York was enjoyable, even if the punting left something to be desired. One or two long-held theories were put to the test and came up short, so there will have to be intense concentration over the coming weeks.
Whilst I have no doubt that my ideal retirement place would be close to the Itchen Valley – actually I should break off there to say that, whilst I’ve never yearned for a great deal of money, the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming prime minister makes me regret getting through so much; even a tiny walk-up in the Paris or Madrid suburbs would do, because I don’t want to live in a country where he holds sway. Sorry, where was I, oh yes, the Itchen Valley, Bill Wightman’s old yard at Upham, the White Swan at Mansbridge, South Stoneham cemetery and my parents’ grave, St Mary’s and the easy country roads to Salisbury and Goodwood, the smart Italian at Botley.
What I was going to say, before Johnson ( or ‘BoJo’ as the tabloids are certain to refer to him, can you bear it, no of course you can’t but it’s coming to a newsagents’ near you soon, BoJo this and BoJo that and all the silly blue-rinsers taken in, no, what I was going to say before he crossed my mind was that Stillington makes plenty of appeal as well, because it’s so silent and every time we drive from Gilling East to York I want to stop off and just sit there, letting time slow down and stop.
David Chapman was a shy man but for some reason he didn’t mind being interviewed by me, probably because things had gone so well on the BBC when Soba won the Stewards’ Cup. When SIS went to see him in the days of Chaplin’s Club and Glencroft he was in great form, telling us he let them mess around in the sand pit because they did all their work at the track. In my book listing the most rewarding bets of my life (a slim volume it’s true) the three doubles and a treble on Chaplin’s Club, Glencroft and Scotch Imp, Ripon, Goodwood and Haydock, is up near the top. It’s probably the only time I’ve affected a market because the first two legs were in when Chaplin’s Club won the last at Haydock at 5/2, shortening from 7/2 in one go. The saddle slipped but he still won with Kevin Darley clinging on. Try to imagine a sprint handicapper winning nine times in a season nowadays. Old Chaplin’s did it twice with the trainer smiling his diffident smile. What a lovely man he was.
Anyway, to business. I don’t know what went wrong with Plutonian in the mile handicap but he was backed from 25/1 to 10/1 and clearly went amiss, dropping right out to finish last. I still think he is more of a ten-furlong horse than a miler so maybe the handicap at Glorious Goodwood where he finished runner-up last year is the answer.
As for Vibrant Chords, who beat one home in the six-furlong handicap on the opening day, my flabber remains ghasted. At one stage I thought Henry Candy was going to pull him out again at Newbury on Friday with David Probert on board, but I’ve never known the Wantage maestro do that in all the years I’ve followed him; Vibrant Chords duly came out.
Ryan Moore was down to ride him at York and another theory went astray because I’ve always noted his mounts outside the O’Brien and Stoute powerhouses but the bookings – everyone from Candy to Nigel Tinkler (blimey) did him no good at all on the Knavesmire and his only winner came courtesy of old ally Jeremy Noseda and even that was only after a desperate set-to.
Mercifully, Headman won for Roger Charlton and Jason Watson at Newbury on Friday and I think they will have a great season with Blue Mist maybe winning the Royal Hunt Cup. Seven furlongs is too short for him so his 6th in the Victoria Cup was a fine effort.
On to Goodwood we go and the Anglesey Arms at Halnaker in the sunshine. I see a lucrative Placepot on the horizon. With time on my side, there may also be time to peruse the small ads for properties on the Rue Caumartin and the Calle Alcala. Come to think of it I’d like to take in Zarzuela, as well. Maybe Ryan will be jocked up for a couple.
As I write this, a few days before the Dante Stakes, the Derby market is dominated by colts trained by Aidan O’Brien.
No fewer than four of the top eight horses quoted are trained at Ballydoyle, with Paddy Power now betting just 1/3 that O’Brien will send out his seventh Derby winner on June 1st.
Despite his dominance of the trials and the Newmarket Classics, Too Darn Hot is still holding steady at the head of the market despite John Gosden’s repeated insistence that he suspects the colt’s best trip will be a mile and a quarter.
That remains to be seen, because a convincing win by Too Darn Hot at York on Thursday on Thursday will make it very hard for connections to resist a crack at Epsom.
It has long been my view that Too Darn Hot will not only stay a mile and a half but relish it. By Dubawi out of Dar Re Mi, a winner four times over a mile and a half, twice at Group 1 level, she is a daughter of stamina-influence Singspiel.
Furthermore Too Darn Hot tends to hit a flat spot in his races, to such extent that I thought he might have been vulnerable over the mile of the Guineas had he run.
One point to make relates to the colt’s physique. I only saw him once last season, before the Dewhurst Stakes, but from what I have seen on social media images recently he does not look the scopiest of colts. He is, if anything, a little short of depth and that is something to look out for in the paddock on Thursday.
The first two colts that I discussed for the Derby in my Dark Horse Companion were Too Darn Hot and Japan, and they head the Dante market at 7/4 and 3/1.
Aidan O’Brien will be a strong position to know where he stands with Japan, who cost 1,300,000gns as a yearling and is the ninth foal of a middle-distance winning half-sister to Arc winner Sagamix.
He was very green when getting up close home to win a 7f maiden at Listowel last September and again took a while to pick up when beating Mount Everest, now sadly injured, in a Group 2 at Naas.
Both Too Darn Hot and Japan have a rather lazy style of racing – something that may be of interest to in-running backers on Thursday.
The recent money for Surfman is interesting. Roger Varian’s colt strode clear to win a 1m maiden at Nottingham in November and returned to land odds of 1/8 at Newcastle in April. His current mark of 101 leaves him 25lb to find with Too Darn Hot and lagging 10lb behind Japan.
In one of the strongest Dante fields for years, we must also consider Line of Duty, the winner of three of his five starts last season including the 1m Breeders’ Cup, Hughie Morrison’s impressive Windsor winner Telecaster and Sir Michael Stoute’s very tough Almania. Kadar also warrants serious consideration.
Even allowing for the dominance of the Ballydoyle colts, I would be very surprised if the winner of the Dante is not heading the Derby market by Thursday afternoon. To my eyes it promises to be the pick of the trials.
The Oaks picture looks just as murky.
Pink Dogwood, recent winner of a Listed race at Navan, heads the market with 1,000 Guineas winner Hermosa next in.
Just Wonderful, who caught the eye making steady late headway in the Guineas, is bred to thrive over a mile and a half but her action was all over the place so that raises concerns around Epsom.
Maqsad was visually the most impressive winner of an Oaks trial I have seen this season when she hacked up on a tight rein in the Listed Pretty Polly Stakes at Newmarket, beating 100-rated Shambolic by five lengths. She is bred for middle distances.
Stable-companion Sea Of Faith caught the eye in a major way on her Sandown debut but she has no immediate entry for a trial and will struggle to win an Oaks on just her second start.
The next few days should provide some clarity on the uncertainty …
There was a moment at Punchestown when it looked as if a major betting treble had just escaped us. I retired from the Irish Field after 32 years as British correspondent, Ruby Walsh called it a day and then we heard there was momentous news from Downing Street.
This could only be Theresa May finally tiring of the whole weary business and we wondered what the odds were about these three things happening in the space of half an hour. To be honest we were quite relieved when the final leg concerned Gavin Williamson because there are very few people in Ireland who have ever heard of him and none of them is a bookmaker.
Something similar happened in Liverpool on an April evening in 1982. Animal rights protestors set fire to two of the Grand National fences, Ken Bates bought Chelsea for a pound and Maggie sent the troops to the Falklands. The next day Lord Oaksey danced in the rickety old press box on the roof of the County Stand as Grittar started to go clear and Peter Bromley, his view partially obscured, was very annoyed with him. As I’d backed the 7/1 favourite for a decent sum, I observed the whole episode with mild amusement.
They’ve both gone now, of course, as indeed has Maggie – Grittar too, I suppose – though those of a blue-tinted hue often remark that the current shambles would have her spinning in her grave. That would be a neat trick because she was cremated, not that we should let a minor detail spoil an intriguing mental picture.
I failed to make a profit at Punchestown, even though Kemboy struck me as a very good bet in the Gold Cup, as did Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle. The ‘problem’ concerned his stable-companion 0 0 Seven, who actually ran very well in the Topham at Aintree, only fading from two out. We should be grateful for every relevant fact appearing in race reports and the official form book, though the fact that 0 0 Seven bled that day probably stopped people, including me, from backing him in Ireland on Wednesday. 16/1 (24/1 on the Tote) looked way too big and, as usual, the point was hammered home by how comfortably he won.
With the passing of the years one is over these things more quickly, though it was something to ponder as we exited the course, briefly considering two giant Toblerones for five euros and wondering how much they cost in supermarkets. It’s always Toblerone, year upon year. ‘Please mister confectioner please, give me Toblerone’, not that you will remember that jingle from long ago.
If I was out and about with no pocket knife to hand and had to use my teeth, I invariably found that the pointy bit scraped against the roof of my mouth but even so, two for five euros sounds all right. Roald Dahl would approve; he had lots of chocolate bars in his grave, maybe even in his coffin, I forget now. Crunchies, Mars Bars, Kit-Kats, you name it. All smaller now, of course, especially the Kit-Kats. Supermarket profits bigger, choccy bars smaller. Every little helps.
Why do the French say ‘Plus ca change’? Lots of things change, as you know from looking in the mirror, but every now and then you see what they mean. I was looking at the tips for Chester on Wednesday and noting how many experts had gone for Technician and Top Breeze. Far be it from me to criticise because I know how difficult finding winners is; I’ve been trying for 60 years, or 65 if you go back as far as Ashurst Wonder in the 1954 Stewards’ Cup.
But in a race like the Chester Vase, with Aidan O’Brien up and running, all anyone needed to do was go back to the Sandown trial and note Technician’s decidedly awkward head carriage in the closing stages to save themselves a few bob. As for Top Breeze, ah, mon brave, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. ‘It is hard to imagine’, comme disent-ils les anglais, ‘it is hard to imagine a 6lb higher mark stopping him after the way he won at Newmarket.’
Mais ce n’est pas vrai. It’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine, because the task is 6lb harder, going round a bend this time on much softer ground. It will be MUCH more difficult and in this instance it proved impossible, because Top Breeze finished unplaced. He started at 5/2 favourite while Technician (who looked iffy at Sandown and found Chester’s charms distinctly overrated) was miles adrift at 11/4.
I am not a ‘time after’ merchant and I wouldn’t have found either of the winners. Much as I love the game, it’s had the better of me over the years. But it’s worth bearing in mind that, on Saturdays and other big racedays, the bookmakers are sometimes betting to around 127 percent at least. And as long as they can lay horses like the above two at those sort of prices, they will never starve.
‘Let’s be careful out there’, as the station sergeant used to say In Hill Street Blues. Otherwise you’re much better off with a Toblerone. Or two for five euros.
It’s hard to think of a more progressive jumps racing festival than that of the Punchestown Festival, a meeting that was on its knees no more than 16 years ago but is now heralded as a true season highlight on both sides of the Irish Sea.
The turnaround was initiated by legendary Kerryman Dick O’Sullivan, who guided the course and this festival back into the limelight. Now there is 12 established Grade 1 races and well over €3 million in prize money on offer. Aside from those big figures, one of the main indicators of Punchestown’s success is its found ability to attract British participants on both sides of the white railing. Over 20,000 overseas visitors came to Punchestown last season (safely assuming the majority were from Britain) while there are over 50 British-trained runners among the entries for the first three days at the meeting. No other Irish festival can boast such pulling power.
With regard to this season’s festival, there is an ominous feeling developing that Willie Mullins is set to shoot the lights out. The champion trainer sent out five winners at Fairyhouse last week which included a first Irish Grand National winner. Not only that, he dominated some of the big races – he trained the first three home in the National, the first two home in the Grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase, he first two home in a Grade 3 mares’ chase and the first two home in the good bumper on Monday.
This was significant because Fairyhouse is very much Gordon Elliott’s track, it’s less than 25 minutes from his Cullentra base, and in contrast to Willie, many of Gordon’s horses disappointed, perhaps showing the effects of a long season. None of Elliott’s 12 runners ever looked threatening in the Grand National and he sent out just two winners at Fairyhouse in all.
I was speaking to Willie for my day job this week and while he didn’t reveal anything earth-shattering with regard to his runners next week, he did make a few interesting observations on the state of his team.
“I think a lot of my horses have had really light campaigns in comparison to recent seasons,” he said. “So whereas before we’d be letting a few go off for their holidays, we could have more on our team this time around.”
If you’re an Irish trainer hoping for some success at Punchestown next week and that doesn’t spark some sort of trepidation, you’re a very brave person.
It’s still early days with regard to having a bet but declarations are out for three Tuesday Grade 1 races. The most interesting of the three races is perhaps the Dooley Insurance Group Novice Chase, a three-mile contest. You can understand why bookmakers make Delta Work favourite. He’s a dual Grade 1 winner already, including at this distance and he ran well at Cheltenham. However he’s had a long season and I’m not so sure the RSA Chase form is what people are making it out to to be. That could look a silly statement in time but there wasn’t much substance to the form of Topofthegame and Santini going into the race and it was interesting the former was well beaten at Aintree.
Earlier this week I was interested in A Plus Tard, who was sensational at Cheltenham and could be even better at this trip, but all the nice prices have been taken and at 2/1 he is well found in the market now. Instead, it might be worth taking a chance on the fresh Getabird who is just the type of horse to go well at Punchestown. He has only run twice this season but not due to any setbacks – because he simply has to go right-handed. He has three wins from four runs at Punchestown, he comes here fresh compared to his main rivals and it’s probable he has been trained for this all season. He is coming up in trip but I’d be happy to go with Willie Mullins’ judgement on that one, considering there were options for him to go over two miles later in the week, or take in the two-and-a-half mile Ryanair Novice Chase last week. At 7/1, he looks worth playing.
Klassical Dream is 4/5 favourite for the opening Grade 1 of the week, the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, and rightly so after his excellent Supreme Novice Hurdle win. However there’s a significant weather angle to him in that Willie is worried about him over two miles on quick ground and was strongly considering a revert to two and a half miles in that scenario. With mostly dry weather forecast between now and Tuesday, he could just be vulnerable. I’m genuinely surprised to see Aramon available to back at 10/1 here. All of his best form is on quick ground and indeed he came within a head of beating Klassical Dream at Leopardstown on quick ground. With that in mind, the Supreme Racing Club-owned gelding ran two huge races at Cheltenham (5th in Supreme) and Aintree (2nd in Top Novices’) both on soft going.
It might be worth waiting until the day to play him here. It’s the second race of the week so the ground is likely to be well watered but it should be a quicker surface than Aramon has encountered on each of his previous two runs and at 10/1, he looks worth chancing.
With regard to the rest of the week, it’s difficult to pinpoint any one horse considering so many are double and triple-entered.
There are still a few worth pointing out though. Colin Tizzard and Harry Fry have had lots of success at Punchestown in recent seasons and both are back again. Tizzard sends over three, most notably Reserve Tank who will take on City Island, but more interesting (to me anyway) is Sizing Granite who will go back and try and win the Guinness Handicap Chase for a second time. He was out of form early in the season but recently returned off a 119-day break to run second to Born Survivor at Ayr. He will now return to Punchestown off just a 1lb higher mark than when he won this race two seasons ago.
Fry is set to bring over eight or nine and by far the most interesting is Minella Awards, another previous winner at this festival. He hasn’t been seen since November but that has been by design. He is a horse who goes well fresh and so has been saved for this meeting. He is in the three-mile Grade 1 novice chase on the first day but is far more likely to take his chance in one of the handicap chases over three miles or three miles and six furlongs on Saturday. His owner is Irish and this has been the plan all season. Watch out for him.
Finally, Henry de Bromhead looks set to run Poker Party in the two-mile-five-furlong Novice Handicap Chase on Friday and the Robcour-owned seven-year-old will be a huge player there. He has won his previous two races, both at Naas with the most recent success a contest that has worked out really well. Connections decided to swerve Cheltenham to come here fresh and despite racing off a 10lb higher mark, he has bundles of scope to progress again on just his eighth chase start.
Ronan Groome is a Guest Contributor to our Weekend Card and Cheltenham Bulletin Book
And so the Baths and Brightons are back with us again. Only Punchestown left (together with the fervent hope that a miracle Placepot pays for everything, as it did in ‘volcanic ash’ year, 2010) before the familiar round of tricky sprint handicaps, Shepherd Neame Spitfire in the Regency Tavern, no bitter at all in the Fox on the Downs and old Solveig’s Song waiting for the handicapper to drop her to 46 in a Brighton mile handicap.
It may take a while because she is up around 55 at present, having bolted up at 10/1 on Carnaby seller day last year. As my friend Arthur Sears, well into his nineties, is fond of pointing out, she is beautifully named. Solveig’s Song is a rather reflective movement from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and the seven-year-old mare is by Norse Dancer. She fairly burst clear at 10/1 on my day, making several people in the box very happy, but she will not be down to 46 by September 2.
The only familiar face to go in when Brighton’s season opened on Saturday was Junoesque, pretty solid at 2/1 favourite. Sitting in the Holly Bush in Hampstead a few days before, I could see he had a clear chance, though I always worry about fitness first time up. The Holly Bush was author Kingsley Amis’ local and I dare say he penned a few lines of Lucky Jim, his first novel, in there. I met him many years ago in my wine trade days when we were trying to get a schnapps called Doornkaat up and running. He agreed to write a piece about it and was great company with the wine flowing. In one of those Q & A pieces that magazines love, one of the questions was: ‘What is the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?’ and his answer was: ‘Shall we go straight to the table?’
Arthur, in advertising all his life, remembers another gem. ‘It is not worth giving up drink for the sake of an extra two years in a care home in Weston-super-Mare.’ ‘We were working on some project and he didn’t know I lived in Weston,’ old Arthur chuckled.
I’m starting to run out of work now, which is only to be expected at 70. There will be a small get-together at Punchestown to mark my retirement after 32 years as British correspondent on the Irish Field. I was recruited by the late editor Valentine Lamb, a wonderfully gregarious character who knew everyone, in Wheeler’s fish restaurant in Soho. They had a Chinese chef there called Mr Song and every now and then Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, keeping a straight face, would say: ‘Tell me, Mr Song, how is business?’ just to hear him say: ‘Well, mustn’t glumble……’
1987 was quite a year, because Robert Maxwell opened (and closed) the London Daily News – the racing correspondent’s job failing to match the Irish Field one by 31 years and five months – and Hopping Around won an Edinburgh claimer for Pat Eddery in Eddery v Cauthen year (Steve won by a couple in the end) to wipe out all debts with two of the ‘big four’ bookmakers as they then were. Whilst I don’t believe in certainties on the turf, Hopping Around (7/2) must have been close because a couple of days later he finished fifth or sixth in the Manchester November Handicap, as I still call it.
Over the years my favourite places for studying form have included the Flask in Hampstead, the Regency Tavern in Brighton, the Blathwayt Arms in Bath, the Anglesey Arms in Halnaker and more or less anywhere in Southampton, though the Platform pub takes some beating. It’s not every hostelry that has a sign hanging from the ceiling with the inscription: ‘Not all who wander are lost’. J R R Tolkein, I think. It’s an admirable sentiment, even if a few of us buck the trend.
Sitting in the Blathwayt the other day, I had to acknowledge that a near six-month plan coming to grief at the final hurdle, as it were, can still hurt. Watching Eric Alston’s Maid In India in six-furling Listed sprints last autumn, it seemed to me that five would suit her better and the Whitsbury Manor Stud Stakes at Bath on Good Friday would be perfect.
Eric is no fool, however, and stall 11 of 11 at Bath is no use when the going firms up so a vet’s certificate was soon produced. The interesting thing, bearing in mind that Preston is a long way from the Roman city, is that stable-companion Acclaim The Nation still made the trip for a modest sprint handicap later on. He broke fast, Tom Eaves taking a glance over his left shoulder, grabbed the far rail and went for absolutely everything, only to be caught and beaten a neck by The Daley Express. It hardly takes a genius (which is just as well) to work out that Maid In India would have been given a similar ride, same jockey, same colours, from a lower draw. Which is not to say she would have won, of course, but I think she’ll be interesting next time.
‘Out of Indian Maiden, of course. All the nicely-named ones win,’ Arthur said.
‘Did Kingsley Amis tell you that?’
‘Good Lord no. I worked it out for myself. Cheers!’
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I have seen the sun come up over Sutton Scotney services.
It was a long time ago and I don’t remember the exact circumstances but it was a beautiful morning and I remember shaving in the car. I dare say it had been an expensive night but, all these years on, nights like that seem to run into each other. I know I was due to interview Compton Hellyer of Sporting Index later in the day at a time when spread betting was carrying all before it. Compton – very much the brain behind the enterprise – probably knew it would be challenged if not partially swallowed up by the exchanges when Betfair hit its stride. He was right.
Going south on Saturday on the A34, the traffic built up as usual around Sutton Scotney. This is always annoying if you’re trying to get to Goodwood or St Mary’s. I’d give a good account of myself on Mastermind with the chosen subject ‘street map of Southampton’ but that’s no use this far out. Anyway, around 1.30pm my daughter Susannah texted Howard D and asked him to back Plutonian in the Newbury Spring Cup. I’d tipped him here and there, as some of you will know.
I couldn’t quite believe the morning price, which was 40/1 in most lists and 50/1 here and there. He was racing over the ‘wrong’ trip, a mile instead of ten furlongs, and had been gelded since last year. Against that, you ignore Charlie Hills at your peril early in the season and the booking of Silvestre de Sousa was interesting, to say the least. All I had to do was walk around to the Nailsea Betfred (40/1, each-way 1/5th the odds the first SIX) but I was looking after Susannah’s little boy before we set off and you know the way it is. Time flies. My only account is with Wilson’s and they certainly weren’t going 40/1.
Anyway, Howard is soon on the case and it’s the biggest certainty since Arkle that he will have doubled the bet if the terms still apply. They nearly do, but not quite. It’s the first five now, but the price is 50/1. And I’m bound to be wrong of course, I must be, and the only worry is that Plutonian will finish a never-dangerous sixth, because Howard will still place the bet.
Remarkably, the Saints (£60 at 13/8 from 17/10 with Wilson’s) score early against Wolves and then make it 2-1 before half-time after the visitors have equalised at a time when they threatened to take control. (This will not be apparent on M of the D later on.) 3.15 comes and goes, there is no message, no brief text and Plutonian has most assuredly finished in the ruck.
Wolves more of less take control early in the second half but we are dangerous on the break and, against the run of play, Shane Long flicks in for 3-1 and they’re effectively beaten despite, to my eye, looking a very good side indeed. Susannah checks her super-sophisticated mobile and the first four come up from the Newbury 3.15, indicating that Marten is spot-on with Chatez. Then come all the others, which we (wrongly) assume to be in finishing order. Anyway, we were only 2-1 up at that stage, which was a good deal more worrying.
We drive home in good spirits, with Premier League football more or less assured for another year and better times ahead, especially if a classy striker arrives in the summer. The big clubs will soon be sniffing around the French right-back Yann Valery, of course, but Saints supporters are so used to it that we don’t bother to think about it any more.
For some reason I didn’t bother to check all the racing results upon arriving home; playing with the little lad again, no doubt. So it came as something of a surprise when, turning on the laptop early on Sunday morning, I see that Plutonian, unbelievably, has finished fifth (25/1 from 40/1 on course). I rummage around for my mobile and there, timed at 3.54pm on Saturday, is the simple message : ‘Well done!!’ A phone call would have reverberated around my chest in the pacemaker area, an odd and vaguely worrying sensation which could have had me thinking about battery life, etc, but a text is a short, sharp note which goes unnoticed in the middle of 30,000 souls, all of them blissfully unaware of this petty drama.
Well, we should all have weekends like this now and again. I can’t actually think of anything that went wrong and I remain on cloud nine. No clouds at Sutton Scotney, of course, where the early evening sun was doing a fine job on the way home.
I think Plutonian will win a good handicap over a mile and quarter, incidentally, though maybe not on the same day the Saints oblige again. Miracles are rare anywhere, and at Sutton Scotney you almost certainly have to settle for one in a lifetime.
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Thursday sees the start of the The Masters. It is the only major that is played at the same venue every year, the iconic Augusta National Course.
The grounds are always in pristine condition, no expense is spared to make this venue one of the most beautiful sporting in the world. The grass is like a carpet. It is perfectly prepared, cut to exact measurements – fairways 3/8th of an inch, second cut which is their rough is 1 and 3/8th inch, green collars ¼ inch and greens are shaved as close as they can get them, 1/8th inch or less.
The second cut was added some years back because it reduced the players’ ability to impart backspin, thus making it more difficult to hold the ball on the fast firm greens. Fairways are always mown in the direction heading towards the tee to reduce roll, it effectively adds to the course’s length, which is now a hugely challenging 7,475 yards. This adds to the advantage of the longer hitters.
Fast, firm greens are really the course’s protection. Although to the naked eye the greens don’t appear so undulating, close inspection shows all the greens are sloping. When these slopes are coupled with the green’s extreme speed, Augusta National provides an extreme examination for the players.
Every green has an underground heating system so the tournament management can control the firmness and speed almost regardless of the weather. Putting is always important in golf tournaments, and it’s generally a premium at Augusta.
The course has evolved over the years. Generally holes have been lengthened and this year is no exception with 40 yards being added to the already difficult 5th hole. It’s now an uphill, 495 yard, par 4 with a huge bunker covering the left hand side of the fairway. The green was already one of the most difficult, making it the 5th most difficult hole. The increased length means very few players, if any, can now take the bunker out of play by driving over it. Driving accuracy will be required, and approach shots will be longer. This hole may well challenge the infamous 11th as the most difficult this year.
The question then comes as to who will win and don the Green Jacket.
The course tests all aspects of a player’s game, including course management, and dare I say it, the player’s intelligence. Course form is important. Longer hitters generally have a greater advantage at Augusta than on most courses because approach shots from closer range have more likelihood of stopping on the firm greens.
It’s always difficult to pick the winner of any golf tournament because there are so many players. Augusta does have a shortened field and has a tradition whereby past champions have an invite until the Committee inform them their standard is no longer good enough, thus you do reduce the players with a real chance to somewhere around 85, compared with around 154 in the other majors. It does give you a slightly better chance. This year, though, has proven difficult for me, primarily because I don’t fancy the favourites.
McIlroy is the favourite at around 8/1 and he has shown excellent form in recent weeks. His driving and iron play is of the highest quality. I do, though, remain concerned about his putting on the super fast greens and therefore can’t fancy him at the price.
Dustin Johnson is great to watch. He is long, possesses great touch but he doesn’t have good course form, so again I prefer to pass over him.
Justin Thomas is also becoming a great player but to date has struggled to cope with the challenge set by Augusta National.
Brooks Koepka, a three-time major winner and one of my favourite players, is slightly out of form at the moment and therefore I can’t recommend him.
Patrick Reed, the defending champion, decided to change his swing and is really struggling to find any form.
Jordan Spieth, a player who excels at the course and is one of the best putters ever to play the game, is also struggling for form. Spieth has played a bit better in this week’s PGA tour event, and just maybe this will kick start his season. I love Spieth at Augusta, he has challenged most years and already has a victory, but you are taking a big chance with his form. At 20/1, he is about right in terms of the market price but I prefer others.
Ricky Fowler is present on the leader boards most weeks but I’m not sure about him at Augusta.
I keep looking at Tiger Woods. It’s barely believable that he has recovered from his serious injuries and mental anguish, but in my opinion he is beginning to look very good. His driving is long, his general game is strong, the only question mark I have relates to his putting. I would not put anyone off him. I thought it was impossible for him to win another major but now I think he can. The dream is on, he just might win, but deep down, I don’t think he will this week.
The European challenge is strong, led by Garcia, Stenson and Molinari. Of the three, Molinari would be my preferred choice based on his solid all-round game, coupled with excellent putting. He could add a Masters to his Open Championship. At 25/1 he is reasonable value, but I think he is not quite long enough to win on this course.
The British challenge is strong too. We have the older guard of Rose, Casey and Poulter together with our young guns of Fleetwood, Fitzpatrick, Pepperell, Wallace and Hatton. I like these young players, they are all promising but, as yet, I’d be surprised if they could win.
Poulter and Casey are in good form and just maybe have outside chances but the one I much prefer is Justin Rose. He is a solid player, has a great temperament, good course form and is a proven winner. I do have a question mark over his putting but I am prepared to take a chance on that and he is one of my two selections. At 16 on Betfair, I think he is good value.
I have always liked Louis Oosthuizen. He has recovered from injury, has good course form and is playing well. He is now trading at 50 on Betfair and he is fair value.
I slightly prefer, though, Mark Leishman who is trading at 60 on Betfair. Leishman has good course form too, is in good form right now and has matured into a top player. He has not won a major championship as yet but at 60 I think he represents good value and he just gets my second selection.
Good luck to all, I’m sure the tournament will be a feast for all golf fans and let’s hope the two selections, Justin Rose and Mark Leishman, give us a run for our money.
I approach the Randox Health Grand National meeting in good heart and good form. Southampton’s victory at Brighton probably means the continuation of Premier League football at St Mary’s, while Right Action’s victory at Doncaster on Sunday bolstered still further my already unshakeable faith in Richard Fahey.
Right Action won the same seven-furlong handicap, with Silvestre de Sousa on board, off 82 last year. He followed up at Catterick, which made things difficult for the rest of the year. Keeping him on the go, Fahey saw his mark drop to 81 in time for last Sunday. De Sousa had not ridden him in any of the 11 races where he was beaten but, surprise surprise, he was back on top on Sunday. Last year Right Action won by three-parts at 8/1, this time it was half a length at 7s. If you look back at the tapes, he hits the front at the same time. It has spoiled me for the rest of the season; I shall miss a few Fahey winners, of course, but not too many.
I feel more affinity for Aintree than Cheltenham, though memories are mixed. During my time at BBC Radio, Des Lynam presented the Grand National programme on Radio 2 until 1984, when Mike Ingham took over. I was fortunate enough to bump into Richard Shaw, Hallo Dandy’s owner, the night before and he spent part of the evening with us. Hallo Dandy won at 14/1 and it was a perfect result for Mike, who did all his homework but was (and is) a football man.
More recently, I fronted the Friday pre-race dinner at the Holiday Inn, an event organised by former Merseyside copper Peter Hart, a lovely man. Cancer took him very swiftly a few years ago and when he rang me near the end it was to say he’d been turned away because he wasn’t strong enough to take the chemotherapy. A die-hard Evertonian, his ashes are kept in a special room they have at Goodison Park.
When it comes to happier memories, Echo and the Bunnymen and John Oaksey are right up there, together with Alexei Sayle and Ma Egerton. I’m still rather fond of David Icke and Frank Windsor, as well.
The night before the 1982 Grand National, Grittar’s year, animal rights protesters set fire to two of the fences and Margaret Thatcher sent the troops to the Falklands, thereby upstaging Ken Bates, who bought Chelsea for a pound.
It was a time when people who knew a little about these things would tell you the Bunnymen were the second-best band to emerge during Liverpool’s extended golden era. Everyone crowded into Brian’s Diner, the group’s favourite café, where coffee soon arrived if you didn’t mind waiting an hour or so.
I don’t work at Aintree these days, which means I can go to St Mary’s for the Liverpool game on Friday. I used to head for Ma Egerton’s on Pudsey Street or there was a place in Birkenhead where they used to run a Billy Fury competition. If I’d chosen When Will You Say I Love You? instead of Halfway To Paradise, I feel I might have nicked it instead of coming third. Obviously you’ll say it hardly matters thirty years on, but if they allowed lingering regret as a subject on Mastermind I’d be a 10/11 chance.
Ma Egerton’s (was?) opposite the Empire Theatre, a famous old music hall venue. Dr Crippen’s wife used to drop in; she sang under the name Belle Elmore, or at least she did until the doctor decided she was surplus to requirements in 1910. Legend has it that he visited the pub before fleeing to America but Ma, no mean performer herself, shopped him to the police and was therefore instrumental in his capture and execution.
No doubt lots of other people saw John Oaksey dance but I’m probably the only person still alive to have witnessed it in the commentary box. He did well to make it in the first place, because in 1982 Aintree had a long, long way to go and there were still ‘danger’ signs here and there on the roof of the County Stand.
Anyway, the Noble Lord started bouncing up and down in sheer delight as soon as Grittar went clear. I suppose, as a very talented amateur rider himself, he was thrilled to see Mr Dick Saunders become the oldest winning rider at 48. Unfortunately the ancient commentary box had been constructed along Heath Robinson lines, there was a sloping floor and John’s erratic progress carried him across Peter Bromley’s line of vision.
“Most unprofessional thing I’ve ever seen and I shall be taking it to the highest level”, the commentator said afterwards. It never happened. Peter was a lovely man and his bark was far worse than his non-existent bite, though when he threatened people it was generally with the name of someone quite close to Lord Reith. Happy enough with a winning favourite at 7/1, I nodded sympathetically. I can do the furrowed brow bit, no problem.
Frank Windsor (‘it’s time to think about those final expenses’) was DS John Watt in Z cars from 1962 but I liked him best as the harassed, well-intentioned paterfamilias in the film Sunday Bloody Sunday, which captures perfectly the easy-going liberalism, the amiable household clutter of the comfortably-off in Hampstead and its environs. I shan’t bore you with any more stories about the film.
Frank was at Aintree in ‘82 and so was David Icke, the former goalie turned would-be seer and evangelist who predicted that Mount Rainier in the USA would explode, followed by the Channel Tunnel and Naples Cathedral. You may laugh and shake your head but that merely puts you in the same camp as the Pharisees and Sadducees all those years ago and they’re not laughing now, are they?
Grittar triumphed a few months before Alan Bleasdale’s seminal television drama Boys from the Blackstuff underlined chronic unemployment on Merseyside, especially within the building industry. Yozzer Hughes – ‘Gizza job!’ – and his gang became national heroes for a while.
Sensing that trendy Londoners would soon be taking the mickey, Alexei Sayle recorded ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?’ which effectively debunked flash Essex boys long before Essex girls became famous.
I don’t suppose he’ll be there on Saturday and nor will a few other faces from the old days. I don’t really enjoy it if I’m not working and it’s a few years since I backed the winner although I edge towards nine-year-olds (whose overall record is pretty impressive) and something around the 10st 6lb mark. So it’ll have to be Singlefarmpayment, which would be fair enough at 50/1 and would finally reward trainer Tom George, who has saddled Saint Are to finish second and third in recent years. I don’t think Tiger Roll is handicapped out of it (unlike many previous winners) but his price is bordering on the ridiculous.
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It becomes increasingly difficult to revisit old haunts. Bringing up a granddaughter for the past four years – Matilda leaves with our son James (her father) for Taiwan, where he has a teaching post, in July – means additional driving duties, after-school activities, judo and all the rest of it.
Entirely ‘free’ days are few and far between, which seems odd at 70. Only yesterday I lost a bit more work but that hardly frees me up for detailed study of the Placepot in various hostelries miles from here. One can’t just disappear, though John Stonehouse, an old boy of my school, did. The Placepot wasn’t uppermost in his mind, of course, he just wanted to avoid arrest for fraud and other misdemeanours.
He made it to Australia after faking a suicide in Florida, where leaving a neat pile of clothes on the beach was a bit of a giveaway. No one believes a would-be suicide would choose being eaten by sharks. Old John was a bit unlucky, though. ‘The quiet Englishman’ was reported to the Aussie rozzers, who thought he might be Lord Lucan. Imagine their excitement! But apparently Lucan had a birthmark or some sort of blemish high up on his thigh. John had to drop his strides. He was clean in that respect if no other, no birthmark no world exclusive, but they asked him a few tricky questions and he was sent back to Britain to serve an eight-year term. He died in 1988.
Where was I? Ah yes, the Placepot. I suppose my favourites for detailed analysis, leaving aside the Platform in Southampton because it’s too far from Salisbury, meaning I have to stay there, are the Anglesey Arms at Halnaker close to Goodwood and the Regency Tavern in Brighton. Of course, there’s the other Anglesea Arms off the Fulham Road, where the Great Train robbers are said to have drawn up their final plans, but you need to allow for the traffic if heading for Kempton so the Pope’s Grotto in Twickenham is a better bet.
The Flask in Hampstead would have been absolutely perfect for Ally Pally and old Thames Trader winning the last race. Peter O’Sullevan would nap him in the Daily Express, you know, even at 1 to 3, because he wouldn’t countenance a long losing run, which never happened.
I was only thinking about Hampstead because Murray Head turned up in a an episode of Vera on ITV the other night. I couldn’t work out which one was him and that’s hardly surprising because he was in Sunday Bloody Sunday, the quintessential north London film, all barmitzvahs and Cosi Fan Tutte, as long ago as 1971. Glenda Jackson was good in it but Peter Finch, a doctor and Murray’s other lover, was brilliant and you should make a point of seeing his closing piece to camera. ‘I only came about my cough’. You’ll understand when you see it.
I don’t think you need any more on Cheltenham. The nap Hazel Hill won and Benie Des Dieux should have done. Just two things. Poker Player ran away with a handicap hurdle at Uttoxeter on Saturday after finishing second at Exeter. Just behind him that day was Tom George’s Boyhood, who ran no race in the Pertemps Final. He was trying to give Poker Player 18lb at Exeter so Cheltenham can’t possibly be his form. Watch out for him and put Back To The Thatch in your diary for the Coral Welsh National many months hence. The form book will not reveal that he ran a blinder in the Midlands National until tiring and falling at the last. He wants up to three and three-quarter miles, not four plus and Henry Daly is the man to place him to advantage.
Sorry, three things. The certainty of the year has come and gone, Alan King’s Eyes Right hacking up in a Southwell bumper at evens on Monday. Maybe Oakley Brown wasn’t going to get enough chances with Richard Fahey or maybe his weight is a slight concern on the Flat. But he is a former pony racing champion, still a teenager and very, very good indeed. Whether he will quickly adjust to jumps, having moved to King, I can’t say. But he claimed the full 10lb, riding for what is now his own stable, on Monday and is a gift in bumpers from now on, claiming 7lb against his seniors. Watch out for the trainer using him very carefully and cleverly.
I was going to call the lad ‘golden’ Brown but I think that may have other connotations. The Stranglers, perhaps. Do try to keep up.