Monthly Archives: October 2015

Kilcooley great value at 25s for World Hurdle

spyglassKilcooley won the Bet365 Yorkshire Hurdle today by 13 lengths from ex-Champion Hurdler Rock on Ruby (who was too keen for too long and ran out of juice). I was very impressed by the winner, even more so than I was with Cole Harden when he won it last year. The 33s they went about Cole Harden for the World Hurdle hasn’t appeared, but you can get not far off that with the 25s offered by Skybet (Kilcooley is as low as 14s elsewhere). He went into this race on a 9lbs higher rating than Cole Harden did, and when reassessed, there is every chance he’ll be rated higher than the current World Hurdle Champion, who is on 164 (Kilcooley started today on 159).

Well suited by the soft ground, which he’s unlikely to get in March, I wouldn’t be misled into thinking that this is why Kilcooley looked so good today. He’s only 6 and seems to be a solidly improving young horse whose connections have just discovered relishes a stamina test. He has form on good ground. What he might need, judging by last season, is a fair amount of time between races. He certainly gave everything today.  Kilcooley, whose trainer, C Longsdon says the World Hurdle will now be on the menu, holds strong appeal as the first top value bet for Cheltenham 2016.



Many Clouds to lift a wonkily weighted Charlie Hall

MCThe conditions of entry for races sometimes throw up oddities. Penalties are almost always to blame and it is these (where a horse has to carry extra weight because he won a certain grade/value of a race at a certain time of year) which determine that in tomorrow’s Charlie Hall Chase (3.05 Wetherby), Sam Winner, who is officially rated a 6lbs inferior horse to Dynaste, must give Dynaste 10lbs.

There are other such incongruities in the race, but the one mentioned above is mainly due to Dynaste not having won a race for 18 months, whereas Sam Winner has won a couple.

Anyway, it’s a tricky race even without these inconsistencies.

Dynaste has been running, as usual, at the top level, mostly respectably, but still without winning.  If the forecast rain falls tonight (7mm fell last night), he might find his pace blunted at the hot end of the race.

Sam Winner will enjoy a stamina test, but is well wrong in the weights. Holywell has never won before the turn of the year, and AP, after winning on him in February said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but he’s just better at this time of year.’

Dynaste’s stable companion Ballynagour is a promising horse, but he has broken blood vessels more than once, and I wouldn’t take the chance on his lungs remaining blood-free this time.

I love Menorah, but can never catch him. How his trainer keeps these veterans fresh deserves racing’s equivalent of the Nobel prize.

Cue Card is an old favourite of mine, but I’ve never backed him since he stopped so spectacularly in the 2013 King George. I’m convinced something went wrong with him that day (he hasn’t won since, nor come closer than within 12 lengths of doing so). His trainer is invariably bullish about his homework, and the horse has been supported in the market, but homework cannot be done under race conditions, and it’s when the pressure is on that Cue Card’s problem seems to stop him. Joe Tizzard has talked of a trapped epiglottis last year, but I’m going to wait and see what happens on the track.

Many Clouds is badly in with Dynaste and Ballynagour. He’s giving Dynaste 9lbs more than he should be on official ratings, but I believe he’s the value in the race. Having seen his stunning Grand National triumph, anyone would be forgiven for branding him a stayer pure and simple, but he has speed, and has 6 victories at 20 furlongs or shorter to his name. Also, he has a fine seasonal debut record: won 3 from 4 (2nd in the other one).

I tipped him strongly here for the Gold Cup and was dumbfounded when he ran such a poor race, as was Mr Sherwood, his trainer, who now believes the horse had an off day at Cheltenham. That’s a real shame if he did, because he could be lining up here going for 6 wins in a row, in which case he’d be a darn sight shorter in the betting than the 13/2 on offer with 888Sport and 32Red.

Take that price if you like, and I will be, but I’ll also be having the maximum allowed with HIlls on their CH4 offer (£25), which returns your stake as a free bet if your selection is 2nd.

The trainer and jockey of Many Clouds report him in tip-top shape, although Mr Sherwood says he will come on for the race. He’d have come on after each of his seasonal debuts, so I wouldn’t be put off by that. There is always a nagging doubt with National winners that the race takes so much out of them, they never regain their old form. I’m willing to chance it. I think this horse is pretty special, and I just wonder too that, if he is, then connections might well change their primary plan – the National – and give him another crack at the Gold Cup.

But, best get tomorrow out of the way first. It will tell us a lot…whether it ends up being what we want to hear, well, that’s another matter!

Good luck



Sir Peter’s Eulogy, given by Hugh McIlvanney


I met Sir Peter just once, briefly, when he kindly took time between Cheltenham commentaries to sign my copy of his autobiography Calling the  Horses.

I last saw Hugh McIlvanney in 1996, throwing two large lumbering drunks out of the press tent at Aintree.

Joe McNally

Hugh McIlvanney delivered the following eulogy during the memorial service for legendary racing broadcaster Sir Peter O’Sullevan at St Luke’s Church in Chelsea on Tuesday.

HONOURS and achievements didn’t define Peter O’Sullevan, though he accumulated plenty of them during his 97 years.  His career was a series of towering successes but his truest triumph was his nature.

After Sir Peter died at the end of July, naturally I thought long and hard about what I could write in an attempt to come somewhere close to suggesting the effect he had on so many of us. It seemed then and does now that probably the simplest tribute suited him best: he was great company. Obviously what that means is more than that he swelled the pleasure of a day’s racing or a party or one of those meals stretched to leisurely duration by good food and wine and interesting talk and much laughter. Peter didn’t just enhance occasions. He enriched lives. The world was lucky to have his company for so long.

When the great American sports writer Red Smith delivered the eulogy at the funeral of a friend, Red began by saying: “Dying is no big deal. The least of us will manage that. Living is the trick.” Nobody I have known pulled off that trick more effectively or stylishly than Peter. However much he knew about racing or broadcasting or journalism, he knew rather more about life.

Being a knight fitted him well enough but it was among his lesser distinctions.  The heights he achieved professionally — the deserved acclaim as an exceptional racing journalist in print and recognition as one of the greatest commentators sports broadcasting has produced – cannot fully account for the effect he had on people, whether they were close to him or only acquainted at a distance through his work.

Of course, sheer longevity partly explains why so many felt pangs of personal loss when Peter died. He was part of the national fabric as far back as a majority of the population can remember. But wasn’t there something extra in the country’s awareness of him? Even those who knew him only through his commentaries may have discerned that more than extreme expertise, authority and an invitation to trust was being conveyed by the wonderful voice maintaining elegant fluency while describing the most hectic action. It always seemed to me that the airwaves carried hints of the rounded personality at the microphone, clear traces of a civilised worldliness, a breadth of experience. His was, in the best possible sense, a knowing voice.

Childhood afflictions

Yet his upbringing was sufficiently privileged to make resistance to an insular outlook unlikely. A boy taught to drive before he was ten by the family chauffeur, and who had been taken even earlier by the head groom to exult in riding his pony round Tattenham Corner, might have imagined all that lay ahead was indulgence of a lifelong love of horses and cars. But any danger of presuming entitlement to an easy passage was curtailed by the onslaught of the health problems that dreadfully afflicted his childhood and youth.

He endured chronic asthma, potentially deadly bouts of pneumonia and, later, a virulent form of acne that was related to his respiratory weakness and would be even more of a psychological than a physical trauma. During his years at preparatory school and then at Charterhouse, the ailments were borne with a courage that allowed him to shine at cricket and football. Less conspicuous to the masters was his enthusiasm for studying and wagering on the athletic prowess of thoroughbreds and greyhounds.

From boyhood onwards, punting was for him one of the intrinsic thrills of racing. He was adamant that an editor should never employ a racing correspondent who didn’t bet. His own wagers could be hefty and his determination to gain an edge in the odds was tireless and sometimes mischievously ingenious. A couple of examples were recalled for me recently by Wally Pyrah, who was a lively and likeable character around British racing for a number of years and is now adding to the gaiety of the sport in Hong Kong.

Wally, who was representing the Coral bookmaking chain at the time, returned home one day to find his mother praising the charms of a sweet man called O’Sullevan who had telephoned and asked her to take down the details of a bet he was sure her son would be happy to accommodate. The wager was £10,000 to £700 each way on Trainglot for the………Cesarewitch, a bet at odds a shade better than 14-1. The trouble was that Trainglot’s price had already tumbled that day to around sevens. It would fall further before he won the Cesarewitch by four lengths.

Wally negotiated a compromise with Peter over that one but could do nothing about the consequences of a ride in a lift they shared at Newbury after a race that was a trial for the Oaks. On the way up, Wally was lamenting the fact that the impressive winner of the trial was still at 10-1 with his firm for the Oaks and declaring vehemently that the filly would be a great deal shorter by the time he reached the sixth floor. Peter had been making vague sympathetic noises until the lift got to the fifth floor. Then he stepped out and, as the doors were closing with Wally inside, he said: “Wally, I’ll have ten monkeys.”

A bet of £5,000 to £500, sealed by the lift doors, didn’t exactly bring joy to Mr. Pyrah. At least it hadn’t been struck with his mother.

Phantom of the opera time

If Peter was a hard player of the betting game, he had needed toughness of a deeper kind to cope with the torture of his diseases.  Nothing was recollected with more pain than what he called his Phantom of the Opera time, the period in his mid-to-late teens when he wouldn’t venture out of hospital without wearing a medicated mask, through which he could see but not be seen, and when he searched London for the coffee bars and milk bars where the lighting was dimmest. How much of a connection was there between the grim reticence of those years and the fact that his intense, and fully realised, ambition to have a telling impact as a TV broadcaster never went with the slightest eagerness for appearances on the screen. He was happy that his fame throughout racing and beyond was as The Voice.

It was difficult to relate that sadly furtive figure of the acne agonies to how he was in his maturity, when the handsome, urbane and immaculately tailored presence generally exuded more effortless composure and social ease than anybody else in a room. That was true whether he was mixing with royalty, as he not infrequently did, or with betting shop punters.

Rather than diminishing his spirit, the early sufferings laid the foundations of a philosophical conviction that serious illness, for anyone who came out of it in reasonable shape, could have profound consolations. In the first substantial interview I did with him, in 1973, he told me: “It forces you back on your own resources, makes you examine yourself and your life more honestly than you might otherwise do. My experiences took me further into literature than I might ever have been and taught me an appreciation of the visual arts which may not be acute but is an important sustaining element in my life.”

His youthful spell in Switzerland for treatment of his asthma gave him the knowledge of French that was such an asset as he rose to prominence in the racing media.

A daredevil streak

No one had better access to the powerful stables of France. His Francophile enthusiasm also showed, of course, in his eating and drinking tastes and in his devotion to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.  He first attended the race in the 1930s and from the 1940s until 2012 he insisted on driving himself annually to Paris to watch Europe’s best mile-and-a-half horses compete. And behind the wheel at 94 he was still giving a fair impersonation of a getaway driver in a bank robbery.

A streak of the daredevil had emerged much earlier as he performed his wartime duties with the Chelsea Civil Defence Rescue Service.  Declared medically unfit for the armed forces, he settled for driving stretcher parties to the scenes of havoc caused by bombing, and assisting them with the handling of casualties — and, all too often, of bodies. Explaining his reputation for making light of danger, he said that, given the miseries with his health, he hardly cared whether a bomb or a building fell on him.

In the midst of the horrors of the war, he still found time and energy for the more agreeable risks of riding, backing and, with amazing precocity, owning racehorses. His racing colours — black, yellow crossbelts, with a yellow cap – were registered as early as 1940. Those colours were attached to many moderate animals but they were also carried to glory in major races by the mighty sprinter Be Friendly and the dual-purpose marvel Attivo. O’Sullevan’s masterly combining of vividness, controlled excitement and objectivity was never more impressively demonstrated than when he was describing the victories of his two favourite horses to his BBC audience. The owner’s pride never intruded.

Professionalism raised to the level of an art distinguished his broadcasting. Comprehensive familiarity with his material was reinforced by relentlessly conscientious preparation for a job, a journalistic application that had been evident since his beginnings with the Press Association and which shone through his informed and entertaining copy for the Daily Express, in whose pages his alliance with Clive Graham represented an incomparable double-act. He was on personally close terms with several geniuses of the Turf, none more so than Lester Piggott, and that was an advantage he cherished.

In a league of his own

Assured use of language gave his commentaries a clarity and coherence, sometimes an eloquence, that set them apart from anybody else’s race descriptions. And always, like a steady beat, there were the perceptive assessments of the significance of fluctuations in the action. All those qualities made me feel back in 1973 that it was permissible hyperbole to write that “had he been on the rails at Balaclava, he would have kept pace with the Charge of the Light Brigade, listing the fallers in precise order and describing the riders’ injuries before they hit the ground”. He was in a league of his own.

When operating professionally, he liked to be something of a lone wolf but when relaxing among friends he could, well into his nineties, be convivial on a scale that exposed non-stayers in his company.  Mike Dillon and I used to meet up with him sporadically for restaurant lunches that usually lasted until the tables were being set for dinner. As Mike said, with Peter you could count on going to extra time and penalties.

After one spectacularly lubricated lunch, the Dillon man and I escorted the master back to the door of the Chelsea flat that he and his beloved wife Pat (who died on New Year’s Eve 2009) had shared for nearly 60 years. Then we rang the doorbell and made a hasty escape. Pat was a sweetheart but she could turn on the Lady Bracknell disdain when required, and we didn’t feel strong enough to withstand it.

An exception to the extra-time tradition occurred when a restaurant Peter had chosen failed to provide the standard of fare or service he expected. The result was one of his celebrated letters. Mainly they were messages of thanks, reflecting his habitual courtesy, but this one was an example of his talent for acerbic reprimand. And if Peter thought you were out of order and decided to let you know, either verbally or with the pen, the point would be made in sentences of flawless grace and precision. It was like being handed an ornate silver casket containing your mutilated ego.

Animal welfare at heart

Even when Peter was expressing his softer feelings a steely strength was never hard to detect. I would occasionally question what I regarded as the extremes of his anthropomorphic attitudes to pets and other animals, such as having custom-printed stationery bearing the name Topolina O’Sullevan. Topolina was one of the succession of French poodles he and Pat adored. Peter’s response to my eyebrow-raising wasn’t noticeably gooey. He said: “I just can’t see harmony breaking out in the human race until we start treating the lesser species better. We can’t claim to be civilised while we are brutally abusing fellow creatures as we do.” Human and animal welfare causes have benefited by millions from the charitable trust established in his name.

What I know for certain after more than 40 years of friendship is that it would be difficult to find a more appealing ambassador for the best of human values than Sir Peter O’Sullevan. I’ve been wondering about the kind of words we might have read if he had amused himself by writing his own epitaph. One man who did so was H.L. Mencken, the renowned Baltimore polemicist and contrarian. Mencken’s version was: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”

The ever-chivalrous O’Sullevan might have avoided categorising any girl as homely, but quite a few of us here have had reason to be grateful that he was always in favour of forgiveness of sinners. Of course, if you want to give Peter’s ghost a little additional pleasure — get on at 7-2 when all around you have to be content with 9-4.hugh

Take 16/1 Oscar Rock for the Paddy Power

I tweeted a strong Paddy Power recommendation for this horse a couple of weeks ago after his impressive Market Rasen victory.oscar rock He’s slimmed from 20s to 16s since, but Malcolm Jefferson, his trainer, is sounding bullish about his chances, the horse having done well since his last victory. Oscar Rock was raised 8lbs for that, but he looks to me to have a fair bit of improvement in him, and we could even see him at the Festival in March.

Once again, you’re advised to take the 16s, if you haven’t already gone in at 20s.

Good luck



Calipto top value for the Arkle at 33/1

caliptoYou might remember Calipto travelling strongly in last year’s Triumph Hurdle as they came to the second last, only for his jockey’s stirrup leather to break. He finished 4th, and would almost certainly have been a good deal closer bar his mishap. He never won over hurdles, though ran well in most, weak finishes becoming typical for him.

Over the summer, he got the usual Nicholls treatment in the operating theatre when they tried to improve his wind. On his first Chasing outing at Fontwell last week, it looked like that op had done him good. He won comfortably after a round of jumping that showed flashes of real promise, despite him being slightly untidy at a couple.

The almighty Mullins, and especially his Douvan, will be hard  to beat in the Arkle come March, but Calipto might well deliver over fences what he failed to when hurdling. He has the physical scope for fencing, and if the wind operation holds good, he could be a single figure price when the flag rises. Even as it is, I think he’s twice the price he currently should be and is well worth a bet at the 33/1 offered by Skybet.

Bear in mind that with ante-post bets, your cash is lost if the horse does not run, and there’s a long season to go before the Festival. But the risk of that is built into the price, in my opinion.

Good luck


Farewell Rajdhani Express

REI don’t blog often these days, but couldn’t let the passing of my old favourite, Rajdhani Express go unmarked. He suffered a fatal injury today after jumping the eleventh fence in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree, the scene of his greatest victory just over 6 months ago, when he won the Topham over the Grand National fences.

The bonny looking brown gelding first caught my eye when he won the novices’ handicap chase at the festival in 2013. I’ve followed him since through thick and (mostly) thin. I was convinced for some time he had a Ryanair in him, and backed him at fat prices for the 2014 running, where he finished 3rd, beaten just under 5 lengths by Dynaste. I backed him again ante-post (and tipped him numerous times here and on Twitter) for the 2015 running, but he had an unusual season, and it became apparent halfway through that connections would go down the handicap route.

Every time he ran he carried my cash, and I was as frustrated for the horse as I was for myself that his luck never seemed in. He unseated in the Old Roan on his seasonal debut, then raced so keenly at Ascot he exhausted himself by two out. He was keen again next time in the Peterborough Chase, and finished lame. He showed much more of his talent next time at Kempton in his first attempt at three miles, when a first-time hood helped him settle much better. But the ground was awful that day, and he faded badly in the closing stages. Still, he seemed to be coming right for Cheltenham, and I backed  him ante-post for The Festival Plate.

But he was luckless again there, meeting some trouble in running at a vital point and finding himself shuffled back through the pack to a very difficult pitch. Sam Waley-Cohen wisely accepted things as soon as it happened and let him come home in his own time. He finished full of running in 8th, beaten under 8 lengths. I’d said here before this race that Cheltenham was his last chance saloon, but I remained convinced that all he needed was a change of luck.

So out came the wallet and back in I went at 14s for The Topham. He’d started the season on a mark of 158 and raced at Aintree off 152. His claiming rider, Sam Waley-Cohen, son of the owner, Robert, has one of the best records over the big fences of any jockey, pro or amateur, and I think he could easily hold his own as a professional. He’s the only amateur ever to win a King George VI Chase (twice on Long Run). And he’s the only amateur in the past 30 years to win a Cheltenham Gold Cup (Long Run).

Watching him ride that Topham showed just why he’s so successful over the National fences. Rather than holding a line on the inside or outside, his aim always was to stay safe, and he’d weave around to wherever he felt in least danger of being brought down (he avoided a five-horse melee at the Canal Turn). It was plain a long way out that the fine-jumping gelding wouldn’t be beaten, and, aside from winning back everything times ten I’d bet on him, I was  delighted that it had all finally come together for the horse and his connections.

At 14s he was also the first leg of a £10 double for me, which I’d placed on both my biggest Festival disappointments, ‘just in case’ (regular punters will know the philosophy well). The second leg, at 28/1, was Many Clouds for the National. Forgive the after-timing, but it helps demonstrate just why I was so fond of this horse.

Rajdhani Express raced 27 times (including today). His first official rating was 135. He started today off 160, his highest ever rating. You’ll know by now that I believe he should have won more than 6 times (2 hurdles. 4 Chases). Still just 8, he’d have carried my cash again for the Festival and Aintree this season, because all I ever thought he needed was a bit of good luck. Today he had the worst. I’ll miss him.




A Rust masterclass to achieve a win-win Levy settlement

Nick Rust

Nick Rust

In the past half century racing could not have survived without the levy payment from High Street bookies. The original intention of establishing the Levy was to provide a means of compensating racing for the loss of attendance that was anticipated when off-course betting shops were legalised in 1961.

In the 54 years since, Levy battles between bookies and Racing have gone like this:

Racing: “Give us more.”
Bookies: “No.”

Refereeing these bouts was the Secretary of State, who became punch-drunk long before the fighters but not as quickly as the audience. In 2010, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said, “It’s a big disappointment that the racing and gambling industries have failed to sort this out – but frankly the government should never be the last resort in an essentially commercial negotiation. We have therefore announced our intention to remove the role of the Secretary of State from determining the Levy scheme in future – and I hope this time will be the very last one that I have to be involved.“

The Levy is to be replaced by a Racing Right; trouble is, nobody knows when. The target date for the Bill has not yet been set.

Bookmakers and Racing have 1 week left to reach agreement on the next Levy deal. When they sit down round the table, who’ll be holding the strongest hand?

Yesterday Ladbrokes announced a drop in earnings before taxes of 56.7%. Today William Hill announced profits were down 39%. Hill’s share price has dropped by 20% since May. Neither company pays Levy in full on its internet business; their offshore base allows them to avoid this ‘tax’ of 10.75% of gross profits on horseracing business. They make a voluntary payment, along with other ‘avoiders’ Betfred and Coral. In the last year that collective payment was £4.5m. The BHA estimates that Levy avoidance costs the sport £30m annually.

Some offshore betting companies voluntarily pay the Levy in full: Bet365 and 32Red, for example. Neither of those operates a High St betting shop estate. Hills and Ladbrokes own more than half of the UK’s 8,500 betting shops and are legally bound to pay Levy on all horseracing business conducted in those shops.

The trouble is that the horseracing product on the High Street earns the bookies very little once expenses are paid. I’d put the nett profit from racing business at under 2% on average. Some of the smaller shops make a loss on horseracing after expenses.

Even the big boys run loss-makers. A prominent, highly respected bookmaking figure told me recently that he estimates that 15% of the UK’s betting shops operate at a loss. Some of those will close if the proposed Coral-Ladbroke Merger goes ahead. Hills CEO has said they will not be panicked into merger talks. Betfair and Paddy Power recently announced they’d joined forces. Paddy Power have almost 600 shops (Ireland and the UK combined). Betfair is online only.

High Street bookies need horse racing because enough of their customers still want to bet on it, although its market share of the betting cake is about half what it was 30 years ago.

But from a business viewpoint, they’d do much better without racing. If they didn’t have to sell it, they’d save on Levy payments and, crucially, on media rights costs – the price of bringing in pictures and data from the racecourses.

Do Bookmakers need racing?
So the bookies will settle down at the Levy table to haggle for something they must have rather than something they want. If Racing plays a concrete version of hardball, the bookies could simply walk away. They do not need racing for their business to flourish, all they need is a level playing field. If no betting shop offers racing as a product, punters won’t grieve for too long, and they won’t be organising coach parties to the track. They’ll moan for a month, then find something else to bet on.

As to who’d be bold enough to opt out first, well, that’s another question. Ladbrokes could not stop selling racing without a hundred percent confidence that their rivals would do exactly the same, and do it very quickly.

If the bookmakers did boycott racing, the sport would be dead in months. A handful of tracks might survive, but the vast majority would close. Levy payments and media rights money are the blood and oxygen keeping alive our 59 tracks.

So, you’d think Racing might be treading carefully as it approaches the negotiating table. But this week Jockey Club Racecourses and Arena Racecourse Company, who between them own more than 50% of the UK’s racecourses (15 tracks each), and operate almost 60% of the fixtures, decided to boycott bookies.

Aside from Levy and media rights payments, another channel drawing money from bookmakers into racing is race sponsorship. William Hill first sponsored in 1957 (The Ebor). Annual race sponsorship by bookmakers has been estimated at £9m. But Racing has said they don’t want any of it in the future unless the bookmaker concerned is an Authorised Betting Partner(ABP).

ABPs would need to agree to a “fair and mutually sustainable funding relationship” with Racing (effectively, “pay the Levy in full on your offshore business”). The value to bookmakers of race sponsorship is questionable. Their brands were built long ago, and much of the sponsorship is driven by CEOs who have a personal love of and commitment to racing.

So bookies don’t need to sponsor either. That £9m could be put to better use. But what else is on offer to ABPs? “A full package of benefits” to boost their business on British racing, which could include preferential rates for live streaming of races and the use of racecourse data, and even an ability to reposition fixtures to maximise turnover.

Now, think about that final offering…how would non-ABPs be prevented from benefitting from repositioned fixtures? Well, within that conundrum a small but highly significant giveaway resides, if my suspicions are correct.

And those suspicions were aroused because I could not see the common sense in all this. Bookmakers can survive, and thrive without Racing. Racing will die without bookmakers. Why is Racing behaving as though it holds all the aces?

The answer, I believe, is that the cards have already been dealt, and the hands are known to both parties. Due process means they cannot yet be shown. Saving face is an important consideration too, especially for Racing. Many in the sport have long believed bookies to be parasites. They must not be seen to get their way this time.

But they will get their way, and here is the real magic in this deal – so will Racing. bookies

The Clue
The key clue, in my opinion, lies with another shock recent announcement, that SiS will rise from the Intensive Care Unit to once again become the sole provider of pictures and data to UK betting shops.

In 2008, SiS lost its monopoly on supplying pictures and data to bookies from all UK courses. Turf TV took the rights to half the racecourses, and High Street bookies ended up paying around twice the costs for pictures and data (media rights).

Since the birth of TurfTV, SiS has steadily lost its way and looked doomed until the ‘shock’ announcement three weeks ago that a five-year deal (2018-2023) had been agreed, restoring its former monopoly.

SiS was set up in 1987. Its key shareholders were the major bookmakers. It provided the racing product at an affordable price. I strongly suspect that doing so again will be part of its brief in this new deal.

So, if bookmakers are paying less for the product, the wholesaler – Racing – will be taking a hit. But if that hit is offset by the SiS beneficiaries paying the Levy in full, then out from the business buzzword bag comes an old favourite: ‘win-win’.

Doing such a deal in the open would mean Racing backtracking on its long-held ‘let’s milk the bookies’ recipe for survival. And it would have brought scorn from many bookie-bashers in Racing’s ranks. Instead, it’s been delivered with the silky skill of a consummate politician, whose name I believe to be Nick Rust.

Nick became CEO of the BHA early this year, moving from his post as managing director, Ladbrokes Retail (their bricks and mortar betting shop division).

Nick Rust

I know Nick quite well. Other than to wish him luck in his new position, I haven’t spoken to him since January, so the scenario I paint in this article is based purely on my instinct.

I first met Nick in the late 1990s when I worked for Tote Direct. Back then he was on a rapid upslope having been seconded from his position as a Ladbrokes district supervisor (one step above a betting shop manager) in a small Borders town, to be a runner for John O’Reilly, Ladbrokes marketing boss, in a short-term project.

Nick left a lasting impression on me. He’s a big man physically, but his presence does not come from his size. I believe he has flourished because of his personality. A hugely genuine and likeable man, a fine listener who listens because he cares about what you say, not about the impression he’s making on you, Nick is that rare bloke about whom no one has a bad word to say (at least not in my hearing).

Over the years he has added to his natural arsenal a finely tuned political antenna, a deep astuteness, and a rare aptitude for solving complex problems. Nick won’t care who gets the credit, so long as the task is achieved.

My guess is that, in this Levy showdown, Nick has been quietly directing everything in the background. First, a leak last month about this sponsorship boycott set the bookies sniffing the air cautiously. Asked then for a statement, here’s what the BHA said formally:

“The current Levy leakage, with the vast majority of remote betting activity not being captured, causes real economic damage to British Racing. However, we don’t comment on speculation and are happy to reinforce our long-standing position that betting firms are highly valued partners of our sport.”

Informally, read “It wasn’t me, Guv, but it doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”

On Tuesday, Nick was much more forthcoming: “This concept has been discussed and agreed in principle by the leaders of our sport.

“We cannot deliver a three-line whip and make sure that every part of racing is involved, but we can encourage and show the benefits to parties within racing of taking this approach, in terms of a true partnership with those betting operators who, if you like, do the right thing and partner with us.

“It’s great to see that Jockey Club Racecourses and Arc are deciding to support this initiative immediately. We hope to deliver as many parties as possible to deliver the concept of Authorised Betting Partner where there are preferred access and preferred goodies for those inside the tent, and restricted access for those who are not inside the tent.” How’s that for a blunt but family-friendly homage to LBJ’s comment about J Edgar Hoover?

Then, yesterday came the announcement that the EBF (European Breeders’ Fund), which spent £6m in racing sponsorship last year and are one of racing’s longest established sponsors, would no longer agree to joint sponsorships with bookmakers unless the bodies were Authorised Betting Partners.

Can’t you hear the cheers of the anti-bookmaking lobby?

But that EBF aggression was, I believe, the final front in the Levy war, a last echo to add to the din of sabre-rattling cover for a battle that was never going to be fought.

In September, when the news of the sponsorship ban leaked, I’d normally have thought Racing had abandoned whatever sense it had left. But knowing Mister Rust was at the helm, I suspected there was much more to it. And so it has proved – to me, at least. And I now expect that after a few grumbles, all major bookmakers will sign up as Authorised Betting Partners.

So, Racing gets the glory. SiS lives on. The bookies, at last, get an affordable product, and, in what will probably be the final Levy fight before the Racing Right comes in, Mister Rust gets the quiet satisfaction of having masterminded the bloodless war.

Take 40/1 Don Cossack to land the treble

don cossackThe Jockey Club owns 15 racecourses, three of which feature in a recently announced £1m bonus scheme. Any horse who wins the Betfair Chase (Haydock), The King George VI Steeplechase (Kempton), and the Cheltenham Gold Cup this season will land the big bonus.

Few horses are likely to try to win all three, and even fewer are capable. Vautour, a horse I believe to be a potential superstar, is unlikely to go to Haydock according to his trainer Willie Mullins, although the owners, the Riccis, might be tempted by the challenge alone (they don’t need the prize money). But Mullins campaigns his top horses very carefully, and if he is against running in the Betfair, I suspect the horse will not turn up.

The current Cheltenham Gold Cup holder Coneygree is unlikely to run in the Betfair. Sara Bradstock, the trainer’s wife said, “I don’t particularly think the Haydock race will suit our fellow as the fences are small and the track’s a bit tight.”

Paul Nicholls says he’d be happy to run Silviniaco Conti in all three legs, but has serious doubts about the horse reproducing his best form at Cheltenham.

But Gordon Elliott said yesterday he would ‘certainly consider’ aiming Don Cossack at the three races. The big brown gelding tore through the back end of last season ending up top rated steeplechaser by the BHA, Raceform and Timeform. He’s won 8 of his 14 steeplechases and was considered by some to be unlucky in the Ryanair for which he started favourite and finished third. He went on to record highly impressive victories at Aintree and Punchestown, proving his stamina in the latter.

If all goes well with the contenders between now and March, the best quality field for decades will walk to the tapes for the start of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Don Cossack has a real chance of lining up with victories in the first two legs of the bonus treble already under his girth, and 40/1 carries lots of appeal, especially as he makes his seasonal debut tomorrow at Punchestown, where he will go off at very short odds.

Just in case Vautour turns up at Haydock, I’ve also taken 16/1 ‘any horse’ to win the treble. The Gold Cup will be a fierce challenge, but with these two bets, you could easily end up in a position to lay and make a profit.

Good luck, and remember, ante-post betting is a risky business. They need to stay sound throughout the season, and they need to turn up or your money is lost. But 40s Don Cossack (Betfred) and 16s any horse (Paddy Power and Betvictor) for this treble, are my first top value recommendations of the new season.