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Friday, 19 April 2019

Mastering Augusta - Days 1 and 2

I may be writing this with noise-cancelling headphones reducing jet engine din to merely a faint whir, but I can still hear the spine-tingling roars from the 18thgreen.  We didn’t get to see Tiger Woods’s final bogey putt, for the throng of people gathered there in anticipation blocked our immediate view, but we did get a glimpse into his soul.  As we stood in a golfing guard of honour, surrounded by men, women and children from all over the sport-watching world, who had descended on Augusta National this humid, intense Sunday morning, Tiger bounded up towards us, accompanied by his children, his destination The Butler Cabin, exuding pure joy.  His victorious face displayed relief, self-belief and a genuine smile of gleaming teeth.  

He had done it, we were there to witness it, and, having held it together over the weekend, he let it all out for the first time.  Fist bumping fans and high-fiving the outstretched hands in a display of raw emotion, his hand touched mine.  I felt the fingers of the 2019 Masters champion.

Spot the really happy, bald guy in this photo.  No, not the one holding the trophy wearing the Rolex, the one in the background wearing Masters merchandise with the yellow Garmin.

Everyone knows what happened, and how it happened. This is my take on making it happen, how we mastered Augusta, managed the course from a spectating perspective, and lost our green jacket V-plates.

Rewind a year or so.  My two younger brothers and I begin preparatory and preliminary talks to plan a boys' weekend for my youngest brother, Luke's, 30th birthday.  Vegas was proposed and soon dismissed.  It had been done before for stag parties and work jollies, and while it's a hedonistic and iconic destination to be chalked off any self-destructive bon viveur's bucket-list, we decided we wanted a more memorable moment to treasure rather than a reenactment of previous recreational retreats.  

It was decided: we would head to Augusta, Georgia, for the first major golf event of the 2019 calendar, the Masters Tournament.  From a betting point of view, I love this event. The small field, course form and generous terms on offer make it a punters' paradise and I waded in with the following wagers:

We booked our entire trip with Pete Warsop at Tailormade Golf Travel, and from the early emails all the way through to the hospitality and hosting, we were very well looked after by him and his team.  Tournament tickets, rounds of golf at two superb local courses, accommodation and transportation were taken care of, meaning we could ease into life as Augusta National Golf Club patrons for an unforgettable weekend up there with the best of my life.   

After landing in Atlanta on the Wednesday of the par-3 tournament, picking up an Escalade, and driving a couple of hours east to a very pleasant holiday home situated just a few minutes' drive from Magnolia Lane, we spent the Thursday morning playing The Reserve Club at Woodside.  This is a stunning residential plantation in the beautifully quaint town of Aiken, South Carolina, where we were met by a friendly "Hey y'all" as we dropped our golf bags with the buggy attendants before being served with a delicious all-American breakfast prior to our 9.06am tee time.

Five hours and not many more Stableford points later, having been treated to regular refreshments by friendly young ladies traversing the cart-paths in refrigerated vehicles, we were back on the clubhouse terrace tucking into an enormous lunch catching up on the day's action from the other first round of golf happening 40 minutes down the road that day.  Assessing the leaderboard later that evening,  Matsuyama had started badly, Rahm fairly strongly.  Woods had a solid 70 and Rory was slow out of the stalls on +1.

We got an early night ahead of our first day trackside at the Augusta National. The blue skies were being threatened: there was a storm on the way...

Nice of Andrew "Beef" Johnston to pose with us on a wonderful day at Woodside

On Friday, the weather (and weather warnings) added to the drama.  A gloomy gown of grey adorned the dawn sky.  Deluges of warm rain at the start of the day, and near the end, punctuated an otherwise hot and occasionally beautifully sunny occasion, so Augusta’s flora was lush, the fairways lively and the footpaths slippery in places, with enormous slopes, famous undulations that are perceptible on television but only fully appreciated in the flesh.  The course was packed with characters.

Characters – pros on the practice range and the putting green, experienced supporters in the specators’ stands, where we stopped for a few minutes before heading towards the course proper.  We took an immediate shine to Neil, from Liverpool, who has lived in Melbourne for the past 10 years but clearly hadn't forgotten his time living in the drizzly UK.   We stood under his Masters-merch umbrella and bantered with him for about half hour as Aphibarnrat, Vijay Singh and Matt Fitzpatrick effortlessly pinged some shots around. This guy Neil, plays off scratch, was in the USA for two weeks. He played a couple of courses around the south east states, watched days 1 and 2 of the Masters, and was then jetting off to Vegas for the weekend to play the Tiger v Phil course, Shadow Creek, as well as Wolf Creek before heading home. He had the good sense to bring his wife and two childen with him at the beginning of his holiday, and parted company with them only after a credit-earning family fun time witnessing the wonderful world of Walt Disney.  He was the first of many affable aficionados with whom we had the delight of discussing the action unfolding before us.  

Now, we had some first day decisions to make – do we sit down on a Masters branded deckchair, given to us by the tour company, just one of many items of memorabilia and merchandise that has made its way home with us, or wander around the track trying to keep up with events.  We went with wandering.  You can, however, just plonk yourself on other people’s pre-positioned deckchairs, so long as they’re free, and until their owners come back to politely kick you out (in a friendly, respectful, Augusta National kinda way).

We watched a load of groups tee off on 1, then followed the European trio of Molinari, Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Tyrrell Hatton round for a bit, until the fairway of 3, where we waited halfway towards the hole, at the side by the pines, and saw tee shots and approaches from the next few groups

Phil Mickelson went into the rough here. We were less than a club's length away from him as he played out. I was trembling! Leaning all over my brother to get a better view but desperately trying to avoid placing my entire body weight upon him, for fear that we might fall across the flimsy rope that separates patrons from players.  This proved to be a delicate balance over the course of the day, and even more so on the Sunday as one tries to trade off a perfect view of a shot with the compromise of being accused of groping ones fellow golfing ganderer.  No phones are allowed inside the grounds, so there are no selfies or photo opportunities and I must say the whole experience is better for it.  You soak it all up so much more fully without any technology to tempt you into tapping away at a screen. 

Then we headed to the 240 yard par-3 fourth and cheered on a few pin-peppering shots from there.  The tee is high above the green, so you get an incredible view from up there.

It was around 11am, so we grabbed a cheap but charming pimento cheese sandwich – the prices of food and drink at Augusta are ridiculously good value, seemingly unchanged at around $2 for everything since the days of Jack Nicklaus (who, I forgot to mention earlier, is the course designer of the Reserve Club at Woodside). The concessions hall is run with the precision as a laser range-finder but with as much variety as Ian Poulter's dressing room, so you can be in and out within minutes but yet keep yourself satisfied for hours.

From 5, we jumped to Azalea (13), to hit a grandstand, where you can see tee boxes, greens and fairways all from one elevated position. You can look down and see the Hogan bridge from there so this was our first glimpse of Amen Corner.  This is where we saw the aforementioned and sartorially-elegant Poulter take the outright lead after his 2ndshot got plugged against the steep greenside bank of Rae’s Creek.  He was pumped. Not Ryder Cup-pumped but certainly buoyed by his early place at the head of the leaderboard, so we followed him down 14, cheering him on with other Brits (although a lot of yanks were surprisingly rooting for him too), before positioning ourselves in the roaring sunshine next to the devilishly tough pin on the par 3 16th.  We sat in (someone else’s ) deckchairs there for about an hour, watching all the superstars come through. By this point, it was only about 1430, so we knew the likes of Woods, McIlroy, Rahm, Fleetwood etc had only just commenced their rounds back on the first tee.  

So we went over to 7 to await their anticipated arrival,  standing in awe as golfing giants appeared before us as mortal competitors, focused on one of the most highly coveted prizes in sport, emotion already etched on their face.  The guard comes down at Augusta and you see what these guys are made of.

Then behind the green on 10, where from an almost vertigo-inducing height, you can fully appreciate the huge hill down which they have to drive on this hole. The highest peak to the lowest divot of 10 is 116ft, roughly the same height as the Statue of Liberty, and the tournament torch was really beginning to flame.  From here, you are also right next to the tee box on 15, so you can just stand still, turn your head and see Freddie Couples teeing off there, while Xander Schauffele was finishing off his putt on the 10th green.      This was a great spot highlighted by our official Augusta yardage book (one of many bits of merch picked up for a mere $8). 

Eddie Pepperell stood on 15 with driver and ball, but no caddy.  This bemused us at the time, but made more sense when we bumped into said caddy in a bar on Sunday night.  In the subsequent grouping, Henrik Stenson interacted with the crowd, cool as a chilled Kronleins Crocodile, partnered by legendary caddie Fannie Sunesson, who we would also bump into later in the trip, but more of that later.

Literature lifeline in the absence of phonelines.  This document, helpfully distributed around Augusta National, and with a course map on reverse, was vital to charting events as they developed

Finally on Friday, and as the humidity hugged us closer, we went to Amen Corner.  This was as iconic and visually impressive in real ife as you would imagine. The patrons are not permitted to go down onto the 12thgreen so this is the only bit of the track where the public leave the players to finish their iron shots in relative isolation.  Tiger birdied 11 and the place went berserk.  Then he chipped to within a few feet on 12 and the noise was as though a billion balloons burst, as the dial on the barometer nudged ever closer to thunderclaps.  As his partner, Haotong Li approached his ball to tee off, a breath away from his backswing, the weather warning klaxon rang around the course.  

It was 5.10pm and we were told that was it for the day.

Everyone was reasonably perturbed and confused by the siren, but people started to evacuate.  Looking up at the sky, whilst overcast and with air pressure reflecting the sporting action, our initial (perhaps optimistically British) thoughts were: "it looks fine, please crack on", so we just hung around with other concerned characters, while Tiger, a solitary figure, proceeded with purpose down across the bridge to mark his ball and get an advance read on his putt. He stayed on the green for a good few minutes and we watched him until he slipped away through some flowery bushes into what musy be some kind of secret exit.  It was all rather surreal and there wasn't yet a drop of rain, let alone local evidence of thunder or lightning.  The marshals informed us that any stormy conditions within a radius of 10 miles is sufficient cause to suspend play.

Loads of people left at this point, but many stayed.  We had been told that it is fairly normal for people to leave the course mid-afternoon, retreating to the comfort of their homes or hostelries and take advantage of the more complete coverage afforded by television broadcast.  We stuck it out.

Then we had all the drama of play being suspended, then recommenced; on or off… and then on. This was a real rush!  I still can’t quite believe Tiger came back out and missed not only this birdie putt, but so many more birdie opportunities on the back 9 on Friday. He may have simply had too much time to mull this particular putt over whie there was a break in play, and then perhaps the momentum was lost somewhat.  The atmosphere, however, was absolutely palpable and inescapable for those of us who remained in situ throughout this meteorologically-induced interval.

Tiger obviously did claw back another two shots from there on day two, and we saw his birdie on 15 as we moved back round there from Amen, staying sluighly ahead of his group, cheering on him and Rahmbo.

Despite understandable and justifiable concerns that watching golf live from the course is less comprehensive than TV coverage,  you could totally tell what was going on the whole time. The scoreboards were brilliant and the staff, fellow patrons and even occasionally competitors helped you understand what was going on.  Most of the time, Tiger was as tunnel-vision, job-first focused as Robocop, striding towards targets with single-minded steadfastness.  But by now, he was really smiling. It was amazing to see! This first glimpse behind the competitive mask suggested more than just being pleased to be being competitive, if that makes sense. He was glad to be there, but he seemed to be allowing himself to occasionally check-in and appreciate that he was also in with a real shout of major glory for the first time in over a decade.

We certainly felt we played the action-witnessing strategy almost perfectly, without missing out on the more subtle experiences of just “being in the moment” and drinking it all in, and it meant we had a good template mapped out ahead of our return here on the Sunday, where it was to get even more dramatic as two incredible ball strikers, Ryder Cup rivals and most importantly remaining key players on my betting slip would go hammer and tongs at the head of the leaderboard.  Things were just coming to the boil!

Two boyish faces of joy, and a jolly Grizzly Adams, mulling over the events of Friday at Augusta National

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Cheltenham 2014 - Day 2 - Humanity and Humility amongst Racing Royalty

‘There’s more to life than Cheltenham’

Following a sublime, supreme ride aboard Vautour in a sublime Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, that was one of the first things Ruby Walsh said to Alice Plunkett when summing up his 39th career Cheltenham Festival victory this afternoon.

Ruby was referring to the fact that while he was celebrating, Jason Maguire was suffering, having been airlifted to hospital following a fall at Stratford yesterday.   

I’m not going to say that other sports do not have moments of heartfelt humility like the one displayed by this living legend live on television today, but you’d have to have a strong argument to convince me that horse racing isn’t quite peculiar in its combination of competition, compassion, cruelty and class.   

Adversaries get changed into tribal colours in a shared weighing room, more than just a dressing room.  They are paraded in front of punters who pray that their performances reward them with pounds and pennies. These jockeys work for various owners and employees, trainers and tacticians, often switching allegiance as regularly as they switch animal: one man’s rejected ride is another man’s Champion Hurdler.   Walsh and Maguire line up against each other on a regular basis, but in racing, rivals also stand together.

They slug it out; but after battle, immediately shake hands.  Tempers may flare, the spirit of the contest gets the better of its protagonists from time to time, but these guys are participating in a professional pastime in which it’s not unusual for animals or humans to end up hospitalised.

As my granddad said to me at the weekend: it’s the only sport where the players are followed around by an ambulance.

Our Conor was fatally injured in his fall at the third flight in the 3.20 today.   Just a year ago, we watched open-mouthed as he destroyed the field in the 2013 Triumph Hurdle on Gold Cup Friday.  I stood next to his trainer’s son, champion flat jockey Richard Hughes, who has achieved so much in the game himself, and he was buzzing like a bee in the winners’ enclosure, having witnessed a warrior at work like the rest of us.  This year, Our Conor’s owner has been pledging all the prize money his big white-faced horse has been collecting.  As Sam Twiston-Davies says in this RP blog, you’d have thought he would have got a bit of luck.

Read to the end of that piece, by the way.  STD refers to Aidan Coleman and Nick Scholfield as his friends, not as fierce foes.  What a tapestry this is.  Later in the week, Sam will be on board Big Buck’s, lining up against his pals for another boss, a boss who also just happens to be battling it out for a different title with his own father!

Ruby continued in a similar vein his interview earlier on, referring to his mate Tony McCoy, whose son was in the Portland Hospital having an operation earlier in the week:

‘You can make too much of all of that [the pressure]… this morning was a cold and timely reminder when you look at Jason Maguire that there’s a lot more to life than riding winners at Cheltenham… AP showed me a picture in the weighing room before the race of Archie and you think to yourself Jesus, thank god my kids are alright at home.

You can make too much of Cheltenham – it’s a big week, but there’s more to life than Cheltenham’

So it puts all of today’s gambling events into perspective really.  Which is lucky, as it wasn't a day to tell the grandkids about from a betting standpoint!  I did have a 25/1 placer with David Pipe’s The Package returning some decent profit in the first handicap of the festival.  Pipe had already got on to the trainer-of-the-week score sheet, though, with a surprise 33/1 head-bobbing victory by Western Warhorse against Champagne Fever in the Grade 1 Arkle Chase, denying Ruby Walsh his first Cheltenham festival chase success since Kauto Star’s 2009 Gold Cup.  

Losses were incurred towards the end of the card as I noted a Pricewise selection, Festive Affair, who was advised at 16/1, drifting out to around 30/1 before the off.  Remembering a similar situation last year, I followed the price out with increasing stakes, hoping Affair might mimic the Flaxon Flare.  But sadly, it didn't!

Ruby did reach the big festival 4-0 in the four o’ clock, however, and as predicted held aloft two sets of three fingers in victory, each digit denoting a demolition job by wonder-mare Quevega, whose name everyone seems to pronounce differently to Ruby himself!

Looking at tomorrow’s card, I was struck by the amount of silks bearing the colours not just of McManus and Ricci, but of Andrea & Graham Wylie too, who are represented by no fewer than five in the final two races, neither of which feature on channel four, but the finale of which they triumphed in last year, with this year’s favourite Irish hope of the week, Briar Hill.  Phew!

And this is what I mean.  Ruby Walsh rode Briar Hill for the Wylies last year at a ridiculous price of 25/1 in the Champion Bumper, and partners Shaneshill tomorrow with the same owner/trainer combination and a price of 8.4 on Betfair right now.  He was adorned with the same browny-beige colours when on board Tidal Bay in an heroic Lexus Chase last Christmas for his old boss Paul Nicholls, who will be trying to win the Fred Winter tomorrow with another two Wylie horses against, yes you’ve guessed it – Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins on yet another Wylie one! 

The merry-go-round of racing is a wonderfully rich and diverse spectacle of owners, trainers, jockeys, pundits, punters, writers, bookies, braggers and blaggers.  At its heart, however, is a unique humanity that you simply don’t find anywhere else in sport.

Wednesday’s Selections: 
**Multiples of Ruby’s rides in Ricci and Wylie colours**

Red Sherlock for Pipe, and course & distance winner Creepy at a huge price in first time headgear.

Smad Place for Alan King, and Paul Nicholls to get off the mark for the week with either Sam Winner or Just a Par.

Coral Cup:
Far West to put the fall at Newbury last month well behind him, and the other Axom horse in the race, Edgardo Sol, who is partnered by claiming jockey Harry Derham (3)

Champion Chase:
Some offers for Sire de Grugy at 4/1 are very tempting, and it would be a fantastic story for the Moore family, who are real gems in racing’s glistening crown.  I am going to give Wishfull Thinking another spin too.

Fred Winter / Champion Bumper:
Double on Ivan Grozny and Shaneshill for the aforementioned Wylie/Walsh/Willie axis.

Cheltenham 2014 - Day 1 - Champagne Superwager on the Fly

Noel Gallagher understands my predicament.  He is the britpop embodiment of the Palphabet Blog.

After the critical acclaim of Definitely Maybe, the stadium tours that followed (What's the Story) Morning Glory?; the worldwide success, the adulation; the vast wads of cash and pyramid piles of pills, powder and pints.  After all of that stuff, the diminutive Mancunian musician sat down and self-indulgently penned the bragging, bloated Be Here Now. 

Noel stood, perhaps on the shoulder of giants, certainly on the precipice of artistic immortality on the day that album was released and faced, in my mind, a very similar challenge to the one I face today.  You see, in many (well, some) ways (kind of), BHN was the music industry's equivalent of the 2014 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, the traditional curtain-raiser to the Cheltenham Festival of National Hunt Horse Racing.

Bear with me, and behold these blog entries, posted on this very forum on the eve of the festival over the past two years.  Firstly, Cinders & Ashes - the very by-product of Cigarettes and Alcohol - a red-hot 10/1 belter, which kicked off proceedings 24 months ago, and whose embers still burn bright in my festival memory banks.   Then the follow up in 2013: a perfect collaboration of Mullins's training brilliance, Walsh's riding magnificence and Rich Ricci's equine-ownership arrogance: Champagne "Supernova" Fever:  a 6/1 conqueror of Cleeve Hill in consecutive annual contests, who this year attempts his own "difficult third album".

The anticipation of the year's first festival selection is almost too much for me!   I desperately desire to deliver a Knebworth House recital  but realise such levels of performance are unsustainable without sufficient research and rehearsal.  Couple this self-imposed pressure with the distraction of having started a business in the past few months, and I feel like I'm heading off to do battle with the bookies at Cheltenham this week with as much preparation time as is normally afforded a microwave telly-dinner.  D'You Know What I Mean?

Maybe I should just Roll With It.  Despite not feeling as organised as I would like to be on this, the Christmas Eve of equestrian entertainment, I still feel the ever-enterprising bookies are charitably offering such generous gambling gifts that it would be wrong of me to bemoan the rock-god situation in which I seem to find myself.  So here's the track listing for day one of this year's festival season and a summary of the best deals available online and with your high street turf accountant:

Supreme Novices' Hurdle:

The Liquidator - 22/1 with Paddy Power offering money back if your horse finishes 2nd, 3rd or 4th.  Vaniteux, thought by most to be Nicky Henderson's support act in this race before Barry Geraghty took the ride, is the 12/1 alternative selection to take on the much fancied duo of Irving and Vautour, who deservedly vie for favouritism at the head of the market.  I just think The Liquidator's experience around this track, accepting his disappointing run at Kempton last time out, warrants a much skinnier price than the one on offer here.

Top Trainer:

David Pipe, fresh off the back of Imperial Cup victory at Sandown on Saturday can be backed as top Cheltenham trainer at 33/1 generally, 50/1 with, and with Kings Palace, Red Sherlock, Dynaste etc, surely stands as good a chance as any of the other British contenders.  Yet his price is significantly juicier than his compatriots. Usually regarded as being strong in handicaps, here's a clip taken from his website, in which he addresses the chances of his novice hurdlers, including my selection and former Cheltenham course winner, The Liquidator:  

And although we have come to expect Pipe-trained greys to come up short in recent years, Tom Scudamore rates Dynaste's chance as his best ride of the week, and obviously plans to make up for last year's runner-up spot and 2012's Grands Crus disappointment later on in the week: 

The Arkle Chase:

Rock on Ruby & Trifolium - available at 5/1 and 9/2 respectively - will check the Betfair exchange in the morning as they are offering Best Odds Guaranteed every day in the build-up to The Roar.  Much as I think the aforementioned Walsh/Mullins/Ricci combination is one to get even the most cool racing customer feverish under the white collar, I'm not confident enough in Champagne's ability to pop over every fence with the required fluency in what will be a pacy affair.  Noel Fehily is certain to have a good week, and he can get off the mark here on board Rock on Ruby, who is a consistent if unfashionable performer on this, the biggest of stages.  Trifolium is Tom Segal's antepost pick and is also partnered by a Palphabet favourite jockey in BJ Cooper, who should make the most of his steed's excellent jumping ability.

2.40 Festival Handicap Chase 

I like three here! Course, distance and 2012 race winner Alfie Sherrin has the strongest chance, and I fancy AP to do what he does best in handicap fields like this, particularly since he has clearly opted for this 10 stone 9er's chance over top weight Cantlow, on whom I saw him win back at Newbury in November at 6/1. The Package for Pipe and Scu as mentioned above at a big price after a lengthy lay-off, and a small stake on Time for Rupert.

Champion Hurdle

Ladbrokes and William Hill are clearly having a little side bet of their own this week: who can disrespect Hurricane Fly the most?  Hills go 6/1 tomorrow morning from 10am, offering 10,000 punters the chance to have £10 at a stand out price.  Lads, meanwhile, have been marketing their "money back if Fly finishes 1st or 2nd" for weeks now.  I have backed Hurricane Fly, who I think is as strong as ever, with a strong stake, and also had a bit of Melodic Rendezvous at 25/1 with Magic Sign, fully expecting to be able to claim against their insurance policy if, as I expect, Hurricane Fly finishes in the top two.  Young, strong contenders Jezki, The New One and Our Conor make this one of the races of the week, with seven-year-old and multiple grade-one winner My Tent or Yours extremely well fancied if he can put it all together and make it up the hill.  A mouth watering renewal, but expect Ruby to be holding up three victorious fingers as he passes the lolly pop ahead of his rivals yet again.

Quevega's Hurdle:

Need I say more?  4/1 for new Coral customers is available, but even the 1.9 on Betfair appeals for a horse who has made this race her own over the past five seasons.  Betfred's offer of money back when Quevega wins is effectively a free bet, so why not have it on Cockney Sparrow at 8s or Highland Retreat at 14?

Amateur Riders' Novices' Chase

Shutthefrontdoor with his experience and Nina Carberry with hers, well worth the short price.  I like Herdsman too, trained by Grand National winning boss Sue Smith and fancied by the RP's northern tipster, Colin Russell.

Novices' Handicap Chase

It's that tricky third album again! Haunting me all the way to the end of the card.  With Palphabet wins for Rajdhani Express last year, and top weight Hunt Ball in 2012, I need to avoid a Be Here Now at the close of play as well as at the start of the day!  Pricewise has tipped two at double figures (Art of Logistics and Festive Affair), and whilst I will be backing both of those at 8.30 in the morning, I am plumping for Gardefort at 50/1 for Venetia Williams and Aidan Coleman, and Baby Mix, who is partnered by former Irish Champ Davy Russell.

For what it's worth, by the way, I think Be Here Now is pretty good! Stand by Me remains one of my favourite Oasis songs, and at the end of the day, it's more important to have faith in your own convictions than to worry what the critics might say!  Best of luck for the week ahead .. If you've got this far, I'm sure you're as Mad Ferret as I am!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Nicholls' Near Misses a Sign of Undervalued Opportunities?

To which page in your copy of the Racing Post do you most eagerly turn as you open the crisp inky paper or flick digitally across the cool glass of your tablet device?  If Segal is making an appearance, as he did yesterday and Friday with more successful selections for stalwarts of his suggestions, I head straight to his column.  Richard Hughes has been my next port of call over the flat season, followed perhaps by David Ashforth, whose hilarious musings never fail to entertain and amuse.

After those pages have been perused, though, I'll head to see what horses have gubbed the punters on the previous afternoon.  "Yesterday's Highlights", they somewhat disingenuously subtitle the section (although to be fair, they do draw one's attention to the huge in-play prices that winning horses could have been backed at too), this little grey box has not just got my goat this morning, it's goading my goat.  Grrrrr.

I didn't have huge confidence in Salubrious yesterday, and even less so after reading his trainer's unenthusiastic but frankly realistic appraisal of his chances in his excellent and insightful Betfair column.  But with some sentiment - Salubrious provided a 17/1 Cheltenham festival winner for this blog when he claimed the Martin Pipe Conditionals Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle in March - I thought he was worth an each-way bet at 14/1 yesterday and was encouraged when Segal picked his stablemate Southfield Theatre as I reckon Paul Nicholls' yard is being underestimated by the layers at present.

It's a genuine sign of the magic of this sport though, that when I watched the replay of the 3.00 handicap hurdle on Sky+ last night, I couldn't help but be moved by James Best's tearfully emotional interview with Alice Plunkett after he nicked the Nicholls' pair on the line to score at 20/1 on board Philip Hobbs's Return Spring.  It would have been splendid to have taken the full spoils from the scintillating sprint up the famous Cheltenham hill, but the sport rightly took centre stage ahead of my meaningless P&L spreadsheets:

On the whole, it was a profitable day's punting, with a 3pt stake on Champagne Fever looking about as safe as the debut chaser's jumping looked competently assured.  I did set an unmatched lay before the off, which as you can see was matched shortly before the second last fence, just in case.  Ruby looked very happy on board as it completed a quickfire treble for him at the start of yesterday's Punchestown card, and he's surely going to be even more delighted when he guides Hurricane Fly to a record breaking 17th Grade 1 victory later today.  My £20 double on the Mullins bankers returns just £12 profit - a testament to the high esteem in which they are both held by the bookies.  Segal's tips of Fergal O'Brien's Bradley and Alvarado in the 1.50 at Cheltenham were confidently conveyed in his column and the latter proved him correct, causing me to collect :)

Onto today's racing, and I do really fancy Paul Nicholls to have a fruitful afternoon, not just at Prestbury Park, but over in Sussex at Fontwell too.  It would really set the scene beautifully for Saturday's hotly contested Betfair "Lancashire" Chase if Silviniaco Conti's stablemates return to Ditcheat later today, full of beans, neighing merrily, and send him up the M6 next week with loveable nutter Tidal Bay raring to take on Bobs Worth, First Lieutenant, Long Run and Charlie Hall Chase winner Harry Topper.

1.00 Cheltenham - Pay the King - Bumper winning Nicholls horse with Harry Derham taking off three pounds.  Lieutenant Miller has been out and about as a flat stayer this summer, notching up victories under Tom Queally and Graham Lee before coming a creditable third in the Cesarewitch priced up at 10/1.  Holds less betting appeal at 4/1 this afternoon but is the clear alternative to 15/2 shot Pay the King.

1.35 Cheltenham - Lac Fontana - Clifford Baker's dark horse popped up in my At The Races "Tracker" email this morning.  A 7/1 shot in a small field, worth a small bet as Sea Lord and The Liquidator hog the pre-race headlines.

2.10 Cheltenham - This is a tricky one, with Raya Star, Dodging Bullets and Ted Veale all there or thereabouts in the betting.  Probably the one Nicholls will win with DB, as I am siding with Cheltenham Festival winner and useful flat performer, Teddy V.

2.40 Cheltenham - Just wonder if former Nicholls horse Tataniano isn't worth giving another vote of confidence at a big outside price of 22 on Betfair.  Wearing the famous red and white colours of Big Buck's, he's a memorable horse, although I dug out this article from 2010 that Mr Nicholls would probably rather forget!

2.55 Fontwell - Benvolio (NAP) - With Ruby Walsh off the books at Ditcheat, I think the line up of jockeys should be able to be compared with the squad of Tottenham Hotspur this year.  Losing a superstar, but gaining a balance.. Sadly for Spurs fans, they are playing dreadfully dour football, while Nicholls has at his disposal his number 1 Daryl Jacob, claimer Harry Derham, a pumped-up Twiston-Davies and one of my Twitter faves, Nick "Melodic Rendezvous" Scholfield, who takes the reins on this even money banker today.  I know who I would rather be watching ply their trade this term and it's not the scum from Edmonton!

3.15 Cheltenham - Flaxen Flare - easy one for me this as FF gave me a huge 31/1 boost on Day 3 of last season's festival.  Was 12/1 this morning, but has been clipped into around 8s since Segal selected him again, lauding his trainer Gordon Elliott and describing today's conditions for the four-year-old as "perfect".

3.50 Cheltenham - One last Nicholls stab - Southfield Vic - same colours and close relative of the aforementioned near-misser from yesterday, and PFN seems more confident about this one than he did about that!

Over in Ireland, blog favourite and new Racing Post columnist Bryan Cooper has a good book of rides, picking up strongly-fancied Don Cossack from the banned Davy Russell in the 1.40 Novice Chase.  While the only bet I've had over there is on Hurricane Fly in the fourteen-fifteen formality, why not have a look at this blog from my Twitter pal Steve, as he seems to have a good handle on things over the water.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A Lack of Written Attention, not of Genuine Affection...

You may very well be forgiven for thinking that the notable absence on these pages of a meaningful foray into the feast of flat racing, somehow indicates a loss of appetite for the sport over the summer months.

A friend of mine, who has been mentioned on these pages before, even went so far as to say he was insulted by my perceived lack of attention and interest in the code of horse racing that is contested over distances of five furlongs up to around two miles and during which the animals are not encouraged to leap gallantly over bristly obstacles.

Well, while I am always keen to take on board constructive criticism, the insinuation that a withdrawal of words and writings on this website equates to an absence of interest or excitement is wholly inaccurate.

I will acquiesce that this weekend, with the Cheltenham Open Meeting in full flow and with Punchestown delivering knockout blows in the shape of Mullins one-two Champagne Fever and Hurricane Fly, I certainly return to these pages with more vigour.  But I have taken huge pleasure and eked the occasional pot of profit over the period during which my Raymond Weil has been set to British Summer Time.  If anything, I've been enjoying it too much to have found time to write about it!

A few Palphabet highlights of the 2013 flat season:

- JP Murtagh - what a man - although not backing Royal Diamond on British Champions Day after having circled him in the morning's newspaper was a real error.

- Getting on a Producer / Lost in the Moment 4/1 double with a £100 stake the weekend after a visit to the Hannon yard.  Made all the more special by the fact that the double in question took place in Istanbul, was brought to my attention by Richard Snr in a "conversation" I was fortunate enough to share with him (I basically overheard him mentioning it), and required real endeavour to get on - I really savoured the rewards on this one.  Balthazar King's raid on a French cross country course at something ridiculous like 22/1 also provided under-the-radar European entertainment.

- BCD3 - I've not missed one yet! Breton Rock, Olympic Glory and Farhh ensured that although it wasn't a case of "Frankel who?!" on the richest day in British racing, there is life after the Sir Henry Cecil wonder-colt.  Meeting Paul Bittar; James Knight, Simon Clare and the Coral crew; merely seeing Julian Muscat from afar - all these characters ensured a fantastic day out.  Getting so obliterated on red wine that I knocked a table of drinks over some well-dressed ladies was only a small low point of an otherwise perfect day.

- The young Irish apprentice champion - Conor King - caught the eye many times, and none more so than when completing a 14,725/1 quadruple over at Cork.  Spoke very well when interviewed on the telly during some of the more high-profile meetings, he's definitely one to watch.

- Ryan Moore vs Graham Cunningham - this was an enjoyable exchange, with Ryan taking to his Betfair column to very eloquently put the outspoken TV pundit back in his box for a while.  Cunningham was not quite so scathing in his analysis of Moore's Melbourne Cup ride on Dandino, although somewhat ironically the horse's owners decided to boot him off for next month's Hong Kong vase.

- Treve - what a horse.


So, yes, I have thoroughly enjoyed the thoroughbreds throughout the warm months, and now I've worn myself out with memories I actually can't think straight about today's National Hunt contests, so I'll just leave you with my selections:

1.15 Cheltenham - White Star Line

1.50 Cheltenham - Goulanes

2.30 Cheltenham - Rajdhani Express (& adding Gift of Dgab to White Star Line for a Bryan Cooper double in anticipation of his new Racing Post Column tomorrow)

3.00 Cheltenham - I think his horses could be undervalued at the moment, and with Harry Derham taking five pounds off Salubrious I just wonder if he's worth an each way bet..

2.00 Lingfield (yes, the flat!) - Bronze Angel

1.00 Punchestown - Champagne Fever - NAP (also pairing him up with the Fly for a Mullins - Ruby Walsh double.. was great to see Ruby back at Cheltenham yesterday giving a great ride to win the last on board Quick Jack)

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Betfair versus the Bookies - The Virtues of Value

The blog below is also available on as an edited article.  I have been blogging for GM over the past few months now and am thoroughly enjoying the opportunity given to me by the country's best golf mag.  Thanks TC ; )

Stenson won!  StensWon, as he shall be known forthwith, rewarded loyal backers with a 35/1 Betfair booty bonus and delightfully demonstrated two things.  Firstly, that it’s prudent to peruse the punting purveyors for prices, and secondly that persistence and consistency lead to confidence and prosperity.

Heroic Henrik was 28/1 with BetVictor before the off last week, 25/1 with all other bookmakers, but was being readily layed (or laid, if you’re that way inclined) at 36 on the exchange. 

Minus Betfair’s commission (usually around 4-5% unless you roll high on a regular basis – mine is currently 4.8%), profit on the £20 win-only stake (before being offset against losses) was a devilish 666 pounds and forty pence.  The same money with Mr Chandler would have returned you £560, a shortfall of £106.40.  So don’t get sucked in by those ridiculous Dennis Pennis adverts.
Equally, don’t always assume that you have to be with Betfair to “Cash Out”, or that they are the only firm offering value.  Yes, their interface makes the ability for punters to hedge bets condescendingly easy (as shown below), and yes, they are often better priced than the market (as they were last week for StensWon), but you are not “settling for less” every time you opt to place your bets the old fashioned way.
Rather than "Cash Out", I normally favour hedging my bets manually by "laying off", particularly when I still have faith in my original selection
In this week’s Omega European Masters, with no FedEx Cup stuff in America, focus is fully on Europe, and I like one of the market leaders: Brett Rumford.  Similarly to StensWon (and this also incorporates my second theme: form), the multiple European Tour winning Australian has been in scintillating nick this term, notching up two titles and two strong top ten finishes in the past two weeks. 
Betfair have Rumford at 32 (31/1 in fractional odds).  He is currently 33/1 with and Bet365.  Annoyingly don’t do each-way terms.  This is particularly unfortunate for me since Bet365 restricted my account to Granny-bets after I took them to the cleaners in a three month winning window of wonder earlier this year, but I digress.   
Knock off your commission on a £20 stake with Betfair and you pocket £590.24 with them versus £660 with Bet365 (although don’t expect to be able to get a score on with the Stoke-based bookie the following week if Rumford revels!)
I also fancy Frederik Andersson Hed this weekend (runner-up at the stunning Crans-sur-Sierre last year, sixth in 2011 – again; form, consistency).  I don’t need to demonstrate the mathematics for you to work out that you’re better off with Betfair at 95 than you are with the bookies at 80/1. 
If the prices are the same on the exchange as they are with your bookie, it goes without saying you should take your business to the latter, who won’t take any commission if you win (but will take all your losses if you lose, unlike Betfair, who only take their commission fee).
Clear?  Great!
Aside from the golf, it's been an eventful few weeks at Palphabet towers.  Actually, that's utter drivel because I haven't spent an awful lot of time here at HQ.  I ventured on an eight-day professional sojourn to Melbourne and Sydney, which involved five days of work, two days of enjoyment, and a day of travelling.
The enjoyment came in droves (whatever they are).  Giant scoops of sporting droves served up in a double-schooner of MCG-branded beakers.  Yes, the Melbourne Cricket Ground was every bit the legendary venue it is cracked up to be. 

Talking of crack, or craic, Ireland was my next stop, where our friends’ wedding took us from County Monaghan to Galway City, fuelled by the black stuff and the rich tobacco of tightly rolled Cuban cigars.  All the while the gambling has been going well, until the new Premier League Football season started.
A Full Head on the Pints Only

Mrs Palphabet (right) and Her Pal Jules Sampling the Local Beverages
Finally, a trip last weekend to the Salisbury Plain.  A visit to Richard Hannon’s yard to see my mate’s new syndicated horse, Mr Greenspan.
Hannon's Gallops and Popular Filly Maureen
Up Close and Personal with Mr Greenspan - a HUGE two year-old colt
Watch this space for a more detailed blog on Mr G and the MCG, coming soon.
Continuing to Weave Pure Cotton Enjoyment into The Rich Tapestry of Life

Saturday, 29 June 2013

An Unwelcome Week of Woe - Cheers Bubba!

The blog below is available on as an edited article.  I have been blogging for GM over the past 10 weeks now and am thoroughly enjoying the opportunity given to me by the country's best golf mag.  Thanks TC ; )
You’re welcome.  That’s what Bubba Watson says on many a YouTube video like that one, joshing around and playing the fool like someone who doesn’t take life too seriously, albeit while hitting some pretty impressive and entertaining shots, occasionally of blancmange rather than a little white ball.  

Bubba actually wrongly displays the text “your welcome”, after the above clip, his incorrect grammar and complete disrespect for apostrophes perhaps betraying his lack of education through total dedication to his sport.  Or maybe he’s just thick.  Or “dumb”, as he admits in this PGA interview.
The phrase ‘you’re welcome’ is usually preceded by someone thanking you for a kind gesture.  Well, this past week I have certainly not been offering any gratitude in the direction of Mr Watson. 

His caddy probably wasn’t too impressed either, after Bubba’s collapse on the par-three 16th saw him turn a two-shot lead at the head of the scoreboard into a one-shot deficit, ultimately relinquishing the title, he took his dissatisfaction out on his assistant.  

This blog makes the salient point that Bubba was just doing at the Travelers Championship (one L, no apostrophes? Weird...) what most amateurs do on courses around the world every day – blame someone else for their mistakes – well, in that case, I am blaming the 2012 Masters Champion for my losses last weekend.

Me and Bubba (or rather, Bubba and I) have previous, as his playoff win against Louis Oosthuizen cost me Augusta profit last year.  Having sided with the South African for the coveted Green Jacket, it was agonising to see that big hook land where it did, denying me a four-figure payout.   Last weekend brought all those miserable memories flooding forlornly back into my bitter, sorrowful soul.

To compound the discontent, I layed my entire book against Ken Duke winning, meaning that any of Chris Stroud, Graham DeLaet, heck – even Bubba Watson himself, emerged victorious, I wouldn’t lose anything.  Duke had never been crowned victorious in his journeyman career, hit 999/1 on Betfair at one point as the chart below painfully portrays, and so I thought the £215 lay at 1.41 was a reasonable course of action.  He went on to win, I went to bed a loser for the second week running.

For this week’s AT&T National and Irish Open I went hard (well, £15.12 each way) on a Seung-Yul Noh/Graeme McDowell double.  Noh was fourth in the US event last year and was priced up a 150/1 outsider, while G Mac, despite missing the cut at the US Open and at this course twice, where he has also never managed to record a score under-par, appealed at 18/1 (for some reason) with SportingBet offering six place each way terms.
That would have given you a 46.5 bag return, had McDowell not missed the cut and Noh not been +5 when I last looked:  You’re welcome!

Feedback from your friends can come in many guises: "your hair looks shit", "you were an absolute liability last week", "your missus is gonna leave you when she makes her first million in business" are just a few examples of the more publishable words of wisdom given to me by my mates over the years. 
This week, I was informed that Palphabet was becoming little more than a copy & paste exercise for Golf Monthly, that I hadn't written anything about racing for two months (that's a lie, by the way), and that therefore, no one would bother reading it.
Well, if you've got this far, I thought I'd reluctantly listen to the lads and go back to my roots. 
Various expired bank cards have meant that my multitude of accounts with online bookmakers required some spring-cleaning.  Since Bet365, a favourite of mine throughout late 2012 and into early 2013, have decided to severely restrict (/ban) me from trading with them, I've had some decisions to make.
The P&L for May, across all of my accounts looked like this:
Since then, due mostly to debit card admin rather than any particular problems with online betting shops,  I've only been playing around with Betfair (and their new Sportsbook), SportingBet, Coral and my new favourite, Stan James.  Stan's golf prices are often the best around, even better than the Betfair exchange prices available (with no commission taken on winners), and I like the fact that their spokesman @roryjiwani regularly retweets links to my blogs!
One of the most satisfying events of recent weeks has been renewing my piece of Barclays plastic and having it emblazoned with the two greatest steeplechasers of my short love affair with horseracing.

The fact that I have chosen those two equine characters, rather than Frankel and Sea the Stars perhaps explains why my writing on the sport has been fairly limited since the Aintree Festival.  No matter how hard I try, and I do enjoy it, I just can't find enough inspiration in flat racing to put pen to paper with the same passion as I do over the colder and darker months of the year. 
Seeing champion of jumps Nicky Henderson get a 12/1 winner at Royal Ascot gave me more pleasure this "summer" than any winner I've had over a seven furlongs, and it speaks volumes that the main mention on these pages with regards to The Sport of Kings has been a genuine and heartfelt tribute to Sir Henry Cecil.
So, with only a passing interest in the Confederations Cup, a mild understanding of the betting markets surrounding Rugby Union and my small but long standing bets on the next Manchester United manager to follow SAF successfully settled, my current bets and conversational focus has been limited thus:
Sports Personality of the Year 2013 (for which I assume the Racing Post is still suffering a gagging order), antepost golf betting and the winner of Wimbledon Men's tournament dominates the screen above and are likely only to be given company by a few stabs on Le Tour, as I attempt to improve my knowledge of a sport that appears to offer entertainment and value in abundance, but about which I have very little knowledge, and of course, The Ashes.
So there we are - Palphabet has become rather more focused on golf, granted, but there's still plenty to discuss away from the fairways and greens.... that is until the proper beasts start galloping their way towards fences at least four feet and six inches tall and I can get stuck in with pen and pound once again.

UPDATE: Sunday Morning, 10am.....
These were the results of yesterday's picks at Newcastle, Newmarket and Curragh.  It's almost as though the lords of the flat were listening to me slagging off their noble sport, and decided to woo me with a fine fillip: