouettes against a deepening blue background which was slipping to burned orange and dead red on the horizon.
Over-excitement like children causes many to tweet countdowns to Cheltenham. I imagine many might scoff at these antics, being immature, even churlish. For myself, I grant some accommodation for this sin. It is born from good thought, a genuine rush of blood, we all must confess to a prickling of the skin and a dancing tickle along the spine. I have much capacity for error made for the right reason.
A man was burned to death, the raw footage widely available. His masters paraded him through rubble, once a building, rubbing his nose in their wounds before acting with a barbarism without check. Thoughts of family (theirs, his) could not sober wild minds, neither could the tenderness of his skin or the sharp smell of paraffin filling their nostrils. The wretched soul clutched at his face, then falling and suffering awful indescribable momentary agony which eventually led to the end, a blackened rigid frame, still locked in position. It was just a minute and for that mercy I guess we can be thankful.
I want to think the insanity is underpinned by previous personal atrocity, maybe it is. Not that I seek to justify, merely understand. You see, I struggle to compute how the mind might cage a man, douse him and light a fuse.
Dinner in the week, London. Business. I asked for a recommendation from an old friend in PR and he gave me a place in Soho. I know what you’re thinking, primitive lot, not that. The place was busy, loud and dark. Pleasant in its’ way but a tad romantic for dinner. My guest, a teetotaler was rather rudely treated by the waiter but we had already broken ice and so this acted as glue rather than ice.
Walking through the west end at night is a wonder of the world. Every walk of life saunters the West End streets. Ladies, for the love of god, put some tights on, its close to freezing, I fear , I am an old man.
I find the area troubling. Effortless style so intensely put together. I was glad to be on the train home with three loud students, eating rather pungent meat pies and talking about Mangoes of all things. One had dreads, another a Yorkshireman was rapidly talking and needed a volume control. She though, was lovely. She swore, unconvincingly, needing to impress in company, her flaxen hair fell to the shoulder, large hoop earrings, gentle pouting lips and dark eyes framed in a face with a glorious smile, that came with spontaneous laughter. You know me, I fall in love readily although my old friend Kelly used to say, Major, it is not love.
I spent the rest of the week at University at my studies. A new group of fellow students to familiarise myself with. 1. A hefty Florida cove carrying premature years on his large frame boasting a full beard… like me, he sat at the back seeking anonymity. 2. A lively flashy sort, troubled by her incessant phone, perfectly nice but little time for error and was clearly dealing with the stresses of a life run at full throttle. 3. From Calcutta, smooth skin, a hint of fun, very proper with impeccable manners, she moved like a well-groomed cat – She had that lovely sing-song quality that comes with an Indian accent and she often caught me out by often smiling and shaking her head when she agreed with me, I liked her the most but not in the way you degenerate sorts are thinking. Finally, quiet but full of humour a chap from Lagos, the sort I immediately though was damn decent and he was sporting with the ale.
We had a group assignment which meant staying on beyond the class finish at 5.30 and piecing together work for a Friday assessment which is in the form of a presentation to fellow students and academics. This caused me an issue, being committed to my London trip on Wednesday night. Thankfully having breached the subject early in the week, my position was accepted. I was even able to make good with them when it became apparent that there were not many extroverts, keen to stand up and present our work. If there is one thing I can offer, it is bluster. What I don’t know, I can bury in a veneer of confidence – Not an honourable quality, I know.
I am probably reaching the saturation point once again for the minutiae that makes up my existence. Alas.
Still, I must mention last night, friends in the village put me up for the rugby. He a well put together sort always in need of a major project in his life. She a flame haired girl from beyond Ffos Las, hospitable but emotionally committed to the rugby and genuinely upset at the result. Great night, flowing booze, lovely home and hence, a late sermon.
That summarises the Majors week. To the sports.
Antepost Dreams of Cheltenham
With under 5 weeks to go, a lot of the evidence we need for the major novice and championship races has been booked. How then to play the banker cards? I thought we would start the Saturday Sermon with a few tips for the festival… This is how my mind is running.
Vautour – Had one blip which was significant but now largely forgotten about. I am sure he will end up in the JLT and although Ptit Zig is a highly creditable adversary, I think he should have the guns.
Un de Sceaux – The price has gone, a long time ago. His effortless defeat of Gilgamboa and Clarcam, hard held, declared to the racing fraternity, I am here, I am Un de Sceaux and my Arkle rivals will be demolished. Hugely impressive and a price to match.
Annie Power – I am surprised there is still money at odds against for Annie who surely only has to turn up. She will. Last weekend, Morning Run won very nicely, continuing her rise through the ranks and was immediately declared a Cheltenham non participant by Mullins…. You know why. Yes she arrives without a preparation race but she could have won the World Hurdle last year, she will breeze the Mares.
I hear you wring your hands and cry foul. I am telling you nothing new eh? Well, I only want to declare my bankers. Douvan, Don Poli; fine reserves. OK well how about one at a price then….
Edeymi – The shrewd shrewdie Gordon Elliot ran this horse in a Pertemps qualifier at Mussleburgh last weekend. He needed it to finish in the first four without ideally damaging it’s handicap mark. Guess what… yep, fourth. 16/1 in a few places for Cheltenham. Let’s face it, Gordon has had a pretty good season.
But Major… We want something left field… Well, never let it be said that I do not allow for all comers.
Ma Filleule – The form with Holywell is excellent and this girl I think (although I am a little alone) could be a bit special. She jumps will great accuracy and exuberance and although mares winning Gold Cups are like hens teeth, maybe, just maybe. She might just be the best Henderson horse at the Blue Riband event too… Maybe this is a cry for help and you send someone around.
Oh and Bellshill at 20/1 will win the Champion Bumper.
Racing Groups have asked me to write a piece on the Byrne Plate for their website the week ahead of the festival. I shall happily oblige, their poor readership.
Todays Action – Newbury
A lovely card at Newbury and I have said it before but for a relatively flat track, I always sense it is worth siding with a stayer here, especially with a dash of cut to the ground. The uber-long straight takes some getting and you need one with a relentless heart, whose mind cries keep going as others declare Enough!
Let’s start with a contentious one. I am happy to back against Sire de Grugy. He was a moderate Champion Chase winner. The division has been rather poor since Sprinter Sacre lost his way and Sire de Grugy filled a gap, winning Grade 1s and enjoying a fine strike rate. I am not trying to be deliberately provocative by tagging him moderate – A moderate Champion Chase horse is a 165 rated deserving champion, an excellent beast.
However, I am a little surprised he has made it back to the racecourse this year. Normally when the dreaded scan is needed, a season off is the answer. Yet the team have nursed Sire back to the course and we get to see what shape he is in.
Two mile chases are physically the toughest National Hunt races in my view for two reasons. Firstly, you have to take the large obstacles all that quicker meaning errors are often hard to correct. How often in a staying race, a large chaser gets too close but being smart and athletic can make a late adjustment and minimise the error. At the minimum trip, I suggest more end up walking through a fence half way up. The second reason is jumping related too – You need a damn good rhythm to win 2m chases, losing that rhythm costs valuable lengths per fence which are hard to claw back over the minimum trip.
So, this is why I think being out for a period of time makes it hard for 2m chasers to come back. This is why I am taking the unpopular decision to get Sire beat. If this blog was seeking popularism, I must condemn it as an utter failure. Sire de Grugy is a peoples’ horse, an owner full of fun and showing one and all that dreams in ownership can be fulfilled.
Game Theory should make me tip him because then if he loses, I am in the popular camp. If I tip something else and he gets beat, I become part of the problem. Tip something else and Sire wins? Well that opens all the hordes of hell to have a pop!
Still, I have offered my view, it is a hard division to come back into. In Sires favour, he has a small field so should not be too harassed. However, having identified a weakness is not the same as picking a winner and we now have to find something to win.
Uxizandre has been disappointing and is not my sort. Bar Mr Mole (and I may be insulting Upsilon here), there is no other meaningful opposition, so my Sherlock approach of eliminating the losers leaves me with the Nicholls, JP horse.
He is a sort that falls into the frustrating camp having spent much of last year downing tools when it got to the business end. This year though he looks a reformed character to me. AP has discovered how to get a tune out of him and smaller fields seem to suit. This is another step up in class but for a horse with a profile like his and who is to say where the talent of a beast with a 50% strike rate may top out.
One angle I want to take into Saturday is the potential resurgence of the Jackdaws operation. At the start of the season, talk was of a credible threat to the trainers championship but after a bright start, Jonjo started to misfire and the yard has not found rhythm for months. I noticed 4 winners going in this week and my ears pricked up. Jonjo did not become a poor trainer overnight and his string, with 4 and a bit weeks until the main event, might just be coming to the boil with impeccable timing.
This is partly why I want to be backing Milan Bound in the 1.50pm who is a 3/1 favourite in this handicap hurdle. Closing Ceremony is a good sort but has a stone swing (almost) for defeating Milan Bound in November and with the former stable factor coming into it, I want this one on the Saturday Mothership list. Jonjo also saddles Merry King in the same race and if ever a horse needed a new five mile division to be created, this is it!
The Denman Chase. Jon back to form and one of the Majors cliff horses running under his tutelage in the Denman Chase. Regulars know my long roller coaster relationship with Taquin du Seuil who I cannot get off but I urge those of you with control over your own agency to do so. I think Houblons has been excellent this year and rates a huge danger but my boy, all gangly and uncertain as a chaser still might have some Grade 1s to come – He is not fully extended yet over fences and the key to him is the jumping, He is leggy, presented well, a clean round and he will keep going all the way up that straight. 4/1, you definitely need to send me help now!
The Betfair Hurdle is a cracking renewal full of interesting angles into the race. My Tent or Yours backers a few years ago witnessed a tremendous performance off top weight. With those memories still stirring, support will exist for a repeat yard performance from Hendersons, Sign of a Victory, not for me.
David Pipe is always to be feared in handicap hurdles but this race is one that has eluded him. Support for Balgarry would warm me up a little but else, no, not for me.
The Harry Fry horse tops the market and Activial has his chances but just as O’Neill is coming to the boil, Harry Fry is looking to get back in the winners enclosure again, having a rare bare patch in a tremendous season. Callipto represents Nicholls, Fry’s former chief and a tasty angle to the race will be the master and the former student being the two to come away from the field.
I like two in this race and I am going to back both. For clarity, I am sticking with my O’Neill bandwagon as the main bet. I may be (probably correctly) accused of taking this line too far but it leads me to the chances of Goodwood Mirage. I remember Dickie Johnson being quite keen on the horse at the Cheltenham preview I attended in November and forgiven a last run which was dire, perhaps we will start to see the real deal. The potential is certainly there, having come a decent second in a flat handicap off 89 saw him finish his flat career on 95 – Credible. Whether true soft will suit is unsure, I suspect he does not want it too deep but at 18/1, I think I have my main bet.
I said two for the Betfair hurdle and my other would have to be On Tour who was a very good bumper horse and has looked excellent on his hurdling runs, travelling like a dream. That is a good profile for this race and the 10/1 is a very nice each way price.
Warwick and Naas – One Tip Each!
I hope it goes ahead as I have a single bet and an obvious one. Vibrato Valtat should be winning the Kingmaker having won a Grade 1 and Grade 2 in his last two outings. He has a nice bit of pace when asked and I think he could be a dark horse for the festival as his runs will not have earned as much credit as some of the other routes his opponents will have taken. Watch this space.
At Naas, I am drawn to the bumper at 4.45 which is some sort of mock-up of Irish National Hunt racing at present. Two horses, both full of potential, one trained by the seemingly omnipotent Mullins and the other by the young pretender Elliott.
Gordon Elliott is having a fine season and deserves to receive better horses to be a credible threat in years to come to the Mullins Team for the Irish Champion Trainer Championship.
Who comes out on top between Space Cadet (Elliot) and Pylonthepressure (Mullins)? Well I am going for Space Cadet who benefits from a good claim and his yard have won with five of their last ten runners. 10/11.
In the football, Villa look truly in trouble this season, 11 goals all season has many fans believing this might be the year that they go down. Certainly Chelsea should have way too many guns for them and I am backing them at 11/10 in the (-1) market. MK Dons 11/10 tis the other.
The Martin Hill bet has been weaponised. Goodwood Mirage, Vibrato Valtat and Milan Bound in a powerful each way trixie.
I trust your dinner is taken in the best company, homely sorts that make you feel happy to be alive. Drink generously.
Courage, roll the dice.