The Saturday Sermon – Cheltenham Season Away

Good evening from the Major who writes again from a magnificent Nottinghamshire where skies stretch westward darkening to a purple bruise and the air tightens cold against your face.

The seasons fall into each other, Mars sinks slowly into the Southern horizon, a reddish ‘stand out’ if you are lucky to have no significant obstructions and can get some elevation above the ground around you.  Venus, the hottest planet of all on account of its tremendous greenhouse effect which gives is a surface where lead is liquid, will grace our skies for the winter.  It is white disc like object, brighter than all-stars bar our sun, with an inexpensive set of binoculars or a cheap scope, you can define Venus through crescent and gibbous phases.  To do so, is to glimpse our neighbour, do so and use your own mind to imagine the shape of the solar system and it’s objects flying round our nuclear heater.

I am here at the cusp of the weekend and arrive in need of a rest.  Physical and mental exhaustion, a diet fit for a gluttonous rat and a mind swerving to ill thought.  I am need of sanctuary, sanctity  and perhaps a little abstinence, some good air, eggs on fresh bread, a good cup of tea and the company of good people, gentle, unassuming, kind and peaceful.  I won’t get it and neither do I deserve it.

Thank you so much to the kind folk who donated to Shelley’s three peaks.  She was touched by the kindness of strangers and your money helped motivate her to finish.  Of the 7 moms taking on the course, 4 did complete (including Shelley) and the 3 retired after incredible efforts.  Bravo.

I enjoyed writing a renaissance piece last week and thought I’d roll the dice on another.  The greatest fear sitting and typing a word is that there is nothing left to say.  You all know me so well after all these years.  Stopping the weekly sermon after not missing one for 332 weeks, yes, 332 sermons… come bad weather, international odyssey or illness… well, after such a prolonged stint it was hard to stop.  Yet, after a few weeks without it, I felt some relief, that of a sportsmen substituted and sitting on the bench after a bad performance, one part guilty but overwhelmingly relieved to be in the safety of a place where the gaping holes in your confidence, the chasm in your belief is no longer on public show.  You can convincingly cheer others on from such a position and you can mean it earnestly.  In the end though, you have to ask, is the matter settled or do you want another go on the pitch.

Cheltenham kicked off again today and I had a healthier account following the Nicholls form and blending it with the Henderson runner Thomas Campbell.  I used to attend the first Saturday of Cheltenham and always had a good day.  It’s a day that offers contrast to the hurly burly nature of the festival.  You can get round the course, attend the finest bars, have your head turned by the glorious people, see friends, enjoy the views and all is so much more sedate than the carnage that comes later.

I remember Joe Lively, that was 2007 when he won at this meeting.  My goodness, was that really nine years ago.  It all flies in the seeming blink of an eye.  How he led them a dance and what fun I had following him for a few seasons including his deserved (for effort perhaps more than sheer ability) Grade One in the Feltham.

Our sport comes in two distinguishable and delightful flavours.  I love them both.  Following the blood lines of great sires as their progeny try to evoke repeat emotions.  The flat has this and jaw dropping speed to offer.  Yet, if I were pushed, I’d have to say the drama of National Hunt is my preferred sphere.  The scope for drama is that much greater, the attachment to those battling never say die horses and jockeys, the steam, the cold, the tweed, the heady mix of all of this.  I know the racing pattern better too, I feel the form more instinctively, I feel more confident cutting through all of the background interference and getting to the original signal.

Winter is my favourite season for other reasons too.  Put away those crisp white wines and reach for the proper ordinance.  A good Barolo to accompany a simple steak.  Crisp mornings where the frost makes brittle white skeletons of the trees and you turn your collar up to protect yourself from the northerlies.  Less insects.  No sunburn, a summer hazard for us who foolishly left our northern forests.  Deep slumber (a rare blessing for me)  made possible from the cooling earth.  It is not a dying star, it is the madness silenced for a while.

I turn 40 this year.  My sister and her family are looking to move far further north than we have managed.  My brother-in-law is one of those awkwardly intelligent people and runs a lab working at the cutting edge, his specialism is plasma.  My own parents might follow them up there and last night my father, in his early seventies asked me what he should do.  Many years ago, we used to holiday in France, in the generous Vendee with good food and wine and a tongue that I could not master but would have some fun bludgeoning my way around in.  Each trip, my parents would stand and look at the goodies within the window of the immobilier, marvelling at the space and beauty of property they could afford.  Over wine in the evening they would resolve that yes, they would, they could and they will.

Like a spark from the fire that urgency would fade, as the ferry bound for Dover put the town of Calais to stern the enthusiasm would be there but with caveats.  By the time the bags were unpacked, thoughts were drifting and once work was back underway and the demons of regular routine served their great smokescreen, well, the plans were dead and never spoken of again.  Several times this routine was repeated and each time, I wanted the feeling they had when they said it to be followed through.  Do it, just do it and who cares if it fails.

So now, being asked the question by my father of what I think he should do, well.  My instinct is to follow my motto, roll the dice.  Yet, he is in his early seventies and their roots run deep in their social circles.  How easy is this to replace and how much desire can you have to do so?  As one ages, one meets the darkening evenings surely wanting comforts and knowns.  The taste of adventure receding.

If there is something to take from this and I am not at all sure there is.  Perhaps, my motto serves us youngsters (under 55s) well.  Do the things you cannot attempt later, now.

To the sports.

Cheltenham Saturday Tips

I am focussed on Cheltenham.  I have to be.

I have a balance swelled by the exploits of the Nicholls horses today and why not?  Sometimes the game is simple, Ditcheat now have 16 winners in the last fortnight, they have opened up the season with a strong barrage.  As has Twiston-Davies and Rebecca Curtis (be still my beating heart).

The Nicholls runner Keltus feels like a veteran but he is still a youngster, just one who has more experience than most.  Should give you a run for your money but not my idea of the winner.

Cogry is a sort I think could go well but I’m not sure he won’t be aimed at a real stayers slog later in the year and this might not be the wise time to catch him.

As much as I like the runners for the trainers in form, I am adding Coologue (9/1 Ladbrokes) to my Mothership coupon for tomorrow.  Could be primed to go and Johnson steers.  There is plenty of money to support my view.  He will be in my multiples but my single will be modest.  I have a residual concern that Cheltenham is unchartered territory.  In fact, Coologue has almost raced exclusively on flat tracks.  What to make of this I do not know but maybe the fellow will like a hill, we shall find out.

Then the novice hurdle.  Put a lump down on Wholestone who has put some wins down and his last staying novice hurdle showed he had a quality engine which helped him overcome some poor footwork at the obstacles.  The dogs are barking about this one and 7/4 might be a steal if the horse has progressed and learned from his experience.

The Materson hurdle has a solid Nicholls favourite who may well win if nothing steps up and out.  I say ‘may’ because I’m not blown away by Adrien Du Pont.  Thing is I am less convinced with Gibralfaro.  In fact, I am going to play wild with Wolf of Windlesham at 10/1 who does not come from fashionable quarters but was improving last term and not disgraced.

The handicap chase is trappy but I think Boondooma (8/1 in a place) is a sound play.  He won this last year and the smart yard may well have been planning a return trip all along.  Yep, he is carrying a few more pounds but I’m a fan of a known tryer in this sort of race.

I’m not playing the Pertemps Hurdle.  No thank you.

The novice chase.  An odds on favourite.  Am I losing it?  Thing is Shantou Village looks to me to be a hugely high potential chaser.  Given he has not only had a seasonal blow but one over fences where he both won (beat nothing) and looked fluent (mostly), well.  I hate myself for writing it but you see there is another angle for me.  I want the horse to win and wanting it makes me want to bet it.  I know how this sounds, hardly a ringing endorsement for your investment.

Woodfort wins the bumper (6/1).

By the way, Villa odds against is like finding it in the street.  I’m telling you my 66/1 looks good!

May your dinner be pleasant and paid for with a wad of cash bulging from your pocket.

Courage, roll the dice.



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