Friday, August 27, 2010

When the rain tumbles down in August

When I made my first visit to Bangor three or four years ago, I was pleased to be able to say then that I'd now visited every racecourse in Great Britain (if not in the UK). Attending the opening fixture at Great Leighs meant that I was able to keep my record intact, but of course the subsequent inauguration of Ffos Las meant that I no longer had a full house. However, I'm pleased to say that that omission has now been rectified, thanks to my having attended that track's meeting on Wednesday evening. And, overall, I'd have to say that I did enjoy the trip, despite the fact that its raison d'etre, ie Ex Con's participation, was a wash-out. I don't know if or when I'll be going back, but if I do I know that I'll look forward to going.

As regards our runners, Wednesday was pretty much a debacle. The ground going into each meeting (we also ran Hotfoot at Brighton that day) was forecast to be close to good, with the outlook dry. However, on Tuesday morning the forecast was altered to suggest that a band of rain would move in, with up to 15mm forecast for Ffos Las. That wouldn't have been the end of the world, especially with Chris Dwyer having told me after his first visit to the track never to plan to run a soft-ground horse there because the track is so free-draining that it would have to rain constantly in the hours leading up to the race for the track to be soft. Of course, that is exactly what happened! I think that the rain started at Ffos Las early in the morning and it was still raining by the time of our race (6.50 pm, the fourth race on a 6-race evening card). And it was still raining when I left at 5.45 the next morning! I'd guess that in those 24+ hours they'd have had the best part of three inches of rain - but, even so, I see that the ground was back to being close to good for this afternoon's (ie Friday's) racing. Ex Con might even have been OK if, as happened when he won on a desperately wet day at Bangor recently, he'd have been in the first race, because the horses and jockeys who came off the track from the first race were soaked, but not muddy - but by the time of our race the mud was truly flying. Ah well - and it was a similar story with Hotfoot at a rain-soaked Brighton. Still, no lives were lost and both horses live to fight another day.

I didn't see South Wales in general or Ffos Las in particular it their best, but I'd be interested to go back. Ffos Las is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but I like that, and it's a great place in the middle of nowhere, thanks to the people who run it. It seems to be a successful racecourse and it certainly deserves to be because the people there, all the way up and down the chain of command, do a really good job in making things run smoothly. It's really well designed, well built and well run. If I had to nominate a star of the show, that would be the stable manageress Penny, whose welcome on my arrival was very special: she told me that she'd set aside a couple of stables so that I could take my pick as to what type of bedding Ex Con would like, and that as he's a big horse she'd selected a particularly big box and put plenty of bedding in it so that he'd be comfortable - and that my room in the hostel was ready for me. Emerging into the rain at the end of a long, confusing and rain-lashed drive, you'll understand that I found such a welcome a source of joy.

I can't remember what I said in the last chapter, but it's possible that I might have intimated that Ex Con would be running at Bangor. That indeed was the plan, but that plan was changed when it became apparent that the Kim Bailey-trained Points Of View, whom I regarded as the best-handicapped hurdler in training, was set to run in our race at Bangor. There would have been no point in running against him because the likeliest result would have been for us to have Ex Con's handicap mark raised for finishing second; so on Tuesday morning I took the unusual (for me) step of calling a rival trainer's office to find out if Points Of View was running. And running he was - so we headed to Ffos Las, while Points Of View proved to be the bet of the year (not, of course, that I had a bet, but anyone with any brain would have done) by winning with his head in his chest at 11/4, when he should have been odds-on. I was initially surprised that as many as nine trainers elected to run against Points Of View - and then even more taken aback by his SP. As I've remarked previously, this game never ceases to surprise! So, even though our trip to Ffos Las didn't work out at all, it was still the correct decision to chose that race instead of our otherwise-preferred option. And, strange though this may say because the rain vastly diminished whatever chance Ex Con had, I'm actually pleased that it did rain because the one criticism I'd have about Ffos Las is that the track, although extremely well-maintained, seems in general a very firm one, and I'd fear that it would have been worryingly firm had the rain not arrived.

I hope that we've now had our quota of rain for a while (even here, which has been considerably drier than South Wales, it rained for about 36 hours to produce a total of about two inches) so the tracks might dry out for Bank Holiday Monday. We're aiming to have two runners (Alpen Glen and Batgirl) at Warwick and, while some cut would be good, heavy tracks would be rather a step into the unknown. It'll be good to be at Warwick on Easter Monday because the meeting will, at least, conform to a traditionally balanced and legal format - unlike two of Monday's other cards. I am sure that there used to be a rule that every card had to have at least two races farther than a mile, with at least a furlong's difference in their distances. Warwick's grand: two races over 10.8 furlongs and one over 15 furlongs. But at Chepstow the same day the longest race will be over a mile (and not at Chepstow as the meeting has been transferred because of the poor state of Chepstow's track - and that poor state pre-dates the deluges of the past few days) while exactly the same remark applies at Newcastle, which has two 5-furlong races, one 6-furlong race, two 7-furlong races and two 8-furlong races. This really isn't good. Chepstow actually blots its copy-book thus twice in one week with the meeting four days later (which again has been transferred elsewhere) also having no race farther than a mile. Why has this rule been changed? British racing's strength is its diversity and the fact that it leads the world in middle- and long-distance racing - so why have we decided that a rule designed to protect this strength is an anachronism and that we should instead by aiming to replicate the racing programmes of Queensland or Texas? Answers on a post-card, please.

It could, of course, be that the rule hasn't been changed, but that it remains intact but ignored. I don't know - and the rule book is so big that life's too short to attempt to find the answer. We're told that the rule book being on-line has been a great leap forward, but any time I try to use the 'search' facility to answer a query I find myself considerably more frustrated but no less ignorant. There are other good rules which either have been expunged from the rule book or have become more honoured in the breach than the observance. The one about nobody being allowed to touch the jockey or his/her gear until he/she has weighed in has either been removed or is no longer enforced. Ditto the very good rule that every horse has to pass the stands (or part of the stands, or the judge) en route to the start, unless the stewards give special permission. Such permission used to be granted for very difficult horses or when the ground was very wet (to minimize wear and tear on the track) but it is now the case that, however firm the ground, no horse passes the stands/judge at umpteen tracks (Yarmouth being the most glaring example) unless it is the most direct route to the start (which usually means that the race is on the straight course). Yarmouth even has a man standing by the exit to the parade ring to shout at any jockey who tries to parade in front of the stands! Even less forgivable is Kempton, where the horses go directly away from the stands unless the start of the race (eg the 12-furlong start) is in front of the stands but who definitely can't use the excuse of protecting the (Polytrack) racing surface. Does this rule still exist? Has it been removed from the rule-book? And, most pertinently, if so, why? Aren't we supposed to be making racing more spectator-friendly? Is this not one of the reasons for wasting millions on the Racing For Change gravy-train? Surely removing the obligation to pass the stands on the way to the start flies directly in the face of this aim? Or am I missing something?

By the way, you might have wondered whence the headline for this chapter came. It was in my mind because, on the 12 hours or so which I spent driving to and from Ffos Las, I listened to a lot of music, much of it from Graeme Connors CDs, of which 'When the rain tumbles down in July' seemed a particularly appropriate track. The CDs, though, weren't my only source of cultural delight: I had the pleasure of catching on Radio Two some songs performed live by (and an interview with) the great Amy Macdonald, whose second album amazingly seems to be at least as good as its outstanding predecessor, and I also finished (re-)reading 'A Fortunate Life' before nodding off in my bed in the Ffos Las hostel on Wednesday night. I'd read A. B. Facey's outstanding memoirs about 20 years ago so I recently decided that it was time that I read them again - and the book was just as captivating and moving second time round. I'll probably bore you on the subject before too long, but this chapter is already too long so that can wait. If I do, though, eventually brow-beat you into reading it, I'll have done you a massive favour - with which assertion I know that you will agree once you've read the book.

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