Life is sweet at the King’s Head in Bledington

January 30th, 2020 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

Well, an interesting few days with a couple of low-grade winners but a blank day at Cheltenham.

I think the number of years I spent working at the festival  –  interviews for the crowd (the present chap does an excellent job), reporting for the Irish Field, ghosting Martin Pipe, writing my own column for the Life and the Post and all the rest of it  –  have dulled my enthusiasm to a degree, not that I expect anyone to understand. Cheltenham is one of the great modern success stories and it will soon be a five-day extravaganza with the Gold Cup on Saturday; you can take my word for it.

But when I go as a punter, observer or whatever  –  I’d promised to accompany a very close friend before I knew Southampton had drawn Tottenham in the FA Cup and one cannot go back on these things  –  I see just how expensive it is. £6 for a pint of Guinness gives you some idea, while two modest glasses of wine came to £15.20. I suppose people take the view that it’s a special day and normal ‘rules’ don’t apply. I have no desire to play the curmudgeon and when you’ve unloaded as much money as I have over the years it’s far too late to be a penny-pincher. Even so, when it comes to Cheltenham I readily admit I’m happy to watch events unfold on television these days.

Where last Saturday was concerned, I formed relatively few opinions regarding the big meeting in March. The opening JCB Triumph Trial was clearly a below-par renewal which will have little bearing on the Triumph itself in March, while Paisley Park, who has done me proud over the past two years, was workmanlike in the Cleeve Hurdle. I should think he will come on for it and there is no reason to doubt a repeat success in the Stayers’ Hurdle, though it would be foolish to take a very short price before the strength of the Irish challenge is known. We shall not know much more for at least another month.

Santini probably isn’t named after The Great Santini, the ace Marine fighter pilot played by Robert Duvall in the 1979 film. The Determined Santini or The Dogged Santini might have had us making a connection because the equine Santini displayed those qualities in outlasting Bristol De Mai in the Cotswold Chase. He has been unfairly criticised and would have some sort of chance in a fast-run Gold Cup on testing ground  –  unlikely in March these days.

I felt for David Pipe, who lost Warthog very early in the featured handicap chase. David has had his share of ups and downs at Cheltenham and once suffered a crashing fall at the festival which led to a swift ambulance journey through Cheltenham with mother and father, Martin and Carol, right behind. Journalism can be a rough old game and at the Sporting Life they wondered what I’d do regarding Martin’s column the next day. I managed not to swear. There was some 33/1 about my approaching the trainer in a hospital waiting room so I thought about conjuring up something from the odd chat we’d had in the build-up to the meeting. Mercifully David was not in danger and Martin was reachable at Pond House later in the evening.

I thoroughly enjoyed working with him but you had to get things spot-on and he was particularly precise about his tips. He had four out of six over the three days in 1998 when Blowing Wind landed the £50,000 bonus for winning the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle. 15/8 in a 27-runner race with McCoy working hard at the top of the hill before this extraordinary character battled on again to beat Advocat by nearly two lengths. There was some dreadful rubbish written about Pipe over the years. If he was so hard on horses, how could Blowing Wind possibly follow up in the Scottish Champion Hurdle under a month later? An amazing man and it wasn’t the greatest surprise when the Life wanted yet another piece for Friday, even though the festival was over. By a sad irony the paper itself was just about done and dusted as well, the final curtain falling two months later on Musidora day.

I backed Warthog and also opted for Ben Pauling’s We Run The Night in the last. This ex-French horse, hitherto unbeaten, ran so badly I actually wondered what on earth he was doing there. Still, half-way down the M5 the Saints equalised against Spurs with three minutes left and Sunday was a good day as well.

That’s because I was in Jim Old’s team at a charity quiz just outside Stow. In fact it was at the King’s Head in Bledington, which is Alastair Down’s local. Richard Phillips was there as well and I asked after Master Vintage, who did us a good turn on the line a while back but has risen too high in the weights after winning a couple of chases. It’s a funny thing, but giving the divided handicap hurdle for amateur riders at Newcastle on Tuesday my undivided attention, I noticed that the modest mare Seapoint (score to date 0-32 but not beaten all that far sometimes) had finished third to Master Vintage not so long ago and no other horse in the race could match that. So she went on the line, positively hacked up at 4/1 from 13/2 and effectively paid for Saturday. I’m better down among the humble plodders and felt even better than the previous week when I found Wiley Post at Kempton, which made me think of Tony Carroll and Goodwood and Brighton and the Anglesey Arms at Halnaker. I may have reached the stage where I need the sun on my back.

Anyway, you’ll be wanting to know about Alastair, who was in great form, taking the mickey out of everyone and generally having a laugh, which was great to see because not everything in life has gone his way of late. The good news is that he will be back in the Post in time for Cheltenham, where a deep and abiding love of the game places him in a class of his own. God is in his heaven and so is the incomparable scribbler.