Friday, February 14, 2020

Helpful suggestions for Valentine's Day

Thank you, as ever, for your feedback after the last chapter, Neil.  I'm glad I'm not the only one scratching my head in front of the TV.  Re the time of day of evening racing, I can't see that it's an issue.  It certainly won't be an issue relative to each other (which is what matters as far as the result of the race goes) as all the horses will be in the same boat; and I can't see that it's an issue in absolute terms either.  I don't study times in great detail, although I do pay a fair bit of attention to them, but I've never noticed that the times of evening races are significantly different to what one would expect them to have been earlier in the day.  And I'd imagine that people who study times more closely than I do would say the same.

We had an opportunity to watch one of these horses perform at night on Monday as Hidden Pearl ran at Wolverhampton.  We'd been lucky going into the meeting.  Our race was second preference to be divided.  The first preference only attracted 17 declarations (a race has to attract 18 declarations to be divided) and our race attracted 19, so we found ourselves in a divided race, with 10 horses in our division, rather than in a full field.  And then there were two non-runners on the day, making it an eight-horse race.  Not that that availed us much, though, as we finished seventh.  She could probably do with going back up in distance a little bit and she was only beaten a little over four lengths, so it wasn't a disastrous outing, though.

She may get that bit of extra ground on Monday as there has been an extra meeting put on at Lingfield and I have entered her in a race at that.  In one sense we ought not to back her up as her rating will be lowered a bit for this week's race, so there's little sense in running again before the reassessment comes into force.  However, take this away and the only 12-furlong 0-55 in the next several weeks is at Southwell, where I'd be loath to take her, so it probably makes sense to run her - and I'd be very interested to see how she backs up.  It may turn out to suit her.

In the meantime, we have this evening to look forward to: Valentine's Day!  I'm celebrating it, as you can see, by writing a chapter of this blog.  I don't think that I'm missing out on anything too exciting as I think that the target audience for Valentine's Day extravaganzas (extravaganzae?) is composed of people with fewer grey hairs than I have.  If I had had any doubts about whether I should be getting involved in any Valentine's Day beanfeasts, these would have been assuaged by my receiving an email in which a local restaurant boasted of the contents of its Valentine's Day dinner menu.  Looking at this, I'm not sure exactly who the target audience is, but I'm guessing that it is composed of people less fussy and more adventurous about what they eat than I am.  Here it is:-

Garlic flat breads with beetroot hummus & tapenade
Lamb shoulder bon bons with cherry puree
Binham blue pate with honey & walnuts on focaccia
Falafel bun slider with red pepper hummus
Calamari with a soy & sesame slaw & sweet chilli dip
Bavette steak taco with chimichurri
Corn fed curried chicken kiev
Halloumi fries and chimi mayo
Patatas Bravas (add chorizo).

See why I'm so pleased to be at home writing this blog.

On the subject (sort of) of romance, I note that City Racing has had its first matrimonial casualty.  Perhaps.  You'll have seen this week that Peter Phillips and his wife are splitting up.  There was an article in the Torygraph saying that one has to expect these things when royalty marries a commoner (and it used the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as Exhibit B, which was rather harsh as they are still married).  I actually think that the reason might be less formulaic than that.  (Again on the subject of Valentine's Day, sort of) you may be aware that some husbands over the years (not this one, obviously) have found that when they say they are doing something, they are generally greeted with questions such as, "Is that a good idea?" or "Wouldn't it be better to be doing ...?".

There is, of course, a place for such helpful suggestions, but I'm told that in general they can be quite trying.  (I always enjoy the phrase 'helpful suggestions'.  My father wrote a book in the 'acknowledgements' section at the front of which he thanked various people including "my wife, Meg" who had "made many very helpful suggestions".  I know that he would have written that with a smile on his face, and I can't think of him doing so without a smile appearing on my face too.  Anyway, what has this to do with Mr and Mrs Peter Phillips?

Strange though it may seem, I believe that Peter Phillips is one of the prime movers behind the presumably-soon-to-be-stillborn City Racing project, which has done the impossible in getting all racing people to agree (bar, of course, those who hope to make some money out of it).  Is it entirely fanciful to suggest, bearing in mind that all too many husbands have struggled under a barrage of helpful suggestions when they are actually doing something sensible, that this marriage might have come under strain resulting from a barrage of uxorial (if there is such a word) questions along the lines of "What the hell makes you think that there is any merit to this project whatsoever?"?
Sunday, February 09, 2020

Paying attention

We didn't run very well at Chelmsford the other night so let's hope for better fortune when Hidden Pearl goes to Wolverhampton tomorrow.  (At least I'm assuming that she will be going there tomorrow - she wouldn't have been going there had the meeting been today, with Storm Ciara battering the country, but surely the winds will have abated by tomorrow).  Still, if she is to disappoint, I'm pleased that she'll be disappointing at Wolverhampton and Heaven Up Here doing so at Chelmsford, rather than the other way around.

I don't know why it does so, because its presentations of midweek evening meetings at Kempton are excellent (notwithstanding that they would be even better with a presenter on course), but Racing TV continues to disappoint with its Chelmsford coverage.  It is not the fault of the presentation team in the studio because the people there, once given their head to talk about Chelmsford, have plenty of good stuff to say.  But it must be directorial policy to rein them in because the time allocated to discussion of the racing there is minimal.  I watched the early part of the programme in the canteen and found that Dundalk was given plenty of attention, but that the focus generally was only cutting to Chelmsford as late as possible.

I gather it got even worse as the night went on, Emma telling me that they only moved on to our race at Chelmsford as the horses were preparing to be loaded into the stalls.  And the reason why they were so late in moving on to the racing that they were meant to be covering?  They were showing replays of past Cheltenham Gold Cups!  Jesus wept.  There is a time and a place for trips down Memory Lane to relive great National Hunt races of the past (Lord knows, I spend long enough living in the past) but when the two meetings being covered are Dundalk (AW Flat racing) and Chelmsford (AW Flat racing) then the clue ought to be there that this isn't one of them.  It would be like continually cutting away from the matter in hand to show repeats of past runnings of the Derby on a day when the two meetings are Ludlow and Warwick.

Does this matter?  Well, possibly not but it bothers me.  We had become accustomed to At The Races treating Chelmsford midweek evening meetings as if they were important events, sending Matt Chapman there to pull out all the stops.  It was thus a shock when we went from one extreme to the other, as I discovered to my discomfort when I had an overseas-owned runner there early last year.  I recorded the programme so that I could watch the race again when I got home, and was dismayed to find the coverage only moving to Chelmsford as the horses were circling behind the stalls, with the presenter reluctantly pulling himself away from the totally unrelated subject on which he was pontificating to say unenthusiasticly, 'Well, I suppose we ought to have a look at this Class Six race at Chelmsford ...'.

I just hoped that the horse's owners had not been able to see the programme, lest they pull the plug on their UK racing operation after discovering that their horse was seemingly competing at a level so lowly that even the people being paid to present the racing on TV couldn't bring themselves to pretend to be interested in it.  At least the current presenters pay racing at Chelmsford the compliment of showing themselves to be genuinely interested in what's going on there, but it remains disappointing that those in charge continue to treat the racecourse like a third-class citizen.  So I'm pleased that, with myself being the owner of Heaven Up Here, I wasn't subjecting anyone else to the indignity of having their horse run moderately in a race apparently unworthy of much attention.
Thursday, February 06, 2020

Full of cold and hope (yet again)

Hopefully this can be a sadness-free chapter.  In fact, it is likely to be an everything-free chapter because I haven't got much to say.  I have a cold and I'm trying to avoid putting either my brain or my body under too much pressure for a couple of days.  Trying without much success, I'd have to say, because there is always plenty to do, both indoors and outside.  Still, at least I can do the outside chores without getting wet as we have had a few dry days.  Tuesday wasn't much fun because we had a bitter wind, but the past two mornings, although colder, have been a joy: frosty, but bright and still, and very scenic.

Tomorrow will be a long day but, thank God, not too long: we will have a runner at an evening meeting, but for us the 6.45 at Chelmsford, which is only 50 miles away and motorway/dual carriageway most of the journey, doesn't present too punishing a schedule.  Heaven Up Here (seen this morning from behind in the second and third photographs) will be running there, our third runner of the year, and I hope that she might have some sort of chance, notwithstanding that she's a five-year-old maiden who has never been placed and who is likely to be one of the outsiders.  She's still lightly raced so we can live in hope - until 6.47 tomorrow, anyway!

I'm delighted that Nicola Currie will be riding her.  We hear plenty about the higher-profile riders at present, and Nicola isn't getting their volume of either rides of success, or their publicity.  But, for me, she's as good as there is, and the bonus from our point of view of the fact that she's not very busy at present (primarily because Jamie Osborne doesn't seem to be having too many runners) is that she's currently easy to book.  So she'll be on board Heaven Up Here tomorrow and then (I hope - this has yet to be confirmed) on board Hidden Pearl at Wolverhampton on Monday.  There is no rider I would leg aboard with the confidence that I will have when I send her out.
Tuesday, February 04, 2020

James, my friend - may you rest in peace

There's good news and there's bad news.  Both arrive on a daily basis, to a greater or lesser extent.  However, one doesn't want to receive bad news on a par with yesterday's bad news very often: the death of James Banks, formerly of this parish.  That is a tragedy.  Just so very, very sad.  I haven't seen much of James in recent years, but we used to see plenty of him when he lived here and, while he found life a struggle in his teens and early 20s, he had done such a good job of getting his life in order that it's very hard to swallow that this has now happened.

James' parents split up when he was quite young and as he was a natural horseman besotted with racing, it made sense for him to live with his father Martin as he was up here, working as head lad for Paul Howling at Moulton Paddocks, living in the cottage on the property (which I presume no longer exists). James finished his schooling in Newmarket, but long before then it was clear that he was more horseman than academic.  He was riding out for Paul from well before he began work full-time for him on leaving school, and that was his vocation.

James became something of a lost soul during the latter stages of his teens and his early 20s, meaning that the career as a jockey which had seemed to be his for the taking wasn't happening.  He spent too much time between jobs and at such times he'd often come in to ride out here, particularly when Yarmy was keeping a few of his problem-children (ie horses sent to him for remedial training for bad manners, usually at the starting stalls) here.  James would often be helping Yarmy, which was ideal: there was no horse so badly behaved that James couldn't manage him.  He was a natural, and fearless too; and he loved it.  That's what kept him going: even when he was struggling with life in general, the horses gave him focus and kept the smile on his face.

Amazingly, James, showing tremendous strength of character, managed to turn his life around once he was in his mid 20s.  Getting out of bad habits is much harder than getting into them, but James managed it.  I think it was Alan King he went off to work for (I may be wrong on that) but he knuckled down and the race-riding began to happen.  It was difficult because he was only just starting to get going once he was too old to ride as a conditional, so he was a senior jockey, ineligible to ride in conditional jockeys' races, that nobody had heard of.  But slowly but surely it happened.  Becoming a good jockey was the easy part - he was that right from the start; getting established was the difficult bit - but he managed it.  It was a joy to watch his career develop, and a double joy to bump into him at the races, salute him on his success and see the smile on his face.  And I was particularly pleased when he started to get some good rides from my old boss Andy Turnell.

It's just so sad that the story has had to end the way it did.  I suppose it was always going to be hard for him to maintain his focus once he had finished race-riding, but initially he seemed very happy in his assistant trainer's job with Clive Cox.  You'd see him at the races - the most smartly dressed man on the whole racecourse, and laughing and joking as per usual - and all seemed to be going well.  The last time I saw him was at Windsor not last summer but the previous one, and I was happy that the next chapter of his life was going to go as well as the previous one had ultimately gone.  But one never knows what is going on inside a man's head, nor the struggles someone is facing internally.

I'll treasure this photograph which I took in the winter twilight at Newbury a few years ago.  It was just as James' race-riding career was starting to go well.  I must have had a runner there and James had a ride in the last race (for his family's old Marlborough connection Godfrey Maundrell, who was a big help to him when he was getting going) so I stayed to watch him.  It was a very happy occasion.  Both his parents had come to watch him and it was lovely to see the pride in their faces.  I can only imagine the anguish that they are feeling now, and I can only offer them, and his brother, my deepest sympathy.  He was a lovely man who brought so much joy to those around him.  It's only so very sad that, as tragically we now know, it seems that he couldn't bring the same amount of joy to himself.
Monday, February 03, 2020

Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl

My irrational optimism for 2020 remains more or less diminished, even though it is becoming ever harder (even harder) to justify.  We had our second runner of the year at Lingfield on Saturday and that didn't go particularly well.  The Rocket Park finished sixth of eight, which was OK even if his run was rather lack-lustre.  It then became apparent why his performance had been a bit flat: he completed the course fine, but it was clear on pulling up that he had gone lame in his near fore leg.  This was as surprising as it was worrying as he had never had any front leg problems in the five years he's been here.

It isn't too serious but he'll need a break.  It has not yet been possible to work out what has caused it, but we'll continue to monitor him.  The vets at Lingfield were outstanding.  They were understandably concerned that he might have fractured a bone in his leg, even though it was not possible to guess where in the leg that might have been.  So they X-rayed the whole leg, starting at the bottom and working up above the knee.  There were no signs of a fracture on the X-ray, which was good; nor any indication of a soft-tissue injury.  Anyway, he'll be resting in his stable for a while now, but at least it's nothing too serious.

Aside from that, it was a pleasant trip.  It was a lovely spring-like day and the traffic was good in both directions.  And, although I'd rather not have been in a position to have a horse receiving veterinary attention, it was good to find how top-notch the veterinary services there are.  They couldn't have been more helpful or more diligent.  And while we're handing out plaudits, it's worth mentioning that the people who are running the canteen there now are very good indeed too.  George Hill did a great job when he was clerk of the course at Brighton, and now things look to be going very well under his direction at Lingfield too.

On a completely different subject, recent politics have been no laughing matter but I did have a little xenophobia-related chuckle the other day.  I didn't read it, but I believe that there was an article in the Racing Post a couple of weeks ago saying that it is tough for punters having to cope with so many good jumps horses having French names; and that it should be possible to change these names when the horses come to the British Isles to make them more pleasing to anglophones.  This idea is clearly very much in line with the general zeitgeist in England at present.

Anyway, one thing which often gives me cause for amusement is a facility which exists on the racing administration website.  When one checks the availability of a name for a horse, if the name is not available the computer offers one some alternative suggestions.  (God only knows why).  Anyway, I was looking up the availability of a name the other day: Wish You Were Here, the Pink Floyd song.  I would have been surprised if it were available, and indeed it wasn't.  So the computer gave me some suggestions instead.  Southampton Dock wasn't one of them, nor was Comfortably Numb; but, it tells me, a dozen names with no connection to Pink Floyd are available: "Wish You Wow, Wisigo, Wisigothe, Wising Up, Wiske House, Wiskey Prince, Wiskhert, Wiskola ...".  But the real brahma is the name which came in ninth on the list: Wisla De Mesliere.  Please don't tell the Racing Post about this.