Thursday 19 September 2019

Christmas racing rescues the curmudgeon

Festive season finds its true meaning in the pursuit of a bet

Barry Geraghty riding Unowhatimeanharry (R) clear the last to win the Long Walk Hurdle as Richard Johnson and Ballyoptic fall at Ascot. Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Barry Geraghty riding Unowhatimeanharry (R) clear the last to win the Long Walk Hurdle as Richard Johnson and Ballyoptic fall at Ascot. Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Johnny Ward

Suffering from the Monday blues, I walked to my local Centra last week, my mood immediately done no favours by the store audio playing a tired Christmas number.

Simply, having . . . none of this. I picked up a few items and realised I'd no money. I had to go home and return to the shop, when another Christmas song was being aired. I pondered the sanity of the staff.

Homer and Marge went to Itchy & Scratchy land in 'The Simpsons'.

Bandleader: Welcome to TGI McScratchy's, where it's constantly New Year's Eve! Here we go again! Three, two, one! (plays violin)

Everyone: Happy New Year! ('Auld Lang Syne' starts up; a waiter walks up with champagne glasses)

Marge: It must be wonderful to ring in the New Year over and over!

Waiter: Please, kill me.

Christmas was never the same after Santa was confirmed fictional. I pursue an escape nowadays from an insidious imposition of a commercial imperative in a godless world - and find it in racing. Is there a better day to buy the paper than Christmas Eve?

Every card for December 26 is published and, if somewhat fleetingly, one becomes that child again. Just as we did, jumping out of bed on Christmas Day on realisation that the time had come, we do not know what bounty lies ahead.

Going into the festive racing, there is much to ruminate over. Don Cossack will not run, Coneygree was ruled out yesterday and there seems scant chance of Annie Power appearing; Faugheen also must prove up to the challenge. Unowhatimeanharry, Saturday's Long Walk Hurdle winner and more admirable with each day, has a rest.

All disappointing - but we have Douvan, Cue Card, Min, Identity Thief, Vroum Vroum Mag and more. In Gordon Elliott striking with five winners yesterday, taking the four main races run, he bounced back from last weekend's Willie Mullins domination in a ruthless fashion.

We approach the Christmas intrigued by the narrative of the trainers' title race for the first time in years. With four days of Leopardstown, we have reason to get out of the house, escaping a last-minute part-of-a-deal stand-up comedy DVD someone in the family bought out of exasperation.

Exasperating would sum up some aspects of the year in Irish racing. Brian Kavanagh CEO and chairman Joe Keeling are now presenting a united alliance amid troubling times at HRI.

For half the year, racing has been exposed and its arrogance when questions were asked will not be readily forgotten. Yet more state money is promised at a time when we really should be self-financing.

Kavanagh has come out fighting. He told me long ago racing can't keep relying on the State. Yet there is still a view in the sport that we should keep schtum and just be thankful that the Government seems as subservient as ever to racing's most persuasive lobbyists.

We do not know what the future holds. As Europe edges right politically, Ireland remains largely isolated from trends elsewhere, but any defiantly left-wing minority party in a future government would put funding under threat - and, speaking as one with a life beyond horses, that's how it should be.

We will have fresh legislation next year as the Gambling Bill comes into play; an EU-inspired anti-laundering directive will also roll into town. Bookmakers face new challenges and Paddy Power has taken one on.

All British and Irish races will henceforth be priced at 4pm the day beforehand. For the vast majority, this is a welcome development.

A PP letter to shops asked retail staff to be "extremely vigilant" when it comes to taking early prices, and ideally to phone head office if "a stranger" comes in asking for a bet with a liability of more than €500. "The shrewder client will use all sort of methods to subvert our bet clearance controls," it went on.

Some will welcome this; others will say guaranteed odds are killing opinion, that PP is looking for a cheap way of marking its card, or that it is scared of Bet365's power.

Maybe we're being curmudgeonly. How it will work next week, with so much on, will be particularly intriguing. We watch this space and will do so into the New Year in an ever-evolving layers' landscape.

'Tis the season to bet on a jolly. No matter your strife, no matter your luck - there is always hope. There is always Leopardstown at Christmas.

RIDE OF THE WEEK

Connor King, one of the kindest riders in the game, was cool, composed and strong aboard Alfredo Arcano at Dundalk.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"Walter Swinburn was a gentleman, totally gifted. He was very unusual as he could sit like a feather on a horse. Not only that but his timing was always brilliant."

- Aidan O'Brien speaks after the death of the former rider, aged 55.

GAMBLE OF THE WEEK

The 800 guineas Damien English paid for Geological out of Richard Hannon's. On Friday, he won Dundalk's €14,760 feature.

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