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Plog 52 - 05/01/18:
No Updates Over Christmas, I'm Human
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SOMETIMES, you have to do the right thing for yourself at the right time.
Major life events do not respect your agenda. If you don't want major life events to occur at times that don't suit you, you can bet your last ten pence that major life events will happen when your schedule is already too crowded. Minor ones, too - like the person that just asked me if I had five pounds of change - or was it just 'do you have five pounds', I didn't quite catch the end-bit. Whatever, that's something else I don't need.
I apologise to anyone that was hoping to read some full-on Race Previews, or previews less detailed, on rwsteeplechasing.co.uk
over Christmas. I don't have to apologise, as it's my website and I can choose when I update it - but I'm aware that there was National Hunt racing going on everywhere except Chepstow over the Christmas period and, given that I'm supposed to be a jumps-fan, you'd be right to expect me to immerse myself in it, and you could therefore expect a few updates on the website over the festive season.
Trouble is, since about June, things haven't been right. I can't go into all the detail, but suffice it to say that I've not always felt okay.
The bits I can broadcast, I'll try and explain.
When Inconvenience Comes Up Your Way
Up until November roadworks, and the resultant traffic jams, were something I came across on a car journey to relatives, or when going on holiday somewhere in Britain, or to the airport, or even to the races.
My all time-record is a delay of more than two hours on the A1 around Peterborough when going to Southwell in October 2003 - all four lanes closed for two miles, everything bottlenecking to the hard shoulder, for no reason that I could see. I should have arrived at the track with two hours to spare, in the end I arrived only 15 minutes before the first race - not how I like it when I go racing.
This Autumn, major upheaval came to our road. Big lorries, teams of people in hi-vis, drilling, noise, reduced parking, portaloos for the workers, coming in to everyone's properties to turn the gas on and off, and not forgetting the pungent smell of gas.
As Christmas approached the team, like true Brits, fell behind schedule in their gas main-replacement, and they rushed to complete the work. As our neighbours took down their lights - many before twelfth-night - we were thinking that they'd finished, but the appearance of cones, signs and a new hole in the pavement early in January suggests they're coming back for more. They might as well have left their pop-up worksite in place over the festive season.
This makes me despair of our country sometimes. Britain surely leads the world in the league table, if there is such a thing, of unnecessary roadworks and repairs that don't need doing. We were told that the gas mains in our road needed replacing. We don't know, they're under the road. What we know now is that a couple of neighbours have said that their heating doesn't come on as quickly as it did before the work.
Another flop in the Racing UK Tipstar Competition
Nuff said here, really. Despite my depression and the ongoing gas-work I'd never done a better set of entries for Racing UK's annual video-tipster competition, putting up winners with Foxtail Hill (easily the best video, recorded with my wife's help at Cheltenham the day before he won there in October), Louis Vac'Pouch and Apple's Shakira, and still I get overlooked.
Having thought about it since I found out I hadn't made the final, I don't think I'll be entering the competition again. I'm clearly not what they want - perhaps there's an individual, or individuals, within RUK that's deciding that, or maybe there's some slimeball working there that will stop at nothing to prevent me from getting my toe in. I'd still like to appear on Racing UK or At The Races one day, but the Tipstar-competition is not how I'll go about getting on there in future.
Obviously I hope that a 'slimeball', as I put it, is not pulling the necessary strings at RUK, but I was well and truly shafted by such people at The Sporting Life, so you never know. April 2017 was the twentieth anniversary of my redundancy from the Life. I didn't mark the occasion. The story might come out one day.
All that, plus the unbroadcastable stuff, has led to the onset of deeper anxiety and depression than I've ever had before. A doctor suggested I had 'acute anxiety' in 1990, and from that day to this, it's been an on-off companion.
Some might say 'pull yourself together'. You think it's that easy? Think again. When you've got a lot of things going on, your mind is pulled and pushed in all directions and you can't concentrate. You can't always just snap out of a bad mood.
As implied above, the personal stuff must remain personal. But everything comes together in my head, and collides. It's enough to make me think sometimes 'who cares about a few lousy horse races'.
So what about the horse racing?
You're reading the above, and thinking 'what Roy is really saying is that he's lost a whole lot of bets recently'. It's true, I have. But I like to think I can separate betting on horse racing from the rest of my life. The only person in the room (metaphorically speaking) when you bet, is you. When you're done, win or lose, it's back to your life. That's how I try and treat it - that somehow it doesn't affect me personally. It's like drawing a line on your brain - life on this side, betting on that side.
The best way to look at it is the quote from the late Alan Potts, Sizing John's owner, who said a while back: "Racing is not how we make our money, it's how we spend it." That's it, right there. I'm out to make an extra quid or two, but I'm not going to go broke if I lose.
Making money from betting can be done, but if the methods that I used to come out in front in the latest National Hunt season (from May 2016 to the end of April 2017) are not the ones to achieve long-term profits, then I'm still looking for the strategy that will make it happen. Maybe that was flukish, as most of that came from the last six or seven weeks of the season.
Certainly, in the normal run of things I expect to get at least the odd favourable result in October and November and tread water at least, but that hasn't happened. With life very firmly having me in its grip, I decided to draw stumps for the year, and not do any study.
I have to say, I felt the benefit. Not winding my mind up to study the form, crunch the numbers and produce spreadsheets for whatever looked competitive enough over Christmas, meant that my brain could get back into a better place, and I could do lots of analysis. I've still done lots of race-watching and comments-in-running, which could steer me towards a winner in 2018, and I've kept up with the handicapping, rating all ten Boxing Day jump meetings in Britain and Ireland the following day while that afternoon's racing was going on.
There were opportunities that passed by, for all I know. The winners of the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Leopardstown and the Tim Duggan Memorial at Limerick, both good races, were in my back-zone, but I don't know if I'd have fallen on them or not. If I'd been more 'on it' mentally, I'd have felt like giving at least one of them a go - but they're both on the same day as the Welsh Grand National should have taken place, and if I'd have been studying, I'd have prioritised the Chepstow card.
It's not in the best interests of Horse Racing Ireland or the British Horseracing Authority to take into account what the other is doing when it comes to deciding their racing programmes over Christmas, but personally I don't think it's ideal to put three good handicap chases at three different tracks on the same day. If they were on three different days, that would be better. Certainly HRI should take a look at moving either of the Leopardstown or Limerick races to another day.
But if I feel the same over Christmas 2018 as I felt in the run-up to Christmas 2017, it will be academic.
I also felt affected by the succession of horses running their last in December. You can't gloss over it, but if it happens more regularly at a particular time, you're more likely to notice and take it in.
The first fatality at a major meeting that month was Sir Valentino, who fell at the last in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown on December 8th. The horse was still down and receiving treatment at the time that the last race - the London National, another steeplechase - was due to start. They could have abandoned the race, but they decided to run it with the last fence omitted.
Seeing the screens go up with a circuit to go is one thing, but seeing them up before and during a race - knowing the reason why they are there - that I'm struggling with, and in the London National they had to pass the stricken Sir Valentino and the people treating him three times. No disrespect to the connections of the winner Benbens, or of course to the horse himself, but I don't think the London National should have taken place.
Let the last word here, before I move on to the next incident, be in praise of Sir Valentino's jockey Adrian Heskin, who was widely and rightly praised on Twitter for giving up his ride in the London National so that he could stay with the stricken horse. A case of the heart ruling the head, but sometimes - like then - it's bang right to do so. Remember, jockeys get paid by the ride.
A rather more sickening injury was that sustained by poor Starchitect in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at Cheltenham the following Saturday. Running away with the race, he was ten lengths clear and about to probably double that when, with all eyes at the track and watching on television trained on him, his leg shattered approaching the second last. The ITV team did their best to take the cameras off the horse, but you knew there was only one outcome the instant that it happened.
There was more sadness at Leopardstown over Christmas. The loss of Nichols Canyon, the 2017 Stayers' Hurdle winner, will have been hard to take for his owners Andrea and Graham Wylie, who have supported National Hunt racing for in excess of a decade but don't have as many horses as they used to. As always people jump on social media, and were quick to acknowledge that the hurdle in front of the stands, where Nichols Canyon took off too early and fell, had been omitted for the earlier races, but was back in for the Christmas Hurdle. 'What if', and so on.
The problem at Leopardstown was not low sun, but long shadows. For the first two or three races at their Christmas meeting, bright sunshine might well have been pleasant for racegoers, but it wasn't so for the horses and jockeys, who had to look straight at it when coming to the last hurdle and fence (also the first in two-mile races).
When Nichols Canyon ran, the sun had started to go behind the grandstand to the right of the home straight as the runners approach, casting a shadow at an angle of, I'm guessing, around 45 degrees, compared to near-enough zero degrees earlier. Make of that what you will, but it's up to the racecourse to address the issue, if that's what it is. It hadn't been an issue before that I'd noticed, and I've seen plenty of Leopardstown over the years.
Zabana also passed on at Leopardstown after falling at the last fence on the first circuit in the Christmas Chase, at a time when the sun had gone in and/or behind the grandstand, therefore low sun wasn't an issue for that - sadly, just one of those things.
When does a National Hunt racing fan start to think 'where do you draw the line'?
So What Next?
The aim is to achieve some sort of contentment. It's a tall order. All the usual things that do me in mentally - most of them discussed above - won't just remain in place, they'll get bigger and badder. I could also add in things like overcrowded lifts where I work, or alternatively you could tell me to shut up. Do so if you want, but I'm not going to change who I am. I'm pessimistic by nature - I'm not one who thinks 'new year, new hope', I'm more like 'new year, no hope'.
Early days in 2018, but things are okay. It's at the back of my mind that 'life' will get me again, but if something neither good nor planned happens once, you're better prepared should it happen a second time. Mind you, at the time of writing I haven't had a bet this year.
I'm looking forward to the Cheltenham Festival. Faugheen and Sizing John are off the map after their Christmas flops and Altior is on the missing list at the time of writing, so if they don't come to the party, hopefully that won't detract from my enjoyment. But it would be brilliant, of course, if all horses and jockeys came back safe and injury-free at the end of the four days.
As usual I'll be enjoying television coverage of it at home, with the sound turned down while the various pundits are on before, between and after the races.