Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The new normal

It's amazing how quickly the abnormal becomes the new normal.  'Lockdown' started on Tuesday last week so today (Wednesday) is Day Nine of it.  In theory it lasts three weeks, but you'd have to suspect that it might last longer than that.  I'll preface my next remark by saying that I am conscious that I, in common with all other people who work with animals in an outdoor environment, am very lucky in that my day-to-day existence is far less altered than it is for most people; but it is remarkable how easy it is to get used to the new normal.  I've already reached the stage that if I'm reading a book or watching a programme on television which portrays a gathering of people (ie normal life) I have to keep checking myself from thinking,"This isn't realistic - they can't be doing that...".  For instance, I'm struggling with the fact that the spectre of COVID-19 hasn't reached Ambridge.

It's heartening to go out with the horses in the morning and find that our little corner of the world still seems much the same as it did.  I usually listen to the start of the 'Today' programme on Radio Four before going outside and at the moment that shakes one up a bit, with the day starting with reports of death, misery and financial chaos.  And, then - the sun is still rising, the daily comings and goings, human and equine, on Newmarket Heath are still happening just as they always have, and the new normal seems to be looking not too dissimilar to the old normal.

Certainly, the new normal shares one thing with the old normal: the weather is still the weather.  We've had the perfect illustration of that this week.  The older I get, the more I'm struggling with winters.  I used not to think about it as weather is just a fact of life, but I'm finding it harder and harder each year to enjoy the daily routine during periods when the daily routine involves being cold and/or wet most of the time.  I can see why so many older people like to move to warmer climes.  And then spring comes with summer following on, and it's wonderful again as the worst part of the job once again becomes the best.

We've been having some rather nice spring weather in the past couple of weeks, but the weekend was a bit bleaker with the wind picking up and turning around to the east and then the north east.  And then Monday was a pig of a day.  We were back to winter in one easy leap.  They weren't proper winter conditions, but it was minus 1 when we pulled out first lot, zero when we pulled out second lot, plus 1 when we pulled out third and fourth lots.  And still only 3 degrees when we finished morning stables around 11.00.  And it felt colder than that, with the stiff wind coming from the worst possible direction, and the air so damp as it kept trying to rain from the gloomy grey sky.

I spent the whole morning looking forward to being able to go back indoors.  And then yesterday was divine.  It started off cold, admittedly, with a decent frost, but one didn't notice that at all as the wind had gone and the sun was shining brilliantly from the moment dawn broke.  It was just a joy to be outside.  Overall, winter gives way to spring step by step and the change is gradual.  This, though, was a perfect illustration of why one season is so vile and the other so pleasant as we had a horrible winter day and a perfect spring day slap bang next to each other.

So we're working towards summer, and let's hope that we are working our way towards the new racing season.  Well, we are, but we just don't know how close we're getting.  In theory it might resume in exactly one month's time at the start of May, and there are certainly encouraging noises coming from the authorities.  It's good to know that plenty of energy is being put into the planning of our resumption so that we shall be ready to resume as soon as it is permissible and prudent, but one has to feel that the start of May might not be realistic.  We'll need to have reached the stage where the momentum has come out of COVID-19's assault on our country, and it might take a bit longer than that before we reach that stage.  Let's hope that it doesn't, but it might.  One should never lose sight of the bigger picture.

And for racing the bigger picture is that racing's biggest worry is not whether the temporary suspension of the sport lasts six, eight, ten or twelve weeks.  It is the fact that this year will end with racing having an ownership base which will have diminished significantly from what it was at the outset.  It is impossible not to fear that there will be a large number of people who currently own horses or shares in horses who will have lost their businesses and/or jobs, or who have found that their investments are worth significantly less and yielding significantly less than they were formerly, and so are no longer in a position to own horses.

That is the sport's biggest worry, just as that is a scaled-down version of the country's biggest worry as a depression surely looms, and you would need to be more intelligent than I am to be able to come up with any of the required answers.  I am so stupid that I can't even understand how it is that one can even have a situation where everyone is poorer.  But that is what it is, or, rather, will be.  Forget credit, ie 'virtual' money: if all the money were in the shape of pound notes, there would still be the same amount of pound notes irrespective of how quickly they circulated around the population.  And still the same amount of property in existence, still the same amount of food being grown.

But it seems to be the case that if those pound notes circulate quickly, everyone is richer; and if they circulate slowly, everyone is poorer.  Strange, but seemingly true.  Maybe we need a better system than the one which we have.  But don't ask me what that is.  I suppose it might be a bit like an explanation/justification of the Duckworth-Lewis method (which is based on the theory that it is harder to maintain a run rate of x per over for 15 overs than for 10, etc.) which I read recently: like democracy, it isn't a good system but, like democracy, it is less bad than any other system which has been tried.

To revert to something which I do understand, we might as well focus a little on racing before we end this chapter.   We look primarily to Australia for that at present - and, looking from afar, it is rather strange to see, just as it is strange to listen to The Archers and hear life going on as normal (old normal, not new normal) - and on that subject I was quite pleased to see that a trainer with two runners in the Bendigo Cup on Saturday saddled each horse with the saddle, weight cloth and number cloth which the other one was meant to be wearing, which led to him putting the wrong jockey on each because the easiest way of locating your horse when you're standing in the middle of the ring with the jockey is to look for the saddle cloth number.

Why was I quite pleased?  Well, national pride, of course.  When Charlie McBride sent the wrong horse out to run at Yarmouth a year or two ago, there were plenty of Aussies who couldn't believe what they were hearing when the story reached the antipodes, plenty of Aussies who declared that such a thing might be possible with the stupid Poms but 'could never happen here'.  They are right in that it shouldn't ever happen anywhere, but that's the thing with mistakes: anyone can make them, anywhere.  Even Aussies, even in 'Straya.  And Saturday's Bendigo Cup debacle was a cock-up of the very same ilk.

I must say that, of the many surprising aspects of this incident, the one which surprised me most was that neither strapper noticed that the wrong jockey - wearing, presumably, the wrong set of silks - was getting on his/her horse.  It was the trainer's mistake.  He caused it.  It wasn't the strappers' fault or responsibility.  But I'm amazed that neither strapper asked the jockey, "What's going on here?  I thought you were meant to be riding xxx.  I was expecting yyy to be riding my horse".  For what happened to have happened, it wouldn't have needed them both to notice and ask, merely one of them.  And neither did.  Truly baffling.

Any time I say to any of my staff, "Your horse is probably going be be running at ... on ...", invariably the first question they ask is, "Who's going to be riding him/her?".  And, leaving aside instances when a horse is making his/her debut, they know what colours their horses run in.  I just couldn't envisage legging the wrong jockey aboard without the person leading the horse saying, "What's going on?  Isn't xxx meant to be riding him/her?  Why have we got yyy?  What's happened?".  Anyway, let's hope that I get the chance to leg a jockey aboard at some point in the relatively near future - and that when I do, it's the right one!
Saturday, March 28, 2020


This is the fifth day of Britain's current lock-down procedures and it already feels as if this has been going on for a long time.  It's only nine days since Johnson, using language that an adult would only employ for addressing children (or, as he would probably say, 'kids'), said that we'd have 'sent coronavirus packing in three months' time' and less than that since Trump said that he'd have the USA back to normal in time for Easter, but those pronouncements seem a lifetime ago.  Life is different.  But it's still life, so things fundamentally are no different for those of us still alive.

What matters is that you're alive, and sound in body and mind.  Anything else is a bonus.  I know that it's relatively easy for me to say that as I'm relatively unaffected: I'm still working in the stable, enjoying freedom and fresh air and surrounded by animals, and haven't gone broke.  But even if I were not so fortunate, the principle would still apply for as long as the sun keeps rising in the mornings.

We keep hearing about the 'blitz spirit' but one does not have to go back to the early '40s, ie beyond living memory for most people, to put things into perspective.  I saw something very good on the internet earlier in the week.  Someone must have observed that it's tough on these children having their senior year of school, 'the best days of our lives', disrupted like this.  I'm guessing that the reply came from either the USA or Australia as, hard though it is to believe nowadays, Britain's politicians managed not to get dragged into that particular conflict, whereas the other countries fell for it and introduced conscription.  The reply was that from 1964 to '70 many youngsters spent their senior year in Vietnam, and at least today's children will be coming home at the end of it.

Every cloud has a silver lining, even if it can be hard to spot, and the silver lining to this week's clouds has been that there have been no clouds.  Absolutely idyllic spring weather.  Cold, but - frosty mornings and afternoon temperatures no higher than 13 degrees - but perfect.  Neither a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky.  Unbroken sunshine from dawn to dusk. And that's been a blessing.  Sadly that's gone as of this morning, but we can live with that as lovely weather will return at some point.

It takes a bit of queueing to get into the supermarket at the moment but, having seen the weather forecast, I made sure that I went yesterday, however long a wait there was going to be.  I only stood in line for just over half an hour, but however long it had taken would not have been a problem.  Plenty of people there would have had nothing else to do and would have been glad of the excuse to be outdoors.  I wasn't quite in that category as I still have plenty to do, albeit I am (pleasantly) less busy than normal, but even so it was no imposition.  One thing is certain: three hours spent queuing in warm sunshine would be far preferable to three minutes spent queuing in cold wind and rain.

Anyway, it's Saturday morning and I've finished morning stables, ridden my four lots and done the other things which that involves.  I've had my breakfast/lunch; sorted through some stuff on the computer; collected my wits and got my energy levels back up; written this chapter of the blog (not that I had anything to say, as you'll have gathered if you've waded through these six paragraphs of drivel, but I wanted an excuse to post a handful of the photographs which I have taken in this lovely weather); and now I'm heading back outside to do a more couple of hours of long-overdue maintenance work on the property before starting evening stables.  So I'm lucky enough still to be able to be using my days productively.
Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Power of the Dog

The wet weather has at last relented.  We've had a dry week and this weekend has been wonderful. The skies have cleared, the sun has come out and it's been splendid.  Everywhere has really dried up. Dry ground instead of the mud which we've had for months, even if the lower half of our field is still muddy.  We've had proper drying weather with a stiff breeze too, even if this breeze, coming from the east, has been cold.  We don't often get east winds, but it's always cold when we do.  But, overall, this should be the type of spring conditions in which one rejoices.

Well, we have been rejoicing in them, but only up to a point.  These difficult times make it hard to rejoice as life is going to be tough for everyone.  Toughest for those who catch COV-19, obviously, but tough for everyone, mentally and financially.  It's going to be hard to maintain morale but, while trainers are going to feel the pinch, it could be worse: we could be hoteliers, restauranteurs, publicans, caterers ... And living on a farm, which we effectively do here, notwithstanding that the farm is in the middle of a town and only runs to a couple of acres, certainly beats more confined and less animal-ful places at a time when one is rarely venturing away from home.

Physically I feel less under pressure than normal, both because the weather is improving and also because I have less work, which financially is not good.  But there's still plenty to do, and if I have more time on my hands, which I do, that is quickly swallowed up by doing the many maintenance tasks around the property - most obviously repairing fences, with replacing broken fence posts being a laborious process which under normal circumstances I leave until tomorrow, except of course tomorrow never comes - which are more than overdue.  And you'll probably find me blogging more frequently than I do when I'm flat out.

Anyway, as I potter about the place as my own handyman when I have a free hour, reflecting while I do my work on the sorry state in which we all find ourselves and realising that none of us has any idea of what the future holds for us or how long normal life (if there is such a thing, or if there ever will be such a thing again) will be suspended, I find myself becoming the central character on the final page of a terrific novel which I have just finished reading, The Power of the Dog, by Don Winslow:-

'He doesn't know yet what will happen, how long he will have to spend in this limbo, whether he'll ever get out.  He accepts it as penance.  He still doesn't know if he believes in God, but he has hope of a God.
'And maybe that's the best we can do in this world, he thinks as he gets up to resume watering the flowers - tend to the garden and maintain the hope of a God.
'Against all evidence to the contrary.
'He watches the water bead silver on the petals.
'And mutters the snatch of an odd prayer he once heard, which he doesn't quite understand but that nevertheless sticks in his head -
'Deliver my soul from the power of the sword.
'My love from the power of the dog.'
Thursday, March 19, 2020

Parish notices

We're two days into our racing-less month-and-a-half.  Life isn't really any different here, on the surface anyway.  The training is continuing as normal on the Heath.  For this stable, it's an easy decision to continue as we are, but I can see that it isn't so straightforward for others.  We have very few runners in the winter, so the majority of horses in the stable at present are getting ready to resume racing after a break, or getting ready to make a debut.  So in general they are all currently getting fit with an aim of starting racing around the middle of April, or later.  And now they are going to have to start racing in May, which isn't really much of a difference.

I had entered four horses for races between now and the end of April, races which obviously won't now take place.  These were:- Kryptos, Doncaster 28th March; Hidden Pearl, Lingfield 31st March and Bath 9th April; Free Bird, Fakenham 13th April;  and Roy, Brighton 18th April and Brighton 28th April.  All bar Hidden Pearl would be resuming or, in Free Bird's case, making a debut.  Their resumptions/debut will be deferred a bit, which isn't the end of the world. Hidden Pearl has been running on the AW over the winter, but she isn't coming to the end of her campaign.  In fact, she's (I hope) only just now coming to herself and has the season ahead of her.  If she has to go a few more weeks between races than I'd planned, that's not the end of the world either.

They won't need to do much galloping in the next three weeks or so as they're a bit farther off their next run than I had anticipated, but they can stay in the same routine, with plenty of cantering.  They'll need to do so if they are going to be ready to run in May.  And then we have some others - e.g. Sacred Sprite, The Simple Truth - who would be getting ready to run sometime in maybe the second half of April and for whom I had not yet picked out races.  Whether or not they would have been ready to resume in the second half of April or the first half of May is now academic: it'll just have to be the first half of May, so nothing is different at all for them. And then for the horses farther off running than that, obviously nothing is changing.

Things will, of course, be more problematic if it turns out that we don't resume racing in May, but we'll cross that bridge if we get to it.  Obviously, as things stand, racing has only been called off until the end of April, so it would be premature currently to be working on the assumption that the disruption was going to be longer than that.  We'll see.  What is encouraging is that I read yesterday that France-Galop is hopeful of racing resuming in France in the middle of April.  But, again, we'll just have to see what happens.  It's life in general, really: you deal with today's situations today, and as for the future you deal with each situation in the future when it presents itself.

On a different note, I was delighted to see Newmarket's newest trainer Joseph Parr get off the mark shortly before this hiatus interrupted the racing programme.  Joe, a very diligent and experienced horseman and a thoroughly pleasant person, has only been training a few weeks, having taken over from his now-retired maternal grandfather Alan Bailey, and every runner I have seen him have has run well.  He's started very well, as you would expect because he should be a very good trainer, whether you believe in nature or nurture.  Alan is, of course, a training legend as well as being one of the nicest people you could ever meet, and Joe has Alan's genes and Alan's tuition as well, so he ticks both boxes.  He's worked for his grandfather for years, with a period gaining experience elsewhere (working for Ed Dunlop) in the middle of it.

Most recently, Alan was training in Cavendish Stables, the little property which was created in the corner of Green Ridge Stables and into which Alan moved when he came back to town a decade or more ago.  He had previously trained in, if my memory serves me, Induna Stables in the Fordham Road before moving away to Cheshire, where I'm guessing he must have been in Colin Crossley's old yard.  I guess Chris Wall must have moved into Induna (from Wroughton House) when Alan moved out as Chris has been there for years now.  Joe, though, is not training in Cavendish Stables, which has been sold and is now part of James Tate's complex.  He's still in Hamilton Road, I think up around the corner, I'm guessing in Frankland Lodge although I could be wrong about that.

Joe's also bred for the job on the other side of his pedigree.  You'll probably remember his father Stewart who was a very good apprentice with Harry Wragg and I think rode as a jockey for a while after his apprenticeship was over.  Stewart no longer works in racing (I think that he's involved in land management over on the other side of the country) but he was a popular and respected figure in the town for many years.  He was Julie Cecil's travelling head lad when she trained in Southgate Stables where Amy Murphy now trains, and then he went up to Nottinghamshire when Jeremy Glover retired, to train from his yard.

I remember one rather bizarre incident when we had a horse who otherwise achieved nothing (Desiree) but nearly won at Beverley one day.  She was arguably unlucky as she was boxed in and flew home after getting out too late, only to fail narrowly in a photo-finish, finishing second.  She was 50/1 that day - and the horse who beat her was also a 50/1 shot, trained by Stewart.  Anyway, that's definitely a name to look out for: Joseph Parr.  We won't be seeing him in the winner's enclosure again this month or next, but let's hope that he's back there in May.  I'm hoping that I'll be there too!
Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Testing times

I have to say that I'm ending the day relieved.  Last night we heard the news that the Randox Health Grand National was not going to be happening.  I digested this overnight and came to the conclusion that, unless I was missing something, it made no sense for it to be unfeasible/unacceptable to hold the National and yet for the meetings at Chepstow, Lingfield, Newcastle and Wolverhampton to be going ahead the same day.  It just didn't add up, and the only conclusion was that racing here would be brought to a halt sooner rather than later.  So at least the news this afternoon that there would be no racing in Great Britain until (at least) the start of May ended the uncertainty and made it all make sense.

Looking at the bigger picture, I'm 100% behind the BHA's decision to suspend racing.  The government has handled things so badly, notwithstanding that three weeks ago Johnston was telling us that the country is "very, very well prepared" for things.  So it is good that it is starting to make up for lost time.  The professional forecasts are that Britain's corona-virus death toll would be somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 if we did nothing, which is what the government was doing (bar exhorting us to wash our hands).  So it's great that the government has finally grasped the nettle.  Better late than never.

Basically, the biggest plank in the government's tactics to hinder the spread of the virus is to restrict movement of people wherever feasible, ie wherever it isn't essential.  That makes perfect sense and we all have to adhere to this dictum.  And continuing to hold race-meetings would fly totally in the face of that.  It's annoying, but trying to lessen the likely death toll, and making sure that there isn't too sudden a glut of serious illness to overwhelm the chronically under-funded and under-staffed NHS, has to be the main priority.  And it behoves us all to do what we can do to help achieve this.

Yes, it creates problems, but racing certainly isn't at the top of the pile in that respect.  Unless the government very swiftly follows up today's promise of £330 billion with action to distribute the cash, there are shortly going to be millions of Britons losing their jobs or their businesses, or both.  Nearly every pub, club, restaurant, hotel, catering company, cinema, theatre and travel agency will go to the wall.  Plenty of shops too.  All airlines and all train companies will go bust without government bail-outs.  With so much less money circulating and the stock exchange having collapsed, a frighteningly large proportion of the population will be poorer. 

On the subject of money circulating, one of the interesting side-lights of this crisis is that it has provided the final proof that theory behind 'austerity' was totally wrong.  I used to scratch my head about the term 'austerity' because when we were in the midst of 'austerity', I used to drive around the country and see no signs of austerity.  I would see chaos, squalor, poverty - but not austerity (unless both I and the OED misunderstand the meaning of the word 'austere', which has nothing to do with poverty).  But, leaving aside the fact that we were using the wrong term, the theory was that one would help the economy by slowing down the circulation of money.  That is currently being demonstrated to be 100% wrong.

And on the subject of words being misused, incidentally, I'm still scratching my head about the government's story that we've moved from 'Contain' to 'Delay', ie from preventing corona-virus from spreading to trying to slow down its spreading.  We're obviously currently in the 'Delay' phase, but previously were we really in a phase of preventing it from spreading?  Were we hell!  We were in a phase of doing nothing to affect its spreading.  But I'm going off at a tangent.  We might have a government which doesn't understand the English language ('austerity', 'contain'...) but at least now we have, finally, a government that is now trying to address the problem.  It's 100% right that the BHA has got behind the government in its efforts, and I'm 100% behind the BHA on this one.  I hope that we all are.