Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Irish Derby

It’s a funny old Irish Derby today with little in the way of established three-year-old form to go on.  The favourite, Santiago, is a horse whose most notable run was when he won the Queen’s Vase at Ascot over 14 furlongs. This unlikely route to a Derby says a lot about the rest of the field. Two thirds of them are trained, like Santiago, by the O’Brien juggernaut so any one of them could be anything - many of their three-year-olds take time to come to hand. An interesting piece of form is that as a two-year-old Santiago was hammered by Alpine Star - a spectacular recent winner at Royal Ascot for Jessica Harrington. The latter filly could be the real star of the season. Crossfirehurricane trained by Joseph O’Brien is unbeaten and looked good in the Gallinule over 10 furlongs at the Curragh. Before that he was winning at Dundalk and Limerick - not the usual path to Derby glory, Fiscal Rules trained by Jim Bolger catches the eye - Bolger knows how to win a Derby and this horse ran a good trial in the 2000 Guineas. However, backing maidens in the Derby seems a bad idea. I’m tempted to swerve the whole thing but as I backed Santiago at Ascot I think I’ll stay with him.

Monday, June 22, 2020

How Did I Manage to Lose: Royal Ascot Post-Mortem

Anyone who loves horse racing had a grand old time of it last week. Royal Ascot without all the fashion frippery and the royalist groveling was pure pleasure  – with many of the best horses around showing their paces. The relative shortage of foreign raiders was a slight blemish (even Aidan O’Brien’s numbers were down) but it was nice to see Wesley Ward’s courage in bringing horses from the USA being rewarded through Campanelle.

I had ten winners and a number of highly-priced placed horses over the five days but still managed to end up losing - narrowly. The main reason for that is that with all the races being televised, and the quality of the racing, I was tempted into betting on nearly every race rather than confining myself to my best fancied horses. Not very professional from a gambling viewpoint but I’m in it mainly for the excitement of the engagement. A secondary reason was that my best (and biggest bet) of the meeting, Summerghand in the Wokingham Stakes, was beaten by a whisker. That would have moved me substantially into profit. He’s a curse that horse – forever making a good show in the big sprints but not quite getting there. Another horse that blotted my betting book was Blue Mist in the opening race on Saturday. He was given a stinking ride (slowly away, stuck behind a wall of horses, denied a clear run three times) by Jason Watson – a jockey who has never convinced me as the right man for  Roger Charlton’s estimable stable.

Aidan O’Brien had four winners, all of whom I backed, but overall was a little disappointing. Circus Maximus in the Queen Anne and Battleground in the Chesham were the most impressive. Sir Dragonet let us down yet again and, apart from Battleground, O’Brien’s two year olds under performed. The highlights of the week were Stradivarius in the Gold Cup and Baattash in the King’s Stand – an exceptional stayer and a start sprinter. The middle-distance horses who ran already in the Guineas did poorly, and some touted Derby types disappointed – especially O’Brien’s Mogul. My personal highlight was Jessica Harrington’s Alpine Star (see image) winning the Coronation Cup with Frankie Dettori on board – and carrying my money. She easily accounted for the much touted Quadrilateral. 

Anyway, overall it was great fun and I for one did not feel that the absence of crowds detracted from the enjoyment. The horses were more relaxed and the actual racing itself was completely unaffected. I’m sure the whole thing generated an upward surge in the technological awareness of the racing community. All kinds of old buffers were gamely doing their Zoom interviews in their front rooms with their flutes of champagne at hand and racing photographs decorating the walls in the background. And it would be churlish not to mention the pleasure of spending five days in the company of the gorgeous and elegant Francesca as she dispensed her formidable equine wisdom. A real thoroughbred. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Recent Reads - June 2020

The L.A. Diaries by James Brown

Brown is a scree-writer, novelist and brother of the ill-fated Barry Brown who starred in a couple of well received films in the 70s (Daisy Miller for one). This is a memoir of growing up in a family that sowed the seeds for suicide by two of his siblings and a very destructive drug and alcohol problem for the author. Their mother was the problem. It’s relentlessly grim and more than a little sad. Particularly poignant is his damaged relationship with his much admired older brother Barry. It’s a well-written and truly gripping story that frequently leaves you appalled.

Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan

This is pretty decent account of a journey to hell and back – I don’t recall ever reading a more convincing and disgusting account of drug withdrawal. It’s also, incidentally, a history of the grunge scene with dozens of major players making brief appearances. Lanegan (see photo above) was involved in the Seattle music scene in the 80s and 90s – lead singer with the Burning Trees and buddy of Kurt Cobain and other grunge luminaries. After an abusive and criminal childhood he got involved in music and also developed a serious alcohol problem. In an effort to kick his alcohol habit he took up heroin and so inevitably developed an even worse heroin habit. The book is replete with graphic descriptions of the hell he suffered while trying to combine touring and scoring drugs in the various cities he was playing. The amount of detail he gives us suggests creative embellishing but that doesn’t prevent it being an absorbing story. A side line to his drug and alcohol activities was his almost incidental womanizing – accounts of which will not please the feminists. It’s amazing that he escaped from the hole he dug for himself and now has a healthy solo career as a soulful growler – a la Tom Waits. An unlikely heroine in the book is Courtney Love who financed his rehabilitation. A page turner.

The Complete Outsider by Brian Sewell

You probably need to have an interest in art to fully appreciate this book but Sewell’s frankness about his sex live and his scathing comments on the corruption at art auction houses provide plenty of attendant amusement. It’s a relentlessly bitchy read but you get to enjoy his frankness. There’s perhaps too much arcane detail about his expertise in certain obscure areas of the history of art but it clips along at a good pace. He retained his affection for his early mentor Anthony Blount with whom he worked at the Courtauld Institute – sticking with the old spy when others abandoned him. He is very open about the reduced circumstances of his later life but his spirit survived intact. And he was a serious dog lover.

The Best American Essays 2019 – edited by Rebecca Solnit

I used to be a big fan of these Best American series but this edition has been hijacked by an editor with a rabid feminist agenda and an interest in climate change. These are both worthy and valuable causes but sadly the medium has been neglected in favour of the message. I struggled to find even one piece that was entertaining rather than just didactic.


Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford

This is a collection of nine short stories that, as usual with Ford, need to be read slowly and relished bite by bite. Nothing much happens, most of the action takes place in the recollections of the protagonists. Reflections and mature judgements on past relationships full of psychological insight.There’s an elegiac feel, a sense of “so this is where we have ended up”. A subtle pleasure.

W. B. Yeats – A Life by R.F Foster

If you are suffering sleepless nights during the Covid-19 lockdown I have discovered a certain cure. Get hold of Roy Foster’s two-volume biography of W. B. Yeats and within a few pages I guarantee you will be wrapped in the arms of Morpheus. Foster is a historian, and it shows – this is turgid stuff. Yeats lived a long and interesting life, is no doubt a protean genius and our greatest poet, was very engaged politically and was also a very silly man on occasions. Yet Foster manages to make a less than enthralling tale from all this rich material. He lists all the facts, the meetings with political figures and with literary figures, the endless toing and froing between London, Dublin and Sligo, all the dotty mystical stuff: seances, Theosophy, reincarnation etc. – but he fails to add any yeast to the thick dough of these facts.