The Punter’s Blog: A Partial Switch of Emphasis

16th December 2020: A Partial Switch of Emphasis

IN NO particular order: the Spice Girls, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay. In my opinion, these are the three worst things ever to have happened to British popular music.

Guarantee you, all over the UK, there are singers who think they are better than the Spice Girls. And a lot of them are. There are musicians, who reckon they’re better than Sheeran. And a lot of them are. There are groups, who feel they should be where Coldplay are – but while Chris Martin and co went on world tours pre-coronavirus, some of those we’re-better-than-that-lot groups probably got one pub gig (if that) and never played live again. They wonder what they’ve got to do to make it, while Sheeran, etc. made the most of their one lucky break. Sheeran started out busking – I’ve heard better buskers at Liverpool Street station.

More of that later but first, back to better times as Summer turned to Autumn, nothing was getting top of me, and I made my own bad luck.

Your Busman’s Holiday Is Over
There was a bit of bad news on the work front. The 6am-starts were coming to an end, and I was asked to revert to the old 08:00 to 16:30-hours. In the interests of professionalism, that meant no more betting on weekdays. When you work from home, as I still am for the foreseeable, you may find it easier if you concentrate on your job, and not squeeze in five minutes of housework, or look at Oddschecker on your phone, during working hours. The racing’s still on in the background, but there are some busy days when I watch less racing at home during working hours, than I would if I was actually in the office.

A spreadsheet was prepared for the Lartigue Hurdle at Listowel in September on what was my last week of the early-shift. As I had done before, I played careful and made this-one-or-that-one decisions. It cost me dear as Politicise, the one I left out, took the win.

Next throw: Saturday October 3rd, the three-mile handicap hurdle at Gowran Park. I’ve learnt my lesson now. Five horses highlighted; five horses backed each way. Five nowheres.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now know why I was destined to lose that race from the start. The two horses the bookmakers kept on the right side went one-two, and have they gone on to better things or what… The runner-up Flooring Porter (4/1 to 3/1), despite having won at right-handed tracks before, hung so badly left that he was near-unrideable before and after the last – back on a left-handed track, at Navan on December 5th, he utterly hosed up in a Grade B three-mile handicap hurdle with, judged on the style marks, plenty in hand. Surely connections have to get him qualified for the Pertemps Final, but the BHA-mark he’ll get might well be on the high side.

The winner, Streets Of Doyen (9/4 to 5/2), went on to complete a four-timer, which culminated at Cheltenham in October. Same for that one, though you fancy in the match, going left-handed, Flooring Porter would come out on top.

October 10th was the following Saturday, which meant Chepstow’s traditional jumps season-opener. This overrated meeting fell to bits, as the ground dried out and horse after horse was withdrawn, and although the official going was left at good, for all intents and purposes it was good to firm, and the Silver Trophy was reduced from an 18-runner belter to an 11-runner take-it-or-leave-it renewal. Tea Clipper justified favouritism. I had yet more nowheres. We’ll catch up with the second Flash The Steel later.

And I beat myself up about doing nothing with the two-mile three-furlong handicap chase. This, too, was reduced to a waste of time-sort of race, only seven facing the starter – but it had occurred to me that, from having no chance on Friday night, Pink Eyed Pedro suddenly had a cracking chance with all the non-runners. The going was actually in his favour, and he had a terrific record on two-straight-lines galloping left-handed tracks – one win at each of Chepstow, Ffos Las and Worcester. I didn’t have a bet, but the 17/2 he started at would have been better than nothing on an otherwise poor day, albeit not that expensive despite the loss.

The following Saturday, we went on a day out – taking great care to socially-distance in Southwold. I recommend going to the seaside in October, you’ll always get a parking space. We really enjoyed the day, and we were back in time for what would have been the focus of the day if I’d been playing – the 4:31 at Market Rasen, the Prelude Handicap Chase. That minute was the difference between just catching the start of the race and missing it – that’s how well these non-standard race times can work. I won it last year on Copper West, but wouldn’t have landed on Fidux this time.

The Autumn Has Landed (Behind Closed Doors)
Nothing like that the following weekend – October 24th meant the first Cheltenham meeting of the season. Time for me to be on my A-game.

I’d take A-minus, but I think I’d give myself an A-plus for how this went. I needed to be patient, though – in the 17-runner Pertemps Qualifier I wanted 12/1 about Honest Vic, and at 3pm I got it. Three others were in after the morning number-crunching – The Devils DropLock’s Corner and Sirobbie. The last-two named ran second and fourth, so in addition to the win with Honest Vic, a chunk of place money meant a lucrative race. If only they could all go this way…

I also landed on West Approach in the three-mile one-furlong handicap chase, but this had a might-as-well-have-been-scripted outcome, Frodon and Bryony Frost in they-shall-not-pass mode, leading to ITV’s Alice Plunkett behaving like she was at a crowded pop concert (probably watching any of the three acts mentioned at the top of this piece), despite it being an empty Cheltenham Racecourse, rather than a packed Wembley Arena. ‘Wooooooo!!!!’

Still, it was a good winning day for me. Er, wooo.

After a tiny loss on races at Down Royal, Wetherby and Ascot on October 31st – a few placed – the next targets were Wincanton and Aintree on the first Saturday in November, and another Pertemps Qualifier at the latter venue. This time not a good one for me, as Unowhatimeanharry rolled back the years.

I was surely doomed before I started in the Badger Beers Chase – it’s Bryony and it’s Present Man, and the going’s good, which is what the horse is best on. Think like that, though, and you’ll win diddly, so I pressed on. Particularly as there was one difference to previous renewals – Present Man wasn’t making his reappearance. He’d come out best – so the judge said – in what was for all intents and purposes a triple dead-heat with Dancing Shadow and Crosspark in a veterans’ chase at the Chepstow October meeting. If, as is usually the case (and I believe his trainer Paul Nicholls has said as much in the past), the Badger Beers’ was Present Man’s Gold Cup, why did he run at Chepstow?

There were a few I wanted to keep on the right side, including El Presente, who’d done well over the Summer, and Potterman, who chased home Secret Investor at Chepstow and might benefit from going right-handed. The back-price came in at 10/1 and I was only too pleased to be able to include those two in my positions, along with Just A Sting and Sizing At Midnight.

Sizing At Midnight’s fall at the third last meant that a potential 18/1 winner wasn’t going to happen, but a couple of fallbacks were on their way forward – and when My Way, who’d been left clear, made a mistake at the second last, it looked like El Presente and Potterman might get to him. They swamped him after the last, and El Presente just got the verdict in the photo.

A Late Reappraisal
When I first crunched the numbers prior to the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham the following Saturday, not a lot was going on and I was definitely more likely to lose – but then I changed things up.

There’d been rain during the day, and watching the first few races, the going was clearly soft and getting softer. On the original spreadsheet I’d had the Market Rasen winner Fidux as a contender, but I’d concluded that good to soft or good ground was important to him. Given the changing conditions I felt I had to re-calculate the race, making Fidux a no-chance and increasing my percentages on others. The revised back-price was 11/1, and Slate House and Coole Cody were in. Now I fancied my chances. Fidux was a late withdrawal in the end.

In the race itself I anything but fancied my chances when Coole Cody slipped on landing at the fourth, then seemed lit up by the riderless Siruh Du Lac haring off ahead, while the others I’d backed did nothing – but he stayed on in front gamely to land the prize, helped a great deal I’m sure by his nearest pursuers being Spiritofthegames and Sky Pirate, neither of whom find the necessary when it’s time to get down and dirty – ‘no way, I’ve got enough mud on my nose already’.

And that was as good as it would get for a while.

It’s All On Top Of Me Again
I tell you this: I don’t do inconvenience. Just because I’m working at home, doesn’t mean stuff I could do without goes away. We’re embarking on home improvements pre-Christmas – let’s put it this way, if it was up to me we wouldn’t be having any. The Christmas tree went up early (who’s not doing that during the pandemic – that I get). One week I was asked to work later hours, which I could have done without, and there were roadworks outside the house, meaning we couldn’t get the car on the drive at one point.

And the haymaker of inconveniences… Racing TV were running the Tipstar-competition again.

All this at a point when my betting was a bit gone, and I was considering how to approach the end of the year. I’d taken a hit in September and October and, though it remained an up-year, it wouldn’t take many more washouts to go from profit to flat-line, or even loss. Now, somewhere along the line, I wanted to squeeze making the Tipstar-videos into what little time I had. 

The next Saturday, which was also the first of the three Tipstar-weekends, was the Betfair Chase-meeting at Haydock, and a good meeting at Ascot. I quickly put a line through Ascot as it looked uncompetitive, and closed in on the two competitive handicap hurdles on the Haydock-card.

Tipstar Week 1 – Deyrann De Carjac
In a good graduation chase I felt Master Tommytucker should be taken on, as the only evidence that he’d turned the corner as regards his jumping was a two-runner race at Huntingdon. Deyrann De Carjac‘s strong novice chase-form had been franked by the likes of Pym, Whatmore and El Presente, last season and this, but morning rain wasn’t in his favour and he was pulled up in the home straight.

The two-mile four-furlong handicap hurdle was the first betting activity, and Flash The Steel,  who’d run well to chase home Tea Clipper at Chepstow, headed up a team of three who turned red on the spreadsheet. Everything was going swimmingly when he fell at the first hurdle on the back straight, and my others were out of the frame.

That left it to the Grade 3 staying handicap hurdle. One of the favourites, Relegate, was good to take on as she was a hard ride, unlikely to turn up on the scene until it was too late. Among my four positions were Kalashnikov, who on pedigree looked likely to stay three miles, and West To The Bridge, a hold-up horse who just might find the race coming back to him if they went fast enough.

But again, with the benefit of hindsight, I was doomed before I started. This race had Main Fact in it, a dual-purpose horse who at first looks like he’s taking no interest, then comes to life in the last three furlongs. Too short to back on my prices, as had become usual he came to life late on, and left them behind in the last hundred yards to get his ninth successive win, Flat and hurdles. Kalashnikov didn’t get home and West To The Bridge, after coming with a bridle-move, didn’t stay on when shaken up – that’s the trouble with these hold-up types, if the jockey as much as nudges the reins, they don’t do anything at the business end. Serves me right perhaps.

Needless to say, I didn’t get through to the Tipstar-final – still not even getting a pub-gig.

Tipstar Week 2 – Secret Investor
After Haydock went wrong, this was when I started to consider whether or not to make December a ‘dry’ month, if the Ladbrokes Trophy-meeting at Newbury was another bad one for me. I decided on an eggs-in-one-basket strategy. Not only would the Ladbrokes Trophy itself be the sole betting focus, although other competitive handicaps were on the card and presented possibilities – it would be what my Tipstar-selection was running in.

The choice was Secret Investor, who’d bossed the three-mile handicap chase at Chepstow and goes well on good ground, which it was going to be at Newbury.  In a rare move I took a price on Friday morning, getting 12/1.

So then what happened? Secret Investor was pretty much the only horse his trainer Paul Nicholls talked about on his Betfair-blog. Other Tipstar-entrants tipped it, the 12/1 went, and suddenly this wasn’t looking that smart. So much for not saying what everyone else says – I was saying exactly what everyone else was saying.

Events on the day just beat me up in the head. I was feeling several grapes short of a bunch, that was for sure – work had never been busier, the roadworks, the different hours, the odd headache – and my head started to spin, thinking about what I could have done differently.

The outcome of the two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle drove a metaphorical stake through my heart. In a race I never even looked at, when normally it would be a go-to race of a Saturday – a 12-runner Class 2 handicap – there he was, the one and only Flash The Steel, going every bit as well as he had done when falling at Haydock a week ago, and taking his revenge on Tea Clipper, at a starting price of 12/1.  He surely wouldn’t even have run if he’d completed at Haydock.

It was quickly followed by another knockdown – guess I’ve got something in common with Kubrat Pulev. At least I only deal with the mental side, not the physical pain inflicted by Anthony Joshua on Pulev, but it’s hard enough, and goes with the territory when you’re betting seriously.

Being on a Nicky Henderson-trained apparent second string has worked for me in the past, and it didn’t go unnoticed by some that Floressa had won at the meeting in 2019, and had a case-for in the race that used to be the Gerry Feilden. In she went, at an SP of 10/1 – so that’s two things I could have done and won on.

In the Floressa-race Secret Investor’s jockey, Harry Cobden, took a bit of a pasting when unseated from Thyme White just after the second last, and was stood down for the day. They rearranged the jockeys on the Nicholls-runners in the Ladbrokes Trophy; Bryony Frost rode Danny Whizzbang, and Sean Bowen – who was due to ride that one – switched to Secret Investor.  Bowen had been second and first on the horse the only two times he’d ridden him, but he hadn’t partnered him in a race since April 2018, Cobden having ridden him on his last ten outings.

A plethora of mistakes culminated in a bad one at the third last – when, to be fair, he’d moved into fourth place – and he dropped away. Up front Cloth Cap, who’d made all and jumped them silly, looked a different animal from the Cloth Cap that I was familiar with. Three knockdowns, each one more severe than the last. Mental angst cubed.

Needless to say, I didn’t get through to the Tipstar final. Guess that pub-audience will never see what I can do.

Tipstar Week 3 – Ga Law
As anxiety/depression/Roy being Roy took hold (the latter for anyone who doesn’t think depression is a thing), for a good while earlier in the week, I wasn’t going to do a video. Instead I was going to tweet something along these lines: ‘A lot of effort has gone into doing these during what has not been a good time mentally, and I haven’t got it in me to do another, so I’m letting it go for now, and I’ll come back strong another time.

Surprise surprise, that idea was shelved. I had a change of heart, and put up Ga Law in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown. It was lip service, though. Whereas in the first week I displayed a Tipstar-ised version of the website badge on a TV screen behind me, this time I dressed down in a tatty jacket, and had just a plain wall for the background. I felt the tip was credible all the same – what was wrong with an unexposed winning novice chaser, who’d done what he’d done with high style marks, who might well be capable of beating Allmankind, and was around the 5/1 mark?

As regards betting, I had a decision to make – and it was an easy one. Whereas my betting had taken flight after a brilliant week in August discussed on the last PLOG, after the batterings over the last fortnight, the balance was now half-submerged. To preserve a profit, December needed to be a dry betting month.

It illustrates that I’m a changing person, and not just because of the ageing process. Betting on Flat racing and Irish jumping over the Summer had worked. Back in the day August would have been a dry month, but now in 2020 it was one of the two things that made my betting year good – the other was Indefatigable at the Cheltenham Festival. Honest Vic and Coole Cody merely kept me half-afloat.

Not only that, but this is not the first year in which I’ve sensed my enthusiasm for everything, not just racing, diminishing during November and December. I’ve definitely experienced times in those months when I’m just not happy over the last few years, yet I’ve tended to feel better mentally in August and September.

Where racing’s concerned, if you’re a jumps fan you have to be more ‘on it’ simply because there’s more and better racing. It can be a shock to the system. Contrast that with the Summer of 2020, when races I was betting on weren’t high profile and not discussed at length by the media afterwards – everyone just moved on to the next race. In the Autumn, anything winning a novice hurdle at Newbury is talked up as a Cheltenham Festival-contender for at least the next week and a half.

This is one year though, and I see it as a partial, rather than seismic, shift of emphasis – I’m still jumps first. 2021 will be different again, though, and it’s impossible to predict how it’ll go – what racing I’ll be betting on, and when, I couldn’t call it; but now I’m okay about betting on Bellewstown and Killarney in the Summer, it’s clear that my racing doesn’t have to be at Cheltenham. Recent assertions published in the Racing Post that jump racing is becoming too Festival-focused are bang on the money, even if it was a bit rich coming from Allmankind’s trainer Dan ‘two County Hurdles’ Skelton.

I’m not a professional punter – doing it for extra cash if I can pull it off, no biggie in the grand scheme of things if it doesn’t work out – but I do it seriously, and like the pros, I need a break. One’s betting year turning on two or three sublime periods is another thing I think the pros would identify with.

When the time reaches 23:59:59 on December 31st, my balance will be in the black, with a 10.7% return on investment.

As for Ga Law, he could only manage third – it was a good third to Allmankind and I think he’ll win again down the line, maybe back at two and a half miles – but it meant that I didn’t get through to the Tipstar final and, unlike pop superstars the Spice Girls, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay, this racing pundit with more than enough knowledge to crack it is still waiting for that one lucky break.

Is there a bright side? Course there is. If Racing TV run the competition again, COVID-19 will be over. If I’d made the final I’d have taken it of course, but wouldn’t you rather you had a chance of winning it when things were back to normal, or whatever the new normal turns out to be?

Avoiding Burnout
It’s been one strange year. Before the pandemic happened, as discussed on previous PLOGs I’ve had health issues to deal with. Minor in nature – not one of those big things that begin with ‘C’, although one of them (the pre-COVID one) was mooted as a possibility in one consultation – but it’s another C-word that I have to deal with, as I was diagnosed with coeliac disease in late Summer, and earlier in the week that I wrote this, I was told that my blood pressure was through the roof.

Still, coeliac was the worst thing I’ve had to deal with. Why? Not eating anything with wheat or gluten in it isn’t a big deal and I switched from cereal to porridge seamlessly. Not being able to eat the Cartmel Village Shop’s Sticky Toffee Pudding ever again? Different matter. Don’t want to contemplate that. Really hoping that they’ll come up with a gluten free-version.

It also became apparent that I can’t study it in the same way as I’ve been trying to do. Since starting working from home back in March, there’s been more time to do watch back and analyse racing. The work computer was on for 6am and logged off around 1pm, then there’d be a bit of housework, and then study was done (and betting if I’d had something lined up on a weekday). I made masses of notes. I’ll be better prepared for the 2021 Flat season and those tasty staying handicaps than I was for the 2020-one, and I did okay on that.

What made it harder was the change in my working hours. Starting at 8am and finishing at 4:30pm, I’ve got less time for more work. This started just in time for the peak period of the National Hunt season – brilliant timing.

What normally happens is I’m up around 4:30am as I’m a hopeless sleeper, and I have a racing-session then before swapping over to the work-computer, then swapping back around 5pm for a couple of hours, then maybe – but not always – another hour before bedtime. I tried to keep up, but it was hard.

At a guess I’ve got a 70%-full set of notes for British jump-horses that were rated 130 or more, either officially or by me, in October and November (keeping up to date with the Irish had to be mostly jettisoned as it was too much). I’m intending publishing these, as I have done for 2019 and 2020 Cheltenham Festival analysis, and you’ll see a link in the new strap of links at the bottom of the page when that’s live.

Going forward I’ll do less of that for December, because there simply isn’t the time. The way I’ll approach it for January onwards will be to do video-watchbacks and pen pictures for those horses who are entered on Saturdays. Some will be there already and I’ll fill the gaps around them over the week. Around those there’ll be odd other ones that are relevant, so I’ll do enough to stay in the loop. The intention is that come Thursday, or Friday at the latest, all the video-crunching will have been done and all I need to do is to create my spreadsheets for Saturday’s target-races. I’m optimistic that I’ll have a decent grasp of the form for the Cheltenham Festival.

Besides, it’ll all go towards my continued efforts to get that one lucky break.