Royal Ascot – 2015 – The Bookies View

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Driving around Ascot is a pretty harrowing experience- streets full of burnt out Bentleys. Every once in a while you’ll pass a Waitrose, and really know you’re in a bad area.. they don’t do Tesco here – no matter what they make (? insert amount ??)

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The trick to Ascot is finding somewhere convenient to park- there’s an exit one way system which sends you back to Sunninghill (a mile away) via Biddlecombe (286 miles away)-  You have to know the system or you’re stuck in the High Street for several days

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Flick knives and knuckledusters  dutifully handed over, you’re greeted by throngs of gatemen. First thing you notice is how polite they are, they check what socks you’re wearing and smile. You see, at Royal Ascot- everyone feels like a Lord for the day – even if you’re entirely potless. Bookies enter with money, – they’re x-rayed on the way out to ensure they’ve left it all with the punters..

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One enters the truly vast terminal- had it’s detractors when it was built, but these days thanks to ‘green fingers Barnett’ – the place resembles an advert for house and garden. Full of comfy armchairs- nooks and crannies to enjoy your glass of champagne. Uber civilised.Quality extends to every enclosure, a track run by toffs- but to everyone’s benefit – no enclosure escapes the personal touch – and you can escape the beer swilling hordes if that’s your bag

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They don’t do Pomagne here!

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And yes,  they actually serve a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket, not a bag, and with a glass should you so desire. You see, if you’re not at Ascot, York or Goodwood, where they do things with panache- most tracks think you deserve a bowl or tumbler to drink your champagne from.  Odd sort of business plan for your best spending customers wouldn’t you agree? Ascot hasn’t dipped standards to the banal trick of hiding customer service values behind health and safety.  .

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Ascot also don’t do themed evenings for people dressed in football shirts..possibly because they take the view their long standing real racing fans might object to spending their days with Yah Yahs..

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But I digress

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When they rebuilt the old Ascot – some of the members said they’d never return. Well I suppose if you’re pushing up daisy’s and by extension possibly not reading this – that could indeed be true. For the rest of the ‘I’m never going again’ mob – it appears to my inexpert eye, that Ascot have built one of the world’s best sporting arenas –  outstanding restaurants, bars and service. In a racing environment obsessed with sand , it’s refreshing to walk into an Ascot or York where the focus still remains what goes on around the track – not (perhaps) in a betting shop.

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I spot Nick Rust, the new BHA chief exec in the throng – clearly his suit was made for someone bigger – he’s chatting to someone about ‘coming together’. I wonder idly if he’s explaining why they dug up Newcastle to create a terribly interesting series of races in a straight line. For this week though, exceptionally and perenially, we have the best racetrack in the world.

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The first race rolls around – there’s a lump from Hong Kong – ‘Able Friend.’ Our Gallic friends have sent over a Goldikova clone. Most bets are in euros, as the far east specialist proves more suited to racing at the back. Solow wins well and Maxine Guyon flicks a V sign at the toffs as he passes the post. I don’t blame him. The bookmakers rename the winner ‘Sorrow’

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The rest of the day degenerates into the stuff of nightmares for the bookie types as the Festival lurches from Prince this and Queen that . If it’s not the favourite, it’s the galactically talented Ryan Moore sweeping the board. That won’t go down well on the High Street.

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People that know me understand I’m one for speaking plainly. I have listened to several respected scribes eulogising on about the rather evident talents of Mr Moore. Little question he’s probably the most talented jockey we’ve witnessed on the flat. It goes along the lines of ‘isn’t he magnificent? What a rider! And to those that know him – apparently quite a wit’

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Well, to the rest of us, who’d rather a jockey smile when he nails a Derby – he’s a thoroughly morose character – he doesn’t endear himself – nor promote the sport that makes him several millions in any way, shape or form. So no, I don’t find him admirable as a human being. Two weeks ago, we saw a brilliant horse take a Derby with a pilot who will do more for headlining the sport than Golden Horn himself. Leaping out of the saddle and engaging the crowd. That cost me a rake, but I smiled when I saw it. That’s what the fans want – not the taciturn one. He’s for betting – not for Racing. Shape up Ryan! Dettori, McCoy, Hughes, Walsh amongst many happily give of their time –  you can’t manage a smile??

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When you look at the results, you could easily conclude they didn’t look that bad for the bookies, but I suppose it was the combination of several favourites going in – and if they got beat, it was either Moore or Dettori on top. Thursday I think was the most entertaining betting day – with Moore bashing the firms with a 14/1 opener followed by a 5/1 winner. Payouts could potentially dwarf the Mullins quad at Cheltenham.. (Thanks Annie)

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One major off course layer went into hyper drive sending nearly a quarter of a million back for Kingfisher in the Gold Cup- all those 10p accumulators, at guaranteed odds, I expect suddenly come to haunt. This time it was Maxine Guyon to the bookies’ rescue as he held Moore on his inside – causing him to switch paths at the critical stage. For me the week’s unlucky loser. For the major bookie involved- several pence retained on their share price. I expect they were not alone in hiding under their sofas as Kingfisher turned for home..

Racing festivals haven’t been that great for the firms over the last few years. Most lead with fabulous offers and price boosts created by their marketing departments. Combine that with a dip in on course margins – polarisation of expensive horses shared by a select few jockeys and trainers, and you have a problem for those betting on the product. Expect you’re reaching for a Kleenex right about now

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Racing starts every day with a race for the Royals from the mile start in their fancy carriages. Now I’ve watched this for more years than I can remember- never once has anyone tried to pass the one in front. Surely I can’t be the only one who’s spotted the biggest bunch of non triers in racing?? Fair enough, they put on a good show, the whole event surely organised to give the bookies another betting heat to do their brains in – namely the colour of the Boss’s hat. But I’d like to see more effort from those in behind..I know I speak for all concerned who back the second carriage every year

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God save our Queen..you won’t see a pageant like that at Goodison Park..a uniquely British summer scene.

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I took one wander down from the Royal enclosure towards the Silver Ring. Ascot is so vast, the silver ring is nearer to Egham. As enclosures go, it’s really quite well turned out. I walk as far as is possible before the waft of chips overtake that of Chanel.. There are bookies all the way down the racetrack, making noise, taking bets. I wonder what will happen to the very flavour of racing when the tracks inevitably take over the betting. Don’t think we don’t know what you’re about, with your expansive plans for data charges etc etc – we’re on to your tricks!

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Racetrack bet however, could do well at the festivals, I don’t think the punters are in any way price savvy, we know that from Chester – they just want service. But the diet of midweek racing we’re fed by tracks-horsemen-BHA, has leant itself to poor attendances from both customers and bookmakers. What’s the future without the ring? My dream we wake up before it’s all too late – the major betting firms have deserted racing for football and roulette. I suppose then the sand will go back to the bunkers. No Big Jim, Barry Dennis, Victor Chandler

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Imagine a world where an exec at Channel 4 suddenly decides the network should quit racing, in the face of the often ridiculous criticism of a show affording the sport 44 cameras and the best coverage it has ever experienced. By comparison the BBC with its almost ‘cottage’ coverage. Racing feeds the network a diet of 5 runner group races almost weekly and wonder why the numbers are down- then makes it awkward for them to show alternate meetings in its coverage and ignores Channel 4 in any decision making processes at the highest level. Remember,  they can make more money for less hassle from ‘Everyone loves Raymond.’. Don’t think the BBC will come back to save Racing from itself – they barely mention the National

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Racing has an awful lot invested in very few options. Royal Ascot is amazing, but if Aston Villa play Scunthorpe it’s likely to pull in more sponsors, viewers and press coverage. The next few weeks Racing will go into its shell from Sunday to Friday, bang on 7 meetings on the Saturday, and bolster attendances with pop concerts and a grotesque obsession with selling as much beer as possible. Hmm, get back to the Racing. Ascot leads for me with the right balance and never loses sight of its focus on the Sport

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It’s not supportable, but with a regulator fascinated by commerce, rather than how is the sport best served and gels together, – a board of novices to do as they’re told? As Nick Rust so accurately describes- the underlying trends are declining. He’s just not going to do anything about it. Sorry Nick, I don’t do sound bites. I did enjoy your BHA seminar though, with Rod Fabricious harking on about artificial insemination.. not sure who he wanted impregnated though..

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Fortunately there’s enough quality in York, Goodwood, Cheltenham, Chester and Ascot to name a few to keep British Racing at the very top of the world order, British racing has a unique calendar of major Festivals. I wonder if there’s an RCA man reading this, sympathetic to the view most racetracks are struggling with an identity crisis? A racetrack, a greyhound track or just a vast pub. Here’s one to mull over – try proper segregation of long standing racing fans, who don’t feel to have beer spilt over their girlfriends, or even the often threatening environment, from the oiks that do, – rather than selling all in sundry a pass to the members enclosure, keep some areas with civilised folk in mind. Possible? I think also a lot of racetracks need to integrate their thinking with the words ‘social responsibility’ rather than ‘sales’

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Early evenings at Ascot are spent gate crashing car park parties and pretending you’re one of the owners. Everyone standing quaffing champagne, leaning on their Astons, in an age old and endearing slice of the great meeting. It’s my time to get asked by people stuffed with my cash, how much I’d won that day.. (where’s that sharp knife?) Everyone turns up without being invited – ‘Who ARE you – and why are you stealing my champagne?’

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How good was the meeting? Well to my mind pretty outstanding. How does it compare to Cheltenham? Well they’re rather chalk and cheese. Ascot is very much more about the social scene. But there’s no loss in focus on the racing. Quipco have stepped in. There’s a new Group one sprint attracting foreign raiders that really works. It has management focussed on quality at every turn. Entrance charges to the meeting aren’t steep – considering what is delivered. Cheltenham has a different feel. Far more the betting event, with months focussed on it’s feature races. The two great events provide balance. Is it a bit toffee nosed? I don’t think so, sure the babies are on Smoked Salmon, and they tow away Ford Escorts, but one has to keep the Riff-Raff out 🙂

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See you at York – could it possibly get any better?
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The 2015 cheltenham festival – the grubbie bookie’s view

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I suppose all racing fans grew up with great memories of Cheltenham in March. I recall as a boy, betting in the underaged class, on the Cheltenham rail into the members enclosure, nobody was surprised in those days to be served by a 13 year old – that you just couldn’t move for the absolute crush of humanity. Most of whom appeared to be called Mick. Although a few were Paddy’s. These days we’d invent a quango to count them by age, sex, social class and type of BMW

I prepare for Cheltenham months in advance by calling up the babestation offices to see if any of their talent is free. I got one. Brandy Brewer was her stage name. I think we should all have stage names, don’t you agree? So we downloaded an app (and you said I was a dinosaur?) put in our names and received new ‘porn star’ equivalents. I was Dan Cucumber. I was quite pleased with that.

I added two more lusty girls, bearing in mind sex sells. That I have absolutely no morals whatsoever. That it would upset the gambling commission. That some fellahs would hang around even after I’d emptied all their pocket change, asking daft questions like – how big are they when they’re out? You get the picture

Just in case any mary Whitehouse types were lurking, I threw in a couple of old grizzlies who have worked for me forever and never break a nail. We jumped into our Bentleys for the Cotswolds. And Mulllins.

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It’s all about Mullins you see. Henderson has voted himself a non runner these days, as he declares the entire season to date as ‘soft’. The galactacos of racing who’ve won very little of late. One day they’ll whisper in his ear that cotton wooling of stars is a miserable failure, horses need to race, and the giant that is Seven Barrows will wake up to find Paul Nicholls has been eating his lunch for months. I’d like to see that, Henderson is a decent chap and we desperately need competition

The run up to the great party gives our beloved journalists to call up their three favourite trainers. Pre requisite to any convo is to get in early and often the phrase ‘it’s a privilege’ – or you’re struck off ze list of approved hacks. Lesser trainers don’t have phones and who’s interested in Hobbs or Bradstock anyway?

ATR extend ‘Bookie hour’ to a 3 hour slot daily. Tarts..

It was all about Faugheen, Vautour, Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Annie Power and Don Poli. Throw in Peace and Co for good measure. The average SP of the first 4 mentioned this year in all races? 3/10. Gripping stuff we’ve been treated to. Thanks Willie- you deserve a few quid extra in your wages at Cheltenham

Of course we know now – only one got beat, courtesy of the biggest howler in racing for many a years as she grinned at the crowd and paddled the last. Been a long time since I heard such a moan. Genuine shock – the biggest fail at the Festival since I tried chatting up Emma Spencer. Multiple bets up and down the land were waiting on her due diligence. Walsh set it up and she fluffed her lines

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There will be those of you, reading this, who take the view betting is the dirty end of the sport. That it’s all about breeding and the majesty of the horse. You’re the type who adores a 5 runner race. You don’t care if Faugheen is 1/6 as he powers away from horses two stone inferior. You don’t care if The New One or Annie Power are doing the same in Haydock or Leopardstown. It’s all magnificent.

Actually, you’re already dead and on the Eastbourne hall of fame. Check yourself

Well for those of you who don’t care about betting or the bookies, give yourself a pinch. Because I assume you care about the finances underpinning the sport? You want owners properly rewarded, yes? Well to educate you, the Levy Board was about to have a crisis meeting had Annie duly obliged, such would the whole have been in the finances of the sport.

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(so good – I put it in twice..)

You see, racing is about the punters – they fund it. You think Steve Harman’s ‘racing right’ is coming to save you? Ha! The commercial acumen in racing has always lain with the bookies. They did their stones at Royal Ascot, King George and sundry other ‘biggies’. But you’re looking at their bottom lines – aren’t you?

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Modern racing festivals these days in betting terms are characterised by ‘offers’. Credit to some firms ie Betfair (did I just plug Betfair? I need a shower! Who described their offers as what they were- free bets. Companies who did not distinguish themselves led by Paddy Power and Boylesports, who fronted with money back offers – that were nothing of the kind. I think this odious practice should be stopped. Cats being kicked into trees has to stay 🙂

On the plus side, firms like Paddy Power are giving their customers some amazing offers – I’ve never seen the likes of some of the deals they do, even if you’re only getting an extra bet, it’s still a lot more than in days of yore. What concerns me, is they’re mainly targeted at racing. It simply cannot be good for the sport for the number one festival the vehicle for ‘new business,’ rather than profiting from the racing itself. Take Peace and Co for example. A rock solid 2/1 chance for months- 4/1 in the morning. Not good, not good at all.

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Thursday morning, Brandy broke a nail. It was so sudden I don’t think any of us expected it. The wailing and sobbing was akin to Annie Power’s departure from the festival. One moment – ten perfect porcelein fakes – the next- nine., Brandy wasn’t in the best of spirit. Punters were clambering over each other – not for her – but to press guinness sodden fivers in her hand for horses, fart and leave. What’s this about? This never happened at Babestation. She only had to flash her tatas and the phones would buzz. Anyway, to her eternal credit, this girl has guts for sure, she knuckled down and gave Vicky (AKA – Ritzy Jiggler) and Stephanie (Tara Cream) a hand in fending off the drunken. Some of which were bookies, a lot appeared to be jilted ex’s of Stephanie. Brandy will be back next year to entertain the masses we hope

In keeping with gambling commission edict 198.259 sub section 5 ‘dealing with total morons’ – we checked with everyone if they were over the age of 13 and not in fact in the paid employ of the commission itself trying to catch us out.

By Friday morning – I was in a shell shocked state, given depressing results, and the prospect of shaming myself on the Morning Line Saturday- my office had taken the phones off the hook and the website down. Come back Ffos Las, all is forgiven. Results outside the championship races were pretty fair – especially the ridiculous plunge on China Doll in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Surely more likely to pull up than compete seriously?

It was a festival for the new. The performance of the meeting wasn’t the unchallenged Vautour for me – nor Faugheen, but the Denman-esque performance of Conygree. By the start of the 2nd circuit, he had many class performers firmly off the bridle. He quite simply ran them all into the ground. And who WAS that jockey??

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Surely the BHA should lamp Bradstock with a 60 day ban for ‘upstaging Mullins’? Well done to the authority, however, for having the last ‘laugh’ as usual and a whip ban in the gold cup to a lesser jockey – they never disappoint

Was it the best Festival in modern times? – that’s hard to say, Loads of talking points.  it certainly was out with the old and in with the new. Everyone knows I worry about the all enveloping nature of it. Months of discussing five runner graded events and odds on chances is something a caring authority wants to take very seriously, with the prospect of a repeat next year.
I have one suggestion, which will have some people nodding in approval, the purists in horror,  and the BHA copping a deaf un. That Mares race. 6 years in a row a grade one animal reducing the worst rated event at the meeting to somewhat of a procession. Not really the point is it? Not good for the finances non plus. Perhaps an upper rating level of some description? We all know Annie Power will line up again next year – but in reality she should be in the World Hurdle, and not hiding away in selling class.      NAP

I always mention the whiners. Taking a break from the Betfair Forum. Those who moan about Channel 4’s coverage could only be uber impressed at some of the amazing images treated to our screens, the features, the slo mo’s. Fine, I’m an occasional guest, but I’m entitled to an opinion and in comparison to the beeb? No comparison. Enjoy the float race Clare. Dreadful choice over the Grand National, really it is. But we’ll have Luck and Gok- fair trade.

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And finally, yes, you made it. To one jockey. Given the amounts of cash I’ve heaved out over the years over this man, the times I’ve cursed the man, you might be surprised I’m as teary as the rest of you at the departure of a legend. I think to put it into some kind of perspective,  the British public admire most the total and unadulterred energy he put into every ride. His iron will over sometimes doubtful horses. It’s a shame Jonjos stable has been in such miserable form this season or he would have signed off with more winners. AP has carried himself wih humility and class and gave every punter 100% commitment. That’s why they love him. And I will very much miss the very engine of National Hunt Racing.

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL – POST MORTEM FROM A LEADING LAYER

Horse Racing - 2012 Cheltenham Festival - Day Four - Cheltenham Racecourse

Bankers. We used to count the banker material in the car with my Dad on the way down to Cheltenham. It was our benchmark to success at the meeting. And that was the word- success, because losing at the Festival was a non runner for Bookies such as John Banks.

The environment has changed. I don’t use betting exchanges to price up my book, I value opinion over trading between Bots and the numpties. I’m very much in the minority. Modern day Bookmakers can’t see past exchanges, trading every penny they take, offering a very poor service to the customer, which starts with uniformity of odds. We have to thank Rob Hughes, casting vote chairman of the Levy Board for introducing exchanges to rings – now decimated. Bookies have become their own worst enemy.

Me? I expect to win by taking the aggressive line.  No, I didn’t offer ten pound bets on Sprinter Sacre at Evens, but then I’m not running a casino. I don’t study a yard of form pre-festival. It clouds my plans. If I sat up all night studying form, I’d surely end up with the same book of hotpots as the punters do. Dynaste, Quevega, Hurricane Fly, Bobs Worth and Simonsig. My job is to get them beat.

Tuesday rolls in, starting well for the Books, with the hard pulling My Tent Or Yours looking assured for victory, outbattled by Champagne Fever. Last year we started poorly and never looked back. This year was more muddled. Wins for Simonsig, Hurricane Fly and Quevega placed the straight bat layers behind the 8 ball. We lost- solidly. The bright spot? Handicaps. Result after result all week penned the punters back..

Wednesday, gloomy lot of Bookies clutched defeat from the jaws of victory in the first, with Back In Front rallying. Groans and queues around the Centaur for payouts. I employ 3 people to just pay out the cash, which by nature is more time consuming than accepting a bet – it wasn’t enough! The office rang – running up bets onto Irish wonderhorse- Pont Alexandre in the next. This from multiple bets onto Back In Focus and yesterdays ‘heroes’. How much do we have it for I ask? ‘Don’t ask’, says my senior trader, we’re behind the sofa in here. Talking horse-not wonderhorse. And it kicks off panic with the punters. They barely scrape a return in another race for two days. Who cares about Sprinter Sacre? Not the Bookies-they ignore him. Ooh aaah, well done, move on.

Round after round to the Bookies continued through Thursday. Had you asked me to write down my own set of results, I couldn’t have penned a better set of results. It was embarrassing, – well almost embarrassing. Thursday night we celebrated, care of the Richard Power firm in Cheltenham. Smiles all round and stories of derring do and how what looked on paper a punters festival, had turned so much to us. We were well in front.

Friday. Hmmm. I remember thinking I would coast round, secure that even if the results were similar to Tuesday, we couldn’t finish behind on the meeting now. That’s not to say I intended backing off and hogging the pot. Oh No! not my way at all. I’m too daft to do that..Punters on the ropes and down. I was going to put my heel gently on their necks. Hard to remember a thought proven more wrong, as result after calamitous result ensued. The worst of which for me was Salsify in the Foxhunters. Backed in from 9/2 long term to 2/1. It was a catastrophe. It’s fair to say I was totally stunned at the manner of his victory. Iiterally speechless at the turn of events- and the noise in the Centaur was unbelievable! It didn’t surprise me to watch McCoy boot home the last favourite home. I was numb. The punters deserved their day.

How much did the Festival cost the firms? Well, my firm lost double on Friday what it had reaped on Wednesday and Thursday. Those are traditionally quieter betting days. I’m not crying, I have a track record of winning long term. Overall, the Cheltenham bash cost the Bookies big time. More with the large offshore concerns, who outdid each other with one moronic offer after another. These days they seem to treat the whole event as an opportunity to pad their online products with lovely names and addresses. And the dimmies queue up to sign up as if it’s Christmas. Is that a fair comment? I believe so, because every tenner laid at evens on Sprintre Sacre usually gets ploughed into something else. I mean who deposits a tenner and goes through the rigmarole of withdrawing it the next day? It’s ploughed into some other product and Bobs your uncle.

Whilst everyone from the BHA downward is clapping themselves on the back at producing another showcase event – and it was, I offer a word of caution. I listened to the great Micky Fitzgerald on the excellent Morning Line, a show I’ve been lucky to participate in, eulogising about his former boss producing the horse in tip top condition to wrest the big prize of the Gold Cup. And I congratulate my friend Nicky for his skills. However, the last time I saw the great Bobs in action was November. He wasn’t the only one of course. A number of top jumping stars rested from December onwards. Fine, the weather was poor in January, but there were still opportunities to be had, rejected by stable stars with owners rich enough to take the gamble and lie low for months. In the meantime viewers on telly, and worse attendees on course endured uncompetitive events and ‘match races’ for months. There have been 23 grade one events this season. 16 won by the favourite, and 6 by the second favourites. It highlights the predictable nature of jump racing these days, and hardly pads the Levy.It’s not good enough in my view. I don’t care who wins the Gold Cup, it’s a great institution,  and whatever lifts the little cup, Dessie or Nortons Coin, is going to be big news. Micky Fitz was right to congratulate the great one, but he forgets the intervening months have become drab and boring. Might I remind those looking in- Desert Orchid ran 8 or 9 times a year. He was an athlete and so are today’s horses. It disproves the current lame excuse given for horses languishing in their boxes, that they’re not ‘capable’ of winning top races if they race in February. And if you’re Newbury or Kempton? You’re doing the industry no favours by permitting quiet gallops for top stars after racing. Ask Fontwell who provided 50 grand for a five runner race how they felt at the lack of ambition? Simonsig? Beatable. Dynaste beaten. Where was the inventiveness of connections then? Small fields for Championship races at the Festival? An alarming development for Racing. As for Quevega? Group class in a seller, just leaves me cold. There’s only one horse who cannot be bested these days. One. Let them race.