Good evening from the Major who writes from a hilly outcrop of North Nottinghamshire, back in the family home after a Christmas day of bustle and fun at my sisters home and smallholding in Northallerton. It is a mild winter evening with a murky mist hanging close, eerily silencing the usual background noise.
We are already some way into the evening and you may wonder at how sober I am. I think you would be surprised. At the outset of typing, I am quite clear-headed. As I am planning on punishing the claret as I type, well, you might be the judge as to the sobriety come the final paragraphs.
First of all, a fine Christmas to you all. I hope your families are well fed, full of good humour, in rude health and that Grandpa has been at the port all afternoon.
The last time I posted a sermon was exactly a year ago.
I might tell you that business and family and al manner of distraction have interrupted the Major’s sermons but the truth is, I fell out of love with it. When the hobby becomes a drag, you need a new hobby. I missed you all though. I even might presumptuously suggest that the world of horseracing is just a smidgen, a mote of dust in a sunbeam, worse off for my absence, I shall let you be the judge of that.
Today, I enjoyed a wholesome family Christmas but found myself being the sensible one and picked up the duties. So, driving home from Northallerton, on an empty A1, family asleep in the warm car, one has time to think.
The only thought that occupied my mind was a plan, ‘When I get back, I’ll dust that keyboard off, run my eye over a couple of cards and drown a bottle off the good shelf.’ I felt that the world owed me that and so there.
Earlier in the day, I had been gifted the Cornelius Lysaght book ‘World Racecourses’. It’s a lovely book and I must confess that it also had its part in stirring something within.
Anyway, here I am. It is King George day and that is ample enough motivation. On reflection, I think it is my favourite race of the season. I have always seemed to do quite well in it, though that might be explained by the fact that in the last 15 years, all the winners have been 5/1 or less. It has been a little Christmas present for us all.
I also have been in the tradition of buying my ‘non racing fan’ brother in law a King George slip. Given he has enjoyed winners in most years, it has become rather a rather celebrated custom. It has also done much to exaggerate my own expertise in the subject of national hunt. A falsehood I have yet to dispossess him of.
At the heyday of the sermon, we had a hearty readership of over a thousand folk a week (during major festivals, many hundreds in the quieter weeks!). I felt that the sermon had a particular place in racing tipping. It was never a serious tipping service. In fact, it was quite uncommon to find more text dedicated to the racing review that the preamble.
I might presume to give forth some view of piece of history and prevaricate about the weather. Rarely politics, I’ll leave that to the uncouth lecturers, there are enough of them. Then we would fall into some sporting chance and I would explain how I planned to wager my stakes for the weekend.
I would share with you the horses that caught my eye and those that I found particularly hard to stop backing. It is a horseracing fans curse that the desire to support our most favoured animals far out lives and outweighs the more sensible cerebral deliberations. Taquin du Seuil, or worse, Bog Warrior.
Occasionally, I would strike out well (remember Arabian Queen @ 100/1+). Normal service though was to deliver Advice of muddling standard. It was the company and the journey, I enjoyed.
There is little shattering news to break from this past year. Family, business and pleasure have all been pretty much the same. You know me, I still fall in love thrice weekly with each latest the best, for at least a few days. The good lady is still humouring me. My two boys are turning 11 and 12 and showing all of the unfortunate signs of ill discipline that I once carried in my own youth. The apple never falls far.
As for racing, it has been the quietest of years. I was quite ill during Cheltenham which is why I did not write. I held tickets for three days, struggled up to course on day one and regretted it, retired home and decided that 2018 was not for me. Fell at the first, found to be lame.
I made it to York in the late summer but that was more of an entertaining thing. I have probably read and watched less racing than any of the last fifteen years. I plan on fixing this in 2019 because as I sit here, I miss it. Whether this translates into more sermons, I cannot tell for the liquor is taking hold.
I have just finished watching the excellent documentary on the American Civil war on Netflix. I cannot recommend that enough. I had no idea of the detail of that conflict and over eight or ten (I can’t remember) programmes, the picture is well laid out with some excellent contributing views.
One in seven Americans was a slave at the outset of the conflict. There must be lots of grandchildren of people born into American slavery alive today, this history isn’t that old.
Christ it was a brutal war. About as many Americans died at Gettysburg as the whole Vietnam conflict. That was just one of a long series of the most bloody clashes you could imagine. Casualties above 10% would be utterly shocking in modern conflict, they frequently hit 25% and upwards. More shocking still was that more soldiers died of disease than bullet and shrapnel wounds.
At the conclusion of the war, the surrender was described in an utterly dignified way. General Lee distinguished and proud, even in defeat. Grant, more of a working soldier but as respectful as one could imagine in accepting the terms. I am glad these men could act so reverently but something about that moment stuck with me.
You come away wondering of the madness of it all. Still, slavery was at stake, so it had to be done.
Perhaps though, if the Americans had not been so damn headstrong in the late 18th century demanding their own independence, then all of this might have been avoided. Britain would have outlawed slavery in the US in the 1830’s as we did elsewhere in the empire. The US could still have slipped anchor peacefully enough at a later point and he world would have spun on its axis.
What do I know, I only watched a bit of TV.
Anyway, the folly of man shall be tested again as you consider the logical racing arguments I outline for your delectation below. Be suitably warned, I am out of touch, possibly out of mind; unread and not entirely sober. Then again, you did not come for financial gain as the Major has never dispatched much of that.
To the sports.
Kempton Boxing Day Tips – The King George
Let us start with the big one and examine the case for the main actors on the stage. It certainly looks a fantastic race and we can only hope that enough of the protagonists have had their three Shredded Wheat and give us a show to remember.
The ground at Kempton is good to soft and with no rain forecast, I think we are looking at the faster sorts. Add to this the nature of the course, a flat right hander and it cements in my mind the profile I am seeking. A bully, a speedster, a regular experienced jumper and a fine pair of hands to do the steering. Let’s be honest, we are also looking for a star. Either the horse is 6-8 years old or it is one that is a bit special, such as Cue Card and Kauto Star.
We should not box ourselves too quickly into a corner. Let us see where the thinking takes us.
One of the most interesting runners for me is Bristol de Mai. I can understand why he has looked less fashionable in the markets. He is argued at times to be a Haydock specialist, a mud lover and an out-and-out stayer. You can make a number of arguments to support this case.I am not sure how much they stand scrutiny. His Betfair win, the best he has raced was on good ground, that surprised me. It was only his third from twelve attempts when the word good appeared in the going, yet it looked as convincing as it gets.
I must say, I wasn’t the horses biggest fan in the early days but since he went through the wind op last winter, he has looked the real deal. His preferred ground is not something I am confident about anymore but at a gentle drift to 15/2, he looks very backable to me for place thieves.
As is always the best with these big races, there is lots of intertwining form and plenty of differing stories one could tell about the form to draw a conclusion.
For example, Might Bite. When beaten by Bristol de Mai, in the Betfair (and finishing last of all though eased down), was the horse merely in need of the run? Was heavy ground against him? Yet, we know the horse is suited to this race after winning it with arguably something in hand last year. We know Might Bite can play up if he gets alone but last year he was beating Bristol de Mai, Thistlecrack and others who oppose again today. At 9 years old, this should be one of Might Bite’s prime seasons. Yet, for some, including myself, there is a worry about the Gold Cup in which he finished second.
Who can forget that Gold Cup. It looked two out like Might Bite was going to do Native Rivers homework for him, ranging up with all the time in the world. The Gold Cup though is rarely won by style alone. When the bullets started flying, it was Native River who dropped that head and galloped on as brave as a lion to a well deserved victory. Therein lies the concern for both of these candidates. What did such a contest take out of Might Bite? Can Native River be as effective without those conditions?
I do like Native River as a horse, it was also beaten by Bristol de Mai in the Betfair but showed well enough and if they go too fast, then it is the sort to be picking up the pieces. There is a final consideration and that is that the only time it visited Kempton previously, it finished a half respectable third, as a beaten favourite in the Feltham. That day, it might certainly have done much better if the jumping had been straighter. If it veers left again, it would be a major setback for backers. That said, how much should we worry about what a seasoned pro did as a novice? Not so much I guess.
It seems to me, barring accidents, we have three others to consider. Thistlecrack and the younger Politilogue and Waiting Patiently.
Let us start with Thistlecrack. This stablemate of Native River carried all before it when winning the 2016 renewal of this race. That followed eight straight victories and while other horses were staking their credible claims to the honour of top chaser, at the time, I was a Thistlecrack supporter.
The following month, Many Clouds beat him in another of those never say die battles up the Cheltenham hill. You will recall the tragedy of seeing Many Clouds not recover from that exertion, such things are hard to take, yet important to remember. It can be hard to reconcile the costs some days. I also wonder what the race did to Thistlecrack. We have seen him three times and perhaps the last time showed a sign of improvement but this has not looked the same horse.
Three runs is too short to be writing a horse off but it is time enough to build a concern.
Waiting Patiently is the horse we know least about. As I type, it is proving extremely popular to back and one can understand why. Well bred out of Flemensfirth, this is a curiously lightly raced horse. Also on the positive side of the ledger is the pilot, I have a lot of time for Mr Hughes who seems to run a lot of his horses to the best of their ability. The inexperience is only a mild off-putting factor. The fact this is a season debut is also only a slight concern, given the low mileage campaigning this one does. It is definitely on the right path and has done nothing wrong. Such horses can be underrated and the market is taking no chances. Yet, the best form it shows is beating a 12-year-old Cue Card. This is a big step up. I hesitate in drawing the line through him as watching that race, he did do it in some style.
Politologue is a carefully managed horse and one of interest after it beat Min over the Mildmay course at Aintree. This horse used to do a lot of idling, though it jumps well. It fell once (also over the Mildmay) but that was at the last fence and I get the impression that it will give a reliable performance at Kempton. It is encouraging that from four attempts in good to soft, the horse is unbeaten. Yet, I write without bags of enthusiasm. I might be wrong and the horse is steady at 5/1 to 11/2 but I am not convinced.
A conclusion from this must be drawn. Which are the important lines of enquiry?
I think that there will be plenty of pace on. The field is too good and some players are going to have to show a hand early. In this scenario, I think the finest stayers might yet have their day. I wanted speed but too much speed will kill you.
Thus, my inquiries rest with Native River and Bristol de Mai.
I side with the former because I just feel the latter has to have a going day. We certainly saw that last time from Bristol de Mai but I am not convinced on the basis of that run, that is it replicable.
Native River it is. A few spots of 6/1 lie around still. There are so many dangers and it should be a great race. Let’s hope it is setting up a fantastic Gold Cup to see where the Irish challengers stand against this promising crop of steeplechasers.
A few more from me;
In the Kauto Star Novice, I am willing to bet against Santini. The credentials for the favourite are solid enough. Yet, I have the utmost respect for Noel Fehily who gets such a good understanding with horses. His ride, Bags Groove might have plenty to prove but was very easy on the eye at Huntingdon and gets my nominal vote at 5/1.
Buveur D’Air wins the procession but you did not need me to tell you that.
Leopardstown 2.20pm – While we are on the shorties, Menghli Khan is another that I have much admiration for and while backing a novice chaser at close to evens is not everyone’s cup of tea, I will be aboard at 11/10 with William Hill.
That is it from me.
May your Boxing Day be profitable and profligate. I hope you drown yourself in the finest booze and in the mid afternoon haze, realise that your fourfold has romped home.
Courage, roll the dice.