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Plog 49 - 10/09/16:
Getting Out Of The Abyss


There’s a virtual abyss which all punters look down every now and again.

I was staring right at one after the 2016 Cheltenham Festival, and not much had happened over the first two days of the Grand National meeting at Aintree to reverse that terminal-seeming decline.

Put another way, I was where no punter wants to be going in to the Grand National; needing a result. What everyone is looking for is to be at least treading water, or preferably slightly ahead no matter what happens in the National, or – even more preferably – be so well ahead that you’ll make a good profit on the three days of Aintree even if nothing goes right in the world’s greatest steeplechase.

The thing about the virtual abyss is that, if something gives you a bit of hope, what happens next very quickly knocks you back again.

Having resumed each-way betting at the festivals after the apocalyptic Cheltenham, I had a little result on the staying handicap hurdle that opened the third-day Aintree card. From two horses backed each way, Murrayana was given fourth over At Fishers Cross in a dubious-looking photo for the position behind Ubak – the majority thought it was the other way round, and I expressed my disbelief on Twitter – but I would take anything.

The weather had a say in the outcome of the three-mile one-furlong handicap chase that precedes the National nowadays, the next race I played in. Coologue headed up a team of three that I felt wasn’t the strongest bunch that I’d ever backed in a race after I’d crunched the numbers on my spreadsheet. None of them finished behind Maggio, who I wouldn’t have found if I’d had ten goes at the race, but was the only one galloping at the end.

I duly informed my wife and stepson; “On the evidence of what I’ve just seen, the Grand National is not going to be a pretty sight.” Maybe conditions weren’t 2001-bad, the year when Red Marauder staggered home, or like 1998 when Earth Summit beat only five other finishers, but if that’s how the handicap chase over the Mildmay course ended up, I thought we were looking at a single figure-number of finishers.

These finishers, of course, were not going to include the four horses who I’d backed each way. When your luck is set in a certain vibe, good, bad or indifferent, it stays there for a while. Therefore, you could forget about Gallant Oscar (which was Pricewise – Tom Segal’s Racing Post column remains the subject of near-enough weekly ridicule on Twitter), Morning Assembly (my number one after a couple of decent placed efforts in this, his comeback season after he’d been off for 2014/15), Goonyella, the 2015 Scottish National runner-up whose chance increased with every drop of rain, and Rule The World, who’d never won a chase but had finished second in an Irish National, and whose only failure to complete over fences wasn’t because of a jumping error (slipped up in a Galway Plate).

’Rule The World went out ages ago… wait a minute…’
With Channel 4’s coverage – for the last time – on the tellybox (of course TVs aren’t shaped like boxes these days…), starting later than ever at 5:15pm for the first time, they got away at the first attempt. By the time they reached the water jump three of my four were doing all right – only Rule The World, whose jockey wore a white cap, was out of contention having dropped away by the 13th prior to unseating at The Chair. Gallant Oscar was the next to exit, going down the line of fences towards Becher’s Brook, but not before a terrific attempt to stay on board by Mark Walsh, who clung on until a few strides before the next fence.

Goonyella was hard ridden, which I was expecting, with five to jump – but, even in these muddy conditions, wasn’t staying on, which was disappointing. That was that then, another National flop. More to the point, more dosh leaving my account.

With the three of us talking over each other during the race I wasn’t always catching the commentary, but I heard commentator Simon Holt quite clearly call Rule The World after the last, chasing up The Last Samuri and Vics Canvas. I disconsolately said “it’s not Rule The World, he went out of the race ages ago.” So this would have been Sir Des Champs staying on, with the jockey wearing a distinguishing blue cap. The other of the three Gigginstown House Stud-owned runners in the race, First Lieutenant who carried the first colours, had gone at the second.

Then the picture cut to a close-up of the three runners at the Elbow. “Er… it looks as though he’s got Rule The World written on his numbercloth…”, I think I said, as the Gigginstown-owned horse stayed on strongly to take the lead, which he would not relinquish.

I wish someone had videoed my face, and its changing expressions, at this point. Either I had got it all wrong, or Simon Holt had messed up. Much worse, whoever was in charge of putting the saddles/saddlecloths on the Gigginstown-runners, and the jockeys' valets sorting out the silks and caps in the weighing room, had committed a faux-pas greater than the void National of 1993.

I dashed upstairs to the Engine Room. A quick check of the silks on the computer revealed that Holt was, of course, perfectly correct as always. Rule The World was the blue cap. He had won the National, and it was Sir Des Champs who'd gone at The Chair. Next I checked the bets I'd placed. I can't be too careful at any time, let alone now - I check, re-check and re-re-check what I've done when I bet at home, before and after a race.

I dashed back downstairs again, and was able to announce to my wife and stepson: "I've backed the 50/1 winner of the Grand National!"

That is probably the first time ever that I've been totally oblivious to the fact that I've had a horse I've backed in contention in the closing stages of a race. Thinking it was Sir Des Champs up with the leaders I totally zoned out from him, but despite that I wasn't denied the best feeling in betting without winning - your horse, up with the pace and going well, over the line of fences after second Valentine's in the Grand National.

When Channel 4's coverage finally included a shot of the wide outside, the eye was drawn to Morning Assembly, running widest of all, going not just strongly, but looks like winning-strongly. Unfortunately, having gone so wide, so forward and so early - and been without cover - he got tired approaching the second last. But not to worry - this race worked out fine in the end. Goonyella finally got going, passed Morning Assembly and a couple of others and finished fifth - that was the cherry on top.

...And Relax...(And Eat, Drink And Be Merry-ish)
After a very enjoyable three-course meal out was enjoyed that evening - limiting the alcohol intake though! - I felt I could get back to normal betting on what weekends were left of the jumps season. I figured I could include a few Flat forays - more on them later - and the odd Summer jumps race, among those few that are of half-decent quality during the warmer months.

The way my mind works, I want to back the winner of a 'normal' race pretty soon after something like this, only to prove to myself that I can find a winner of an everyday horse race. You get dozens of those while there's only one Grand National. Whataknight in the staying handicap hurdle on Haydock's mixed meeting in May was the one who eventually put that right, after a failed attempt to win on Ayr's Scottish National card.

I did play a couple of times on Summer jumps races. The Galway Plate Trial at Down Royal in June, run on a Friday evening, had only ten runners but that is enough to make a decent market. More to the point it had a 151-rated top weight, albeit a deteriorating one in First Lieutenant, and Shantou Flyer, backed - or possibly merely cut in price - from 9/1 to 4/1, did best of my pair. In a virtual dead-heat with Elegant Statesman, Shantou's rump was ahead at the line, but not his nose.

Then I went for the Summer Plate at Market Rasen. This year's renewal was the best running of the race to date - you don't normally get horses who'd been runner-up in a race at that year's Cheltenham Festival lining up during July, but Coral Cup runner-up Long House Hall was there, and started joint favourite with Theinval, himself an Aintree handicap hurdle winner in the past.

Against Long House Hall the Summer crowd wouldn't have stood a chance, and neither did I as he was always going to come up too short on my spreadsheet. They sent out a search party for the horses I'd backed, Cut The Corner doing best in a poor sixth. Should Long House Hall go for the former Mackeson/Thomas Pink/Paddy Power Gold Cup in November, he'll have the best chance of anyone to date of winning the Summer Plate and the Cheltenham race, which ordinarily isn't done because the Summer Plate winner simply isn't good enough most years.

Flirtation with the Flat Proves No Folly
These few bets in Summer jumps contests were interspersed with bets on turf Flat races, as I continued to mull over the possibility of having a proper go at middle-distance and upwards handicaps. My only proper bet on the Flat in 2015 got me the runner-up in the Northumberland Plate. I didn't publish these on the website as I don't yet know what I'm doing, as far as the Flat is concerned. I have it in mind to introduce a Flat section to the site one day (I even have a colour scheme in my head) but, if it happens, don't go expecting Classic winners!

First up was a mile-and-a-half three-year-old handicap at Musselburgh on Derby day. There was no luck for my team of four, but in hindsight I was taking on a good one in Dal Harraild, who's rated in the 100s now having come off 87 in that race. Next I went for the Old Newton Cup at Haydock in July but this went similarly badly - only Snoano had a chance turning in and did look the winner on the bend, but he'd raced up with a strong pace and it was no surprise that he faded into fourth behind Tawdeea.

I waited until September 3rd before going in again on the level. This time a Flat race finally went my way. Not that it looked much like a Flat race - prior to and during the race better known as the Old Borough Cup at Haydock it rained incessantly, forcing a going change to soft; everyone was wearing coats; in the race itself, they passed the post twice; and there was a National Hunt commentary-line, if ever you heard one, from Richard Hoiles, doing duty on Channel 4 - "if you're trying to see what's coming from the back, your guess is as good as mine!"

To cap it all, the winner was more a jumps horse than she is Flat - Intense Tango, rated 138 over hurdles, and here off a highest-ever 93 on the Flat. All that was missing was a tape-start and some flights of hurdles... Able to dictate (in contrast to at Nottingham on her previous run, where she went off too fast in front, yet stuck to her task for second), then kicking on in the straight, she had enough in hand to hold off the fast-finishing Montaly. Of the others I'd backed Blue Rambler - an ex-John Ferguson hurdler, several of which have done well since their dispersal and sale to other yards after Ferguson joined Godolphin as its chief executive - did best, staying on into third.

Intense Tango won a sub-standard running of the Grade 2 mares' hurdle at Doncaster on the Sky Bet Chase-undercard in January 2015, and after this massive improvement, she's got to be of interest if going back over jumps - particularly now she's proven on soft ground.

As for the Flat, I'm wondering whether to bet again this year. The Cesarewitch Trial at Newmarket might be good (as well as sure to have jumpers in the final field), but my spreadsheet shows that the Flat bets I've had are making a profit. Nothing major, indeed not enough to cover a week's train fares, but noticeable enough; so now might be a good time to rest the project till next Summer. There's a big jumps season ahead.

As quandaries go, this is one of the nicer ones.

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