Friday, July 24, 2009

A day at the races

Off to Bath Races with a small but select group of colleagues for an evening of fun and – we hope – profit.

The weather isn't propitious. Low storm clouds scurry over the heights of Lansdown. Flaming June has mutated into wallowing July, there's a pre-autumnal chill in the air, but are we downhearted?

Not a bit of it. We're under cover and the going is relatively good, even if our equine prediction skills are somewhat shaky.

Fascinating fact about Bath Races Number One: at 780 feet above sea level, it's the highest (or perhaps most elevated) racecourse in England. So it's scenic, but it's also exposed to the elements: strong gusts of wind off the Bristol Channel hold back horses and riders in the stiff uphill finish.

And because rainwater drains away quickly through the limestone, the going rarely gets heavy.

All this and much more needs to be taken into account as we settle down with our form guides and pens to work out how we can convert our humble journalists' salaries into a little something extra through the magic of charging horseflesh.

How to decide on the steed that will carry your hopes to glory? The form guide tells you all you need to know about every horse in every race – but in so much detail that things do start to get just a little confusing.

The initial impression is of a jumble of numbers: each horse's previous performance, its age, the weight it will carry, its BHA rating, which has something to do with handicapping but none of us can work out what.

Then there's its parentage and ownership, its trainer and breeder, and whether it's won here before.

Throw all that together with a pithy pen portrait of each horse's past achievements and an assessment of its chances – couched in positive terms like "Not without a chance," "Shouldn't be inconvenienced" or "It was reported that the horse ran flat" – and you have all the data at your fingertips to make an informed decision about who's going to win.

The trouble is, of course, that you don't have to scan all this info for just one horse, but for every single horse in every single race. And with six races over the course of the evening, and up to 10 horses in some of those races, you're going to be hard-pressed to make any sense of it all, unless you've got previous experience.

Which none of us has.

It's time to follow our hearts, not our heads. One horse has lots of threes next to its name in the Form Guide: surely it stands a chance. La Fortunata? Hah!

One horse's jockey sports fetching cerise and purple hoops: your favourite colours, and definitely worth a punt. No again – serves you right for your lack of taste.

One horse is heavily backed by a colleague who won £18 on the first race: maybe they know what they're doing. But their luck doesn't last, and yours hasn't even got started.

One horse has a preposterous name – Quaker Parrot – and thus can't have a chance. It wins by a good length.

Nothing seems to work – Tote Placepots fizzle out after two races, each way trebles are too confusing to be countenanced – until the last race.

The horse is Desperate Dan. Course and distance winner, odds tempting at 10-1. And we know a Desperate Dan, don't we? A couple of quid on the nose, and a winner in the end.

Fascinating fact about Bath Races Number Two: you may not get rich, but you will have a lot of fun.

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