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Plog 51 - 09/09/17:
The Topham Is The Lottery Now


‘NEVER fall in to the trap of thinking this is easy’, I might have to start telling myself.

As I had done pre-Cheltenham, I tried to go in to the Grand National meeting relaxed and feeling mentally neutral. I just wanted one difference from Aintree last year to this – to be in front no matter what by the time the tape went up for the National. Things like Rule The World only happen a maximum of once.

To briefly more-than-hint about how that ended up, I’m having a re-think about the strategy for next year’s Merseyside mashup. That is a bit late for 2017, but between 5:15 and 6:30 on the Saturday evening I had the luck of an escapologist who didn’t rehearse but somehow broke the final chain just in time, and came out on top. For most of the meeting each-way was the order of the day, as it had been successfully at Cheltenham.

Double W’s needed to have been Double The Price
The only race I got involved with on the Thursday was the Red Rum Chase which had Double W’s in it, a horse I like. Often the trouble with horses I like is that other people like them too, and that keeps their prices down. Double W’s going in was very much a result you could have expected, but it got me off to a costly start. No show from Foxtail Hill, Romain De Senam or Gino Trail. Somehow I’d got it into my head that those ridden prominently might make an impact but not so, Foxtail Hill unable to dominate.

Clondaw Demoraliser
The opening two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle was a race I won with Strangely Brown in 2006, but it’s been a decade of nearlys or nowheres since. North Hill Harvey, a rare Dan Skelton-trained runner at what I call a backable price, was an idea I had as I thought he’d be suited by the step up in trip, but he ran like he knew that I backed him.

Things were looking better up with the pace though. Clondaw Kaempfer, who won this a few years ago and was now blinkered first time, was carrying my dough at 40/1 and, it seemed, was rolling back the years when striking for home from the second last, but he was all over the place at the last, and immediately went from leading to out of the places. Rather Be and Dream Berry were closing and would have headed him, so the win wouldn’t have happened, but he would have placed.

I was a bit too familiar with the place that I was now in. A rare crack at a Grade 1 race, the Melling Chase, came to just as nothing as Clondaw Kaempfer did, Fox Norton completely trashing the notion that he was worth taking on stepping up in trip. They’re talking in terms of the King George for him next year and I won’t be so quick to dismiss that idea – he has the class, and his was a decisive win. Sadly for me though, there was no revival of Uxizandre’s heroics in the 2015 Ryanair Chase, even with a visor back on, like he’d worn at Cheltenham two years ago.

More about the Topham Chase over the National course a bit further down, but suffice it to say that my motley crew headed up by Gold Present flopped, and that was me for the day. The Grade 1 Sefton Novices’ Hurdle often has a big-priced winner, but I had a gut feeling that The Worlds End - very much fancied – could make amends for his fall two out, when looking like going close, in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham, so I was never going to bet in the Sefton against a strong head-of-the-market. That turned out to be the only thing I got right.

Help!
If I was a Beatles fan, Help would have been the most appropriate song to play. I needed a miracle to make money on the three-day meeting, but I would have settled for a winning day.

With results lacking, back came the loss of confidence which affected me early on during Cheltenham. When I fired up The Engine Room on Saturday morning I wasn’t sure what the plan was going to be. The Grade 1 events certainly weren’t betting material, so it was either the three-mile handicap hurdle and the Grand National, or the National and the two-mile handicap hurdle, or a high-risk day with bets in all three.

As always at this time of year the National was studied on Monday and Tuesday evening, and I had the eventual final 40 covered as usual during the course of the work. The now usual bias towards runners with form from the Grand National itself or the other big Nationals (Irish, Scottish, Welsh), and then from other good three-and-a-half-mile chases with big fields (things like Warwick’s Classic Chase, or the Eider at Newcastle, or the 3m3f handicap chase at Cheltenham’s Open meeting), steered me towards five of the field over and above the rest.

Of those five The Last Samuri, the gallant 2016 runner-up, was passed over on account of the big weight he now had to carry. Red Rum could do it with 12 stone, but we’ve moved on. Rummy’s brilliance was natural, but Grand National horses nowadays have to have the necessary qualities trained into them.

That left the last two Irish National winners, Thunder And Roses and Rogue Angel; the runner-up to Cheltenham Gold Cup second favourite Native River in the latest Welsh Grand National, Raz De Maree; and the eight-year-old One For Arthur, who threaded a path from the back through 19 rivals to win the Classic Chase when last seen out in January.

But what to go for in the two handicap hurdles? Which race is the winner in? There were horses I liked in both, but I decided to leave the opening staying handicap hurdle and go for the closing two-mile handicap for conditional and amateur riders. At least something fairly concrete swayed me in that direction – the presence of a good favourite in the staying handicap, No Hassle Hoff, who had lots of form with many of the better staying novice hurdlers. He didn’t win though. Fountains Windfall, who had the race to himself on the final circuit, could easily have been backed, or just as easily have been left out, like Un Temps Pour Tout and a couple of others at Cheltenham.

I’m usually not afraid to bet against a strong favourite, but this was the last day of a hitherto unsuccessful three-day meeting, and it’s harder mentally when you’re in that place. The Grand National, then, was the day’s first betting race, with the closing handicap hurdle the only other.

In my head I was predicting a journey to flopsville – the usual, then – when Raz De Maree went at first Becher’s and then Thunder And Roses was brought down by a blundering loose horse at first Valentine’s. Rogue Angel was in the first two, as could have been predicted beforehand, but could he last?

There was no sign of One For Arthur throughout the first circuit, or for most of the second. I assumed he’d departed early and it hadn’t been spotted by the ITV commentary team.

With four to jump Blaklion served it up to Rogue Angel, going clear of him by the third last. To cover the move Bryan Cooper had to seriously get after Rogue Angel probably earlier than he had hoped – he’d kept finding in the Irish Grand National, but he didn’t have rivals doing what Blaklion was doing to contend with.

But there was a lifeline. As Richard Hoiles took back commentary on the home turn, he called: “One For Arthur is making significant headway…”. This was the first time his name had been called in the race – only 28 fences in… but there was the hope of Scotland, in the new ‘Saltire’ colours (a change from the black with red spots he’d had at Warwick), still going well while everything else apart from Blaklion was getting pushed along.

At least this year I was aware that I still had a chance of backing the winner of the National before the second last, rather than after the Elbow as had been the case with Rule The World.

From the turn to the second last fence, One For Arthur passed everything. His supporters got a hell of a fright when he collided with Blaklion’s quarters jumping the second last, but he survived, and with Derek Fox sending him to the front then, with no stride, shortening his mount into the last, he got in tight and picked up in the manner of a steeplechaser who knew what he was doing. Horse and jockey in the zone. Staying on well to hold off Cause Of Causes, what else can you say - job done.

It meant an up-day, but in terms of the week it was merely damage limitation. I needed a win from one of my three each-wayers in the closing handicap – and Chesterfield obliged, taking John Constable’s measure when that one fell at the last, So there we are, I’d pulled off The Great Escape, sort of.

So, Here’s Where It Went Wrong
Two things, really. For starters I should have left the Melling Chase alone. Top-class horses often perform above and beyond their pedigrees and perceived stamina limitations. Nobody should have been surprised that Fox Norton won the Melling. After all, in the Aintree Hurdle of old, the likes of Monksfield and Night Nurse ran the same great races as they did over two miles – and that was when the Aintree Hurdle was over two miles and five and a half furlongs, not two-four.

The other would have been to forget about the Topham. The Grand National, for me, is one of the most predictable races to study – it’s not hard to find the best-equipped horses for it. But the Topham is a lottery. Ultragold winning is fairly credible, but Katnap running so close – from well out of the handicap, and after he’d weakened late, as though time was catching up with him, in a middle-of-the-road handicap chase at Wexford on his previous start – that I don’t get at all. Seemingly reliable form just doesn’t work out in the race.

Will I remember this next year?

Seeing Out The Season
My upturn in fortunes continued, and coincided with a decision after Aintree not to back anything at less than 12/1. Analysis of my betting over the last couple of seasons shows that my best results are achieved when I get 12/1 and upwards – those at 11/1 or less were losers overall. Had I been doing that during the National meeting I wouldn’t have been on Chesterfield, for whom I could only get 11/1, but I shouldn’t have been in a position where I needed a win from him in the first place – the scenario I always wish for at the end of a Festival meeting is ‘doesn’t matter if it doesn’t, but nice if it does’.

No issue with Chesterfield’s price in the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr next time, 14/1. A rise in the weights for his Aintree win made it harder (with a fortnight, not a week, between the meetings he could run off the new higher rating the handicapper gave him, rather than carry a 7-lb penalty) but, helped by a mistake at the last by the challenging Zubayr, he prevailed by a head. I’ve been looking for Chesterfield in the entries every day since!

On the last day of the season Whatareudoingtome - in the only race of the Punchestown Festival that I bet in – did the decent thing, and at the time of writing I’ve already had two winning wagers in the new 2017/18 jumps season, both in May. Unusually both drifted from shorter odds to my new minimum of 12/1 - Minellacelebration in the Staffordshire Plate at Uttoxeter, with five minutes to go to off-time, was added to No Planning (runner-up) and Pair Of Jacks; and Mia’s Storm was added to the team in the two-mile seven-furlong handicap hurdle on Haydock’s mixed card.

I reacted as soon as I saw Mia’s Storm go 12s – I’d made her favourite on my tissue, along with Prime Venture, who hovered around 5/1 throughout the morning – but if I’d been patient I could have had 16/1. I was also in the Swinton but, with John Constable, never higher than mid single-figures, getting compensation for what happened at Aintree in most comprehensive fashion, that was costly for me.

I prefer to let the market take shape before going in, which it had with Mia’s Storm. Most of my winners are horses who’ve drifted from their early-morning prices which usually go off at smaller odds. The only explanation I can come up with for the drifts in the races in May that I bet in is that, although they were good races (I seldom bet in worse than Class 2 nowadays), with the Flat in full swing jumping is now lower profile, and bookmakers won’t set odds as attractive – if you’d seen Oddschecker’s best book-figures for high-profile, big-field handicaps in the peak period of the National Hunt season, a lot of those were under 110%.

Flat and Flexibility
Buoyed by my successes, I’ve once more dabbled in some middle-distance Class 2 Flat handicaps. Sadly it’s been without success, although it was only in the last furlong that High Secret was caught by Top Tug at Goodwood in May. That’s a Paul Nicholls-trained horse, nearly winning on the level (beaten by one from the jumps fraternity’s Alan King, a Cesarewitch-winning trainer).

The recent announcement that Nicholls will be training some two year-olds next Flat season may not be a 180-degree shift away from jumping, but both Nicholls and the majority would conclude the same thing – that he’s achieved everything possible in National Hunt, and now he’s trying something different. Why not, if you can be competitive. It also demonstrates flexibility – that there’s life outside the jumps. I know, I know, you want to tell me to wash my mouth out for saying that…

Nicholls wouldn’t do it if he didn’t think he could win, and I think the same, but the High Secret-bet was the closest I got. Next I took on the in-form Jaamid in a mile and six-handicap over Newmarket’s July Course, but I think mine went up the Rowley Mile that time. Then another hot heat over the same trip at the Glorious Goodwood meeting (even I don’t think of that meeting by any other name), but again no joy, My Reward still in with a shout entering the last furlong but unable to hold on against Soldier In Action.

What I’m intending to be the last Flat bet for now, certainly for this year, was the Ebor at York, the most valuable handicap race in Britain bar the Grand National. Given that Chesterfield was such a money-spinner for me back in April his was the one name I was looking for amongst the entries. In seriousness I felt I had a good chance with Natural Scenery, who along with three others carried what I felt were realistic hopes of me backing an Ebor winner.

By the time that Natural Scenery emerged from the pack, and stayed on into a good third, Nakeeta was away. Twitter was awash with angry punters saying he should have won, lots blaming jockey Edward Greatrex. Me, I don’t know. Yes, nothing finished better, but before he ran on – actually while he was running on, too – he did rather put his head in the air.

Flexibility in me thinking ‘I can back jumps winners, I can back a Flat winner as well’ is one thing. Flexibility in the interpretation of horses’ chances on my Excel spreadsheet, however, is the same. A misinterpretation and/or an underestimation of a horse’s claims is potentially costly. That’s how it’s been over jumps on and off since I changed my method. The mindsets are the same for the Flat races I’ve bet in, before and after the events.

The mistakes come in two forms and, for me, they apply to both Flat and jumps:
1/ I underestimate one or more horses in the race, let them run, and they win, at shorter odds than I wanted;
2/ I take on a good favourite who’s too short for me to back, and goes on to win.

The first scenario applied to the second Goodwood-race I bet in, which Soldier In Action won. I concluded that, as he went from the front, the extra distance – he’d run over 12 furlongs on his last few starts – wouldn’t be to his advantage, and took him on. What happened, of course, was that he was made less use of and turned up later in the piece, just holding off Blakeney Point. My lack of flexibility meant that I dismissed him as having no chance, not even taking into account a hurdles-win over two miles on his record. His form on paper actually gave him a strong chance and he was available at around 12/1, my minimum.

It also applied to the Ebor. There had been a cracking run on Nakeeta’s record that gave him a strong chance – two starts back, also at York, he chased home Dal Harraild. I’m halfway familiar with that horse, as I’d come across him a couple of times in 2016 and knew that he was improving from handicapper to Listed-standard. His last start was against Jaamid at Newmarket, and it wasn’t so good, suggesting that he was exposed, and as he’d last won in September 2015, his chance in the Ebor, I decided, was ‘a bit of a chance’, not stronger. I wanted 25/1 about him, not 12/1.

I’m usually good at considering jump horses for races I’m interested in betting in on the strength of their run two (or even three) runs back, so I beat myself up a bit over that result. Hopefully I’ll learn from the experience.

Scenario number two applied to the Jaamid Newmarket-race. He was a good favourite, and with my horses nowhere near, that told me that I shouldn’t have got involved. In terms of the final result it also applied to the Goodwood one that Top Tug won, but as High Secret led in that until the last hundred yards, I feel as though the wager in that Goodwood-race was justified.

It will remain the case for now, then, that the race won by Intense Tango at Haydock in September 2016 is the only Flat-race that I’ve backed the winner of (not counting silly fivers on Chelmsford-races in the period I was doing tips for races there for the Essex Chronicle). And as I suggested in a previous PLOG on the subject, there might as well have been a set of hurdles that time – soft ground, raining and the winner better known as a hurdler.

The damage? Well, if there’s anything good about how the Flat went for me in 2017, it’s that I’m not sure ‘damage’ is the right word. I lost the equivalent of two bad Saturdays, so nothing I can’t handle. A good Cheltenham and several up-Saturdays in April and May put me in a great place, which I’m still in despite the results. There are at least ten jump-Saturdays, plus maybe one or two Sundays, that I’ll be betting on between now and the end of the year though, so I’m going to need to get good again – to fill my mind from the ground up with jump horses, and be focused.

The world outside racing sometimes gets to me – I’m human after all – and it’s an increasingly crowded world, so I’ve got to block that out of my head. I’ve managed up to now and I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t continue to. I want to be able to study form, study it well, take it in, and come to the same conclusions after a bad day at work, or a late train, or after a disagreement over where to go on holiday next year, as I would do if I’d had none of life’s inconveniences enter my head before a study-session.

I’m up for this, and September 30th is when it starts.

PDF Race Previews on rwsteeplechasing.co.uk resume for racing on Saturday September 30th and, as before, will appear on Saturdays, the odd Sunday and the Cheltenham/Aintree Festivals.

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Roy Waterhouse
2017

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50: A Meeting Of Two Halves | 49: Getting Out Of The Abyss |
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