Aidan O Brien. A dose of reality.

Roll up for your Ladbrokes sponsored, 18 page Aidan O Brien pullout, in tomorrow’s Racing Post.

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Look, I get everyone likes a winner. And I understand the often unpleasant comments some folk make when you dare to criticise certain Irish horse racing personalities. I mean if you followed and backed Aidan’s group one runners you’d be in clover with 26 wins in Group ones this season. And sure we know he’s a nice guy and a hard worker. I’m not crabbing him for that.

But.. check this list out

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Oops. On the very week everyone is slapping Coolmore on the back, we hear Churchill (3yo) Caravaggio (a baby) and Highland Reel (grand old timer at 5) retired to further the personal worth of those involved.

Check out some of last  year’s entrants, rather departures. Australia, Camelot, The Gurkha. All available at attractive stud fees, and oh yes, I know everyone swallows the excuses peddled for their departure. spots on their noses, heat, a really nasty rash.

An effective and successful cash cow, not always the heroic outfit elements of the press feel bounden to peddle. Of course I know they’re about their jobs, who wouldn’t, but let’s the rest of us keep our feet planted firmly in the mud.

What I simply don’t understand is the lack of balance in reporting on an organisation like Coolmore. All that power in one organisation? They can, and frequently do have sufficient top of the line stock to field between 3 and 5 runners in every Group 1. Why is everyone so surprised at their success? Many of the Irish group races may as well be run in Ballydoyle. Rarely more than a token Godolphin participant.
O Brien plunders the Group one market in England because he can, because he has the tools, because there are frankly too many Group 1’s. He threw in 6 participants in the Derby, and his ‘outsider’ won. How many trainers can send six realistic chances into the blue riband event? Five sired by the outstanding Galileo. That’s 5. A success pattern that’s gone on for as long as Galileo’s started outputting the very cream of racing bloodstock. Galileo is Coolmore. And before Galileo was Saddlers Wells and a reputed three hundred and fifty MILLION in stud fees.

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Other than stoic politeness, keeping them quiet, I’m sure those considering investing in a horse with the potential to compete at racing’s top table are far from impressed at the stud fees, or purchase prices they’re being forced to shoulder in Coolmore world. NOT reported so freely, that.

It’s arguable the likes of Clive Cox wiped the floor in training terms this year, buying horses cheaply and producing the goods. AOB simply cannot fail with the stock. Of course that comment is bound to ruffle a few feathers who’ll declare it’s always possible to lose, but please, get a grip of yerselves, he had three in the Chester vase to escort Venice Beach home. Oh and one from his son. There were 8 runners.

Fail? He’d have to be a complete fool

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And yes, he has a stable jockey who is pound for pound ten clear of his peers. The quite outstanding Ryan Moore. We can add Moore to Galileo. How many trainers get that?
Let’s tally it up so far. Galileo, Moore and 350 million head start. Not too bad.

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It is, quite simply, a massive imbalance in power. It’s a fact. An obvious fact. We surely don’t need to state the obvious do we? Well, I feel we do, because all I’ve read for years is how amazing Coolmore are. To my mind though, they’re Real Madrid, Man Utd, Juventus and PSG rolled into one outfit. Squaring up to them are the biggest underperformers in the sport. Godolphin. And I remain a Sheikh Mohammed fan resolutely. But his staff have not turned up.

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So yes, Aidan is indeed humble, because he’s no fool and to trumpet such evident success with said material would be obscene. And I like his attitude immensely, he lacks the patronising snobbery of some in racing, but no bother, I’m not about to sit back and listen to one sided reporting.

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Does Aidan manage these stars to their best performance? I think the writing is on the wall in that regard- he’s supremely good at delivering the right winner, even increasing stud values by a form of rotation of his talent. His placement and tactics are superior. I’m not crabbing his ability.
Turning to that Derby, and the master trainer’s tactics. Check out Wings Of Eagles at Chester in this video. In my opinion Chester stewards shamefully failed to address. Six good cracks in the last 2 furlongs for Venice Beach – none for Wings of Eagles. He wasn’t averse to the whip at Epsom. I can be wrong here- but the question simply has to be asked by officials when they see this.

 

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Give thought to the the National Hunt code these days appears far less likely to benefit from flat stayers switching code as in Istabraq’s era, with policy retiring horses at three years of age. Frankly it’s a ridiculous state of affairs. And why isn’t it being declared as such? Sub servience.

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Unlike the hugely unenterprising Willie Mullins, i do appreciate very much that Coolmore races their stars against each other, not all of whom appear to be off for their life, commonly utilising pace makers, an issue authorities need to correct. However, it’s still great for the sport to see Order Of St George, Winter and Capri squaring off in the ARC. It’s refreshing. Not what Willie would give us. In this regard I want to make clear AOB and Coolmore don’t shy from competition.

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Keep also in mind the effect on ownership for those less fortunate than John Magnier. I mean not to demean his achievement in dominating flat racing globally, he’s been eating Godolphin’s lunch for some years. I doubt he’d worry about what I think as Galileo goes about his dailies 🙂 Old bookmaking friends Derek Smith and the mighty Michael Tabor are no slouches when it comes to the business of racing. This is a powerful and enterprising triumverate of business talent.

Guess what? I won’t be getting a stable tour of Ballydoyle next season..but Aidan, personally, you’re a star Sir.

Champions Day – The Bookies view..

 

 

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A few years ago the Emperor of Jockey Club surveyed his tracks in response to a grand plan from British Racing for a season’s end panto. Cheltenham seemed too bumpy and that of grotesque tweed, ohh no. Newmarket can’t stand kids, hard to find, even with Google maps. Kempton is quite simply a nasty little shack, full of dead flies. He decided he’d make more cash if they went along with the plan to create a season ending bash, at which the finest Port and cheese would, of course, be served. Ascot had been busy building a structure so vast in stature, it created it’s own weather pattern. If you’re going to have a jolly event, it’s important you have a Swinley Bottom. Or Bottoms.

Let’s get the humble pie bit out of the way-I prattled on, along with a few other lesser mortals, that the timing needed revision. The fact remains the whole shebang was saved by the very participation of one horse. Frankel. Had he not bothered turning up in 2012 i believe, the BHA think tank would have been meeting to reconsider upsetting the our froggie friends by moving it back a month. I still believe that’s the best option if we are to secure participation of faster ground animals, but I was outvoted by people wearing waist coats and deerstalkers.

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Anyway, they threatened Teddy Grimthorpe with violence, and Frankel duly turned up. The party was saved along with a few jobs at Great British Racing. Ascot was the right venue. It has the infrastructure, class and grandeur to organise an end of season bash and serves drinks in a real glass. It’s been blessed with much better weather over the last few years, and with that the arrival of some of the top equine stars to entertain us. We can all be a toff for the day at Ascot..

Even the French send over the odd runner. Foreign equine stars are my absolute pension. Ridden by Thierry’s and Moet’s. All who think they can turn in to the Ascot straight, 6 lengths back, and possibly win. Mais Non, Espece de Cretin..

I quaffed a few glasses and joined the great unwashed in the betting ring. and the big bets were flying about. £3000 and £2000 on Order Of St George and a number of notably lumpy wagers set the tone. It was down and dirty and they didn’t seem to care if I lost.. David Power gave me some fun money for O’Brien’s star. He’s no shrinking violet when it comes to betting. My eyes were stinging, not the kind of bet you get with the Supermarket operators.. St George wasn’t however the only one they came for, Stradivarius was popular and a few saddos backed the French runner.. I should have discovered betting in running..St George touched 33/1 with the Bot traders.

Whilst Harry’s thingy was popular in the sprint, one other horse swamped my book. A fellah I recognised as a warm order, stuffed £3000 in my hand and said ‘put that on horse 5.’  I checked the board. Tasleet – 14/1. ‘Don’t you mean Harry’s?’. No, I’m sure, Tasleet. To win 42 grand.

I threw the money into the bag as if i stood such bets every day of the week. I gave David Power an interest with a £10,000/£700 for being such a nice fellah. He didn’t bat an eyelid. I got on with standing the favourite for a threatening lump. The race looked all over at the two marker with Harry’s sauntering along, – to suddenly be pressed by this Hamdam thing..my big chance lay in the whip, Hamdam doesn’t take to the whip for his stars, two cracks and out, the order of the day. Fortunately. I survived the race this time, back in front.

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I spot Lord Gosden in the walkway, surrounded by 20 or so press folk. ‘Tell us what you had for breakfast John, for the fans you understand..’
‘well I’m rather partial to kippers’ JG replied, in his most aristocratic tone, and they all looked excited. scribbling away. The Gosden accent bothers me. I know John’s public school, and they don’t talk like that. He’s done a study course in phwah phwah and taken the Missus along, so they can converse appropriately.

What he can do, is train. If they stuck a Galileo in his yard covering everything we’d be celebrating 25 English group ones (or you English would) He also strikes me as rather a decent sort, batting for a bit of fair play.

Chapman was also in the ring. Wearing some kind of welly boots, and blanking me for dissing the Opening Show. Even though he was caught on camera dozing off by all 32 viewers. ITV is a paradox, their Opening Show is quite dismal, their afternoon show is, I have to say it, great. I think what they do so much better than Channel 4 is deliver it with style, if not with the Channel 4 quality of production, but that’s quibbling. Everyone looks smart, and everything is great. If you bought the ‘it’s great’ on Sporting Index, you’d be worth one Oppenheinmer…

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But Champions Day is great. And so equally have so many of this season’s flat events. In said regard, ITV is totally appropriate. There are those that say I’m hopelessly in love with Francesca Cumani, but that’s a total exageration..

Nice mix on ITV with the intelligent Weaver and Brough Scott brought back from the dead (literally) Cumani’s accuracy with horse action and Chamberlin’s style. Nice, it works for me. Chapman eternally entertaining, he makes me laugh and offers balance, but don’t tell him that, his ego is insufferable. Somewhere in the mix I hope they find jobs for Luck and Cunningham. If you’re committed to the best, then have the best in some capacity.

Viewing figures suggested a half a million, far short of the BBC ideal we were supposed to be treated to. Here you have to blame racing for its failures. Simply far too many opportunities for horses like Enable, Ulyssees and Cracksman to square off. You think it doesn’t matter? Of course it does. Far too often television companies showcasing this sport are presented with half the available participants for a top race. Too many group ones, too many countries failing to co-operate and not enough stars. Cracksman hasn’t raced since York, swerved the Arc and the Breeders and its a miracle if he trains on as a 4 year old it’s a miracle as right now he’s worth as much as his Dad. The National Hunt is in terminal decline because we ignore this cancer. A sport that denies the paying public the best squaring off can’t hope for top viewing audiences when the other channel is showing Manchester United vs Liverpool.

Cracksman strolls onto the field for the main event, balls gently swaying in the wind. Let’s deal with any blithering idiots reading this. If you think Enable would have downed this machine with her far more workmanlike Arc performance, you’ve taken total leave of your senses. He destroyed a top class field, as indeed he did in the Dante. This is the best I’ve seen since his Papa. He would have danced all over the filly. FACT.

I’m sure we can look forward to Enable and Cracksman squaring off as four year olds. Not.

I stood Cracksman for an appropriate amount, – and lost an appropriate amount. Ryan Moore, who’d been brilliant all day, when not under a microphone, drove Highland Reel up Sunninghill High Street. In truth his chances on rain softened ground were limited. The French nags were, predictably, hopeless, and Barney Roy, popular in the ring was held up at the back, and stayed at the back. Two Enables wouldn’t have beaten Cracksman.

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I deposited some more money with the punters in the last as the favourite came from another planet to upset the day. I enjoyed some of the Ascot atmosphere with friends before leaving, observing thousands having a great time watching a couple of nice bands. No trouble, well stewarded, a lot of very smart folk enjoying a well rounded event. And yes, Newmarket, children actually do go free. Were I to offer one suggestion to Ascot, it’s to install some kind of sub air system to Swinley Bottom, the one area that jeopardizes meetings and diverts runners.

It’s a success. I don’t say that about the National Hunt, expect a few broadsides, but its been an excellent flat season and I believe we are heading in the right direction there. Ascot knows its job and British Racing got this one right.

Pass the sherry someone? Will they make me a steward now??

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Cheltenham – The bee all and end all?

Cheltenham – The Bookies Eye

The National Hunt Festival is the one event in Racing’s calendar which means the same to the Bookie as it does to the Punter. It’s about the gambling, pure and simple. Of course there are a few folk running around in tweed, they can’t wear anywhere but Cheltenham. You know the type, they drift out to watch Sprintre Sacre defeat a field that doesn’t include Simonsig and think it’s splendid. To the real afficianado, fed a diet of odds on chances for months, they couldn’t care less. If it’s not a race they can bet in, it’s a procession.

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I first started working for my Dad at Cheltenham, when I was 16. Taking bets over the rail, as you do when you think you know it all. Too late to take his license off him for that little offence! In those days the main betting ring was rammed with bettors, tic-tac men and Bookies. He refused to price up until a half hour before the first, despite the fact many of his peers had been at it for two hours. He wanted them to tear it up first, before entering the fray to more serious wagers. For an fledgling Bookie, it was a serious buzz. The bets came thick and fast, averaged £50 or more. The Old Man was adjacent to the likes of Colin Webster, Stephen Little, and in his later years the Gentleman likes of David and Willy Power. Wagers to lose ten thousand or more were routine. Unremarkable.

It might surprise you to learn, that whilst he had an opinion, John Banks made little study of form. He built a legend out of being braver than most of those in the ring about him. If something represented ‘value’ to lay, he wasn’t afraid to lay it lumpy. Sometimes stepping back into the market to lay it again, if he felt its contracting price improved his overall lay odds and gut feel. He was more of a gambler than his opponents, challenging them to match his opinion of odds over their convictions and wallets! Hedge bets were never recorded, although he might wager for himself, he never reduced his risk by backing a horse back. And I do mean never.

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Of course, even with his great skill in ‘reading’ the market, he probably wouldn’t have survived the nonsense of modern exchange driven fare. Exchanges are the ultimate number cruncher. There are no false favourites, and everyone is betting to a hundred percent book, and creating tiny margins from backing horses back. A cycle in futility. The ultimate fiddle. He’d have got bored of the flashing boards with the same odds and the weakness of the modern ring a long time ago.

Rails Bookies, in those days, didn’t have LED boards. Prices were off his card. Cardboard tickets sufficed for the punters. Clerks were highly skilled, and disputes were very rare. It was an exciting place to be. So, there I stood, green as the grass, looking into ‘members’ whilst my Father looked into the main ring, where the vast majority of hefty trade action was to be found. I knew precious little, other than what he had schooled me on. Coupled odds, and such. A novice, having a ball, wearing his trilby and stealing his bins. Son of the Father 🙂

So this day, a slightly built Irish fellah appears through the throng at the rail and asks me what price the favourite was. Peering at my card, ‘9/2’ I says.

‘Twenty’ he says.

‘Ninety pounds to twenty’ I call to the clerk, readying the ticket. The man smiles, no antipathy, a pleasant and patient type. ‘No Son, twenty Grand’

‘Oh’ Panicked, I turn to the Old Man, surrounded by a throng of tic-tacs and workmen. ‘Dad, this guy wants 20 grand on !?’

He turns round, smiles, not at me – ‘Hi JP. Yeah you got that.’ JP, doffs and walks on to Webby. The Old Man casts me a baleful look.

An education or what? It got beat – I avoided a bollocking.

You’d expect as a Son, for me to say my Father was a good man, and he was. To many of his customers he was the kind of Bookie they respected. Everyone called him John. They got their bets every time. He never cussed when he lost. These are the facts, and I make no bones in telling you these truths about the man. To me though, in business, he could be brutal in advice. The game was tough. If I was to take over one day, something he was fervently against, I had to learn the hard way. So getting it in the neck was a fairly common occurrence, and he didn’t mind who heard him! It worked though, because I’m still around, and it’s no longer exactly a license to print money.

Cheltenham was more than just a series of races, a betting cauldron. The whole event was a gambling emporium. Nightly poker games supplanted racing. I remember when I was older, had started betting for myself. I found myself less of a genius than when I was sixteen.. We stayed in a hotel in Tewkesbury, and a game of 7 card stud poker was the standard order of business on the Monday before the festival. I remember the characters in the game, fearsome gamblers. Jimmy Caldwell from Scotland, a long time pal of my Father’s. Dudley Roberts, Johnny Lights. A hefty punter who went by the pseudonym of ‘Chinese Dave’. who didn’t last long in the Webster-Little-Power-Banks era.

I declared myself ‘in’. Stuck my £50 ante in and waited on the first hand. 7 of clubs, 3 of diamonds, jack of hearts. What to do? Could hope for three more jacks?

Stack.

Cut a long story short, the first ‘pot’ was six and a half grand. My eyes were like saucers. The Old Man was trying to chase a few away with a pair of 6’s. Sometimes you can bully the pot, but not this mob. Desperadoes. He turns to me and asks if I really want to be in the game. ‘ehm, no’ My bravado only extended so far, and everything I had was for gambling the horses. ‘I’ll have a dollar in the pound with you Dad.’ (25%). I took myself to bed. I was all chat in those days.

Gets up in the morning and as I close the bedroom door, Jimmy Caldwell emerges from an adjacent room, eyes on the shag pile. ‘What happened last night Jimmy, how did Dad do?’

‘I dinnae Ken’ Jimmy says. Odd, he was in the game? He’s got a mark on his shoe methinks.

I head down to the breakfast room. All the suspects are at breakfast, but nobody looks at me. I’m the best looking by miles- what’s the game? I sit down and wait for the Ayatollah to come down.

He walks in, sees me sitting there and grins. Genuine mirth.

‘Obviously you lost, cos nobody will speak to me – what was the damage?’

‘Ten’ he says, still smiling.

‘What? You can’t have lost ten grand??’

‘No,  that’s what YOU lost.’ The rest of the table bursts out laughing. An education. Nobody seemed to care I’d managed to do my tank in whilst asleep in my bed

As a postscript to this tale of pre-Cheltenham tradition, I will, in my defense, say that I learnt my lesson and only took a dime in the pound the following night. (10%)

That cost me 3 grand.

Business at the Festival has dropped off significantly from the days of John Banks. But the impact of the meeting never really diminishes. In years past, when I was sent from the Rails to the nearest Tatts firm, it was a labour of Hercules, the Ring was a crush of punters. Unlike most major racing festivals, it remains the one almost pure betting event, despite racetracks unfortunately appealing more to boozers than bettors. The atmosphere is created by the nature of the course, the size and pace of the fields and because people are there predominately to beat the Bookie. Punters still haven’t worked out things that bolt up at Kempton flop at Cheltenham. I bet in the new Centaur arena. They sell a lot of Guiness in there. People come to bet, fart and leave. I never turn down a bet, I could do without the smell though. The wagers are a lot smaller these days. Of course I’m there for the crack, as are my punters, I’m going to give them some stick if I can and stand every favourite for its nuts. Most punters I find deeply honourable. They press crumpled cash from their pockets, stinking of chip fat, into your hand in a sea of bettors. Some must be tempted to leave you a tenner short, but they don’t. There’s the odd villain in the pack, but I take a rather sympathetic view of such souls. Need to get one over on me for £10? You enjoy yourself. The majority of customers are good natured, they don’t expect to win, but they will enjoy their day out. And I will put the fun into betting along with my betting girlies!

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These days the Festival is a vehicle for high street and internet ‘casino’ operators to poach clients from each other. Outdoing themselves, and their own bottom line, with unsustainable money back offers. Unsustainable that is, if we are only talking about their Racing profits. But of course we’re not. Other products erode Racing’s share of the products to such an extent they’re fully prepared to throw to the wolves what used to be a premium betting week. For firms like my own, leading very much on service and a fair bet at all times, it pressurises the organisation. You can’t ignore their prices and keep your clients happy too. The good news – many customers still prefer service over ‘free bet’ offers. Most of which are a cheap sham. Take for instance one firm who last year offered their first 10000 customers even money Sprinter Sacre for £10. Punters are bamboozled by such deals, forgetting they’re walking round the corner to save themselves 6 quid (if it wins!) – subjected to a lifetime of invasive e- mails and texts. Other firms run FOBT promotions through the week, encouraging their staff to flow customers to their addictive product. Who can blame them with profits of £960 a machine- and 4 to a shop? Fortunately for me, most of my customers want more than a fiver on, and we discount their payments when they lose. That’s cold hard cash. It’s not a here today – gone tomorrow offer. More’s the point, we don’t make our clients feel like they’re literally ‘begging a bet’. Know what I’m talking about?

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I’ve watched, disappointed, as this National Hunt season wilted in a sea of poor fields and avoidance tactics amongst major players. This despite racing taking place pretty much throughout the winter on ground more often than not, good to soft. Three trainers carve up the sport. Ireland’s top man, for example, doing his best to present his leading charge, Hurricane Fly, with an open goal in the Champion Hurdle, likely placing his better horses in other events and feeding us, and presumably his owners, a diet of lame excuses. The likes of Un De Sceaux (who couldn’t take on any other target) the brilliant Annie Power, or Quevega, a mare never allowed to dine at the top table – taking the selling plate every year. Nicky Henderson adopts similar policies, to the detriment of owners, who seem unwilling to challenge his authority. To be fair, Paul Nicholls often opposes his charges, and I feel understands his responsibility to Racing. The Festival last year suffered from small fields in Championship events, 7 in the Arkle, 9 in the Champion, 7 in the Queen Mum, 8 in the Ryanair and only 9 in the Blue Riband event. You know, it really doesn’t matter if Bobs Worth does, or does not end up winning the Gold Cup, – if we don’t see him for months. Somebody will win, and it will always make headlines for the right reasons. Arkle ran 9 times in 1963. He survived.

If you don’t see this situation as unhealthy for the sport, you must gorge on apathy. This situation is wrong. Further, I can’t see it a positive for Racing if we are treated to a daily diet of sycophantic reports or interviews with these trainers. Where are the dogs beating down the doors of the BHA demanding results, rather than sound-bytes? An organisation with a race planning department that year-on-year subjects us to the same races, at the same meetings every year. Blinding stuff. The gravy tastes too good for some Hacks. In fairness – and probably in no small part to folk like me having a go, I’ve seen some great articles from Muscat, Mottershead, and the entire Guardian crew of late. Boyce, Chapman, Yates, Hislop, Cunningham all deserve a positive mention, and whilst Luck strikes some as ‘stiff’ – he remains one of the best anchorman in sport.

Less so for Simon Mapletoft, reporting for ATR, with a thoroughly inept interview with the trainer, John Butler, unloading Stand Guard, who that morning had pronounced Racing ‘crooked’. Did he ask for clarification of his remarks, as any self respecting journalist would? Did he hell. Two minutes later the ‘match at Southwell’ degenerated into another head banging farce.

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Channel 4 pull few punches, despite the carping about its format. I enjoyed an excellent interview with David Walsh discussing the Fenton case and describing Racing as condoning integrity breaches routinely. Credit to the programme for letting the segment run over. What’s wrong with facing the truth? Questioning the authorities?

Less so from the embarrassing Millington, the champion of FOBT’s. ‘what’s the point in re-examining the Zarooni affair?’.  A Racing Post editor who sees the biggest doping case in the history of the sport as something to be tidied away. Yikes.

Back to 1990, I recall Victor Chandler’s men coming down to back a horse with my Father, New Halen, 66/1, in the Midmay Of Flete, last race on day two of three in those days. The bet? £50,000/£750 each way. Total liability £62,500. Chandler was a hefty punter in those days – fighting a long running, if mutually respectful battle with my Father. I remember his expressionless face as it won. Losing the best part of sixty grand in 4 minutes. He talked normally and almost casually in the car on the way back to the hotel. We were now behind at the meeting

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By the fourth race on the Friday, and from a hefty losing position at the meeting, he’d won the fifty grand back, and more. Bolstered particularly by standing what was, in his view, a non stayer – Desert Orchid, in the Gold Cup, for nearly 40 grand, when he was losing 50. The man had balls the size of grapefruits.

My worst moment at the Festival? Whilst by no means the most expensive –fairly light at a £40,000 swing, it was the ‘victory’ of Salsify in the Foxhunters. Beat like a rabbit over the last, and with my rep in my ear telling me we were safe from his challenge, we watched in horror as Jane Mangan’s mount jinked at a tape rail and deposited the exhausted pilot on the deck. I hanged the rep  for opening his mouth too early. It seemed the right thing to do. He’ll get over it.

To a Bookie, – that’s the National Hunt Festival. Buy a ticket. Have a bet.