Good evening from the Major who writes from a Worcestershire where close dirty air clings like a film to the skin, the pressure builds as the hazy yellowing light fades, motorists feel it and speed in bad temper, a correction is required, some cool air, rain, wash away the sins of the earth.
This weeks post, quite predictably, will be dedicated to our sports greatest champion, Tony McCoy. There is little I could add to the public wave of emotion but I shall try my sorry best, I will get to that.
The Major has had another week of manual labour on the household. Decking boards have been restored, a sand pit built, outbuildings painted, decorating done. Time spent in the sun, alone, then late at night, filthy from endeavour and a sickly vinegar smell to my body odour (I apologise but I am interested in reporting the strict truth as you know!), the detritus of the day is burned in a great roaring incinerator. Orange flames leap skyward with great optimism and ambition, the flicker across my face and I feel their warmth on my skin and contrast the intensity with a cooling cider, well, this is Worcestershire.
I have a cider house just 800 metres from my door. It has been in existence for 400 years and in the same family for half of them. The lady that runs it threatens to close it when she retires, none of her lineage is showing the desire to take up the reigns.
It is my only experience of an old-fashioned cider house, designed to serve the farm hands during breaks from their field labour. I do not know if other cider houses are similar to this one. The crooked beamed building has a thatched roof and you do not get to go in. It is the landlady home. She serves through a small hatch and apart from their own cider, you can get wine, they even provide a choice; red or white. No beer.
The gentleman facilities are essentially a small breeze block structure to head height and open to the air, no cubicles, just a wall to relieve yourself against.
If the weather is accommodating, you drink on the lawn in front of the house with a series of left-field characters. Inclement conditions and you head for the shed, a simple corrugated roof single story building that houses a wood stove for heating.
It is known as The Monkey House. This name dates 30 years or so and came about when a regular drinker, a little well oiled, did not make it home and woke in a ditch. He maintained to his death that he was attacked by monkeys on his walk home causing him to lose consciousness. Quite.
I understand his condition though. For fun, while marathon training once, myself and a friend invented the Defford Cider House Famous Five. We knew it was five miles from my acquaintances home to the Cider House and so we embarked to run it and then drink 5 pints of cider. It is potent stuff and in the post running adrenaline, we knocked back the grog in 80 minutes before we properly realised what we were doing, well we were roaring drunk.
We were collected by our significant others for a meal, for which we were in no fit state to fulfil.
Tomorrow is the last day where you might scan down a card and find the legendary AP McCoy. Ever since he announced his retirement, the press and public have not been able to get enough of him. His mount was backed into an unworthy favouritism on national day, tributes have poured and general fawning has been the order of the day.
For once, it is quite justified. AP McCoy is undoubtedly one of the greatest sportsmen to have even lived. The longevity of his accomplishments is one thing. His ability is another. Without wishing to detract one iota from the great mans capability, I must say that he is not the jockey whose skill I rate the highest. I find Geraghty, Walsh and Fehily all greater exponents of a balanced ride.
Before someone calls for my head, allow me to expand. While those jockeys might have more ability in some aspects, APs own strengths are complete and incontestable.
I would firstly rate his work ethic above all others. Walsh has won most races at Punchestown and Cheltenham, Grade 1 tracks. AP names Worcester, Newton Abbot and Uttoxeter as his three most successful tracks. Whether JP had rides or not for the man, he would get himself down to Taunton for some low class handicap because he loves winners. 19 jockeys championships on the bounce are testament to it. What drive. Part of me would have likes to see him retire after a mid-week small meeting at Plumpton or some other far-flung corner of our racing landscape. In my heart, that is where I see and think of him.
His drive also comes through in his race competitiveness. AP has numerous stunning victories snatching victory from certain defeat. I was once told a story by a coach of the national rugby league team. They had taken the large squad down to train with the marines and to decide which eight players to drop before a tour to Australia. On the last day, he was sat opposite the commanding officer who had observed his squad. The man slipped him a piece of paper with names on it and said, ‘if we were to face a numerically superior enemy in the field tomorrow, these are the names of your squad who I’d first take into the yard and shoot’.
Attitude is everything and AP gives punters an astonishing effort. So many horses over the years who looked beaten half way round have been dragged kicking and screaming into the race and manfully hauled over the line by the champ. Don’t Push It was excellent but for me, Wichita Lineman was the pinnacle. I have watched that replay several times and on the last circuit, Wichita is 25l down on the strong travelling leaders and belting every fence. You know the script but it is a thing of beauty. Not the beauty of Un de Sceaux, Masterminded or Sprinter Sacre skewering a top class field and not touching a twig, rather a beauty of raw desire, compelling his partner to win. Wichita got up in the last strides, it was stunning, the crowd roared and AP roared in reply.
I met AP once in a tale I have recounted often. It was in the after-party for the Sports Personality of the Year Awards in 2012, Bradley Wiggins year. It was loud, I interrupted him from company. He shook my hand, gave me my 60 seconds with patience and politeness and then gave me Taquin du Seuil to follow. I cannot blame him for what happened next, Taquin won a Challow Hurdle next time out and also he didn’t get into his Neptune, he won a JLT chasing. Still, he has lost more than he has won and I have always felt compelled to bet him. Why? Well, it is obvious, n’est pas? It was the horse that AP gave me.
AP is many things. He is eloquent, gentle, a family man, a fierce competitor. He lives his life and licks up every last drop of honey, savouring it and taking everything he can from it.
Our sport will miss him in the saddle but I hope that if a training career does not call him, that he might join the presenters team at Channel 4.
To the sports. Good luck AP.
Sandown – The AP Retirement Bash
Think back to the opening day of Cheltenham – You might recall that I advised you to take a piece of the Mullins four timer for no other reason than being on the right side of popular hope.
I would think the same is true here of APs two rides. Irrespective of whether you dislike Mr Moles’ quirkiness or whether you think Box Office was a hype horse before and does not deserve your cash, have yourself a double. If they both won, don’t you want to be part of it?
My first bet would be Menorah in the Oaksey Chase at 2.35pm. Argocat rates a danger, his best form has been on heavy ground but he has proven pretty versatile and some lines of his form read very well. However, this is Menorah’s time of year and I am delighted to see 11/4 freely available about the beast. Al Ferof is a classy sort but I am more concerned about the ground for him. nine wins from thirteen on ground with the word soft in it, one from six on good. Load up on Menorah.
Then the AP Celebration Chase. Mr Mole has been a horse I have backed this season. I always thought his quirky nature was over-played in the pricing and he won with my money on, a notable achievement as it is proven at least a 15lb handicap. You know I will be having my AP double anyway but I think it is a worthy bet anyway.
I would not claim positives the horse does not deserve but he is up against some very questionable opposition. Sprinter Sacre looks gone to me, I do not wish it, I would dearly love to be wrong and see the old boy roll back the clock.
Special Tiara is interesting. Not enough credit was given for her all the way win at Christmas but they were proper horses in behind that day. Noel Fehily is a decent booking but I’m not sure they will give the horse as much rope this time. Gods Own was a horse I followed early on in the season and it certainly has some ability, I do not like the way it has been running on and off the bridle though.
Nothing wrong with Mr Mole, 4/1.
AP does not have a ride in the Gold Cup Chase which goes 9/1 the field. I’ll be damned if I can find a highly positive angle into the race and so I’m left picking through a few I’d fancy. Hobbs is in fine form but I can’t draw much enthusiasm about his three runners. I liked the Druids Nephews win at Cheltenham which means I have to like Grand Jesture who ran well in the same race.
I like Wonderful Charm and although this is a race Nicholls has not dominated in recent years, he did win it with the superstar Tidal Bay.
Anyway, this is spring ground and I want a specialist. Paint the Clouds has been a prolific hunter chaser and did well in the main event at Cheltenham. The ground definitely did not suit that day as he is 12 from 17 on ground with the word good in it. Greatrex has had a good season by anyones standards and off the minimum weight, I back Paint the Clouds tom come good at 10/1 (Boylesports) 9/1 generally.
In the 4.25, emotional scenes await and the crowds are backing Box Office as though the script is perfect. The horse has not yet replicated its French promise on British soil but it has often been backed as though the trainer thinks he is deploying a tool.
As you can see in my words and detect in my candour of this farewell blog, I will be as emotional as anyone if he pulls it off. Good luck AP. Yet, with the coolness of time to consider it, I would consider L’Aigle Royal at 16/1 who gets to run off the same mark as when a perfectly respectable fourth by ten lengths in a Sandown Grade 3 last time.
Clondaw Kaempfer is a runner who I suspect will come good again at some point but I would like to see some signs of it before I include the horse on my slips.
I am going to back Wilberdragon at 9/1. I like Longsden and while the horse has to keep improving, he is unexposed and I don’t think the trainer is the sort to just throw wild darts.
In the last, Polly Peachum and Southfield Vic are set for a ding-dong and I would back the latter to get the upper hand. While Polly did well to finish second in the Mares Hurdle, that race is a G1 in name only and there was only one horse worthy of that grade, she fell. I am a bit concerned that good ground might not be ideal for Southfield Vic but although the bare face of the form at Haydock is only moderate, he did it while being less than fluent at the obstacles; I think he will improve in technique with experience and I fancy the 5/2.
In the football, Watford can get a result at nervy Brighton, 17/20,
The Martin Hill bet is a Menorah and Southfield Vic power double.
May your dinner be communal and fun. Good friendship, warm feelings and good wine.
Courage, roll the dice.