Sunday, June 17, 2018

Humanity

Yes, 11 days since the last post.  It actually seems longer, funnily enough.  The problem (although I'm not sure that 'problem' is the right word) is that under normal circumstances I don't have a social life but in the first half of June I usually do.  One always finds that plenty of Aussies make their way to the UK at this time of year, and many of them tend to make their way to Newmarket in the period immediately prior to Royal Ascot.  And I tend to meet up with quite a few of them, which I always enjoy.  But there goes the blog-writing!

We've had three runners since I last posted.  All ran well: all placed, all running as if they might have a chance of winning next time.  I wrote a chapter of this blog on the Wednesday (June 6th).  The next day was my birthday.  Then I went to Brighton on the Friday where Roy ran well to finish third.  One of my colleagues, Carl Di Iorio, on the Australian newspaper Winning Post (for which I have written a weekly column for the past 26 years) is in Europe, and he made his way from London to Brighton on the train and came home with me after racing.

Carl stayed here until Tuesday, fitting in two more days at the races in that time: Newmarket on the Saturday (where, by happy chance, the possibly Melbourne Cup-bound Amazing Red, a half-brother to three-time Melbourne Cup runner-up Red Cadeaux, won) and Nottingham on the Sunday, where our second runner of the period, Hope Is High, finished second.  We also fitted in the usual visitors' things such as watching horses work on the Heath and having a good tour round all the training grounds, going to the racing museum in Palace House, and having a look round Cambridge.  We were also lucky enough to be allowed to pay a visit to Dalham Hall Stud and pay homage to Dubawi, Golden Horn, Farrh and New Approach.

Since Carl has moved on, he's had two more days at the races (Aintree Friday and York Saturday - and he'll be going to Windsor on Monday night before going to Ascot all five days, which is impressive!).  I've had one more day at the races: Yarmouth on Wednesday, where Sussex Girl ran a good race to finish third, suggesting that she's working her way back to form after disappointing me on her first two runs of the season.  I've enjoyed the company of several more of his compatriots, including spending time with two tour groups which are both including Newmarket on the itinerary before heading to Ascot, and annoying Redkirk Warrior's connections on a couple of occasions.

I've also enjoyed making the acquaintance of Nash Rawiller's 17-year-old son Campbell, who is in town for a week with Jane Chapple-Hyam and who seems to have the potential to become as successful a jockey (and is definitely as nice a person) as he is bred to be.  So that's that.  A question of time: getting all the usual daily work-load done plus enjoying the company of other people has been pretty much a full-time job!  (It's actually not true to say that I usually don't have a social life, rather that I don't have a social life outside work: when your work means that you exchange friendly greetings and banter with, say, 200 people by 9.00 each morning, as is the case when we're riding out, you don't feel starved of social interaction, however the rest of the day pans out).

Plus one can have too much of a good thing as regards one's contact with one's fellow humans.  We were reminded of that when Hope Is High finished second at Nottingham.  The betting on this race was so weird.  I thought that we had a good chance with maybe three of our rivals also being live chances.  Oliver Greenall ran a horse called Fort Jefferson who was having his first Flat start of the year.  He had won his final race last season and had been running well over hurdles in the interim, most recently winning a 14-runner maiden hurdle at Bangor three weeks previously.  Horses who do well when put over hurdles usually show improved form when put back on the Flat, particularly if they are clearly at the top of their game when they do so.

Fort Jefferson arguably should have been favourite, but my amateur attempt at pricing the race up would have been something like Hope Is High 2/1 favourite, Fort Jefferson 3/1 second favourite, 9/2 bar.  As the horses went down to the start, I was taken aback to see that Hope Is High was 7/4 favourite and Fort Jefferson 18/1, and as they jumped I was scratching my head at how my form analyis could be so badly wrong.  Anyway, Silvestre rode Hope perfectly, switching her off under her 9 stone 10lb and from her outside stall, getting her to relax perfectly to give her every chance to run out the mile and six.

It was copybook and she duly worked home dourly to overhaul all her rivals - bar Fort Jefferson, who turned out to have at least a stone in hand, skipping clear at the top of the straight to win, eased down, by seven lengths.  I was very proud of Hope's run and very happy, as always, with Silvestre's ride: he had clearly given her every chance of achieving her best possible placing, and she had clearly achieved it.  She recorded the joint-second highest Postmark of her whole career (75), a figure beaten only by the 79 which she recorded when winning under an identical ride from the same jockey at Yarmouth last September.  And I was kicking myself for my stupidity at having failed to back the most blatantly over-priced winner of the season.  (Well, Fort Jefferson probably shared that honour with Masar in the Derby).

What was the post-script?  Some idiot posted a foul-mouthed, disgustingly abusive tweet accusing Silvestre of being paid by the bookmakers to stop her.  And another idiot sent us a similarly horrible email expressing similar sentiments but working on the assumption that I was behind the supposed crime.  What's wrong with people?  What's wrong with this country?  Leaving aside that the x-rated tirades were both based on a misapprehension, how can anyone bring up a child so badly or any school so completely fail to educate a child that the child reaches adulthood believing that it is in any way acceptable to publish a tweet or email a stranger expressing such hate-filled sentiments in such revoltingly offensive language.  To quote Alan Partridge, "This country!".

Oh yes, and the other post-script was that Fort Jefferson ran again four days later at Chester.  Carrying a 6lb penalty he started the odds-on favourite and won even more easily this time, eased right down by four lengths.  I would imagine that that might have given the conspiracy theorists some cause for introspection - and in fairness I ought to point out that the emailer sent a total apology the next day (in response to Emma's reply to his first email) and the tweeter took down his tweet (after I and several others had pointed out some of its flaws).  Presumably both had sobered up by that time.  So it's nice to have contact with other humans once in a while - but maybe not indiscriminately!
Saturday, June 02, 2018

God's stenographer and the epic of your own life

Another Derby Day.  And another very good Derby Day.  Saxon Warrior wasn't good enough on the day, but he didn't have a very happy race and he'll have other days.  Masar was terrific.  Winning the Craven by a wide margin, finishing third in the 2,000 Guineas and the winning the Derby comfortably is a mark of a very special three-year-old.  And it's lovely to see a three-generation line of Derby winners, which doesn't happen very often.  Mill Reef / Shirley Heights / Slip Anchor was the last one. Previously the line descending from Carbine did it: Spearmint / Spion Kop / Felstead.  And Masar's win made me even more pleased than I already was to own a New Approach three-year-old, even if my one isn't Masar.

And it was great for Sheikh Mohammed.  41 years of ownership on an uniquely massive scale reached its zenith today: owning a home-bred Derby winner, by a Darley stallion out of a Darley home-bred mare, by a Darley home-bred stallion.  And trained in his private stable.  Charlie Appleby was an inspired choice to succeed Mahmood Al Zarooni.  All the way through he has been a wonderful servant of and ambassador for his employer, hitting all the right notes: a proper horseman, 100% conscientious, totally loyal, understated, modest, decent and invariably diplomatic.  Today was Charlie's just reward, as much as it was his employer's just reward.

But it's not all about winning, of course.  The fact that Pat Smullen wasn't well enough to ride Hazapour reminds us of that.  What also reminded us of that this week was a wonderful excerpt from an interview with Anthony Hopkins in the Guardian.  I don't buy a daily paper but I subscribe to the Guardian on-line, so I receive a daily email with links to its stories.  Lawrence Wadey had highlighted this interview (and this particular quotation) so I read it.  It's superb, a worthwhile reminder to us all:-

"I meet young people, and they want to act and they want to be famous, and I tell them, when you get to the top of the tree, there's nothing up there.  Most of this is nonsense, most of this is a lie.  Accept life as it is.  Just be grateful to be alive."  That's so good.  Being alive is the greatest gift; being alive is what counts.  Anything else is (at best) just a bonus.  Derby Day, particularly a gloriously warm and sunny Derby Day, is a great day to be alive.  Winning the race, in whatever role (owner/breeder or punter or anywhere in between) is wonderful, but is just a bonus.

Someone else who reminds us of that is Clive James, who I think will always be my favourite writer.  His use of the English language just puts the rest of us into the shade.  It seems forever ago that he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but he's still with us, and he's put out some wonderful stuff even while walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  The list of supposedly related articles beside the Anthony Hopkins interview prompted a visit to a Clive James piece from February 2016, a review of the BBC's lovely dramatization of War And Peace.  Can an article start (and then end) any better than this?

"The BBC's lavish, sexy, heart-rending, head-spinning and generally not half-bad adaptation of Tolstoy's vast novel War And Peace finished last weekend, so this weekend there is nothing to do except discuss whether Natasha was credible when she fell so suddenly for the odious Anatole Kuragin, and to start waiting until someone adapts it again.  At my age, I doubt that I'll live to see the next attempt, but I'm definitely thinking about reading the book one more time.  It really is that good: good enough to get involved with again, even if it's the last thing you do.

"On a shelf near where I sit writing this, there are half a dozen editions of the book, and I've been reading one or other of them for half my life.  Despite the heaps of evidence that Tolstoy was in reality half crackers, you would swear from the pages of War And Peace that he was God's stenographer.  As Isaac Babel said, if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.  So why bother with the screen adaptations at all?  Well, there's the sheer fun of watching thousands of clever people pouring millions into doing the impossible.  And sometimes they can add a dimension to the studies of character, even though they always subtract a dimension from the battlefield spectacle, no matter how much they spend ...

"... And so, with my expectations of further life as tenuous as those of old Bolkonsky falling off his horse, I search my shelf for the copy to read again.  Two are in Russian, and one of those is the Soviet four-volume edition from 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis.  Long ago, I taught myself Russian by reading it with a dictionary alongside.  By now I have forgotten the entire language; but learning it wasn't as hard as you might think ... Wade once more through the society gossip of the opening salon and you will soon meet them all again: the dazzling children and their dying parents, and all of them even more magnetic than you saw them on screen, because they are taking you back into the epic of your own life."
Monday, May 28, 2018

The one from the other

We're getting back into the silly season, if some of the articles I've been reading are anything to go by.  Two topics have caught my eye recently.  I haven't really been following it as closely as I should, but the BHA's seemingly mooted idea of introducing a stand-down period for a horse after a fall seems a very flawed idea; while its supposedly mooted idea of a 'cradle-to-the-grave' tracking system for horses is woefully unrealistic.  In theory, cradle-to-the-grave full traceability is a lovely idea, but it's pie in the sky.  And nonsense too.

Like it or not (and I don't particularly), British racing and breeding has become dependent on the export market.  We lag so far behind nearly all the other major or semi-major racing and breeding nations as regards our finances and funding that the only way we are able to hold our own is by being a significant net exporter.  (And, in fairness, Britain, in its position as the origin of the thoroughbred, has always been a huge exporter to other parts of the world where thoroughbreds are required, and it was this way even before the major investors were needing to maximise their income from overseas sales to stay in the game).

It's hard enough to keep a track on one's former horses after they have moved out of the racing system, even if they remain in Great Britain.  If they go overseas - as a large percentage of them do, thanks in part to the huge marketing machinery which the sales companies, breeders' associations and various BHA offshoots collaborate in organising - then it's almost impossible, particularly (but certainly not exclusively) when they go to countries where most people don't speak English.  Say a horse is sold to Australia as a Melbourne Cup hope (and this is a relatively straightforward scenario as he will spend his whole life owned by anglophones).

He's trained for two years in Melbourne or Sydney.  Then he ends up racing in, say, northern Queensland or western New South Wales.  Then he retires from racing and plays polo in Cairns for five years, or rounds up cattle near (ie 300 miles from) Charleville.  And then ...  And the BHA is considering putting together a department to track these movements!  Utterly pointless and barely feasible, and it would serve no purpose, benefitting no one other than the army of functionaries who will need to be employed in High Holborn to undertake all this detective work.

The idea of a stand-down period is another plan divorced from reality.  When a horse has a fall, he will often suffer both physical and mental damage which needs to be repaired (or to repair itself).  How long does that take?  Could be 12 hours, or could be 12 months.  Could be 24 hours, or could be 24 months.  Could be 36 hours, or could be 36 months.  To make a worthwhile assessment, you'd need at the very least to feel his legs and back, to watch (or preferably ride) him walking, trotting, cantering and jumping.  And to observe his general demeanour.   Compared to this, putting a set number of days on how long it takes for the horse to be ready to run again is just idiotic.  Well, not just idiotic: well-meaning too.  But idiotic even so.

It's like when people ask me (as fairly often happens, surprisingly enough) how often a horse can run.  My answer is generally, "How long is a piece of string?  There are some horses who can comfortably cope with racing three times in a week, and there are some horses for whom racing three times a year would be three times too many."  It's like that with a horse coming back after a fall: sometimes a horse can be ready to run again a day or two later, but sometimes a year or two can have elapsed without him being ready to run again.  If the BHA feels that there are some trainers out there who can't tell the one from the other, then it ought to be re-assessing the competence of its licensing department rather than creating yet more red tape.
Sunday, May 27, 2018

We keep trying!

Well, we don't seem to be quite there with Hope Is High yet, although perhaps that's being harsh on her (or me).  She was probably just out of her depth in Class Three company yesterday. She didn't run badly, and I was probably just being unrealistic in expecting her to be competitive in a higher grade (and off a higher rating than she has ever been placed off) than she usually contests.  But, despite being drawn wide, Nicola managed to get as satisfactory passage through the race as one could have hoped for, so it was disappointing that she couldn't run on in the straight.  We'll get there in the end (and it also took her a bit of time to hit form last season, despite starting that campaign 25lb lower than she started this one) so I'll still be full of hope (more so than one could sensibly justify) when she goes back to Class Five somewhere next time.

Still, it was a pleasant enough day.  It's hard to enjoy a day at the races completely if your horse doesn't run very well (unless you're not expecting him/her to run very well) but Chester is a lovely place in a lovely part of the country, so there were plenty of positives.  And they pay appearance money which just about covers the day's expenses (ie hire of the horsebox, diesel, staff expenses, entry fee, jockey's fee) which is a massive help.  And they give you (very good) free food.  And free drink (although that's a perk which one can only enjoy to a very limited extent if one has to drive home afterwards).

My greatest irritation during the day, even more so than realising that Hope Is High (shown in the first paragraph shortly after yesterday's race, and then in the second paragraph relaxing today) was out of her depth and that I had masterminded a pointless outing, was the journey into the racecourse.  And this isn't the first time that I've had this happen, either.  We know that the traffic at Chester on racedays is appalling, but one takes that into account.  I started at 4.30 to be able to leave at 6.45, and we drove over the bridge adjacent to racecourse at 10.30.  However, even though we were probably only 800m from the racecourse stables at that time, we didn't arrive until 10.55, courtesy of the racecourse's traffic scheme, the unhelpfulness of the traffic marshalls and the racecourse's minimalist policy on sign-posting.

We are always told that the draw adds an undesirable element of uncertainty into the racing at Chester.  Well, it does - but that's nothing compared to the lottery of the fact that on a warm or hot day a portion of the runners will have sweated and worried their chances away in the latter stages of the journey.  (It wasn't really a problem for us yesterday as Hope Is High is so sensible).  The problem is that when the horsebox is 400m away from the racecourse stables, one isn't allowed to drive it down the road to the stables, but instead is sent on a long, complicated and slow-moving detour.  (And this happens on racedays only - on any other day of the year one can just drive down this road).

It's madness, but I'm working on it, and I hope that common sense will prevail and that it won't always be the case that Chester makes the approach to the racecourse far more convoluted for the horses than it needs to be.  (No problem where the people get sent, but making the horses' journeys any more fraught than need be is ludicrous).  We'll see.  More immediately, we'll see how we go this week, during which our two entries have both been declared to run at Brighton on Tuesday.  Parek (Sussex Girl, pictured here this morning with Jana; and also in the previous paragraph, hanging out in the sun at midday today with Kryptos) and Roy (pictured in the third paragraph, lairising this morning with Das Kapital) are set to run in consecutive races on Tuesday evening.  Hopes will naturally be high!
Friday, May 25, 2018

Hopes for Hope

Our trip to Warwick on Wednesday with Roy was very special indeed.  He ran well, finishing second, and all in all it was a day very much to remember.  Disappointingly, things took a turn for the worse afterwards and I was forced to conclude that Kryptos, who had been pencilled in to resume at Chester tomorrow, was not ready to run.  However, we'll still be going there as Hope Is High is running.  This was something of a last-minute plan.  She ran at Newmarket eight days ago (Thursday 17th May) and my initial plan was that her next race would be at Wetherby on June 6th.

However, I was trotting along next to her on Monday morning and she looked so well - clearly having come out of the race very well and, to my eyes, having tightened up for it - that I thought that I might as well look to see if there was anything sooner than that.  There was: in five days' time (ie tomorrow) at Chester, and the race was set to close in a couple of hours' time.  So I entered her, and she's running.  It's a better race than the two in which she has just been unplaced.  But set against that is that she's racing off a lower rating (75 rather than 77) and will only have a featherweight (8 stone 2lb) whereas she carried 9 stone 7lb at Newmarket and 9 stone 1lb at Chepstow.  And I think that she has improved too. So she'll run.

She's an 18/1 chance so isn't an obvious winner, and she isn't my idea of the most likely winner.  I thought that Redicean, who was my pick in the Triumph Hurdle, is the most likely winner; and I see that he's favourite, so I'm clearly not alone there.  But she has a chance (even if her double-figure draw will make it hard for Nicola to secure a 'dream run' on her) and it's a nice race at a nice racecourse to have a crack at.  If it doesn't work out, we can lower our sights again the next time.  I'll adopt my preferred policy of hoping for the best but expecting nothing, and I'll try to enjoy the day.