Good evening from the Major who writes from a uncomfortably warm hotel room, somewhere in the badlands to the East of Kings Cross. Well, badlands might be a bit strong to describe Angel but all things are relative and the woodburner in Worcestershire is in a alternate universe from this one. We are visiting as a family for the weekend, sensible, healthy activities.
If you are one for DIY, which I am certainly not then you might scoff at my poor abilities around the home. I have never been particularly handy; wiring a plug, perhaps, but beyond that, my DIY skills largely entail selecting an expensive tradesperson to execute the job properly and with minimal disruption to my own debauched endeavours. I think it is a generational thing.
My father in law, Graham, was a buildings engineer at the sprawling Rover complex outside Solihull. He is entirely the opposite, electrics, plumbing; he can perform or cause to be performed almost any project around the home.
I once was in his spare bedroom to witness his latest absurdity which he delighted in revealing. He remarked that he had recently been up in the loft and felt it a waste of valuable internal space. Yet he did not want to embark on a serious loft conversion project. So, his eyes gleaming alive with whimsical fury, he reached for a long brass rod and poked it into a hole in the ceiling. Silently and smoothly, a set of perfectly counterbalanced shelves dropped elegantly into the middle of the room. My mouth gaped at the simple beauty and the rampant madness of it.
On another occasion he fitted an electric shower in a flat, myself and the good lady owned in Birmingham City Centre. It took days, not because of Grahams’ capability, rather that his perfectionist persona ensured a painstakingly immaculate installation. Once again, I marvelled at the folly of the man. When the job was complete though, I could not see a single wire, join or pipe.
When a young man, he converted (with help from some friends) a short wheel base Landrover into a 6 wheel drive version. They bought the vehicle on the cheap at a military vehicle auction. They undertook this engineering challenge to enable a planned adventure through Africa, they called the project Sandtrekker. Their ambition was to travel from Morocco to Cairo to the Cape and they did it.
They wrote a book about it and I have not the time to do it justice here. I am however reading the book with my 6-year-old son. He loves it, after all the star of the show is Grandad. I am hoping it instills within him an inspiration to follow suit. Not some tepid trail followed by thousands of Western wealthy youngsters but a real trip into the unknown.
Graham ended up staying on in Africa, working in the mining industries of Zambia. He was there for years, he took his wife out and gave birth to a son and a daughter, who was to have no small effect in my own life.
Where do you start adding an extra powered axle to a Landrover though? Confidence. It is all born from confidence. Allow me to expand, while deliberate in in everything he does, Graham is more aggressive during the early stages. He has been helping me remove and replace a fireplace for the woodburner. We have been working at it odd days at a time, for months. Firstly cutting out the hefty oak floor to bed down a smart slate hearth, then removing the original slate bed for replacing.
In the removal stages, Graham cares a lot less than I do for the impact of his actions. Where I sit concerned that we might damage the plasterboard or not understand what we might reveal by ripping something off a wall or floor, Graham is unperturbed, wielding an axe with magnificent abandon. Confidence. Confident he can put right whatever his actions create. There I am trying to prise some piece of stone out gently, he standing over me, a sledgehammer swinging gently and him suggesting we give it a kiss with the hammer end.
I know he is taking great pride in my newfound interest in DIY. He has been my overqualified odd job man for twelve years and this is the first time I have shown serious interest in joining in. Formerly being a busy professional I had good reason. Now languishing in a career break, being entirely unproductive, that impediment has been removed.
A new excuse, my wretched back (slipped disc in October for those not keeping up) has replaced it but Graham being 72 and already a procrastinater extraordinaire works at my sort of pace. One hour on, one hour to catch up on the doings at Chepstow and to take a refreshing beer. It is good time spent together.
Meetings in London on Wednesday and following the cheaper and better trains, I went to Birmingham for the run to Euston. I sat opposite a good-looking young couple discussing their valentine plans. He was to cook but had no idea what. If you make no eye contact and sit quietly on a train, it is remarkable how quickly a couple at your table will drop their guard and discuss most private matters. I felt rather the gooseberry.
She was truly beautiful, lucky guy. Vigorous healthy brunette curls fell to a slender shoulder encased in fine black wool. Her face was pale and striking with well-structured cheekbones which, coupled with a healthy length of limb, told of good breeding, exercise and nutrition. Dark set eyes flashed wildly and she was attentive and active as a panther. God, she seemed so nice as well, generous with her smile, evident good company.
Ah Major, falling in love again? Well, no. You see, they were so nice they I daren’t sully their existence with my own base desires. They were both polite and carried that derided Birmingham accent, decried as ugliest in the land (pah!). How so, they spoke in rhythmic fashion, drawling out the end of sentences, finishing with upwards inflections, the sound of hope.
Birmingham is a fine place for hope. Graham (a resident himself) once said that whatever you wish to buy, you can find it 10% cheaper somewhere in Birmingham. We are a city of traders, sprawling old industries, inventor of the Balti, more canals than Venice, Noble Peace Winner Malala, one of the worlds finest University Hospitals and the HQ of our latest national engineering project, High Speed 2. I rest the case for the defence your Honour.
Now to the sports. Tuesday is the three week marker so I am conscious that we all need winners. If we are to raise an army to defeat the bookmaker at Cheltenham, then we must build up an appropriate war chest to fund such a prolonged battle. For the next few weeks, we shall concentrate our action on small forays into the enemy supply lines, raiding a wagon here, picking off an ammunition train there. Just enough to line our pockets with the gelt for more serious contact. Weaponise the Mothership.
To the sports…
Ascot Saturday Tips
Lizzie Kelly has been making a bit of a name for herself with some big-ticket Saturday rides on Aubusson and she gets the chance to fire another winner in, this time at Ascot when aboard Tea for Two. The conditions of the race mean that she cannot make her usual claim but the form book points strongly to her mount being the best horse. Tea for Two dotted up in the Lanzarote and realistically only looks to have Arpege D’Alane to beat.
However, that rival looks a decent sort himself. He walked an easy maiden before being stepped up into Grade 1 company in the Challow at Newbury. There were no obvious impediments bar experience and so you have to take the form literally, he is not from the top drawer of novices but clearly has some talent.
On balance, I like the bigger priced horse, we get a better jockey (sorry Lizzie) and I think there could be plenty to come from a horse trained by the master of them all. Arpege D’Alane, 11/4 with Ladbrokes and Stan James.
Another four runner affair is second on the card in the 3m Grade 2 novice chase. It may not boast the quantum but it carries the quality. Last year this race produced the RSA winner, that seems unlikely from this line up.
Virak has given Deputy Dan a beating earlier in the season, to be fair to the Deputy, it was his seasonal debut, the yard were a bit undercooked and I maintained a flame. I felt very vindicated when the horse reappeared to beat Far West in his next run. Since then, the improvement has stopped, he is a nice jumper and an efficient traveller but might not be much more than that.
Virak himself was a bit poor when a country mile behind Coneygree on the King George card. His previous three wins were good and maybe he emptied so quickly at Kempton having raced 13 days prior on soft ground at Doncaster, once too often to the well perhaps. We could give him another chance, especially with Mr Nicholls hovering up the Saturday pots like a trailer possessed.
Ainsi Fiddles perhaps has the profile of a slightly less high calibre horse but he has been reliable, racing up a series of wins starting in the summer. Finishing second last time, he has been given a break and comes here with something the other three cannot offer. Good ground form. Ascot is good to soft and frankly it drains and dries very quickly. Thus, this is a significant boost.
I am down to Virak or Ainsi and with doubts about both, I give a very tentative nod to the Pipe horse, Ainsi is 3/1 in a few places.
The 2.40 is a limited handicap chase over 3 miles and in a Saturday staying chase, we are used to instinctively backing the Venetia horses. However, the yard is having a quiet spell and Shangani, one I have followed in marathon slogs, has the line.
There was a lot to like about Clondaw Knights’ win at Wetherby last time and while I’m not too bothered about his stone rise, I am concerned about this better company. respected though. Capps Bleu loves the better ground and Evan Williams is in OK touch so I respect the veteran as I do Hey Big Spender who showed some heart in winning another Rehearsal Chase.
In the end though, I think they all might struggle with Carole’s Destrier who looks more progressive. The fact connections went for a wind op mid-season suggests that they are expecting good things and Neil Mulholland has reached for a big time booking in Barry Geraghty. 9/4 is the general price.
The 3.15 is a handicap hurdle over almost two and a half miles. I make a case for three horses… Unique de Cotte, Rolling Star and Diamond King. Each in order.
Unique de Cotte did remarkably well to get up on the line in a conditional jockeys event under Kieron Edgar. He was hampered, slipped but still made it back when it mattered to win. McCoy took over last time at Newbury and there were some reasonable excuses for the run, tonight there is money and on the rolling bandwagon AP McCoy retirement spectacular, none would be surprised if this horse played a part.
Rolling Star has been desperately disappointing after a rather promising juvenile campaign. It is also a bit concerning that we have not seen the horse this season to date which tells you something of the kid gloves required. Yet, if you trusted someone to don the gloves, Henderson would be high on that list. What I really like about the horse is that he has been aimed at damn good races and Nicky does not do that for fun, surely there is some talent still to be bought forward?
Then there is Diamond King. He is sired by the daddy of national hunt stars, Kings Theatre and looked a promising sort in a bumper career that saw him dish out two 15+ length defeats to, admittedly, average sorts. He looked in need of the run when returning and I must confess that Donald McCain is not exactly my most trusted ‘go to’ yard. Yet, breeding and bumper form stay with me and while McCoys mount is receiving the buckets of JPs cash overnight, he might have a fight on his hands here… 7/1 with Coral.
The Ascot Chase is interesting… I have been backing Vautour for the JLT but Ptit Zig is in the back on my mind, niggling away. I am not sure why Nicholls has put him into this race rather than keep him up against the novices but that can only be taken as a mark of confidence.
Balder Succes got back on the winning trail last time out but is not rock solid and the same comments apply to Ballycasey who while showing glimpses of quality, is not bulletproof.
Ma Filleuele…. hmmmmmm. I wrote a piece extolling her virtues earlier in the season and when she showed up at Aintree but was beaten into third of four despite jumping beautifully for a long way. I am not sure if her stamina was giving out but my hope remains that she makes the top frame. Perhaps that is the idea in dropping her in trip. It probably makes my Gold Cup tickets even more irrelevant if she wins but I really think you cannot give this girl 7lbs and not expect it back with interest.
I had to double-check what I was reading when looking at the 4.20. Ruby Walsh, riding for Colin Tizzard. I cannot find a ride for Tizzard in his history and in his refined years, he seems to me to be taking a more selective approach to his riding. Thistlecrack, hmmm.
To muddy the water massively, Venetia Williams aims Otaga Trail at this and this beast has absolutely mullered the opposite in its last two outings. There is a question about whether the horse needs deeper ground and my aforementioned concern over the yard form also tempers me throwing a bag of cash on it.
Saraband takes the muddy water and adds a black ink to it. French import, Nicholls, what do you need to know? Could be anything.
Saint Charles was a reasonably pricey pick for JP out of the points field and has done nothing wrong but probably lacks the appeal to me of the others.
This is difficult and I am not going to go long on it. On what we have seen, Otaga Trail looks the best. However… I cannot let that jockey booking go unbacked… Thistlecrack can be backed at 8/1 with Stan James.
Good luck, I will leave you alone with the bumper.
Champagne Fever runs at Gowran. I am a bit torn, I am not his greatest fan, he loses far too many races but then, what, in the opposition might beat him? After all, he was second in an Ankle and won a Supreme. He remains prominent in the Ryanair and the Champion Chase.
Bright New Dawn is reliable and to be fair has some good form. He took a Flyingbolt and has run well enough, last time losing out to a speedier Hidden Cyclone.
I can’t back anything but my heart suggests Champagne Fever.
Kitten Rock however is 8/13 with Paddy Power and that my friends is finding it in the street!
At Haydock, the opener looks a penalty kick for Top Notch at an unbackable 1/4. At Fishers Cross who has always looked laboured since the reported back problems, this is amongst the weakest opposition I have faced but again, I cannot muster enough to bet.
The Grand National Trial is wide open and my tentative selection is Benbens who will be suited by conditions.
Ballagh is maturing fast but I think Fletchers Flyer has probably got his measure. Harry Fry has been a bit quieter this year but his season is still going strong and frankly he makes the most appeal.
It is also Kingwell day at Wincanton and thank god there is an easy winner Irving, which needs no explanation.
Int he football. For once, I fancy my boys, West Brom to beat West Ham. 6/4. Sole bet. Brave.
From a plethora of bets, the Martin Hill selection…. West Brom, Kitten Rock, Arpege D’Alane and Ma Filleuele. Trebles and a Fourfold.
May your dinner be taken not in the preferable independent unusual place… rather in a chain standardised place but in a mass of numbers… why Major why? because lots of friends and who cares about the fare.
Courage friends, roll the dice.